The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau
September 10, 2015 5:51 AM   Subscribe

When you’re alone in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness, the simplest question becomes the most complicated: How do you fill a day?
posted by paleyellowwithorange (47 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, there is a big difference between a "retreat," which is what she's doing here, and "living in the wilderness."

Basically, she's, like in Walden, just over the rise from a normal house. If she was truly "in the wilderness" she would spend her day chopping wood so she could cook, prepping food to cook, gathering food to cook or hunting. Otherwise, preparing her cabin for the privations of winter. (Like, gathering food for winter is basically a full time job.) The only "big task" she's got in her retreat (which I've done, so I get it) is to walk the seven miles to the grocery store.

I've done this myself, and yes, days do become a routine of reading and writing and hiking and thinking. That's all you've got to do, because you're living in an artificial retreat world where there's no necessity to work in all the ways required when one is truly living. This can be great for a little while, but humans need "work" to live well. Note that I don't mean "a job." I mean, we need the tasks of living, as noted above.
posted by RedEmma at 6:15 AM on September 10, 2015 [61 favorites]


Oh, this would be my own little slice of heaven.

So long as I have coffee.

And books.

And a sketchpad. And my DVD collection. And my telescope. And my star atlas. Oh, maybe a microscope too, because there's lots of neat little nanocritters out there. And wifi. And I might get lonely, so I'd want my wife with me. And she'd get lonely, so our kids would have to come, too. And so we would also need the dogs, and games, and swimsuits, and cookies, and LEGOs, and ... wait, what the hell just happened?
posted by math at 6:26 AM on September 10, 2015 [33 favorites]


Why would you set three alarms if you're trying to live deliberately?
posted by lyssabee at 6:27 AM on September 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Alone in the Wilderness" via PBS: Dick Proenneke retired at age 50 in 1967 and decided to build his own cabin on the shore of Twin Lakes in Alaska. [links to my blog]
posted by neuron at 6:48 AM on September 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


Being bored and lonely when living without structure or social contact seems profoundly unsurprising, but I guess people need to learn it for themselves first hand.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:51 AM on September 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


There's something enthralling and alluring about getting away from the complications of other people and just being able to do your own damn thing without having deal with other people in the process and that's helpful if you've got some existential crisis to sort out in your head, but I think having a goal of "sort that shit and bring something useful back to the world" is dropping breadcrumbs for finding you way out of the inevitable internal darkness that arises in isolation like this.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:00 AM on September 10, 2015 [3 favorites]




I always dreamed I'd love to be alone somewhere remote, until I drove cross-country by myself and discovered I had a heretofore hidden case of agoraphobia. Now when I want to be alone, I like to do it surrounded by lots of other people.
posted by xingcat at 7:03 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


RedEmma hits it, saying what I more or less came into say.
posted by k5.user at 7:05 AM on September 10, 2015




Thoreau wasn't really that isolated at Walden Pond - he had people over all the time, he visited town almost daily and he definitely visited his family almost daily. The book is surprisingly social.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:12 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of Stress fantasy/stress reality
posted by bleep at 7:21 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thoreau wasn't really that isolated at Walden Pond - he had people over all the time, he visited town almost daily and he definitely visited his family almost daily. The book is surprisingly social.

Exactly this. I get so tired of hearing people talk about Thoreau as if he were a contestant on some kind of survival reality tv show, and how he "cheated" by walking into town and such. Solitude and living simply does not require total isolation.
posted by JanetLand at 7:22 AM on September 10, 2015 [12 favorites]


For years it seemed like I couldn't read anything non-scholarly mentioning Thoreau where the author wasn't using his lack of isolation as some kind of gotcha. He wasn't some kind of radical survivalist 19th-century Bear Grylls; he was a guy who wrote a lot about the woods and solitude. So this is a nice change of pace.

(haha, on preview, jinx)
posted by thetortoise at 7:24 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


With no steady job and little income, Thoreau’s plans seemed to be going nowhere until Ralph Waldo Emerson purchased fourteen acres on the shore of Walden Pond in the summer of 1844. Within a year he had invited Thoreau to live there, build a house and write, rent free. All Thoreau had to do was clear some land for Emerson and replant trees. Other than that, Thoreau was free to, as his friend Ellery Channing put it, “devour” himself alive.

Thoreau’s First Year at Walden in Fact & Fiction may be an interesting read.
posted by anastasiav at 7:33 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


This reminded me of the concluding line from Joshua Ellis' Grim Meathook Future essay:
So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.
posted by mhoye at 7:46 AM on September 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Kindle and a solar panel! Or a Kobo or Sony or Nook. Actually I'd probably load up three, two kept in well padded waterproof boxes.
posted by sammyo at 7:47 AM on September 10, 2015


I'm close: major life changes (lost job, lost housing, almost died from major medical, wiped financially). I have lived in a small van for two years, mostly in forest campgrounds in the west.

