Coming Out Of The Woods: The Solitary Life Of A Maverick Naturalist

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9780738202587: Coming Out Of The Woods: The Solitary Life Of A Maverick Naturalist

A beautifully written, unsentimental account that challenges our Thoreauvian romance with nature and offers the conclusion that in civilization is the preservation of the wildness that we cherish. . In 1974 Wallace Kaufman, following the romantic vision of a simpler life in harmony with nature he first glimpsed in Thoreau's Walden , moved on to his own land by a small stream in the North Carolina woods. Now, twenty-five years later, he emerges to tell a tale somewhat different from Thoreau's-an entertaining, moving, and distinctly late-twentieth-century story of a life lived in the wild as landowner, environmentally conscious developer, builder, farmer, conservationist, wilderness steward. His love of nature and his commitment to preserving it never waver, even as he tells the sometimes hilarious, sometimes catastrophic story of the ragtag cast of 1970s "back-to-the-land" characters who buy shares of his land in the wake of the first Earth Day; of trying to build a road without cutting down trees or disturbing a streambed, but at last giving in and learning to chainsaw and dynamite; of building his own home; of resorting to violence when flying squirrels refuse the special niches he builds into his walls and insist on taking up residence in his ceiling; of preserving his old-growth forest; of the awesome devastation of hurricanes.

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Review:

In the late 1960s, swept up in the spirit of the times, young literary scholar Wallace Kaufman banded with friends to purchase 330 acres of North Carolina forest and found their version of utopia--a low-impact, covenant-heavy development that their rural neighbors would come to call "Hippie Town." Kaufman's utopia fell apart, as such places tend to do, under the usual pressures, but he stayed in the woods, eventually losing his academic job but finding plenty of other work to do as a sometime builder and land appraiser. His tales of how to go about making a home in the backcountry may give would-be back-to-the-landers pause, but they're certainly instructive and full of useful details. (Who knew that "the average small house requires over 50,000 nails," or that a builder hammering by hand would need to devote nearly two weeks to driving those nails in?) Kaufman is a keen observer of the ways of nature, discussing the natural history of trees, the habits of flying squirrels and copperheads, and the relentless cycle of life and death. An evident conservationist, he also finds room for extractive activities such as logging, mining, and hunting, and he argues for individual ownership of the land, maintaining that "the world's greatest environmental tragedies are largely on public lands or lands to which no one has a secure title or protection for a claim."

At times Kaufman falls into cantankerousness, grumbling at urban environmentalists who, he holds, unduly romanticize life in the wilds--"No one," he writes, "lives happily ever after alone in a wild place"--and taking potshots at the likes of Henry David Thoreau, who lived in his famed woodland cabin for only a fraction of the time that Kaufman lived in his. These ill-tempered lapses, which read like afterthoughts meant to attract controversy, don't detract too badly from the rest of Kaufman's generally easygoing memoir, which, all in all, is a worthy addition to the library devoted to country life. --Gregory McNamee

From the Author:

My experience leads me to believe the following advice is good for more than 99% of humankind: "Wild places are nice to visit, but you would not want to live there." After building my own house in a forest by a creek and living there ten times longer than Thoreau's two years and two months at Walden Pond, I reversed Thoreau's conclusion and propose "In Civilization is the Preservation of Wildness." I wrote this book as a friendly argument with Thoreau and with many of the friends I have from my terms as president of three statewide environmental groups. Thoreau had many visitors to his cabin, but he had none as interesting as my daughter Sylvan who not only visited but helped build and foray and garden but who grew up to become my co-author of another book.

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Wallace Kaufman
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