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The Death of the Shack

I am sitting in my writing shack waiting for the storm. Hurricane Matthew has already crashed into Florida, flooded Savannah, and broken through the sea walls of Charleston—and Wilmington is its next stop. It’s pretty much the only time you see the name of my adopted hometown on a map of the country—when a storm is coming up the coast. In the early projections, Matthew looked like it was making a beeline for us, and we were briefly ground zero. I imagined the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore standing with his microphone in front of the shack, with Missy and Isabelle, our yellow labs, barking at him, as I tried to take last-second notes on the birds hunkering down for the storm. But of course the early predictions are never precise. The aptly named cone of uncertainty, a series of flowering colored lines that speak of what might be, offered many possibilities. Soon the lines had shifted and my imaginary Cantore had moved on.

I built this place, a simple eight-by-eight-foot lopsided box on the edge of the marsh in a wooded corner of my backyard, as a present to myself on my fiftieth birthday. I built it because I wanted a quiet place, a place away. A place to write and hide and drink. It didn’t hurt that many of my heroes—Thoreau in his cabin, Montaigne in his chateau, Robinson Jeffers in the stone tower built with his own hands—had these sorts of places.

I bought the building materials the morning before my birthday, and the morning after I woke with a kind of Christmas-morning excitement. By the time my wife Nina came down with her coffee a couple hours later I had my plywood floor laid out on cinderblocks and the four corner two-by-fours up, tacked together and held in place with strapping. Unlike me, Nina is slow to wake, but she blinked, took a sip of coffee, and seemed impressed.

“You’re pretty good at getting into things,” she said.

That afternoon I put in the big front window. That window in a way was the whole point of the shack. I wanted to feel, as much as possible, that I was a part of the marsh. It was really the sensation of a bird blind I was after. The full frame was up by late afternoon. Getting the roof on was a bitch but the view from up top was splendid. I could already see that the shack would be a place for a deeper sort of work, even though at that point the only work I’d done was with hammer, plywood, and nails. I used no power tools and no screws except for the door: just my old framing hammer, some galvanized common nails and coated sinkers, and a handsaw. This was not born wholly out of Thoreauvian idealism. Earlier in the week I’d bought a power saw at Sears and then discovered, upon opening the box, that some assembly was required—most notably, the blade was not attached. I might have been feeling some resurgent confidence in my practical abilities that morning but I sure as hell wasn’t going to use a saw to which David Gessner had attached the blade. It required a little extra work to do it all by hand, but I still have all my typing fingers.

The first morning after I’d finished, I brought my bird books, binoculars, and telescope down to the shack. The delights began right away. Pelicans and herons and egrets. Lots of bluebirds too. The day before my birthday we had put up a bluebird house and it had bluebirds inside it the next day. Two days later we saw a pileated woodpecker in the yard. On the third day I watched a starkly white northern harrier, looking like it had stolen a gannet’s colors, hunt over the creek, swinging back and forth so that it seemed to be scything the tall marsh grass.

 

2.

For almost five years my writing shack provided me with exactly what I was looking for. It quickly became my backshop. My fort. My hiding place. But most of all it was, as I’d hoped, my bird blind. An eye through which I could see herons, egrets, woodpeckers, ospreys, and, every once in a great while, a quick glimpse of a clapper rail.

The clapper rails were the pulse of the marsh. Their loud clappering made the reeds throb so that I could feel them in the walls of the shack. In the evenings I would listen to the rails as the light faded and the trees turned to shadow puppets. When the shack was two and my daughter Hadley was nine, we made a map of the trees that lined the opposite shore of our tidal marsh. Once the sun went down they appeared as black silhouettes across the horizon. We named them, too: Brooding Man, Demon Ears, Poodle Head. I kept the drawing of the silhouettes nailed up on the wall of the shack.

That was the year Hadley and I slept out there a couple of nights, throwing a mattress down on the floor. As well as a bird blind and fort, the shack proved a fine playhouse.

And for those five years the shack served me well. During that time, I lived a dual existence. I traveled often, usually to other threatened coasts. During the BP oil spill in the Gulf I spent a couple of months in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, talking to fishermen, finding oiled birds out on barrier islands, and even flying by helicopter out to the rig itself. I had thought I’d known marshes before visiting the Gulf, but here were real marshes, marshes that went on for miles, marshes that looked like they could cover whole Northeastern states. When I traveled the edge between water and land I found a vulnerable world, a world, despite its vast scale, not so unlike my own backyard.