I do have access to stores once a week or so, and there's a phone line nearby and I have a propane heater. So it's not the same as a remote snowed-in wilderness area.

People often ask the "how do you fill the day" question. The answer is that I am curious about many things, read a lot, and have a comfortable and extensive mental life.
posted by CrowGoat at 7:50 AM on September 10, 2015 [29 favorites]


If the author was chasing solitude the cell phone was a really big mistake. You're never going to experience isolation when you can reach or be reached by billions of people at any second.

Periodic visits with other people is one thing, but a cell phone keeps you tethered 24/7.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:52 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


The whining was so insufferable that i couldn't make it to the end. Coincidentally I am currently reading Desolation Angels, which never shies away from the tedium of being away from the distraction of (relatively) modern life. Kerouac, however, befriends his demons, and finds the poetry in the mundane.
I guess it's the difference between being an artist and going to the wilderness and going to the wilderness in hopes of becoming one.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:58 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Periodic visits with other people is one thing, but a cell phone keeps you tethered 24/7.

Life hack: off buttons.
posted by mhoye at 7:59 AM on September 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Being bored in the wilderness is why humans invented music and dance and painting and theater and ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:03 AM on September 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


I often dream of spending my golden years in a not super remote but damn near close seaside cottage on the coast of England. I can tell you that I would spend a lot of time reading, walking on the shore, drinking tea, and just generally being appreciative that I have been lucky to have lived so long and been loved. Sure, I would have mod cons, but it's the proximity to nature that appeals to me.
posted by Kitteh at 8:09 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well I enjoyed this read. Perhaps it is because I (currently) relate to the question of how to fill time when one isn't employed. In particular, I thought this bit was a lovely piece of insight:

I could much sooner tell you the way I’d like to spend a life than the way I’d like to spend an hour. Lives are fun to play with: I’ll be a writer! An astronaut! A world traveler! It’s harder to make yourself into a noun in the span of a day. Days are about verbs. In the cabin, there were too many options, and none of them very exciting.
posted by Halo in reverse at 8:11 AM on September 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well, there is a big difference between a "retreat," which is what she's doing here, and "living in the wilderness."

This - and, if living alone or in small numbers on a subsistence basis in Alaska, you fill the day by working to survive. Two good accounts of non-native Alaskans doing this are John Haines' The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness and James Campbell's The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness.

So I rented a small cabin on a hill, where I was planning to live some version of the American dream, following a template laid out by Thoreau. He’d gone to the woods, as he put it, 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.”

Walden is a mixture of polemic and parody (in the latter case, of the self-help and economic literature and thinking of Thoreau's day), and it's unwise to take everything that Thoreau says in it as literal, linear, biographical truth. Thoreau went to Walden primarily to work on the manuscript of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and because Emerson's need for someone to replant the cut-over woodlot he had just bought gave him an opportunity to do this away from his very crowded family house. While there, he regularly went into Concord and home, lectured, visited with friends, maintained his extensive correspondence, took a trip to Maine, worked as a surveyor, and helped out in his father's pencil-making business. Thoreau required a lot of time for detailed observation of nature and the quote above is meant to be taken seriously, but he did not mean to accomplish this by retreating from the world. Her saying that he "chased reality in [a cabin]" is a fundamental misreading.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:14 AM on September 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Misinterpreting Walden is nothing new, though, right? I remember discussing the book in high school and how it had somehow gotten tied to the libertarian bootstrap ethos, neglecting the reality of Thoreau's situation. Walden Pond is only a couple miles from downtown Concord, he certainly wasn't playing out the role of Pioneer Man.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:20 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Something I also wish people would keep in mind when they want to live more like Thoreau is that the man was political as hell. If you like the birds and the beans but you're not angry at injustice and making whatever waves you can in your corner of the world, you're not Thoreau-ing right.
posted by thetortoise at 8:35 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you read Walden carefully, it's obvious that Thoreau not only had lots of visitors, but he basically barely left the couch. He had a big-screen tv and everything. The nature observations are all cribbed from BBC documentaries
posted by oulipian at 8:35 AM on September 10, 2015 [17 favorites]


I was also baffled by the alarm clocks. I mean, I live in Brooklyn, and yet I've finally managed set my life up where I almost never use an alarm clock. (My physical therapist asked how often I used an alarm in a week, and when I said, "Zero" she said, "Really? That's excellent! I don't think anyone ever said that before.")

