Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Tiny houses seem to be the hottest residences in real estate today. However, they're not really the newest form of small shelters for those who want to avoid high rents or lifelong mortgages. When I see tiny houses advertised on the net, I inevitably think of Henry David Thoreau (Walden) and that 10 x 15 sq. ft. cottage he built in 1845 at Concord, Massachusetts for $28 and lived in for two years, observing nature in the woods near Walden Pond. Thoreau, like most people who gravitate toward the idea of the tiny house, had in mind two purposes for constructing his simple English-style cottage—to be self-reliant and to live simply.

Then there's Mary Oliver, the renowned Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who decided to build a tiny house because she had been teaching for a year in a Midwestern city—had been, as she described her situation: "...responsible, sedate, thoughtful, and for most of my daylight hours, indoors. I was sick for activity..." Her tiny house in the woods near Provincetown, Massachusetts cost $3.58, and although she hardly used it, except as a place to write a few poems, she claimed that the house had never been a structure she built as a shelter for thought. She built it simply to build it. She had a goal sorta' like Thoreau's idea of self-reliance or self-sufficiency. Later, the tiny house would become a storage shed, but while Oliver was building it, she was "involved, frustrated, devoted, resolved, nicked and scraped, and delighted...I was playing. I was whimsical, absorbed, happy."*

Strange how both of these literary luminaries were attracted to the idea of building tiny houses, and both of them didn't use them as long-time residences. However, Robert Francis, another poet who also lived in Massachusetts and joined the small house society, built the tiny house he had dreamed of owning for $1,000 near Amherst, Massachusetts so that he could have the solitude he needed to write and think. At "Fort Juniper," his small house surrounded by woods, fields, and streams, he subsisted on as little as $489 a year in 1952. He wrote in Travelling in Amherst: A Poets Journal 1931-1954: "Though I live far below The American Standard of Living, I am not impoverished or pitiful...I own my small home. I am well nourished [from his own garden], and adequately clothed. Few writers have more propitious conditions under which to write..."

From a poetic point of view, small houses sound idyllic. However, a 150 sq. ft. tiny house today might cost as much as $40,000; even a do-it-yourself project can cost $23,000. Many of these small dwellings are priced at $80,000. Most people who dream of owning these scaled-down residences seek acres of land on which to build and frequently have to build in remote places to obtain the plot of land they want to own. Also, poets may survive in those surroundings, but, more often, people who build tiny houses in remote places gradually begin to use them as vacation retreats. Still, there's the attraction of having wood walls and no sheetrock, the excitement of living in a place next to nature's heart, and the opportunity to get rid of all that stuff that has cluttered up your life for too many years.

However, most of us who're attracted to the experiment of living in a tiny house might think twice about the isolation, poverty, and obscurity of which Robert Francis spoke and decide against this structure as a permanent domicile. After all, Thoreau lived in his small cottage only two years, and Mary Oliver ended up moving out of her la petite maison and making room for those tools with which she had built her tiny shelter.

*From Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

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