WORDS FROM THE WOODS


The following is Diana's first appearance in print, which reached over a million readers in a hundred nations of the world. It was published on the web's leading source for small houses, tinyhouseblog.com.

 

DIANA'S INNERMOST HOUSE
                         

This is Innermost House, my home in the coastal mountains of Northern California. It is the latest of many very small houses my husband and I have occupied over twenty-five years, all for the same reason—to make possible a simple life of reflection and conversation. I am delighted now to be a part of Kent’s public conversation with others who share my love of tiny houses, and I’m grateful to Michael Janzen of Tiny House Design for introducing us.

Innermost House is about twelve-feet square. It faces directly south beneath an open porch that shelters our front door. A hill rises to the north behind us and the forest of oak and redwood lies all around. The house encloses five distinct rooms: to the east is a living room eleven feet deep by seven feet wide by twelve feet high; to the west the house is divided into kitchen, study, and bathroom, each approximately five feet deep by three feet wide, with a sleeping loft above the three of them, accessible by a wooden ladder we store against the wall.

The living room is the heart of the house. It is where my husband and I spend most of our time, and where we receive our guests. On the east wall of the room is a small fireplace set a foot above the floor, with a hearth extension of bricks projecting a foot and a half into the room. On the west side is a wall of books four feet wide and seven feet tall. Between these walls of hearth and books, our two low chairs sit facing each other a couple of feet apart. Everything about the space is conceived to make a harmony of conversation possible.

I know that sounds strange in a world where conversation seems to go on all the time every day. But pause for a moment and try to remember the single most moving and meaningful conversation you ever had. Perhaps it was with your mother or father in days long past, or with your husband or wife when you were first in love. Perhaps it was when you said goodbye to someone for the very last time.

Now, how would you design, build and furnish a place so that those conversations could happen every day? That is the question we asked of every detail of Innermost House, and we are still asking it.

The fireplace is where our conversation begins, just as it began a million years ago when human language and domesticated fire were born together. The fireplace is the original tiny house. After all, what is a cave or a tipi or a wigwam but a big, enclosing fireplace? The fire is our link with the wild. Gazing into the fire seems to release our dream life into words.

The books complete the circle of conversation on the other side. They are our link with the world. All of our books have been carefully chosen over the years as contributing something essential to the Innermost Life. It is strange that it was not until I saw them all together, illuminated by the fire at Innermost House, that I realized nearly every one was first written by firelight. In some way they represent the last light cast from that first fire at the mouth of a cave.

We do not have electricity or power of other kind, so we warm the cabin and cook our food and heat our water for bathing all over the fire. Our firewood comes of local orchard prunings that would otherwise be burned as waste in the field. In the summer we cook over coals and wash with cold water. We light our home with beeswax candles. After examining all the options, we installed a conventional septic system, though we use very little water.

The house is of mixed post and beam and stick construction. Our floor is of yellow pine tongue & groove planks, our ceiling of fir planks and rafters and beams. Our interior walls are of plain white gypsum plaster applied by hand over blue board. The exterior walls are clad in rough-sawn redwood board and batten. The roof is of cedar shakes. Both the redwood and the cedar are naturally resistant to rot, fire, and insects —   all important considerations in the woods. The house is constructed of natural, simple materials, with a lot of care taken to render them neat and plain.

Real wood, real plaster, real materials of all kinds. The real things really do make a difference, at whatever sacrifice they must be had. It’s worth waiting and saving for if you can.

The building project required the better part of a year for two men working part time. A good deal of that time was spent in familiarizing ourselves with the traditional building language of the region. We would have built a rather different house in New Mexico or Massachusetts or Virginia. My husband always limits himself to the vernacular of a region so that, as he says, nature can have a hand in the building.

