On being wrong

  • Where real life was to begin: The author's cabin at Tenmile

  • Alison Clement with son, Sasha


Years ago, I wrote a little essay that appeared in The Sun. The title of the essay was "Being Wrong." I wrote about all the mistakes I had made in my life. I said I was tired of looking back and feeling embarrassed and angry with myself for having been so wrong in the past. I listed some of the things I had been wrong about: the conga player, Marx, cocaine, Arnold Erhart's mucusless diet. At the time, Chuck and I had just moved to a half-built cabin in the woods, in a community called Tenmile Creek in Oregon, and I went on to describe how right my life was now - how, despite all those earlier mistakes, I had wound up exactly where I belonged.

Five years after I wrote that, we left Tenmile. We left like people fleeing a disaster: boxes of our possessions all over the floor, the kids' books still in their shelves, the flowers in the garden abandoned to wither.

"We'll come back for picnics," I told the kids. "We'll fish in the creek. I'll put in a garlic crop. It's not like we're really leaving." But that was wishful thinking. Once we left, we were gone.

Why did we leave? For a while, I blamed it on the long drive into town, or on the collapse of our Tenmile community, or on the local planning commission, which harassed us over building permits. I told some people we were being forced out because of the controversial nature of Chuck's conservation work.

In private, I blamed Chuck, who could live in a car if he had to. I blamed him for caring more about wildlife habitat than our own. And he blamed me for not becoming a different person the day we moved to the woods. We blamed each other because the things we'd loved about each other in the city weren't important anymore at Tenmile, while the flaws that hadn't seemed flaws at all now made life impossible. Instead of choosing a life that brought out the best in both of us, we'd picked one that magnified our inadequacies.

When we first met, I fell for Chuck because of his ideas and the passionate way he talked about them. Even now, all these years later, if we're at a party and I hear his voice across a room, I stop to listen because what he has to say is so interesting. He is the most interesting person I've ever met. But having interesting thoughts and saying interesting things didn't matter at Tenmile. Every good quality about him was eclipsed by the fact that he had built us a house with no closets, no cupboards and no toilet.

Chuck and I worked and saved for eight years before moving to Tenmile Creek. Everything we did during that period was for the land: saving money for the land, not traveling, working shit jobs day and night, fixing up the property after we'd bought it. Our life was on hold, waiting for our real life to begin.

But after we got to Tenmile, we were still waiting - for a driveway, for a kitchen, for an outhouse, for electricity, for a floor, a roof: waiting for a home. And while we were waiting, our lives were passing by and our kids were growing up. We were living according to a principle we had rejected: We were sacrificing the present for the future. Our lives had all the busyness, delayed happiness and distractedness of the culture we had rejected, but none of the amenities. It was the worst of both worlds.

When we moved to Tenmile Creek, it was a community of seven households. There was a weekly sauna and potluck. We had a community orchard and garden. We helped build each others' houses, took care of each others' kids, canned, baked, made music, danced and ate together. We depended on each other for survival, and out of that dependency grew relationships that, although not always harmonious, were deep and abiding. We organized to protest logging at Tenmile, and succeeded in shutting down the operation. The women met at every new moon, and at each change of season we led a celebration in the big meadow. People came from all over the country to visit Tenmile. It was the center of the Universe.

But then two relationships broke up. Some people moved out and new people moved in. Two of the households engaged in a bitter and protracted battle for land. One of the men of the community died. Coming all at once, these events were too much. The community unraveled.

It was hard to accept. For one thing, Tenmile was about the prettiest place you could imagine. Unlike most of the forests of the Northwest, the forest at Tenmile was native, not industrial. Because the trees hadn't been planted by Boise Cascade, they weren't identically sized Douglas fir all growing in straight rows, but a mixture of young and old spruce, cedar, hemlock and fir. Elderberry, huckleberry and swordfern grew on the forest floor. In spring, trillium, columbine and wild irises bloomed. Kingfishers and marbled murrelets soared over the creek, and sometimes owls. Hummingbirds flew in open windows. The kids caught snakes in the grass and crawfish in the creek, while the men reeled in salmon and steelhead and grilled them over a fire. In the morning, the meadow outside our bedroom window might be full of elk or deer. Black bears and cougars prowled the woods, and at night we could hear coyotes. It was a hard place, but unbelievably beautiful.

