The title of this blog entry was supposed to be “Extrovert in a Yurt,” but every single one of those round tents at Ontario Parks campgrounds was booked by early spring. My hope was to get away all by myself in order to honour this month’s 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, a pencil-maker and writer who, in 1845, famously retreated to a tiny, self-built cabin made of white pines on Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. There, he sought “to live deliberately,” dedicating himself to silence, stillness and solitude. It’s also where he wrote Walden, one of the most enduring works of American nonfiction. My getaway goal is simpler, though: I just want to see if I can stand my own company.
Because there’s no yurt to be found, I book myself into a secluded treehouse, where I hope to channel the spirit of Thoreau and take in “the tonic of the wilderness.”
Living with one husband, two kids and three pets, I rarely experience any periods of sustained solitude although the truth is I’ve always preferred the company of others to my own. Also, I have a hard time sitting still because a Calvinistic streak of righteous productivity runs deep in my DNA. In other words, I’m a little bit addicted to keeping busy. As for silence, the teacher’s notes in every single one of my grade school report cards still hold true today: “Anne talks too much in class.”
I find the treehouse on Airbnb. The main floor has dimensions equal to Thoreau’s 10-foot by-15-foot cabin, but that’s where any similarity ends. Thoreau’s abode, situated on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property, cost him a mere $28 to build and contained only a bed, a desk and three chairs (“one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society”). My upscale cedar treehouse, an octagonal structure some 20 feet off the ground and encircled by dozens of towering pines, is situated on 300 acres of private forest. It has a loft bed, skylights, a wraparound porch, floor-to-ceiling windows, a 24-stair wrought iron spiral staircase, a glass shower, a well-equipped kitchen with a gas stove, a microwave and long-stemmed wine glasses. It costs 10 times a night what Thoreau paid in total for his humble home.
Like Thoreau, I also have a very large pond at my disposal on the property. It’s not nearly as big as the 65-acre Walden that Thoreau regularly canoed and bathed in, but it’s crystal clear and spring-fed. I dip a toe in. The water is frigid, and snaky looking weeds line its edges, camouflaging what I suspect are grasping leeches and sinister watersnakes. Despite my deep aversion to pond protozoa, I promise myself a swim before my stay is over. I want the full immersion, after all.
Thoreau lived in his cabin for two years, two months and two days. I’m only here for 48 hours. Still, it’s the longest stretch I’ve gone in years with no one to talk to. I’ve untethered myself from digital distractions — no TV, computer, smartphone or tablet. Birdsong will be my playlist — the view of the swaying pines outside the windows my screen time. Of course, my phone is on standby for emergencies, but no texting, messaging or random Google searches. It feels a bit like Quaker boot camp. My only companions are two books: The Illustrated Walden, a special bicentennial edition of Thoreau’s classic work, and the poet Mary Oliver’s Upstream, a new essay collection documenting her endless awe for the great outdoors: “I could not be a poet without the natural world,” she writes. “For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
Thoreau, known as the granddaddy of the simplicity movement, advocated having as few possessions as possible. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he wrote in Walden. I haul a knapsack, small suitcase, cooler, book bag, hiking gear, box of dry goods and cosmetics case (yes, I bring a blowdryer into the treehouse for my short stay). I’m sure Thoreau, who mocked those “who can hardly venture to go a-huckleberrying without taking a medicine chest along,” would disapprove of my inability to pack light.
Nevertheless, I commit to spending my time much as Thoreau did: hiking, reading, journalling and daydreaming. In his essay, “Walking,” he writes “I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spent four hours a day at least . . . sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Inspired, I anoint myself in sunscreen and DEET for an hours-long hike, but last barely 30 minutes before retreating to a gazebo to escape a single large — and very persistent — deer fly that buzzes around my head, toying with my sanity. There, I read for uninterrupted hours — something else I haven’t done in years — until a liquid drowsiness pours over me and I head back to the treehouse, climb to the loft and settle into an intoxicating slumber. When I awake, there’s nothing to do but read some more. Meanwhile, the leaves on the trees outside of the window glimmer in the sunlight, seeming to offer up lush applause, as if saying: “Good for you!” I have no deadlines, no demands on my time and no dishes to clean except a single fork and plate.
