Fronting the Essentials: Building Thoreau's Cabin
Blog posted Friday, February 5, 2010 at 2:12 p.m. — 2297 hits
"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."
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
For many of us, life is not a simple thing. We obsess over what to have for dinner and what to wear to work, how to pay our bills, how we're going to get all of our work done, what to have for dinner, who friended who on Facebook, what happened on the latest episode of Lost, and so on, and so on. Life is stressful; many times the trivial things in life make it harder than it really needs to be. That being said, how far would any of us go to alleviate all of our issues and lead a simpler life? What are our essentials in life? It's a difficult question to answer. How about living alone in a cabin in the woods? ... I didn't think so. Enter Henry David Thoreau, philosopher, transcendentalist, scholar, naturalist, and author of one of the most popular books in 19th Century American literature, Walden. Aside from being one of the most dreaded books in high school English classes, Walden is a true testament to living life fully, honestly, and simply. Thoreau went into the woods of Concord, Massachusetts in 1845 to live alone, build a cabin, and take on a sort of "experiment in living," hoping that readers of his book would follow in his footsteps.
In order to fully understand the scope of his experiment, we first need to understand a bit about our boy Henry. For one thing, he sported an awesome neard (or neck-beard as I like to call it). He had a horrible disregard for others, paid no attention to manners at all, was intolerable to be around, had no apparent love life, was described as "strikingly ugly" by his friend (great friend!), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and yet, children absolutely adored him. Sounds like an interesting guy, right? He may not have been the most charismatic person, but he sure had a brilliant mind.
Throughout his stay at Walden Pond, Thoreau made many observations about the environment, life, and the society he strived to part himself from, commenting on the happenings of the natural world, how they relate to society, and how "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." In his attempt to wake the world up to how they should truly be living, Thoreau suggests living a simpler life, "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" he states. So, naturally, (no pun intended), in an effort to lead the sort of Thoreauvian lifestyle we all wish to lead, my Environmental Studies 400W senior seminar class under the direction of Dr. Ian Marshall is going to build a replica of Thoreau's cabin in the yet to be named forest along Juniata Gap Road across from our campus' main entrance . Along with our ambitious cabin building project, we will be surveying the landscape, learning the trees, and essentially trying to make an example of the life Thoreau so adamantly prescribed to the rest of the world. Throughout the coming weeks, we'll be pushing the collegiate textbooks aside, picking up a hammer, getting our hands dirty, and learning about life in a totally unconventional sort of way. By "fronting only the essential facts" of life (and college), we invite each one of you to follow us as we take part in something totally new. Even though Walden is considered the "environmentalists' bible," this book is not just for hippies! Pick it up and you'll be surprised what you'll learn.
Living off the grid
Blog posted Monday, February 22, 2010 at 9:13 p.m. - 3136 hits
Let's talk figures. How much does it cost to live in Altoona? Forgive me for prying about expenses, but trust me, I have a point to make. Room and board at Penn State Altoona will cost you upwards of $5,000 a year. The average rent for an apartment in Altoona will run more than $400 a month. Thinking about buying a house? That could cost you roughly $80,000 at the very least. Truthfully, considering spending all of that money really sucks, and some of us may have no other options. But…what if you could live for almost nothing? Sounds unbelievable, but it is possible.
For a few students out there, making a home out of almost nothing has become more than a necessity; it has become a demonstration in alternative living. From tipis, to tents, to sheds- or nothing, a few college students have shown that you do not need to spend the thousands of dollars on housing when it seems to be your only option. At Juniata College in Huntingdon (just down the road from us at Penn State Altoona), junior philosophy major Jake Weller is living in a geodesic dome tent. Upon asking the dean of students for permission to place his dome home on campus, he not only got permission, but was surprised to learn that he was being exempted from student housing fees. A senior at Appalachian State in North Carolina, Brett Butler, became fed up with living in a dorm, constructed his own tipi for a minimal amount of money, and lives in the woods about 20 minutes away from his college campus. In New York, a graduate student at Alfred University, Ann Holley, lives in a tiny house that cost only $25,000 to build. Sure, that sounds like a lot of money at first, but when you learn that the home is powered by solar panels, was made with reclaimed materials, has a composting toilet, a propane refrigerator, and essentially exists "off the grid," the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. On the extreme end of the spectrum, a very close friend of mine went to school last year and managed to get by while having to pay very little- in fact, he didn't pay anything at all. He lived in a tent in the woods and in friends' yards, was very frugal in finding food, and is still one of the happiest, well rounded people that I know.
