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Why people are afraid to stay at my house and how I followed Thoreau into the woods and came out with the opposite conclusion.
My friend Bart stands as big as a bear, trained as an engineer, retired from a life teaching and writing fiction. A few years ago he wanted to bring his twelve-year-old son and stay at my house when spring was just stirring the forest. I left him notes on where to spread the wood ashes, how to operate the gas-on-demand water heater, and where I composted kitchen wastes. I was glad to have a house sitter and left for a month's work in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of Guatemala. I particularly liked the idea of Bart and his son being in my house and forest; it was the next best thing to a father-and-son camping trip and a lot more isolated than a spot in a public campground. The house is heated with wood. The forest rubs the windows and roof with its branches. My nearest neighbor lives a half mile south. In every other direction stretch several thousand acres of uninhabited forest. Bart and his son were gone when I returned home a month later. So had the hatchet I use for splitting kindling and small pieces of firewood. After a couple of days, satisfied I hadn't mislaid it, I called Bart.
Yes, he knew where it was. It was in the sleeping loft. The loft is warmer than the unheated bedroom, so I understood why they might have slept there despite the dangerous steep and narrow stairs and the low ceiling beneath which Bart would have had to dress and undress stooped over. But nothing in the loft where a normal adult must walk stooped requires a hatchet. Bart said, "I couldn't figure out how to lock the door, so we slept in the loft and took the hatchet for protection."
I had made my foray out of the woods to spend most of the month with a young Mayan writer whose name had appeared on the death lists that circulated in those days. The lists were reasonably or perhaps unreasonably good substitutes for actuarial tables insurance companies use to figure the odds of death in more civilized places. We met in cafes and bars, sneaking from place to place as we worked on a translation of a harmless Mayan myth about the gods of lightning. That was a particularly dangerous time in Guatemala, but life there has been dangerous since at least 1,000 years ago, when a religious warrior priest called Quetzelcoatl descended from central Mexico and initiated endless wars, tyrannies, and human sacrifices among the Mayan tribes. In the panorama of history the Spanish conquistadors and the "death squads" are part of a larger drama of violence. I came back to the woods with a manuscript and a sense of having returned to the Peaceable Kingdom.
Few people who have come to house-sit for me feel the same way.
Of my five house sitters, four have left in fear. Each had come because he or she knew that staying here would be lovely. Of course, we don't always know what we know. Like Bart, some have feared intruders. One saw a copperhead. Another got bitten badly by chiggers, those almost unseeable bugs that crawl into your armpits and under your waistband and into your crotch and make big red lumps inside of which larvae develop and make you itch for a week. The fourth house sitter had retreated trembling to the quiet of the city after hearing too many noises—things banging on the roof (hickory nuts), crashing through the dark forest (deer), screaming like a violated woman at the creek (frogs), and calling out in the night like demons (owls and bobcats).
I have not laughed at any of them. Their mistake was believing they would be living in "the country," then finding themselves in a forest. The difference is that the country has lines and edges, defined spaces, a recognizable geometry. Le Corbusier, the architect, said that geometry is "protection against the arbitrary." Tracy Kidder, who quotes Le Corbusier in House, says, "You can say the same about the edge of a woods." At my house the forest comes up to the windows, rattles, scratches, and bangs on the roof. There is no protection here against the arbitrary.
We all get scared when the world does not act in familiar or controllable ways. Hansel and Gretl walked into a beautiful forest, but when night came the trees turned into a crowd of ghosts and ghouls. The woods most of us are familiar with are the woods of our imagination or of someone else's imagination. Look at Eliot Porter's pictures of cathedral groves of West Coast cedar and the woods are priceless treasures. Follow the blazes and signs on the Appalachian Trail and no day could be more peaceful and fulfilling. Get lost in the woods only once, however, and you understand that we take for granted the comforts of trail blazes.
An Audubon group came out to my forest to go birding one gray day when no sun shone to give directions. We had walked less than a mile from my house when the walkers began to ask, "Didn't we see that oak before? Isn't that the bent tree we passed earlier?" Whether or not President Reagan actually said, "Seen one tree, you've seen 'em all," sometimes it could almost be true. A thousand years ago, four hundred, or today—few people go alone into the wilderness. Almost no one lives there.
In any big bookstore you can buy several accounts of people who have lived alone in a wild place, but they are accounts of short periods. Usually the writer has taken one or more dogs, or a cat—another domesticated being. The most famous account of life in the woods, Thoreau's Walden, describes a stay of only twenty-six months. No one lives happily ever after alone in a wild place.
To say that human beings are social animals explains only why people leave wild places. Like my friend Bart, people came to live in my house alone for the same reasons they have always gone to wild places alone—because of who they thought they were or wanted to be. These thoughts have differed in detail, but in some way each person believed he or she loved nature. By leaving civilization behind, they believed they could do what every Zen master demands—not just believe you are part of the universe, but become one with it. When we are one with everything, clapping with joy would answer that troubling Zen riddle, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Maybe some people hear it, but for most the attempt is cut short by the sound of hickory nuts crashing on the roof, the sudden stigmata of chigger bites, or the unblinking stare of a snake.
It doesn't matter what ends it. Maybe we can't stand finding out that we are not who we think we are, or maybe we understand that wilderness is a nice place to visit and a difficult place to live. We venture into a wild place alone because of who we think we are or can be. We leave because, one way or another, we have had enough. We leave because we have changed our minds. Each person is changed, whether by one night with Outward Bound, one year in the Maine woods, or two years and two months at Walden Pond.
