From Children’s Forts to Writers’ Cabins

Every poet should write an ode to forts. Here’s mine:

Defending the Fort

In the dryer my wet sneakers thump like dinosaur heartbeats.
My model glue dries in my Messerschmidt.
Upstairs, my mother’s feet walk on kitchen linoleum
that sounds like tape coming unstuck, needing to be fixed.
“Add it to the list,” said my father before leaving:
the list I never saw, though I had to be on it for my slip
carving a pine wood derby car with an X-acto knife.
The scar above my knee looks like a purple worm.

I turn up the television for The Wild Wild West,
so my mother won’t hear me walk on the padded pipe,
leading like a balance beam from the washing machine
around the corner, squeezed between the panel board wall
and cold cement, to the window like a bunker hatch.
I shimmy up into the crawl space of dry dirt
and dim light under my mother’s bedroom,
a place so secret not even the snakes leave tracks.

I’m plotting victory for G.I. Joe in desert camouflage,
striding his Sherman Tank with rolling treads.
Killed fifty times already without a broken part,
he’s not afraid of Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, or Michael Chippetta,
who fixed his plastic flintlock to fire acorns last autumn.
Now the retired dentist in the yellow house between us
has gotten so mad about weeding oak saplings
he’s threatened my mother he’ll get a Doberman pinscher.

Acorns forbidden, I’ve gathered chestnuts, walnuts, butternuts,
and peach pits for ammunition in G.I. Joe’s sandy crater.
Every day he does a hundred push-ups, wipes dust
off the cannon, sits guard so squirrels won’t steal
our ammo. He’s read all my comic books.
He knows the next assault could be World War III.
It’s my mother who doesn’t understand the threat
of chocolate chip cookies smelling in the oven.
She’ll ask where I got the dirt on my knees.

To truly appreciate my fort, however, I had to turn forty and move into a log cabin. Before then, I’d spent ten years in Hoboken upstairs from the Clam Broth House, an historic institution overtaken by video games in the bar but still serving free clam broth in styrofoam cups. At first I’d floundered, then I’d become an editorial assistant in book publishing, and then I’d launched off on my own as a freelance journalist for the Hoboken Reporter and other publications. After landing a job at a small environmental magazine in Connecticut, I moved with my wife into midtown Manhattan to be a reverse commuter. But five years amid the steel and glass apartment towers drained the last of my urban enthusiasms. If not for forays into Central Park, I would have been bereft in midtown’s luxury dungeon. In 1996 I made the big jump to a Catskills log cabin.

To me, it was a tree house perched on the bench of a hemlock hillside above a stream. The dark brown logs and weathered green roof camouflaged in with the tree trunks and needles, the padded brown duff of the forest floor, the lichens and moss dressing the bare broken bedrock exposed behind the wood pile. The balcony-like porch facing the stream stood up on stilts. A mature yellow birch grew through a cut hole in the porch corner. I considered this tree the world’s fattest flag pole waving the green leaves of my new independence. At night, seated at my table, I savored the illusion that my tree house had transformed into a galleon docked against the trunks of the dark forest because of the way the light from my windows made the porch railing resemble a ship railing. I was happily at sea in my imagination. I had no window curtains because no one was out there to see me.

For a magazine assignment, I dug into the subject of children and nature. Prominent naturalists had noted with regret that today’s youngsters weren’t having the childhoods they’d had, freely roaming the swamps in search of bullfrogs and snakes, or slipping off into ditches or woodlots to explore what they naturally found fascinating. Today’s children sat for electronic entertainment, instead. Plus, they had busy schedules. There was a general fear against leaving children alone outdoors that didn’t exist in the Sixties when I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs. Our shortcut to elementary school took us through the woods, a natural play land with a swamp, cliffs, and a cave to excite our imaginations. Once, we’d dug up a skunk cabbage that we’d brought to our teacher for plant day. In those woods we’d felt adventurous yet safe, free to play Tarzan but not far from home if someone should bloody a knee. In them, as well, had been the origins of my midlife move to a log cabin, the start of my romance with the woods. After fifteen years of urban life, I felt my childhood resurfacing in the Catskills. Here’s a poem about the end of my marriage and the beginning of a new life.

The Snake at the End

She didn’t want to watch
the black snake uncoiling its wetness
on the laurel branch.

I insisted and lifted the four foot skin
clear as finger nail onto the end
of my walking stick to admire the scales
from tail rings to belly planks to eyelid bubbles.
The nose wore the mark of a wishbone.

She found it repulsive
that I carried this souvenir on my stick
as eagerly as a boy with a baseball pennant
all the way down Slide Mountain
to decorate my new cabin.

She left before
I draped the skin on my stone mantelpiece,
expanding the still life display
of chalky deer bones, birch bark scrolls,
pine cones, and the red sumac flower
standing in a vase like a velvet microphone.

After a month she filed papers,
and the snake skin smelled like a wet dog.
Now I was beginning to learn how things decay,
but not always for the worse. The mushroom that melted
overnight into a black puddle on my journal table
varnished the wood with an odor of licorice
I hadn’t savored since childhood.

