Jonny Diamond | Longreads | June 2019 | 22 minutes (5,308 words)
The sound is the first thing you notice, deep and hollow, burnished steel hitting chewed-up white pine. It’s not quite the warm, resonant thok of an axe in the woods, but the nearest forest of any significance is 50 miles up the Hudson River. This is Brooklyn, one very long bow shot from the Gowanus Canal.
It’s a chilly Monday night before Thanksgiving and Kick Axe Brooklyn is surprisingly full. Around two dozen people cluster in groups of six or eight across several “ranges,” tidily built versions of the old roadhouse bar-band cages, target at one end, party at the other. There doesn’t appear to be any flannel in the crowd (for now) but there are at least three reasonably grown-out beards in plain sight. One of the beards puts his beer down next to a basket of plastic Viking helmets and walks forward to pick up an axe from a squat round block of maple (each range has one of these blocks, to which the axe is returned after it is declawed from the wood).
Nobody pays much attention as he squares himself to the softwood target 16 feet away, holding the axe — specifically, an Estwing hatchet weighing about a pound and a half — with both hands and raises it above his head. Then, in a surprisingly fluid motion, he steps toward a faded red line on the floor and releases the hatchet in the direction of several concentric red and black circles painted on the wood, axe head over handle, where it strikes fast about six inches to the left of the bull’s-eye. He shakes his head, pulls the axe from the wood, and goes to collect his beer.
Scenes like this occur with increasing frequency in cities across North America, from Toronto to Austin to L.A., as axe-throwing clubs attempt to create their own niche and fill it, something like a laidback millennial bowling alley except with deadly weapons. For some, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, the physicality and latent violence of axe throwing has served a therapeutic purpose. As Megan Stielstra wrote in an essay last year for The Believer, “I threw axes throughout the fall, waking up every morning to new impossible cruelties. … I kept trying to pass the axe to my husband, but he wouldn’t take it. ‘You need it more than I do,’ he said from behind the yellow spectator line.”
Aside from its salubrious value the basic appeal of axe throwing is not complicated: Like bowling or billiards or darts, it is a way to give loose structure to any given social gathering. When I ask Kick Axe’s Nathan Oerstler if he’s ever had to deal with any drama among the beer-drinking axe throwers, the recently promoted “axe master” (up from “axe-pert” — there is no pun left unmade at Kick Axe, as the name might suggest) demurs, explaining that most of the axe-perts are comedians or actors — theater types — and serve as much as entertainers as they do instructors or referees: in short, they keep the people happy. Kick Axe opened in December 2017 and is more flannel-inflected theme park than bar, its employees communicating via headset about what targets need replacing, which axes need sharpening. This level of organization makes sense when you consider the hundreds of pounds of deadly steel flying through the air at any given moment, but axe throwing wasn’t always this professionalized: In fact, the origin of the axe-throwing social club is basically a bunch of bored Canadians in the mid aughts, standing around drinking beer and chucking hatchets at backyard waste wood.
As Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL) founder — and one of those bored Canadians — Matt Wilson recounted, people kept showing up to throw axes in his backyard, so he had no choice but to grow. And so they did: The BATL, which has 10 locations in Canada, has since expanded into the U.S. with spots in Chicago, Nashville, Scottsdale, Houston, and Detroit. This unlikely success story has spawned competitors: Ontario’s Bad Axe now has 15 locations across the U.S.; the aforementioned Kick Axe also has locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and is opening more in Florida and Texas; and there are at least a half dozen independent axe-throwing venues across the country (including Massachusetts’s Half Axe, whose name heralds the end of the useful axe pun, or at least demarcates its nadir).
Whatever side of the border these clubs are on, most of them affect a shaggy, woodsy aesthetic, a little plaid here, some taxidermied animal there. One could say the same thing of many of their patrons, from Calgary to Orlando: red-and-black Buffalo check accenting high-cut oxblood Red Wings; gray chambray tucked into vintage denim; Carhartt jackets over Carhartt vests over old Woolworth’s shirts.
Most of the axe-perts are comedians or actors — theater types — and serve as much as entertainers as they do instructors or referees: in short, they keep the people happy.