Even as I was building the shack, I had no illusions that it would last very long. A hurricane would take it out, I was sure of it. Which was fine with me. It was not built to last, or rather, it was built to not last. It was my anti–trophy house. My monument to impermanence.

It would be fitting, I always thought, if the shack died by drowning. Battered by a hurricane, it would float down Hewletts Creek, listing and lurching and pulled by the tide out to the sea. This was the exact fate of Henry Beston’s Outermost House on Cape Cod, where Beston lived alone on the marsh back in 1925 and ’26. The house was initially unmoored and then sent drifting by the great blizzard of 1978, a launching that was witnessed by none other than John Hay, my old Cape Cod nature-writing mentor, and Beston’s literary progeny. And it would be a perfect fate for my shack too, not just poetically or symbolically but scientifically: a fulfillment of prophecies of our rising seas and raging storms. Dying in the service of science. Proof of the coming coastal apocalypse!

I can easily close my eyes and picture this watery demise: the shack, full of books and seal skulls and empty beer bottles and a few panicked fiddler crabs, heading down toward the mouth of Hewletts, pulled by the tides around Masonboro Island and floating out to sea. A place that was built for impermanence embracing its end, both builder and building celebrating the aptness of it all, me toasting from the shore as my private dwelling drifts away. Having decided not to go down with the shack, I watch with a tear in my eye as it heads nervously out on its own, like a child leaving for college.

 

3.

For this hurricane, for Matthew, we decide not to evacuate. This is based, sensibly enough, on the predictions of experts, but we second-guess the decision almost immediately. The morning starts with a loud crack that I assume is a transformer blowing. But no, when I go outside I see that a tree has fallen right between our two cars, which are only ten feet apart. A little to either side and a car would have been crushed, and we feel lucky to get away with only a shattered windshield. I spend the rest of the morning preparing, first duct-taping some cardboard behind the broken windshield, then dragging in anything that can blow. Finally I take some garbage bags down to the shack and bag up all my books and papers. A great blue heron flies by through the curtain of mist as the rain picks up. Beaded water, like Christmas lights, shines off of the tips of the branches of the eastern red cedar in front of the shack. The taller trees are swaying in a great rope-a-dope, a sibilant noise like a gushing river that won’t stop for the next thirty-six hours. In fact, the noise will grow ever more violent, until it seems as if the trees are being shaken by giants.

Photo of writing shack © David Gessner

It is time for me to emulate the marsh birds and hunker down. I put up the sheet of plywood that I use to block the shack’s front window during storms. The truth is I am not as worried about the place’s fate as I have been during storms past. It is already a little dead to me, and if it floats out to sea that will simply put an exclamation point at the end of its sentence. What has killed the shack for me, or at the very least dramatically reduced its allure, is a force both ancient and modern, a force both novel and as inexorable as the sea. The first hint of the end came from the sky. I was sipping a cold IPA and staring out at the marsh as the sun dropped over the treeline. And there it was, a great metal dragonfly buzzing down the waterway. A second after I saw it, the drone turned away from the water and headed right toward me, then paused and peeked into the shack for a moment before flying away.

And what of it? True, if I had a rock handy I would have thrown it, but should I really be surprised at this point? Is it news that there is almost no place left in this world where you can get away, where you can have space to yourself? John Hay often told me that his greatest need was “space.” He had lots of it by most people’s standards, over fifty acres of scrub oak around his house and the cabin where he worked, and he spent lots of time alone. But he lived in a different time and a different place. Maybe space is an antiquated notion and we are evolving into something different, into creatures more social and hivelike. Could it be that there simply isn’t enough room for each of us to have space?

I sat glumly sipping a beer and watching the desecration. “I’m sorry, Dad,” Hadley said when she visited the shack.

I had built the shack to get away from it all, though more and more it all was coming to find me there. Happily, the drone did not call in an airstrike, but soon after came a different kind of incursion. It started as a noise, the snarling music of chainsaws soon followed by a louder grinding noise that drowned out the birdsong, even the raucous clapper rails. It would take me a day or two to understand that the second noise came from a wood chipper, and then another day or so to see that the trees, the very ones that Hadley and I had named when they turned into silhouettes after sunset, were falling.

