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“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such.
His profession is the best symbol of our life.
Going from ___ toward ___; it is the history of every one of us.”

Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday is this year. I have never quite felt comfortable with the idea of marking birthdays for people who have died, but we do it. I have written about Henry before because I find him an interesting person of contrasts.

He went against the times he lived in. He went to Harvard College and was an intellectual, but in our general image of him, he is a non-conformist. He walked away from society to live in the woods for a year. But he went back. My favorite little anecdote about Hank is that in that year at Walden Pond, he often walked back into town to get some cookies from his mother and have her do his laundry.  It is like camping in the woods, but not too far away from a convenience store.

Thoreau was an abolitionist, a serious and the solitary walker and a passionate naturalist. He modeled his life on religious convictions. He believed that each of us has a connection with divine spirit, though I suspect people generally think of him as less Religious and more spiritual. He never went to church. He never married. He never voted and he didn’t pay his taxes.

He literally talked to trees. He was an environmentalist, although that term was not used in his time. He saw a tragedy coming for future generations because of the heedlessness he saw growing around him.

There is a new biography of HDT out this month that I reserved at my library simply titled Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Will I discover new things about  Thoreau when I read it? Certainly. Will it change my own life, as I feel my first reading of Walden did? I highly doubt that. That’s not a flaw in the book, but a flaw in me. Or maybe it’s a flaw in almost all of us – our lessening ability to change as we get older.

I found out about the book listening to an episode of Radio Open Source, one of three episodes on Thoreau. Pronunciation trivia: “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough” though most people tend to emphasize the second syllable instead.

Something that I always liked about Thoreau is that he seems to have kept himself very busy. As someone who spends too much time making To Do lists and not enough time doing things on the list, I admire his work ethic.

He worked. He was alternately a handyman, carpenter, surveyor, lecturer, businessman (his family owned a pencil-manufacturing company) and a constant writer.  He spent nearly a decade trying to describe that famous one year on Walden Pond and finally published his Walden or Life in the Woods.

He was a bit of an anarchist. In 1846, he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail, but was freed the next day when someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax, against his wishes. He used the experience for several lectures on tax resistance, the rights of the individual to self-government, and it eventually became an essay best known as “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau studied Indian spiritual philosophies and religions and they appear in his writings. He even followed a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India” and enjoyed flute playing (a musical pastime of Krishna) and yoga.

I found a very interesting website, MappingThoreauCountry.org,  that uses historical maps to organize and interpret documentary materials related to Thoreau’s travels throughout Massachusetts. I am a fan of maps of all kinds and you can view Thoreau’s own work in cartography on the site.

Henry (whose first name was officially David, but he reversed the first and middle name after college) was also very much at home on rivers. Water worlds engaged him. He made his own boat and he paddled and sailed on nearby waterways. He looked into the water in a scientific way and a philosophical way.

Before his Walden year, he had spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers  paddling from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, with his brother John in 1839. John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote the book, in part, as a tribute to his brother. He did the first draft during that year at Walden Pond along with his journaling that would become Walden

HDT also loved solitary walking. Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod four times, passing through nearly every town on what he described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” Along the way, he recorded observations that became the basis for lectures, essays, and, eventually, a book-length travelogue that was published posthumously as Walking in 1864.

After college, came a short period of teaching first in a public school and then in the Concord Academy started by Henry and his brother. The school closed after John’s death.

In Concord, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who took a paternal interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to local writers and thinkers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendships with Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement had their ups and downs, but it led to his being a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist.

In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house and served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repairman and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he tutored the sons of William Emerson on Staten Island,  while he was looking to make contacts with literary men and journalists in New York City. That was how he found his future literary representative, Horace Greeley.

Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family business for most of his adult life.

In April 1844,  he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that ironically consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.

His experiment in simple living began the following year on July 4, 1845. He moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres. It was 1.5 miles from his family home.

He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 – 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after loving there – and returned to the Emerson house.

In Walden, he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house in 1848 and stayed at a house on nearby Belknap Street. In 1850, he and his family moved into a house at 255 Main Street, where he lived until his death.