This aesthetic — lumbersexual, which entered the mainstream vernacular in 2014, at a site called GearJunkie, and was just as quickly derided on Gawker and in The Atlantic — is certainly not limited to axe-throwing clubs (one could make the case that axe throwing as a pastime has arisen, inevitably, from the aesthetic). But as a loose set of fashion signifiers, lumbersexuality has been around in some form or another for a generation, competing with any number of the self-consciously vintage looks manifested in hipster culture.
As with so many of the aesthetic strands that make up any given tangle of contemporary style-consciousness, lumbersexuality’s origins can be found on the margins, one more example of straight culture borrowing heavily from gay culture, with half the commitment and none of the risk. Beards and bears and woodsy scruff have now fully entered the mainstream as the contemporary lumbersexual reappropriates the same tropes of classic American masculinity so long adopted and amplified in LGBTQ spaces. But even the original tropes themselves — of paternal strength and rugged stoicism — are products of male fragility.
As Willa Brown points out in the perfectly titled article “Lumbersexuality and Its Discontents,” the endless talk in the past decade of a crisis of masculinity is part of a long tradition in the patriarchal American imagination. In Brown’s oft-cited 2014 account for The Atlantic, the nostalgia-ridden aesthetic of the lumberjack has always been an outsize performance instigated by the insecurities of straight, white men, be it 1905 or 2005. But where Brown saw an imminent expiration date for the lumbersexual, it doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
As traditional hierarchies very slowly flatten into a more equitable distribution of power across society, the current crisis of masculinity is finding extended life in the backwaters of the internet. And while the real crisis of masculinity is male violence against women, the proliferation of pseudo-intellectual charlatans simultaneously seeding and harvesting the anxieties of young men for their own uses isn’t helping.
Male fragility isn’t going away. Nor is the flannel. Because there’s another performance happening here: different stage, same costume.
Back-to-the-land nostalgia has existed in the United States for almost as long as there’s been a United States, at various points manifesting as religious isolationism (think saucer-eyed Protestant sects one valley over), transcendentalist escapism (rich white guys reading poetry in the gloaming), and communitarian anti-capitalism. Its latest incarnation — rooted chiefly in an environmentalism that gestures at change through practice rather than policy — has been about bringing the virtues of the land back to the city, reimagining the frontier as urban rather than rural: a bespoke localism that animates everything from figurative fireside hobbies like pickling and needlepoint to larger-scale industry like rooftop farming, craft-brewing, and restorative, salvage-based building.
But in the same way the “frontier” of the 18th and 19th centuries was a romantic way of describing a slow genocidal war of settler colonialism, so too did gentrification’s border zones, through the mid 1980s to the late 2000s, serve as locations of displacement much more so than the idealized renewal imagined by urban planners. From its early days, gentrification was similarly romanticized with the language of westward expansion, those in its vanguard heralded as “settlers” and “urban pioneers.”
For good or for ill, these “pioneers” — comprised largely of artists in search of an affordable life in the city, abetted by canny real estate speculators — wore the mantle proudly as they built out semi-legal living spaces in (often but not always) sparsely populated post-industrial neighborhoods, sometimes squatting entire buildings. They were essentially homesteading — stealing power from the grid rather than rendering tallow, jury-rigging plumbing instead of digging wells — leading precarious DIY lives based on many of the virtues of the old frontier: resilience, independence, ingenuity, competence.
There was among this early, punk-inflected group of gentrifiers — buried under layers of rebellion and irony — a quiet reverence for working-class utility, often expressed in an aesthetic straight from their stepfathers’ closets: old beat-up boots, blue short-sleeve work shirts (bonus points for actual name tags), paint-spattered coveralls, and … flannel.
This commodification of rural life and labor feels, at best, like a post-industrial Instagram fantasy, personal branding available a la carte or by kit.
Much ink has been spilled on the mass-cultural half-life of flannel, but it wasn’t until the Seattle grunge scene exploded into the mainstream in the early 1990s — with a look that had begun with bands like Minutemen and Minor Threat a decade earlier — that flannel would achieve its high fashion ascendancy, showing up in collections by designers like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood and never really going away. The aesthetic and political interplay of these subcultures — gay, punk, DIY — would continue through the early 2000s as a youth culture raised on environmental angst looked further into the past for alternatives to the increasingly apparent cruelties of late capitalism, withdrawing to a kind of privileged moral quiet room in the handmade, the local, the slow.