There is a moment in the early stages of loss when both nothing and everything is clear. When my father called to say he had cancer I was at once so muddle-brained that I couldn’t make breakfast afterward and at the same time able to see clearly how the decades without him would play out. That might have been the most dramatic example of this strange double-sided feeling, but I have had it other times too, and I had it now, listening to the noise of the chainsaws and chipper and watching the trees fall, the bald spot growing on the fertile bank that I had stared over at for five years. There was something about the chipper’s growl, and the fact that it ran all weekend, including starting early on Sundays, that revealed the character of our new cross-creek neighbors. And then we heard their actual voices. Loud, brash, trumpeting, anti-shack voices. Voices not unlike that of the man who happened to be running for president at the time. You could tell right away they had not lived by water before. Not just because of their proud and loud exclamations about their new home, but because they didn’t understand the way voices have of finding water, traveling along with it, and then popping back up at the nearest shore. They were over a hundred yards away and I could hear them like they were standing next to me. Their dog barked constantly.

They stripped the bank of trees. No more Brooding Man. No more Poodle Head. I sat glumly sipping a beer and watching the desecration. “I’m sorry, Dad,” Hadley said when she visited the shack. The next months were a chronicle of loss. Anyone building a house across from us would have invaded our privacy, of course, but these people were not just anyone. While I was away on a trip, Nina had to call the police one Sunday morning when they started the woodchipper even earlier, at seven. The noise bored through our walls and for weeks the inside of our house sounded like a factory. When I went over to pay a visit in hopes that they would only chip at certain hours, I met the new homeowner. I learned that he was also the owner of a local car wash, and that his voice had actually been harassing me for years already in the form of their radio ads. He was a big blustery man with a big blustery truck and from his backyard I could see my own, shack and all, which I pointed out to him. I also mentioned how it was my fortress of solitude, and he nodded as if he understood, but then muttered something about a dock that I didn’t really register at the time. He gestured at the house in the middle of his property, which he told me was the first owned by a freed slave in Wilmington, and then explained that he had thrown out all the old papers he found inside it. His plan was to tear down the house and build a larger one.

A neighbor I knew on his side of the creek called the town offices to complain about all the trees being taken down, and sure enough, they had violated the town ordinances. So what? The trees had been felled already, and this was Wilmington: there would be no replanting, just a slap on the wrist.

Next, as the man had promised, a bulldozer came and destroyed the old house. The dozer never dozed, working on weekends and at night under klieg lights.

Meanwhile the shack was no longer usable. I started to make my way through the seven stages of grief but dwelt for a good while on anger. Or maybe it is more accurate to call it fury. I wrote in my journal: “These fuckers are destroying everything. It’s the forever­ American story. The old replacing the new.” And: “Don’t they understand that there are other people on the marsh, that they have neighbors? There has been no consideration of the fact that this is a place where actual people, live.” And: “This is war.” I fantasized about shooting a flaming arrow across the marsh.

Was I overreacting? Most people would say so. It’s not that I didn’t under­stand that I wasn’t the only one who had a right to the marsh. But it is the old settlers’ story: when you can see smoke from another chimney it’s time to move. My peace was gone, but so was John Hay’s idea of space. Space, I think, means a place where you can go and be entirely yourself, ungroomed and unwatched, exulting in your aloneness. Unfailingly one person’s space impinges on another’s. Think of Jet Skis and snowmobiles. Think of woodchippers.

And, speaking of motors and motor­heads, the couple had one son, a little noble savage of the mechanical bent who tore around the property on a whining ATV or, in more contemplative moods, rode his father’s tractor in loud laps around the property. While the kid roared around, the dog chased him, barking, as I tried to write. The clapper rails sang in protest. But their calls were no longer the defining noise of the marsh.

 

4.

High tide today is at one-thirty. I have stayed in this house during storms when the predictions were dire but barely a leaf stirred. But today is different. For one thing there is the rain, which has been coming down for days, even before the hurricane. We will get over ten inches in the next twenty-four hours, and already our backyard is a lake. In fact, during a lull in the wind gusts, Hadley and I pull out my tandem kayak and decide to see our yard in a whole new way. We paddle around, looking down through the water at our fire pit, as the labs swim beside the boat. She takes a turn in the boat and then I do, paddling out to see how the shack is doing.

From the way I’m describing things, you might think we live on many acres. We don’t. From our steps to the shack is only a couple hundred feet. But the marsh extends our property outward, and today it extends itself inward. So I need to paddle through some twists and turns, around trees and submerged bushes, until I get out to the door of the shack. I peek inside and am glad I cleaned everything out. The water is three feet high, up to the desk where I do my writing, the highest it has ever been. Waves slosh in and out of my workplace. I love it.

