Outside magazine, January 1998
All I see this evening, back in the city after so many months alone in the woods, are the rooms stacked everywhere into the air around me — millions of windowed squares about to come forward in the twilight for another brief stalemate with the stars. When night fell at Wickerby, the only lights for miles were the cabin's, and I had to be careful about moving around too much inside because Lucy, my dalmatian, would bark at my reflection in the windowpanes, and I'd be left paralyzed with fear at the thought of who or what in all that darkness might be out there.
Here on the edge of a Brooklyn neighborhood called Crown Heights, gunshots sound nightly, and sirens, and ten-melody car alarms, and riled, drunken conversations from the stoops of the three-story walk-ups down on Lincoln Place, and yet I'll fall fast asleep to all of that tonight, like a child who leaves the bedroom door ajar in order to drift off to the sounds of the company downstairs. At Wickerby, on the other hand, with just woods and sky around me, I'd keep an ax by the bed and lie awake for hours tensed for that first noise I couldn't identify.
Some would say this is a typical city person's sensibility populating the open darkness with danger and perversions. But I'm not sure anymore if it was the sordid residue of an urban mind-set that I was arming myself against or simply the imaginings of an overly isolated one. Whichever, I do know now about the dangers of spending too much time alone. About why lonely people are said to die young, and why hermits are always shown in movies wielding shotguns at the approach of strangers.
Not that loneliness and log cabins are subjects I'd ever hoped to become well versed in. But when circumstances conspire to confine you to a log cabin — when, let's say, the woman you love leaves you to go off on a trip to a remote region of Africa and, for reasons not entirely, not satisfyingly clear, she doesn't come back when she said she would and remains out of touch for so long that, in response to this and a whole other series of upsets, you suddenly decide to go away yourself and have as your only refuge a collapsing log cabin that just happens to belong to the woman who left you — then you will, after enough time alone in such a place, notice how everything, your heart, your consciousness, begins to contract and harden, to form a protective shell around the altogether unnatural condition of loneliness. A condition you're soon spending all of yourself defending, because it has so readily become you and all that you know.
In fact, it's something of a miracle I lasted there the five months that I did. Bex (should she ever decide to return from Africa) won't believe it when I tell her. She thought Wix — she's always called it Wix — was about to collapse when she first brought me to see the place six years ago. Bex hadn't been there since she was a child, the cabin having been largely abandoned in the years after her parents' divorce in the early seventies. Then, one summer afternoon, she suddenly decided that we should hop in the car and go visit Wickerby.
Bex drove, and seven hours later, just ten miles or so over the Vermont border into Quebec, we were alone in the pitch darkness. With each turn onto the next back road, our car seemed to be shedding the world's last patches of pavement and town light until there were just our high beams jiggling over two dirt ruts up a wooded hillside. Then the trees swallowed us whole and from underneath the car there was a loud drumming, like rain on a tin roof, of the tall grass against the manifold. We crested the hill. Bex turned to the right, into an open field, and there, nearly lost among the tall grass stalks and ongoing stars, was her Wickerby.
It looked, I told her (she made me apologize for it later), like a long-abandoned hillbilly shack. Now I can think of it as a recently inhabited one. A single rectangular room about 20 by 25 feet with a simple gable roof, the cabin was built back in the 1840s by homesteaders, who used the stoutest materials: walls made of huge, foot-square spruce logs, hand-hewn with an adze and then dovetailed to lock together at the cabin's corners; roof rafters and cross-beams made of cedar — long, unfinished, deep-red logs that, from the inside at least, look and smell as though they had been cut just yesterday.
Still, a century and a half of Canadian winters — those deep, slow-rolling waves of freeze and thaw — have rocked the cabin's foundation to the point where the place now looks like an old, weathered houseboat that has foundered and broken upon a reef. Daylight leaks in everywhere through the joints and side logs. The floor just inside the front door has a steep, fun-house tilt to it. Most of the louvered window frames have been squeezed permanently shut. A good number of the panes are cracked.
