In this video from May 2022, I walk from the busy crossroads into Walden Woods and to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, where he lived for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days from July 1845. I add a stone brought from Century Wood to the cairn by the cabin site. I then look at the wildlife and views of the pond and the forest.
I went to the cinema yesterday for the first time since 2019, to see “Land”, starring and directed by Robin Wright, in which her character, Edee, moves to a remote cabin in Wyoming following a tragedy in her former life. I think a lot of the reviewers have missed the point and in this post I dig deeper to explain how it worked for me, and how that’s based on the whole idea of living in a cabin in the wilderness.
I hadn’t planned to see the film but I was in Manchester for the first time this year and I had enough spare for its 90 minutes. I went through Victoria Station on my eventual way to the Vue cinema at the Printworks. The flowers and other tributes from the recent anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 were still there, and I still had that grief at the back of my mind when I saw the film, in which grief is a major theme.
The film is an emotional journey set against the dramatic mountain landscape. The elements of suspense are in trying to understand the characters’ back stories as the clues accumulate. This post contains spoilers about Edee’s backstory. The further you read, the more spoilers. But there are no major plot spoilers here which are not revealed in the film’s own publicity, including the trailer.
The basic premise is that Edee is a lawyer who has suffered some terrible tragedy and leaves her life in Chicago and her concerned sister Emma behind. She presumably sells up most of her belongings, packs up what she needs in a rented car and trailer, and drives to the northwest of Wyoming, on the edge of the Shoshone National Forest which is adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. The movie itself was filmed in 29 days in Alberta, Canada, at an altitude of 8000ft, and it really shows.
Here she buys a large area of land: enough to be on a mountainside and own everything in the foreground of your view. To be unbothered by trespassers. That is what Edee wants as she is seeking to get away from people. She even arranges with the estate agent to have the rental car taken away when she arrives.
Her property has a log cabin on that mountainside with the majestic view, in which an old man lived and left all the tools needed for survival, including a rifle which she shies away from. The cabin used was built on site specially for the film.
We start to see flashbacks to Edee’s former life with her husband and little boy. We assume they’ve died and this is why she has withdrawn from society. She also imagines them there with her, enjoying the forests and river and feeling at home and happy there, as she struggles with it all.
She has brought supplies for the winter, but she finds her life at the cabin very difficult. For example, she is dependent on firewood for heating, but flounders as she tries using a saw and an axe to turn a small tree trunk into usable logs. She tries using a book about hunting and fishing to supplement her supplies, with mixed results. Even the rather grim and derelict outdoor toilet is daunting.
The setbacks accumulate as predators and winter draw in, but she is eventually helped by a hunter who lives in a nearby town: Miguel, played by Demián Bichir, with a rich and hard to place accent that’s somewhere between his native Mexico, French Canadian, and Native American. They agree he will teach Edee to trap and hunt, and then he will leave her alone.
You could make another film using those elements. Probably one with Reese Witherspoon earlier in her career: helpless city woman flees to a cabin in the woods, flounders around with axes and fishing rods, but is helped, befriended and then loved by a taciturn local man, who himself learns how to open up his feelings. I wonder if these thoughts were lurking in the minds of some unimpressed reviewers?
With Miguel’s help she does indeed learn to live on the land she has chosen. She becomes confident and competent, and can finally lead the isolated and self-reliant life she came to the wilderness to experience. This next clip summarises where she’s got to, and how she sees it. Edee says: “I want to notice more. Notice everything around me more. Know more about here. Be able to survive here and appreciate it.” Miguel responds that she can indeed survive there alone now.
This is not a romantic comedy though, and their relationship progresses no further than deep but arm’s length respect and affection, and intermittent meetings. Eventually she is able to move forward, and make contact again with her sister Emma.
The film has 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, with generally favourable reviews but some negative and lukewarm responses. Some of the reviews have accused the film of being predictable, which has some merit. But their case isn’t helped by the apparent universal missing of the point.
Here we get to a major spoiler. For me, the key image of the film is a drawing by Edee’s son Drew. It’s shown in passing in the trailer, and you can see it here. It’s revealed when Edee gives it to Miguel. I’m guessing it’s the most precious thing she has.
Drew’s drawing shows her dead husband and son fishing in a lake, beside a cabin in a forest, as Edee looks on smiling. The title is “Where I want to live”. I don’t mind admitting that I filled up at this point, alone in a completely empty COVID-compliant cinema. Edee has clearly been trying to live the life her son wanted, based on time spent with his father in the wilderness. An environment that she did not understand or feel comfortable in. She wants to experience that life to better understand her dead son. That’s why what eventually brings her peace and the ability to move on is to “be able to survive here and appreciate it”.
There is also a theme of kindness and redemption, especially due to Miguel’s own back story of grief, and the old idea of withdrawing from society to work through your problems yourself: Miguel even refers to her as his “hermit friend” at one point. Many of us have experienced first hand the healing power of time in nature, both before and during the pandemic.
The final spoiler is the nature of her husband and son’s death.