Here then was a hardworking, readymade look, an identifying aesthetic with a notional connection to virtues of self-sufficiency, sustainability, the wild, and, if not out-and-out Luddism, at least an appreciation of analog competence.
But what happens when the performance overtakes the performer, when the flannel habit intensifies from urban axe throwing to rural woodcraft? What happens, in other words, when you finally buy an axe?
Well, it depends on the axe — and the performer, for that matter. If you’re Justin Timberlake, in his Man of the Woods era, the axe in question comes with a private Montana “ranch.” Timberlake, who grew up in suburban Memphis, has lately been performing a return to nature, (nature in this case being the exclusive 15,200-acre Yellowstone Club, a 21st-century millionaire land rush catering to those who want the gated community without having to see the gates). The streamable georgics resulting from this relocation — manifested as the 16 tracks on his February 2018 album, Man of the Woods — reveal little of Timberlake’s relationship to the actual woods (or mountains or fields or wilderness) and present more like a checklist of urban-versus-rural cliché, the kind you might find in the playbook of any halfway decent political operative aiming to divide and conquer. Here are some lyrics from the album’s seventh track, “Supplies”:
’Cause I’ll be the light when you can’t see
I’ll be the wood when you need heat
I’ll be the generator, turn me on when you need electricity
Some shit start to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head
The world could end now, baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead
Translation: My hard-won know-how (money) will save us when the poors run out of stuff. (Also, a cavil, but one doesn’t “turn on” a generator like a lamp, one starts it like a lawnmower … and “start me up” would have worked here!) In track 11, titled, naturally, “Flannel,” he sings:
Right behind my left pocket
That is where you’ll feel my soul
It’s been with me many winters
It will keep you warm
Ooh, here’s my flannel
The character’s in the way you wear it
Translation: I wear grandpa shirts and grandpas are good guys. Then, on track 14, “Living Off the Land,” we hear that:
You have to be comfortable with yourself
because that’s all there is
There’s you and nature
Soon as you think you got it all figured out, you know,
the wilderness will figure some way to teach you a lesson
As I’m alone in the forest, I’m one with my surroundings
and there’s a lot of peace in that solitude
I’ll be a mountain man ’til the day I die
(Living off the land)
And I break my back
And I work all night
[. . .] I’ll be damned, sometimes it’s hard,
the backed-up bills on the credit cards
Translation: One time I got a little lost on the way to Bill Gates’s cookout. It was tough. And these are the more thematically substantial tracks!
One might find more insight into how the Big West has rubbed off on the Big Pop Star with a quick look at the wilderness-adjacent merchandise from the Man of the Woods Collection, one item for each of the album’s tracks. These include nods to practical Americana like a wool Pendleton blanket, a tin of beard butter, and a trucker vest; objects from the collection that correspond to the tracks above are:
Track 7: A strongbox
Track 11: A flannel shirt, obviously
Track 14: A Best Made Co. felling axe, with custom-painted handle
These items, along with a cooler, a jean jacket, a bandanna, and more, were all available for sale at a Lower East Side pop-up shop the week the album was released, a kind of company store for Timberlake Inc.
As brother to a trucker and an actual lumberjack, it is hard for me to fully understand totems of daily labor so dramatically upsold to “influencers” under the banner of authenticity. But as obvious a target Timberlake is for derision, he’s more of a symptom than he is a cause, one more in a long line of mythologized white men, from Paul Bunyan to John Wayne, out there taming the wild as they tame themselves (but not too much), spokesmodels in the endless ad campaign for America that began with Horace Greeley telling us to go west and live off the land.
And that’s the dream we’re still being peddled, embodied by the upsold axe. That the axe in question is hanging on the wall of a pop-up store in downtown New York creates a particular kind of dissonance: Timberlake Inc. is almost too perfect a microcosm for the stylized repackaging of the outdoors, for the yearning after a frontier that never really existed and the rural “working-class” sensibilities that accompany it. This commodification of rural life and labor — its ruggedness, its whiteness — feels, at best, like a post-industrial Instagram fantasy, personal branding available a la carte or by kit; at worst, it perpetuates pernicious stereotypes, both racist and classist, about natural purity and rural misery, a paradox in service of the powerful.
