Essay: Another House in the Woods

Essay: Another House in the Woods:

James McCarthy

Image: Nat Hall


Thoreau has been described as one of the founding fathers of American philosophy, but the most authoritative biographer of Thoreau, Jeffrey S Cramer, who has made a lifetime study of his subject, prefers to claim him in relation to his most famous work, Walden, not as philosopher or writer (though he was both), but as an autobiographer.  ‘… we do not remember the depth of the pond; we remember the peculiar sensibility of the man who thought it worth his while to measure it.…’ That is my justification for indulging here in a piece of autobiography which has at least a few echoes of Thoreau’s experiences.

It wasn’t really a house, more a hill bothy used by the keepers and shepherds in Glenisla for shelter: I had spotted it on a solitary camping trip the previous year. While Thoreau had to build his own shelter, which he described in detail, even down to the costs of every item, my residence, albeit crude, came ready made. For a long summer in 1950, it was home for a 15 year-old (some 5 years younger than Thoreau when he took up residence at Walden in 1845) keen to earn his keep and learn something of the forester’s trade. A nearby rivulet provided water and there was a crude fireplace in lieu of a stove. The less said about sanitation the better. The woods in the title are something of a misnomer, since it was protected from the gales merely by an old shelterbelt of windblown larches and firs, which provided fuel, since elsewhere was still relatively young plantation. (One of my earlier tasks was to extend this embryonic forest, planting up the higher hillsides.)

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.’ says Thoreau. By contrast, I had no such high flown motives, merely the obligations of gaining some practical experience while being self-sufficient. (As a youngster I had helped with the ‘stooking’ of oats and bringing in the harvest by cart and Clydesdale horse in the same district, in company with German prisoners-of- war, so I had some familiarity with country work.) Interestingly, Thoreau claimed that, for him, if a little money was required, the life of the day-labourer, satisfied to live simply and without the obligations of running a business, was best.

Some birch twigs from the shelterbelt made a satisfactory broom to clean out the one room, which had obviously been invaded by various fauna – mice were abundant, and my first attempt at lighting a fire filled the place with smoke from a chimney blocked by a jackdaw’s nest, while bats had taken up residence in the worm-eaten rafters; cobwebs occupied every corner, but the empty whisky bottles provided useful candle holders. I stuffed the cracks in the walls with old pine bark. Heather provided a bed on the floor, filling the room with its fragrance, and a cut log sufficed for a chair. Although Thoreau’s hut dimensions, at about ten feet wide by fifteen feet long, were similar to mine, he had the advantage of a table and no less than three chairs – but he is particularly scornful of those who accumulate excess furniture. Various visitors had left behind some tattered books – no doubt the torn-out pages provided a source of toilet paper: I had to make up from my imagination the missing sections of Huckleberry Finn and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans together with other American  classics.

Climbers had obviously overnighted in the bothy, using the adjacent drove road – now merely an overgrown track – heading for the grey crags above and the heights of adjacent Glen Clova, where George Don, the 18th century botanist had discovered a treasure house of arctic-alpine plants. The nearby corrie, still green from the droppings of the small black cattle or kyloe, had been a convenient resting place for the herds coming south through the glen in previous centuries. From this corrie came the burn which flowed past the house, its banks bright with yellow tormentil and dotted with mauve water avens. It ended up in a small lochan frequented by a few mallard duck and hordes of ravenous midges: I ignored these for my weekly bath treating it as the pond at Thoreau’s Walden, although at the time I knew nothing of either.

Unlike him, I had no means of growing my own food, and I did not have his productive beanfield: the first week, waiting for my £3.10 shillings pay, was problematic. I had borrowed a florin (about 20 pence in today’s money) from my grandmother and blew it on several pounds of oatmeal. (By the end of the week, I was not only distinctly thinner, but put off by the thought of yet another bowl of porridge). It was augmented by some turnips found in the lower fields, and the wild raspberries growing by the side of the track: leaving my porridge pot outside to be washed out by the rain, I found a shepherd’s collie had got there first, and saved me the bother of cleaning it. During that first week, the forestry gang, tucking in to man-sized sandwiches, were curious that I had no lunch-time ‘piece’ and I had to make some unconvincing excuse.

