Building Thoreau's Cabin: An Experiment in Learning - Summer 2012 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Summer 2012

Building Thoreau's Cabin

An Experiment in Learning

Thoughts from the Professor — By Ian Marshall

When Henry Thoreau went to live by the side of Walden Pond in 1845, in a ten-by-fifteen foot cabin he built himself, he was very consciously embarking on what he called an "experiment" in living. When my Environmental Studies 297 class built a replica of Thoreau's cabin in the fall of 2011, we, too, were undertaking an experiment in learning. I imagine that, for both sets of builders, the result was something more than a solid wood structure. For Thoreau, the cabin became a symbol of simplicity, independence, and a life close to nature — key themes of his nature-writing masterpiece Walden. For our class, our Thoreau cabin became a symbol of teamwork, and pride in accomplishment became the basis for a deeper appreciation of a great writer. As for me, I think I learned a thing or two about teaching along the way as well.

The idea for our cabin-building enterprise began when Penn State Altoona purchased forty acres of steep, forested land across Juniata Gap Road from the main entrance to campus. As co-coordinator of the college's environmental studies program, I was delighted to hear that there were no plans for development there. Immediately, possibilities came to mind. The land could serve as an outdoor laboratory for student and faculty research on topics such as the effects of deer browsing. It could be a recreation area for students to go for a brisk (uphill!) walk between classes, or even a nature reserve where students and members of the local community could go to stretch their legs and get reacquainted with the natural world. An energetic senior seminar class in spring 2010 built trails on the property, conducted a tree survey, wrote a geological history and an ecological assessment, and proposed the development of a low ropes teambuilding course. In fall 2011, our special topics class built the cabin to serve as a gateway feature for the forest, a place where visitors could not only admire the tidy little cabin but also learn something about Thoreau and his guiding life principles—to live a simple, independent, intellectually-rich, and spiritually-centered life connected to the natural world.

The intellectual portion of our class looked like most other classes—we met in a classroom, we read books (Thoreau's Walden, of course, and Thomas Rain Crowe's Zoro's Field, a contemporary account of a Thoreau-inspired stay in a mountain cabin in the southern Appalachian mountains), and we discussed them. But from the start, the idea was that this course would exercise not just the mind but the whole body in the spirit of Thoreau's observation that students "should not play life, or study it merely . . . but earnestly live it from beginning to end." The college purchased a Thoreau cabin replica kit, with beams and boards pre-cut but not assembled, from the company New England Nests. The basic structure of the cabin was erected in four long work-filled days in late September. It was post-and-beam construction, with wooden pegs holding beams together. Mark Carlisle and Mike Fortin, who comprise both the workforce and the management team of New England Nests, provided expert guidance that first long weekend. We were then on our own for the next couple of months to do the cedar-shake shingling on the roof and walls and to sand and oil the interior.

We faced some challenges, to be sure. The weather was not very cooperative when we wanted to shingle, and many days of rain made the prospect of working outdoors somewhat less than attractive. One student faced some health issues; others found themselves overwhelmed with the time commitment required for the building process and struggled to keep up with other classes and extracurricular activities. But with leadership provided by several key students and sustained energy from all, we persevered and met our goal of completing the cabin by semester's end. I believe that we all came away from the experience with memories of cherished moments. For me, I recall several early mornings spent cutting and placing shingles with a student, sharing a heart-to-heart talk with him when his dad passed away.

At the outset, students in the class were asked to ponder the value of experiential learning. What could they learn in this class that they couldn't have learned in a typical class? What I hoped was that they would find themselves growing as whole persons rather than just accumulating facts, that they would feel pride in their hard work, and that they would learn some new skills. I also hoped that they would develop a deeper understanding about what Thoreau was writing: a treatise on living, on doing, on being physically, intellectually and spiritually alive, with one's senses, mind, and body all actively engaged and operating in high gear. As you will see from the following student narratives, that all came to pass, and more.