Bex told me that her mother had named the cabin after the wicopy, a native shrub also known as the leatherwood, which has small yellow flowers and a tough, pliable bark that the Indians are said to have once used for lashings and early settlers for carriage reins. "Wickerby," Bex says, is also supposed to suggest the stately English country manor that her mother, who grew up poor in London's East End, could never afford, though when I first heard Bex say the word, I pictured nothing habitable. It sounded more like some obscure British lawn game or the most delicate basket, a frail weaving of bramble and air, an image that I thought pretty much suited the actual place when I finally set eyes on it that night.
We stayed only a few weeks and hardly made an impression on it — on the dust and the depth of Bex's memories, on the awful weight of each day's passing. We talked often afterward about going back and really establishing ourselves there but somehow never found the time. It takes time, I know now, more than I'll ever have, to truly arrive at a place like Wickerby.
Some might consider such devices gross impurities in the context of a place like Wickerby, but then I hadn't left Brooklyn to achieve some Thoreauvian ideal, to shed all inventions and conventions by way of arriving at a more essential self. Such endeavors — a modern man playing at primitivism — tend to be far more encumbered by self-consciousness and pretense than any truly plain existence is by its inherent hardships.
For me, Wickerby stood at just enough of a remove from civilization to isolate our inventions, render them otherworldly, numinous: the radio I'd bring out each evening on a long extension cord and set upon the wooden table beside the stone cooking pit, letting the nightly news spill across an uncaring hillside; or the TV at night in the cabin, flickering against all that hilltop darkness like a lone, frenetic firefly; or my car, which, set off as it was to one side in the tall field grass, seemed no more than an aching arrangement of sun-struck metal.
I drove straight through, stopping only once for gas, but still failed to make Wickerby by nightfall. Somehow the route Bex had taken all those years ago came back to me, and not long after sunset I found myself cresting the last wooded hillside before Wickerby's. It was there, with the cold night air pouring through the open window and the endless stars arcing down to the stubbled fields all around me, that I first understood how alone I was going to be. I coasted downhill and turned onto the Wickerby road, thinking all the while that I won't be able to stand it here, won't be able to remain alone for as long as I once could within such wide-open days. I remembered a winter I had once spent at a cabin like Wickerby, back when I still inhabited that grace period of youth in which the mind has not yet been divorced from the body, has not yet been alerted by the body's internal riots to the matter of its own mortality. I remembered days when I felt such a full weighty recline within myself that it seemed I could outwait a tree.
The older we get, I told myself, as Wickerby's road began to narrow, the longer the journey becomes back to that deep repose we once felt in ourselves and upon the earth, and of course we never quite get there again. It's a feeling that people always mistake for a larger malady, the perennially voiced complaint that life "moves too fast these days."
But you never hear the young complaining about the speed of life, except perhaps to say that it goes too slowly. Theirs, in fact, is the sort of irritable impatience with time's sluggishness that inspires the invention of the very mechanisms that will later leave them complaining about the loss of gradualness, that will leave them looking backward, as each advancing generation does, in an attempt to retrieve lost essences. In fact, what technology really does is make our days seem to move too slowly, the nonstop flicker and flight of all our mechanisms stranding us within what, by contrast, becomes an ever more static present.
A short way along the Wickerby road I arrived at a gate, one I hadn't remembered from the first visit, a long sapling with a no trespassing sign dangling from the middle. I stepped out of the car and opened the gate, and then went around to the trunk and dug out a sweater. The car exhaust sounded frail in all that quiet, like isolated coughing in a vast concert hall.
Past the crest the entrance road leveled off, and I turned right, into the open field, Wickerby arriving at once in my headlights against the night sky like a slide projection from my own past. It looked far stouter than I'd remembered or expected, a formidable wreck. It looked, in its isolation, like the very first house, the only house in the world.
