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A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan has two subtitle versions: “The Education of an Amateur Builder,” and the one I used for a previous post in 2010, “The Architecture of Daydreams.”  That this book has sat on my bedside book stack for all these years is not an indication of the quality of the book or my enjoyment of it. I bought it 7 years ago, started it, put it aside, and then started back into it again last spring and have dipped into it on and off and between other readings. I finally finished it on New Year’s Eve because I didn’t want it to remain unfinished into the new year. A small, doable, New Year’s resolution. It works reading it in parts as a story and as instruction. Think of the chapter as courses in a very long meal, or as occasional visits to Michael’s little place for another lesson. His place wasn’t built quickly, so why read it all in a weekend.

I was attracted to it because, like Pollan, I have long wanted of a room of my own. Okay, not a “room” but a separate building, albeit a small one. For me, it has been a small log cabin that has been in my head and sketched on many sheets of paper ever since I read Walden and a host of other books where people escaped and wrote in some cabin isolation. You should not need a cabin to be a writer, but it still seems Romantic (capital R) to me.


In the snow…

He wanted a “shelter for daydreams” and I identify not only with that, but also with his lack of skills needed to build such a place. Pollan writes that “Apart from eating, gardening, short-haul driving, and sex, I generally prefer to delegate my commerce with the physical world to specialists.”

So,  I read the book for both of its subtitles, as instruction manual about how to actually build such a structure, and as an armchair-dreaming builder. As instruction manual, it had its limitations. I’m not in a place where I can hire a real architect and custom builders to make my cabin. Plus, my plan has always been to do it myself. I also don’t have the land to build on, so it is astill “armchair building” for now.

But as an armchair building adventure tale, the book is kind of a Moby-Dick reading experience to me. I learned about building a little place and how to place it on a piece of land, and also about the history and meaning of all human building. It is about finding your place in your environment in the same way that you need to place your cabin to take advantage of views, sunlight, and to deal with drainage and winds and weather. In Melville’s book, you learn about whaling, whale and the sea, and about your own place in and away from this world.

In the spring

Will I start building this spring? Well, I still don’t have that piece of land or all the skills to build a place on my own or a set of blueprints that I would use yet. But over the years, I have learned some of the building skills by repairing my home, building a rock wall and a garden shed. I have collected plans for cabins and one-room sanctuaries, though none feel like “the one” that is floating somewhere in my brain.

Perhaps 2018 will be the year the daydream gets built.


Cabin with Northern Lights

On a chilly night that opens December here in Paradelle, I catch the scent of wood fires in the air tonight and when I step into the front porch of my house I smell the pine branches my wife is soaking to make a wreath.

It is not winter officially and the weather is still flirting with autumn, but my mind has turned again to the idea of building a cabin in the woods.

When I first started this website, I had been reading a series of articles by Lou Ureneck about him building a cabin in the woods of western Maine. In the one called “Building a Home for Another Life,”  he had not finished the foundation and he had already had two snows.

walden sign

I have wanted to build a cabin since I read Walden in eighth grade. I had sent for plans, read articles on it. I had even sent away for brochures about buying cheap land in Montana that I saw in the back of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life magazines. All this was before I had graduated high school.

But, I never bought the land – I probably should have back the late 1960s because it would have been a good investment – and I never built a cabin.

I agree with Ureneck that you build a cabin for “the satisfaction of making something with your own hands and the joy of living simply and close to nature, even if it’s just on weekends.”

In my adult home-owning life, I built a stone wall along our driveway. It took me weeks to do. From clearing away piles of dirt by hand with a wheelbarrow hauling crushed stone and fitting together the stones one by one to fit correctly.  I enjoyed it very much. I especially liked figuring out how to make the squares and rectangles form a smooth curve as it neared the house, and building two stone steps. I stared at those stones and that imaginary curve for hours. Very pleasant.

Other people have chronicled this kind of cabin dream online. I found another site by Mark van Roojen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, who teaches  ethics and political philosophy who was building a timber frame cabin in the Sierra Madres.

Mark’s site directed me to Bob at who was beginning a timber frame cabin project in Montana and another in Idaho that was well on its way.

Everyone seemed to be building a cabin but me.

