Seventeen years ago, my mother purchased a tiny cabin near Cooke City, Montana, right at the northeast portal of Yellowstone National Park. It’s a blonde log cabin, 12 by 14 feet, but with the sleeping loft it was her idea. She loved that cabin. She spent about six weeks per year there usually all alone with her miniature schnauzer, Boswell, though she had a few friends in nearby cabins that are better than most of our homes. She read a book a day. It wasn’t Tolstoy or even Jane Austen, but still. My mother gave me that cabin two years ago and she died this summer on July ninth in Bismarck, North Dakota, so I went out there this last weekend to close up for the long Montana winter and to clear out her clothing and other personal effects. I filled 15 large black garbage bags with things that no longer had any reason to be in that cabin, some for the landfill, some for Goodwill and a few for me.
It was a melancholy business. Every item had been brought there by my mother over the last 17 years, perhaps the happiest years of her life. Certainly the happiest zip code of her life. Things that I unceremoniously now tossed into bags had significance for her, a gift from a friend, a memento from a journey in the park. A book that she read on the deck of the cabin on a particularly beautiful summer day. Had she had been with me last weekend and I had proposed such a purge she would have fought for well more than half of everything I plucked off the shelves, out of cabinets, bins and drawers, and by the way, she would have won those fights and she would also have said, physician, heal thyself. My mother didn’t give a rip about Henry David Thoreau; I’m using her very words. She found him righteous and preachy, and she was never a minimalist with respect to material possessions, but her cabin is almost precisely the size of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts.
My purpose now is to make it as spare and minimalist as I can. This will come in several waves as I grow more courageous. My guiding principle comes straight out of Walden. In the first-grade chapter Economy, Thoreau writes, “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still and threw them out the window in disgust.” I love the principle and I also love the metaphor. Thoreau’s argument is breathtakingly simple and 180 degrees out of sync with American life. His view was that if you actually asked yourself what you need, not what you want and pared down your life accordingly, not only would you get out from under the mountain of stuff that must be dusted or stored or shelved, not to mention paid for, but that with radical simplification of your life, your soul would be able to wake up and thrive.
The burden of life is partly the accumulation of material things that we, as it were, carry on our shoulders day after day, year after year, thus preventing us from really breathing or seeing or listening to the dictates of our hearts and souls. My cabin is so small that there’s no room for clutter. The dishes have to be done after every meal. Each of the few things the cabin can wisely contain has a place, a shelf, a cubby a ledge. If you spent a couple of days not tending to this, you’d be tripping all over yourself. There was room for 250 books in the cabin, but not 2,500. There is a television linked to an ugly and marring satellite dish outside, but I never turned it on in the three days I spent there. The cabin can hold two sets of sheets, but not a dozen. The first day I was there, I cleared out everything I thought should go.
Then I slept on it, and the second day I cleared out an equal number of items though I had to stop and debate some of those things with myself and with the ghost of my mother’s fist shaking over my shoulder. On the third morning I cleared out still more. How many coffee mugs does one really need? Is that plaque that says what happens in the cabin, stays in the cabin worth dusting? And wouldn’t Thoreau say if you have to hide your life within boards and fences, maybe you need to rethink your life. I worked like Thoreau in the mornings and in the afternoons I ventured into Yellowstone National Park. A week ago on camera in the badlands of North Dakota, I made the claim that our man, Thomas Jefferson, was the spiritual father of the national park system because A: he wanted to celebrate all that was unique and sublime in the American landscape, and B: he purchased the natural bridge in western Virginia to make sure it was never exploited for commercial or industrial purposes.
He told friends, including Maria Cosway, that it was worth a trip across the Atlantic to see, and in her case, paint the natural bridge. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, 46 years after Jefferson’s death and 2052 miles from Monticello. You need only imagine what Jefferson would have thought about boiling mud pots, geysers, clusters or browsing moose or Yellowstone falls. He got what he called a violent headache merely by sitting on top of the natural bridge in his home state. In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are at the natural bridge.” Just imagine if he had seen the wonders of the American West, the Grand Canyon, the redwoods, Yosemite Glacier National Park or Old Faithful. It’s the sublime squared and the sublime cubed. My mother had favorite places in the park. I stopped at some of them to say farewell.
Unfortunately, she was one of the millions who prefer to view our national parks through a windshield. On Saturday, I hiked a few miles along the Lamar River trail. It was a perfect October day and the park was essentially empty. Certainly the trails were empty and I could sense in the air that the long lock of winter is not many days or weeks off. The sky was perfect. The river was the bluest blue you have ever seen. Heartbreaking in its beauty. As I strolled back to my car, a gang of 35 buffalo walked slowly past me to another pasture. They stared at me a little and the bulls snorted just to make sure I wasn’t going to do anything funny. The whole scene was what the distinguished great plains historian Daniel Flores calls American Serengeti. How can we ever sufficiently thank those who did this for us, Congress in this case, but Theodore Roosevelt above all others, and at the very beginning of our national destiny, Thomas Jefferson, who realized that American exceptionalism was in part the measure of the primordial magnificence of this continent.
Imagine if Yellowstone had been developed like the natural bridge before the state of Virginia obtained it, or like Dollywood or a Flintstones theme park or Branson, Missouri. Someone asked me the other day whether I’m more enamored of Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt. Jefferson by far. I replied, how about Jefferson or Meriwether Lewis? Still Jefferson though my soul responds to the parts of Lewis that Jefferson could never appreciate. How about Jefferson and Thoreau? Well, now you have me, I said. In my view, Walden is America’s greatest book and Thoreau is the voice we most need to hear in an America that is now the world’s leader in type two diabetes, a land where people have annual garage sales to get rid of perfectly good things in order to make room for a whole new round of perfectly good and soul crushing things. And where it is in our spiritual interest to be skeptical about global climate change? Because if we really took it seriously as a threat to the planet, we might just have to adjust our lives in something like a Thoreauvian direction.
My cabin is now a better metaphor for my values than my house in North Dakota, which desperately needs a Thoreauvian sweep. I don’t even know where the three pieces of limestone are buried there, and there are not enough plastic bags in the nearest Home Depot to contain all that I must slough off if I wished to live a life of true wisdom and integrity. In his chapter Economy, Thoreau says it perfectly: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts nor even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates.”
A life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. I’ve got some problems to solve and the dust in my world is knee deep. My hope is that Walden Two, my cabin out at the portal of America’s first and greatest national park, will help me to find the courage and the strength to simplify.