The surrounding field was still matted with the weight of the last snow, so I drove right up to the cabin, trying to leave as little of that huge night as possible between myself and the front door. For a moment I just sat there, not wanting to turn off the car engine, as though it might never start up again, as though cars needed other cars around them to remember how to go. Lucy had that whining noise of hers worked up to an unbearable pitch. And then I turned the key, and the silence rushed in, and the odd business of staying began.
A skyscraper may not be the same as a tree, but one is no more natural than the other, and both are, in the end, a habitable outgrowth of the same skyward longing. Birds make good use of either. So do we. We are no less natural than the next creature, except that thinking makes it seem so, makes us invent a place called nature from which we can think of ourselves as having been exiled, and into which we can constantly seek readmittance, whether it be through encounters with a collapsing cabin, a vanishing African nomad, or the airy portal of a noiseless dawn.
There is no such thing as nature. Wickerby would remind me of this. There is just the earth and us, the namers, standing upon it, naming those places without us "nature." The stars would have passed forever silently through the puddles of melted snow cupped there around me in Wickerby's field that first night had I not arrived to interrupt them, to look back up and call them a name.
The lock tumblers, on the third or fourth try, finally clicked. When I undid the latch, the cabin's uneven pitch actually thrust the door open to me. I stepped inside. The smell was of musty wood laced with cold air — something between an old steamer trunk and a starry night.
A tiny red bulb twittered to my immediate left. I shined the flashlight. It was one of those sonic pest control devices you see advertised in the back of magazines. Bex must have turned it on just before we left years ago. It looked rather ridiculous there on top of Wickerby's refrigerator, covered in mouse droppings. Still, it did answer my question about the electricity. Someone in Bex's family had been paying all these years to keep the juice running to a ruin.
I found the fuse box and flipped all the switches, heard the water pump and the chemical toilet kick in, the fridge warble, and the frozen timer on the stove buzz. It was like igniting long-dead embers. There was a light hanging from one of the cobwebbed rafters above me, just a bare bulb strung inside a bottomless amber cider jug. I reached up, clicked it on.
In a long, rectangular wooden box set alongside the kitchen counter, I found some kindling piled atop a stack of logs. I was wary about starting up a fire before checking the stove's piping for blockages. Bex had told me all about the danger of chimney fires, especially in a dried-up old tinderbox like Wickerby. Still, the inside thermometer on one of the cabin's vertical support beams read 45 degrees, so I decided I'd set some newspaper and twigs alight and then go outside to see if the smoke was making its way through the chimney pipe.
I opened the door to the wood stove. There was a great white tuft of what appeared to be cotton seat stuffing piled high inside the stove bed, a dead starling resting atop it. It looked like something from a Joseph Cornell box: a bird fast asleep in a drifting cloud.
Lucy returned from her wilderness debut that night with a face full of porcupine quills. She made no fuss about it. Didn't make a sound. Just crept into the cabin and lay down at the end of the hanging couch opposite the warming fire that I had managed to light in the wood stove after cleaning it out. Using a pair of garden shears, I snipped the back ends of the porcupine quills around Lucy's snout and then, one by one, pulled them free. She promptly got up and started to investigate her new home, going from smell to smell, anointing Wickerby with her newly liberated nose. As for myself, there was so much for me to do that night by way of getting settled that I decided to do none of it. I slipped into a thermal union suit, threw a few more logs into the stove, and collapsed on the couch with a big bourbon — that handy shortcut back to lost repose.
The quiet was enormous. I could almost hear the stars seething in their distant sockets. The cabin seemed to be trying to resituate itself around me — around my still-racing blood and the steady thrum in my ears. Everywhere, in scuffling increments, the mice were reclaiming their hold. Along with the wood stove's mounting heat came the unforgettable essence of baked snake slough and cobweb. From the underside of the floorboards beneath my feet, I felt a slow, vibratory rubbing, as though of a heavy wire brush wielded by a drunk. A porcupine, I later determined, dining on the cabin's insulation.