Some people call these photo site “cabin porn” and I find it is easy to fall into these sites on a cold winter night. A cabin in green leafy woods is very nice, but there is something about a cabin with a wood fire on a snowy night…

I concede that I don’t see myself doing any chainsaw milling, and the more I look online, the more complicated this gets. Check out Timber Framers Guild ,and, or the more ambitious Housebuilding Illustrated, Cedar Ridge Farm, this Bungalow Blog and the Massie House Timberframe blog.

Maybe all I need is just a little 16 x 24 Michigan Cabin

I wanted this as a way to help me simplify my life, Thoreau in those Walden woods. My real weekend escape to go with this virtual escape. Not a retirement home. Not fancy.

My friend Steve told me years ago that I should think more about a tipi and had sent me some  links for them and some look bigger inside than the first floor of my house. Or maybe I should buy a yurt.

But I don’t want portable. I want permanent. And part of all this is that I want to build it, not assemble it.

What would a modern-day Thoreau do?

Fall and winter, side by side.

If you were resolving in this new year to clean things up, simplify and maybe downsize your life, then living small might be of interest.

I first looked at this topic concerning home back in 2010, and since then this trend has continued to (ironically) grow bigger.

You can start simplifying by exploring tiny homes.  Perhaps, not even living small, but living in a tiny home.

This not the same thing as my still-active cabin dreams stoked by thoughts of Walden Pond and such.  At this point, living tiny probably seems more like fairly well-off hipsters surrounded by walls of reclaimed wood than Thoreau.

There is no shortage of examples to check out. Look on Instagram.  Watch Tiny House Nation. Check out Pinterest.

Even better, stream this Tiny movie and watch some people build one. I found it fascinating. This is one sweet “cabin.” There are tiny homes and people in RVs, converted buses and re-purposed shipping containers.

tiny posterAfter a decade of travel, Christopher Smith buys a 5-acre plot of land in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream of building a home in the mountains of Colorado. With the support of his girlfriend, Merete, he sets out to build a Tiny House from scratch despite having no construction experience.

Tiny: A Story About Living Small is a coming-of-age story not only for a generation that is more connected, yet less tied down than ever, but also for a society that is redefining its priorities in the face of a changing financial and environmental climate.

Dream big and imagine living small.

You can also see “living small” as the flip side of “living large” (“living with an extravagant or self-indulgent lifestyle”). We all do some of this every year: getting rid of things we don’t need, having a smaller environmental footprint, spending less (on rent or a mortgage).

No matter where you build or drop your tiny home, you still live in a not-tiny world, so there will be issues with things like zoning laws and other big realities.

Still curious? After you watch Tiny,

take a look at:
Living Small: The Psychology of Tiny Houses
Living Small | The Atlantic
Living Small, With Money Left Over | WSJ

Oh, if only it was so… the article was titled  “Build a Log Cabin for $100.”  That would be a worthy summer project.

A Oregon couple combined love of the land, native materials, traditional hand tools, and hard work to build a log cabin for $100.

Living in a cozy little cabin nestled in the woods is part and parcel of the classic Thoreau-inspired lifestyle most folks dream of now and then. But the romantic vision of log-home life is shattered — for many people — by the sheer cost of such structures, which can be as high as that of equivalent conventional homes.

That doesn’t have to be the case, however. My wife and I kept down the cash outlay for our “Walden” by gathering most of the materials from the land where our house was to stand, and then building it ourselves, using only hand tools. As a result, our small home cost us only about $100 to construct … and the project was so simple that we’re convinced anyone with access to a few basic implements and a good supply of timber could build a log cabin too…

Read more of the article by Bill Sullivan


bird feeding

It’s post vernal equinox. Are you feeling any symptoms of Spring Fever?

Spring Fever is an interesting term for a phenomenon or pseudo-illness. It seems to have entered English in the mid-1800s. Linguistically, it is interesting because it has two meanings which are opposites. There is the term contronym to describe words that are also antonyms. Examples include words such as cleave which can mean “to cling” or “to split”, and the verb “to dust” which can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (dust a cake with powered sugar).

Similarly, “spring fever” means a sluggishness, apathy or inertia at this time after winter OR a renewed energy and freedom at the opportunity to get outside and be active again.

The negative feeling is related to that dormancy, as of a hibernating animal, that occurs for many of us in colder climates during winter. Like a bear coming out of hibernation, we are slow to get moving.

Other people associate this season change with a new-found energy after being confined mostly indoors for a few months. Time to start that spring cleaning, get back to exercising, start working on outdoor projects and get into the sun.

