Cooty Patterson is Darby's hermit. In Howard Elman's Farewell, the seventh novel of the Darby Chronicles, local people move Cooty's 12-by–16 foot cabin to the Salmon Estate where Birch Latour with the help of two nurses can take care of Cooty who has just turned age 100, but for the first six books the cabin is not even in imaginary Darby, but in a nearby town that I called Donaldson. I never did develop Donaldson so I can't relate anything about the town. Cooty's cabin and surrounding landscape is based on a cabin I built in the town of Sullivan, New Hampshire.
I bought two acres of slanted land, later added two more, from my good friends Terry Pindell and Nancy Ancharsky back in 1976 or 1977. These were the days of the counter-culture, the post-hippie, post Vietnam era. I was not really a back-to-the-lander, or a protester, though I hung out with the anti-Vietnam War crowd; I was a romantic fool. As a boy my hero was Tarzan (before he fell for Jane), because I liked his cabin and solitary existence. I wasn't part of an ape tribe, but like Tarzan I was very suspicious of human beings, who in my reasoning were an endearing but pathetic species you could not depend on, a view shared by Tarzan of the apes. I was a faithful reader of Sports Afield, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and my favorite, Fur, Fish and Game. My goal as a boy was to get out of my parents' house, move to a cabin in the woods, and live off the land as a fisherman, hunter, and trapper. There were no hvegetables in my boyhood musing.
I eventually gave up these silly dreams, but decades later in the early 1970s I happened upon Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, The Craftsman Builder, and Handmade Houses by Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro, and of course The Mother Earth News. In 1968 I met Perley Swett, a real hermit. Suddenly, I was a boy again, in my mind living a "good life" in a counter culture handmade house in the New Hampshire pucka brush, no electricity, dug well, clivus multrum composting toilet, heat from a wood-burning stove. I wanted everything to look a certain way, the rudiments of actual living not part of the deal. After I brought those steep wooded acres I had vague plans to build some kind of homestead along the lines of my esthetic principles.
In this pleasant, if not practical, state of mind I built what would become Cooty's cabin. I had never built anything before, so I read Your Engineered House by Rex Roberts. I followed the principles laid out by Boericke and Shapiro, using recycled materials. Somehow, with the help from my dad and a friend, Glen Davis (a real carpenter) I muddled through and got the place built. By then I had it in my head that the cabin was only the beginning; I intended to create a homestead. Except … except …”Jane” got in the way.
I had met my Jane, a.k.a. Medora Lavoie, late in the previous decade and we had married in 1969. Turned out that when we decided to start a family "Jane" had her own ideas on how to live, and it was not in a house built by an amateur in the woods with no amenities. It was in a neighborhood with streets, near schools, house with electricity and a flush toilet. We bought our "starter house" in a crowded neighborhood and made two babies. The cabin became a get-away place for me. A lot of people think I must have used the cabin as a writing shack, but actually I did no writing in the cabin. I would just build a fire in the wood stove, have a beer, or a cup of coffee, and just sit and think as I looked out the window.
It's those views from the windows that remain with me: chickadees fly almost to my hand in a backdrop of dark, almost gloomy, hemlock trees. I watch the way hemlocks grow around rocks, how their branches weighed by snow, rain, or ice signify the weather. Quite a few red squirrels, too. I take walks in the woods, where I marvel at the beauty and variety of trees–white birch, gray birch, red birch, beech, red maple, sugar maple, poplar, red oak, Eastern hemlock, white pine, red spruce, and Balsam fir.
Sometimes I walk down by Spaulding Brook just to look at the water flow around rocks. Once I follow tracks in the snow of a rabbit until I reach a bloody spot in the snow and few feathers and some fur. Apparently, an owl or maybe a hawk had dropped from a perch in a tree and dined on rabbit.
It wasn't the cabin that got in the way of my marriage, it was my back-to-the-lander dream. Every time I went to the cabin I would return home quietly resentful of my domesticated life. Something had to change: I had to choose between my childhood dreams and my adult love. In the end, I sold the cabin and the land. Problem solved– sorta. The boyhood dream evolved once again, this time in the guise of Cooty Patterson and his cabin. I tell people that Cooty Patterson was based on a real hermit, Perley Swett, but really he's a version of a self inside of me that never developed.
I do not think about myself and my experiences while I am writing fiction: I'm just telling a story. It's only later, sometimes years later, that I realize that my best writing is really a metaphor of some aspect of my own life.