But what I did not expect was how much I learned from the experience. I learned, as I hoped the students did, something more about what Thoreau was getting at. Sentences that I'd glossed over on earlier readings became fraught with new meaning. For instance, after spending quite a few hours arranging shingles—which is like working out a giant jigsaw puzzle involving patient searches for a shake that is just the right size so as to avoid having the gaps between shingles line up from one row to the next—I had new appreciation for Thoreau's description of a conversation with a literary friend. He compared their sharp minds to knives engaged in whittling, and he spoke of shaping "shingles of thought." Ah yes, I could now see what an apt metaphor for thought that was—the patient search to find the right shingle and place it just so, gently overlapping with the next shingle that someone else, perhaps, had set in place just so.

I also saw the students in a new light. Those students who may have been on the shy side, perhaps even unsure of themselves in classroom discussions, became leaders on the construction site. And when it came to skills involved in actually building the cabin, without a doubt, the teacher became the learner. I recall struggling to learn the process for placing and nailing the shingles; even after being shown how to do it, I had to do it wrong a few times and then right a few more times under observation until I got the hang of it. I thought back to my own bewilderment when students struggled to master a writing skill, even after I'd shown them. Yet, as I learned, simply showing someone once isn't quite enough; you must show them once, then show them again and patiently correct their inevitable mistakes before they will get it.

Because I worked so closely with the students, setting shingles in place, swinging hammers, and munching doughnuts, I found that my role as teacher underwent a bit of a change. Just as we would work together to fix a mistake on the cabin, trying to make it as good as we could, it wasn't enough for me to simply slap a grade and a few corrective comments on an essay. Instead, my feedback focused on trying to help make their work better so that the final product was something of which we both could be proud, especially because I understood how hard they had worked.

Now that the cabin is complete, nestled under Norway pines at the edge of a meadow and next to the Seminar Forest's trailhead, we have spent some time in the cabin musing about its possible future uses. We expect that classes in English and environmental studies, where Thoreau is on the reading list, will come to visit and hold class inside the cabin. At some point in the future, we'll add a bookshelf featuring the works of Thoreau along with student research and art projects. Clubs like EcoAction could hold their weekly meetings there. As the floor resonates quite well under rhythmic foot-stomping, perhaps a weekly acoustic jam session could be held in the cabin. It could be a gathering spot and warming hut for visitors setting out on the Seminar Forest trail system and an opportunity for them to learn about Thoreau's work and the college's dedication to innovative educational methods. For the most part, though, we envision that it will stand as a symbol—of Thoreau's life and life philosophy, of the value of hard work and teamwork, and of what can be accomplished when a group of energetic people put their bodies, minds, and spirit into it.

Student Reflections: on the value of mistakes — By Caitlin McGeary

Throughout the building process, my feelings coursed through a range of emotions. In the beginning, I often felt lost and confused, and I sometimes thought I was the only one who felt that way. Many students seemed to know each other already, and many seemed to be able to jump right into the work without a great deal of instruction. The physical labor was what I had most looked forward to, but I quickly discovered that it might be my biggest obstacle. There were times when I felt a great deal of frustration from being unable to help the way I thought other students could, but as time went on, I became more comfortable with both the other students and the physical work.

I learned some small lessons by putting my time and labor into this project that I could never have learned by simply sitting in a classroom. Although I became frustrated at my lack of skills with tools and building, I never gave up. I asked others for help when they were available, and if there were no other students around, I worked on other things that I knew how to do on my own. Rather than letting my frustration overtake my experience, I worked through it. One particular difficulty I had in building was with the shingling process; this was the greatest obstacle that I overcame and led to the biggest lesson I learned. While working on my own at the cabin one Saturday, I decided to begin the first row of shingles on one side. Throughout the weekend, several other students and I finished several rows of shingles, and I couldn't have felt more proud of that, especially having taken the initiative to start the shingling on my own.

Returning to class on Tuesday, I discovered that I had made a few small mistakes with the starter rows of shingles and they all had to be removed and redone. My spirits were crushed. I had finally taken the initiative to do something on my own and felt so proud of the work I had done, only to have it taken away. I felt embarrassed and disappointed, and also guilty at the realization that this would be a setback for the whole class. But a classmate announced that although there were mistakes made and the job must be redone, it was not my fault and the rest of the work on the shingles was done just fine. He reminded me that mistakes can be positive if we think of them as a learning experience and not as a setback. His great attitude helped me recall a particular quote from Thoreau: "A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts." My classmate helped me see that my mistake was only a gentle rain that makes the grass shades greener afterward.

