“I am a piece of art,” wrote Tom Montgomery Fate in his 2008 Orion essay “The Art of Dying.” Alert readers may notice glimmers of that essay in Fate’s new book, Cabin Fever, which, in some ways, stretches the notion of body and life as art in directions reminiscent of Thoreau. We asked the author about the beginnings of Cabin Fever—the story of Fate’s efforts to live deliberately in the Michigan woods—out now from Beacon Press.
The idea for Cabin Fever came during a sabbatical year, when I had decided to do a study of Walden and Thoreau’s journals. The more I read the more startled I became about Thoreau’s enduring relevance. His commitment to the environment, his material self-sufficiency, and his “less is more” economics powerfully resonates in a high-tech, high-speed culture, which excels at making waste and war.
Despite the vast distances of time and culture, I soon began to read Thoreau’s artful interrogation of his life at Walden Pond as a critique of my own. So I decided to write a nature memoir that was a modern conversation with Thoreau, but from a very different perspective—that of a harried father of three living in an affluent suburb. At the time, I was also trying to build a cabin in the woods on our communal farm in Michigan—so the timing for the project was just right.
Thoreau himself gave me more motivation. In the first chapter of Walden he seems to anticipate those readers who would naively aspire to his ideals: “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living,” he writes. “But I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way.” Even when no one would buy his books, and long before there were Thoreau “wannabes,” he advised readers to listen for their own drummer, and find their own way through the forest.
I found the organizing principle for the book in the one word that I think best describes Thoreau: deliberate––as in “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” I discovered that deliberate is etymologically tied to libra, and libration—to the two-pan scale of justice. I began to try to imagine Thoreau’s quest for a deliberate life as a search for balance: first, as a search for balance within himself––as a person and as a writer—a balance between the I and the eye, between self and world, but also between many other things.
Each chapter in Cabin Fever is a deliberation on two significant aspects of human experience: nature and technology, reason and instinct, art and activism, love and sex, religion and spirituality, and many others. My hope is that each chapter will feel like an invitation to readers—to consider their own struggles for balance in their own lives—and a reintroduction to Thoreau’s increasingly pertinent work.
Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of Beyond the White Noise and Steady and Trembling. He teaches at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.