I lay there for hours, my body collecting on all the sleep debts accrued over countless city nights, millions of tiny alarm-laced skylines dissolving in my blood. I outslept Lucy. She'd get up, stretch, paw about my lifeless bulk, and then collapse down next to it again. I outslept slugs.
It was past noon by the time I stumbled downstairs and checked the small windup clock that I'd left the night before atop a tin of wood stove matches. I felt a bit embarrassed about getting up so late, but then I couldn't quite decide what exactly I was late for. Breakfast, surely, but who was checking, and just plain late, I suppose, to be entering a day, but then Wickerby's was a day whose doors were all ajar to begin with, rendering every entrance equally worthy and insignificant.
It didn't take me long to put the cabin to rights, or at least to arrive at a workable detente with the dirt and decay. The first order of business was to get the water running. I could hear the water pump working, but nothing was coming through the tap. Arming myself with a flashlight, I lifted the trapdoor in the floorboards beside the wood stove and passed, reluctantly, down into the dark province of the porcupines.
A white, hoary layer of rotting insulation hung all around
me. Shining the flashlight, I could see that the ground fell off sharply to my right into a muddy pond. The sound of trickling water on the far side seemed to indicate a leak in the line running between the pump and the kitchen faucet. The problem would be getting to it. I had to be careful not to bump any of the wood cribbing that, as far as I could tell, was all that was keeping Wickerby from crushing me on the spot, or any of the loping strands of electric wiring whose insulation had been gnawed off here and there by the porcupines. I found a separated elbow joint in the line leading to the kitchen sink, reattached it, and then secured the whole arrangement with some duct tape. Back at the sink, I turned on the tap. There was a series of violent jolts and rust-colored regurgitations, and then came a clear, ice-cold, glistening stream of what Bex likes to call "the healing waters of Wickerby."
It is remarkable how readily one's spirit rallies around the simple sight of running water. I set to work on the refrigerator, the toppled books and furniture, the scattered cards and game pieces. Wielding a broom and an old industrial vacuum, I began to take back Wickerby, freeing the rafters of their gossamer skeins, making notable inroads in the mouse droppings and the termite chew. I then went around gathering up butternuts. Slightly smaller than walnuts, with dark, craggy outer shells, they all had the same telltale bore where a mouse had gnawed its way to the reward inside. I found butternuts everywhere, piled in the corners, in old trunks and dresser drawers, strewn along the loft rafters.
Still, it's a hopelessly ill-defined proposition, cleaning a ruin. There's no real way of knowing when you're done, and all those creaturely encroachments that a house is designed to keep at bay have advanced so far that the prospect of wiping them out with one swipe of a vacuum wand leaves you confronting the kind of existential questions that can ruin a good day's cleaning.
This was the part of my day — lighting the fire in the stone cooking pit and then sitting beside it with a drink — that I most savored. It was the point at which, having spent so much time alone with my thoughts, I wanted nothing more than to set them all alight with a couple of bourbons, my brain and the fire pit's logs in mutual conflagration, a notebook always kept in my shirt pocket to capture the occasional spark flying up before me.
I find that a few strong early-evening bourbons have a way of blowing open whatever trap it is that I've construed for myself by day's end, allowing me at least a brief review, past the flying, incendiary wreckage, of the roads not taken. This process in itself requires a good deal of vigilance, as alcohol readily blurs that line between the noteworthy and the nonsensical. At Wickerby, I usually found that my sound, reliable judgment lasted well into the second bourbon — which, perhaps because of the relative vigor and salubriousness of a country day, is a good sight longer than it lasts with my urban bourbons. And then I'd just leave off note-taking, stoke the fire, and get quietly soused.
Just a few steps inside the tree line, I could already feel that dark, cooler, incensed air of a church vestibule. And then, as though I'd left the door open behind me, a huge wind would wash over the upper boughs, leaving me in place, alone, further alone, a feeling I can liken only to my childhood Sundays, that mixture of awe and ennui that ruled the day and could not be outrun.
