Random seating at a luncheon placed me alongside a 10-year-old boy and his father. The occasion was the annual spring fundraiser held by the Listening Point Foundation, which honors the late writer and naturalist Sigurd Olson. The foundation exists to preserve Olson's legacy of wilderness education, his home and writing shack in Ely, and the land and cabin he called Listening Point on Burntside Lake. Other participants around us were discussing personal experiences with Listening Point and opening up their own cabins for another season of fun. I asked the youngster if he had a cabin.
"We have a place on a lake up by Ely," he said. I pressed him for the name of the lake and, when he offered it, told him of my adventures near there. He warmed up and went on to enthusiastically describe his favorite activities at the lake—swimming, fishing off the dock, and catching crayfish along the shore. I asked him for more details on his cabin. His father listened in, smiling at the conversation.
"I wouldn't really call it a cabin," the boy said reluctantly. "It's pretty big."
Young as he was, he had somehow picked up on the nuances of the term cabin, a word that has suffered a bit definition-wise lately. For example, when I mention my lake cabin, many people seem surprised when they ask for details and find out that my wife and I, "seniors" by most definitions, still enjoy the simple life at a cabin that measures only 16 feet by 20 feet—much smaller than most suburban garages. There's usually more surprise when they learn its amenities are limited to an outhouse and a wood stove. My neighbors at the lake often refer to it as "the wee house."
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cabin as "a small, roughly built house." Merriam–Webster calls it "a small one-story dwelling usually of simple construction." Further digging suggests that the word cabin is derived from the 14th-century Medieval Latin term capanna, or hut.
These definitions are pretty straightforward and generally describe my cabin. Except that mine is actually two stories, and I, having labored mightily while constructing it, take exception to the "roughly built" part of the first definition. I might not be a master craftsman, but some of my friends and family who helped during critical parts of construction are, and I am pretty darn happy with the result.
Cabin Writers. I wonder if Henry David Thoreau, a famous American cabin writer, might also have taken umbrage to this "roughly built" term. He built the cabin that was immortalized in his classic Walden from trees cut with a borrowed ax, some recycled lumber, and minimal amounts of purchased items like nails and hinges. The 10-by-15-foot structure included a rock hearth and chimney he built from local materials.
While the cabin was his main abode and the fruit of some hard labor, his book does not linger long on architecture or interior design details. His focus is on the surrounding environment—the pond, trees, critters—and the simple lifestyle he espouses at length. The book is a difficult read, with antiquated and laborious language by today's standards. However, stick with it and gems of wisdom are discovered. One idea sums up the philosophy of life at my cabin and hopefully others: "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?"
This lack of emphasis on the structure itself carries through to other famous cabin writers such as Aldo Leopold. He purchased an old Wisconsin farm in 1935 and wrote about the land and his activities in A Sand County Almanac. Published in 1949, just after his death and almost 100 years after Thoreau's Walden, the book is still required reading for formal ecology and wildlife management courses. In his writings, Leopold most often referred to the cabin as "the shack." The one-room family retreat was actually a remodeled chicken coop.
The chapter called "Great Possessions" is a great read for any cabin dweller. Stepping out the cabin door at 3:30 on a July morning with a pot of coffee and notebook, Leopold sits down on a bench and chronicles the birds calling as they awake to the early light. First, field sparrows. Then a robin, followed by an oriole. This is an experience I've often replicated from my cabin deck as the world wakes up before sunrise in the northern Minnesota forest.
Back to the Listening Point cabin. I've been there many times, both in group settings when history flows from knowledgeable tour guides and by myself for quiet contemplation. The cabin is a simple shelter, which for much of its original life was actually a chicken coop—almost eerily like Leopold's shack. In his book Listening Point, Olson said he discovered the abandoned building on a local farm "with the roof still sound and the logs silvery gray." Though the weathered chicken-coop-turned-cabin was just what he was looking for, he does not mention its previous use. But the cabin did fulfill his quest for woodsiness, he wrote: "We wanted red squirrels spiraling down the trunks of the pine and vaulting onto the roof as though it were part of the trees themselves."
However, to call the Listening Point cabin "roughly built" would be an insult to the original Finnish carpenters who painstakingly fitted the logs and notched dovetailed corners with Old World craftsmanship. The current craftsmen that maintain its timeless simple beauty would likely also not be pleased.
So that brings us back around to that argument or question: What really is a cabin? How big can it be? How many stories? How elaborate in construction? If we heed the words of these legendary writers, maybe we shouldn't be worrying about the cabin's size or construction or appearance. What matters most to these icons of American nature writing is the natural world surrounding the cabin.
That said, I have to think that Thoreau, Mr. Simple Living himself, would have approved of the final exchange between the young son and his father at the fundraiser. "It doesn't matter how big it is," his dad said. "We can call it a cabin if we want to."
"Dad, we can't call it a cabin," his son objected. "It has air conditioning!"