Colleen Warren is a professor of English at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, where she teaches writing and American literature. She is the author of Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh: An Incarnational Theory of Language, a book of literary criticism. She lives on seventeen acres of Indiana farmland bordered by woods, in which her Thoreauean cabin is set.Visit her blog at warrenpeaceofmymind@wordpress.
Midwest Mimicking: Thoreau in Indiana
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I wrote alone, in the woods, a mere three hundred steps from my home, in a cabin which, owing to my own ineptitude as a builder, I had contracted to be built, on the shore of Warren Pond, in Upland, Indiana, and earned my living as an English professor at the local university. I hope never to quit my occasional residence there. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life, with necessary retreats to the solitude and self-retrieval I find in my cabin.
Near the end of July 2005, the contractor I had hired from Wickes Lumber went down to the woods by Warren Pond, to the spot where I had chosen to have my cabin, and began to cut some long arrowy pine 2 x 4s–part of the tool shed kit I had purchased.
Because the site was 250 feet away from the nearest electrical source, he hauled over his own generator to power his truck bed assortment of necessary tools–circular saw, table saw, drill, nail gun, and boom box.
Thoreau, in raising his own cabin, had no such menagerie of shrieking tools, but borrowed an axe and felled the pines himself. He planed them on one or two sides only, leaving the bark intact on the other sides, framing his house with lumber that was as close to the living tree as possible. The solid ker-chunk of his axe resounded through the woods, rippled the surface of Walden, and divided the morning air like a cimeter. His task was real and true, his axe a solid fact, and with every stroke the sun glimmered on both its surfaces.
Watching my own cabin being raised, I could feel his axe’s sweet edge dividing me through the heart and marrow, so keen was the connection I felt between myself and Thoreau at that moment. The sound of his steady chopping, the sudden crack and rush of the trees as they fell thudding to the ground, nearly drowned out the metallic whine of the saws and the relentless beat of the heavy metal radio blaring from the boom box. They subsided to a background roar as my ears tuned to the rhythms of that sweeter sound: heft of ax striking wood pulp, blade chewing wedges into soft pine.
By the middle of the next day, for my contractor, unlike Thoreau, made haste in his work rather than making the most of it, my cabin was raw but completed, in the same condition Thoreau’s was in when he moved in–appropriately enough–on Independence Day, 1845. The frame of my cabin was covered with pre-painted plywood sheeting, the color of November maple leaves, brittle on the ground. The roof was lined with dark green shingles; the trees’ own green roof above my own swayed in correspondence. The windows, the door, the roof line and eaves were trimmed with unfinished pine boards. Like Thoreau’s, the inside walls were bare and drafty, exposed 2 x 4s jutting out from the side walls at odd intervals, the floor scuffed and pieced-together sections of particle board.
Still, as I stood inside that back-flung door as dusk began to creep in around me, I felt a current of excitement racing through my nerves, jump starting my heart in a rhythm running faster and clearer. This was a space for me, a space for my writing. When I open the door, words will rush to meet me. Words will wait for me here. They will fall like late leaves upon the pages of my open notebook, or I will fish for them with a line of other words already composed, waiting for that tug that comes before the right words surface.
Twenty-six items. Twenty-six items recited in a rather dull list, yet from the naming of the first item, the point he wants to make is clear. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Three words in a list. I wonder that he did not say it only once, for simplicity’s sake. How many could boast that they could live for two years, two months, and two days with only twenty-six items, not one of them superfluous, all of them unquestionably necessary: a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs. Cookware: six items. Dinnerware, nine more (one plate more than he had matching knife and fork, one odd spoon). Two jugs to hold oil and molasses. A japanned lamp. The one object which might arguably seem a luxury, a looking glass, is the only object Thoreau describes, as if by explaining that it is only three inches in diameter he accentuates its insignificance, disallows it as a sign of egotism. Not a single item could be considered for decor alone. Even the japanned lamp on starless nights was a necessity, not ornament, allowing his reading and writing to extend beyond the sun.
In my cabin, I, too, have my necessities: a wooden framed futon with a monstrously heavy mattress is most often used as a couch, where I sit with my legs stretched out before me, nestled in over-sized pillows stacked two deep, writing; only rarely does it serve as a bed, when my girls and I “camp” for a night. A small loft in the far gable provides a place to stretch out on an old mattress, to peer through the opposite gable’s small-paned window, to drift and stir in those high up branches. A small, wide-surfaced oak desk, stamped number 432 from some ancient inventory of the college where I teach, purchased at auction for $15, is central to the room. A sturdy, solid oak square, nearly as deep as it is wide, it is chipped and its varnish worn dull in places. My elbows can splay on its surface, and there is room for my books, my papers, and the clustering of candles and oil lamps that surround me. In the corner of the room is a narrow but deep black wood stove, with which I am only now establishing a working relationship. Thoreau “outfurnished” me in only one respect: he had three chairs: one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for company. I have only my one chair, but this place has known company–the girls clatter in, clamoring up the ladder to the loft. Their chatter is my substitute for the bluster of Thoreau’s squirrels, a kind of noisy racket of scattered sounds.
