If Henry Could See Us Now

When some colleagues thought they would enhance student reading of Walden by reconstructing Thoreau's cabin, they ran into bureaucracy that offered its own lessons, writes Michael Smith.

November 2, 2010

"Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?" So writes Henry David Thoreau in the first chapter of Walden, in the middle of a lengthy disquisition about the meaning of shelter in mid-19th century America. Using white pine from the shores of Walden Pond and lumber salvaged from an old shack, Thoreau stimulated his own poetic faculties by constructing his 10- by 15-foot dwelling at the outset of his famous sojourn.

With Thoreau’s exhortation and example firmly in mind and the blessing of the college administration, the department of environmental studies and sciences undertook the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin as our contribution to Ithaca College’s First Year Reading Initiative for 2010. The president had selected Walden as the text that would be sent to all incoming first-year students. Few books could serve as so stimulating a provocation in our hyper-mediated age, when it is harder than ever "to front the essential facts of life," when more people than ever seem to be living lives of quiet desperation. Reconstructing Thoreau’s cabin, therefore, not only resonated well with my department’s values, but would offer students an opportunity to, in Thoreau’s own vision of higher education, "not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end." (Emphasis original.)

Over the course of the summer everyone we contacted about helping with the project was enthusiastic. The local timber framers who had the tools and expertise to lead the build, the salvager who would provide us with the wood, and the local re-use center where we would get the windows and which would help us with the de-nailing — all leaped at the chance to participate, in many cases offering their services free or at a steep discount. Students, faculty, alumni, and community members who learned about the project all expressed a desire, even a craving, to become involved, to be able to build with their own hands. Their answer to Thoreau’s question, "Shall we ever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?" was loud and clear.

And so sketches were made. A crew of students and faculty spent a day and a half pulling hemlock boards and timbers from a collapsed 120-year-old barn. The campus site for the build was selected. We sent the hand-drawn sketches to an architect friend to be rendered as computer-designed drawings.

And that was the moment when the magic of creative possibility conjured by Thoreau dissipated in the reality of 21st-century America. We can't say we weren’t warned by Henry himself, who had observed even in the 1840s that human institutions often serve those who created them in unwelcome ways. Our well-meaning friend innocently inquired, "Are you sure you won’t need a building permit for this project?"

An educational project temporarily occupying a space for a year, a 150-square-foot cabin? Surely not.

But, alas, once even our innocent inquiries were made, the Town of Ithaca bureaucrats scampered into their iron cages and set about their regulatory duties — duties, it should be said, the people have charged them with. Unable to see how irrelevant modern building codes were for this project, the director of code enforcement immediately declared our plans as drawn were a menace to public health and safety. The entire thing was transformed from frustration to farce when he insisted that the cabin would need ... a sprinkler system.

At least as frustrating was the inability of the college’s own bureaucracy to either defend the principle that this project was not even subject to review (there were precedents for such an argument) or to advocate for an expedited process. Not without reason, the college administration was fearful of alienating the local government over a project that was a low priority compared to the massive building projects under way and anticipated. No matter how powerful the experience of reconstructing the cabin might be for a few hundred students, no matter that such a project conforms more closely to the vision of higher education I believe in (and Thoreau seems to have as well) than the new 130,000-square foot athletics and events center, no one was willing to challenge the town’s misapplication of rules, at least not in time to make a difference.

And so the salvaged wood sits in a storage facility awaiting its transformation, awaiting its opportunity to transform. If the town issues a permit, the winter does not stretch too far into April (as it sometimes does in these parts), and it is possible to remobilize the reconstruction team in the spring, we may yet find a replica of Thoreau’s cabin standing on our campus. If it does get built it will be as much an emblem of how accurate Thoreau’s characterizations of our society were (and are) as a triumph of experiential learning.

Even if the project becomes another one of those good ideas that run afoul of the sclerotic bureaucracies that too often hamper creativity, however, those of us most closely involved have learned, as Thoreau had, that we often forge our own chains. Our experience has confirmed the essential truth that we are almost all conformists, bound by rules and conventions we seldom question and even more rarely challenge. We need rules; who would want to live in a modern society without the rule of law? But we need to consciously consider and reconsider both the rightness of a given rule and the proper application of it. Throughout Walden Thoreau — sometimes gently, sometimes stridently — admonishes us to defy convention and seek our own path, his way of considering and reconsidering the boundaries we set for ourselves. "How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!" he lamented. He found the expression of original thought and belief "a phenomenon so rare that I would any day walk ten miles to observe it."

In his equally famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (now commonly called “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau writes, “The mass of men serve the state... not as men mainly, but as machines... . In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they have put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.” Thoreau condemned servility in the face of state immorality on a grand scale — in his time, this immorality was slavery and the war of aggression against Mexico that was a product of the debate over slavery.

Yet he clearly also believed that our submissiveness in the face of injustice — or, in our case in the face of intractable bureaucracy — begins with the habits of mind we cultivate in our day-to-day activities. In a provocative passage from Walden on clothes Thoreau writes, “I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.” Conscience may, at times, require clean clothes (I doubt if Thurgood Marshall would have gotten very far in his legal career without them), and Thoreau himself counseled that a person should “maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet such.” But when social acceptance becomes the guiding principle of one’s life, when we blindly follow the spoken and unspoken rules of our culture, the world becomes a blander, less just place.

I am in no way trying to raise our impeded attempt to reconstruct Thoreau’s cabin on a privileged college campus to the level of injustice embodied by apartheid or Jim Crow, to name but two of the oppressive systems defied by people operating under Thoreau’s influence (though I like to imagine Thoreau being summoned to the town office for code violations). But I do wonder what it says about our society when we adhere so assiduously to rules and permits for things like a humble cabin while at the same time multinational corporations operate with virtual impunity. Whether it is the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, or the poisoning of millions of gallons of water through natural gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing in my part of the country, or factory farms in Iowa that have hens laying eggs over two year old fecal piles, the absence of meaningful rules and regulations has profoundly compromised human and ecosystem health on a staggering scale. And what of the carte blanche given investment banks, in which case the absence of oversight brought the entire global financial system to its knees? But the cabin must have its sprinkler system or public safety will be jeopardized!

We too often regulate the small things inflexibly, while ignoring the behaviors and habits of thought that pose genuine threats to our — and the organisms with which we share this planet’s — very survival. Or, worse, we allow corporations to buy themselves exemptions from oversight, either through the now-legalized bribery of massive campaign contributions or in less visible ways (for just one example, see the behavior of the Minerals Management Service under the Bush administration, behavior that directly contributed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster). The result is what can seem like the worst of all possible worlds: common folk feeling oppressed by regulations that seem omnipresent and inflexible while the wealthy and powerful can often get away with murder.

Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, Thoreau finishes Walden on an optimistic note, most famously telling us "that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams ... he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." We tell our students some variant of this sentiment from the moment they arrive on campus until the last echo of the commencement speech. Our confidence may have faltered over the past few weeks as we advanced toward our modest little dream of reconstructing Henry’s cabin on campus. There remain innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to surmount before we can build the version of the cabin we envision — sans sprinkler system. Perhaps students will yet wield chisels, froes, handsaws, augurs, and hammers, and in so doing develop their poetic faculties as they contemplate the meaning of the rough-hewn, handmade cabin they have built on a modern college campus.


Michael Smith teaches history and environmental studies at Ithaca College.


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