He went to the woods to live profitably


In 1969, Wallace Kaufman, then a young college professor, paid $75,000 for 330 acres of streamside woods 15 miles outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He wanted to divide the land into house lots and build a home for himself in its choicest hollow. Inspired by the nascent environmental movement, he planned to show that development is not necessarily destructive and that Americans can live on the land without abusing it.

"Coming Out of the Woods" is his account, alternatively rueful and tendentious, of the mixed success of his venture. Though he got to live in the woods, and made a nice profit, he didn't construct an earthly paradise, and nature, in the form of Hurricane Fran, had the last laugh.

Throughout the book, Kaufman contrasts his straight-ahead, hands-on approach to household ecology with the woozy and druidical strain of environmentalism that originates, he argues, with Thoreau's "Walden: A Life in the Woods."

His adventures with roadbuilding, well-digging, and gardening teach him that civilization, not wildness, "is the preservation of the world." Thoreau got it wrong: Nature is about hard choices, not the growth of the spirit.

It's doubtful that Thoreau intended "Walden" to become a bible for real estate developers. Indeed, Kaufman appears less as a "maverick naturalist" than a born-again suburbanite, attracted to the woods primarily for the privacy, security, and Jeffersonian independence they appear to offer.

By the end of the book, he has finished his homemade house, paid off his loans, and quadrupled his personal holdings - milestones, no doubt, of his contest with nature, but of course just the sort of myopic gains that Thoreau mocked.

Although readers may tire quickly of Kaufman's didactic side - his constant care to remind us, for instance, that nature is harsh, that animals are brutes, that disasters are natural, and that trees can and must pay their way - his account remains interesting throughout, primarily because of the rich texture of his experience. He admits, for instance, that he paid too much for the land he divided, and describes precisely how the local agent, a country "pinhooker," took him in. Years later, buoyed by the rise in values surrounding Chapel Hill's burgeoning Research Triangle, he attends an intimate auction of a worn-out farm in a nearby lawyer's office, and his knowing assessment of the handful of other bidders, his neighbors and competitors, is a ripe old story. The author approves of these characters because, unlike Thoreau, they believe that the most important fact concerning any piece of land is the name on the title.

I don't know if Kaufman deserves to be called a naturalist. He claims incorrectly that snakes crush their prey, and insists that owl pellets are a kind of excrement. The tiny fish that nibble his toes in rock-bottomed Morgan Creek are never identified by species. But like the hill farmers who preceded him, he learns what he has to -what mushrooms are safe to eat, how to build a good beehive, and which kind of pine boards will stand up to insects and weather.

Thoreau-lovers can relax. "Coming Out of the Woods" is not going to unseat "Walden," whose fierce and soaring rhetoric will continue to startle and offend. Kaufman is nearer in spirit to Crusoe, more concerned with keeping his goats penned up than with heralding new heavens and earths. That's not to say that this book isn't a good read; it is. Especially if you're thinking of getting a place in the country.

*Thomas Palmer is a freelance writer in Milton, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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