Jan. 31 2020

On Cabins

One of the things I’ve learned to appreciate in life is cabins. This was a gradual process. When I was a kid and coming up through Girl Guides in Nova Scotia’s damp wilderness, cabins evoked cold night trips with icy bums on smelly outhouse seats, freezing in a damp sleeping bag, and having to eat semi-cooked food off an apologetic campfire. Over time, with much coaxing from my husband, who is a Labradorian and therefore a great evangelist of the cabin ways, I learned to appreciate the smell of wood smoke, the satisfaction of getting away from everyone, rolling a joint under the night sky, and even how to build a half-decent fire.

Eventually, I realized a cabin is not so much as a lesser version of a house, as it is a philosophical retreat from the world, like Thoreau’s Walden Pond, or Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home. One that’s a healthy part of the cycle of the creative mind—of escape, reflection, and return. The cabin is a sacred space that allows us to process the world and through the act of ‘going to the cabin,’ find ourselves better for it.

A cabin is a world apart. Created away from the doldrums and demands of daily life, it’s a place where things can always be simple. A place that’s always ready for retreat and accepts you with open, nonjudgmental arms. A place that’s free of invasion from obligations, where your only responsibility is to keep warm, chop wood, cook food, and engage in a game of cards every once in a while.

In many cultures, going to the cabin is crucial for forming friendships. As I mentioned, my husband is from Labrador, Canada’s Eastern Subarctic. In Labrador, ‘going to the cabin’ plays a special role in well-being and community bonds. Many a friendship has been forged in the dead of winter while pulling a two-four of beer into the darkness of a snowy path towards the light of a cabin window.

It’s a place where you can be stupid and foolish and epic and sage all at once. Much like Las Vegas, what happens at the cabin, stays at the cabin. It’s not the normal world, it’s a place where you can explore the limits of your inhibitions and then curate your stories for the viewers and family back home.

The idea of going to the cabin evokes themes of meditation, spiritual awakening away from the burdens of mundane life, closeness to nature, transcendentalism, distance from material culture, self-reliance, and simplicity. It’s a respite from the rat race. A wholehearted embrace of the idea that all one needs for true happiness is a hearth, a roof, time for reflection, and a hot meal. It’s a panacea for the overwhelmed brain. It’s no wonder that one of the seminal pieces of cabin writing, Thoreau’s ‘Walden,’ came at the advent of the industrial revolution, when the world was rapidly changing.

You may know Thoreau’s work, or have seen it reappear over and over in pop culture: ”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.” That’s from Walden.

In today’s overwhelmed, overconnected, overstimulated world, we too have a need for cabins as a cure for modernity.

Although it’s easy to dismiss Thoreau as a privileged proto hipster (and hey, I’m not saying he wasn’t), his actions speak to the very human and seemingly paradoxical need for our temporary disconnection from life in order to make the most of it. That idea has echoes in today’s tiny house, slow living, and minimalist movements. It’s a cry from our souls to slow down. That things are moving too fast. That things are getting bigger, but not necessarily better.

This is not to say that society should be abandoned and that we should all flee to our cabins in the woods and become hermits. In fact, it’s important to remember that cabins only maintain the power and magic they have because they stand apart from the outside world. Most of us don’t really want to escape the world forever. We just need to get away for a bit. We don’t really want to go full Little House on the Prairie. We just want to use the power of the cabin for reflection; to catch our breath and regain our senses so that we may more fully rejoin, affect, and participate in society.

After all, Thoreau didn’t continue to live at Walden forever. Eventually, he came out of the woods. So did Dolly Parton. So did Margaret Atwood.

Dolly Parton’s ‘Tennessee mountain home’ is recreated in the Dollywood theme park for guests to stroll through as a museum piece. Although the original (rebuilt) mountain home still exists up in the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s not where she lives now. Margaret Atwood’s family cabin in the northern Quebec Canadian wilderness was a place where summers were spent, not forever. It’s a place that gave her perspective and impacted many of the themes seen later in her work: survivalism, the wonder and brutality of nature, conservationism.

It was Atwood’s connections to the city and to society and culture that allowed her books to be known. After all, greatness that stays in the woods, never read, never heard, isn’t really useful to anyone. Walden was published only after Thoreau brought it out of the woods, and Dolly needed to head to Nashville to share her music and stories about growing up poor with the world.

In the 1989 Studio Ghibli film, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service,’ when young witch Kiki is overwhelmed with her new delivery business, losing her magic powers, and questioning her identity, she takes off to a log cabin in the woods belonging to her painter friend Ursula in order to step back, reconnect, and find inspiration. After realizing what she really needed was some time off and to stop trying so hard, she returns to the city but in a completely different mode. Instead of worrying so much, she helps her elderly neighbour bake pies, tidy up around the house, and then at the climax of the film, is able to finally reconnect with her magic. But she couldn’t have done it without her time in the woods.