I'd never move out to a cabin in Alaska - I suspect the underground music scene there is sparse -but if I did, the first thing I'd do is toss my alarm.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:37 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I remember discussing the book in high school and how it had somehow gotten tied to the libertarian bootstrap ethos, neglecting the reality of Thoreau's situation.

Thoreau is so quintessentially New England, and I think people often mistake that for a different kind of conservatism. The whole point isn't bootstraps. In fact, it assumes that you're not starting from nothing. You're starting from something and trying to pare down and live simply and strip away the non-essential fripperies and actually focus on the meaningful stuff. Which has value. But it's not the same thing as "I built this with my own two hands with no help from anybody". My very Yankee grandparents had a summer house for most of their lives. They could have afforded to give it central air. They didn't, because the cottage was not about showing off all that they'd accumulated through their hard work over the years.

I think in a lot of ways, "retreat" is a lot more important to how you function in modern civilizaton than "survivalism". Proving you can survive without anybody's help is pointless if you're planning on going back to society. You have to learn to live with all the stuff that comes with society, not without it. Part of that sometimes involves deliberately choosing not to have all the junk you could possibly have, but it doesn't mean you have to hunt everything you eat just to make a point.
posted by Sequence at 8:40 AM on September 10, 2015 [13 favorites]


Yes, the very first thing you win by having this opportunity is the right to not use an alarm clock. They disrupt your sleep hygiene and the natural cortisol process intended for self waking.

I quit my job two months ago and gradually acclimated to waking up earlier than I did over the past several years. I also got a little obsessed with daily living. Staying busy just living and taking care of my family.

I always wake up within 30 minutes of my "goal time." How? Always go to sleep at about the same time. If you wake up super early to pee but it's within an hour of your ideal waking time, stay awake. Tomorrow you will wake up to pee almost exactly at the right time. Oh yeah. Drink a pint or so before you fall asleep. Of water.
posted by aydeejones at 8:42 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Something I learned is that when you wake up to pee, so long as it's not middle of the night explosive pee, that's your body's way of saying "we just finished a REM cycle. Wanna pee?" If you wake up in the middle of the night don't fret. Just relax and read a little and take it easy. Some of this is biological privilege in that my body is working pretty well lately (juicing! activity!) but freedom from alarm clocks and cell phones are a huge deal.
posted by aydeejones at 8:44 AM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think in a lot of ways, "retreat" is a lot more important to how you function in modern civilizaton than "survivalism". Proving you can survive without anybody's help is pointless if you're planning on going back to society. You have to learn to live with all the stuff that comes with society, not without it.

That is beautifully put.
posted by thetortoise at 8:48 AM on September 10, 2015


the right to not use an alarm clock. They disrupt your sleep hygiene and the natural cortisol process intended for self waking.

As do my hungry cats.
posted by JanetLand at 9:10 AM on September 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


My cats are probably hungry in the morning, but mostly I think they just wake me up out of boredom.
posted by wotsac at 9:43 AM on September 10, 2015


Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with a rainy Sunday afternoon. --Susan Ernst
posted by kinnakeet at 10:12 AM on September 10, 2015 [22 favorites]


I didn't find the article annoying, though I get what people are annoyed about. To me, it is interesting that even a young person who is drawn to hiking and outdoors holidays can not preoccupy herself for a few months in a cabin.

I was surprised by the owl-story too. With her history of hiking, how could she not know how birds react when they feel threatened? I learnt that at 14 or something.

And then something related but different: I can't imagine how she was not more involved in the local community? When I was her age, that was always what drove me back to the city: if you are a single woman in a small community, there will be tons of unexpected visitors and invitations and activities. Now, at 52, I'm OK with them, because I can handle them. When I was younger, social life stressed me out, not boredom.
posted by mumimor at 11:37 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


When you’re alone in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness...

Go outside and you're never alone.

Much of the time, that’s all there is: some movement, and some light, and we call it a day.

Welcome to life.
posted by Twang at 12:00 PM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Good grief, the writer essentially just wasted her time and wrote a too-long article about it. She's not the one who should be going on retreats. No way! The retreat worth reading about is this one.
posted by storybored at 12:46 PM on September 10, 2015


I was looking for some mandate to be exuberantly and unequivocally alive.

Some people court suffering in the hopes that their struggle will bring them closer to a fundamental aspect of reality.

