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Words From The Woods

Sacred Game

So many things are designed today. You can dream up a lot of things once you start designing. The world today sometimes seems to me like a land of dreams.

The older world was more grown than designed. Most early Americans were farmers. They needed to be. The colonists grew the things they needed, and their houses themselves were almost grown. I have lived in their old houses, and they are like living things. They feel more real to me than do houses today. They feel more necessary.

There's a still earlier way of answering our domestic needs. The Indian peoples those early settlers first encountered here were mostly hunters who lived lives of woodland necessity. For them it was not the planted field but the woods that were sacred. In the woods lived the Sacred Game.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep—

People in the world have promises to keep, but there is something in the woods that belongs to the keeping of deeper things.

Through the many years before we built Innermost House, my husband and I lived in many different places. We moved something like twenty or thirty times, living in Spanish houses in California, in salt boxes in New England, in a slave quarter in Virginia and a log cabin in the Alleghenies, forever seeking some spirit of American place we could not see.

How do you design a house without designing it? How do you grow something to be wild? Sometimes we could almost see it in the distance: "Beautiful Necessity" Emerson called it. It is the need to be that has gone out of things. In the world today we are all free to design whatever we can think of, but we are powerless to make things necessary.

Michael and I were seeking a way of getting behind the designed world, inside design to something more essential. We weren’t looking for new designs or for old designs. We certainly weren't looking to live in the woods. All I knew was that I longed for a way of living that was both civilized and necessary.

But the pine and the oak shall gladly descend from the mountains

to uphold the roof of men as faithful and necessary as themselves.

For a long while the only answer was to keep moving, to keep looking and feeling and sensing and seeking— to follow the scent, wherever it led us.

What began for us as a worldly search for the civilization of towns descended into a hunter’s journey through the darkest forests of the soul. My husband pursued the game to its native place by patiently learning its ways, apprenticing himself to its habits, its customs, its instincts, its secrets. When he finally brought it to earth in the woods, I knew I had come home.

Now with its flesh it feeds us. With its skin it clothes us. With its bones it shelters us. We are taught by its spirit—

Let the house rather be a temple of the Furies of Lacedaemon,

formidable and holy to all, which none but a Spartan may enter

or so much as behold.

Innermost House can be photographed and measured now that it's finished, but it was never really designed. When we came to the end we had traveled so far we had left the world behind us. The house in the woods was all that was left. It is what had to be that we found.

_________________________

"The woods are lovely dark and deep," is among the most recognized lines of American poetry, from Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923). The poem goes on to conclude with these lines:

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The succeeding two quotations are both from the central figure in American intellectual life, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose influence upon poets like Frost, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, William James and John Muir, and even upon such American artists as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ansel Adams, is incalculable.

The first lines quoted are from the little-known essay, "Domestic Life," in a late collection entitled Society and Solitude (1870), the second are from the famous early address, "Man the Reformer" (1841). These two writings frame Emerson's thoughts on the kind of reform he felt was most needed in American life: not political reform, not economic reform, not religious reform, but a reformed way of living at home. These thoughts are of the kind that Thoreau sought to put into practice on Emerson's land at Walden Pond.

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