Today, there’s a popular manifesto about the troubling absence of nature in contemporary childhood, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. In the late Nineties, however, I had to track down experts for myself. It was my good fortune find David Sobel of the Education Department at Antioch/New England Graduate School who’d written Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. At first I didn’t see the connection between forts and nature, but then I took a good look at my cabin.

Traditional psychology hasn’t emphasized the role of nature in our development. Freud did us a disservice by labeling middle childhood the “latency period,” Sobel argues, as if “nothing really significant happens between the change of teeth and the onset of puberty.” The view prevails that “the really big qualitative changes happen when children stop believing in Santa Claus at six or seven years of age and when pubescent adolescents discover mirrors at age twelve or thirteen.” Sobel favors another model devised by Joseph Pearce that establishes the “latency period” as, instead, the “Earth Matrix” during which children bond with nature.

“The child spends the first three to four years of life establishing a firm relationship with the mother/family matrix,” Sobel writes. “At around four years old, the well-bonded child begins to actively explore the earth matrix. He or she becomes interested, for example, in how roads fit together or in finding out where animals live. Children start to get lost at this age because they wander off, intrigued to find out where kitty is going. By age seven, children feel comfortable enough in the natural and social worlds to differentiate themselves from the family and step into the earth matrix. They start to make a home for themselves in the natural world. Children’s neighborhood maps show a significant change around this age. Up to age seven, the family house is drawn quite large and usually in the center of the map. After this age, the size of the house decreases rapidly, the family home moves to the periphery of the map, and the landscape of the neighborhood takes center stage.”

“As they start to sense their independence from parents, they start to feel a need to have a separate space. Younger children do this in the form of blankets over tables, the space underneath the stairwell, the wardrobe in the attic. But starting around seven, children want these places to be outside the house, both as a way of separating from parents and because they want to be in the natural world,” Sobel continues. In his research he has found forts “in the backyards of New England and on the banks of Florida’s Suwanee River, from the urban woodlands of Washington’s Rock Creek Park to the dry canyons of Los Angeles’s expansive suburbs.” Often they were in inconspicuous settings, even waste places, for the keys to them were privacy, secrecy, and independence. And they functioned as cocoons for psychological development. “I suspect that it is the sense of self, the ego about to born, that is sheltered in these private places. The onset of puberty in adolescence initiates an often painful focus on ‘Who am I?’ The construction of private places is one of the ways that children physically and symbolically prepare themselves, in middle childhood, for this transition.”

“During this period of middle childhood, the self is fragile and under construction and needs to be protected from view of the outside world. The secretive nature of the hiding place is significant. The self, like the metamorphosing larva of the butterfly, needs to be wrapped in a cocoon before it emerges into the light. Thus, the place that children seek out are places where they cannot be seen, places to begin the unfolding of the self.”

“In these places, children have experiences that are not shared in the broad, adult, or social milieu. The experience of finding a place that is ‘just for me’ or that ‘I built all by myself’ transmutes into a sense of personal uniqueness. The special place outside serves to symbolize the special person inside.”

“These places are called forts because they serve as retreats from the forces of the world. As the notion of the self starts to mature in middle childhood, children start to perceive how fragile their individuality is in face of the big world outside. The small, manageable world of the fort, with everything pulled inside, is calm and reassuring. It provides a protective barrier within which personal forces can be summoned to deal with the onslaught of otherness.”

My cabin certainly fit the description. I was in retreat. The job in Connecticut had soured until I’d been fired. My marriage had ended. In fifteen years of Hoboken and Manhattan I’d failed to accomplish what I’d intended upon college graduation: to become a novelist. I’d started to lose parents. My father-in-law, who’d been a surrogate father, had fallen to cancer several years earlier. My mother, though still alive, had suffered crippling strokes that confined her to a nursing home, mentally car wrecked, unable to remember a conversation from sentence to sentence. Confused, helpless, depressed, she was stuck in purgatory, still my mother but not someone who could understand me. Thoreau was twenty seven when he went to Walden. Almost forty I was a bit slower, but I wanted to start over with the pared-down life of a cabin.

Upstairs was my writing loft. The cathedral ceiling gave me cozy desk space under log beams seemingly dipped in amber. Seated at my computer, I was happily ensconced more than I’d ever been in an apartment or office. Rarely a phone call or fax, never a knock on the door. In summer I left the downstairs door open for the softy rushing sound of the stream. A green throated warbler sang from the hemlocks its buzzy, five-beat song: zee zee zee zoo zee. The window facing the back hillside had twin phoebe nests on the outside top corners dangling loose straw and twigs. This place was half-Hobbit, half summer camp. Needing a break, I descended the loft steps and stepped outside into the sunlight-laced hemlock shade to water a fern. With no one around, why waste a toilet flush? Back upstairs, I could work into the night when mice made their electric squeaks from deep within the crawl space closet. In time my desk acquired little totems: a candle with paper silhouettes of pine trees and bears embedded in the wax, a soapstone carving of a bear that was gift from my former wife. I hung a paper mobile from the ceiling. On one side I’d glued a turkey feather. On the other I’d written an artist’s prayer for myself. “Oh earth, water, sky/let me join your river of words.//I will trust you beyond good reason/and expect miracles as small/as toadstools, as grand as eagles,//Most of all I will offer my words to you,/earth, water, sky,/as my gift of thanks.” As poetry it made me cringe. It was an Artist’s Way exercise. But as sentiment it was the truth.

I realized that writers must like cabins for the same reasons children like forts. They’re private and personal. They’re outposts from which to think back on society and the past. They’re incubators for the imagination that entertains itself in solitude. “The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates. He finds this is a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity. His most significant moments are those in which he attains some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone,” writes Anthony Storr in Solitude: A Return to the Self. He criticizes traditional psychology for presuming that human relationships are the foundation of happiness. Often, he counters, but not always. Edward Gibbon, the prodigious historian of the Roman empire, lived quite content as a bachelor and said: “conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

Surely, there are countless tales about writer’s cabins. Let me share two culled from The New Yorker during the period when I became fascinated by forts. First is a profile of Philip Roth at home in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut in 2000 in which David Remnick writes, “Roth wakes early and, seven days a week, walks fifty yards or so to a two-room studio. The front room is outfitted with a fireplace, a desk, and a computer set up on a kind of lectern where he can write standing up, the better to preserve a bad back…He stays out here all day and into the evening: no telephone, no fax. Nothing gets in. In the later afternoons, he takes long walks, often trying to figure out connections and solve problems in the novel that’s possessing him.” Remnick later adds, “For a long time, Roth kept two small signs near his desk. One read, ‘Stay Put,’ the other, ‘No Optional Striving.’ Optional striving appears to be a category that includes everything save writing, exercise, sleep, and solitude.” Apparently, Roth reserves for his fictional characters the tragicomic adventures of the libertines who animate his novels. By this monkish devotion, Roth has produced one of the most acclaimed strings of books of the past twenty years. In many of them, the narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who has retired from the public spotlight to a house in the Massachusetts hills. Trouble always seems to start when he ventures down from the mountain.

The other example is Arthur Miller, whose story I read at a poignant time. After ten years in her nursing home, my mother had a final stroke that quickly brought her to her end, mercifully so, I thought, after her purgatory of mental disorientation and depression. Her condition had left me with a deep sense of fatalism I may never shake. No one can tell me she had reason to suffer the way she did. Yet her death would provide one of the great gifts of my life, an inheritance that would enable me to quit freelance journalism to write poems and essays full time. Not that I could upgrade from a cabin to a mansion, but I could cover my modest rent and start buying health insurance besides. At that time, though, I still drove my old beater car, which was in the shop for long-neglected servicing after it had begun choking and nearly stalling on hills. To join my father and brother in Connecticut I’d taken the bus, and on the night ride back to the Catskills I read in The New Yorker issue that I’d grabbed from their house an article that was my dream of a writer’s cabin writ large.

In April 1948, flush with success from “All My Sons” on Broadway, Arthur Miller left his wife and young family in Brooklyn for a while to build himself a cabin uphill from a country house he’d recently bought in Roxbury, Connecticut. “Miller had a play in mind, too; his impulse for the cabin was ‘to sit in middle of it, and shut the door, and let things happen.’” writes John Lahr in The New Yorker. Miller had two lines in mind for this drama about a traveling salesman: “Willy?” and “It’s all right. I came back.” “As he worked away on his cabin, he repeated the play’s two lines like a kind of mantra. ‘I kept saying, ‘As soon as I get the roof on and the windows in, I’m gonna start this thing,’ he recalls. ‘And indeed I started on a morning in spring. Everything was starting to bud. Beautiful weather,’” Lahr writes. “Miller had fashioned a desk out of an old door. As he sat down to it his tools and nails were still stashed in the corner of the studio, which was as yet unpainted and smelled of raw wood.” He started in the morning and didn’t stop until one or two in the morning. “It sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear them. I could hear them, literally.” By the time he fell into bed he’d finished the first act.

I can’t say I found “Death of a Salesman” in my cabin. But I did find the fertile solitude that I wanted. Freed from deadlines for the first time in forever, I became a night owl, no longer beholden to daytime working hours. I stayed up until four a.m. on cool summer nights, nestled in my loft alcove under warmly lit log beams while darkness filled the windows. I had the world to myself. I wrote differently, too. Rather than my earnest way with words, I went hog wild with puns and grandiose vocabulary, for I’d put aside my standard subjects to write something enthusiastically ridiculous, a mock epic poem set in Gotham in 2063 about a cabbie driving a New Age vehicle with aromatherapy vents and chakra spark plugs. I was having a hoot, being silly and unfettered, entertaining no one but myself alone in my cabin that spilled light into the black forest nobody else could see. One night after two a.m. I heard a visitor scrunching through the dry leaves piled below my window. It sounded like a raccoon but wasn’t. It was a skunk carrying its perfume, not the eye-watering stench from its spray, but a pungent reminder which I found to my surprise that I liked. Blessings come in disguises. I’d left a marriage for this cabin. I’d lost a mother for this gift of free time. But I was where I wanted to be. Back in the fort. Up in the writer’s loft. At play in the field of myself.

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