Temperatures usually fluctuate widely in springtime and when temperatures rise, blood pressure drops, since the blood vessels expand.

What about your eating habits? In winter, most of us tend to consume more calories, fat and carbohydrates than we do in summer.


Spring Peeper

On the positive side, it seems that most people take spring fever to mean an increase in energy. It is also associated with an increased sexual appetite which is probably also something we observed with animals in the wild who generally have their breeding periods now in order to give young the most time to develop before colder weather.

I have written about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the kind of depression that can occur during the winter months. Scientists will avoid validating spring fever and say that we are labeling a behavior as a disease, but perhaps it is also a legitimate seasonal disorder (at least if it is taken in the negative sense).

Cabin fever is another term we started using in the early 1900s for a kind of claustrophobic reaction we have to be “trapped” inside with less to keep us busy for an extended period.

I happen to love cabins, so the thought of being in one seems quite pleasant. But that might change if I was snowed in for a month. You could get cabin fever in a country vacation cottage, but it can happen in a city apartment too. Ever notice how crowded your local park is on those first really warm and sunny spring days?

img-shiningCabin fever can cause people to sleep more and get irritable with anyone they are living with. The popular culture extreme of this is the character Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel The Shining, perhaps better known by the Jack Nicholson incarnation in the film adaptation of The Shining.  (The film antidote might be the song “Cabin Fever” from the Muppet Treasure Island.)

In German, they have the term frühjahrsmüdigkeit  which is literally translated as “spring tiredness”, so this is not an American phenomenon. The German versions is on the negative side being that temporary mood characterized by low energy levels.

I have my own unique version that hits me every spring when I feel a strong pull to get to the ocean. I partially identify this with Moby Dick‘s Ishmael and my cure includes a drive to the ocean (only about an hour away for me) and rereading Moby Dick.

If you live in the northern hemisphere, you might feel the disorder any time from mid-March to mid-April. Symptoms? Weariness (even if you are sleeping a lot), and a lack of drive and motivation, being overly sensitive to changes in the weather, some dizziness, irritability, headaches, and maybe aching joints are all reported.

Is there any science to all this? The causes most often noted are hormone imbalances.  One of the hormones that increases our happiness is serotonin, whose production depends on daylight, so the level may be lowered over the winter. Serotonin is the basis for many anti-depressant medications. The lowered serotonin might also allow melatonin, a hormone related to sleep,  to have its way with us. The longer days of of spring and summer allows more endorphin, testosterone and estrogen are released.  It has also been suggested that this seasonal readjustment of hormones stresses our bodies and we react with a feeling of tiredness.

What can you do to avoid cabin fever and the negative spring fever? Getting outside, being active and getting some sunlight (a half hour is enough) is the best starting place. Avoid taking any melatonin tablets for a while.  Eat less food and, as those hormones adjust, increase vitamins and proteins. Look at the cures for seasonal affective disorder and get happy.

Maybe rather than rereading Moby Dick, you can try reading Cabin Fever: Notes from a Part-Time Pioneer. It’s a humorous memoir and natural history of 25 summers of back-to-the-earth by William L. Sullivan about the log cabin he and his wife built by a river in the wilds of Oregon’s Coast Range.

You could also watch the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fairwhere a love-sick lass sings, “Oh, why should I have spring fever, when it isn’t even spring?” She finds love. You might want to avoid the German theatrical production, Spring Awakening, which is an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind which was banned in Germany for some time due to its frank portrayal of abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. Yeah, it’s a musical story of teenagers discovering sexuality. Perhaps the American folk-rock musical Broadway adaptation is lighter.


Statue of Thoreau and cabin reproduction at Walden Pond.

You should not need an isolated cabin in the woods in order to write. And yet, many of us – writer and would-be writers – have probably fantasized about having an isolated place in the woods, a mountaintop or island retreat where we could go and find inspiration and peace.

There is no good evidence that those places actually do inspire writers or allow them to focus, and there are plenty of writers who work in cities and at home surrounded by distractions. I suppose I attribute it to a more Romantic than scientific notion that comes from reading books like Thoreau’s Walden.

Readers of this blog know that I have a thing about cabins though I have never built or owned one. I have stayed in them and there is something about them that affects my thinking process.  What is it about a small, plain, sparsely furnished cabin that is so appealing?

cabin autumn

Centre Hastings County, Ontario, Canada

Writers have written about having a writer’s cabin. Beyond Walden, some modern titles are: Heidegger’s Hut by Adam Sharr and A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams
by Michael Pollan. I like Michael Pollan‘s writing and I like that he starts this book imagining a cabin and then actually builds his own writing space.

