Phil Gulley: Head Space

Like Henry David Thoreau, I have a house in the wilderness where I escape. Mine just happens to be imaginary.
All of us have a place that brings us peace whenever we think of it. I seldom drive into Danville without going a mile out of my way to loop past my childhood home. When my parents sold it in 2005, I wanted to buy it, but I didn’t because we were well-settled in a perfectly good house that was paid for. When given the choice, I prefer to live in a paid-for house as opposed to a not-paid-for house. The people who live there now are nice enough to let me sit on the front porch whenever I wish, which effectively scratches my nostalgic itch.

These days, in times of tumult, my mind visits a place on our Southern Indiana farm we call the upper meadow—a 25-acre field and grove with century-old trees and a spring-fed pond. It is perched atop a steep hill across the road from our farmhouse. It can’t be reached by vehicle, so is only visited by the industrious. I might one day ask Farmer Lindley down the road to cut a lane up to the meadow, but for now, there is just a path up the long hillside and through the woods, the forest parting like a curtain to reveal the sylvan charm.

The upper meadow is such a lovely place that I have often wondered why my wife’s ancestors, who settled there in 1843, opted to build in the low valley next to the road instead of on top of the hill, among the trees, next to the spring. The water is crystal clear and abundant, the meadow roomy enough to accommodate a house and several barns. From the west, a pleasant breeze blows all summer long. From the north, miles of forest block the winter wind. You could spend all your life searching for a home place and not find a more congenial setting.

As one who dabbles in theology, I’ve concluded that if God went through the trouble of creating such an agreeable place, it seems only fitting to build a small cabin there, between the pond and the forest. I raised the subject with my wife, who, being theologically untrained, did not recognize the merits of my argument and dismissed the idea. Nevertheless, I return to this make-believe dwelling time and again, imagining myself climbing the hill on a snowy day, lighting a fire in the woodstove, then heating a can of Dinty Moore beef stew (a surprising number of my fantasies involve Dinty Moore beef stew), while the stove’s warmth spreads into the cabin’s cold corners.

In my dream, I pass the day writing and reading, then enjoy the dinner my wife has thoughtfully prepared and carried up the hill to me. (It is a dream, after all.) When darkness has descended upon the meadow, I pull on my coat and step outside to view the stars, which have little competition. The nearest electric light is distant and dim—the single bulb Farmer Lindley has hung in his barn to keep the coyotes at bay. The Milky Way hangs overhead like a streak of glittery paint.
I have gone so far as to pace off the cabin’s dimensions. Exactly 16 feet long by 12 feet wide, spacious compared to Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, which measured 10 by 15. His cabin, according to his journal, had a fireplace, table, desk, bed, and three chairs. A desk is redundant if one has a table. Chairs only encourage visitors, which I don’t want. I’m there to work, not socialize, so I would prefer only one chair. The trick will be finding a chair that works for writing and reading. I like to sit up straight when I write and recline when I read, so I might have to splurge and have two chairs. This is how materialism always starts.

Thoreau’s cabin had only two windows, the back wall being occupied by a fireplace, the front by a door. I would replace the fireplace with a woodstove and put in a third window and screen door, so no matter which direction the breeze was blowing, I could take full advantage of it. Like Thoreau’s cabin, mine won’t have electricity, plumbing, or phone service, since the only place I can get a cell signal at our farm is in the downstairs bedroom. My all-time favorite writer was E.B. White, who kept his phone in a closet. That strikes me as a fine place to put a phone.

Thoreau was 27 years old when he built his cabin, young enough to chop down the trees for lumber. I’m 58, and won’t be cutting down any trees. Instead, I’ll get my wood from Mike Lowe’s sawmill—oak for the floor, poplar for the walls and siding, cedar shingles for the roof. Thoreau used white pine, and you’ll notice his cabin is no longer standing. Actually, it might have survived, except a few years after he moved out, two farmers bought it, moved it across town, and used it to store grain. Twenty years later, they sold it for scrap lumber, so some parts of Thoreau’s cabin are likely still in Concord, maybe patching a roof, housing a dog, or serving as stair treads in some damp basement.

In my dream, I pass the day writing and reading, then enjoy the dinner my wife has thoughtfully prepared and carried up the hill to me. (It is a dream, after all.)

It’s no secret what Thoreau spent on his cabin, $28.12½, because he told us in his book Walden. I won’t be telling anyone what I spend on my cabin, because I don’t want my wife to know. Just in case you’re curious, $28.12½ in 1845 is equivalent to $950 today. If my cabin costs only $950, I’ll be pleased, not to mention astonished.

I’ll have one expense Thoreau didn’t—a fence around my cabin to keep out my neighbor’s cows. Each April, we open the gate connecting our properties so his cattle can access a pasture he owns north of our farm. The cows take their time of it, sticking their white heads in our barns and snooping around. The last thing I need is a cow looking over my shoulder and telling me how to do my job.

A lot of people are worried about the state of our country these days. I don’t suspect history will judge this era as one of our finest. I would worry more about it, but I trust America to finally do the right thing, no matter how long it takes us, and sometimes it takes us awhile.

Things weren’t all that rosy in 1845, when Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. We were on the verge of war with Mexico. More than 2 million African Americans were chattel, forcibly separated from their families. Women couldn’t vote, own property, or speak their minds without a man telling them to pipe down and obey their husbands. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, Texas was admitted to the Union, which would lead to the election of Ted Cruz to the Senate 168 years later.

My wife’s great-great-great-grandfather, John Apple, was living beside Young’s Creek, while Henry David Thoreau was living beside Walden Pond, both of them likely stewing about the state of our nation. I wonder what place brought them peace whenever they thought of it?