Let me start by saying I should have been practicing the piano. I have a lesson today, and I can’t go in there sounding raggedy, but as I drove home yesterday evening, I tuned into a radio program that got me thinking.
The subject of the broadcast was Henry David Thoreau who died 150 years ago yesterday. The host and his guest were discussing Walden, a book I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read, but have always heard is beautifully written and inspired the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams. The host and his guest spent some time talking about Thoreau’s life, his friendship with Emerson, and I would have been satisfied had the broadcast ended there. But just as I turned onto my street, the host read the following excerpt from Thoreau’s essay, “Economy” and I sat in my driveway listening:
“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber . . . It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up.
Before winter I built a chimney, and shingled the sides of my house, which were already impervious to rain, with imperfect and sappy shingles made of the first slice of the log, whose edges I was obliged to straighten with a plane.
I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap-doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:
Boards $8.03 1/2
Refuse shingles for roof and sides $4.00
Two second-hand windows with glass $2.43
One thousand old brick $4.00
Two casks of lime $2.40 – That was high
Mantle-tree iron $0.15
Hinges and screws $0.14
Transportation $1.40 – I carried a good part on my back
In all $28.12 1/2
These are all materials, excepting the timber, stones, and sand, which I claimed by squatters right. I have also a small woodshed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house.
I intend to build me a house which will surpass any other on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one.”
I can’t decide which image I love most–the “imperfect, sappy shingles” or the picture of Thoreau making his way through the woods, his arms loaded with pond stones for his chimney, planks for siding strapped to his back. I can’t decide which sentence is my favorite–the one about the timber, stones and sand claimed “by squatter’s right,” or the last one. But I love the idea that life can be simple; that joy comes from modest, handmade things–a stone hearth, a window overlooking a pond or stretch of woods–rather than something big and flashy; that one can derive pleasure from something deliberately and patiently constructed.
As I listened to the host read from Walden, I thought of my friends–Nan, in Tennessee, and my friends in Louisiana, some of whom I’ve mentioned here before. Some have built, or are in the process of building, their houses with their bare hands. They’re investing their time, their labor and their spirits. I can only imagine the satisfaction of standing on a wooded lot and imagining where a house might go, how the sun will fall through the windows, only to look up, months later, and see it just as you imagined. A vision come to life. I don’t mean to suggest that what they’re doing is easy or glamorous. Nan’s blog posts about hauling tree stumps or battling squirrels who’ve taken up residence in the storeroom, offer proof that building a house takes as much determination as imagination. Like Thoreau, my friends have known the pain, but also the pleasure of creating something from (almost) nothing. That’s not a bad deal.
This weekend, at a party, I bumped into a friend who is remodeling her house. She said that she’s tired of spending money; that it actually makes her sick to think about how much the project has cost. I’m paraphrasing a little, but she said it’s not like she wanted anything super fancy–no designer light fixtures or imported tile–just a nice, comfortable home for her family. We agreed that sometimes, here in San Francisco, it’s hard to maintain perspective. With so much that’s fabulous and over the top, it can be challenging to say when you have enough. In his essay, Thoreau writes that the boards for his cabin came from a shanty he bought off an Irish neighbor. “The roof was the soundest part, though a good deal warped and made brittle by the sun. . . I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing nails, and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warm back again in the sun.” His whole house measured ten feet wide by fifteen feet long.
I’m glad I happened upon the radio show. It was nice to be reminded of what’s really important; to be clued into the secret Thoreau, Nan, and my friends already know. A few imperfect, sappy shingles. An arm load of river stones. Maybe a little garden. We really don’t need much more than that.