And now for a torpedo into my essay. After checking with Terry Pindell, my friend who sold me the lot, it's possible that I may actually have built the cabin after the first Darby novel, The Dogs of March, which was completed in 1978. Maybe the fictional cabin I placed in the novel inspired me to build a real cabin and not visa versa. I don't know which scenario is accurate; to me they're both true. I'm comfortable with the phoney-baloney of memory and desire. Without ambiguity there is no reason to write literary fiction.
The hardest part of building the cabin was digging six holes through stony hardpan to hold tubes to pour concrete into for the footings. My builder friend Glenn Davis helped me with that part of the project. I acquired the building materials by putting an ad in The Keene Sentinel offering to take down small structures in return for stuff I could salvage. My dad helped me tear down a garage in Keene. I found this labor very satisfying; it was the only time that Dad and I ever worked together. From the garage we salvaged joists, rafters, and studs.
For floor boards I worked with another friend, David Sayre, taking down a barn. David took most of the boards for the house he was building, but there were plenty left over for floor and roof boards in my cabin. The exterior and interior walls were rough-cut pine boards that I bought new from Cote & Reney Lumber Company in Grantham, NH. I can't remember where I got the door and the windows. I do remember that the cabin was crude, partly by design and but mainly because I lacked carpenter skills. I put in a second-hand wood-burning stove and an insulated metal chimney. Oddly enough, the cabin had electricity, from a "temporary" line set up by the power company. Total cost was around $500.
I transferred the cabin to my imaginary world of Darby, New Hampshire, and gave it to my character, Cooty Patterson. The walls inside and out are rough-cut pine boards. Windows come from Ike's Auction Barn. My cabin had a deck, but I don't think I ever mentioned that Cooty's cabin had a deck. My cabin set on posts on a steep hillside; Cooty's cabin is on relatively flat land–lucky him. A small wood stove supplies heat to Cooty's cabin.
The most distinctive object at Cooty's place is his stew pot, filled with rain water, veggies from dumpsters, and road meat found on the highway. I got the idea for the stew pot in the days when I used to jog. Frequently, I would see car-killed animals on the roadside. Cooty's stew pot has never been emptied and simmers over an open fire in the warm seasons outside, and on Cooty's wood stove during the cold months. There's a tiny table where Cooty sits on a homemade stool to whittle the bark off sticks that he hangs on the walls, because the sight of them pleases him. There's a GI footlocker in the cabin with his real name on it, Corey Patterson, but it's locked and Cooty has lost the key and cannot remember what is inside. The contents are revealed as part of the conclusion of Howard Elman's Farewell.
There is no bathroom in the cabin. Cooty does his business in the woods. He keeps track of his night soil deposits on a map on a wall in the cabin. "Ordinary men fertilize from the front, I do it from the back," Cooty says.
I never did fasten in my mind just where Cooty's cabin should appear on the map of Darby and environs. In my mind's eye, I see the cabin in great detail along trees and rocks that I remember from the locale of the real cabin that I built, but I don't see a road. The cabin exists in the twilight zone between imagination and materiality. The Spaulding Brook valley in Sullivan could be beautiful, but often it was gloomy and cold, because the hill blocked sunlight. My friend Terry Pindell dubbed the place the Valley of Broken Dreams. The eventual end of my cabin demonstrates Terry's point.
I rented it for a while to a young woman who was trying to live the counter culture life. I never saw a woman dress so down–baggy blue jeans, work boots, flannel shirt, hair chopped short, no make up, no evidence that her hair was ever brushed or combed. She seemed determined to tough it out alone in the woods. As far as I could figure she had no friends and no nearby relatives. When I would come by to pick up the rent money she seemed withdrawn and terribly unhappy. I tried to strike up conversations, but I sensed she was afraid of me, so I backed off. I never got to know her. One day she was gone. I don't know what happened to her. She needed somebody or something in her life, I don't know what; the problem for her, I think, was she didn't know either. I hope somewhere along the line she found it, whatever "it" was.
I sold the cabin and property to a crazy man. It was said he had "a plate in his head," that he was a traumatized Vietnam War veteran. That part I'm sure was true from the conversations I had with him. I used to visit him now and then where I determined that he wasn't crazy, just wrought from anxiety and panic attacks. He'd installed a privy, which he said "kicked" when the wind was in the wrong direction. If it got too bad he told me he'd treat the waste the way GI's did in Vietnam. Dump gasoline on it and set it on fire. Not only did we napalm the local people of Vietnam we napalmed our own piles of shit.