I am aware that for many others, for the thousands who have lost their homes in Haiti and the millions farther down the east coast, this is no game, no joke. But for those for whom the storm will not be truly tragic, it will be something else, something harder to explain. The constant mixture, for me, for everyone, of fear and excitement. The sense—­despite the deep loginess that the drop in barometric pressure brings, despite the urge to nap that seems to border hibernation—of being wide awake. Of being alive. I think of William James during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He wrote of the devastation to the city, the horror, the tragedy. But he also mentioned the “wild Olympian joy” he felt right after surviving the event itself.

This is the subtle lie of the weather dramatists who narrate these storms for us. They try to look so earnest, so serious—this is life and death, they say—but their slight smiles of excitement betray them. How lucky they are to be the ones standing out on the beach saying “No one should be standing out here.”

During another lull, in midafternoon, comes a knock on the door. It is a group of my neighbors, armed with a chainsaw, volunteering to cut up the tree that blocks my driveway. We have always felt lucky to live in this neighborhood. Most of the other families are younger than us, as are their kids, and the cul de sac is always filled with children playing, so much so that backing your car out can be terrifying. Hurricanes are social events, and most of the volunteer crew have beers in hand. Our numbers double as the roar of the chainsaw lures more men out to see what is going on. As the tree is cut in sections we haul it over to the curb, though to say we is not exactly right. They barely let me help. Meanwhile more kids pour out into the cul de sac, laughing and screaming, until the winds pick up again and they are ushered inside.

 

5.

At around three I look out the back door and see that the kayak has drifted off—as if deciding on its own that it’s had it with land. The only thing that even keeps it on our property is the dog fence. I wade out into the water, climb in, and paddle it back to shore.

The winds blow hard for a couple of hours and then stop. The eye of the storm. For most of us this is a reprieve, but for one man it is a mighty blow. Jim Cantore, the queen of the Weather Channel’s chessboard, has been placed on the wrong space at the wrong time. His shift begins at five o’clock on Wrightsville Beach, five miles from here. But there is no wind and little rain and for the life of him he can’t muster any drama. He stands on the obviously still and dry beach as people, out walking, wave, and kids make faces. You can see his bitterness. Had they moved him just slightly, to downtown Wilmington, he would have had a backdrop of people kayaking down flooded streets.

He warns that the storm is not over and he is right. The great wheel turns, rotating counterclockwise to the north, and then comes around and hits us again from the other side, the marsh side. Even stronger winds batter us now. Hadley and Nina sleep in the hallway, on mattresses on the floor, away from the windows. They take one dog while I take the other in the bedroom. I am surprised the windows hold. The trees sway wildly. The whole feel is that of being on a ship, buffeted about by the winds. The electricity flickers and dies. The pounding goes on all night long.

 

6.

My own coastal losses are small potatoes. I understand that. I am constantly reminded that there are greater tragedies in the world than the potential loss of the shack or even of my family’s house back on Cape Cod. In the spring, not long after the construction began and the trees started falling across the marsh, I flew to California and gave a talk at the Henry Miller library in Big Sur. That night I stayed in the secluded cabin of my new friend and host, Chris Lorenc, and spent the next day writing, staring out at the far ocean from his mountaintop hut, sweating in his wood-fired sauna and dipping in the cold creek. This was Rocky Creek canyon, right next to the canyon where Ferlinghetti’s cabin stood, the very place where Kerouac had wandered lost and then immortalized these wanderings in the novel Big Sur. The place was thick with literary associations, not just Keroauc and Henry Miller but Robinson Jeffers, whose stone home, Tor House, was right up the street in Carmel. Once that house, built with Jeffers’s own hands, had stood proud and solitary, but now it was crowded in by a coastal suburbia. Tor House had been one of the inspirations for the shack, and Jeffers, writing about the way humans always ruin beautiful places, had provided a perfect epitaph for both his place and mine: “The spoiler has come.”

My time in Big Sur was brief but stirring. But a couple months later I saw the same canyon on the news. A wildfire had swallowed up many of the houses on Rocky Creek, including Chris’s house, where I had stayed.

