My relationship with nature is complicated. When I moved from the city to a rural neighborhood in New Hampshire, I feared for my life. Seriously. I cowered in my house, more afraid of the sounds co…
My relationship with nature is complicated. When I moved from the city to a rural neighborhood in New Hampshire, I feared for my life. Seriously. I cowered in my house, more afraid of the sounds coming from the forest than I was of the drunk guy at the bus stop. There is such a thing as too much nature — and if you’d like to laugh at me and my insecurities, I will re-post my feelings about too much nature next time, in a frantic missive I wrote during my time there, probably scrawled from the inside of my closet.
I thought Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man could rescue me from too much nature at my cabin. Mike was the general in charge of bat insurgency and I was the secretary of weed defense; but I had no army to lead the campaign while I was away. I don’t know if you know this, but weeds grow. Like constantly. It threatens my need for order and has the potential to render my sweet little cabin . . . oh god . . . I can barely even say it . . . ugly.
Other examples of too much nature that I hoped Frank could manage include the charming but lethal “steps” leading from our cabin down to the dock.
Crumbling and haggard from years of shifting earth and encroaching vegetation, it was probably safer to just rappel down the hill than to use the “steps.” We found ourselves going around the steps instead of using the steps because, in addition to being un-usable, they looked like some archeological find we could be desecrating.
The path to the beach was no better; steep, narrow and riddled with tree roots and raspberry thorns, I often pictured myself tumbling down the path instead of walking. If I were more childlike, I’d just get in forward roll position at the top of the path and somersault to the bottom.
So we never invite anyone to our cabin. It’s a total liability. Plus there’s nowhere for you to sleep unless you bring your own tent.
I also found that I went from the cabin to the dock, the cabin to the dock. I never stopped in between. Get on the boat, get out of the boat. When you get out of the boat, you go in the cabin. Something was wrong here. And we figured out that the weedy, dusty shitshow at the bottom of the “steps” just didn’t invite us to sit down and relax.
This is our weedy, dusty shitshow . . .
It was time to take the cabin renovation outside. You learned about Frank Ford earlier; how he doesn’t have a computer. Or an email address. And how he went to London to see how the British celebrate the 4th of July. I called him to tame my wilderness and to create more pleasant traffic lanes on my property. And he did. He truly did. With the aid of a little flagstone, cedar, and a merry band of Finns, he transformed an inhospitable place into an outdoor room. It’s like we put an addition on our house — an addition with no walls — the impact is just that great.
But just to be clear: it doesn’t take much. I’m not talking about waterfalls and pizza ovens. I’m just talking about a steady place to put your foot. A weed-free place to sit down. Delineated spaces that invite you to stop and take in the view.
But more importantly, he takes the edges off my need to weed, to conquer nature. And instead, place a little more trust in Mother Nature.
He’s very convincing that way. When he arrives the first time, before I know that we will be communicating via US Mail, I offer him a cup of coffee.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he says. “I tried it once when I was 63. Not for me.”
And I am impressed. Not because coffee is so bad for you but because it’s rare to meet a person who wants to do it on their own. No crutches.
“Oh I still get sleepy,” he adds. “Sometimes I buy a triple espresso and put it in my fridge. When I need a little charge, I just . . ”
. . . he pantomimes opening the fridge, taking the cup, throwing back one sip, putting it back in the fridge and closing the door.
And even though he just contradicted what I thought about him, I am still impressed. He’s still a man who understands the nature of things but refuses to follow the herd. I think he’s man who can help me with my rocks and weeds without making my paradise look like it sits on a cul-de-sac.
“What do I do about them?” I ask. “The weeds? How do I keep this under control?” I’m looking for permission to nuke things. Maybe some insider tips from a pro. But, instead, he looks at me and pantomimes pulling weeds. He reaches out with his right hand, grabs an invisible bundle and throws it over his shoulder. Then he repeats with his left hand.
“Oh . . okay.” I say, a little ashamed.
“What is this?” I ask, pointing to the thorny sticks that grab and poke and scratch me in the ankles.
“That’s a wild rose,” he says.
“They are everywhere! I tried to kill them last year but they keep coming back!”
“They’re beautiful when they bloom,” he says.
“Yeah, but they’re in all the paths and the thorns scratch me as I walk by. What can I do about that?”
And, very calmly, he says “Wear long pants.”
I’m beginning to feel like Veruca Salt, screeching for her own golden goose. If Veruca Salt had realized the error of her ways and felt remorse.
It appears that Frank Ford is more about adding instead of taking away. Enhancing instead of annihilating. Working with instead of against. He sees room for real steps and paths and sitting areas so that I can enjoy my weeds instead of battle them.
And now that he is almost done, I can walk safely here . . .
And here . . .
This little walkway gets me halfway to the beach without somersaulting. And it’s also a pretty good place to stand and watch boats.
And I can sit here . . .
As we plan, we discuss a small outcropping that could be tamed into a sitting area for one, a mini patio. He writes it down on his yellow legal pad. “We’ll call it your mini pad,” he says.
Here’s my lakeside perch for one, my mini pad.
And I take a chill pill. I sit down on my flagstone resting places and look around me. I stop freaking out at the notion of every errant seedling poking up through the soil. In return, I get these little orange flowers that open up while I am away.
I get these yellow ones that pop up in front of my mini pad.
And white ones and purple ones sprinkled around the bottoms of birch trees. What looks like a weed one day could turn out to be a flower the next. But how would I have known that without Frank?
Frank is finishing up this weekend. I haven’t seen the final FINAL result; there’s still more to be done. And, because cabin season is over, I won’t see it until May.
“Can you send me some pictures when you’re done?” I ask. As soon as it leaves my mouth, I realize what I’m asking. He will have to take some photos with his camera, bring them to the Target an hour away to get them developed, and then send them to me in the mail.
“Sure!” he says. This is how he lives. It won’t be a problem. “But I have one more thing to tell you,” he adds.
“Yes . . . it’s my birthday today.”
There’s really only one thing to say, isn’t there? But I pause because I’m both surprised and honored that he shared this with me. “That’s great!” I say. “Happy Birthday!”
“Well thank you for that. I don’t talk to many people so I have to say something if I want to get some happy birthdays.”
“Happy Birthday,” I say again.
Because he totally deserves two.
Boston Mills Press and Firefly Books have recently released a new edition of their quasi-classic The Cottage Bible. And they’ve graciously gifted me a copy to give away to a lucky Cabin Crush reader.
There are a lot of great cabin books in my house. Like this one . . .
And this one . . .
And this one . . .
And, of course, there’s this one . . .
(if you want to read about how I geeked out all over myself when I met the author of the last two books, aka how cabin architecture relates to Shaun Cassidy, you can click here.)
But The Cottage Bible is different. This is a nuts and bolts manual for the pragmatic cabin owner who doesn’t shop for the perfect salt and pepper shakers or cry every time they hear a loon. This is for people like Mike, who has a new part-time job at Let’s-Worry-About-The-Cabin-R-Us. When I’m wrestling with throw pillows to find out which ones are squishiest, he’s daydreaming about the Home Depot bucket he’s going to MacGyver into a mousetrap. Tomayto, Tomahto. The point is that there’s stuff you can do to avert and/or deal with cabin calamities and thus maximize the enjoyment of your cabin time.
According to the blurb, it’s “an all-in-one compendium of vacation-home knowledge . . . an essential collection of troubleshooting and problem-solving tips, a reliable guide to all manner of flora and fauna, and an indispensable manual for getting the most out of your home-away-from-home.”
Topics include Boating, Maintaining Canoes and Kayaks, Winterizing Your Boat and Motor, Swimming Safety, The ins and outs of Fishing, Campfires and Campfire Foods, Building a Birdhouse or a DIY Sauna. There’s an elaborate section on critters but, strangely, not much info on how to get rid of critters which is really how I approach critters and please don’t send me hate mail, PETA. You can read about the various snakes at your cabin – which I did not do. Instead, I closed my eyes and turned those pages super fast.
I learned that worrying about a monster living at the bottom of the lake who will rise up and terrorize you is a common phobia (note to self: cancel therapy appointment). And even better, they provide an explanation of lake anatomy that proves that monsters can’t survive at the bottom of the lake. And science would never lie to me. So I feel better about that.
Most helpful are the checklists for opening and closing the cabin because, dang, that is a huge job for Mike and I just show up with the chips. That probably isn’t fair.
To win a copy of The Cottage Bible, just tell me in the comments section where you you’d like your dream cabin to be. Lake Superior? The Pacific Northwest? An island in the Baltic Sea? This is for dreaming big so don’t be shy. I’ll randomly choose one comment and pop your prize in the mail.
Cabin season #3 is well under way and we are still wallowing in the dregs of the Finnish Carpenter’s good intentions. To this day, two years after our cabin rehab project began, I still can’t shower at my cabin. Consider the kinds of activities that take place at a cabin, outside, in the heat, with fish. Add in one teenage boy and there just aren’t enough baby wipes in the world to take care of that kind of stink.
I have a shower – a beautiful one, tiled in river rock – but, unlike useful showers, my shower spits out a trickle of scalding hot water from the spout. It would take me two weeks just to get my hair wet in there. And adjusting the scalding temp isn’t possible because we’re missing a vital organ in the body of plumbing called a “mixer.”
The funny thing is, there’s a “mixer” at the Finnish Carpenter’s house that I ordered from HoDe for him to install. But, just like that Cure tape you left at your old boyfriend’s house, you’re just going to have to forget about it.
Because the Finnish Carpenter’s isn’t coming back. He says he is but he’s not. I now know that when he says he’s “gonna try and make it over there” he really means “see ya later fuckers.”
I’ve learned a lot from the Finnish Carpenter, a man who promised so many things and then just stopped showing up, leaving us to stink up our new cabin when things got complicated. Or boring. Whenever we discussed needs or wants for our cabin reno, the Finnish Carpenter would nod and go “Oh sher.” He said oh sher to everything, long strings of requests and questions, nodding his head the whole time. And I would always be like “Don’t you want to write any of this down?”
Oh Kristin, that’s just your obsessive need to control everything, I’d tell myself. I tried to let go and trust his ability to maintain lists in his head; my way isn’t always the right way, amiright?
Well, that was foolish. Just like the kid who gets bored with math because he can’t find his planner, the Finnish Carpenter doesn’t have my cabin in his head anymore – so it turns out that my way IS the right way! You DO need to write that stuff down or you might forget that you have people right across the lake from you who can’t take a shower. Can’t you smell that?
The next character to enter our cabin drama puts a salve on this wound. He is the antidote to the Finnish Carpenter. He shows me that I am right about just about everything and that my way is always the right way.
He is Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man, called in to tame my wild, rocky, weed-infested frontier. Don’t forget about my relationship with weeding; yes, this is supposed to be a wild place but it’s MY wild place and I will determine how wild is too wild.
And THIS wall of weeds is blocking my paradise. Frank Ford is going to help me.
The first thing I notice about Frank Ford the Northw00ds Plant Man, besides the sweatpants hiked up around his middle, is that he writes stuff down. Even interrupting me to do so, saying to himself “Just a minute now, Frank,” holding his forefinger to the sky, trying to remember what he was going to write down.
He takes copious notes and makes meticulous plans – ON PAPER! And he shares these plans either in person or . . . via the US Mail.
Because Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man doesn’t have an email account. He doesn’t have an email account because he doesn’t have a computer.
At first, I am horrified. And then, I am jealous.
The look on his face is always happy. He is never in a hurry. Everything he needs is on his clipboard. And his work is always impeccably done. DONE being the operative word. It is DONE in accordance with his meticulous notes, in an extremely timely manner. He finishes what he starts because he writes it down on paper with a pen. Maybe a pencil. End of story.
And I think he’s the happiest man alive.