On Paying Attention and More Lives to Live — By Lindsay Arotin

During this class, I've relearned to pay closer attention to the little things. I say "relearned" because I feel this way of thinking is in my nature. However, over the past few years, instead of appreciating the small things, I've been stressing over them. It wasn't long into class after spending quality time outside and reading Thoreau that I started really paying closer attention to and appreciating small things around me. I felt more awake than I had in some time. For instance, early on a Saturday morning in late September I left my house on my bike. I was going to the entrance of the seminar forest where the cabin was being built. I swerved around brown-gray puddles, greeted early morning strangers who were reluctant to greet me back, watched manic squirrels scamper about, and made a focused effort to take in the changing colors of the trees.

When I arrived at the cabin a few people were just beginning to work. The sun was starting to break through the canopy of branches, and after the past few days of cold rain and shades of gray, I'm sure everyone appreciated the warmth and yellow. The ground was still wet from the rain and dew, and the mixture of water and mud began to wick up the legs of my fashionably too-long jeans in an organic tie-dyed pattern. High in the leaves, the leftover rain and dew conspired and combined forces, waiting for the right moment to plummet their way down to splash through the hair and on to the sun-warmed scalps of unsuspecting victims. There was a slight pleasant breeze, but no natural sound could be heard due to the generator that growled obnoxiously. It created an industrial ambiance that seemed to segregate each person by sound, and from a distance the only sign of conversations was the moving of mouths.

Once the generator was turned off, airy conversations, stories, and opinions bounced around the outer cabin walls as we worked. As the day rolled on and the weather got nicer, more people showed up and employment dwindled. While everyone was eagerly looking for the next nail to hammer, I decided to take a moment to observe this experience. I noticed that in the bushes just steps from the cabin, the morning insects were just as busy as we were, if not more, buzzing around creating their own industrial ambiance. Although this all took place in only a few short hours, it seemed everything in time had its own significance.

This class was meaningful to me in several ways, from better appreciating nature and experiencing team dynamics and the grounding meditations of manual work, to just paying closer attention to the things around me and living a more awakened life. However, what is most meaningful is having a sense that I've made the right decision at a crossroads in my life. I spent several years in the military, and I'm thankful that I did; however, after so many years it was no longer fulfilling. As Thoreau so elegantly put it when he left his cabin, "perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." I took a leap of faith and moved back to Pennsylvania without much planning or thought. I didn't know what to expect from Pennsylvania, from Penn State, from the environmental studies major, or this class. Although faced with many challenges—separating from the military and a spouse after six years, moving across the country, and starting a new life in Pennsylvania—even after only a few weeks of school, I knew I had made the right decision. I found this quote from Thoreau to be particularly meaningful considering my situation:

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
— Henry David Thoreau

On Depending On Each Other — By Alex Patton

I would be willing to bet that no one on campus, aside from our cabin class members, could name every single person in any one of their classes. Thoreau says, about having large amounts of company at a time, that they "often parted without being aware that [they] had come very near to one another." This is how most college classes are, it seems; you go there, do your work and you leave; there's barely any time to meet the people who share that space with you several times a week. Honestly, in the last days of my other classes I was looking around and still seeing new faces. In our class, though, we all knew each other within the first month. Working side by side we grew to depend on each other, not only in communicating while building but in working around each other's schedules. In this class, taking the initiative to speak up and take action paved the way to success like in no other situation I've been in before. To be involved in the building process, it was imperative to be aware of what others were saying and doing.

The first weekend of building was the absolute highlight of the class. We all shared an immense enthusiasm for the work we had to do, the weather was a little rainy but still nice, and there was so much getting done. Everyone was in high spirits, even though we were working nonstop all day. Everyone was finally getting the chance to interact with each other on a personal level. What made working together so interesting was that it was the antithesis of solitude. Thoreau and Crowe both declared their independence from the world around them while we were all declaring our dependence on each other's help.