My tragedy, if I can call it that, is something smaller, much smaller, than the fires in the West or the rising seas in the East. Last spring, a few months after construction began across the way, I kept coming down to the marsh, sipping my beer and scribbling my words, though I now did so to a serenade of hammering and sawing. I hammered plenty when I first built the shack, but that had lasted all of three days. Which points to a key difference. We are all complicit in the messing up of this messed up world. But more and more it comes down to scale and scope. I like people for whom enough is enough. There aren’t many left.

Jeffers, writing about the way humans always ruin beautiful places, had provided a perfect epitaph for both his place and mine: “The spoiler has come.”

It was after I got back from California that I first saw the flags of doom. Doom was not too strong a word, at least from my point of view. My backyard was only fifty feet from the open water of the creek on our side, but the house across the way was a few hundred feet back. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before that they would build a dock all the way out to open water, especially when he had muttered as much when I paid my one visit to his lot. But as soon as I saw the white plastic posts with the orange flags atop them I knew what was what. Now the spoiler had really come. Sure enough, over the next weeks a great phallic walkway, hundreds of feet long, jutted out from the opposite bank, culminating in a dock that stared right into the front window of the shack, less than fifty feet away. This would soon become the scene of evening parties, of dogs barking and motor boats and kids doing cannonballs into the creek. It was all over. I considered kayaking over at night and setting fire to the dock. But the truth is I had lost my fight.

And then something strange happened. I hated the parents but not the kid. In a way his relationship with the marsh was a pure one. He tramped through the muck, swam in the creek, and one afternoon, while I was trying to write, I saw him catch his first fish off the end of the dock and then run home to excitedly announce it to his parents. I actually started to like the kid, at least when he wasn’t revving up a motor. Which was why I started to worry about him. The year before I had written an article about the sewage spills that had plagued Hewletts Creek, and I knew that the boy and his friends were spending a whole lot of time in water with high fecal coliform content, a bacterial soup. I contacted Mike Mallin, the biology professor I had talked to when I did my research on Hewletts, and he sent along a more recent report on the creek. He also sent along a warning: you shouldn’t be swimming in the water, especially after heavy rains or at low tide. I put this all in an e-mail to my friend across the marsh, asking her to find a way to get the information to the boy’s parents. Not long after, the boy stopped swimming in the creek.

 

7.

I wake early. A new morning. The power is still out and the winds still gust, though not as violently. Fewer trees are down than I expected. We are lucky. As it turns out, it won’t be the coast but the inland towns of Carolina, their rivers flooding from all the rain, that will be in the most peril.

It is cool, almost cold outside. I make my way out to the shack, by foot rather than by kayak now that the water has receded. When I get there I laugh out loud. Other than the screen blown off the door there is little damage. I have said that I built the shack not to last, but in that I have apparently failed. Permeability is its strategy for survival. I felt sure that the winds from the north, coming straight at it, would knock the front wall down. Not so. The water has left the floor covered in mud so that it looks like the floor of a sod house, but other than smelling a little rank, it is fine. In fact it is where I am typing these lines right now. Perhaps another storm will claim the shack, but it won’t be Matthew.

I note, with some sadness, that the storm did not take out the neighbor’s dock. But on a morning like this I can forgive even their intrusion. The spoiler has come, but I imagine that on cold days, on rainy days, in the early morning or late at night, I will still have this place to myself. Perhaps calling it the death of the shack is overkill. More like a grave injury. In the end I am simply relearning an old lesson: that for me, there is no cabin in the woods.

Enough carping. The birds are back. Marsh sparrows chittering and rails clapping. A kingfisher lands on the seats of the neighbors’ dock, making that monstrosity’s existence more palatable. Then a miracle of sorts. At almost the same moment two things happen: the sun breaks through and a flock of white ibises rise up from the other side of the marsh, their undersides radiant. I am not a religious man but this is a heavenly sight. Do the animals feel relief or even joy as the storm recedes? They, after all, had no walls between them and the winds.

The blessed cool after months of heat. I hear the birds on the marsh, the kids starting to come out to play in the cul de sac, the grasses hissing and trees swaying, though less wildly. Hadley and Nina are still asleep up in the hallway. I zip up my coat, and while the wind and lack of humidity make me instantly think of my old home on Cape Cod, I know where I am. As the sun lights up the marsh grasses yellow and green—the whole marsh half-shrouded, half-lit—and the clapper rails let loose in the wind, I write what I see. The storm has remade the world, though it is still recognizable in its major points. A brief prayer then. For now the shack is still here. And for now, at least, so am I.