Around the nearby loch, there was an older plantation, which was used as a windbreak: I was astonished when the men dragged down a five-foot pile of dead spruce branches, to be set alight for the boiling of a billy-can of tea, the idea being that once brewed, they would not have to arise from their resting place to feed the glowing fire for the whole of their break. Then a well-thumbed pack of cards would be bought out, using a tree-stump as a table. These stumps did not project more than an inch above the soil, since it was a matter of professional pride that the feller wasted no useable timber. The large felling axes were kept constantly razor sharp using a carborundum stone and a test was whether a matchstick laid on a stump could be split lengthwise with a single one-handed full swing of the axe.

One who did not attempt this was ‘Auld Boab’, a one-armed survivor of the World War I trenches, whose face was grossly disfigured by shrapnel wounds, distorting his eye, mouth and speech, his hair turned prematurely white in a single devastating shelling. He was the horseman who was not slow to note when a ‘stick’ (as they called the trees) had fallen into a bed of stinging nettles before asking me to wrap the heavy metal chain around it for pulling out by Jock, our ever-patient horse. (Later, I used my limited experience with this intelligent animal to get a temporary job breaking in Highland ‘garrons’ for the first pony-trekking stables in Scotland)

The felling of the lochside trees was impressive. Before the days of chain saws, the axe was brought into play to ‘lay in’, or cut a shallow kerf, with the axeman bent virtually double to get as close to the earth as possible – just as Thoreau’s French-Canadian woodchopper did to avoid snagging his winter sled on the stumps. It was wise to keep well clear while plate-sized slices came whistling out of the cut at speed, followed by the 8-foot cross-cut saw, used in the same doubled-up position. And yet the saw sang rhythmically and sweetly between the two men, the steady rasping noise resounding through the woods. My job was to use the lighter snedding axe to remove the branches and woe betide you if the axe bit into the timber, or if a cut branch was left even fractionally proud of the trunk. I could never emulate the double handed action of the veteran ‘snedders’ who could clean a ‘stick’ in a few minutes, flicking the axe easily on either side of the tree, from the butt to the tip.

In his diatribe against the mores of Concord, Thoreau said ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ referring to their enslavement to their farms and shops. While I knew little if anything about their private lives, I found these men of Angus quite admirable in their honesty and simplicity, their quiet good humour and their amused tolerance of a ‘townie’ youth in their midst, ribbing me in their almost impenetrable local accents: ‘Hoo is it up at the big hoose, then, Jeemie?’ (My quarters being at the opposite end of the spectrum from the laird’s residence, usually referred to as the ‘big hoose.’)

But much of my work was solitary, which suited me fine. The forestry truck would drop me at a road end, from where I would walk in – sometimes several miles – to the hills where planting had been done in the spring. I was armed with a sharpening stone and a ‘heuk’, a curved blade attached to a 5-foot pole used to cut the grass around the young trees to prevent them being smothered by the summer growth. It was all too easy, attempting to get as close as possible to the young plant, to slice through it and it took some time to develop the action which could completely clear the tree with two swipes, quickly reversing the blade. Several thousand trees would be weeded in a day. Sometimes, it was ‘beating up’, or replanting, where there had been failures, slapping the roots into the T-cut made with the spade, or on stony ground, the mattock or miniature pick. (I see the same trees I planted now felled and the same hillsides replanted 60 years later.)

The long days were enhanced by the surroundings. To the north, the southern rim of the blue Cairngorms, even at this date, was pock-marked with late snow and the august purple of the heather on the lower Braes of Angus was as fine as anywhere in Scotland.  Every so often the silence was broken by the churr -churr of fast flying grouse and the occasional blackcock at the woodland edge – their white-feathered ‘leggings’ and scarlet hood gave them a comical look. Far down in the bottom of the glen, the River Isla twisted and turned around the haughlands, where the oyster catchers’ piping competed with the curlew’s long trilling call as it descended.

Much further down, the river tumbled over the great foaming cataract of the Reekie Linn, marking the Highland Boundary Fault with its roar of water and smoking spray. (Below these great falls I once deprived an otter of its dinner – a half-eaten salmon on a projecting rock: I reckoned my need was as great as his.) From time to time, a mottled mountain hare, having sat tight for as long as it dared, bolted out of its scrape in the deergrass in front of my heuk. Climbing a hillock near to the bothy, the Vale of Strathmore, bounded by the Sidlaw Hills to the far south, was a long vista of fertile farmland stretching to the North Sea.

