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Essay: In Appreciation of the 'Outdoor Home'


Published June 15, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Tim Newcomb

Given the abundance of notable events in a life — 35 years and counting in my case, everything from the last episode of "Seinfeld" to COVID-19 — you might assume that the Ridiculous Deck Guy would have been quickly displaced from memory, tossed into the dustbin of forgetfulness. Nope. Though my encounter with him was brief, and though it occurred way back during high school, I recall it clearly.

A tanned, mustachioed, middle-aged landscaper wearing jean shorts, he stood in my father's backyard on a bright summer morning, gazing past the gardens that were supposedly his expertise. My father asked, for the third time: "So, how much for the junipers? Can I get a solid estimate on those?"

And the RDG answered, as if waking from a trance: "Wow, that is some nice deck. Would ya look at that deck? I tell ya, that is a doozy of a deck."

I was leaning against the railing of the doozy, as was my father, which is to say we were both acquainted with its attributes.

"But the junipers," my father continued, less miffed than stunned that 10 minutes had elapsed and he was still chasing a number. "What are we talking for the four of them?"

Now, I concede that it's entirely possible the RDG was a weasel, intentionally avoiding an estimate in order to gouge my father on the price of junipers at a later date. That's a cynical perspective to take, though, and I am not a cynic.

On the contrary, I am a starry-eyed dreamer, a hopeless romantic, a believer in the profound love that can blossom between a man and a bunch of planks nailed together and raised on a foundation of concrete piers. I believe this because, well, I myself am an unabashed RDG. Always have been. Always will be.

However, it's not only decks that I find alluring. I'm likewise smitten with patios and porches and porch swings and verandas. And picnic tables and gazebos. And firepits. And lichen-mottled granite benches, painted wicker divans, chaise lounge chairs strategically situated to keep a face in the shade and a pair of pale sockless feet luxuriating in gorgeous golden sunshine.

Collectively, I refer to these rustic or elegant design features scattered about a property — these relaxation stations — as the Outdoor Home. To my mind, they are portals to everyday "microwilds," invitations to a sort of blissful feral loafing.

My mind is hardly unique. While lots of folks obsess over couch upholstery and 80-inch flatscreens, deeming the Indoor Home to be the quintessence of ease and enjoyment, a large contingent of us prefers to unwind en plein air. It's perfectly sensible that a Vermonter, after six dim wintry months huddled around the hearth, would embrace a nylon hammock's gentle sway.

The value of that hammock (or bench, or divan, or chaise lounge) became even more apparent last year when the pandemic barged onto the scene, insisting that we trade the far-flung for the hyper-local.

Shelter in place? In the elemental place? Can do!

Among the many benefits of kicking it in the Outdoor House — fresh air, vitamin D, no Zoom — one thing in particular was highlighted by weeks and months of isolation. Quoting Henry David Thoreau, whose minimalist cabin at Walden Pond prompted him on the regular to plunk his fanny down atop a mossy boulder: "Contact! Contact!"

Too often we inhabit a confined space, Thoreau argued, whether that's society and its artificial norms, our craniums and their inane gerbil-wheel thoughts, or the Indoor Home and its boring beige walls. He aspired to unmediated sensual engagement with dirt and wind — i.e., the enlivening world itself.

And me, I aspire to that also.

The logistical, emotional and psychological challenges of isolation are real, for sure. But I'd like to point out that, considered from a different angle, this word "isolation" is basically a synonym for "contact." Swaying in my hammock at dusk, I'm close to the chorusing frogs, the bats flitting their blackness across acres of cool blue sky, the lilacs, the lilac-scented breeze, etc.

I'm at a remove from family and friends, movie theaters and supermarkets, yet I'm as near as ever to nature. Heck, I'm suspended in nature — floating like a spider on a gossamer web.

Ecologists and mystical monks tell us we're all knit into the same system, the same fabric, the same web, and it's merely a lack of awareness that can make us feel separated and distant. In my experience, sitting quietly — and aimlessly — is the best possible method of cultivating a holistic eco-awareness. Not hiking mountains. Not throwing dinner parties with friends. Not admiring the couch upholstery and the 80-inch flatscreen. Just plain sitting. Solo.

The enlivening world approaches me when I'm sitting, rather than me approaching it. And that's significant — that's the difference between being active and passive, between seeking and receiving.

Granted, I'm a huge fan of arduous backpacking missions and pedal-to-the-metal road trips and a thousand other varieties of go, go, go that, thanks to the vaccine, are slowly becoming feasible again. But snugly fitting my body to the nooks and crannies of my immediate environs via the infrastructure of the Outdoor House opens a subtle, perennial adventure to which I'll remain devoted regardless of herd immunity.

Literally and figuratively, it's the adventure of reclining into birdsong and shifting light. As I phrased it earlier, the everyday microwilds.

Thus we return to the Ridiculous Deck Guy, my kindred spirit. Though definitely a comical buffoon, he probably deserves a kinder title. Wise Deck Guy is a bit of a stretch. Ditto for Eco-Aware Deck Guy. How about, hmm ... Wholehearted Deck Guy? Yes, I like that, for it is the heart that yearns to connect: with fellow humans, with the exuberant energy of growing plants and roving animals, with whoever and whatever happens to be available on a fine lazy summer evening.

So then, let's picture the WDG chilling on a doozy, can of Molson Canadian beaded with condensation in his hand, butterflies and swallows and chipmunks and cottontail rabbits blurring in his peripheral vision. A wide green lawn is before him, the lawn reaching toward a thick green forest, the forest climbing toward the crest of a rumpled green ridge.

Picture him calm and content amid this strange, scary, getting-better-but-ongoing pandemic, glad at least for a seat with a view, for a home outside his home.

Picture his favorite teal Tommy Bahama beach chair — the chair set up precisely where he wants it, hundreds of miles from the beach.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Outdoor Home | An appreciation of the backyard's relaxation stations"

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