Suzanne Farrell Smith
My sons carry sticks—large, small, straight, crooked, bare, or still clung with crisp leaves. I choose ribs for walls and weave overhead branches tighter and tighter into a near-waterproof lattice. I want this roof to work. To protect us from most, if not all, of what falls from the sky.
This is our second attempt at building a shelter on our property. Our first, in summer, began in what seemed a convenient spot: a clearing between healthy oak and yellow birch. Halfway through construction we noticed, perched among the living trees, a gutted deadfall, primed for a direct hit. Stick by stick, we moved.
It is not easy to raise nature children. Nature is hardly natural enough. And though I fantasize about life off the grid, I’m too scared. A friend writes beautifully of her home in rural Oregon, where she single-handedly manages chores I’ve never heard of, like “clearing the intake for the hydroelectric system” and “flattening the floor of the composting privy.” One sighting of a coyote through the trees, and I hustled my sons inside.
My mother didn’t set out to raise nature children, and we did not become them, my sisters and me. But when our father died in a crash, and our mother struggled through suicidal ideation and the trial of the wrong-way driver who killed him, we four spent a lot of outdoor time on our own. The property border was a stream, lined with skunk cabbage. Stumps were our thrones, mountain laurel our palaces. I recall almost nothing of that period, but now, decades later, the root of my childhood time in the woods has flourished into an obsession with our trees, our bushes and brook, our wildlife, and erecting this shelter in case of a sudden rain, a particularly windy day, snow.
Or, I suppose, we build just to prove we can.
I live with my husband in Connecticut, in what some call a suburb and others a small town, since we’re just at the outer reach of New York City, close enough to make a day of it, but far enough that my husband’s commute is two hours each way. Our road cuts across the eastern hill of a valley. Our house sits on the slope leading down to the valley floor, where the brook runs. The western hill is steeper, large swaths of its granite heart exposed. The valley ends in a state park. When we moved in, a neighbor warned us that we would hear killing. And we have. I’ve watched a red-tailed hawk scoop up a chipmunk. I’ve found duck bones in the brush. One evening, I opened the back door to the battle cries of a fox and raccoon.
But humans are all around, our imprint on everything. At the top of the western hill is a house in expansion. Jackhammers chip away at the ledge to make way for a new cement foundation. We pick trash from the woods: torn mylar balloons, electric fence flags, crushed aluminum cans. During the April rains, the rushing stream pins detritus against our tiny bridge. I once found a two-by-four marked by eight evenly spaced nails. A very old stone wall crosses the hill, separating dense trees from a clearing that used to hold horses. Nothing remains of the fence but a dilapidated post-and-rail gate.
I don’t like the trash or the jackhammering, but I like the stone wall and gate. I imagine our town hundreds of years ago, when it was part of a farming colony full of artisans. And I imagine this land well before then, when indigenous people of the Wappinger Confederacy hunted and fished and rode the nearby river to the ocean fourteen miles south. The historical society’s display of objects and stories, colonial tools and indigenous artifacts, fascinates me. Old houses and old farms and all the old stone walls remind me of how long humans have been here, before global companies moved their headquarters into town, when the area was for people who worked with their hands.
So we build this shelter with our hands. The rule: no tools. Nothing humanmade, even as I am humanmaking with each bend and tuck. I create other rules as we go. If you find a rotten log, leave it, since critters have already claimed it. If you find a stick recently fallen, gather it. Branches on dead trees are fair game to snap. Leave healthy trees. I remind my boys that animals have been here long before us and will be here long after. We live in a world of squirrels and garter snakes and ants. Above all, keep the stream clear.
Our favorite show is the History Channel’s Alone. Each season, ten contestants—who, we are constantly reminded, are trained survival experts—are dropped off in different spots around a remote location: Canada or Patagonia or northern Mongolia. They’re outfitted with multiple cameras to self-film efforts and trials. They bring limited supplies and must meet basic needs: food, water, shelter. Which is the most important? my sons want to know, and at first, I tell them I think they’re equal, impossible to peel apart. How to sustain life without food and water? But how to protect and prepare that food and water without shelter? How to maintain the body that so desperately needs both? And what about fire, to keep warm, to boil water, to cook?
Lucas’s shelter on Season One of Alone was circular, like a yurt, with a high roof. Season Three’s Fowler crafted a bamboo wattle for his inner wall. Roland on Season Seven heaved large rocks onto a semi-circular wall and laid logs across the top. Theresa on Season Eight dug down a few feet to create an earth house. Some participants simply hang a tarp between trees. Several add touches, banal back home but near-extraordinary in the wild—hangers, a checkerboard, a toothbrush. One fashioned a urinal. Many participants toil to build a shelter that is taller than they are. We note how important it seems to contestants’ mental health to be able to stand up.
Our new shelter has begun at the base of a witch hazel. Five trunks shoot out from the hill, making an excellent skeleton. We add thick upright branches along the sides and braid skinny ones over and under to hold them in place. We crisscross smaller sticks along the top. It’s fall, and I rake out the leaves from the floor, exposing moss-lined earth. We stuff the leaves in between the sticks for extra padding. We sit in our shelter, our backs to the west where the winds and weather are the strongest, and admire the view of the stream downhill. I pull fig bars from my pockets.