As brother to a trucker and an actual lumberjack, it is hard for me to fully understand totems of daily labor so dramatically upsold to ‘influencers’ under the banner of authenticity.
But life adjacent to wild spaces — and the work that sustains it — can be good, regardless of your politics. The braiding of masculinity and wilderness is as old as the American frontier, but it’s worth considering how we might untangle the two, worth considering how we might live with the forest world — and all it has to offer us — without destroying it.
But maybe you’re not a rich, world famous pop star with a flannel fetish (if you’ve read this far, it’s likely you are not). Sure, axe throwing seems like a fun thing to try, but lately you’ve been spending more time upstate (whatever state that might be) car camping, or staying with friends who’ve left the city; there are campfires, fireplaces, wood to be chopped, logs to split. You are thinking of buying an axe of your own.
Where to start?
There are three basic types of axes you might acquire: a hatchet, for light camp use limbing branches and making kindling (12 to 18 inches long, around 1.5 pounds); an all-purpose camp axe for clearing saplings and light splitting (20 to 28 inches, around 2.5 pounds); a felling axe for chopping down trees (30+ inches, between 3 and 4.5 pounds). Within each of these basic categories there are dozens of varieties, based largely on the regions from which they originate: the Allagash Cruiser, the Hudson Bay Camp Axe, the Dayton Railsplitter, etc.
Whatever you’ve chosen, the first thing you’ll notice is the weight: a multipurpose Swedish forester’s axe — weighing three pounds — is a manageable tool, useful on smaller trees and for light splitting. You’ll probably pick it up by the end of its American-hickory handle using your dominant hand. If you’re lucky, it comes to you as an already well-used and well-loved tool, the wood worn to a tacky smoothness by years of sweat and sap and the occasional reapplication of linseed oil. It will feel heavier than three pounds should.
Next, you’ll probably hoist the heavy end up into the other hand, striking a slightly awkward pose halfway between lumberjack and serial killer.
Perhaps the light will catch the burnished cheek of the blade, and you’ll reach a tentative finger to the hardened edge, which, if properly sharpened, can dry-shave the hairs from your arm. You’ll continue to feel that weight, three pounds starting to feel like 30, and you’ll begin to wonder: What can I chop with this? The axe is one of the oldest tools we have, designed, essentially, by gravity (which does most of the work anyway) — when you pick it up, you’ll want to let it fall.
Let’s say you’re in the woods — on a weekend camping trip or at a friend’s woodsy cabin — so there’s a lot it could fall on. For a first swing, a nice, newly down log is good for practice — in a wild forest, there should be plenty of recently downed deadfall not yet rotten.
You stand square to the log — imagine it as Eastern red cedar, for its intense scent and lurid scarlet heartwood — and raise high the axe. The weight will do the rest. If the swing is true, there will resonate from the tree — through still-growing sapwood to the compressed cells of the dying core — a deeply satisfying, percussive boom, scattering birds and startling deer. The first swing invites another, and then another, until a deep ringing rhythm echoes through the forest. It’s hard work, but in its repetition it is meditative.
That sound, of axe on wood, calls back to a hundred generations of humankind, invites considerations of how our ancestors might have understood their place in a world covered by forest. Sitting there, axe across knees, taking a breather, it’s not so hard to imagine them.
Shaggy Briton woodsmen in the vast pre-Roman forests of Cumbria, gripping their sacred Langdale axes, with glimmering heads knapped from the rare volcanic greenstone mined from the Pike of Stickle.
A barefoot Japanese carpenter moving gingerly across a hinoki cypress swinging his heavy, long-handled masakari, leaving palm-size chips of wood as a massive six-by-six beam reveals itself from the 16-foot log.
A pair of Basque foresters, generations ahead of the chainsaw, laboring astride two great beech trees pulled from deep within the Irati Forest, locked in a traditional aizkolaritza, a village-wide test of strength, precision, and endurance to see who might hew the finest, fastest timber.
Tireless Henderson Islanders squaring off Pacific rosewood, adzes made from giant clamshells, chewing out chocolate shavings from the dark heartwood.
A thousand miles and a thousand years separate these moments of labor, and at the heart of each, the same basic motion: Pick up the heavy thing and let it fall; let the weight do the work, or at least half of it.
