How to beat nature deficit disorder if you’re a city-dwelling ecologist with power tools

Jenny escaping the city to regain her sanity at the cabin she built in Wisconsin. (photo: Tona Williams)

Jenny escaping the city–and humans–to regain her sanity at the cabin she built in Wisconsin. (Photo: Tona Williams)

This month, Jenny Carney is building a Scandinavian cabin in her Chicago West Loop office. Why? Because nobody could tell her not to and because she wanted to feel closer to nature in a city of almost 3 million people. This does not surprise me as I’ve only known Jenny for a couple of years and she’s already convinced me to:

  • dig up a garden for her amid the swarming of some terrible, horrible bugs
  • go on a weekend-long fly fishing trip
  • buy a timeshare for a yet-to-be-constructed yurt
  • build hotels for bees
  • round up about 1,000 used bricks to use as an outdoor patio floor for her property in Wisconsin (thank you to all who contributed–I will likely pester you for more)
  • take a bird watching class
  • hike through a state park after convincing me to also buy purple hiking boots
  • bike 35 miles up and down hills all day long in unrelenting rain to look at barns
  • pick her up a 10” Craftsman miter saw to help build this office cabin
  • …and then hand sand down all the walls of this office cabin
  • (as you might guess, this list is hardly exhaustive)
photo 4

The Scandinavian cabin in progress. It’s tricky to get a good photo because of the giant mushroom column used to support this converted warehouse space, but you get the idea. The casement window is a reclaimed window she purchased at the Rebuilding Exchange.

Jenny built the desks and other storage items in the office and brought in a lot of her own furnishings for the space.

Jenny built the desks and other storage items in the office and brought in a lot of her own furnishings for the space.























She also introduced me to a phenomenon called “nature deficit disorder” when she lent me a book called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv last year, which I’ve managed to not return because it completely floored me and because I’m lousy that way. Nature deficit disorder is not an official medical condition, but it takes about five seconds to realize that it should be. In a nut shell, the book discusses the alarming rate of sickness, stress, aggressiveness, and obesity with kids in the U.S. and attributes this, in large part, to the fact that they are spending almost zero time running around outside. This was later confirmed when I worked on a project interviewing folks who work in and with our local forest preserves and who talked at length about how astonishingly disconnected kids are from nature. For example, some high schoolers believe there are lions and tigers living in the trees, and the majority were completely terrified of our woods in general, which don’t exactly emulate the enchanted forest of Brothers Grimm fairytales. Adults may be slightly less intimidated by nature (and I stress might, as I know some who would crumple if they didn’t have heated leather seats to lounge on while resting), but you can add heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, and no doubt depression to that list of health concerns related to a lack of exercise and frolicking about.

Cutting down wood on the weekend to create furniture for the inside of the office cabin.

Cutting down wood on the weekend to create furniture for the inside of the office cabin.

Anyway, Jenny figured all this out much earlier than I did. She grew up in rural Wisconsin and was/is an ecologist. She’s in love with systems, processes, data analysis, hypothesizing, and being outside away from people. Working as a field ecologist, she says, required more ingenuity, physicality, wits, and schooling than any other job she’s had.

photo 3

Seating for the office cabin, which has built in storage underneath and which was precisely calculated to ensure that it was long enough to allow for daytime work naps for its designer, naturally.

A "standing desk" she designed and built according to the varied heights of herself and her employees.

A “standing desk” she designed and built according to the varied heights of herself and her employees.






















She eventually stumbled into green building, which provided an intriguing opportunity that put her at an intersection between environmental science, business, development, society, urban planning, and a number of other related fields. Dealing with the built environment was inviting because it is more tangible in a certain sense, than working as an ecologist documenting the natural world in decline. This career shift ultimately lead her to Chicago in 2007, where she opened up a Midwestern branch for an environmental consulting business.

Some essentials on the land.

Some essentials on the land: Thomas Jefferson study materials and a cordless power drill (no ma’am, no electricity).

The Carney maple syrup factory. Jenny's dad is a retired construction foreman and helped with the construction of Xanadu.

The Carney maple syrup factory. Jenny’s dad, a retired construction foreman, passed on his intense love of chores and also helped with the construction of Xanadu.




































But, alas, the hustle and bustle of the city isn’t always ideal for someone who likes to think about the mating habits of bugs and who can explain how and why the breeze is blowing, so pretty much on a whim, she purchased several acres in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin in 2009 and named the land “Xanadu.” This was obviously cheaper than buying land in the city, and it was beautiful, geologically unique, and a reasonable enough distance from Chicago that weekend visits were feasible. She needed some shelter, however, so over a long weekend she constructed a 150 SF shed and an outhouse with a composting toilet with her dad, who is a retired construction foreman. Jenny was the designer, financier, and unskilled labor. He was the skilled labor with engineering prowess. She also described him as “exceedingly crafty,” which I believe, as he has constructed some kind of steampunk manifestation of a maple syrup factory according to pictures I’ve seen, along with an entire house that he continually builds more and more outbuildings around to stay busy since retiring. Jenny felt this project would be a welcome diversion for him.

Xanadu, post-paint job, furniture and rain barrel installation. It's ever a work in progress.

Xanadu, post-paint job, furniture and rain barrel installation. It’s ever a work in progress. (Photo: Tona Williams)

To build the shed at Xanadu, Jenny used a chop saw, skill saw, power drills, a pneumatic nail gun, an assortment of hammers, and that healthy love of chores that hearty Wisconsinites are prone to have. I’ve also been put to work with shovels and a chain saw, which I apparently became too aggressive with. Sorry, trees. Somewhere along the line she lost her miter saw, which is why I was happy to be able to hook her up with a Craftsman miter saw, as well as an attractive, shiny hatchet for good measure to chop branches at Xanadu for the cast iron stove that heats us. And heats us remarkably well, I might add.

Photo by Tona Williams.

Photo by Tona Williams.

Basically, if you’re ever lucky enough to visit, expect to earn your stay there—Jenny doesn’t screw around and there is always work that can be done. Until it’s time for whiskey and/or poetry, anyway. There are also added perks of mooing cows off in the distance at night, Carney family homemade maple syrup, and (new!) black walnuts meticulously cracked and jarred for consumption, and the fact that you will get to hear stories about how trees are incredibly smart and why fireflies blink. Believe me, if I could rent Jenny and her cabin out to my fellow nature-deprived city-dwelling friends, I would. Until then, I would recommend looking up some plans online and adding “build a cabin” to your 2014 To Do List. It’ll feel like entering Dr. Who’s magical phone booth.

Coffee heating on the cast iron stove, reading on the porch. (Photo by Tona Williams)

Coffee heating on the cast iron stove, reading on the porch. (Photo by Tona Williams)

Xanadu (inside). The cabin is tiny, but once again, Jenny designed multi-purpose furniture. The opposite side of the space has two stacked wooden boxes store bedding and come apart to form beds, and a frame drops down from a wall to create a third, full-sized bed. We've slept 4 in here and been a-ok. I know. Swoon! (Photo by Tona Williams)

Xanadu (inside). The cabin is tiny, but once again, Jenny designed multi-purpose furniture. The opposite side of the space has two stacked wooden boxes store bedding and come apart to form beds, and a frame drops down from a wall to create a third, full-sized bed. We’ve slept 4 in here and been a-ok. I know. Swoon! (Photo by Tona Williams)

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