They were killed in a mass shooting, which explains Edee’s initial reluctance to pick up the previous owner’s rifle despite living in bear country. Perhaps that also explains my deeper emotional connection to Edee’s journey, coming straight to the cinema from those memorials to the mass killing at the Manchester Arena.
The film is in British cinemas now and will no doubt make it to streaming services here in due course. The landscape has a role of its own in the movie, but it’s not shown in sweeping, immersive shots which demand a viewing on the big screen. I’m glad I did see it in a cinema though.
Finally, Robin Wright has given this revealing interview about the production and themes, which goes beyond some of the usual chat show interviews she’s had to do in promoting it.
I spent two nights of the Easter weekend at our off grid log cabin at Century Wood. I’ve made this video about staying there, and I also talk through the basic 12V electric system, the kitchen sink and drain, and how I use the wood stove.
Last week I read Michael Finkel’s book about Christopher Thomas Knight, the “North Pond Hermit”, who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years from 1986 with only two incidents of human contact. I wasn’t so much interested in Knight’s way of life, but rather the description of the community of cabin owners that he stole food and basic supplies from.
I’ve found it very difficult to find photos that I can use of Knight or his ramshackle encampment of tents and tarpaulins hidden amongst a cluster of huge boulders in the woods. However, this short video from a news report shows the state game warden and the state trooper who caught and then arrested Knight, and his encampment.
Anyway, with that out of the way, what was the area like? This Google aerial photo shows:
Most of the cabins targeted were around North Pond, with some also by Little North Pond. Knight’s camp was to the west of Little North Pond, and in fact only three minutes walk from the nearest cabin. Knight lived there for the whole of his decades in the woods, within earshot of his neighbours voices at times.
He only ventured out to steal from unoccupied cabins, eventually becoming an expert burglar, able to get in and out without leaving obvious signs. He chose midweek nights, ideally during rainstorms, to cover his tracks and avoid accidental contact with cabin owners. But people gradually became certain that the food packets, propane bottles, and batteries that they were certain they’d brought were in fact stolen and not just forgotten. This led to a huge amount of nervousness and fear, and for many people spoilt the joy of owning a weekend cabin by the lake.
He also regularly stole from Pine Tree Camp, which provides outdoor education and experiences to people with disabilities, and that’s where he was eventually caught, after a silent alarm set of Sgt Terry Hughes, a Maine state game warden, woke him up at home in the middle of the night. Reading Finkel’s description it sounded very like Broomlee that I went to myself as a child.
Finally, this documentary video has interviews with several cabin owners, showing their cabins, and giving a sense of what the community there is like: a mix of locals and regular weekenders who know each other as neighbours.
The cabin-in-the-woods is part of the folklore of North America and it’s not surprising that there are a lot of videos about them on YouTube. Some are quite conventional second homes that just happen to be built of wood, but at the other extreme are basic log cabins built by the owners using the surrounding forest. This post is a collection of some of those YouTube channels that are worth looking at, and that might be relevant to woodland hutting in Britain.Continue reading “Log cabins on YouTube”
I came across the video “Living Tiny Legally, Part 1” due to a post in the Tiny House Community UK Facebook group. It’s a really interesting insight into how people have been persuading some local authorities in the US to allow Tiny Houses. You do need to mentally translate “zoning” into “planning permission” and “construction codes” into “building regulations” for the UK system of course.
At 19:30 in the video there’s a slightly awkward moment where one of the city managers finds a diplomatic way of saying they wanted to avoid creating trailer parks that would reduce surrounding house prices. This has always been one of the key worries of local authorities in the UK when faced with plotlands or hutting development: how do they know this isn’t going to turn into some form of shanty town? Quirky colonies populated by artists and software engineers are mostly welcome. Traveller sites usually aren’t.
This is the first part of a three part project, but there are already lots more videos on their Tiny House Expedition YouTube channel.
The Carbeth hutting site north of Glasgow is probably the most prominent hutting or plotland site and is often referred to in media coverage, both mainstream and independent. I’ve collected some of the YouTube videos about Carbeth that I’ve come across in this post.
There’s also a small collection of short clips from the hutters themselves from a few years ago:
Holtsfield and Owensfield are two of the chalet fields of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, originally dating back to the decades before the Second World War that saw similar “hutting” and “plotlands” developments across Britain. The chalets were holiday homes and weekend retreats for “weekenders” from south Wales including the nearby city of Swansea, but over time they have become people’s full time homes. Both chalet fields are adjacent to Bishop’s Wood Nature Reserve which leads down to the coast at Caswell Bay and its beach, and the area has the caravan parks that are often a tell-tale sign of pre-war coastal plotland areas.
In Holtsfield’s case, as you can see from this photo from the early years of the site, the progression was from camping to weekend huts, to a refuge from wartime bombing, and eventually to residential use – and to a much more wooded site as a by-product.
The 14-acre site passed from the ownership of Mr Holt in the 1990s but the new landowner has sought to evict the owners of the 27 chalets to develop the land for much more expensive conventional houses. The Undercurrents.org and The Land Is Ours websites have more about the protests and legal steps the residents took in the late 1990s which has helped they survive there to the present day, although not without some remaining threats to their situation.