This is the allure of the axe: It is a simple, efficient tool charged with power and violence; it lets us measure our labor swing by swing, as we gather fuel for heat or timber for shelter. To look at a stand of trees, axe in hand rather than chainsaw, is to understand it not as a resource for the coming weeks or months, but for subsequent years and generations. And though the axe confers an intoxicating dominion, over woodlot and wood target both, it is a tool that invites a way of seeing that is very old indeed. The various eras of human prehistory seem named for dynastic families from alien worlds — the Mousterian, the Denisova, the Aurignacian. It is the Acheulean in which early stone hand tools begin to flourish, particularly what is now referred to by paleoanthropologists as the “hand-axe.”
The Acheulean “hand-axe” is not an axe in the modern sense; really, it’s just a big rock with two chipped-off edges, bits of flint “knapped” away to create a biface the better to dig or cut with, to remove bark from a tree or, even, to fell that tree by hand. Perhaps, also, the better to kill with, human history providing no shortage of reminders that any distinction between tool and weapon derives from delusions of civilization.
The finer specimens of these hand-axes, unearthed across Europe and Africa, from the Fells of Cumbria to the river gorges of the Olduvai Valley, have the shape of great and heavy tears. For centuries, British farmers, turning one up with plough or spade, thought of them as thunderstones, specially formed rocks either dropped from the heart of terrible storms, or seeded deep beneath the earth by lightning strikes, gifts of creation, that man might make better dominion of a world made just for him.
Hand-axes represent the evolution of a very basic technology, and one can imagine that moment when the blunt rock was discarded for the edged rock, followed quickly by the thought, in not so many words: “What if I made this even sharper?”
And so these rough-hewn stones-as-tools, ranging in size from an iPhone to a toaster, underwent refinement over scores of generations — and with that refinement toward balance and symmetry, they began to take on value, both material and spiritual. Hand-axes, their abundance and quality, became a symbol of wealth, a currency; and those created from rarer elements (the deeper in the earth the better) were revered as religious symbols, not to be used as tools, but rather thought of as we now think of art. As French paleoanthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan puts it, in contemplating the unlikely craftsmanship of such early humans:
It seems difficult to admit that these beings did not experience a certain aesthetic satisfaction, they were excellent craftsmen who knew how to choose their material, repair defects, orient cracks with total precision, drawing out a form from a crude flint core that corresponded exactly to their desire. Their work was not automatic or guided by a series of actions in strict order, they were able to mobilize in each moment reflection and, of course, the pleasure of creating a beautiful object.
Though Gourhan is writing about human beings 10,000 years ago, he could be describing a certain strain of contemporary axe maker, for whom an axe is just as at home on a pristine West Village gallery wall as it is in the back of a woodshed.
About a decade ago, Peter Buchanan-Smith, a Canadian designer living in New York City, found himself in need of a hatchet to make some kindling. Looking to grill a choice cut of meat over a hot, wood-fueled fire, Buchanan-Smith found himself unimpressed by the cheap, poorly made imports at nearby hardware stores (dull edges, synthetic handles), so he expanded his search for a better, American-made tool.
The story might have ended there, but shortly after Buchanan-Smith finally did get his hands on a decent axe, he decided to customize the handle in colorful stripes: and just like that, the Best Made Co. was born. (Buchanan-Smith declined to talk to me for this story and is, I’m told, transitioning away from the company.)
Things happened quickly from there. Buchanan-Smith, who’d won a Grammy for his art for a Wilco album cover and who’d done design work for Isaac Mizrahi and David Byrne, was well known among New York’s art and design community, and very soon after the first axe was painted, it was hanging on the wall of Partners + Spade in Manhattan. That was in May 2009; a month later, in anticipation of Father’s Day, the fledgling brand sold out its stock (100 axes) in an hour.
The past decade has been a good one for Best Made Co. with the opening of a flagship store in lower Manhattan, followed by a 2,700-square-foot showroom in L.A.; and on top of their apparent domination of the bespoke axe market, the company has gone all in with a full line of forest-forward gear and apparel. So, if anyone has a full view of the aesthetic arc of lumbersexuality, it’s Buchanan-Smith, who’s described his ideal customer as “Alaskan Charles Eames (rather than Brooklyn Grizzly Adams).” And while someone who relies on tools but also likes good design is certainly cooler than dresses up like someone who relies on tools, it helps that the former usually has a little more money to spend than the latter.
