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Blog // Creativity // Simplicity
February 14, 2018

The Cabin In The Woods Option

Over the past couple of years a significant minority of people I follow have taken a “cabin in the woods” option, leaving the city for a simpler, more focused creative life.

Long ago and far away, in Vermont’s Green Mountains, not far from where Ben and Jerry started their ice cream factory, buying milk cheaply from local dairy farmers, I made my way to an old wooden cabin, sitting in a clearing near woods. It was where Robert Frost had lived for a while, and in so many ways it exemplified the dream of a creator’s cabin in the woods: simple, stoic.

Although I consider myself a city kid, the idea of a cabin in the woods has always had a romantic appeal. In the past couple of years, though, I’ve noticed more and more creative types in my extended circle – artists, designers, inventors, photographers, writers – opting for the cabin in the woods, giving up the city for a place in the countryside.

That’s OK If You Are Rich

A few weeks back I took this little observation to Twitter, to see what others made of it. Musings like these, and the conversations they often generated, were a part of what once made Twitter so much fun.

I put down my morning coffee (I’ve taken to drinking pour-over rather than espresso since moving to Tokyo) and wrote my Tweet.

The conversation I hoped for didn’t happen. What did appear was a series of comments, ranging from slightly snarky to very snarky, of the “Well, that’s nice if you’re rich” variety.

What surprised me wasn’t the cynicism. That’s par for the course on social media now. My surprise was in seeing people who self-identify as artists and creatives not being able (or willing) to see the context, and assuming this was a conversation about the benefits of being rich, rather than the sacrifices some have chosen to make in order to be more creative or productive.

Especially since the cabin in the woods option has such a rich history to it.

Why Creatives Choose To Move To The Country

Perhaps the most famous example is everyone’s favourite cliche of the struggling artist, Van Gogh, who, unable to sell his work and thus sustain himself, moved to cheaper accommodation in the country. Of course, it was there that he found his creative voice, and honed his style.

But many artists have followed a similar path. Not always because living in the country is cheaper or easier – it often isn’t – but because it can be simpler, especially if you know what you want to do and are highly motivated to do it.

Everything that makes the city a great place to live can also make it a hard place to live. The buzz and energy can also be noise and distraction, big crowds, slow commutes, a high cost of living.

It’s not just people in my circle doing this, there’s a steady stream of stories exploring the trend, like Urban exodus: Why these artist couples left the city for Prince Edward County, Young People Explain Why They Ditched the City for the Country, and Goodbye London: why people are leaving the capital.

Getting Past The Excuses For Changing Your Life

I recall hearing someone say he wanted to simplify his life but first needed to be debt-free and to have two million dollars in the bank. An oddly similar tune to the one sung by my jealousy-inspired Twitter critics!

This is merely a grand exercise in self-deception.

It’s like the former musician I once had coffee with, who, when I asked if he would ever consider making music again, prattled off a long list of prerequisites: would need to be with a band signed to a major label, have the budget to tour globally with a state-of-the-art live show, blah blah blah.

Putting aside the world of excuses for not being creative, and diving into the world of wanting to be creative at all costs, what really is the cabin in the woods option?

What Makes The Cabin In The Woods So Appealing?

I’m not about to take the cabin in the woods option, at least not right now, so why is it so appealing to consider? Part of it is simply the romance of moving as a way to solve our problems. Of course, that in and of itself isn’t really enough to change our life, and deep down, once we look past the idea of waking up to a bucolic country vista, we sense that.

It’s something to do with the radical gesture. I believe it’s that to do it, you have to have a pretty clear sense of what you are about and what you want to achieve. It’s a bold move. A massive decision to simplify life, to prioritise work and love, to focus on fewer and deeper relationships, and to place our creative work above many of the things that are markers for a good “lifestyle” in our consumer society.

And, whether or not we feel personally called to move to a cabin in the woods, we’d all love to have that kind of certainty about where our work and life are going.

This photo was taken on a month-long road trip through New England in 2000. That’s me standing outside Robert Frost’s cabin near Ripton, Vermont. The US was a very different country (I recall watching one of the Bush Jr v Gore presidential debates the week this photo was taken) and I was a very different man. But the cabin in the woods had a pull on my imagination then and it still does, 18 years later.

If you’d like to read a little more about Frost, take a look at this post about his famous poem, The Road Not Taken.

Oliver 6 years ago

Aaah… good ol’ Robert Frost! Thanks for putting this name in my mind again…
Found this great article about him on New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/01/travel/robert-frost-s-vermont.html
Funny enough, in this article they mention that “He ended his Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, “New Hampshire,” with the ironic words, ‘At present I am living in Vermont.'”

Tim 6 years ago

I’ll agree that the simplicity of the countryside is very appealing. There is no disturbance from the buzz of activity as in towns.

One thing I loved when I stayed in the countryside for about a month was the ability to interact with nature when I needed to clear my head.

I’d definitely explore the option in the future!

