Washington and Lee Graduate Creates a Cabin, and a Legacy
“Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.”
— Henry David Thoreau
For six weeks during the summer of 2011, Henri Hammond-Paul followed in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps through Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He hiked the woods. He canoed the streams. And he read Thoreau’s essays.
When he returned to Lexington for his senior year at Washington and Lee University, Hammond-Paul was plenty prepared to pursue an honors thesis in English. But he had something more on his mind.
“I actually got the idea last year at some point and didn’t think about it at all over the summer, really,” Hammond-Paul said. “Then I got here in the fall and started thinking about it and asking around. And I began to think it might be something worth doing.”
The something worth doing is now an 8-by-10-foot timber-frame structure nestled in the woods in the northern part of the W&L campus.
When Hammond-Paul wanted to let the community know what he was doing, he referred to it as the Walden Cabin Project. But somewhere between hatching the initial concept to pounding the final nail in the roof, Hammond-Paul switched his focus from simply a Thoreau-like experience to the creation of an organization around the idea.
Jim Warren, the S. Blount Mason Jr. Professor of English, was Hammond-Paul’s thesis adviser. He still remembers his student’s moment of realization, and it still leaves him with goose bumps.
“Henri had this idea for the thesis and the cabin project, and they went side by side,” said Warren. “We would meet every week in my office, and we’d talk about the thesis, and we’d talk about the cabin. Some weeks it was more about the thesis; some weeks it was more about the cabin.
“One of the most amazing meetings in this room is when he came in and said he had a breakthrough with the cabin. He said he had realized that it’s not about the cabin; it’s about building an organization that will create and maintain the cabin. For me, that represented a remarkable insight from a 21-year-old man.”
In his 28 years at W&L, Warren said, Hammond-Paul’s is one of the most amazing senior projects with which he’s ever been involved.
As Hammond-Paul worked away on the thesis, titled “A Point of View a Little Higher: Thoreau’s Process of Discovery,” he also began to build the organization that would, in turn, build the cabin and then keep the project alive once he had graduated.
He began by pitching the philosophy of the cabin and really didn’t have a specific structure in mind. He knew he wanted it to be something like Thoreau’s 10-by-12-foot cabin on Walden Pond, but mostly he wanted it to be something of meaning to the entire W&L community.
“As someone who is interested in the way communities work, I have been interested in these concepts of isolation and reflection and removal as a way to evaluate your own community,” explained Hammond-Paul, who has been accepted to the Peace Corps and ultimately wants to work on international development.
“For me, traveling and being away from my communities has given me a lot of perspective to understand them better,” he said. “At some level, I would hope that this space created through the cabin can encourage that thought process for students or community members as a way to get away from the grind of an academic routine.”
As he began planning, Hammond-Paul discovered all the levels of approval that he would need to put a structure on University property and figure out how it would be regulated. He raised funds from campus organizations, got financial gifts from alumni and donations of lumber from a community member, and received help in the form of lessons about digging foundations and putting a timber-frame structure together. Then he posted notes to the daily Campus Notices to recruit volunteers for the construction.
“I had begun thinking that I would build this all by myself,” Hammond-Paul said. “I’ve been amazed by all the help I’ve had to make it a reality.
Construction took more than a week, delayed a bit by rain. As he envisions it, the cabin will eventually be outfitted with a desk, a chair, a bookcase and a platform for a sleeping bag. There will be a reservation system through the Outing Club.
“Henri has really done everything single thing one could imagine to pursue this project,” said Warren. “And I do think it will be an ongoing project, because he has set it up so well.”
Hammond-Paul will take many lessons from the experience and expects to put them to good use.
“What I’m interested in ultimately is working on infrastructure in the developing world,” he said. “This has been very useful in understanding how systems work. A university works a bit like a government. Once you talk with one person, you think you’re done. But then you have to go deal with several other people.”
Meanwhile, back in Lexington, the Walden Cabin will remain as a sturdy wooden testament to Hammond-Paul’s vision.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs