Such a strange way to begin a blogpost I know. Facebook memes aren’t revered for their profundity, their wisdom, or even their accuracy, but this one struck me as particularly interesting. Beyond posting my essays my Facebook, activity has diminished over the years for reasons anyone accustomed to the world of social media will understand. Apart from the occasional article posted by a source like Strongtowns from CityLab or something of that sort the overall quality of the content is extremely weak. (I have to credit Facebook for reconnecting me to a former student in whose farm* I am now deeply invested, so there is something to say for the platform however).
Returning to the meme, what I find most interesting is how it inverts the reality of what most people really seem to want.
This expression of a desire for a simple life, devoid, interestingly, of other humans is juxtaposed to an apparently luxurious city life. I have no doubt that there are some people who would love living in “the cabin in the woods”: no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no easy access to food, and no governmental support regarding health, safety, and education, but if that number rises to 1/1000 of a percent of the population I’d be surprised.
Despite what the photograph depicts, what people want is a sort of splendid isolation from society while still accessing all of the benefits that gathering together and establishing civilization and culture can provide. What’s implied by connecting the term “mansion” to the “city” is that the choice to live in the “woods” is the simple, inexpensive, practical alternative; it is nothing of the sort. What people want is to live on the last outpost of societal infrastructure getting access to it all not for the marginal costs of bringing it to them in the hinterland, but, at most, at a share of the cost of the entire system divided by all households.
They need more pipe and more wire to bring utilities to them, their roads require more asphalt and get more use as more activities demand more cars traveling longer distances more often and more vehicles taking more time getting to them to provide them with services.
And somehow this is viewed not as pathological or sociopathic, but as some higher state of being: Hermits seeking isolation in order to commune with nature and contemplate the meaning of life…now if the rest of you could just get them their food, and their water, get out of their way when they need to drive their kids to karate class and make sure they have access to high speed internet!
This is a significant problem. That so many fail to see that the exurban modern lifestyle is hugely underpriced means that the belief that it should be affordable to anyone who desires it creates unreasonable expectations which lead to disappointment and anger. Celebrating a lifestyle where there is no public sphere beyond the systems which feed the private one, and where face to face interaction with other citizens not working as clerks at the Circle K is almost non existent turns them into nothing but consumers in every sense of the word.
Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately for a little while, but he returned quite literally to Main Street to use what he had learned to engage with his society. What most Americans wish to do is very different. They go to the woods to live elaborately and suck the marrow out of the natural world. Taking a trip to visit our farm* my wife noticed a house with 9 cars and multiple ATVs. Cabin in the woods indeed.
Where would Thoreau go today to suck the marrow out of life? I think that it might just as easily be a small apartment in a walkable neighborhood as a cabin by a pond. Wherever it was it wouldn’t have an SUV in the driveway…or even a driveway.