Gerry Burnie's Reviews > The Cabin: A Search for Personal Sanctuary

The Cabin by Hap Wilson
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Oct 18, 10

bookshelves: canadian-autobiography
Read in April, 2010

In 1931 two buildings of significance were constructed, so David “Hap” Wilson tells us [“The Cabin: A search for personal sanctuary,” Natural Heritage Press, 2005]: One was the Empire State Building in New York City; the other, located one thousand miles away in Northern Ontario, was a small log cabin deep in the Temagami wilderness; two disparately different buildings.

“The Empire State Building, pretentious in its almost obscene dimension, the Mammon built on the back of a nation in economic and social ruin, was a crude attempt by politicians to rekindle the faith in a capitalist democracy. The Cabin, on the other hand, was constructed primarily for its owner to escape the nations and tedium represented by such overt and politically motivated initiatives.”

Thus, from the very beginning of its existence The Cabin was a ‘sanctuary’ of sorts.

In many respects this is a love story. I don’t believe the author intended it as a love story, per se, nor is it written in that style, but nonetheless it is. The ‘lover’ in this case is not a woman, although Lady Evelyn Lake is beautiful, and can be precocious and unpredictable; nor is it a man, although the towering white and red pines and granite-faced cliffs are certainly rugged enough. Rather, it is a whole district called ‘Temagami;’ a primal wilderness-sanctuary approximately 1,906 km2 (733 sq.mi.). In fact, Hap Wilson readily admits that he was “… lured to and seduced by the landscape.”

Inextricably linked with the landscape is the poignant and whimsical Aboriginal account of the creation of ‘The Temagami.’ An account that goes back to a time before time when Nenebuc, the trickster, shot and killed the great snake that turned into ish-pud-in-ong—or Ishpatina Ridge, the highest point in Ontario. Or when he shot and killed the queen of Mishipeshu, the giant underwater lynx, causing a flood similar to that experienced by Noah in the Book of Genesis.

“Metaphorically, I suppose,” says Wilson in his introduction, “this provocative tale of rebirth attempts to substantiate and reconceptualize my own wanderings as a purely abstract approach to life experiences and expectations.” Chaos leads to order—sometimes, if desired.

A more intimate ‘love’ in his life is ‘The Cabin,’ and although its history is more recent, it nonetheless has a heritage that is poignant in its own right.

He first encountered both The Temagami and The Cabin on a canoe trip in 1971, for which he by-passed a permanent illustrating job in Toronto to do so. To those who considered such impulsive behaviour irrational, his parents in particular, he simply chalked it up to the Zen of free-living, and a state of consciousness that allowed whatever to happen, happen. Somewhat turned-off by his father’s workaholic drive to succeed at all cost, which included the family’s spiritual needs, young Hap Wilson rebelled by developing a passion for the wilderness trail and a lack of respect for the material things in life. However, noteworthy is the fact that once he embarked on this unconventional path he stood true to his course against all entreaties to return to the ‘beaten path.’

At the same time he was pursuing his passion to explore the natural world, even if it was out his backdoor, sneaking out his bedroom window to sleep in a woodlot tepee. Mischievous child’s play, you may think, but in retrospect there was a pattern to young Hap’s precociousness. Moreover, there was an unseen purpose that had everything to do with eventually wooing his wilderness ‘love.’

At age twelve he and a childhood friend undertook to build a fort, but not just any fort. His had to be “impregnable,” which meant keeping everyone out, and “… certainly adults.” Therefore, it required a vertical-log palisade with a perimeter of about 200 feet (sixty metres), which, in turn, required dragging upwards of a thousand logs (about 10-feet, 3-metres long) over a distance of a kilometre away. Altogether, it took them over a year to complete it and the accompanying wigwam—complete with fire-pit, bunks and adjustable smoke vent—but complete it they did!

The other challenge that confronted him was ‘the pine tree’—a towering megalithic specimen over one hundred feet tall, and with the remnants of a ladder leading up to the bottom branches, fifty-feet above the ground.

“[T]he behemoth stood there in stark relief, taunting, demanding to be climbed—the view from the top would be nothing short of spectacular. I would put my hand on the first rung of the decrepit ladder trying to build up enough courage to go up, but there was always something holding me back. Always.

The year they completed the fort he climbed twenty feet up that pine tree.

In the meantime world events were unfolding on TV when the United States government invaded North Korea, and to keep pace with Soviet Russia it had stepped up its A-bomb testing in the Nevada desert. Nuclear snow was falling along the shores of Lake Ontario, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Haight-Ashbury exploded in racial conflict and the Beatles conquered the world with music. It was a world gone mad, and for a now teenage Hap the faith that things would change anytime soon was tenuous at best. His reality therefore was in his drawing and in long walks with his boyhood friend, and in looking wistfully up at the yet-unconquered pine tree.

Now, clearly, a pattern of life was emerging. It included a quest for freedom—away from a dysfunctional family and a political agenda gone awry—as well as a determination strong enough to achieve it. It also included the building of a hide-a-way retreat that was both inclusive and exclusive. However, there remained one last, preliminary hurdle before he could move on. This he achieved when he was fifteen.

“I was strong and determined, but most of all afraid that if I didn’t climb the tree soon I would not have the courage to stand true to my beliefs and aspirations. As to what these were, was not clearly defined for me except that I knew what I didn’t want out of life. And so, one day after much deliberation, while my parents fought, I marched out of the house and climbed the steep hillside to the back of the property, to a place I knew well by this time. Without thinking at all about anything but the tope of the tree and how beautiful life must look from there, I climbed. And I climbed without looking down, without hesitation, tears streaming from my cheeks and with a will of purpose so strong that I must have frightened the demons that sat on every rung of that aged ladder until finally, with uninhibited joy, I reached the first branch of that mother pine and pulled myself into her embrace.

Thereby, he had an epiphany that saw him rising above his self-doubts and inhibitions to see the path that lay ahead.

Meanwhile, The Cabin was going through a life cycle as well. The original builder, R. B. Newcomb, a doctor from Cleveland, Ohio, had one day quietly murdered his wife and committed suicide, himself. The ownership then passed to his brother, Adrian Newcomb, but by the time Hap Wilson was born in 1951, this Newcomb was then too old to endure the trip to The Temagami, and The Cabin had passed hands several times with each succeeding owner aging like the cabin itself. Therefore, two very different entities were on a collision course; one animate and the other inanimate; one growing in strength while the other aged in need of restoration. Ergo, Hap Wilson’s search for personal sanctuary was coming home.

Very simply stated this growing-up account is one of the most inspirational stories I have read, perhaps in all time. What makes it so is the apparent dedication to principle described therein, even at a very tender age, and the commitment to a set of values in spite of an almost coercive pressure to change. Nevertheless, this might readily be dismissed as shear stubbornness had the author not undertaken to live by these principles as well; tenaciously, sometimes at risk of life and limb, but always moving forward without recrimination or regret.

It made me wonder, as well, how many present-day youngsters would have the same a) ingenuity; b) stamina; c) commitment, or d) tenacity to reach the same level of achievement. Regretfully, I doubt there would be too many, if any at all. Moreover, without hydro or a television set The Cabin would probably be just a pile of decaying rubble overlooking the Trout Pool.

Another aspect of this story that inspires is the fact that it is a first-hand account of a life and times that will never come this way again. As such it is a slice of Canadian history that would otherwise pass into oblivion like virtually countless others have done already. Therefore, there is widely held misimpression that Canada doesn’t have a history beyond John A. Macdonald and Confederation.

For all these reasons, therefore, I urge that “The Cabin: A search for personal sanctuary,” be made part of your reading list, and that of your children.

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