Call it a cabin or hut or shed, a good number of famous writers have found them conducive to writing: Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roald Dahl, and Carl Jung.

David Wood wrote about the lure of the writer’s cabin. He was building one himself.  We love the idea of being our own Thoreau.

There was a series that ran in a magazine back in the 1970s that I remember looking at it the library bound editions (I think it was the Saturday Review) that was a one-page feature with a photo of a writer’s desk and some text. I loved looking at the desks of contemporary writers. I guess I’m not the only person who likes this because I have a number of books about just that. Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz is a collection of photographs of writers at their desks. American Writers at Home has text by J. D. McClatchy and photos by Erica Lennard and looks at the physical spaces that seem to influence and stimulate some well-known American writers. Many of these are homes and not little simple cabins. The same is true of Writers’ Houses where you look into places like Hemingway’s Key West home.

We know that a writer’s genius does not come from the place where they do their writing. But I think that when writers find some kind of retreat or escape their homes for a place to write, that does tell you something about them, and that space may actually be the inspiration for their writing.

I like knowing about a writer’s tools. Does she use pad and paper, a fountain pen, legal pads, an old manual typewriter or a laptop computer. I have a clear picture in my mind of Hemingway with his pencils at his standup desk. I know that some writers like to go to a cafe or coffee shop and write. There must be something about the in and out of customers that is also inspiring. I notice that a lot of writers’ desks are placed in the center of the room or in a corner rather than looking out a window. Though the outside world may be a beautiful scene, is it more of a distraction? Isolation is always part of the cabin fantasy.

I would bet that you’re more likely to find a radio than a TV in a writer’s space. More likely to hear instrumental music than vocals.

I actually saw, when I was at the Newseum in Washington DC, an exhibit of of Ted Kaczynski’s 10×12 Montana shack.  I’m no fan of the Unabomber but I was fascinated to look into the little box he put in the woods to write his manifesto.

I read on Habitat for Humanity – The Morning News by Nell Boeschenstein about her move from New York back to her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia after having a prophylactic mastectomy.  At that point, she had been living in a log cabin outside town for seven months. She knew it seems somewhat cliché.

If figurines were awarded for completing twentysomething life-experience clichés, I have been angling for the entire set: the search for myself in central European beer halls; the move west to try growing up with the country; graduate school in New York. A log cabin in the woods has the air of the final trinket on the mantle: the Walden moment. Collect them all.

She is another person who looks at the website Cabin Porn which is just perfect for people who fantasize about “chucking it all for some peace and quiet.” Lots of little places in lovely, lonely landscapes.

She calls her cabin a “poster cabin of American cabins.” Up a dirt road, on a hill between two rivers with a field of tall grasses, that transitions to woods. The cabin itself is off in a clearing surrounded on two sides by cow pastures and on two sides by forest. It is “really a log cabins” (as a friend told her upon seeing it) made of logs with white chinking and with two stone chimneys and a stone foundation and topped by cedar shingles.

She doesn’t promote it as a writer’s escape pod, but as a place that “symbolizes nothing if not equal parts nothing-doing, shit-shooting, porch-sitting, and classic American ideals of self-sufficiency and independence.” But she has some of the fantasy too. She had imagined days starting with coffee and walks through the woods which would generate “small-yet-big observations” and lead to afternoon writing that would “last hours and come fluently.”

But she left the cabin took a job in the big city  to pay the bills. (A pretty cool job – helping produce the fabulous Fresh Air radio show for NPR.) She says that she has been told “too many times and by too many writing instructors that the best stories are often found within single grains of sand. ”

I’m not sure I understand that notion. I do like William Blake’s idea in “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

And I agree with Nell that “The ideal landscape is one in which there is an open field with a pond, some animals in the foreground, and the woods in the background, the border between field and forest marked by a fence.”

Her grains of sand seem to be the small pieces of her larger cabin experience: the view of a mountain from between the trees; the neighboring pony and the donkey grazing; the creak and bang of the screen door, and even the feared copperhead snakes.

Cabin + Island = my idea of getting away

You shouldn’t need a cabin in the woods in order to write. But it wouldn’t hurt.

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