Rob 6 years ago

This sounds the same as the people who tell you to “leave everything behind and hit the road, live like a nomad!“ There is some kind of privilege to it, to be able to do so, not only about money but also about obligations, be it family you take care of, a career that took your whole youth to create, etc. although if you are an artist, going away wouldnt harm your career, I presume, but it does take money to start all over in the middle of nowhere, especially if you are in the middle of nowhere.

Maria 6 years ago

Talking about artists retreats… There is this summer cabin in a private island in Sweden where you can apply to stay for free so you can work or get inspired to finish ideas. https://www.ideasisland.com. Have wanted to apply for ages but didnt so far. This one is not in the countryside per se, but it seems worth a try.

fernando 6 years ago

Maria – I must apply!

fernando 6 years ago

Rob – I hope it’s not the same at all! The folks I know who’ve taken the cabin in the woods option, none of them are rich and they’ve all taken a hit in income to do it. The side benefit though is often a much lower cost of living. So, it’s a different equation. The nomad option though, that’s far more unworkable for most people, especially for families. I see them as very different propositions.

fernando 6 years ago

Tim – yes, the different rhythms are part of the appeal. The city is very inspiring in so many ways, but all those sources of inspiration, they can also become mermaid-like temptations away from the work.

Maria 6 years ago

Is it possible to stay in Robert Frost’s cabin? If so, how? Can you share a link? Found this and I dont think its the same: https://www.robertfrostmountaincabins.com/?doing_wp_cron=1524055692.9270989894866943359375

Valentina 6 years ago

I second Rob on this one… My cousin went from going every year to New York to consume as much as she could to travelling all around Latin America, staying in Mexico for about 4 years and when she got back to Argentina, she decided to start her own ecovillage (she was living in ecovillages in Mexico). We didnt support her at first because we saw her insisting on med school and dropping out in the end. Besides, her first group of friends that went to start it with her left really soon and she was practically alone there for a year, which made us a bit worried for her safety. In the middle of nowhere, not even a cabin standing, just a piece of a house to be rebuilt and a trailer. Today, she just had a baby there and her project is booming, but still, she cant really live from the earth as she wants, it takes plenty of time, AND MONEY, that comes from her dad, he can afford it so its fine, but not everybody has that luck, the piece of land she lives in was also bought by my uncle, as her 4×4, etc etc.
I went there for a permaculture course for a month and it was a beautiful experience and I understood her vision and that she wouldnt drop out of this one as she did with med school, but she gets the comfort of knowing she doesnt have to generate income to be able to live this way because of who her father is. Although it makes me glad she is using that money for this. I know its not the same case, but I have lots of artist friends being supported by their parents, paying their flat AND studio rents, because they of course need a studio where to work as well, if you think of it that way, it is a form of luxury that cabin in the woods.

Tamara 6 years ago

this is also why a lot of artists are night owls, the city turns off the noise, and your little flat in the city becomes a cabin in the woods. You can truly enjoy the beauty of a city at night…

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

I was in Latvia recently and one of the interesting things that I learned while I was there is that a lot of Latvians are moving away from the cities to live in the countryside. As a people, they’re quite connected to nature through things like their annual midsummer festivals and even their folk songs, but they’re also quite introverted. The Latvian Literature team is actually running a campaign called #IAmIntrovert which sort of plays on that.

Basically what happened is that people flocked to the cities for work etc. but nowadays a lot of them work from home/via the internet, which means that they’re able to go back to the countryside if they want to. It also helps that they have much faster internet connections than we do here in the UK, of course!

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

Interesting thought! I’m a writer and I’m definitely a night owl. One of my favourite writers, Charles Bukowski, has a famous quote that goes, “Never get out of bed before noon.” Although he was an alcoholic misanthrope so that also might be why he stayed up all night and slept all day.

fernando 6 years ago

Tamara – yes, I lived in the centre of Hong Kong for five years in a high rise apartment and looking out over the modern city late at night was always inspiring!

fernando 6 years ago

Dane – fascinating example. I’m curious to know more. There’s plenty of talk here in Japan about whether this might ever happen, especially as rural populations fall and the amount of empty homes in the countryside keeps rising.

Tamara 6 years ago

Same here, Dane, Im a writer myself and its always easier and faster if I work at night. I think he was a night owl for sure, an alcoholic one, but a night owl 🙂

Tamara 6 years ago

There is this magic that happens when everybody goes to bed, u feel like the city is yours for the taking!

Agostina 6 years ago

I went from living in a huge city (Buenos Aires) to smaller capitals (London and Berlin) to now living in the German countryside, by chance, and as much as I love it being surrounded by the woods and bunnies, deers, cows, etc, it also keeps me away from those city interactions and stories that inspire my work a lot. Sometimes all this quietness drives me insane, sometimes I feel im not thankful enough for this small piece of paradise, although itd be truly perfect if it was by the ocean haha.

Kate 6 years ago

It all sounds very inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s simple living, surrounded by nature, daily walks, living in a cabin in the woods as he wrote in his book, “Walden“.
I really enjoyed the essay “Civil Disobedience“ by him, if you havent read it, I urge you to do so.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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