Writer Tom Montgomery Fate reflects on cabin fever

April 12, 2011

By Tom Montgomery-Fate

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(Photo courtesy of Tom Montgomery Fate)
Tom Montgomery Fate's nature memoir 'Cabin Fever' will be released on June 7.

As summer approaches, folks are dusting off their flip flops, heading out of hibernation and even acting a tad friendlier toward one another on the streets. But some, like writer Tom Montgomery Fate, long for a bit more solitude with nature.


Tonight on my walk back to our little cabin in the Michigan woods – the full moon, and the stars – spilt like sugar across the black abyss of the heavens – kept reminding me what I was: a creature, one of billions, slowly making his way across the surface of this big blue spinning marble. Yet, it was less a sense of isolation than of belonging. With the corn fields and vineyards glowing in the moonlight all around me, and the wind playing familiar hymns on the oak and elm, I felt more at home and less alone at that moment than I had for a long time. But that sense of belonging, or relatedness, began to wane as I kept walking. And by the time I reached the cabin I was more lonely than alone, as I made my way through a familiar darkness.

At dawn the next morning I wade back into my work: I’m trying to read Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden.  Today it’s the “Solitude” chapter – a brief ten pages, but troubling.  It’s so full of the elation his aloneness brings him in the woods that I don’t quite believe it, or want to. “Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness,” he writes. “While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.”

Being neither simple, nor brave, this kind of sadness I understand.  I look straight ahead, stare blankly at Thoreau’s words, and then at the woods, unable to read either.

Cabin fever is defined as the anxiety caused by physical isolation in a remote natural setting – the intense desire to return to the comforts of technology and human interaction.  How ironic that I contracted it in the cozy little abode we built as a retreat from the chaos of normal life. And how odd that the term “cabin fever” may have originated during the era of my guru of solitude – Thoreau. 

In the nineteenth century, Midwestern homesteaders lived literally “off the beaten path,” and much farther from an actual road. These families were so isolated from commerce and community that they could be snowed in their cabins for months at a time, their sanity tested as they waited for the spring thaw. But this kind of cabin fever – physical isolation in the natural world caused by weather and roadlessness – has all but disappeared in the U.S.  And ironically, the one small thing I and many other overwhelmed Americans have in common with Thoreau is that we go to the woods seeking isolation in nature. We are not snowed in. Our solitude is chosen, carefully planned. We flee the material comfort and frantic convenience of our  hi-tech lives. We don’t trust that the digitized GPS voice in our cars will tell us where we need to go. We are looking for something else.  Something we cannot purchase at the mall or order on the internet.  But what is it exactly? 

I still don’t know. I’m still searching….


Tom Montgomery Fate teaches English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. His new nature memoir Cabin Fever will be released by Beacon Press on June 7.

Music Button: Midwest Product, "Motivator", from the CD World Series of Love, (Ghostly International)