The Alone survivalists eat everything from small game (rabbits, squirrels) to big game (moose, musk ox), seafood (fish, crabs) to the nearly inedible (leeches, slugs), plus all manner of plant life. We marvel at their kill skills, their ease with flaying and scraping. None of us can imagine it. My sons do not pretend to shoot wild turkeys for dinner. Rather, we tell each other that dead trunks are skyscrapers for beetles, leaf piles are chipmunk condos. We are aware, always, that it’s in good fun, that late in the afternoon we will return to the house’s warmth, plumbing, and full fridge. My sons will grow tired and want screen time.
Contestants on Alone bow out until one winner remains. Each is furnished with a satellite phone. One didn’t make it the first night, too afraid of bears stalking him. Another got a fishhook stuck in her hand. One ate so much tree bark, his colon was impacted. A woman left when her remitting relapsing multiple sclerosis acted up. A man fell in the lake and would have risked hypothermia to stay. One had frostbite spreading on her toes. Participants tap out due to starvation or loneliness in equal numbers. But of the scores participants across nine seasons, only one has left because of a problem with shelter. He accidentally set it on fire while roasting his catch of the day.
Two years after my father died, we stood at the end of our driveway watching our house burn. The fire had started in the first-floor bathroom and spread to the kitchen, dining room, and the den that had been my father’s. His papers, books, memorabilia from the Navy and Vietnam—much was scorched or melted. Soot saturated our second-floor bedrooms. I didn’t wonder about food or water then. I only thought, where are we going to sleep? I can’t recall now who took us in that night. Without pajamas and stuffed animals, we couldn’t have rested well. Months passed in a rental house before we could move back in.
I’m coming to see that to secure enough green boughs to effectively seal the walls, I need a tool, so I allow myself one: loping shears to cut low-lying limbs from our hemlocks as well as branches from last year’s Christmas tree. I lay the big ones first, and thread the smaller ones through cracks. I’m amazed by how well pine branches block light and breeze.
My sons read from Would You Rather? books while I cook dinner in our tidy, functioning kitchen. Mommy, would you rather have a kitchen or a dining room? Easy. A kitchen. Mommy, would you rather have a kitchen or a bedroom? Also easy. I can sleep on a kitchen floor. Mommy, would you rather have a kitchen or a bathroom? If there’s plumbing, I tell them, I can have both. So what does a shelter need? they ask. A kitchen, bathroom, and spot to sleep, I tell them. Food, water, warmth. But in the wild? On our hill? Sturdy walls. Waterproof roof. Dry floor. A barrier against wind.
When it’s done, we admire our shelter, especially how we can all stand, though I point out I’m barely five-foot-three. My sons lean into my body and I stretch my arms over them, a shelter within a shelter. Nearby, an animal meanders. We listen to the rustle. Alone contestants would prepare to hunt. I, on the other hand, feel an urgency I can’t quite understand to remain perfectly still and quiet, so as not to disturb the animals that live in these woods. As if our presence in this shelter is just another way we are encroaching on nature, and as if by remaining quiet, by presenting ourselves as a neutral part of the landscape, we can somehow mitigate our footprint.
I wonder whether we need a permit for our shelter. We live in a town that seems to require a permit to erect anything—porch, pool, propane tank. Complex human bureaucracy safeguards nature, especially the wetlands.
Even on Alone, in the middle of what seems to be nowhere, contestants talk to their cameras about rules and regulations. Some rules ensure a more natural experience for the contestants: no lighters, animal poison, crossbows, or guns. Others are meant to protect populations, such as bears, fox, a particular type of deer. Contestants are allowed to use anything they find in the woods, and we talk about how humanmade items are, it seems, everywhere, even in the show’s isolated locales. Contestants find rope, bottles, and jugs. A frying pan, an empty drum. One found an old boat, filled it with water, and lit a fire underneath to create a hot tub.
Before each contestant leaves, whether by tapping out or winning, the shelter is dismantled, piece by piece, and everything is removed except natural materials. We watch the process in a series of clips until nothing remains but an impression on the ground. We wonder what earth might be like if we could erase ourselves.
After my sisters and I grew up and moved out, my mother barely left the house. As her health, both physical and mental, declined, she self-confined to a shrinking area, until all her days and nights passed on a single couch. One January morning when we were visiting, she could no longer stand on her own. We called 911. Paramedics wheeled her out the front door, away from her house for the first time in many months. She cried.
More than a shelter, the house had settled into the place of husband. A trusted, aging companion. Without it, I knew my mother wouldn’t survive. Starvation and loneliness engulfed her. Nine weeks later, in a hospice facility, she tapped out. We took apart our childhood home, finding boxes stuffed with items still reeking of smoke.
Winter descends, and the boys and I check on our shelter, only to find the hill is not ideal after all. Ice has formed over the boulder behind the witch hazel. On warmer days, it drips, soaking our moss blanket, a harbinger of spring floods. We could never sustain fire in here, and even though I have no intention to light one, I know we need to move.
When the snow thaws, we unravel the branches and sticks and twigs, haul them across the bridge, and, in a little clearing near the well head, begin our shelter anew.
Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of three books: Small Off Things: Meditations from an Anxious Mind, an essay collection; The Memory Sessions, a memoir about searching for lost childhood memory; and The Writing Shop, a teaching guidebook. She is widely published, has been Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart. She teaches at Westport Writers’ Workshop and publishes Waterwheel Review. Suzanne is the recipient of an Artist Fellowship Award from Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and three sons.