An invitation to visit Diane Freedman's advanced undergraduate course titled "Cabin in the Woods," online at the University of New Hampshire, sent me searching for my writings about place. I'm to share some writing and some personal reflections centered on "the reality/idea of a cabin" and discuss what influence it might have had on my writing and thinking. Students will read Walden and investigate other works that offer variations on Thoreau's example or openly acknowledge his influence. The course description mentions such writers as Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Bernd Heinrich, Henry Beston, John Haines, Sue Hubbell, Anne LaBastille, Tom Montgomery Fate, and E. B. White, most of whom mention Thoreau's presence in their writing. I've made pilgrimages (of a sort) to some of the places explored in their books—the sea has swept away the site of Beston's The Outermost House, Thoreau's demolished cabin exists only in reproduction, and White's shack on the Maine coast can barely be seen from a distance—and walking the land where they and such Thoreauvian writers as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth have walked has invigorated and inspired me. I've even been inside Leopold's shack.
Once, on sabbatical, I spent a week at Great Pond in Maine where E. B. White so often vacationed throughout his life, the inspiration for his great essay "Once More to the Lake." The following week, carrying a copy of White's essay about Walden, I stayed in Concord, strolling around Walden Pond, walking through the cemetery where Thoreau and Emerson are buried, steeping myself in the atmosphere of place. The essay my pilgrimage inspired, "The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky," retraces White's visit and records my own, both deeply aware of Thoreau's sojourn there. I reread it recently, realizing how much more writing in place I did in the wake of that research trip.
I'd already written about my time in a cabin in the woods a decade earlier. In the summer of 1993, I lived for two weeks on Scoville Point, the end of a narrow peninsula on the northeast side of Isle Royale National Park, where I hoped to get to know the island in the way the diarist Ruth Douglass experienced it in 1848-1849. It was my first time as an artist-in-residence at a national park. I hiked and canoed on my own for one week and then my wife and I hiked and canoed together the second week. I remember how silent we were driving away from Lake Superior at the end of the residency, not eager to return to the frantic world where we usually lived.
That first park residency prompted me to apply for others. During one summer in Colorado, in the midst of researching and writing about Isabella Bird's time there in 1873, I lived for two weeks in a very comfortable cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park, once owned in the early 20th century by the Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White. It gave me ready access to forest trails and mountain tops, with coyotes and mule deer and elks and cottontails and golden-mantled squirrels, magpies and hummingbirds and green-tailed towhees for occasional neighbors. In time I would climb 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak. It was exhilarating to think of myself as an inhabitant of that park, to wake each morning and see the mountains waiting for me across the flatlands below the cabin.
Two years later, no doubt inspired by reading both White and Thoreau, my final residency took me to Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine, encompassing Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Point on the mainland, and Isle au Haut, the furthest island offshore. Over days of wandering coastal shorelines, climbing up rocky bluffs, summiting open-topped mountains, sometimes sitting on a cobblestone beach until rising tides reminded me to find higher ground, my immersion was continually rewarding. The park rangers let me stay for one night in a cabin on Isle au Haut and I envied them their opportunities to occupy it longer.
In my short virtual visit to that course, I may be asked to answer that question about what a cabin in the woods might represent for my writing life and mind. I'll need to revisit my earlier writing, find those envelopes filled with AiR photos, skim the daybooks and journals I kept, try to relive my nights in those cabins and my days wandering beyond them. I may also have to read Walden once more. Even though I've already dog-earred very many of his pages, I'm certain Thoreau will remind me again how much I still need to write about place.
Notes: "The Pattern of Life Indelible," "The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky," "Terra Cognita," and "Time and Tide" are in Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 27-44, 45-67, 149-177. They can also be found online:
"The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky: Thoreau and E. B. White at Walden Pond," The Concord Saunterer New Series. 12/13 (2004/2005): 370-387.
"The Pattern of Life Indelible," Ecotone: Reimagining Place 1:2 (Winter/Spring 2006): 152-167.
"Terra Cognita" and "Time and Tide." Acadia National Park Artist-in-Residence Online Catalog.
"Time and Tide," Ascent, 2010, http://www.readthebestwriting.com/time-and-tide-robert-root/