Chapter One in The Young Man’s Guide to Building a House
Experts in this sort of thing tell us that there are three tasks you must perform in order to survive in the wilderness. They even give us some helpful deadlines—dead being brutally factual in this case. In ascending order here they are: you have three weeks to get food; three days to find water; and three hours to make shelter.
The clock ticks most rapidly for shelter because of nightfall, that and unpredictable changes in the weather, those things and predators. You see my point—you can die of exposure in so many ways. Death by thirst is monotonous and predictable. Each tick of the clock brings you closer to an inevitable demise. No mystery to it at all. Exposure, though, comes with the chill of the unknown; it is terribly motivating.
I suppose you could find shelter in a cave or some natural overhang—but neither option will work for long unless you are unusually lucky and find something suited to both your need for security and your desire for a modicum of comfort.
Yet this leaves something out. When we read about people who have survived in the wild, whether we’re reading about the fictional Robinson Crusoe or the historical Earnest Shackleton, there is something else, something they take with them into the wilderness that survives even when everything else has been washed away. It exists in the mind, and I even dare to say in heaven, before it takes shape before the eyes. It is the very idea of shelter. If the idea did not exist, then a shelter would never come into existence.
Just how real ideas are is something people disagree about. Are they things that only come into existence by the creative power of the human mind or do they somehow exist independently? I am of the opinion that they are very real, that the idea of shelter would exist even if there were no people to think about it. I understand the objections. As a practical matter the debate does not matter too much because Robinson Crusoe had better have an idea of what a shelter is or he is as good as dead.
But because a little impracticality in the short-term can yield long-term benefits, please join me for a brief stay in the ivory tower. Now let us look a little closer at the idea of shelter. As we examine the idea it seems to be made up of smaller ideas: roof for example, or walls. And these smaller ideas appear to be assembled in a particular way. If we were to sit down and work together on a list of constitutive ideas we could probably come up with a lengthy one. But we would also find that a certain order exists to the ideas; some ideas come before others and are more basic. For example, the idea of safety comes before the idea of wall, or the idea of dry comes before the idea of roof and so forth. Using this hierarchy of ideas we could even strip less important ideas away, removing them one at a time until we have something that is very abstract—what we could call the very idea of shelter itself.
I hope I have not lost you in all this. When things get this abstract that can happen. You find yourself in a strange place where you are surrounded by things you cannot describe. It is like having something on the tip of your tongue; you know what you mean but you just can’t find the word for it. That is when you know you are dealing with the ideas themselves—those subtle, elusive things Plato called “Forms”. The reason you can’t describe them is because these are the very things you use to describe everything else.
Here’s another way of looking at it. The mind is something like a kaleidoscope. When you look into a kaleidoscope you see shifting patterns of color. Because the patterns change, you may believe everything is unstable. And because you cause the changes by turning the kaleidoscope it is possible to believe that patterns are purely of your invention. But neither belief is true. The translucent crystals in the kaleidoscope are real and a mechanism to tumble them is real too. And note, there is even an aperture to let light in to irradiate it all. Your knowledge of any of this depends on that light. You could say the light is the realest thing of all. Ideas work a bit like this in our minds. Like the infant who believes that the world comes into being when he opens his eyes, we can think we have created an idea when an idea occurs to us. But something was there before we knew it.
Moving along, what I want you to see is that the idea of shelter is very real and that it can be disconnected from its usual associations. That doesn’t mean we can isolate it completely. That would make it completely opaque. We understand things when we see how they connect to other things. My hope is that you will see shelter in a new way—and that means placing it in a new set of associations. And like Plato, I’ve come to believe that the best way to do this is by means of a story. So here is a story, one you probably know already. It is my hope though that you will see it in a new light. It is the beast-fable, “The Three Little Pigs”.
You remember the plot: one pig builds a straw house, another builds a house out of sticks, and the last builds one out of bricks. Then, along comes a wolf. He blows the first two houses down no problem, sending two little pigs fleeing to the brick house of the third little pig. The story reaches its climax when the frustrated wolf, huffing and puffing and unable to blow the brick house down, climbs up on the roof in order to get at the juicy pigs through the chimney. The pigs hear him coming and thinking fast build a fire. They set an enormous kettle on it and down plops the wolf right into the kettle. Then on goes the top and, wholla—wolf stew!
Everyone agrees that the brick house was best, but don’t you see? The story is not about the merits of brick over other building materials. It is not even about prudence. It is really about a fourth house—an invisible house—the brotherhood that shelters them all in the end. What if the third pig had said from behind his locked door, “Too bad brothers! You built cheap houses, now you get what’s coming to you!” I suspect that if he had done that the wolf would have gotten to all the pigs in the end, even the third pig. But the third pig didn’t say that, because the first two pigs were more than fools—they were his brothers.
This is the shelter you must build. You cannot touch it, but you can feel it. It has more substance than anything you could possibly make with your hands, yet every shelter raised east of Eden is in some sense a copy of it, even a shelter with four walls and a roof. And it is the best survival shelter of all because it is made of invisible and tremendously resilient stuff. Further it can be adapted to nearly any environment. The shelter you must build also goes by the name of love.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.