When his aunt Louisa asked him in the last weeks of his life if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two unexplained words, “moose” and “Indian”.

He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44.

During his rather short life,  Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. This was not a change that thrilled him.

He did not see those changes away from nature, self-reliance and simplicity as positive progress.

He was a contemplative individual and a proponent of finding the wilderness, wildness, even the bewilderness that remained in nature. Even if that wilderness was just a small woods, park or river near your home.

When I think of a pond, I imagine a small lake. However, when I visit my friend’s cabin on a “pond” in Maine I see a large lake. Relativity in water sources.

I came across a book recently titled Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett which was published last year by a small press in Ireland.  Not a book organized around a narrative, it contains twenty stories most of which are also not narrative.  An odd psychological collection where we enter the narrator’s world of fragmented segments, questions and moods.

One reviewer said it was “a work of fiction that will make you feel pleasantly insane.”  That name-dropping review by Jia Tolentino sets the bar high by saying that the collection “…recalls works by Knut Hamsun and Samuel Beckett, in which characters are more obviously forced into states of isolation… the cottage hymns of Katharine Tynan, the pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson, and the dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W. B. Yeats” – and that the book is a “photonegative of Walden.”

walden

Walden Pond

Though that collection is not about ponds, it did make me think of Henry David Thoreau who will be best remembered for two years he spent beside a pond. Is Bennett’s narrator like the self-reliant Thoreau. No, though solitude plays a part in both stories, H.D. looks to find  place in the natural world and the narrator of Pond seems to be disconnecting from the world.

Henry David Thoreau lived on the shore of a pond for two years starting in the summer of 1845 and eventually wrote about it in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In that small piece of woods that he made famous (land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson) Thoreau unintentionally sparked a respect for nature and more than a few people on an environmental path.

His pond was Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts which is a kettle hole formed by retreating glaciers 10,000–12,000 years ago. As I have written earlier about Thoreau and Walden Pond, many people often imagine his life there as one of a hermit, he was actually quite social with regular visitors. I was very surprised and amused to learn long after I first read the book that he made frequent visits into town and to his nearby family home to get some of his mom’s cookies.

But he did isolate himself from society with the intention to write about it with greater objectivity. His experiment in simple living and self-sufficiency wasn’t one of survival and wilderness, though compared to the majority of us living today it seems to be a very radical undertaking.

Walden

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.

Walden Pond

“Things do not change, we change.” – Henry David Thoreau


In 1849, Henry David Thoreau self-published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It was his first book. It is about a two-week boating trip he took with his brother, John. The trip had occurred in 1839 and they went from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back.

“We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language.” – from the chapter “Friday” in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

The brothers were close but very different. Henry was the quiet, studious one, and was loud and fun-loving. But John helped pay his brother’s tuition to Harvard, and he helped Henry open his own school. (Henry had been fired from his teaching job because of his objection to corporal punishment.) During the ten years between the trip and the book’s publication, John died unexpectedly from tetanus. He dies in Henry’s arms.

Thoreau decided on seclusion and began building a cabin by the banks of Walden Pond.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived, ” he wrote. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”

What did he mean by “living deliberately?” Do most of us live “accidentally?” Thoreau wanted to determine for himself what was really important. his method was to take himself out of the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840’s. Partially, this was economic as he reduced his material needs by living simply. That meant he did not have to spend time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. The other part, which gets most of the attention from readers, is spiritual. We often see his time in the woods as akin to the spiritual retreats of eastern and western religions.

He lived there for two years and during that time he finished the drafts of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and a series of lectures that would eventually become Walden.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Henry David Thoreau is part of America’s literary history today, but A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was initially rejected and Thoreau was able to publish it only by paying for printing from its sales. It took him four years to pay off the printing cost. He wrote in his journal that his publisher had delivered the remaining unsold copies to his home. “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

Socrates said the unexamined life was not worth living. I’m not sure if he had some place of retreat to examine his life. Can you live deliberately while still living in the “normal” work of your work and life? Do we need our cabin in the woods and a few years of living deliberately to know who we are and what we want to do with the rest of

As poet Mary Oliver asks in “The Summer Day (New & Selected Poems)

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Statue of Thoreau & a replica of his cabin at Walden Pond

(All quotes from Walden:Life in the Woods – Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, unless otherwise noted.)