“I gave my assistant $5000 to go to the cities, to that Apple store, and buy me all the doo dads and the goo gaws I would need, ” he tells me. “She said she’d set it up for me. But it’s still sitting there. In the boxes. I just don’t want it.” He waves his hand dismissively.
I warn him that equipment becomes obsolete quickly.
“It’s been sitting there for three years,” he says. “Is that too long?”
“It’s been sitting in the boxes, unopened, for three years?!”
“Yep,” he says. “She’s a little miffed with me.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I’ll just email it to you. . . ”
Or “I saw it on Pinterest . . .”
Or “Can you send me some photos?”
He can’t do any of those things. But he can and does call me. We have lovely but brief conversations where we exchange pleasantries and pertinent information, just like in the olden days. Maybe he tells me how he once drove his car in reverse for 7 miles back in ’76 or ’77. Or maybe he tells me about his trip to London to see how they celebrate the Fourth of July. And then he reads from the notes he’s carefully written down so as not to forget anything.
And, if he has the time, he will definitely send me some photos of his progress. First he drives to my cabin with his Canon Sure Shot and he takes photos and then he drives an hour to the nearest Target to have them developed and then he puts the photos in an envelope with my name and my home address and a good old fashioned STAMP . . . and he will send me some photos.
And he is the happiest man alive.
As Frank’s work comes to a close, I will post before and after pix. I might post them right from my phone. Or I might draw them. We’ll see which way makes me happiest.
Whenever I arrive at the cabin, before unloading our duffel bags and the cold-chest out of the back of the Jeep, I walk the barely-there path to the screen door and simultaneously reach for its handle and bend down to pat Woody on his little pointy head. Woody sits outside the porch, just to the right of the screen door, and his head is smooth and welcoming like he has happily weathered storms while keeping watch over our happy place.
Mike will tell you that gnomes are a decorative accessory and I should stop buying them. But every time I pat that pointy head, I feel safe and happy and very, very welcomed. And history tells me I’m right.
I recently bought this little guy:
. . . and he’s been waiting for cabin season, perched on top of book mountain. When he goes to the cabin, he will be welcomed by Woody, Yellow Gnome, Gus and Bjorn —
— a little family of watchers.
When we were little cabin dreamers, we called a gnome a Tomten because of this book.
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren came out at Christmas time and it scared me because it was dark and ghostly and the Tomten secretly visited sleeping farm animals in the middle of the night. He was a little grumpy and disheveled but he took good care of the cows and the farm cats and even the children so, even though he scared me, I liked him.
According to tradition, the tomten lives in the houses and barns of the farmstead, and secretly acts as a guardian. If treated well, he will protect the family and the animals from evil and misfortune. He might even help out with some chores (dear gnome, clean mouse traps, please). However, they are also known to be short tempered, especially when offended.They are easily put off by lazy farmers and a careless lack of proper respect — much like the native Minnesotans, don’t ya know. They will not under any circumstances tolerate rudeness, like swearing or urinating in the barn or mistreating your animals; this could result in a hard strike to the ear.
So, seriously, don’t mess with your gnome. And if you spill something on the floor, it is considered good manners to shout a warning to the gnome below. As in, “watch out, Woody!” If you don’t, you might spend half the day looking for your glasses when you just saw them RIGHT THERE! That, friends, is your gnome talking. Just be a good person, and your gnome will take care of you. I promise.
Some gnome words for your enjoyment:
Don’t you think you need a Yule Goat this Christmas? Giving you the finger? I know I do.
My shiny gold yule goat, sitting atop book mountain, has not yet been named. If you have any suggestions for this newest member of our cabin-watching team, give me a holler, y’all.
“Troll Wondering How Old He Is” by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen
January is over and that’s a good thing. I had a little meltdown recently because my post-holiday slump was dragging me down the rabbit hole and it lasted a whole freakin’ month. My urge to leave and go somewhere, anywhere, was so strong but I was held hostage by my nemesis — the calendar (shakes fist in air). My life is not so complicated but when I added the plans and activities of two other people, there just wasn’t a single opening that was big enough to allow for a relaxing getaway; if you have to smash it in, it just feels like another obligation on the calendar. Gah!
