Cave, Cabin, Treehouse

STORY              Henry Builds A Cabin, by D.B. Johnson


We sang, in the last hymn:  “I have held the secrets of the deep and heavens above.  I have felt soul encompass earth, sky and sea.”  Have you ever felt that way?  And have you ever been drawn to the lives of mystics, or self-sufficient people who have lived alone, in or nearly in wilderness?  I have this morning a transcript of a panel discussion among three such men.

The first of the three panelists is St. Francis of Assisi.  He was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1182.   The second is Henry David Thoreau.  Henry was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817.  The third panelist is George Dyson.  George was born in 1953, the son of the  physicist Freeeman Dyson.  He grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and now lives in the Pacific Northwest.

You may be a bit skeptical about the authenticity of my transcript.  I will acknowledge that when, where, and how this event took place is mysterious.  Nonetheless, the transcript is here.  Francis speaks first.


Francis: I was a happy-go-lucky young one, fond of fancy clothes, and of singing and gallivanting with my friends.  My father was a wealthy trader – in tapestries and cloth.  I had siblings, but my mother favored me.  At 20 I went off to fight for Assisi in a war with the nearby city Perugia.  There was no real danger – the wealthy stayed behind the front lines – but we lost badly and I was captured.  For nearly two years I was imprisoned in a Perugian jail.  I got sick.  I think they realized how useless I was, how little a threat.  And my father’s friends had influence.  So I came home to my mother to recuperate.

George:  I was a privileged kid like you, Francis.  I too spent time in jail.  It was just a week – but I was only 14.  This was the late 1960s – they arrested me for selling marijuana.   When I first got to jail I was scared out of my mind.  There were kids from all over New Jersey.  We got used to each other, and we played basketball.  My father let me stay there for longer than he needed to, before he bailed me out.   I didn’t understand how he could do that, and it took me a long time to forgive him.  My father was well known in town, at Princeton of course, in scientific and literary circles, in the government.   I didn’t fit the mold.

Henry:  Well – if we’re telling jail stories:

One afternoon…when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s I was seized and put into jail, because  ... I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women and children…. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run “amok” against society; but I preferred that society should run “amok” against me, it being the desperate party. (1)

Francis:  There was no fine principle like that behind my prison term.  I want to say more about my father, whom I disappointed greatly.  George reminds me of myself a bit.  Although it seems, George, you were more enterprising than I.  My father wanted me to join him in his business.  But after I returned from Perugia and got well I became obsessed with the beauty of the world – “all creatures of the earth and sky” – and also the misery of the poor people all around me.  I started to do crazy things – crazy in the eyes of others, that is.

Finally I stole – a  large amount – from my father’s warehouse.  I gave his goods away to the poor.  He brought me to the bishop and right there I tore off all my clothes and threw them at his feet.  That day I stood naked in the church where I had been baptized and said to him – you are no longer my father.  Imagine my impudence.  You could say I too didn’t fit the mold.

Moderator:  We remember you, Francis, and you, Henry, because you didn’t fit the mold;  and because you lived so fully, in the natural world.  And you, George, you’re not a famous writer nor a saint, but you did the same.   What drove you?  What inspired you?

George:  What drove me?  Restlessness, I suppose.  I’ve always been independent.  I love the water and I love boats.  When I was sixteen I went to UC Berkeley.  I didn’t actually go, in the sense of attending classes, but I was enrolled.   I never saw the point of college.   I taught myself.   I took my second semester tuition money and bought a boat.  I lived on it for a while, at the Berkeley Marina.   That was technically illegal, and it proved a problem.  I picked up jobs here and there, mostly as crew.  I got to know the coastline.

And I became a bit lost, I guess.  I sold my boat and went north, to British Columbia.  I helped build a very little ship, and worked on it for two years, up and down the coast.  I considered the whole northwest coastline my home – from British Columbia up to Alaska.  I built myself a kayak, based on ancient Indian designs.  I spent most of my life on the water, and on the islands along the coast.

When I was 19, I decided to make myself a tree-house, as a place to rest a while, for the winter, or while I built my next boat.  My house was in a Douglas fir, 95 feet in the air, looking out over the water.  It even had a wood stove.   Friends had the land and had said I could live there.  Like your deal at Walden, Henry.

Henry:  Yes.  I can see that.  You’re making me feel quite conventional, George.  I was 28 years old when I went to Walden Pond.  I had finished Harvard.  I had tried my hand at various occupations, though none to my satisfaction.   I thought:

This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.  He should have gone up garret at once. (2)

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps … he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music he hears. (3)

…. You seem awfully quiet, Francis.

Francis:  I’m a simple man.  Not educated like you.  I used to say, “Go out and preach the gospel.  When all else fails, use words.”

Of course once I had thrown my clothes at my father’s feet I couldn’t go back to his house.  I dressed like a beggar.  I became a beggar.  Sometimes I worked for a meal.  I slept where I could – in the fields, in abandoned animal huts.