One day I went to visit the vet and to gaze at my former cabin and land. The vet had left a lot of junk outside and I was vaguely annoyed that he had defaced the landscape. Still, everything looked normal enough, except the door was open, blowing in the wind. I called his name. No answer. I walked up the steps to the deck of the cabin where the vet had placed a refrigerator. Inside the cabin on the tiny table was a dirty plate, half a cup of coffee, fork and spoon; unmade futon, stack of Mother Earth News magazines, weary scatter rugs on the floor, ripped curtain over a window. I shut the door, went outside on the deck, and yelled his name again. No response, not even a bird call. I opened the fridge. The light went on so the electricity was still on. It was crammed full, including ground meat wrapped in butcher paper. The sticker said 1.2 pounds, and the date, a week earlier. I hung around for half an hour. When the vet didn't show I left and decided to put him and cabin out of my mind.
I came back a few days later. The electricity was shut off. Everything else looked the same.
Flash ahead about five years. I returned to the cabin on a winter day. My goal was to photograph the cabin for the cover of a book that the University Press of New England was printing, The Kinship, which included two of my out-of-print Darby Chronicles novels, A Little More Than Kin and The Passion of Estelle Jordan. (Both of which are back in print, by the way under separate covers.) The Kinship included an essay I'd written about the idea of "kinship" in the Jordan clan. I was shocked by the sight of the cabin. It was abandoned, but everything looked more or less the way it had five years ago, including the contents of the fridge. I was curious to unwrap the butcher paper and see what a pound of hamburg looked like after five years, but I felt squeamish and I shut the door of the fridge.
Medora, at that time a professional photographer working for a newspaper, had loaned me one of her cameras, but I didn't bother to learn how to operate it. Result: lousy pictures. The people at the press fudged it and came up with a passable cover for The Kinship, though the cabin is obscured. Besides my incompetence, there was another reason I didn't take good pictures. I was trespassing on property I no longer owned. The scene of the abandoned cabin made me very uneasy, so I snapped off a few shots and left. I made some inquiries, and discovered that the vet had moved to Florida. Later, I learned he'd died.
Four or five more years passed. I returned to the cabin with my childhood friend Dennis Patnode. The door to the cabin was now padlocked. I peeked through the windows everything looked the same except there was evidence of mice invasion. I opened the door to the fridge. I expected a bad smell, but there was none. Anything organic must have dried out long ago. I should have taken a picture, but all I have left in memory is the sight of a jar of Hellman's Real mayonnaise. The oil had separated and floated to the top. It was kind of brown. Below was a gray sludge. The meat package still retained its shape after ten or so years. What does hamburg look like after a decade in a non-functioning refrigerator? I don't know. I never mustered the courage to look under the butcher paper.
It was a tough time for me. My New York publisher had just dumped me because of low book sales.
There was a brief moment when I and my books were trendy. It was the time of the New England counter-culture in the 1970s. Those guys I mentioned earlier–Terry Pindell, Glen Davis, David Sayre–they were all builders, but they were also college graduates. This was a time period when college-educated men and women were giving up the middle-class life of upward mobility and turning to working class occupations. As a writer of working class and rural underclass people, I benefited from this trend. The readers of hardback literary fiction in those days–and also today–were mainly college-educated, liberal-minded middle class women. They had money, time, and curiosity. They were curious about working people because their sons and daughters were turning to the working class. The links between working and upper middle class vanished in the 1980s.
When I thought about my ruined cabin I associated it with my career as a novelist.
Another decade went by before I traveled to the valley of broken dreams. The cabin was gone, the site cleaned up; the natural landscape showed no sign of human presence. I was swept by a grief and some other unpleasant emotion I cannot pin down. Guilt maybe. I never should have built the cabin. It ended up being an eyesore to the people of Sullivan and a disappointment to its inhabitants. All that's left is the fiction, Cooty Patterson's cabin.
My main regret now is not the loss of the cabin, but my inability to form some kind bond between myself and that young woman who rented the cabin and the veteran who bought the property. I can't get over the feeling that I owe something to somebody.
Let me add that Perley Swett was a much more complex person than the hermit I imagined. The average Joe or Josephine living an ordinary life give you more contrarian moments than Shakespeare's Hamlet. Perley Swett's story would be revealed in PERLEY: The True Story of a New Hampshire Hermit, a book published in 2009 by his granddaughter, Sheila Swett Thompson.