I settled for an overnight at a hotel three miles from my house on what was to be the coldest cold snap of the year — the kind that makes your forehead sting. The kind that makes young women in tiny dresses and open toed shoes feel actual pain, especially when I walk by in my Sorel boots and dog-walking coat (she says from experience). And on this coldest of cold nights, we had tickets to (dot dot dot) a hockey game. And after the hockey game, we came back to find that the heat in our very nice, upscale hotel room couldn’t keep up, so we slept under layers of bathroom towels strategically placed over the standard, and normally adequate, bedding. There was a lot of survival cuddling that night but not even a skilled archeologist could have excavated my actual body from the many layers of clothing I wore that night.
It was a getaway . . . but not quite far enough away.
This is when I start missing the cabin. It’s a guaranteed change of scenery that never ever asks anything of me except to enjoy my surroundings. Even a cold cabin can be a respite — cold can be beautiful — it’s the GET part and the AWAY part that are important.
But my cabin is seasonal. There is no heat source. And it’s location up the long-ass driveway would mean I’d have to call the National Guard for a ride to my door. It’s a completely uninhabited locale; what few neighbors there are abandon that stretch of road long before the snow flies, leaving our cabin to weather the winter alone, with only the trees and the foxes for companionship. I don’t even know what it looks like right now; how deep is the snow? Up to her windows? Higher? Is there anyone living under her eaves? Have there been any visitors, wild or otherwise? There’s no way for us to know. Mike is probably experiencing small bouts of angina as he reads this, an unmonitored cabin being one of his greatest anxieties. So many things to go wrong without his supervision. Maybe a collapsed roof or a frozen pipe. Or a destructive band of hibernating bears denning in our kitchen cabinets (sorry, Mike. Those things AREN’T happening. I PROMISE!).
It’s a good thing that I miss my cabin. This forced separation keeps the romance alive. And I keep her in my heart by buying her gifts. Not as many as last year, our first year apart, but just a few baubles to show how much I care.
Vintage Orange Carafe: When you put a pitcher of water on the table, everyone drinks more water. And if that means that I can have this vintage orange carafe, then I will drink lots and lots of water. Lots.
Paint by Numbers Tray: At the cabin, you often find yourself bringing food outside. But when you have your drink in one hand and your snack in the other, how do you carry your People magazine? That’s why this small Paint by Numbers Tray is a necessity (yes, Mike, I said necessity), just big enough for a tall glass of Mr. Pibb and a small bowl of Cheetos. Because you can have junk food at the cabin. The close-up on the right shows that this paint-by-number is left strategically undone for your enjoyment. If you’d like one of your own, you can find it online or in-store at Fishs Eddy.
Linen Alphabet Wall Hanging: Most vintage-esque cabin finds are clutter-y and rough around the edges. If you have too many of them, your eye gets overstimulated and your mind manufactures a smell like wet basement. This linen alphabet is spare and minimalist but still has a whiff of happy days gone by. And textiles are perfect for the bathroom; it’s basically like hanging a towel on the wall.
So the missing has begun. And so has the dreaming and the planning and the continual nesting. Are you wondering about the little gnome in the top photo? Sorry, you’ll have to wait until next time. . .
As we edge closer to December 22, each day gets darker and darker. I begin my day in the dark — and my day isn’t even close to ending when darkness falls again; I often have a compulsion to put my jammies on before I’ve even figured out what we’re having for dinner.
In some parts of the world, they get only a few hours of precious daylight this time of year. And some get none at all. Despite the darkness, Denmark and the Scandinavian countries routinely top the surveys of the world’s happiest people. Last year, Denmark was #1 followed by Norway at #2, Sweden at #5 and Finland at #7.
Not coincidentally, these countries also lead the world in the strength of their collective cabin culture. In Sweden alone there are nearly 600,000 summer/winter houses and more than 50% of the population has access to one through family or friends. Scandinavian cabins aren’t symbols of privilege; the dwellings are simple and cozy, helping people connect with nature, connect with people, and shed the clutter and noise of the city.
