Reaching for Fact and Reason from a Cabin in the Suburbs
By Daniel Nester
I was never a handy man. Whenever something breaks around the house, my first thought has never been to head out to the garage and grab the toolbox—it’s to look up a repairman on the internet, from the comfort of a recliner. When the pandemic hit, however, something took over me: I felt this unfamiliar desire to fix things, specifically to whip our backyard cabin into shape and make it my quarantine Walden Pond.
For the past 12 years, I’ve lived in Delmar, a section (hamlet, technically) of the Town of Bethlehem, a suburb just south of Albany, NY. Things are quiet here, maybe too quiet. Our town supervisor updates us on COVID-19 cases on Facebook. More than 1,500 people lined the main intersection to support Black Lives Matter. People talk about fireworks going off every night, but I never hear them here. To regard the pandemic and protests among 200-foot-tall pines seemed perverse. I felt restless. And that’s where the cabin comes in.
It really, really makes no sense that the cabin is there, but it’s there, in the back of our quarter-acre lot, behind our colonial-style house. According to a neighbor’s friend, it was built by the father-in-law of the original owner in the 1930s. When I walk inside it, I am surrounded by the old man’s handiwork: electrical outlets, a fireplace, a built-in chaise lounge. He ran a phone line out here even. Over the years, the cabin had fallen into disrepair. By the time we moved here, every window was broken. Inside were two boomboxes, a skanky sectional, and beer bottles on the floor. A black light fixture dangled from the ceiling. Before this year, I’d show the cabin off or post pictures on Instagram more than actually hang out in it. An old friend would visit and we’d come out here to smoke cigars, then we’d run back inside where it was warm and civilized.
With nothing but time at home, I set up shop in the backyard. I became part of a trend, a quarantine boom of DIY home improvement projects. In our part of New York State, it’s not uncommon to see hardware store parking lots filled with be-masked suburbanites looking for seeds, lumber, paint—anything to keep ourselves busy.
Cabin life can lead to a particularly American delusion of self-sufficiency. Henry David Thoreau, author of that bible of self-reliance, Walden, was supported by his family’s money earned from manufacturing pencils, whose mobility from the pen and quill made them the laptops of their day. I write in my cabin notebook: “Was Thoreau was the first suburbanite?”
News of the protests in the wake of police murder of George Floyd ensured that any time spent in the cabin would not leave the real world behind. The cabin turned into a DIY rehab project and a place to read and think. After reading James Baldwin one afternoon, I re-glazed a couple window panes. After dipping into Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstader’s 1963 classic, I rewired an outlet. Something about this reckoning followed by repair has helped me stay sane and engaged with the outside world.
Every once in a while, I think about the old man who built this cabin almost 100 years ago. The neighbor’s friend told us he actually lived out here. Did he not get along with his son- or daughter-in-law? Did the Great Depression turn him into a survivalist woodsman? Did he freeze his ass off out here in the winter? Where did he go to the bathroom?
I’m still not that handy, and the thing about fixing up an old cabin is it will never be completely fixed. The irony is that, working on this cabin alone, I’ve realized I need other people. I’ll get on Zoom to get tips from friends, or look at a video on how to replace a window hinge. It’s John Keats’ idea of “negative capability”—to wrestle with uncertainty, mystery, and doubt—applied to home repair. I’ve learned to repair what needs to be repaired and leave the rest alone. Out in the cabin, I’ve realized the joys of fixing one thing at a time.
Daniel Nester's most recent book is titled Shader. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and The American Poetry Review. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.