We needed each other to get the cabin done; there were certainly leaders in our group, but no one person could have done it all by herself, and that's what made it such a beautiful experience. It was humbling to make our own mistakes and be taught something by our peers, and it was a lesson in leadership to take it upon ourselves to help others. The whole journey was lovely.

On Stories in the Walls — By Ashley Wilmont

What are the qualities of a cabin environment that pull us together? The secret is in the unique character of the cabin. During our cabin presentation to the chancellor, we showed off all of the flaws, like holes drilled in the wrong places, nails poking out from the roof, uncut pegs, splintered holes around the pegs, and uneven rows of shingles. Our small audience loved the flaws for their unique characteristics. If we wanted a perfect cabin, we could have hired a professional, but we undertook the process with our own inexperienced hands and made mistakes. Those mistakes give the cabin character as well as stories to go along with the mistakes. A cabin filled with stories somehow makes conversation flow. In composition classes, we are told that when we write, we are entering into a greater conversation. The same principle applies to the cabin. The stories in the walls and beams somehow initiate good conversation. Think about a trapper's log cabin and how many nights people gathered around the wood stove and told stories of their daily adventures, such as stalking a bear. Now compare that to an office cubicle; the most interesting topic is probably gossip about somebody's clothing. I will take the cabin stories any day over the cubicle stories.

On Tools and Skills and Satisfaction — By Nick Barndt

Thoreau talks about sucking "out all the marrow of life" in an effort to live fully and physically. In that spirit our class was "breathing in the morning air" and doing the physical work of building the cabin and in essence . . . living. I thought it was neat that I could hear trains while I was working on the cabin, just like Thoreau describes hearing the train whistle from his cabin in the chapter "Sounds."

I learned a lot about the process of building a cabin. Not only did I get to use a chisel for the first time, but I actually thought I was pretty good at it. It felt rewarding to chip away the layers of wood and see progress being made. I also had the chance to use a hand drill and was amazed at how well it cut into the beams, learning once again that something old-fashioned and simple can still be very useful.

Thomas Rain Crowe has a passage in his book that deals with tools, where his friend Zoro says to him that "a sharp tool saves man time, strain, and adds years to his life." The carpenters who helped our class build claimed that sharp tools were the key to working with wood. I was completely unfamiliar with the cedar shingles, but by the end of the process I learned how to stagger and nail them at the appropriate height. I even had the honor of passing on what I learned to another classmate, an act that made me feel proud of what I had learned. I was also proud when our class signed the last shingle, and I felt the unity of our class with the shingles when all were put in place, hung like picture frames from nails.

On Sharing the Experience — By Elizabeth Watt

Even Thoreau talked about how he didn't like to be alone all of the time: "I am naturally no hermit," he says, "but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me hither." Human interaction helps people learn and is needed in life. Thoreau says, "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

I worked on staining the floorboards in the shop one day by myself. It was boring to do, and it felt like it was taking forever to complete. The next day Caitlin joined me; it was nice to have someone to talk to. We talked about her work at The Summit, her brothers, and my experience with soccer. I learned a lot about her that day, and it was really nice to make a friend. The work also seemed to get done quicker. Four hands are better than two. It was also nice to have someone there to make sure everything was being done right. The final day it was Ashley, Adam, Pat, Caitlin, and I. It didn't take much time to get the work done, and we all talked. We became like a family out there; I have never felt so close to a class in my life.

We related to one another through the experience of building the cabin. Sadly, in the middle of the building process, Pat's father passed away. The class came together for Pat, and we all expressed that we were there for him. I can only hope that it helped Pat knowing that he had the class as a support system. People shared their stories of loved ones lost and offered condolences. There was a bond that never would have been formed if not for our shared experience.

A Rustic Reading

In late March, Marshall and another professor offered readings from their own books related to Thoreau at the cabin.

Sandra Petrulionis, professor of English and American studies, read from Thoreau in His Own Time, a biographical chronicle of Thoreau's life, drawn from recollections, interviews, and memoirs by family, friends, and associates. Petrulionis edited the book, which can be found on the University of Iowa Press Web site,

Marshall read from his book, Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail. The book follows Marshall's journey over the International Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine up through New Brunswick and out to the tip of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula.Composed of Haiku and contemplative prose, Border Crossings combines poetry, prose, and travel writing.