Off Neck / The Natural World / Thoreauvian Pursuits

Having a Cabin in Mind

I have a cabin in mind.

It’s something I’ve been yearning to build for a while now, say forty years, but haven’t gotten around to. It derives from the aspiration for a dedicated space, four walls and a roof devoted to one man and rumination; a space on which nothing intrudes. It is also the desire to make a dwelling by hand, as if, like Henry David Thoreau, I could borrow an axe from a neighbor, hew my own timbers and allow function to follow the form of a sojourn. My boyhood experiments in log cabin building are a clear precedent, perhaps a universal symbol of the settler we all once aimed to be. Who didn’t want to notch logs like Daniel Boone? In adulthood it is more aligned to plumbing stillness: arising and going to Yeats’ Innisfree, ‘a small cabin [to] build there, of clay and wattles made.’

Thoreau used the axe to cut down some ‘tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.’ He mused, ‘There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands. . . the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?” (Walden, p.40, 46. Princeton University Press, 1973)

I am inspired by a photograph above my desk: E.B.White sitting before a bare wooden table, fingers poised above the keys of his typewriter, around him the dark, knotty walls of a wooden shed, its window opening onto Allen Cove in Blue Hill Bay. Clearly, the poetic faculty was with him.

My friend Ben has given me the means to get started. A newly hewn timber-peg framed cabin stands on his farm awaiting my arrival with a truck to haul it away. It is a ‘green’ cabin, the hemlock logs harvested from his land, dragged from the woods by a horse, sawn in the pasture. It was built as a training exercise for novice timber-framers, built by a small corps of crafts people learning the ancient skills of house building without nails, making mortise and tenon joints with hand saw, mallet and chisel, as close to the borrowed axe as this Thoreauvian will get. And it is unfinished: a frame only, no walls or roof.

I can call it my cabin, though it has been standing in a field for more than a year waiting for me to claim it and give it a location where it can fulfill its destiny. The six inch beams are weathering gradually as it awaits trucking six hours to the north and sitting in my neck of the woods. I have visited it a couple of times in the last year and taken photos against changing seasonal backdrops. But it looks a bit forlorn, a cabin in want of a setting. While it looks handsome in the pasture, it belongs somewhere else—and this is an advantage.

Having chosen it to be my cabin, I must also choose a site to be my site. .. our site. Therefore, I am a matchmaker uniting, perhaps, a piece of forest, a meadow, a blueberry barren—a piece of landscape that is in need of this cabin. A piece of landscape that looks forlorn without such a beautiful structure to frame it, to inhabit it, to be inhabited on it. A piece of landscape that needs to be the view from my cabin window.

And there are some characteristics to my cabin that remain to be chosen. Its measurements are set: twelve feet by sixteen feet with a roof pitched at 45 degrees. Given such a primitive structure and ‘green’ origin, should the cabin’s enclosing skin be conventional, mere plywood, Tyvek moisture barrier, tar paper and asphalt shingles? Perhaps more sawn boards, ‘feather-edged, lapped’, plaster and horsehair, should complete the job? Perhaps, like Thoreau building his dwelling at Walden, I should find a shack to dismantle and recycle, give a new life to some old boards. There is many a barn around these parts begging for a new avatar and a writer’s cabin would suit them fine. I like the thought of building anew with antique wood that tells a story, particularly barn boards with the nibblings of ancient horses or vestigial swallows nests. I might even accomplish some Thoreauvian economics by doing so. I think I could produce some wattles, though the local building suppliers eschew them.

And it awaits doorways, windows, points of view and orientation which will harmonize with its site and with the location of my bare wooden table, at which I’ll sit with my fingers poised above the keys of my typewriter, around me the dark, knotty walls of my wooden cabin, a window opening onto a wood, a ‘bee-loud glade,’ stream, or bay. Or perhaps just a nice Maple tree. May the birds then universally sing and the poetic faculty be with me. Until then, a photo of this impending house will remained pinned above my desk, juxtaposed with Mr. White in his cabin, urging me on: toward finding woodland lot, toward taking a long drive in the truck to fetch the cabin I have in mind.

First published in The Christian Science Monitor.

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