I sang, “Embracing earth – you day by day, bring forth your blessings on our way.”  I was filled with joy, and with love for my bride.  She was Poverty, Lady Poverty I called her.  I saw that my freedom was in my poverty, and in helping to make the lives of those who had always been poor more joyful.  “Lord,” I sang,  “Make me a channel for your peace.”

A few others joined me.  Those were the best days – forgive me – looking back.  Before there were so many other brothers.  Before I became the father of a big community, and had to make rules, and go to see the Pope.

Henry:  Solitude is the ideal state of any man.  At Walden, alone,

I was no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs out loud, or than Walden Pond itself.  …. I was no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a ban leaf, or sorrel, or a horsefly, or a humble-bee.  I was no more lonely than … a weathercock, or the northstar….or the first spider in a new house. (4)

(But) I am naturally no hermit; … I had three chairs in my house – one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. (5)

Francis:  Yes, yes – beautiful, Henry.  Of course I had no chairs.  Later, when I became – so improbably – the leader of a large order, the other brothers seemed to need chairs and beds and other things.  It made me sad.

Henry:  I’m sorry, Francis.  I made most of my furniture myself.  “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin.”  (6)

Francis:  Marvelous!  Your words are a gift, you know, Henry.  I went on solitary retreats, too.  Or with two or three of the brothers.  We would climb the mountain of Subiaso, near Assisi, and live during Lent in the caves there, each of us in his own cave, coming together to share our food or to pray.  They say I preached to the birds.  I spoke to animals.  I did love them, God’s creatures.

George:  Whales are amazing creatures.  I know whales.  I didn’t preach to the birds, from my treehouse.  I did watch them.  My problem was red squirrels.   Whenever I was away they would get into my house and trash everything.  Too bad you weren’t there to preach to them, Francis.

Francis:  They tell another story about me.  They say there was a town that was being tormented by visits from a wolf.  I negotiated a truce between wolf and townspeople.  They agreed to feed him, my Brother Wolf, and he agreed live peaceably.  Even the town dogs agreed to the pact.

Moderator:  Soon you will all need to go back to – wherever you came from.  Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Francis:  I don’t want to be critical – but you have so many things, in your time, in these United States of America.  So many possessions, and so much waste.  And the poor are still among you.  I read somewhere* that in your last year, 2010, corporate profits grew at their fastest rate in 60 years, and there was a record number of Americans using food stamps.  And your government is proposing to cut help to the poor.  No man need sit on a pumpkin, Henry told us.  I wonder, how many chairs does one person need?

They built a huge cathedral for me in Assisi, after I died.  My poor bones are there.  Such splendor, all around.  For centuries I cringed to see it; I almost did not want to listen to all the pilgrims’ prayers.  They venerate me because I was a simple man.  I am still simple.  But my heart is filled with compassion for them, and for you.  I listen, I do listen.

I’ll tell you something else.  There is a large statue of me, at Subiaso.  It came there ten, twenty years ago.   I stand, legs apart, my body straight; birds perch on my shoulders.  I am ringed by a large circle, so that the statue looks like a peace sign.  And on the ring are symbols of the world’s religions – the yin/yang, the Star of David, Islam’s crescent, the Buddhist wheel, the cross.  If they must make statues of me – that is the kind I prefer.  All religions, no religions.  “Lord, make me a channel for your peace.”  That was my prayer.  It is still my prayer.

And you, Henry?  Any final thoughts?

Henry:  In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. ….  I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. (7)

George:  You would have been a good companion, Henry, out on the water.  I’m not a saint;  nor a poet.  I’m getting close to 60 years old.  I reconciled with my father a long time ago, and I haven’t lived in a tree for quite a while.  I write.  I follow my interests, which include technology.  I still build boats.


That’s the end of the transcript.  I discovered the writings of Freeman Dyson, George’s father, and later the biography of Freeman and George, over 25 years ago.  I first heard of Thoreau in Miss Worter’s fifth grade class.  I remember staring out the window at the playground fired up by the idea of living alone in a cabin by a lake.  I don’t remember when I first heard of St. Francis, but I visited Mount Subiaso, and the huge cathedral he told us about, in Assisi, last summer.

Each of these men followed a path most people found odd.  Each caused anguish to their more conventional families and friends.  Most of us neither can nor should do as they did.  Most of us would probably prefer that our children not follow their example.  But their stories do remind us:

to ask what drummer we hear

to strive to live our own lives more fully, in the most present moment,

and even

to search for our own hound, our own bay horse, our own turtledove.



This sermon was inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi, especially as imagined in I Francis, Carlo Carretto (1982); by Kenneth Brower's The Starship and the Canoe, (1978), a biography of Freeman and George Dyson; and by the life of Henry David Thoreau.  All Thoreau quotes are from Walden. Page numbers refer to the edition with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, Princeton University Press, 1971:  (1) page 171; (2) page 54; (3) page 326; (4) page 137; (5) page 140 (6) page 65. 

*Francis apparently read Mark Bittman’s column “Why We’re Fasting” on the NY Times Opinion page, March 29, 2011.