Wintering with Henry

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange recalls the year he and his family spent the winter in a little cabin in the woods, like Henry David Thoreau – but not quite.

“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.”

(Lange) Henry David Thoreau wrote that 150 years ago. Like thousands of other students, I read it and decided that was for me. But once, where two roads diverged in a wood, I took the one more traveled by. And ever since, Henry and I haven’t had much to say to each other. I mistrust people who express principles to explain why they do what they feel like. Henry never does anything without wrapping it in a blanket of principle.

In 1985 our family went broke and lost everything. We decided that, while I built us a new house, we would live like Henry. Our apologia read like this:

We went to the woods because we wished to live rent-free, to front all the usual facts of life, and see if our daughter could not learn, in spite of no running water at home, what the school had to teach; and not, when we moved into a house, discover we weren’t married anymore.

Henry lived alone in a 10′ by 15′ cabin. He had no job, no car to start on cold mornings, or any of the other blessings of life. And he had nobody but himself to worry about. If that’s “fronting the essential facts of life,” I’ll eat my hat.

Our family’s cabin was 12′ by 20′. Divided by three of us, that’s 887 cubic feet apiece, half what he enjoyed. Henry lists his expenses and implies he was self-sufficient, but he took his laundry to his mother’s place, where he also cadged free meals. We had to carry on “normal” lives in town, so we used running water and other facilities wherever we could find them.

“The winds which passed over my dwelling,” Henry rhapsodizes, “were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the…celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.” The winds passing over our dwelling moaned like wolves around the corners of the cabin on winter nights.

Our closeness to outside elements was dramatic. The darkness of December was not ten feet away; it was at our elbows. The point between interior warmth and January’s cold was at night only an inch away, where the warmth of our bodies on the mattress held the cold below at bay.

Emotions too, were much closer to the surface. Depression and enthusiasm resulted from events that once we wouldn’t have noticed.

Very slowly, it ended – mud season, migrating geese, and finally the wildflowers. Like people who’d been through a war together, we were very close, yet already beginning to forget. During the winter, I had erected the shell of a house next to the cabin, and on May 4 we had hot running water! Eat your heart out, Henry!

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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