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150 Years After Thoreau: How the Cabin at Walden Gave a 21st Century Father Cabin Fever

May 6, 2012 is the 150th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s death. Thoreau is viewed by many as the father of American nature writing, and his significant influence continues. In the passage below Tom Montgomery Fate describes his own “cabin experience” in southwest Michigan and reflects on Thoreau’s continuing relevance.

You can listen to Tom Montgomery Fate on this weekend's episode of PRI's To the Best of Our Knowledge.

A More Deliberate Life

(excerpted from the Introduction to Cabin Fever)

486px-Henry_David_ThoreauOne sunny afternoon a few years ago I drove to southwest Michigan to build a cabin in the woods. It was spring break and I had just reread Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s nineteenth century account of his life in the woods at Walden Pond. The famous hermit-philosopher had again inspired me, but it was different from the first time I read it. I was not an idealistic 19-year-old college freshman, but a harried and married 46 year-old father of three in suburban Chicago. Different things mattered. The book called me with more urgency––from my distracted middle-class, middle-aged life into the wild solitude it conjured.

That same morning, before leaving, I discussed the weekend with my wife, Carol, packed food and clothes, and then went to the garage to look for tools. When I pushed the remote, and the garage door hummed open, I abruptly recognized my life: a wild tangle of bicycles and strollers and grilling utensils and patio furniture and wet cardboard boxes full of moldy books and kids’ clothes. Amid the clutter I found an old spade, two saw horses, a metal tool box, and a post hole digger, all of which I tossed into the back of our minivan. On the two-hour drive to Michigan that day I recited Thoreau’s mantra–– Simplify, Simplify­­––as a kind of prayer, thinking it might offer me some guidance.

It didn’t. We finished the cabin in two years, or at least stopped working on it. Cobbled together with the help of family and friends, and with more patience than expertise, we built it on a fifty acre plot of woods and meadow that we own and share with six other families, friends from our old church. They bought the land cheap thirty years ago––a farm abandoned after a fire. It has since been slowly restored: the stone farmhouse rebuilt, thousands of pines and oaks planted, a large garden dug. And we maintain a network of walking trails that wind throughout the property.

Were he alive today, Thoreau might have little interest in our experiment in Michigan. But he might be a bit curious. He did, after all, anticipate those readers who would naively aspire to his ideals. In the first chapter of Walden he addresses the relevance of his stint in the woods for the interested novice: “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living…but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursuehis own way.”[i]

CabinfeverEven when no one would buy his books, and long before there were Thoreau “wannabes,” he advised readers to listen for their own drummer, and find their own way through the forest. Walden’s continued appeal is partly due to a romantic longing to “get back to nature.” And while Henry himself is also deeply romanticized, his commitment to the environment, his material self-sufficiency, and his “less is more” economics could not be more relevant.

Such ideas resonate in a high tech, high speed culture, which excels at making waste and war. We have bi-focal contacts and laser eye surgery but still struggle to see in the way Thoreau imagined––to find the essential balance of the I and eye, of self and world. This is why despite the vast distances of time and culture, I can’t help but read Thoreau’s artful interrogation of his life at Walden Pond as both a critique of my own and as an invitation to a new kind of vision, to the joy of enough in a culture of more, to a deliberate life.

That’s what I’m seeking: a more deliberate life. But deliberate doesn’t just mean intentional or careful; it means balanced. The word is tied to libra––the two pan scale of justice—which is for weighing and balancing things—ideas, fears, love. Or maybe garlic: I saw such a scale once at a market in a tiny French village. The farmer put a 100 gram weight in one silver pan and a handful of garlic in the other. The standard, or known weight, was balanced against the unknown. In this case the garlic was too heavy so the pans didn’t level. But the vendor gave it to me anyway, balancing the scale with his generosity. Deliberation is a creative act, an art.

My 7-year-old son, Bennett, sometimes tries to balance himself on the creaky iron fulcrum of a wooden teeter totter at the playground. He jumps up on the heavy plank and puts one foot on each side of the center. Then he shifts his weight, pushing one end of the plank down, causing the other end to rise. He tries to stay balanced and level but can’t for more than a few seconds. One side always starts to teeter up or totter down. He doesn’t stay centered, but neither does he ever fall off. This struggle for balance, the rising and falling between the earth and sky, gives him great joy. And he gives that joy to me, if I’m paying attention.

Tomfate_HDTTo put it plainly, a deliberate life is a search for balance—in mind and body and spirit—amid our daily lives. And while some might like to do that searching all alone in the woods, few can. Other “natural” commitments conflict: children, a partner, a job or two. Most readers who admire Thoreau’s ideas don’t have the freedom or desire to live a solitary life in the woods. Still, what many of us do want, and what this book is about, is finding a deeper connection to Nature in our ordinary lives—by seeking relationship and refuge wherever we find ourselves––whether it be on a walk through a forest preserve, on a family camping trip, or catching grasshoppers in the backyard.

“I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau famously wrote. For him travel writing was nature writing, and it was local. His search for the Wild was on home ground: an outward physical journey and inward spiritual journey conducted not in pristine isolation, but on the humble Concord woodlot available to him.[ii]

This is vital for those who seek a more deliberate life today. Because since Thoreau’s invention of the nature memoir 150 years ago, much of the natural environment itself has been destroyed. So the task is no longer to discover and record the rare, but to recover and nurture the ravaged—to try to restore some balance where we live. This is particularly true here, amid the Midwest’s decimated woodlands and farms and sprawling suburbs, where developers and nature often collide.

Everyday I see these collisions––the imbalance––between humanity and the other animals who live here. Herons nest on our E.coli choked river. Coyotes hunt on the runways of O’Hare Internatonal airport while roaring jets are trying to land. A Canada goose gets trapped in the entryway of my office building. Rabbits nest in wood chips beneath a metal slide on a suburban playground. A wild cougar is gunned down in an alley by a Chicago policeman. Who belongs where? Who will take care of whom on this shrinking planet? How will we find the balance we seek?

These are the kinds of questions that Thoreau is still opening for me, and that I continue to live in.

Watch the book trailer for Cabin Fever on YouTube

[i] Henry David Thoreau. Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition. Ed. Jeffrey Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. P.86

[ii] Ibid. p. 170. The land around Walden Pond was not “wilderness,” but a conventional woodlot when purchased by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau himself writes “The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale…”