I

In the evenings, when I read and take notes in my journal, I am showered by applause. As you can imagine, it’s a warm and rewarding feeling. I work outside, or as close to outside as you can get while in, my dwelling an 8’ by 8’ writing shack that I built a year ago in my backyard on the edge of the salt marsh. The applause, which begins just before dusk, comes straight off the marsh, though I rarely see a single member of my appreciative audience. Loud but shy, they call from hidden places. And though I know they are birds, I rarely see them. They are named, appropriately enough, clapper rails, and they call to each other with such vehemence that the noise fills the marsh. It’s a strange business for a creature that makes its living by hiding, as if after a full day of secretiveness they are ready to throw it all over, intent on revealing their own hiding places.

II

I built this shack in March of 2011 to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. It was a modest and inelegant project, slammed together in three days, my body remembering the few skills I had picked up working as a framing carpenter in my twenties. I bought a level for the work, but never got things quite level. The lopsided beams show and, when I finally put roof shingles on, the nails came right through the plywood ceiling so that they now point down at me like a thousand fangs. When the guy at Home Depot tried to sell me a long horizontal window for four hundred dollars, I understood, in a moment of inspiration, that I could instead spend forty bucks on a screen door and simply turn it on its side. This I did, effectively transforming the shack into a bird blind, an eye through which I see herons, egrets, woodpeckers, ospreys, and, every once in a great while, a glimpse of a clapper rail.

III

Most of us use language easily, even carelessly, slinging about sayings and metaphors. “Thin as a rail,” for instance. How many people know that this refers, not to a fence post of railroad tie, but to the same bird that showers me with nightly approbation? In his guide to bird behavior, David Sibley explains the saying’s origin: “The bodies of rails are laterally compressed (flattened) and the feathers can be held tightly against the body when necessary to allow the bird to slip through very narrow spaces.” In other words, though rails are actually medium-sized birds with stubby wings and long bills, they can make themselves thin to the point of invisibility, which, combined with the fact that they are “cryptically colored,” allows them to all but disappear in the tall grasses of the marsh. Sibley goes on to say that their compressed bodies allow them to move through the marsh without rustling the reeds or grasses, which would give away their positions to predators, and that “Some observers believe that rails use the pathways of mice while foraging in dense vegetation.” The pathways of mice! Their nests, too, are secretive affairs, platforms of grass and reeds on the ground, hidden under other vegetation.

IV

“We need a backshop all our own,” wrote Montaigne. The shack has become my backshop. My treehouse. My fort. My hiding place. While you could throw a rock from my house and hit the roof, I am solitary enough here, despite occasional visits from my wife, daughter, and yellow Lab. At first I imagined the shack as a work place. I built a desk right below the screen-door window, and brought my computer out to write. But a crucial moment came when I decided to rip out the desk. I am something of a workaholic, with two offices already. The shack would not be an office. I would read there, scribble notes, and think; I would drink a beer or two and watch birds; and I would watch the sun slowly set over the trees. But I would not work. Anyone who builds a cabin, no matter how modest, is required to quote that famous cabin-builder from Concord, and here I fulfill that obligation: “The life that men praise and call successful is but one kind.” A perfect epigraph to carve into the beam above my screen window. Work provides deep pleasures, but it is also, as the poet Donald Hall has pointed out, a way to prove that we are good children who have done our homework and pleased our parents. The shack is not about parent-pleasing. In fact, it is not about pleasing at all. It is a place to do whatever the fuck I want.