Now, am I advocating that we all take our tents, break our leases, and go to live in the woods off campus? Absolutely not. It wouldn't happen, and if it did, it would be mass chaos. I guess the point I'm trying to make is simply that there is more than one way to live a life. We live in a society that makes it hard for us to do just that- live. We work tirelessly for money to buy our homes, some of which are much more than anything we would ever need and we spend hours making money to buy cars simply to get us back to work in the morning. It seems silly. Am I generalizing? Yes. Not everyone lives this way, but a mass majority of people do, and for some us, breaking a lifestyle we find troublesome can be quite difficult. Anyone who has read John Krakauer's Into the Wild knows the story of Chris McCandless, who states, "so many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future." If you don't like your situation, change it. It's possible. Sometimes we need discomfort to better ourselves.
This is one of the few things that building Thoreau's cabin is about. There is more than one way to live life, and we're learning this first hand. It's also much more than that. This project educational, it's historical, and it's a unique addition to our campus community. Along with it we're working on trails, an outdoor classroom, interpretive nature guides, a tree survey, and so on. It's a work in progress. In the end, if only ten people out of a thousand that visit our finished cabin decide to pick up Walden, or even ponder the ideas mentioned here, I say that it's a success.
A Little Green Space
Blog posted Friday, March 26, 2010 at 9:23 p.m. - 1875 hits
What is it like to live a life connected to nature? For some of us, it's easy. For others, the awareness of what's going on around us in the natural world is more difficult to achieve. No matter what the extent of this awareness is, we are all connected to nature. It's unavoidable. Everything we do in our daily lives affects it and all of its processes have an impact on us, no matter how environmentally conscious we are. So, that being said, why not take a step back, look around, and enjoy it? We all need green space in our lives, and those of you who have been following the progress of the Environmental Studies 400W senior seminar class this semester know very well that that is just what we're trying to do.
With those remarks, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is we cannot build our Thoreau replica cabin this semester. Due to a delay in obtaining the required permits, we cannot begin building anytime soon, but that is not to say that it won't happen! We have all of the equipment and the unconstructed cabin in storage, so as soon as we get the go ahead, we should be out there building by the fall semester. Those of you who expressed an interest in helping out, this is your chance! We'll need lots of volunteers, so if we all work together when this happens, the building process will go better than expected.
Now to the good news. As a campus community, we still have all of this land to work with! As far as I know, the university bought the Ritchey property across from the campus's Juniata Gap entrance last spring, and there are currently no plans for development in the near future. Because of this, the student body, faculty, and community members can use this forest for a variety of different purposes. We hope that this land will remain an experimental forest, a conservation tract, a wildlife refuge, a recreational area, and an environmental refuge. We're working on various proposals for hiking and mountain biking trails, an outdoor classroom, a teambuilding low ropes course, an interpretive trail, and various other activities. This forest is something that will make our campus a truly unique place, so we should all be looking forward to using it!
Despite being disappointed that we can't build our cabin this semester, we're still looking forward to the future. Since hearing the news, I often wonder how Thoreau would react to the situation. Part of me thinks he would have just said "to hell with formalities" and done what he wanted; while the other part of me thinks he would be glad with how the situation turned out since our focus has shifted from the cabin to the forest itself. Of course, it's ironic that Thoreau preaches "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity" and this process has been everything but that. When it all comes down to it, the truth is we have all of this green space, and it has the potential to be a fabulous resource to our campus community. As Mr. Thoreau puts it, "what is the use of a home if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" This "seminar forest," as our class has taken to calling it, is our home, and we can all work to make it better.
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