Sometimes the cabin is known as smultronställer , meaning “wild strawberry spot,” a Swedish expression for a place special to your heart.
I don’t think anyone would deny that being at the cabin makes people happy. And the feelings of happiness generally come from a cozy comfort shared with people you love; it’s like we feel swaddled in physical, emotional and ambient warmth.
The Danes call this feeling “hygge” (sounds like hyoo-gah). And some theorize that hygge is the reason that Danes are among the happiest people in the world, even in the dark of winter. Because they don’t just save hygge for the cabin . . . they bring it home and live it every day. For them, hygge is a way of life.
This funny word has no direct English translation but NPR’s Claire O’Neill describes it like this: “fireplace warmth with candles and family and friends and food and tucked under blankets on a snowy day, cup-of-coffee conversation, scarf-snuggle, squiggly, baby love.” Doesn’t that make you happy?
As the days get darker and the stress of the holiday season looms, grab some hygge and cabin it up at home. Don’t shortchange yourself! You deserve this! And here’s a place for you to start:
“Hygge-at-Home” Tips from Cabin Crush:
Candles At breakfast, at dinner, at coffee time, at reading time, at TV time. Candles aren’t just for ambience; they become a ritual of slowing down and savoring the moment. Benita Larsson of Swedish blog Chez Larsson (instagram @benitalarsson) says Swedes use candles not just on special occasions but on most days during the darker months of the year: “Sitting at the breakfast table at candlelight is the best thing. Swedish households are known to use up bags of votives and boxes of tapers in no time at all.”
Blankets Not just one, but many. Layer them. Share them. We have three people in our house and two of us fight over the three blankets in the room. And not just for the family room couch, either, but on just about every sitting place in your house; when you go to an outdoor cafe in Sweden, each chair will have a lap throw draped over the back and you routinely see coffee drinkers wrapped in blankets as they sip. When people in America get cold, they either put on a jacket or go inside. In Sweden, they wrap up in a blanket. Have a basket nearby so you don’t have to scream at people to fold their blankets at the end of the night. Here are some faves:
A Seasonal House Drink
Many people would die without their coffee in the morning. For some, it’s a reason to get out of bed. And much of that is due to the warm, comforting ritual it provides. Why don’t we have an evening drink ritual? A hot chocolate or a decaf macchiato to enjoy together by the fire (or, if you’re at my house, by The Simpsons)? My son loves the privilege of sipping a decaf sugared-up creamy cream “coffee” with the adults. It feels special. Here’s a drink I relish. I’m totally serious, I relish it:
Freeze leftover coffee in ice cube trays. Pour cream (yes, just do it) or almond milk (if you must) over the top. Sip slowly while the coffee cubes melt and mix with the cream. It’s like forced relaxation.
Photo credit: stylecraze.com
Lower Your Dining Room Light Fixture I once got a comment from a Danish woman that Americans hang their dining room fixtures to high: “It’s not hyggeligt,” she said, hyggeligt being the way we describe things that encourage hygge.
A lower-hanging fixture casts a more delineated glow around the people at the table; it’s cozier, glowy-er, it makes people lean in and feel a part of the circle while everything else fades into the background.
Plus, it just looks better. Don’t think of your dining room light as a ceiling fixture; it’s really more of a table decoration. Try hanging your light 24- 30 inches above the surface of the table. Trust me on this.
So much better.
Games or Puzzles on the Coffee Table
After owning the cabin for more than a year, Liam opened a never-before-opened drawer and found a collection of playing cards that spoke volumes to me. It was like an anthropological relic — this is what these unknown people who came before us did together! If you want more cozy family time, you have to have a reason to occupy the same space while interfacing with each other. Having a game or a jigsaw puzzle at the ready, calling out to you as you pass by, will do the trick. Click here to read a piece that I wrote for Momfilter.com about playing cards with my son in restaurants.
And there are plenty of beautifully packaged games available today that would be worthy of space on your coffee table (hmmm…not a bad holiday gift).
Good luck with your hygge . . .
. . . may this season of darkness be the brightest ever.