Here are two films made around the time of the eviction dispute in the 1990s, first by Undercurrents and then by BBC Countryfile:
The last film is from BBC Wales’ The Slate arts programme:
Last year Holtsfield and Owensfield were in the news after Royal Mail deliveries were suspended due to access problems.
This Google map shows the two chalet fields, with Holtsfield to the northwest of Owensfield. Holtsfield is at the end of a roadway from Mansfield Road, and Owensfield is at the end of Summerland Lane. If you zoom in, the chalets are quite distinctive in their size and layout when compared to the conventional houses nearby.
Old Copse is a 30 acre woodland in Sussex whose management since 2009 has been documented in an excellent blog by Sarah, one of its owners. In 2014 they built this Polish-style log cabin using Scots Pine trunks from the wood itself. I’m going to pick out some of the many interesting details about building the cabin, and link to her cabin posts and videos so you can dig deeper yourself.
Like many woodland owners, they wanted a shelter from bad weather when doing forestry work that would double up as a social space for themselves and visitors. In 2013 they obtained approval from the local council to build a cabin under their forestry permitted development rights. They wanted something sturdy and secure, and settled on a round wood design which is common in North America and Eastern Europe. Although they could find some Scottish and Welsh companies building them in the UK, they couldn’t find anyone nearer to Sussex and hit on the idea of looking for contacts through local Polish clubs, and were quickly put in contact with a group of log cabin builders from Poland itself who had the experience already. By February 2014 the 45 Scots Pine trees were felled and logged, and work had begun on removing the bark.
April 2014 saw the building of the roof itself. They had considered several options, including a green roof with self-seeded plants in soil, wooden shingles or “tiles”, birch poles over a waterproof membrane, and finally a “tin roof” of sheets of dark green corrugated iron. They went with this last option because they felt that it would be more in keeping with the look of a forestry building, especially once weathered, and also the least risky design. This video shows the state of the cabin in April, and it’s location in the wider wood environment:
Later in April 2014, Sarah made two posts about the process of “chinking” the gaps between the logs with little rolls of pine bark fibres to keep the wind out. This seems to have taken a long time, and she does mention some of the alternatives used elsewhere. The first post also has a picture of cast iron wood burning stove they installed and this video shows the process of chinking in more detail:
By May 2014 the stove and chimney were installed and working, and in June 2014 they were sorting out the odds and ends that make a cabin or hut more comfortable, including bits of furniture, shelve, and kitchenware. They held an official opening ceremony for friends and family, which is also shown in this video:
They seem to have got a lot out of the whole process of planning and participating in the build, and Sarah explains how having the log cabin has changed their relationship with the wood:
Already the cabin has given an idea of how managing Old Copse will be easier. BC (Before Cabin) each visit was a matter of arriving, un-packing, working like billyo, and then packing up and leaving – in a hurry if it’s started to pour down Either that, or having to stand under a dismal tarpaulin waiting for the rain to stop.
We appreciate the difference in pace now – we are visiting more, staying longer, getting a lot more essential work done, but also enjoying ‘cabin life’ – taking time to sit out on the deck with a sun downer, while listening to and seeing wild-life in the wood and on the pond.
The team of Polish log cabin builders are now set up to do more builds in the UK, and have a comprehensive website at www.sussexlogcabins.com.
You may know Jonathan Meades for his quirky and often brutally frank documentaries about architecture, and in the first of his 1990 series “Abroad in Britain” he visits a then-surviving plotland community in Bewdley on the river Severn in the West Midlands. Early in the programme is this striking aerial scene showing the huts, cabins, and chalets along the riverbank and going back into the countryside, accompanied by Howard Davidson’s sweeping music:
Meades clearly loves the place, and sees it as part of the wider twentieth century struggle between planners, academic architecture, and commercial developers on one side and ordinary people wanting some rural land to build a weekend retreat on.
Where suburbs were so often filled up with fake versions of rural buildings that just yielded another form of urban uniformity, the huts, shanties, cottages, and chalets of the plotlands are an authentic vernacular architecture.
Central to this is the idea of bodging. That is turning the available components and materials into the thing you need:
The idea of DIY has been traduced by the ubiquity of places such as this. The letters DIY nowadays constitute a sort of lie. You do it certainly, but you don’t really do it yourself. You may perform the physical act of hammering … but all you actually do is assemble a kit of parts, which obviates the necessity of bodging, and it obviates too the necessity of thinking. Kits are agents of uniformity. The true bodging tradition depends on having the nouse to realise that everything under the sun is mutable. That every object is fit for transformation from its original purpose. So every railway carriage is a potential luxury shack.
Meades conducts the whole programme dressed in his trademark dark business suit, and where required by sunshine, dark glasses. Here he is rowing down the river Severn in this outfit. To be fair, he does have a pair of black wellies that he sports in the intro and where necessary when trudging across fields to examine abandoned huts.
The programme has lots more of images of the buildings themselves:
Looking today on the Google Maps aerial images and Streetview, it does appear as if many of the huts and chalets are still there, near the Northwood Halt station on the Severn Valley railway line.