One might wonder how great the difference could be possibly be from one axe to the next, but it only takes an afternoon at the wood pile to appreciate good steel as opposed to bad: the former holds its shape longer, has a stronger edge, stays sharper, and is less prone to chipping or breaking, all of which makes for a safer, more efficient axe. It is taken for gospel — at least on the internet of old guys and their tools — that the older the axe, the better the steel.
You are thinking of buying an axe of your own. Where to start?
If you’re looking, it’s not hard to find someone in just about every rural county in the country with a grinding wheel, a set of files, and a strop, who will take your grandfather’s axe and return it to its former glory. And for every one of those guys there are a hundred others hanging out in online forums asking one another the best way to rebevel the edge on a timber-hewing broadaxe or how to de-pit the cheek of a 100-year-old New Jersey pattern felling axe. (To its credit, Best Made’s L.A. store has a counter devoted to restoring and refurbishing old tools, from cast-iron pans to axes.)
Navigating sites like BladeForums.com and TalkBlade.info, a theme begins to emerge: New, mass-produced things are bad; old, handcrafted things are good. And while there’s an awful lot of grumpy conservatism burbling through these forums, spiked with a mild dose of over-the-counter libertarianism, if you squint past the bumper-sticker usernames and shallow isolationism, the underlying politics run parallel to much of the contemporary green movement, from the embrace of all things local to a rejection of late-capitalist disposability. Granted, from the conservative direction these politics are rooted in a nostalgia that veers into apocalyptic nativism, but it is bewildering to see how similar in outlook — when it comes to craftsmanship, consumerism, conservation — so many people are who otherwise identify with different ends of the political spectrum.
Politics doesn’t come up much at my return visit to Kick Axe for the opening of spring league night — it’s likely that the ideological spectrum here is similar to any Brooklyn bar on a Monday evening, which is to say not as liberal as Twitter would have you believe. I sit back and watch 76 amateur axe throwers crowd around league master Anthony Oglesby, who stands upon a stump introducing new rules and reminding competitors of the old, part carnival barker, part vice principal.
There is more flannel in this crowd than the last time I was here, more self-conscious woodsiness expressed through beards and boots, so I’m not exactly sure where Melanie Serrapica fits in. In her late 20s, Serrapica is wearing a semiformal low-cut red dress, and if it weren’t for the custom-painted hatchet she holds lightly in her right hand, its handle a gradient from lustrous black into midnight blue, I’d assume she’d entered the wrong bar.
“[Axe throwing] is a great way to blow off steam after coming from work, where you want to throw things at people but aren’t allowed,” Serrapica deadpans, despite having to yell over the anticipatory din of her fellow axe throwers. Her friend Sara Morabito nods in agreement. “We’re two nerds who don’t do things other than conventions,” she says, gesturing to her fiancé Chris Knowles. “This was the first athletic thing where we were both like, ‘We’re really good at this.’ It’s a great thing to do together.”
Like Serrapica, Morabito and Knowles fell hard for the pleasures of axe throwing, and also have their own custom axes (hand-painted by fellow league member, Tommy Agniello) — unlike Serrapica, they have yet to name their axes. “Yeah, I named it Axe-Po,” Serrapica says. “You know, like B-MO from Adventure Time?” (I don’t.) As the subject turns to axe care and sharpening technique, I ask the trio why they think axe throwing has become so popular. Chris (who favors a double-grit sharpening puck for maintaining his blade) gets to the heart of it: “It’s something that feels masculine and outdoorsy, and I think people are looking for that.”
This is the allure of the axe: It is a simple, efficient tool charged with power and violence.
You don’t need a gender studies degree to understand that ideas of masculine and feminine exist on a spectrum that doesn’t map across a male-female binary; in fact, the league crowd is as diverse in gender as you’d expect of a bar in Brooklyn on a Monday night. As I circulate among teams with names like Inside the Axer’s Studio, Axes of Evil, and Well, Axetually, interrupting people as they get in a few more practice throws before the competition starts, one name keeps coming up: Rebecca. The best. Unbeatable. Rebecca is the best axe thrower. “Number one last season, and the season before.” Nobody knows if she’s coming tonight, nobody seems able to spot her or her girlfriend in the crowd. Someone thinks she might have moved upstate, “to be closer the woods,” and I can’t tell if they’re fucking with me. She’s already a legend, the more so in her absence.
