On a summer sojourn to Virginia, sitting on the slanted porch of a centuries-old log cabin, I am transported more by time than place. My husband and I had escaped to the Blue Ridge Mountains for reprieve from coastal South Carolina’s humid July blanket, seeking a fix of rhododendron and rushing streams, which I crave the way others crave the sea’s salt. Slight whiffs of skunk, rocky trails glinting with mica, vistas that stretch toward hazy ridges in the violet distance — these draw me to the mountains.
But on this trip, I was as happy to be inside as out. A friend had let us borrow this cabin, and all I knew before arriving was that it was rustic, and that she had inherited it from a woman she had once worked for. “I’ll be curious what you think,” my friend said, handing over the keys.
It was hard to know what to think at first. Our car spun out on the steep gravel access road, so we made our approach by foot. Before we even unlocked the door, we were met by the charred smell of a thousand ancient fires. The old wooden side door creaked on cue, revealing an interior dark and dank, spooky, and indeed, rustic. A mere 18 x 20 feet, the main cabin consisted of a centerpiece fireplace, in iron bed in the corner, a desk, and a couple of rockers. Low chestnut-beam ceilings and only two small, match-stick shuttered windows added to the cave-like effect. An upstairs sleeping loft was guarded by huge, creepy crickets and dotted with rodent droppings, so went unexplored. But once spiders and cobwebs were swept away and we opened up the tired, leather-hinged front door to the peaceful view, the cabin slowly began to reveal its warmth and character.
Now gray with age, pocked with insect holes and etched by hewing scars, the cabin’s logs are the timber-equivalent of a wise soul’s worn face. A sturdy simplicity is built into their horizontal lines, with each log hewn to a roughly equal width and notched to dovetail precisely with the logs above and below it. I try to fathom the care and sweat equity that went into creating this small, unassuming shelter — not once, but twice, for this cabin was relocated to its present perch. The woman who dared move it here decades ago had discovered it — an architectural pentimento — hiding within a larger old ramshackle home that had been built up, bit by bit, around it. Her memoir, prominent on the cabin’s desk, tells of discovering and moving the cabin and documents, the tedious log-by-log deconstruction, meticulous tagging and reassembly. An ancient fossil being pieced together vertebra by vertebra, revealing clues of ages past.
Besides the memoir, the desk “library” included two of the Foxfire Book series, a compendium of Appalachian lore and “affairs of plain living,” researched and compiled by high school students from Rabun County, Georgia. Rocking on the front porch, I brushed up on the rather gory basics of hog dressing, learned the long-lost secrets to moonshining, butter churning, and soap making. But I found myself most enthralled by the Foxfire chapter on “How to Build a Log Cabin.” Despite sitting on the porch of Exhibit A, I couldn’t get my bearings.
I felt like I was reading a foreign language. I didn’t know an adze from an axe, or what in the world an auger actually did. These tools and skills are remnants from an era when self-reliance meant something other than remembering your PIN or your login password. I can barely find my way around Lowe’s, much less figure out how to select the right tree, cut it down without killing myself, hew it to size, lathe a roof, do the chinking (whatever that is), and so on. . . in order to construct a house that will stand for centuries.
The irony doesn’t escape me as I select “tools” from my Microsoft Word menu to spell-check “adze.” I live in a smooth-edged world, where 2-by-4’s come pre-measured and pressure-treated and delivered to my door. My “chores” include nibbling my way through a luxurious Whole Foods Market — not exactly the same sensory experience the Foxfire folks had when disemboweling a whole hog (scalding water, they claim, makes the hair come off more easily).
In the cool, clean mountain air, under the spell of a well-made, well-loved log cabin, I slip into an easy sentimentality, romanticizing the resourcefulness and resilience of the pre-power tool generations before me. I remember childhood fantasies of wanting to hop in the covered wagon with Melissa Gilbert and her gentle, kind, workhorse mom (or actually, with studly Michael Landon). I had authentic overalls bought from a genuine country store not far from here and wore them through college with earthy, agrarian pride. I’ve always had what I considered a progressively regressive bent, envisioning myself an organic farmer with horse and plow — though truthfully, the “green” I skew toward is the shade of naiveté.
Today’s frontier is a different place. The challenge and the need is not to build log fortresses to protect ourselves from the wilderness, but protecting the remaining wild places from ourselves. I may never wield a broadaxe, or learn to hew a poplar tree, but I appreciate the skill of those before me, who did so out of necessity. And I know, too, how to appreciate what is still necessary: the trees themselves, the undeveloped, unscarred mountainsides, the testimony and solace of a simple cabin.