All the while, my family was living in a tar-paper shack without closets, because Chuck thought closets were a bourgeois development. We couldn't keep track of anything: library books, the checkbook, mail, homework, our driver's licenses, tools - they all disappeared into the chaos of our lives. The kids went to school with dirty clothes and uncombed hair. Our yard was filled with broken toys and tools, and everywhere you looked projects lay unfinished and abandoned. "We've rejected our middle-class heritage only to become white trash," I said.

Yet for all we didn't get done, we never rested. We each drove an hour to work and an hour home, every day. Evening and weekends, we split firewood, worked on the water system, fixed the truck, repaired leaks, drove the laundry to town, did endless chores. There was no time to visit friends, take walks in the forest, read to the kids, or go to the beach. We never quit working, but life only got harder. Every effort we made was swallowed up, every task we began doomed to incompletion or failure. Our house had tiny windows that let in almost no sunlight, doors without knobs, exposed insulation, a temporary roof, temporary floor, temporary everything - all thrown together, half finished, half baked, hopeless.

My New Age friends - women with closets and drawers and cupboards and balanced checkbooks - told me the house wasn't the problem. No, it was something deeper than the house, they said. But what could be deeper than our house, the place where we lived? They didn't understand how deep a house can go, how it lives in you as much as you live in it.

If we only worked harder, Chuck and I would think. If we only organized things better. If we had a closet, some shelves, a desk, a kitchen table ... if we completed one project, it might tip the balance. But each small gain was never enough. We had imagined we were rejecting our culture's materialism when we moved back to the land, but now the material world was our driving obsession. There wasn't time for anything else.

"Charlotte," I said to our young daughter one day as we drove home through the forest, "your dad could have been anything he wanted. He could have been a lawyer like his mother wanted him to be, and we could have lived in a big house in town and had lots of money, but we chose not to. We chose this way of life because we thought it was a better one."

She looked out the window for a long time, then said, "Do you think it's too late for him to change his mind?"

We moved to town that June, to a small house by the ocean. I painted the walls and planted flowers in the yard. Now our lives are simple and calm. We have closets and drawers and big windows that let in plenty of sunlight.

There's time to read books, visit friends, and walk along the beach at sunset.

We didn't go back to Tenmile for a long time, not for picnics, nor to fish in the creek, nor to plant a garlic crop. When I finally did go back, I went alone. I stood in the garden and looked around at a landscape of abandoned projects: the solar shower, shiitake mushrooms, the overgrown vegetable beds. Packrats had moved into the cabin and the walls were starting to mildew. Just inside the door was my collection of Sun magazines. I picked up a familiar copy and opened to the page with my piece on "Being Wrong":

Sometimes my past seems like a map of wrong turns. And yet, how is it that so many confused, misguided and flat-out foolish choices have brought me here, to a life that is so good, so right for me? That is the mysterious beauty of being wrong.

"Wrong again!" I shouted.

Looking back, I see that my life has been full of wrong turns, wrong decisions, wrong ideas. I regret much of what happened at Tenmile. If I had it to do over again, I would choose differently.

But the point of a thing is almost never what we intend it to be. I don't know how Tenmile has changed me, but I do have two children whose lives were formed by it, and a partner who is an environmental leader because of it. Maybe the point of moving there was so that Chuck would find his real work. Maybe the point was to develop our children's love of the natural world.

Sometimes, what we imagine is a mistake is just something we have to go through to get to where we belong. At least, that's what I think. Of course, I've been wrong before.

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