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A Place of One's Own (Michael Pollan)


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  A room of one's own: Is there anybody who hasn't at one time or another wished for such a place, hasn't turned those soft words over until they'd assumed a habitable shape? What they propose, to anyone who admits them into the space of a daydream, is a place of solitude a few steps off the beaten track of everyday life. Beyond that, though, the form the dream takes seems to vary with the dreamer. Generally the imagined room has a fixed terrestrial address, whether located deep within the family house--or out in the woods under its own roof. For some people, though, the same dream can just as easily assume a vehicular form. I'm thinking of the one-person cockpit or cabin, a mobile room in which to journey some distance from the shore of one's usual cares. Fixed or mobile, a dream of escape is what this probably sounds like. But it's more like a wish for a slightly different angle on things--for the view from the tower, or tree line, or the bobbing point a couple hundred yards off the coast. It might be a view of the same old life, but from out here it will look different, the outlines of the self a little more distinct.

In my own case, there came a moment--a few years shy of my fortieth birthday, and on the verge of making several large changes in my life--when the notion of a room of my own, and specifically, of a little wood-frame hut in the woods behind my house, began to occupy my imaginings with a mounting insistence. This in itself didn't surprise me particularly. I was in the process of pulling my life up by the roots, all at once becoming a father, leaving the city where I'd lived since college, and setting out on an uncertain new career. Indeed, it would have been strange if I hadn't entertained fantasies of escape or, as I preferred to think of it, simplification--of reducing so many daunting new complexities to something as stripped-down and uncomplicated as a hut in the woods. What was surprising, though, and what had no obvious cause or explanation in my life as it had been lived up to then, was a corollary to the dream: I wanted not only a room of my own, but a room of my own making. I wanted to build this place myself.

from pages 3-4


For someone as attached to words and books and chairs as I am, gratuitous physical labor wouldn't ordinarily hold much appeal. Yet I had lately developed--in the garden, as it happened--an appreciation for those forms of knowledge that seem to yield most readily to the hands. Different kinds of work, performed with different sets of tools, can disclose different faces of the world, and my work in the garden had revealed a face of nature I'd never seen before, not as a reader or a spectator. What I'd gleaned there was a taste of what the "green thumb" has in abundance, this almost bodily sense of plants and the earth that comes from handwork, sweat, and a particular quality of attention that involves very little intellect, but all of the senses. It reminded me just how much of reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote for abstraction.

from page 25


I was in no hurry to tell anyone about the do-it-myself part of my plan, fully expecting a cold shower of skepticism, if not outright ridicule. Judith especially, who was already armed with many excellent reasons to be dubious about the project, had to be approached carefully. As she pointed out the first time I broached the idea to her, over dinner one evening, she'd never once seen me try to repair a broken chair, let alone build anything from scratch. But I was ready for this, and the notion that I was proposing to build the thing myself precisely because I was so ill-equipped to do so proved to be a deft rhetorical stroke, a jujitsu move that effectively disarmed her skepticism by embracing it. By the end of the con.versation Judith could fairly be described as supportive, though she strongly, and as it turned out wisely, urged that I look for someone who could help me--someone, as she put it, "who at least has a clue."

When I finally decided to call Charlie, we'd been living in the house he'd designed for nine months, and already the place fit us like a set of familiar clothes. We were almost whole again financially, and the bruises of the construction process had all but healed. For now, I was working in the loft of the barn where Judith paints, and that was tolerable--as long as I didn't mind the turpentine fumes rising from her palette in winter, the atticlike heat that collected up there in summer, and the yammering drizzle of her talk radio all year long. Painters and writers clearly use different sides of the brain when working, which makes sharing a sound system, if not a space, virtually impossible. The barn loft was a room to work in, but it certainly wasn't a room of my own.

Since moving back into the house, I'd gotten into the tabit of dressing in front of the bedroom window, a fine vantage from which to assess the daily progress of the seasons, the weather, the garden. This is the window where I'd stood with Charlie a year before, and every morning I'd find myself drawn to the same spot, daydreaming my way down the garden path, a shirt button at a time, in the general direction of that notion of his, which by now seemed very much my own. I still wasn't picturing anything terribly specific, not yet. But no longer nothing, either.

And so on one of those mornings, in the spring before the summer that brought Isaac, I called Charlie first thing to tell him my plan. I told him that not only did I want to go ahead with the building we'd discussed, but that I was thinking of building it myself. I expected a protest, and probably would have backed right off had I detected any sign of one. But Charlie didn't even inhale hard. He acted as if my being a builder were the most natural thing in the world. Which was daunting.

I told him that, much as I appreciated his offer of a free design, I intended to pay him for it. But he needed to understand that whatever plan he came up with, it had to be simple enough for someone like me to build.

"You mean idiot-proof," Charlie said; he hadn't asked.

"I won't take that personally."

I launched into a rambling monologue about the little temple I envisioned. "It could be like a...with a desk looking out on...and we can't forget to..."--this long flight of long-pent words straining to capture this still dreamy room of my own. Charlie let me go on like this for a while. And then he broke in to ask a perfectly straightforward question to which I had no answer.

"So where do you want to put this building?"

Aside from someplace in the landscape framed by that window, I had no idea. Much as I'd been daydreaming about the building, I'd neglected to settle on a spot for it. I hadn't even ventured out those three hundred feet to walk the land yet, at least not on foot. I realized I'd flunked my first test in Concrete Reality.

"Look, there's no point talking about this or any other building in the abstract," Charlie explained, "because the site is going to dictate so much about it. This thing is one kind of guy if we perch him on the edge of the meadow looking back toward the house, and something completely different if he's sitting off in the woods all by himself. So that's the first thing you need to do..."

Charlie was trying, gently, to bring me and my daydreamy notion down to the ground.

First this, then that.

The time had come for me to site my building, to fix this dream of mine to the earth.

from pages 27-29
 
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Excerpted from A Place of One's Own by Michael Pollan. Copyright © 1997 by Michael Pollan. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Delta Trade Paper edition published March 1998.