With a paid time allowance, I was left to make my own way home to my ‘Walden’ on the hillside, usually too tired at first to do anything but flop onto my heather ‘couch’ for the first half-hour. Then it was time to gather up some dry fir-cones to start the fire, which gave off the most pleasant woody aroma, especially when combined with pieces of the salmon-pink bark of the Scots Pine from the shelter-belt. It was the most relaxing time of the day and after my first pay, I was able to look forward to a more mixed diet. I had made the round trip of about 30 miles to the nearest town of Kirriemuir on my elderly bicycle and very carefully chosen the cheapest provisions which could be cooked together in my one and only pot – a small square ex-Army ‘dixie’, complemented by a spoon and a boy scout knife.


Nat Hall - The Secret World



Before that however, my hunger had been assuaged somewhat covertly. The forester in charge had asked me to call at his house on the side of Lintrathen Loch to pick up a sack at the end of a working day in my first week and to take this back to the bothy. Nothing was said about its contents. Curiosity overcame me as I cycled back round the loch, and I peeked inside. It was full to the brim with delicious home-made bakery, obviously the work of the forester’s kindly wife – and I sang most of the way home. Somebody had guessed my situation – but typically no word was spoken and I suspected that even modest thanks would have been an embarrassment. The embarrassment was on my side however when I snared a very undersized rabbit down by the loch and the foreman, passing by on his evening stroll, merely commented:

‘Aye, Jeemie, ye micht hae left it in its cradle a wee while langer.’

I could feel the red tinge creeping up the back of my neck…

Even more tempting was a refugee from Lintrathen Loch, which held vast flocks of wintering wildfowl. A pink-footed goose seemed to have missed the last springtime flight home to its breeding grounds in Iceland and landed on my door-step. I even managed to tempt it into the house with some grass seed, its curiosity and hunger overcoming fear. It stayed for several days, following me around with its waddling gait. I was tempted to reflect on its eating quality, but was persuaded otherwise both by sentiment and the size of my pot. I was reminded of a popular song of the time to a rather haunting refrain:

Wild Goose! Wild Goose!

I must go where the wild goose goes.
Mother goose, brother goose.
Which is best
A wandering wing
Or a heart at rest?

Other wildlife was plentiful. The roe deer had their own stamping ground down by the lochan, where they had mock battles with the young alder saplings or rubbed the bark off the willow. A solitary red deer stag with a broken horn could sometimes be seen on the margins of the woodland, but the big herds of red were usually further up the glen, keeping to the high ground. It was an unseasonable early summer, with late flurries of snow covering the uppermost slopes and forcing the deer to lower ground.

I had long wanted to try my hand at ski-ing and persuaded the sawmiller at Lintrathen to cut me a couple of planks from spare hardwood timber. With some eyelets screwed in to the top surface, I was able to tie on my work boots and melted candle wax on the underside of the crude skis. It was a long uphill trek to where the snow was lying and I can’t say that it was a huge success in this late soft snow, but I was delighted just to have the sensation of ski-ing for the first time, even for short distances. What it also did was to lead me into a hagg of deep peat, which the deer had obviously used for the spring-time casting of their antlers. I picked up some fine heads which proved useful in the bothy as coat hangers.

I did not mention the antlers to the estate gamekeeper, as he would have regarded these as his perk, to be carved into walking stick tops or ornaments and sold. He was known to like his dram and could be cantankerous. He also acted as a fishing guide on the Loch of Lintrathen, rowing the more well-heeled sportsmen to favourite spots for casting. He took grim pleasure in retelling how, after a hard day’s pulling on the oars, he was offered a tip of sixpence, given with some ceremony:

‘Aye, weel then, ah lookit at the saxpence fur a meenit, then ah haundit it back, telling his lordship that if that wis a’ he could afford, he must be needin it mair than masel – that pit his gas on a wee peep, ah can tell ye!’

On another occasion, I saw him above the bothy striding down the hill, in his tweed plus-fours and deerstalker cap, his shotgun under his arm, followed by a group of conspicuously Continental hunters dressed as for a day in the Bavarian forests. The ghillie was not in a good mood, his moustache bristling in indignation:

‘Hae ye got ony langwidges? – none of thae buggers speaks a word o’ English!’

