Creature Comforts

WHEN OUR PLANET LEANS BACK to warm its underside it robs our northern half of sunlight, and in the higher reaches of the Eastern Sierra, the change transforms the landscape completely. After Labor Day the hum of swarms of vacationers fades to eerie silence as the last of them, laden with the heady nectar of summer experiences, buzzes back to the hive. The bears go wherever it is they hibernate and the songbirds are well on their way to South and Central America.

Days shorten, lodges close, cabins are boarded up, boats are lashed upright to trees and the roads slowly, inexorably disappear beneath the first snows. While mankind’s back is turned, Nature reclaims her domain. This is my favorite time at my cabin. Mated to its landscape, the cabin also changes completely. All through the warmer months it stands like a proud sentinel atop a foundation of boulders left behind by some ancient glacier, chest adorned with rows of dark shingles trimmed in red cedar, gables thrust high against the clear alpine sky as it dutifully watches over the lake. Small as it is, it seems to know that people passing below place a lot of importance on appearances.

But when nobody is looking, the essence of the cabin moves inside where it is warm. In winter the showy veneer is cast to the wind and the cabin reveals its true personality: it becomes a shelter. Snows can be so deep that the exterior, except for the two-story front gable, often ceases to be visible at all—and only the sweet aroma wafting from the periscopic stovepipe chimney betrays human habitation. Inside, there is warm, peaceful solitude, although visitors do occasionally arrive. Human guests are announced by plastic ski boots descending snow steps to the entry door, drawn to the Norwegian wood stove or to the flask of medicinal cognac. Winter’s only regular animal visitors are a darting pine marten whose dark eyes reveal the warmth in its body and the curiosity in its mind, and of course the perennial, resourceful chickadees.

Storms can be brutal in the lakes basin, and when 120 mph winds shriek over the Sierra crest the cabin becomes a bunker. If you have the “coziness” gene, nothing is better than feeling safe and snug while mayhem rages outside. Secure in the storm, I trust my life to sturdy wooden walls and slanting trusses that have withstood a century of tempests, while outside the chickadees have nothing but a few grams of down and feathers between their bodies and the icy wind. We think of ourselves as the highest evolved of Nature’s creatures— yet without protection we survive only in the mildest of climes.

The world at 9,000 feet is a landscape of extremes, one of which draws humans like a magnet while the other sends them scurrying, so the cabin magically changes its nature from statement to sanctuary and back again to suit the need. Yet every house, everywhere, serves the same two functions. The transformation just isn’t quite so severe. For the most part we live in a world that allows us to focus on the finer aspects of our homes—decor, comfort, facility— and in quiet times your bungalow is a blank canvas onto which you can paint a tasteful portrait of your life as you envision it. But when you hear distant thunder, it is comforting to remember that your house too is first and foremost a shelter: the grandest statement of our own vulnerability, an easily overlooked contender for the title of man’s best friend.

Looking forward to hearing from you,





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