Yet, admittedly, most of what I have in my cabin would be, to Thoreau, superfluous. He, I am sure, would pity me my excess, or at least be wryly amused by it, as he seems to be when he describes the odd and paltry efforts of James Collins’ wife to adorn their decrepit shack: at curious odds with the dirt floor, the broken window, the tilting structure, are her new coffee mill nailed to the wall, the silk parasol leaning in the corner, the gilt-edged mirror. I think I can understand her impulses, identify more with her needs in this regard than I can with Thoreau’s, who wanted only to live “sturdily and spartan-like.” To him, his cabin was simple shelter; though he took pride in its construction, he never nurtured a sense of possession, ownership, or even home with regard to it.
With me it is different. My cabin is an extension of my self. It shelters the writing, thinking, creative part of me that cannot breathe so well in my other home three hundred steps away. I want to create a space where these aspects can thrive, and for me, spartan is not enough. So my space speaks my name, is itself an outlet for my creativity, is owned and shaped and filled.
Less than a month after the building was raised, my husband and I hauled out heavy pieces of sheetrock. With neither of us knowing quite what we were doing, he sawed them into sections and nailed them into erratically-spaced studs. I taped seams, spread mudding compound in careful swaths over the joints, waited impatient hours for the mud to dry, sanded it smooth, laid a second layer if it wasn’t quite right, filled in uneven edges where our inexperience was most obvious, sanded again. Day after day my hair filled with mudding dust, my arms silted over with it. It filled my lungs and I coughed it out. Yet I looked at my work through eyes that were circled in dust, and I saw that it was good.
In certain light, some seams still show; a brush of my fingers against a wall detects ripples, an occasional dip. Still, these walls are a reminder of my capacities. Even without knowledge, experience, or skill, I can, through sheer will, determination, and sense of adventure, teach myself. I can learn. Sometimes that is the way I approach my writing–I don’t know the next step, but I muddle through, I smooth passages, I erase and lay another foundation. And usually, it is good enough. Now painted a smooth, sunny yellow and framed with crisp, white molding, these walls are another sort of blank page: not intimidating but full of potential, waiting to be filled.
And so I do. One sign on my wall just says “Wonder.” It is what I do most often here; it fills my hours and my pages, it is awe and curiosity and mystery. Under it is a picture created by my oldest daughter–Thoreau’s cabin “drawn” with his own words. The skies are filled with “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads;” the grass is formed with “the green blades shoot up to eternity;” tree trunks name the woods that surrounded him. The foreground is shadowed by his manifesto:
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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise 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.
Another picture is a detail of Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam receiving life from God’s touch. Only the arms are stretched across the canvas: Adam’s arm is dun-colored, his fingers sketched in roughly. His hand dangles limply from the wrist. God’s arm, muscled and glowing with shadow and definition, stretches firmly to meet Adam’s inert form. His finger points. It almost, but does not, touch Adam’s drooping, lifeless finger. Always there is that space, that eternal gap, the Grecian urn moment that my writing tries to startle into motion. Can words flow from my listless fingers and touch the spark of God’s creative power? Can I be a part of that holy exchange?
Some part of me believes that I can. Vincent Van Gogh, though so often racked by self-doubt, still fought to keep the divine spark alive within him. Through persistence, work that plowed through discouragement, he continued to believe in himself, and so I must. “I feel such creative power in myself,” he wrote, “that I know for sure that the time will arrive when, so to speak, I shall regularly make something good every day. But very rarely a day passes that I do not make something, though it is not yet the real thing I want to make.”
It is a good plan: to determine to regularly just “make something,” though it may not yet be the “real thing.” So as a symbol of the spirit I want to capture, the words that I want to collect, I have, suspended from my white washed ceiling by swaying lines of ric rac, colored bottles. I hung them to imitate the South’s bottle trees that collect bad spirits, preserving the house. Mine, too, are filled with spirits, but holy ones; I see them stir in the breeze from my open windows and release their spirits into the air I breathe. Sometimes they brood over my words, as upon the face of the deep.