For artists and those of us seeking the spiritual awakening so associated with time in the wilderness, the cabin is only useful if it remains a space through which we pass. Eventually, we need to come back. We need to participate in society if our time away from it is going to have any significance. The cabin fills us up, but we create meaning by leaving the cabin.

This also explains why the idea of ‘the cabin’ is intertwined with nostalgia. It’s a space of purity that we yearn for while in the city. It’s seen through the rose-tinted glasses of the meanings and revelations we ascribe to our time there.

Ultimately, the temporary space and nostalgia of the cabin in turn stirs up the desire to return to the cabin. It’s a creative cycle.

There should always be a little bit of fear involved in going to a cabin. Getting away from society involves an element of risk. To get to Margaret Atwood’s family cabin, you had to paddle a canoe. Just the idea of this restrictive and isolating wilderness, of not being able to drive somewhere immediately, puts our 21st century minds into flight mode. Even before the Grimm Brothers put slathering wolves into our heads, the woods has always meant danger.

“What if you need to call an ambulance? What if the canoe floats away? What if it’s like that scene from Deliverance? What if…?” These mental cogitations running disaster scenarios is something our minds have adapted to creating after years and years of evolution. From the early days of looking at a hot stove and saying, ‘I wonder what happens when I touch that?’ This ability to project ourselves into multiple futures has done us more good than harm over the years. Not just in terms of risk assessment, but also in terms of imagination. This same instinct has also caused humans a troubling amount of anxiety. Throw in today’s world with its endless variables and you have a recipe for brains constantly in overdrive, overstimulated—with no mental coolant, it’s no surprise so many of us burn out.

Although there are exceptions—some people, like my husband Rob, are romantically involved with just the idea of a cabin and will bound headfirst into any unknown woods if there’s a promise of four walls, a fireplace, and no indoor plumbing. But for a lot of us, going off grid can be scary. Not just for the anxiety that leaving society causes in terms of potential physical peril, but also because it requires a conscious uncoupling from our networks. It requires us to bow out of being available to others.

It’s a magnified feeling of that same queasiness you get when you accidentally leave your cell phone at home. That you’re outside your comfort zone, and more removed than you’d like to be from all your systems and conveniences and trap-strings you can pull in your everyday life. Much like certain spiders, we sit at the middle of a network of webbing we’ve pulled together over time—pull this string to get an ambulance to come, yank on this one to get food, pull on this neighbour if you need someone to watch the kid for a minute. And this web of relations is amazing. But it’s good to remind yourself that you can survive outside the net, too.

Although the idea of a cabin exists tucked away in the woods, down a path and through the brush, we can’t all own physical cabins. And although Rob dreams of building one someday, like many millennials we make do with woodsy Airbnb rentals and weekends at friends’ parents’ properties.

I’d like to suggest that those in need of a cabin but unable to get out of the city can, in the philosophical sense, create a cabin anywhere. By opting out, by making yourself unavailable to the outside world and temporarily rejecting society to focus on our internal dialogues. We can recreate the atmosphere and intention of a cabin in our minds by ascribing all the sacred qualities of the cabin to a space in our daily lives and drawing a circle around it—don’t fuck with me here. This place is my cabin.

Your mental cabin can serve as a place of refuge, where you can be guilt-free and removed from society. Where you can forget your obligations, if only for a while. For you, that place might be a window nook stuffed with pillows and old novels. It’s your woodshed out back. It’s a bench set off in a secluded part of the lake path near your house where you go to walk and meditate. These impromptu cabins can serve as havens that keep us refuelled and stocked up on sanity in small doses. Places where we can escape if even just for a few hours before plugging back into the world.

Despite the uneasiness we have making time for ourselves and extricating from daily life, learning to let go and remove yourself gives us the physical and mental space to process things so that we can be all the more engaged when we return to the world. Whether that means taking time to read, meditate, turn off all our social media notifications, or just go chop wood. I think we could all stand to go to the cabin a bit more, whether into the wilderness or in our heads.

Where’s your cabin?

Further reading:

  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 1854
  • “The Small Cabin,” by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems 1965-1975
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service. Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli, 1989.
  • Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee. “Episode 3: Tennessee Mountain Trance.” Dolly Parton’s America. WNYC Studios. October 29, 2019.
  • Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee. “Episode 4: Neon Moss.” Dolly Parton’s America. WNYC Studios. November 5, 2019.

Love this long form piece. Timely, well-researched and reflective. Fabulous!

Thank you so much, Allison! It’s a lot different than what I’ve published here before so your comment is really encouraging! I hope to publish more like this mixed in with my more ‘usual’ tea and narrative travel content.

%d bloggers like this: