Chop Wood, Carry Water

Living in a cabin in the woods can be thrilling. But often this way of life can be overly romanticised. Thirteen years after moving into his first off-grid cabin, Jacob Witzling Hamby reflects on the wonders and frustrations of this way of life. Now living in the city of Boston, he returns to where he used to live to build the fifth cabin of his own design.

Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water.

As much as I love living in a little cabin with no electricity and no running water, it can be a real pain in the ass.

Chop wood, carry water.

Imagine doing your dishes. Trudging through the forest to the well, pumping out one gallon of water at a time, walking back to the cabin, heating it in a pot, being careful not to waste a drop. It’s certainly far easier to turn a faucet and have hot and cold water, dispensed at 2 gallons a minute, on demand. Similarly, turning up the heat on the thermostat is a lot easier than chopping down a tree, bucking up the trunk, splitting the logs, stacking the logs, letting them dry for a year, splitting the logs into kindling, re-stacking the logs, and, finally, making a fire. Flipping a switch is a lot easier than lighting a dozen candles. And laundry? Don't even get me started. So much time and effort is given to providing yourself with basic comforts when living in a cabin.

Jacob built this cabin from recycled materials in 2008.

Ironically, the difficulty of this lifestyle is the very thing that makes it so appealing. Living in such a way forces you to be intentional. It gives great satisfaction. I find I don’t need as much. I don’t want as much. At times it is a nuisance to have to chop wood and carry water. However, when the fire is built I truly appreciate the heat, something that is easy to take for granted when living in an apartment. I appreciate the effort exerted to provide myself warmth, continuing a human tradition passed on for hundreds of thousands of years. The benefits of making the fire reverberate through cabin life. The smell of the wood. The sound as it pops and crackles. But still, a thermostat is definitely easier.

I have always thought cabins were fantasy come to life. When I was growing up I had a book of handmade houses that I used to pore over. I ran my fingers across every detail of each house pictured in its pages. I was obsessed. At 16 I was lucky enough to move into my first cabin. Built in the 1920s as a woodsy escape for vacationing New Yorkers and Bostonians, this cabin did have electricity and a wood stove, but no bathroom. This semi-dilapidated shack, despite being only 100 metres from my mother’s house, gave me a taste for cabin life. At 19 I ventured out on my own and moved into my first truly off-grid cabin.

Tucked away in the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, my new home was surrounded by a dozen or more fern species, and moss hung like giant theatre curtains from trees over 50 metres tall. There were three cabins on the property, and over the following years, I stayed in them all. In each one I experienced the wonders and frustrations of cabin life. Something I realised though was that these cabins had not been made flawlessly. Their construction was not perfect. And this gave me the idea to build my own. If others could do it, I could do it. Right?

I was lucky enough to have been taught basic carpentry skills by my father; the only thing I needed was to find a place to build. By happenstance, a friend of mine had just purchased a small piece of land in the forest nearby, so I proposed that in exchange for building her a cabin, she allow me the rights to access the property for three years. With a nod and a handshake, at 23, I began to build my first cabin.

"When the fire is built I truly appreciate the heat, something that is easy to take for granted when living in an apartment. I appreciate the effort exerted to provide myself warmth, continuing a human tradition passed on for hundreds of thousands of years."

I cringe when people call me an artist, but it is true that, as with all art, I want those who experience my work to feel engaged, connected, and even emotional. I try to make sculptures that people can live in. Exist in. Experience the joys and struggles of life in. I reuse salvaged materials for the character they bring and for the environmental benefits that come from reducing and recycling. For several years in my early twenties, I made kaleidoscopes for a local craftsman. The kaleidoscope is based on the sacred geometry of triangles and other polygons, and my structures have been influenced by such shapes. I like sharp angles and steeply pitched roofs. I want my cabins to stand out as something unique whilst at the same time look like they are part of the environment.

Just as cabin living can be difficult, cabin building also comes with a great many challenges. I have primarily built them by myself, often refusing offers of help from friends and family. To me, working alone on my cabins is cathartic. Almost a private meditation. However, it’s hard on your body. Picking up every piece of material at least a few times. Moving it, stacking it, cutting it, nailing it, sanding it, staining it. I have mutilated my hands on many occasions, stopping saw and knife blades with flesh and bone. I've bloodied the cabins as a result of exhaustion and inattention. I’ve dropped to my knees on the forest floor with my head in my hands. I’ve wept to the ferns about how completely overwhelmed I am by the tasks I have taken on. I have never known exactly what I’m doing, but I decided long ago that if I waited until I’d learnt how to do something before doing it, I’d still be waiting. Just sometimes it hurts.

This was the second cabin that Jacob lived in and his home at age 20.

"To me, working alone on my cabins is cathartic. Almost a private meditation. However, it’s hard on your body. Picking up every piece of material at least a few times."

However, when I look at my hands, I see histories. I am exhilarated in knowing what I have done with them. With my hands, body and mind, I have built shelters up from muddy forest floors, I have shaped inhospitable patches of rainforest undergrowth into spaces that protect people from the elements yet do not isolate them from their environment. And there is nothing so pleasing as standing back from something and saying “I made this”.

Now I sit in my apartment. I hear the furnace turn on. I hear the dishwasher run. I try to remember. I try to remember what it feels like to be satisfied with so much less. I can easily forget and take a shower that is excessively long or leave the lights on when I run to the store. But when I return to the cabins I immediately remember. Like riding a bicycle. I’ve never forgotten really. And the next time I go back to my comfortable apartment with all its amenities I’ll try to carry more of that with me. I’ll try to keep the cabin mentality of being intentional and appreciative, no matter where I am. •

This story is from Volume Nine

The Wilderness Volume

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