Given his dialect, neither did he. He had spent a frustrating morning trying to explain to his French party what was permissible to be shot, when their inclination was to shoot anything that moved. Using the flyleaves of my tattered library, I drew the various species to cries of recognition, which together with schoolboy French, apparently saved the day.

A non-game bird which kept me company was a young tawny owl, which appeared to have fallen out of its nest, its growing feathers still downy. At first it was fierce, stabbing at my hand with a powerful beak, but after some handfeeding with bread soaked in milk, it became quieter, and began to call shrilly for its evening feed. Its favourite perch was on one of the deer antlers hung on the wall, which gave the hut the appearance of a museum tableau. My very occasional visitors initially thought it was stuffed, until it gently rotated its head like a mechanical toy and its eye solemnly blinked at the new arrival. Like the goose, after a few trial flights, it disappeared into the dark night.

Early on in Walden Thoreau spends some time expounding his philosophy on the basic needs of humans for food, shelter, fuel and clothing, and how little we actually  require for survival, railing against the tendency to acquire more of everything, often by working from dawn to dusk. Certainly his attitude chimed with my own, eschewing what I considered unnecessary comforts. I took a good deal of satisfaction in ‘making do’, almost perversely, with whatever was to hand. My spare clothes, such as they were, provided a soft pillow, and when my heather bed started to disintegrate, it was used as kindling before I collected a fresh batch for my next mattress. Discarded wire from fences was always useful and the occasional fresh road-kill replenished the larder. The road was also a good source of items dropped from lorries – once a useful cap, and best of all, a piece of piping which I led from the burn to a water butt for an accessible supply of water.

Thoreau is especially critical of the encumbrance of property, not least of increasing and unnecessary architectural embellishment and the commitment to labour to the demands of mortgages and maintenance, praising the simplicity of moveable native Indian encampments. I took this one stage further, on midge-free balmy summer nights, of sleeping out of doors, just for the pleasure of feeling the breeze on my face and waking early to the sounds of the hill and the tinkling of the burn. Thoreau’s criticism is of a piece with his scorn for the building of ‘towers and temples’ and especially the labour of building railways, both literally and as a metaphor for our heedless rush to get somewhere else fast. It has echoes of White’s ‘motorway of modern civilisation’ some 100 years later. He is no less scornful of our avidity for news, whatever its value: my own news was limited to the occasional comments of the forestry gang, since I had neither access to newspapers or radio, while television was still in the future.

Likewise Thoreau inveighs against luxury in clothing:

‘…perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men in procuring it …No man ever stood lower in my estimation for having a patch on his clothes …most behaved as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it.’

The forestry gang had a universal agricultural uniform of an uncollared rough shirt, a pair of what were then called ‘dungarees’ with trousers combined with a chest bib in blue denim, usually covered with a short denim-type jacket, the whole ensemble topped off by a flat cap, or ‘bunnet’. Strong nailed boots were always worn, but I never saw rainwear. I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb in my school shorts and patched tweed jacket, keeping my kilt for ‘best’: refusing to get into long trousers, I wore my ex-army kilt regularly to thwart the school injunctions about wearing its uniform. One of the negative reasons for considering forestry as a career was that I fondly imagined it would not involve mathematics, which was my personal Waterloo at school, not only failing every examination in the subject, but creating a record in getting minus marks for refusing to even put my name on one paper.

Being advised later that mathematics was essential to start a science course at university, the local minister at Lintrathen, some 8 miles away, tried to take me in hand. Looking at my tattered shorts, I decided that, notwithstanding the occasional mothhole, my kilt was more suited to his rather grand manse. I arrived with this garment clinging to my knees after a wet bike ride. His kindly wife insisted I change into a pair of the reverend’s old flannel trousers while she attempted to dry off the kilt. But even after several Thursday evening lessons, I was no further forward, the algebraic formulations resolutely refusing to reveal their mysteries to my by now closed mind. (It has remained closed to this subject to this day.) Later I was consoled by Thoreau, when he gave his opinion that students should get their hands dirty and get to grips with real life: ‘Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics.’ He might have approved of my own experience up to this point, out of necessity, as grocer’s messenger boy, farm labourer, etc.