Names, from then on, could be my only offering. In the beginning, I'd often have with me, like a dutiful worshiper clutching his hymnal, one of the many nature guides Bex's parents had bought over the years and stored on the north-wall shelves: Native Trees of Canada, Reading the Woods, A Guide to Familiar American Wildflowers, Fiddleheads and Mustard Blossoms: A Guide to Edible Plants of the Forest and Meadow, The Book of Ferns, and on and on.
I'd pause in the meadow before some lowly, mute, entirely self-absorbed weed, open my book to the page with its approximate (never exact, never satisfyingly certain) representation, and read, as though anointing it right there: "Canada fleabane..." Then, as in the church of my youth, I'd read the Latin: "Erigeron canadensis..." followed by the rest of the invocation: "Other names: Horseweed, hogweed, mare's tail, bitterweed. Habitat: fields, pastures, meadows, gardens, woodland trails, roadsides, waste places..."
I'd walk farther down the woodland trail, sounding the naturalist's autohypnotic litany: red oak (Quercus rubra), white elm (Ulmus americana), white birch (Betula papyrifera), trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides). I'd go from one to the next, putting each species in its place. And then one day I just stopped bothering. Found that I was much less concerned with names than I was with the awful isolation of being the only one out there wielding them.
Before long one of my favorite enterprises in the woods at Wickerby would be to play that impossible game of trying not to think. I'd walk among the trees and try instead to let all of my thoughts unravel into the surrounding thoughtlessness, and then accompany it. I would listen to the deep silence that, by pointing up the very sound of my thoughts and words, and the impulse to create them, threatened, the longer it lasted, to expel me from my very being.
I would go into the woods at Wickerby precisely to feel this expulsion, to feel what we all feel in the woods but don't like to admit to: the most firm and yet pure rebuke that we'll ever receive. No buildings, no windows, no human framework for my eye to touch briefly upon and then pivot off, just me and my fellow DNA assemblages — the trees and birds, the ferns, mosses, mushrooms, worms, mites, and myriad invisible things — all blankly thriving there around me: the wide accident, the inherent anonymity of existence.
I'm putting it down now in the Wickerby diary, how the moments that I'll remember best from my stay are the ones I could least inhabit, moments when I felt the full expanse of the divide between myself and those woods, when I felt most deeply that disappointment that overcame me the first day I stepped outside the cabin door, a disappointment not in but from my surroundings, a sense of exile that is, in the end, coincidental with consciousness.
I'd wait up there on Bex's Rock, poised on the verge of pure thoughtlessness, of full accompaniment — poised, motionless and reflectionless, like a bird on a branch, but for one slight catch that has now made what seems to be a world of difference between ourselves and other beings, one snag in the arrangement of our DNA strands that strands us from all the other species, that makes our minds' biological matter rove over into a consciousness that traps, like a sluice gate, what otherwise flows uninterrupted through all other creatures' eyes.
I'm putting it down now, some account of the hours I spent up there on Bex's Rock, accompanying things, trying, in a sense, to devolve backward toward some imagined convergence with the woods around me, only to repeatedly confront that one little catch, that snag — call it consciousness, recognition, whatever — that makes us the only ones who long to be a part again of that to which we already belong.
I went day after day into the deep silence of those woods only to learn why it is that we ultimately can't stand a stand of trees, why we are, in fact, impelled by the woods to leave them and then to try to reconfigure the awe that we felt within them in the form of this city that I've come home to tonight, this stay against woods and wilderness.
Early on in the course of my stay I must have trained myself to wake up for this ritual, because I rarely missed it. The first two or three bats would be my alarm. I'd never see them. They nested on the other side of the insulation that lined the windowless south gable just above my bed. Immediately upon arriving, they'd exchange these quick, urgent volleys of bat-squeak. They may have been reporting to one another about the night's activities or calling in the rest of the troops, or both, but that ruckus was my cue to turn on my pillow and look across the loft toward the north gable's wide windows.
