Quiet desperation

Using “white pine from the shores of Walden Pond and lumber salvaged from an old shack” Henry David Thoreau built a 10- by 15-foot cabin by the shores of Walden Pond. But Thoreau didn’t have to deal with the building codes, writes Michael Smith, a history and environmental studies professor at Ithaca College, on Inside Higher Ed.

Ithaca’s first-year students are reading Walden. The environmental studies department decided to build a model of Thoreau’s cabin, letting students, as the writer put it, “not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”

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.

Then the town bureaucrats demanded that the cabin conform to the building codes, which require a sprinkler system. The project stopped, waiting for a permit that may be issued in the spring. Or never.  I suppose it’s educational.

About Joanne


  1. Its frightening that bureaucrats are able to rain on every parade they set their sights on and the community has no mechanism to demand they back off and mind their own business.

  2. Yeah, well, you’d also be the first to complain about bureaucratic ineptitude the day after the “five die in fire” headline.

  3. bill eccleston says:

    I’ve always considered the texting shorthand “LOL” of our time inane and never imagined using it until I read this article. I think the students should adopt a “shove it” attitude toward the authorities, (civil disobedience, of course,) and force the case into a courtroom, then make a nationwide appeal for the most literate and wickedly clever lawyer in the country to represent them pro bono and, essentially, put Thoreau on the stand. Film it, too. And if they all go to jail for a night, even better!

  4. Five people inside a ten-by-fifteen building?

    This is a no-brainer for a variance.

  5. bill eccleston says:

    And I can’t help but add, in response to Mr. Downes: Your math is suspect, sir. It is unlikely that five people would ever die in Thoreau’s cabin; “I kept three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for company, three for society.” No doubt it will also be entered into the evidence that he kept a pail of water, too.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Thou shalt not kill.
    Thou shalt not bear false witness.
    Thou shalt not commit adultery.

    Thou shalt not build a playhouse without a sprinkler system.

  7. Thoreau brought his laundry home for his mother to do. That’s all I need to know about the guy.

  8. Diana Senechal says:

    Code violation or no, something seems wrong with the idea of turning the study of Walden into a group project.

  9. This situation provides a valuable vocational lesson for environmental studies students. After all, in a few years, they’ll be the ones working in city offices and nonprofits holding up building projects in order to conduct environmental impact statements. 🙂

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:


    I think what’s going on is that Walden was the great shared first-year book, and the environmental studies class is trying to capitalize on the theme by doing something Walden-ish. It’s not so much that they were studying Walden in an environmental studies class and it got turned into a group project.

  11. Even though I thought I knew all there was to know about Walden, one day I picked it up and actually read it.

    I was shocked by how good it was.

    It’s one of the few books I never tire of rereading.

  12. I love this project — I wish I could get my butt in gear enough to see if our township’s building inspectors can shut me down. Maybe next year.

    When I read _Walden_ with my 11th graders, their homework for a whole week includes thirty minutes a day sitting outside, with no society (no cell phones, iPod, human companionship), each session followed by a reflective journal. Then they have to pick one journal to turn it into a reflective essay in which — as per Thoreau or Annie Dillard — they start with an observation, try to understand it, then expand and abstract to what it might reflect about the greater world. (Yes, Diana, I do focus on it as quintessentially individual.)

    It’s interesting to hear the kids talk about how they liked sitting outside doing “nothing,” but never would have done it if it hadn’t been assigned. Oh yes, _Walden_ is definitely needed in our age. I wonder how widely it is still taught.

  13. Michael Smith says…”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.”

    If Prof Smith had ever tried to run a very large project for a very large company…say, building a new railyard for a railroad…he would encounter the same kind of bureaucratic obstructionism he has encountered with his cabin project, multiplied a thousandfold. Plus, he would hear himself denounced by environmental studies professors as an evil profiteer.

  14. Diana Senechal says:


    Be that as it may, it is an extension of the study of Walden. It is not that Thoreau built the house entirely alone; he borrowed an axe at the outset. He had some acquaintances help him set up the frame, “rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity.” He acquired boards by purchasing a shanty and breaking it down. Nonetheless, he did most of the building on his own, and that is how he heard “a stray goose groping about over the pond and cackling as if lost, or like the spirit of the fog”; that is how he became “more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it.”

    Of course, there was a purely practical aspect to his building–it allowed him to live on very little, and that was part of the plan. He thought students should do something similar, both to cut costs and to try the “experiment of living.” Maybe a more fitting project would have been to find something students could do for themselves in order to cut living costs. But building the hut seems like more of a direct tribute to Walden than having students cook their own meals, for instance.

    To me there is something skewed about having a group reconstruct his hut. Of course it has a beautiful aspect as well. It is a shame that the project was halted because of a code violation. I hope that they do get the permit so that they can complete what they started.

  15. This is odd.

    When this post first came out, I posted the first comment (because I follow RSS I can detect almost immediately when a post comes out) – you can see it above. A little bit later Engineer-Poet replied directly to mine. When I last looked at this post, that’s all the comments there were.

    I come back today, and a comment has magically appeared before mine – interestingly, exactly one minute before. Another comment has been inserted inbetween mine and the engineer’s.

    The narrative has as a consequence been completely changed. When I say “you’d also be the first to complain” I am referring specifically to Joanne Jacobs, who is a chronic complainer and dumper-on of all things public education.

    But now it looks as though I am responding directly to the previous comment. The vaguely named ‘sunana’ talks about bureaucrats, and I’m talking about bureaucrats!

    Then bill eccleston makes explicit the point of the post, “the students should adopt a ‘shove it’ attitude toward the authorities,” and then two posts down expands on Engineer-Poet’s point: “It is unlikely that five people would ever die in Thoreau’s cabin.”

    The net result is that, instead of my making a point that directly addressed the core weakness of the Jacob column, I appear to be engaged in trivial disputes with the other commenters.

    Now the times of the comments are set by the server, and therefore cannot be blamed on time zone variance. Moreover, I checked the comments myself well after the time had passed in other time zones.

    So I conclude that this is fishy. At the very least, it demands an explanation. How are comments that are being posted later appearing at the top of the list?

  16. I observed the same thing. I suspect that comments being stuck in some kind of queue may be the issue.

  17. Engineer-Poet is correct. Comments by newcomers go into a pending queue until I get a chance to read and approve them. At that time, the comment is posted by when it was received originally.

    Once approved, a commenter is automatically approved for future comments. However, sometimes even a veteran commenter ends up in the pending queue, possibly because they’re using a different computer. My program sees links as evidence of spam, so I sometimes have to rescue link-rich comments from the spam filter. And sometimes weird stuff happens.