Brain Pickings

Henry Builds a Cabin: Thoreau’s Joyfully Minimalist Life at Walden, Illustrated for Kids and Full of Wisdom for All

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“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

In September of 1992, a young man by the name of Chris McCandless perished in the wilderness after resolving to live outside of consumer culture, as close to nature as possible. His story, still the source of ongoing controversy, became the book Into the Wild, which then became the movie of the same title, which gave us one of the best film soundtracks ever. Despite its tragic ending, McCandless’s tale is infused with the ideas and ideals of another man who left the city for the woods to attempt a simple life more than a century earlier: Henry David Thoreau. In the forest around the shores of Walden Pond, he built himself a tiny cabin 10 feet wide and 15 feet long, snugly containing only his bed, a writing desk, and a table with three chairs. He built it himself, with the help of a few friends, using old boards and bricks. The total cost was only $28.12½ — a masterpiece of material minimalism in every sense.

Henry Builds a Cabin (public library), the sequel to artist and author D. B. Johnson’s infinitely delightful Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, adapts the tale of Thoreau and his cabin in vibrant illustrations, once again casting the beloved transcendentalist as a lovable bear named Henry. The story is inspired by this famous passage from Thoreau’s Walden, presaging the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” by a century:

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

Johnson’s vibrant, distinctive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations invite us to spy on Henry while he builds his cabin as his friends, one by one, question his modest choices.

First, his friend Emerson, who helps Henry raise the beams, questions the size of his dining area:

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too small to eat in!”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads Emerson to a bean patch he has planted behind the cabin and proclaims:

When it’s finished, this will be my dining room.

Then, as Henry is nailing the boards on the roof, his friend Alcott arrives and brings his own skepticism.

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too dark to read in!”
“It’s brighter than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads him to a sunny spot next to the cabin and exalts:

When it’s finished, this will be my library.

With more visitors come more questions about the comfort and practicality of the cabin, but Henry refutes each with his cheerful resourcefulness. Finally, on July 4, 1845, he moves into his cabin and blissfully munches on beans in his “dining room,” enjoys a good book in his “library,” and takes pride in his tiny cabin built with heart and humility.

The end of the book features this endearing breakdown of Thoreau’s cabin construction budget:

  • Boards $8.03½
  • Used shingles $4.00
  • Laths $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows $2.43
  • One thousand old bricks $4.00
  • Two casks of Lime* $2.40
  • Hair* $0.31
  • Mantle-tree iron $0.15
  • Nails $3.90
  • Hinges and screws $0.14
  • Latch $0.10
  • Chalk $0.01
  • Transportation $1.40
    • TOTAL: $28.12½

      *lime and hair were used to make plaster

Complement Henry Builds a Cabin with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then revisit some of Thoreau’s timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

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