Kilts appeared early in the summer, when one evening, with a lowering mist everywhere, and a smirr of rain driven by a cold wind, I heard a loud knocking on the door. Outside stood a dripping and disconsolate couple of soldiers from the local Black Watch, apparently out on a night exercise:

‘Whaur are we, son?’

They had become separated from their unit on the hill, and had wandered around in the disorientating mist for several hours, before spotting the candle in my window. I banked up the fire and they were grateful for the blaze we soon got going, exposing their red knees under the kilts to get maximum warmth where it mattered most. Large quantities of hot sweet tea revived their spirits, followed by the last of my porridge, which, flavoured with salt and butter, they claimed was the best they had ever tasted, despite having to share my solitary spoon. I was able to direct them down the track to the road end.

I was to encounter them again later that season. Working on my own on a neighbouring hill, I thought I heard the distant sound of pipes, but dismissed it as fantasy. The skirl became louder and shortly, over the brow of the brae, through the morning mist, came a column of kilted men, with the characteristic dark tartan and red hackle in their bonnets, headed by the regimental piper. They were in full fighting order, with arms and large packs, swinging rhythmically along the drove road. As they passed, two of the soldiers waved and shouted and I recognised the lost recruits. Later, I learned that they were on an annual route march over the hills to the Queen Mother’s residence at Birkhill on Royal Deeside, she being the Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment which I was to join some four years later.

As in Walden another visitor proved a great source of stories and legends. Davy Henderson appeared one fine summer evening, an old man with a tattered knapsack on his back, but with an erect figure and steady blue eyes. I never found out exactly how he lived (‘Oh, this and that’ he would say when I queried him) He knew all the highways and byways of Angus and claimed to be a tinker, those wandering folk of presumed gypsy background who congregated in the berry-picking season in Blairgowrie, the western companion town to Kirriemuir. I found out that, among other things, he was a skilled dry stone-dyker, much in demand by the sheep farmers when they decided that an old brass bedstead was not sufficient to keep their flocks from straying from a broken gap on to neighbouring land, or worse, the road. Davy said that ‘his banes were nae sae soople noo’ for that kind of work. (Once he and I had a great tussle with a ram which would have died if we had not eventually been able to release its horns, entangled in a poorly-made section of wire fence used to fill in a broken dyke.)

He could tell of the times when the fishwives from the coastal villages would carry their creels of haddock and herring to sell at the farms, often put up for the night in a barn if they were too far from home to return the same day. He could remember also when the tailor would call either at the farms to measure up a young man for his first Sunday suit (invariably dark blue worsted) or to re-measure his father whose girth had latterly increased. Sometimes he would entertain on his tin whistle for his supper, or tell old tales of the glen, including those of the raiding times, when the caterans from the northern mountains descended to carry off the fat cattle of the valleys. It was he who first showed me how to set a proper snare in a rabbit run and how to lift a trout from the lower burn by the technique of tickling or guddling the fish until you could get fingers into the gills, to throw it on to the bank in one movement.

Thoreau seems to have elevated ‘being good’ much above ‘doing good’ – he was especially acerbic on the philanthropists of his time, and was cynical about the effect of church sermons and overt charity. But this attitude was primarily aimed at those who, observing his stripped-down lifestyle in the woods, queried what good he was doing, implying that he should ‘get a proper job’ in order that his productivity might benefit others. Thoreau saw this as a spurious argument to justify their enslavement to endless toil and the root of much of their continuous discontent, leaving no space for contemplation. I have to admit that daily work and looking after oneself in my own ‘Walden’ left little room for philosophic thoughts. I was anyway, at that age, more interested in action. What it did do, like Thoreau, was to confirm a growing affection for the natural world, and the deep satisfactions it afforded, both for adventure and personal development, not to mention a nature-based career.

For the modern reader, Walden is not particularly easy. Thoreau can be verbose and repetitive, with extended metaphors, while having a tendency – despite his dislike of sermons from a pulpit – to preach, or at least to convey a certain smugness. Nevertheless it is difficult to argue with his underlying theme of being rather than getting and all the illusions that the latter entails, to no fulfilling purpose, and conversely, the importance of living in the reality of the present moment. He shows how this can be done, at least for a time and in his own peculiar circumstances, while developing the most harmonious relationship with the world around him.

The references to ‘Walden’ by Henry D. Thoreau are from the 2004 edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (Yale University Press)