People are drinking — each league night has its own beer sponsor — and it gets noticeably louder as the new season begins, the title wide open and up for grabs in this new and Rebecca-less reality. Soon into it I notice a woman pressing a call button next to her range, an intense look on her face: It’s too early for a wood replacement on the target, so she’s looking for a judgment. An axe-pert calls the league-master over, and all parties approach the target, like lawyers approaching the bench, to peer and point at an axe stuck just off the bull’s-eye. League-master Anthony waves over at Kick Axe’s manager, Nic Espier, who, with his suit and his earpiece looks like he’d take a bullet if ordered to, goes over to settle the issue.
“Seven points decided last year’s title,” he tells me, after judging in favor of the button-pusher. “These guys look like they’re having fun, but they take it pretty seriously.”
The pleasures of axe throwing or wood splitting or tree felling aren’t for everyone — nor, indeed, are they available to most. But it would be a shame to dismiss these things we yearn for — open spaces, wilderness, a particular kind of labor — simply because we’ve had them so relentlessly repackaged and sold back to us.
So let the axe be many things — tool, work of art, diversion — but let it also be a way back into the forest. Let this very old machine remind us of our limits and show us not what is ours to use, but ours to preserve.
Jonny Diamond is a writer and editor who splits his time between New York City and the Hudson Valley. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Geist, Hobart Pulp, Rolling Stone, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book-length object history of the axe, part investigation of its symbolism in America’s westward expansion, part interrogation of contemporary tropes of masculinity and wilderness. He is the editor-in-chief of LitHub.com.
The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.
For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter using hashtag #Longreads. It’s a nightly thing: Before sitting down to write (currently working on a spec screenplay — an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma set in suburbs of Mumbai), I look around for a story, read it, then share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether I am able to write something or not.
Starting with David Gates’s “Texas” from The New Yorker, to Laura Adamczyk’s “Too Much a Child” from Lit Hub, I posted 288 stories in 2018. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most, in random order: Read more…
May-lee Chai | Longreads | July 2018 | 15 minutes (4,118 words)
When I was a junior in college, my father, mother, and brother took a trip to Hawaii. I didn’t go because I’d been named editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and needed to be at school before the semester started. I needed to get the first issue out for freshmen orientation. I also needed the money. My parents weren’t paying for my college, and I needed every little bit of cash that I could get.
While she was in Hawaii, my mother called me at my dorm to tell me about the trip. Only recently had my mother overcome her severe fear of flying and she still had a kind of ecstatic quality to her voice that I associated with the extreme highs that followed her moments of panic or fear.
“It’s beautiful! This is my place,” she declared. “The flowers, all the flowers, everywhere!”
She then proceeded to tell me how lovely she found Honolulu — the sunlight, the birds of paradise and jasmine and red ginger and hibiscus and bougainvillea, the white sand, the warm ocean. After seven years in the Midwest, seven years of blizzards and tornadoes followed by more blizzards and more tornadoes, she was sick of weather that rotated from one extreme of discomfort to the other.
“And they like me here! I went out into the water, Papa was on the beach, you know he won’t get wet, and Jeff wasn’t feeling well, he was in the room, so I went by myself into the ocean, and I was just splashing the water over my arms, it felt so good, and a white woman came up to me. She said, ‘Aloha! Welcome!’ Then she leaned in close to me and said, ‘We whites have to stick together against the Asian invasion.’” My mother was ecstatic. “She liked me! They like me here!” Read more…
This short story first appeared in The Missouri Review, the quarterly print journal produced at the University of Missouri since 1978. In a frontier Western mining town, the children of two Chinese miners struggle to survive on their own. It’s the first chapter of an in-progress novel. Our thanks to C Pam Zhang and the TMR staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.
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Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.
Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning but Lucy, before they leave, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs hard on her, pushes till she gives way. Leaking apologies or Ha ha has.
“Sorry,” she says now to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and crusty room, every surface sticky with tobacco spit. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience tapping at the door in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba’s every word and now won’t even meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone.
She digs a toe into the dirt floor, rooting for better words. Words to make them listen. To spread benediction over years’ worth of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the air, no wind to stir it.
Something prods her spine.