Venturing into the wilderness alone has always tested independence and courage. At the beginning of civilization, the great Gilgamesh goes into the forest in fear and emerges in triumph when he kills the forest god Humbaba. Jesus is said to have gone into the desert for forty days to be tested by hunger and the Devil (often one and the same in their ability to warp the mind). Some American Indian tribes sent boys out on solo survival trips to prove their manhood. Inuit shamen went off on the tundra to prove themselves. The climax of today's Outward Bound training is a night or two alone in the wilderness. The people who have fled my house and my forest share the feeling of the ages and the masses about dark forests. In all times and all places, being alone in the wilderness has been a special condition. A deliberate and brief experience is a useful test; an involuntary experience is an ordeal. Living alone in the wilderness is the choice of fools, misfits, eccentrics, and the unfortunate. I have been all of these.
When I began making notes about what I have learned in the forest, a friend said, "I'm sure you have had a lot of thrilling adventures and survived real dangers." I said I would think about that. Except for a few accidents I could have had in a New York City apartment or a Garden City backyard, I could not write about constant or even special perils. I have always felt safer here than in town. I was born in a city and have always been uneasy about life there. Before I could read, I had discovered that people are less predictable in their meanness than animals. Maybe the simple contrast with life in the city makes life in the forest look safe. My life seems normal, and maybe that's abnormal. I am reminded of what women in Alaska say about the abundance of men they are supposed to find there: "Alaska men: the odds are good, but the goods are odd."
For over twenty years I have not spent a frightened moment alone in these woods, but I have never lost the sense that I am also a visitor. Unlike the homeowner who lives in an ordered landscape, I control little here. The rights of ownership recorded in the local registry of deeds allow me to do what I will with this land—clear every tree, kill every creature, flood every valley. Or I can do what most people do—push back the forest until I surround myself with a comfortable geometry, a kingdom of my own. A house with a front yard and backyard or landscape of any design and size, however gently done, declares mastery and ownership. Yes, I master when necessary, and never having pledged my property as collateral for any mortgage, I own more surely than most. The landscape we master and the rights we grant ourselves are self-serving and happy reminders of how much security we have put between ourselves and nature. They help us forget that, despite all the favors of science and technology, the average person enjoys a visit of some seventy-five years. Maybe I have no fear of life here because I am daily reminded that every human being, past and present, has been no more than a visitor. Humankind, however it got here, is itself a visiting species, recently arrived and, some say, soon to leave.
I don't know where I will go when the visit is over, or where the rest of humankind has gone or will go. I came to the forest and made the least fuss possible in finding out who and what I am, where I came from, and maybe where I'm going. I have missed some comforts and happiness, but I have learned much. Yet I am not one of those people who hoists the banner of Thoreau's words, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." On behalf of the Wilderness Society, I did once lobby Congress for the Wilderness Act and for the power of wild places to refresh and preserve civilization. Our claims were greatly exaggerated. In the early 1970s, I believed our exaggerations. I had not yet gone to the woods to live alone. I am not emerging now, years later, to call in the bulldozers. I have lived in the woods ten times longer than Thoreau lived at Walden Pond. I am a slower writer than Thoreau, maybe a slower learner, but now I am coming out to give you my report. I tell you the story of how my life here has led to the opposite conclusion from Thoreau's, to the conclusion that the preservation of wildness is in civilization.
Excerpted from COMING OUT OF THE WOODS by Wallace Kaufman. Copyright © 2000 by Wallace Kaufman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|part 1 Songs of Innocence|
|2 Turning Point||8|
|3 Pieces of the Old South||15|
|5 American Dreamers||27|
|6 Walden Where Are You Now?||32|
|8 Whose Woods These Were||49|
|9 Busting the Budget||53|
|10 The Road to Everyone's Walden||58|
|11 Thoreau's Delinquent Children||67|
|part 2 Settling In|
|12 Orientation: Life||77|
|13 Orientation: The Land||86|
|15 The Owner-Built Home||106|
|16 Materials and Methods||115|
|17 Simple-Minded Simplicity||124|
|18 Survival and Luxury||132|
|21 The Bean Patch and the Corporate Farm||165|
|22 Territorial Disputes and Negotiations||176|
|23 Housing Discrimination||185|
|24 Fall from Grace||197|
|25 Squeaky Says I'm Dirty||207|
|26 The Pleasures of Getting Lost||212|
|27 Dead Neighbors Make Good Company||218|
|28 Success, Failure and Their Marks||231|
|29 How Much Land Does a Man Need?||237|
|part 3 Changes|
|34 The Complexity of the Simple Life||273|
|35 Cutting at Morgan Branch||281|
|36 Departure and Return||286|
|39 The Storm to End All Dreams||311|
|40 Revenge and Recovery||319|
|41 The Next Morgan Branch||327|
Posted January 4, 2008
As one who has dreamed of 'dropping out' of the rat race and living alone in nature, this realistic account of Kaufmans experiences has allowed me to live out this fantasy vicariously. I injoyed it immensely, and finished it wanting more.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2000
When the back-to-the-land movement burst in on rural Chatham County, North Carolina in the 1960s it shocked, scandalized, galvanized and irrevocably changed the world of red clay farms, tobacco lands, segregation, and `yellow dog Democrats.¿ I've written a dual report: what happened to those of us who tried to practice the 1960s and 1970s alternative culture values, and what I learned about living with nature after having my own Walden ten times longer than Thoreau lived by Walden Pond. I became ¿the mayor of Hippie Town,¿ built my own small home deep in the forest, almost blew myself up, broke my back, and began to read the land around me like a book. My daughter and I learned surprising lessons not only about nature but about people whose hopes, like my own, blossomed in those woods, then died. If Henry David Thoreau had marched to his different drummer in the woods of North Carolina instead of at Walden Pond 150 years ago , and if he had gone to live in the woods for 25 years instead of two, I like to think he might have written Coming Out of the Woods.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.