This kind of life has been made possible for us by living in partnerships of one kind or another over the years, often in guest houses. We have moved many times, and have never owned a home. My husband is a private confidant and friend to people in public positions. Men come to him for the special kind of conversation he makes possible. Innermost House was built for us on the land of such a partner and friend. Many local building ordinances allow for small guesthouses.

I have loved our small houses, and I love Innermost House most of all. There are many reasons for wanting to live in a tiny house. A simple life of high conversation is my reason. I could not live any other way.                                                                                                      

 

THE CONVERSATION

      
For the first half of my life
I kept the silence of those who wait. I waited through my childhood and I waited through school. I waited through work and out in the world. For many years I kept my silence, waiting.

I didn’t know what I was waiting for. I didn’t know that an unimaginably deeper and more meaningful kind of communion was possible than any I had ever experienced. I just knew I couldn't connect with the conversation of the world, and that something essential was missing. I didn’t try to find what was missing, not really.  I hid from a world I couldn't understand, and waited. How it found me is the story I tell in my presentation, "An Innermost Life."

What is "the Conversation?" It is what found me. It is the marriage between the moving word and the waiting silence. It is waking into the silent emptiness before dawn, and feeling a question form within you that only Reason can answer. It is listening for the soft sounds of the woods, and the murmur of the spirit over the waters.  It is forever the first morning, again and again. 

To me the Conversation is an act of love, forever renewed as the first act of Creation. It's as miraculous as every new unity, as every coming together of things apart. With the conversation the world is renewed as good and whole.

The Conversation is the heart of my life, and this house in the woods is the home of the Conversation. It is a questioning and an answering as much in silence as in words. For twenty years mine were the only questions. Then Innermost House was built, and others came with their questions. 

We speak of everything, my husband and I and our guests together.  Every subject, every question has a place if it belongs to the soul. Sometimes a guest will come with a question or a trouble that's burnt a hole in his life for years. Sometimes a marriage will be breaking apart in a way that my husband’s words can heal. Sometimes people come with a longing sense of something missing, and keep coming back for years because of what the Conversation helps them find.

Most often people come with a simple question, and it's only in the asking and slow answering that the depths and the dividedness appear. This I have learned from a thousand conversations: that every life conceals a mystery, that every success lies over loss, and that only the love that comprehends it all can make it well and whole.

Guests come with their questions, and for awhile entirely forget the other world outside. They come and then get lost on their way back home! Perhaps we are all lost, and only need to be reminded that we don't really know where we are going. Some guests don't wish to be reminded, and never return. In a way I'm not surprised.   There's something high as the heavens about the Conversation, and something deep and dark as the heart of the earth.

The Conversation is an act of love and love's creation. It is the first thing to which I wake in the morning. It is the last thing I know at night.  It is always new and forever familiar. To me it is the beginning and the end of everything. In the Conversation I have my home.

                                _________________________ 


What Diana calls the Conversation has been known by many names through history. Traditional Christianity calls it Contemplation, and seeks it through the practice of monasticism. Every Benedictine monk takes a "Vow of Conversation."

Hundreds of years before the Christian era, Aristotle called it "Theoria." In his Nichomachean Ethics he describes both the difficulty and the desirability of a life lived in accordance with such Conversation, which requires the exercise of Reason, and has its end in true Happiness. The "Master of those who Know" gave to such Conversation the very highest place in human life:

But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.

Earlier still, in the Mosaic age of Judaism, the Sabbath was instituted in honor of the seventh day of Creation as it is recorded in Genesis. The traditional Sabbath was a day from which all labor was excluded, so that nothing should interrupt the sacred Conversation between man and man, and man and God.

But so high an estimation of the life of Conversation is not confined to ancient times.  The 18th century American founders valued high conversation above all the arts and sciences. It is of such conversation that the independent American state and its constitution were born. 

And speaking for the Transcendentalists of the American 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson surveyed the whole wealth of human culture to ask, What is it all for?—and answered:

                  ...all for a little conversation, high, clear and spiritual!

 

 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.