Go OutsideModern-Day Thoreau: Meet the Woodsman

Modern-Day Thoreau: Meet the Woodsman

His closest friends have called him ‘Woodsman’ for so many years that he often feels strange when he utters his legal name, Robert McGee. In 2003, after more than a decade of managing offices out west and overseas, he came to live on several wooded acres he bought near downtown Asheville in the late 1990s when he was working a job in L.A. he didn’t like very much. “I guess maybe I read Walden too many times,” he jokes, though the truth is that he never read Thoreau’s classic until he’d left the so-called real world.

For years, he’s supported himself partly by mentoring an autistic youth and doing manual labor, but his real passion is working in the forest right outside his door. Each morning he takes a forty-minute jaunt on an old logging road through the woods and he almost always returns with a log on his shoulders or a stone in hand. Each season dictates a new project. One winter, he took down over one thousand dead or dying scrub pines. “I didn’t have a real plan at first,” he admits. “But one day there was a storm with heavy winds, and several branches nearly clocked me in the skull, so I just started taking down some dead trees so that they wouldn’t later fall and crush the saplings that were starting to emerge. I wound up cutting ten to twenty pines a day, and now there’s a lovely diverse forest of maple, oak, ash and beech. The healthy pines are still standing, plus many dead ones for the woodpeckers, while the ones I cut have been lying on the ground feeding the new forest. By now, some have completely merged with the soil. I got a lot of exercise and valuable experience using a chainsaw during that project.”

This week, McGee is cutting a large section of a massive white oak that split and fell during February. He estimates that this windfall will produce about three cords of firewood. “These really old oaks have grown so large that they’re crowding one another and some are now dying. Many people might look upon this as a nuisance, but I see it as Nature doing its thing, and because these dying oaks provide firewood for me and also for several friends and a couple of bakeries who buy firewood from me each year, I view it as manna from heaven.” For a dozen years, he’s sold enough firewood from the land to pay his property taxes. “When it gets to the point where I’m too old to do this, I may have to turn this project over to some nice young homesteading couple,” he says. “But for now, I enjoy being out here on the land a couple hours a day. It’s become my passion, and I really get my exercise lugging logs up the hill.”

The woodsman has no plans to develop his private forest or use money from its sale to finance fancy trips in old age. “I’ve lived overseas and I might spend time in other countries or other cities at some point in my life,” he says, “but there’s nothing more important to me than protecting this patch of land, nurturing the forest, learning from the trees, spending time in the woods and just breathing and being grateful to live where I do. Day in and day out, it’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”

When asked if he ever finds this way of life boring or lonely, my friend smiles peacefully and admits that there are times when he doesn’t leave his one-man sanctuary for days. “I’m pretty happy here exploring in my own way, becoming very intimate with my own patch of land. I work in the garden or prune the pear tree. I harvest shiitake mushrooms. I cut poison ivy vines from saplings. I listen to the train going past. I observe the morning light and admire the deer, while also hoping they don’t eat too much of my kale. Some afternoons, I take friends on walks to the stone remains of an old carriage house from the 1880s, or I meander down to the river to pick up stray bits of trash. I admire people who hike famous trails or ride bicycles up steep mountains in quest of speed records, or engage in lots of other great activities in our area. But I’ve never enjoyed festivals or crowds as much as I enjoy making progress on my land every day. Plus, I don’t drink that much beer. This life in the woods is how I relate to Nature. And at night when I’ve been productive, even in a very small way, I think back on my time in the woods with great satisfaction, chipping away a little each day, and I sleep really well and wake up early the next morning thrilled to do it all over again.”

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