In Henry David Thoreau’s masterwork, “Walden,” he describes the simple, self-sustaining life he led when he stayed in a single-story cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts for two years.
He observed his surroundings closely, taking a microscope to the world around him — learning about everything from interactions between ants to what he could accomplish with his own two hands — before he left, and the building was broken down.
On Friday, that structure — or at least a pretty convincing replica thereof — will stand once again, this time in Westminster.
For four years at Common Ground on the Hill, a three-week series of classes focusing on art, music and culture that is held annually at McDaniel College, Ken Koons has taught a class called “Building Thoreau’s Cabin.”
His students have made progress on the wooden formation each year — amounting to seven weeks of labor, in total — and this week marks its completion.
Each year, they’ve worked on the 16-by-10-foot design, as Koons instructs the group on how to use hand saws, mallets, chisels and more to learn how to create the timber-framed building — held together not by nails, but interlocking mortise and tenon joints secured with a wooden peg.
Koons, who has attended and taught at Common Ground for many years, had always wanted to teach timber framing, a building construction style, and to learn more about Thoreau. He came across a drawing from the archaeological work of his cabin, and not only did it approximately match what Koons wanted to build, Thoreau’s life philosophy “beautifully” matched Common Ground’s goals.
“That gave me the perfect excuse to learn enough to build and teach the students part of this philosophy,” he said.
Aspects of that philosophy are shared through the quotes from the book he reads each day to his students. His favorite is: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for.”
“That’s a real important way of looking at your life,” said Koons, 61, of Finksburg.
And though the work results in a tangible outcome, it’s also acted as a reprieve from the day-to-day grind of everyday life for his students, causing introspection and consideration of a simpler way of life.
“It’s really about Thoreau’s whole concept of life, taking life easy and slow, and just being in the moment, and that’s really what it’s all about,” said Patrick White, who has worked on the cabin for three years. “Not rushing through and getting to the next thing, but doing it and getting the satisfaction of accomplishing something, and then for me, also, learning how to.”
White relaxes while working on the cabin — making something with his hands, without power tools, out in the open air. After he worked in the class last year, he picked “Walden” back up, and gave reading the book another try. It helped him rediscover his perspective on life, he said.
“It’s to be enjoyed,” he said. “Nothing else matters except what you’re doing right now.”
Shelley Ruhlman, a third grade teacher at Manchester Elementary, has also worked with the group over the years, helping the cabin come together and learning about hand tools and Thoreau’s teachings along the way.
She’s loved looking at the world a little differently — thinking about how things are built, slowing down and having more appreciation for the world.
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“This whole thing has been inspiring for me,” she said. “It’s changed my perspective on life, just in general.”