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.


Walden: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition

Today is the birthday of Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817.

Most people know him as the author of Walden. He got his first glimpse of Walden Pond as a young boy. “When I was five years old, I was brought from Boston to this pond, away in the country, — which was then but another name for the extended world for me. […] That woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams.”

Though he’s often seen as an important environmentalist, an early event in his life almost wiped that out. When he was 26, Thoreau was camping & fishing on the Sudbury River with a friend and they lost control of their campfire. The unusually dry weather caused the grass along the river to burn up to the trees. The fire burned down nearly 300 acres of the Concord woods. Locals call Hank a “woodsburner” for years to come.

Reproduction of the Walden cabin

About a year later, he moved a cabin in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond which is chronicled in Walden or, Life in the Woods. It’s this Transcendentalist’s “personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance.”

The book, published in 1854, covers his experiences over the two years he spent in the cabin near Concord, Massachusetts that he built near Walden Pond. The woods were owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Though people often imagine his life there as a quiet hermit, he was quite social. He had visitors regularly, and made visits into town including trips to his family home (only a 2 mile walk) for his mom’s cookies.

Still, he did isolate himself from society so that he could write about it with greater objectivity. I have always admired this project in simple living and self-sufficiency. Though he wasn’t really roughing it at Walden, he has done more than most of us towards that.

I have had plans to do something similar since I was a boy and still armchair daydream that I will do it – though it has moved into the retirement phase of my timeline rather than the “young man” part.

And that fire? It’s another thing I identify with in Hank’s life. When I was 12, I was playing around with matches with a friend near a brook that was a big hangout for all my friends. Stupidly, I lit a rag on an overhanging bush which just burst into flame leaping up to a dry, grassy field adjoining a park. I knew we had no chance of putting it out and the two of us just ran. We ran halfway across town just trying to get far away. As we ran, we heard sirens – fire engines. Luckily, the fire just burned some of the grass and did no real damage.

We stayed away for a few weeks and then finally walked there to survey the burned out patch.

Thoreau did eventually write about that fire in 1850. Some people feel he was rather nonchalant about it. “I once set fire to the woods. […] I said to myself, ‘Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food.’ It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. The trivial fishing was all that disturbed me and disturbs me still. So shortly I settled it with myself and stood to watch the approaching flames. It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it.”

Yeah, I can see Hank and me sitting by the pond, eating cookies and both of poking at the embers in the campfire.

 

walden sign

I’m reading this 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,” from December 10, he hasn’t finished the foundation and they have already had two snows.

I have wanted to build a cabin since I read Walden in eighth grade.

I had sent for plans, read articles on it, even sent away for those brochures on buying cheap land in Montana from the back of magazines, all before I had graduated high school.

But, I never bought the land and never built the cabin.

I agree with him 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.”

A few years a go 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.

He’s not the only one chronicling this kind of thing online. I found another site by Mark van Roojen. He’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. He teaches  metaethics, ethics and political philosophy. And he’s building a timber frame cabin in the Sierra Madres. (That’s his photo at the top.) I’ll bet he could tell me something about the Zen (or zen) of cabin building.

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

Everyone is building a cabin but me.

I can’t see me doing any chainsaw milling like these guys. In fact, the more I look online, the more complicated this gets.

There’s the Timber Framers Guild , and www.HouseBlogs.net, the more ambitious Housebuilding Illustrated, Cedar Ridge Farm, a Bungalow Blog and the Massie House Timberframe blog too.

I think all I really need is something like the little 16 x 24 Michigan Cabin below.


After all, I wanted this as a way to help simplify my life. You know, my weekend escape, not my retirement home.

My friend Steve says I need to think about a tipi and sends me a link to some that has tipi that 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. I want to build it, not assemble it.

Back to Lou – he’s writing that series, From the Ground Up, for The New York Times. Not exactly Mother Earth News, so I’m guessing that there are a bunch of other armchair cabin builders out there.

What would Thoreau do?

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