“Pow,” Sam says. Ten to Lucy’s twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. “Too slow. You’re dead.” Sam cocks fingers back from pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imaginary gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Lee said these new guns didn’t clog and didn’t need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her. Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.
Lucy’s nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy’s face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.
There’s dirt on Sam’s face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Injun warpaint, but beneath it all, Sam’s face is unblemished.
Just this once, because Ba’s big muck-shovel hands are helpless and stiff under the blanket—and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some part of her that riling Ba might make him stand and swing at her jaw—Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam in the chin, at the join where Injun paint gives way to baby fat.
“Pow yourself,” Lucy says. She pushes Sam like an outlaw into the street. Read more…
Ned Stuckey-French | Longreads | November 2016 | 9 minutes (2,204 words)
Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.
I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.
I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything. Read more…
Steve Salerno writing for the Missouri Review on baseball, manhood and, most of all, a life lived in America’s batting cages:
It is the mark of my absorption that I know the pitching machines in American cities large and small, their habits and quirks, as well as I know their physical locations and the best way to reach them from their respective local airports. I can drive the various routes as if on autopilot, making the turns unthinkingly, in much the same way that I can take my batting stance in any given cage, in any given city, and orient myself in the batter’s box within a fractional inch of where I stand in any other given cage, in any other city, at any other time.
Steve Salerno’s essays and memoirs have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire and many other publications. His 2005 book, SHAM, was a groundbreaking deconstruction of the self-help movement, and he is working on a similar book about medicine. He teaches globalization and media at Lehigh University. This essay first appeared in the Missouri Review (subscribe here!). Thanks to Salerno for allowing us to reprint it here.
Observed on video at half-speed, through the metal lattice-work of the batting cage, it is a perfectly choreographed pas de deux of man and machine. While the machine readies the pitch, the man executes the idiosyncratic but vital preparatory movements of torso and hand that jump-start his batting rhythm; he leans forward, then rocks his weight back, the bat wavering in a narrow arc above his head much as the young palms visible in the background yield to the soft ocean breezes—slightly forward of true vertical, slightly aft, slightly forward again. As the dimpled yellow ball shuffles down that last segment of the feeder sleeve toward the pair of spinning wheels that will propel it homeward, the batter’s hands twist around the axis of the lower wrist in a subtle cocking mechanism; when the ball drops between the wheels and disappears for an instant, the batter’s front foot lifts, then returns to earth perhaps six inches beyond its initial resting place; the bat itself remains well back, high over the rear shoulder, in obeisance to an ancient admonition—“hips before hands.”
Even in slo-mo, the swiftness of the ball’s flight to the plate startles. At first it seems that there’s no way the man can snap the bat down and around his body fast enough to intercept the sphere (which actually, now, more resembles a yellow antiaircraft tracer) before it blurs by him…. But no, he starts his swing, his lower body leading the way, pivoting sharply on the front foot—now—and in fact, somehow manages to confront the pitch out ahead of the ersatz plate. If you pause the video at this precise point—that millisecond before impact—you marvel at the fact that, slicing through the strike zone, the bat, despite being molded from a single sheet of metal, is no longer a straight, rigid line. Rather, the bat- head clearly lags behind the handle in its travel to the ball, a vivid manifestation of the explosive torque all good hitters rely on for generating power. An instant later, post-contact, the ball too is misshapen, flattened on the impact side, shooting off the bat in a shallow upward arc with such velocity that it appears to leave a comet-like contrail in its wake.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle and Readmill users, you can also save them as a Readlist.
A couple learns about a cancer diagnosis:
I watch your hand starting to shake as you write down information that will sit on a small square of paper for months, impossible to get rid of. I stand two feet away and watch your lips. I hear you say, Is that all you can tell me…. Right here, midsentence, your eyes move to mine, and in this instant I have the feeling that I have it all wrong, that I am misreading the shaking, the tone—that it is not the worst thing and that I just slipped for a moment into that parallel universe that floats next to ours, the one we all peek into when somebody is an hour late driving home in heavy rain, the one most of us back out of, returning to the familiar world where the unthinkable happens to other people. And then the frozen moment passes, and you finish your sentence. I hear you say, Is that all you can tell me, a tumor-like growth? The words have force enough to move matter; they push me two steps back.
It is a simple moment. A tumor-like growth.