I keep virtuous hours: 10:30 p.m. to bed and 6:30 a.m. to rise. I stop using the clock and rely on nature’s cues: the croaking bullfrogs trumpet the dinner hour and whenever the inky outline of trees disappears into the dark, I turn out the light in the evening.
The silence takes some getting used to, though. “The quieter you become, the more you can hear,” says the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. I notice things I normally wouldn’t pay attention to: the hiss of gas from the stove when I make my tea and the rustle of a book page turning. I even notice the absence of sound, like the way the futon I’m sleeping on doesn’t squeak like my mattress at home when I roll over. I also listen carefully to the songs of so many different types of birds. I recognize the harsh caw of the redwing and the owl’s soft hoot. But I can’t identify which winged wonders are responsible for the merry tin whistle in the distance or what sounds like a rubberband being repetitively thumbed.
I notice other things, too, such as a tiny ant crawling on my upper arm when I’m sunning myself in an Adirondack, the small pile of (what I assume) is raccoon poop outside the door in the morning, the skittering waterbug sliding back and forth in a small stream as if looking for some kind of opening and the lovely lily pads that float like scalloped tea cup saucers on the surface of the pond.
Ah, the pond. On my last day, I decide that I can’t avoid it any longer. Because no one is around for acres, I peel off all of my clothes, shove off from the ladder attached to the small dock and let out an unabashed yelp when I confront the cold. Weeds briefly graze my calves, and I kick out until I’m past the bulrushes. In seconds, the water morphs from freezing to refreshing. I float on my back, feeling lightweight and lighthearted as I try to make out shapes in the cottonball puffs of clouds above me. My reward for braving the pond’s murky depths is the sight of (what I think) is a swallow zooming in to dip its tail in the water just a few feet away. The day comes to an end, as I climb the ladder out of the pond. But the sun is still bright enough that I need to shade my eyes. The sky also holds the faint outline of a half-moon. The sun and moon together is another everyday miracle that I usually never take the time to appreciate.
I make a simple dinner for myself — tomato soup and a tuna sandwich — and can’t wait to get back to my books. I don’t feel the least bit lonely. I think about how we structure our entire lives in order to avoid solitude. It’s one of the reasons why people get married, have kids, accumulate Facebook friends and choose to believe that there’s a supernatural father in heaven always looking out for them. In fact, one of our worst fears is dying alone. And yet the reality is that the majority of marriages come to some kind of ending, even if it’s not actual divorce, children leave home, Facebook pals can’t offer real intimacy and many of us have given up the idea of an all abiding deity. And even if we are lucky enough to have our loved ones with us whenever we take our last breath, we all will go into that dark night alone.
Maybe a two-day sojourn deep in the woods is a good way to confront our aloneness and even find some kind of comfort. You’re never completely lonesome if you have books, birds and trees for company. Transcendentalists like Thoreau believed that spending time in solitude and communing with nature helped to elevate the spirit. “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still,” he wrote.
Of course, there are some things that I can’t let go of, and to-do lists are one of them. So my exercise in solitude prompts me to make a bunch of resolutions: I will lighten my material load by purging all of my closets this summer. I will rejoin the Bruce Trail and get out for more hikes this fall. I will reserve a bunch of books at the library and spend more time reading in the evenings. I will download Cornell University’s free Merlin Bird ID app and learn more about birds. I will plan a vacation to Concord to further investigate its transcendentalist history.
Before heading home, I finally turn on my phone. There’s a lighthearted message from my husband, who asks how I managed to survive my own company, and a few texts from one of my daughters and a couple of friends. I’m happy that I haven’t been forgotten out here in the woods.
As good as it was to be alone for two days, I’m thankful that there are people to whom I can return. Even Thoreau, cast inaccurately as a hermit divorced from the world, needed to connect with others. He admits in Walden that he would make the 30-minute stroll into Concord from his cabin every other day or so “to hear some of the gossip . . . which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.”