This, I feel, is the crux of the author's problem - and that of many of us who decide we need to go "somewhere else" to "find ourselves". Our problems will follow us to the ends of the earth, and nothing will ever match up to the idealized narrative we construct in our heads. We flee the surreality of fluorescent desk jobs with romanticized ideals, and then flee the woods again when reality doesn't meet our expectations. We never stop to question that narrative, those expectations, that busybody voice in our head telling us to never be satisfied with what we have. To look to the future hungry for more, or to look to the past with regret and longing. Anywhere but here.

Towards the end of the piece, I feel the author gets it - she stops trying to create a narrative about the world and instead just simply allows it to exist in its own perfection. The mandate to be alive is that you are still breathing, you don't need blood and misery to receive it. Just get out of your own way, out of your own head, stop clouding up your vision with bullshit about deeper meaning and experience life directly for what it is.

Voluntary simplicity can help us stop the jabber in our heads because we aren't being constantly inundated with endless noise, but it does no good if you fill up that silence with noise of your own.

As for boredom - go outside, learn to entertain yourself, take small steps towards a skill, learn to draw or play an instrument or a new language. Of course you will end up bored if all you do is swat bugs all day, regardless of where you go.
posted by Feyala at 1:38 PM on September 10, 2015 [15 favorites]


Feyala, I would like to favourite your comment a bajillion times.

It's a more gorgeous version of "wherever you go, there you are."

I am someone who longs to be elsewhere constantly but I realize that to do such a thing means I still bring my baggage with me, and until I deal with it, then I will always feel elsewhere is better than where I am right now.
posted by Kitteh at 1:46 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Something else I was confused about: even as her wildlife sightings play a large role in her narrative, they are actually surprisingly limited. Sarah Palin probably sees more wild animals from the kitchen window in her suburban mansion than this woman has observed from her cabin. (And I am not a fan of Sarah Palin).
posted by mumimor at 1:48 PM on September 10, 2015


For a more tropical version, I would suggest Tom Neale's An Island to Oneself.
posted by clockwork at 6:03 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes, the very first thing you win by having this opportunity is the right to not use an alarm clock. They disrupt your sleep hygiene and the natural cortisol process intended for self waking.

I have deduced that you have no kids.
posted by mhoye at 6:18 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


For years it seemed like I couldn't read anything non-scholarly mentioning Thoreau where the author wasn't using his lack of isolation as some kind of gotcha.

You can thank Christopher McCandless for that. Tearing down the popular romantic image of Thoreau's "solitude" was very topical for a while.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:19 AM on September 11, 2015


I found this piece enjoyable, and yet I can also see why some may have been put off. Feyala, you hit it when you say, "Towards the end of the piece, I feel the author gets it - she stops trying to create a narrative about the world and instead just simply allows it to exist in its own perfection."

That is the answer the author was seeking, although she seems to have not known even what the real question was when she started out. Isn't that the point though? She went into the wilds of the world, into a place of solitude, to find that thing that was missing. She had to slog through the summer of muggy heat and bugs and boredom, but as the crisp fall was coming on, the bugs blew away and the heat let go its hold, and, there, for a moment, "the world alive with so much dance."

Can that clarity be found without the struggle? I would argue yes, for some, and for others, even such an adventure wouldn't be enough. Sometimes our preconceptions keep up a wall to the joy and wonder in the simple world around us. But sometimes, we make it past our whiney selves and get to the heart.
posted by HycoSpeed at 6:55 AM on September 11, 2015


That is the answer the author was seeking, although she seems to have not known even what the real question was when she started out.

Does the author understand what she found? We all experience these world-stopping moments in our lives, whether it's in the form of a beautiful and serene location in nature or the slow motion time dilation of an impending car accident. The problem many of us have is that we confuse the map for the territory - because we use nature (or suffering or whatever) to get to that place, we get caught up in thinking that this is critical to the experience, that it's something external that happens to us instead of something we create by shifting our perceptions. This kind of clingy yearning does nothing but muddy up the waters - we'll go back to the location and wonder why it didn't "work" when we can't achieve that same sense of clarity and peace, or we'll disregard our here-and-now thinking about places we'd rather be, and the chase begins anew.

Mindfulness, being really present in the here and now, is not a treasure you can go seeking and then hang it up on your wall as a trophy when you've found it once. Experiences like this are slippery like fish, wiggly and hard to grasp, and require persistence to seek out and cultivate. You have to know what you're looking for to recognize when you find it IMO, or to understand how to get back there again.

I am not certain that the author understands that her beautiful moment is always there, simply waiting for her mind to quiet long enough to show itself. This doesn't invalidate the experience or anything though, and I did enjoy reading about her journey.
posted by Feyala at 2:51 PM on September 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


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