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Author Looks to Thoreau for Balance

Air Date: Week of

Tom Montgomery Fate finds the competing demands of home, work, and modern technology daunting. But his cabin in the woods, and the words of Henry David Thoreau guide his quest for a more deliberate and satisfying life. Fate speaks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about his new book “Cabin Fever – A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.”


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Henry David Thoreau wrote about living “deliberately” - taking up residence in the woods to learn what the natural world could teach. Writer Tom Montgomery Fate took Thoreau's words to heart to see if he could also live deliberately. He spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood about his new book: “Cabin Fever – A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.”

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery Fate, your book is about the challenges and the chaos of modern life, of being a father to three, a husband, a college teacher, wrestling with the high-speed technological world we now live in, while, at the same time trying to live what Thoreau calls a deliberate life. How difficult is it to find that balance?

MONTGOMERY FATE: I think it’s hard, and I think if I say anything in here I hope it’s that it is a balancing act, that it’s not really achievable - it’s just kind of the process of always trying to find the balance.

I think when I first read Walden when I was 17 and I was really struck by that line - ‘I went to the woods to live deliberately,’ then it meant more like to live intensely or intentionally, but in middle-age, I was reading it again and I took a moment and looked the word up and saw that it was tied to the word ‘Libra’- and then I thought, “oh- that fits my life now as a search for balance” - the two-panned scale of justice always trying to weigh things and balance things because there are too many things.

CURWOOD: So you have this cabin out in the woods, how does this affect your parenting, having this cabin?

The cabin in the Michigan woods. (Photo: Tom Montgomery Fate)

MONTGOMERY FATE: Well, in a couple of ways. I mean, one is, and sometimes my wife Carol goes up alone, not, admittedly not as often as I have, and sometimes we go with one kid or two kids or sometimes we all go. I think having the time apart and having a chance to kind of re-energize and do a little discernment, like anybody, you come back to the, rather chaotic life, a little more balanced, and I think that’s one of the real benefits of it. And, also, when we go with kids - of course it’s a chance for them to tune out a little bit - there’s no VCR or all the technological gadgets or anything like that- we walk a lot. And so I think it’s a good space for them as well.

CURWOOD: Why call your book Cabin Fever?

MONTGOMERY FATE: You know, it was meant as kind of a conversation with Thoreau, so when I think about cabin fever during the era he lived, in the 19th century, you think of people living in Iowa or Nebraska or Ohio snowed in, in the middle of January, and for them cabin fever meant isolation, it meant maybe depression, it meant a longing to get out - a longing to escape that isolation to get back to more people and technology and more choices and maybe an apple and maybe some other food choices, etc., etc.

But the paradox for me in what I’m trying to write about is, I think, and this is admittedly a kind of a middle-class desire maybe more, I don’t know, is that now cabin fever is the desire to escape to that isolation - to get back to some quiet, less choices, maybe a closer connection to the natural world, those kinds of things.

CURWOOD: Except that at one point in your book you, you feel too lonely, you’ve escaped to this, this is a dream, you’re on your cellphone and you’re trying to call your kids and your wife!

Tom Montgomery Fate and his children walking on a log.(Photo: Tom Montgomery Fate)

MONTGOMERY FATE: That’s true. (Laughs) And I suppose, that’s revelatory of my human failings in this kind of difficulty of living between - this is one thing we balance is loneliness and solitude. Solitude being a positive emotional and spiritual state where maybe we’re doing a lot of discernment, and loneliness, feeling bad and lonely and wanting to get back to the people that matter to us most.

CURWOOD: Now, Tom, the subtitle of your book is ‘A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild’- and I’ve got to say after reading your book that your cabin is not exactly the most wild parts of Michigan - you’ve got, what, a six or an eight lane highway, it sounds like within earshot of the place, and if you go for a walk you can hit the local bar. How possible is it to have a Thoreau-ian experience, of wilderness and communicating with nature, when you’ve got 18-wheelers rumbling as the soundtrack?

MONTGOMERY FATE: Well, I think the idea of the wild that Thoreau talks about is not so much pristine or exotically pristine fauna or flora. I mean, I think it’s more about the search for this kind of deep connection among all things - or the sense of relatedness. When he references the word religion, I often think of the etymology of that word - relegare, which means to tie together again. And I think for him, religious experience even is the search for this deep connection of all things and creation, this relatedness. And I think he found that in his study of Indian philosophy- i.e. American Indian philosophy.

CURWOOD: At this point I’d like you to read an excerpt from Cabin Fever, it’s on page 54, this is where you write about Henry David Thoreau’s mention of a certain fertile sadness, the sadness that he finds joyful because it saves his life from being trivial.

MONTGOMERY FATE: “When this joyful sadness wells up in Thoreau’s work, I feel an odd mix of envy and admiration about the exuberance he always finds. Both in the woods and in the words. In "Walden" he discovers joy in everything from a stinking, decaying horse carcass to a weedy bean field. Though I don’t readily find joy in sadness, I’m trying to read that way. To think more like Thoreau. To see light merging with darkness, hope lingering in shadow.

But, it’s not working. I keep getting stuck in the mud of my trivial life. Should Bennett try out for travel soccer or is he too young? Why is our sewer line clogged again when I just rodded it? How did our entire yard become a Creeping Charlie plantation? When are Carol and I ever going to have a night to ourselves?”

CURWOOD: A joyful sadness.

MONTGOMERY FATE: Right, that’s right. And also just the idea that again, joyful sadness is the balancing, you know, that that’s the beauty of things. Another place in the book I talk about the relationship between patience and passion that they both share the Latin root pati, which means to suffer. And this idea is that patience and passion seem to be opposites but they’re actually - they share this common Latin root - and again the idea is that suffering isn’t always a bad thing. And that patience isn’t always a bad thing - that there again balancing these things is where one finds happiness. That sadness actually defines joy, that without sadness, we can’t discover joy, that kind of thing.

CURWOOD: So reading your book it occurred to me that this isn’t only about your exploration of how to live a more deliberate life as Henry David Thoreau did, but also about the circle of life - that how you see yourself and your children who want to experience life and the world around you with them, more deliberately.

MONTGOMERY FATE: Right, the continuity. I think that’s part of the reason why I write about the cabin in Michigan is because I went there with my father when I was my son’s age and younger- 5,6,7. He was a pastor in Illinois, and there was a church camp very near where our cabin is and we went there every summer.

And so when I walk through those woods and along Lake Michigan, and in the water, it’s a very powerful continuity for me - I feel like a child and I feel like a father.

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery Fate’s new book is: “Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.” Thanks so much, Tom.


CURWOOD: To listen to some more excerpts from Tom’s book, go to our website LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood.



Cabin Fever – A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild by Tom Montgomery Fate (Beacon Press)

Tom Montgomery Fate’s webpage

Listen to Tom Montgomery Fate on Father and Son

Listen to Tom Montgomery Fate on "Walking"


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