There, against the dawn sky, I'd watch the emerging outline of the plum tree's upper boughs and then the bats returning to them, hundreds of black, inward-folding flecks like felled autumn leaves flying in reverse time-lapse photography back up to their branches. It was as if the whole world was going in reverse, the leaves closing into buds again and the buds into days of dormancy.
Once all the bats had returned, the squeaking in the south gable would stop, and I'd go back to sleep for another couple of hours. But a few days after I'd resumed heating the cabin, the bats stopped coming altogether. It was late September now. They were winging their way to a long winter's sleep, and I was beginning to think about leaving Wickerby.
I put the spices and condiments up in the hanging baskets away from the mice, put the wood stove matches in a closed tin and the little TV back in the upstairs wood chest where I'd found it. From beneath one of the brass beds in the loft, I took the plywood mattress board, brought it downstairs, sawed it into two pieces, and nailed them over what seemed to me the cabin's most penetrable and inviting window. Then I gave the place a good sweeping.
Yesterday morning, I got up early and drained the pipes and turned off the switches in the fuse box, although I did leave on that ridiculous blinking pest-control device — one frail, flickering rampart against the onslaught that I knew would resume by the time I got halfway down the entrance road. I swept the cabin some more and then took up my bags and backed out of the cabin.
Lucy had been waiting in the car the whole time that I was packing things up. Whatever primal impulses Wickerby might have stirred in her, she was all too willing to sacrifice them again for the creature comforts of her life back in the city. After throwing my bags into the trunk, however, I yanked her out of the car, insisting that she accompany me on one last walk around the land.
I went down to the shores of the back pond. I walked back up past the cabin and the top of the entrance road, past my withering garden and the trembling aspen, out through the blackberry field. I walked all the way up the hill to Bex's Rock.
It did seem a bit ridiculous, striding dutifully through those wide fields and woods, going from one far-flung location to the next, as though I had appointments there. I merely wanted to touch base again with the sites of all my lost standoffs, all the places where I got so roundly outwaited, so gently rebuked.
It was almost noon by the time Lucy and I got back to the car. A porcupine was clinging to the very top branches of the butternut as I got in and drove away. It was as if he was trying to get the best view possible of my departure. Down the road, I got out to close the sapling gate. The air had the same chill as when I first arrived at Wickerby. Autumn lit up the roadside trees all around me. I listened to the leaves rattling.
In the distance now, Manhattan has briefly claimed night's border again: the familiar, the nearly pronounceable glyph of that skyline. It's strange. I see everything here that I had at Wickerby, except that now it's all in the margins: weeds limning the sidewalk cracks, trees gathering air from vacant lots, birds subletting rooms, cats aswirl at sills and doorsteps, fish plying their portable ponds, the stars briefly yielding again to our show of lights.
At Wickerby I was the marginal, the excerpted one, living in the least of houses, one that barely interrupted the day, just a loosely bound square of windows from which to look out on the ongoing absence of us, on the very darkness that first drove us to make over places like Wickerby in the shape of this home that I've returned to tonight, this thrumming, citied side of the world where even now the descending jets knit more lights along the edges of darkness.
If you were to come upon Wickerby, as I imagine deer hunters and cross-country skiers sometimes do, you probably would think it a useless wreck and just pass it by. But if you did decide to take a closer look, to walk up to one of the cabin's buckled windows and peer in, you'd see signs of the life I've just lived there.
You might pry a window open and, moving past your own hesitation and the startled retreat of all the cabin's native stowaways, make your way inside and just stand there awhile. And then you could go even farther, take my favorite seat by the window with the plum tree branches bobbing outside it, and begin to know the feeling, almost painful, of a moment's passing at Wickerby.
Charles Siebert, whose last article for Outside was about deadly animal viruses (May 1995), is at work on a book about the human heart.
Illustrations by Polly Becker