Thinking Like Thoreau At Michigan Cabin

Dec 16, 2013

In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau spent two years at a cabin in the woods near Concord, Mass. The cabin, at Walden Pond, is where he wrote his most famous work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In it, he writes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately ... to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life ... to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

The book, part memoir and part spiritual quest, became one of the most celebrated works of American literature.

One person who studies Walden carefully is Tom Montgomery Fate. Fate's latest book is Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild. Like Thoreau's book, Cabin Fever is equal parts memoir and spiritual quest. Fate wrote it at his home in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and at his cabin in southwest Michigan.

"Thoreau's cabin was 10 by 15; our front porch is 10 by 15," Fate says. "And we did, after a year or two, run an electric line, but it doesn't have water."

Fate first read Walden at age 19 and, like many readers, focused on Thoreau's declaration to live deliberately. But the meaning of "deliberately" changed for him. "At 19," Fate says, "it meant with intensity and intentionality." Years later, married with three children, it meant something else. "I stumbled upon the etymology of the word," he explains. "At its heart is Libra, the two-pan scale of Justice. So I began to understand the idea of a deliberate life as a balanced life."

Fate writes this search for balance -- in mind, body and spirit -- doesn't require two years at Walden Pond:

Most readers who admire Thoreau's ideas don't have the freedom or desire to live a solitary life in the woods. Still, what many of us do want, and what this book is about, is finding a deeper connection to Nature in our ordinary lives -- by seeking relationship and refuge wherever we find ourselves -- whether it be on a walk through a forest preserve, on a family camping trip, or catching grasshoppers in the backyard.

Fate acknowledges, however, the sometimes harmful interactions between humans and nature:

Every day I see these collisions -- the imbalance -- between humanity and the other animals that live here. Herons nest on our E. coli-choked river. Coyotes hunt on the runways of O'Hare International Airport while roaring jets land. A Canada goose gets trapped in the entryway of my office building ... A wild cougar is gunned down in an alley by a Chicago policeman. Who belongs where? Who will take care of whom on this shrinking planet? How will we find the balance we seek?

The author tells WNIJ he continues working to improve the environment around his cabin in Sawyer, Mich. That includes water testing for the Sierra Club and staying current on legislation. "We also try to keep down the invasive plants," he says, "and to provide a variety of habitats for the fauna that live in that area."

Fate has a history of active involvement. During the Iraq War, he participated in "die-ins" to oppose the growing number of Iraqi civilian deaths. In the 1980s, he traveled to Nicaragua and Guatemala with the social justice group Witness for Peace.

Such activism resembles Thoreau's opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War. But for Fate, activism must be balanced by art which, he says, teaches us to see differently. In a chapter on art and activism, he writes about a die-in at Chicago's Federal Plaza:

The die-in is an art installation. The organizers are artists. I am a piece of art. Our forty bodies and forty white sheets and forty red carnations have been arranged on the cement canvas into a death grid, a graveyard. We symbolize the number of Iraqis who die every day from the war. We seek to create the antithesis of war -- art -- and through it a reverence for life.

Fate says this protest was not about freedom, democracy or some other "vague ideology." It was about a connection between the protestors and passers-by:

We share a shrinking, polluted planet, and a perilous dependence on oil. We share the need for food and sleep and clean water. We share the fear of death, and the agony of sending our loved ones to fight and die. We share the need to love and be loved. We share the longing for beauty, and the truth of art against the lie of war -- forty live bodies lying dead in the middle of the Federal Plaza.

Tom Montgomery Fate is an English professor at College of DuPage. Cabin Fever is his fifth book.

Next week, our Winter Book Series continues with Ricardo Mario Am├ęzquita's poetry collection, Then She Kissed El Paco's Lips Now! Or April in DeKalb.

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Tom Montgomery Fate, author of Cabin Fever