V

The nightly noise explodes on the marsh. Sometimes a yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip. But more often something sharper, a “clappering” as my bird book calls it, though with a distinctive slurry edge like a heron’s croak. It starts with a burst from nowhere, and then ratchets upward. It really does sound like applause, and like applause it’s contagious. One of my favorite movie scenes is in the The Lord of the Rings when the warning beacons are lit, first in Gondor, and then, one after another, from mountaintop to mountaintop, until the sight of the flames reaches far off Rohan. The rails’ call is the aural equivalent of the lighting of the beacons. Or, to put it another way, the cry carries down the marsh from one bird to the next, as if they were handing off a baton. I mentioned earlier that all this racket seems strange for a bird that puts such a high premium on secrecy. Sibley clears up this mystery somewhat: “Their dense habitat also explains the frequent and loud vocalizations the birds perform in establishing their territories; in densely vegetated conditions birds cannot communicate visually and must call regularly.” But doesn’t this lead to another question? If the birds are so secretive that they usually try to move without rustling the reeds, why do they sporadically give up their location with a noise as loud as a car alarm? Perhaps that is why these “mostly crespucular” birds choose dusk for the calls, since most of the marsh hawks have packed it in. But what about owls and raccoons? And, anyway, while they call most intensely at sunset, they can be heard bursting forth at any odd moment in the day. This must surely give up their location. Their secret. How strange to have one personality, one seeming mission, for 99 percent of your waking moments, and then to spend the other 1 percent undermining it wildly. I am perplexed enough to write directly to David Sibley. He generously responds: “You would expect a secretive bird to be ‘whispering’ and sneaking around, but I guess the rails are confident enough in their camouflage and the protection of the grasses that they can burst out in loud calls without any concern. I often see them do this when they poke their heads out of the grass or stand in the open for a minute, burst out calling, and then quickly duck down and dash back into the grass. They need to communicate with other birds that might be hundreds of feet away, in an environment that’s often windy, and they can be bold and brash for a few seconds, but then have to run back into the sheltering grass.”

VI

As writers we work in solitude, but long to be heard. Any writer who works primarily to please an audience, and not to the rhythm of his or her own inner voice, will never do much. But while we need to labor in privacy, the finished thing—the book, the poem, the essay—is then brought back to the tribe. Odd that those of us who labor in this solitary way are then expected to boast, to sing, of our labors. By July, four months after I built the shack, I was no longer spending a lot of time in it. For one thing, the summer heat turned it into something like the isolation box in Cool Hand Luke. For another, I was spending most of my time out on the road, pimping for my new book, doing readings and radio interviews, and generally waving my arms around trying to draw attention to myself. Like most writers, I felt queasy doing this, though I understood the need. Without all the arm-waving, no one would know about the book, and if people didn’t know about the book they couldn’t be expected to buy it. And if they didn’t buy it? Then there would be no next book, no time alone doing the real, solitary work of making. It’s a cycle endured by any artist who hopes to have their work known by those other than him or herself. We seek recognition. We seek applause. And we can appreciate the importance of being recognized, while also understanding the final irrelevance of the same.

VII

On December 7, after many months of traveling, I sat in the shack watching winds whip the red-brown marsh grass around like a crazy woman shaking her hair. Above the marsh, the wind pushed a line of blue clouds to the north, a great military procession moving across the horizon. I wondered what the rails were doing during such a windstorm. Did they simply hunker down more deeply? I imagined them stooped low, peeking up at the wild world above. I reached for my journal to record these imaginings and just as I did I heard a wild clapping above the wind, a single bird asserting itself above the storm’s rumblings. I didn’t see the bird. Which was not unusual. In fact, the only time I have gotten a really clear look at a rail was during the first week we moved to this house. During that week, I decided to transport our two kayaks from old house to new by paddling them, since the houses are connected by the Intracoastal Waterway. A friend paddled the second kayak, and at the halfway point we camped for the night on a dredge spoil island. The next morning we continued our trip north, finally ducking into the creek that led like a winding path to my new home. We were halfway up the creek when I saw the strange new bird, letting go with its full-throated cry, for which I did not yet have a name.

VIII

To lead an alternative life we need an alternative. Like most of us, my “regular” life revolves around family and work, and is fueled by my own private ambitions. We drive toward goals because goals work; they effectively simplify and organize the chaotic world. For instance I use goals—and timetables and charts—to finish writing books, and for trying to get those books out into the world. One pole of my life revolves around these goals. But what the shack has come to represent is the other pole. The shaggy, unkempt, private, goal-less pole, the pole that men don’t “praise and call successful.” If one pole is the “miles to go” before we sleep, then the other pole is the woods. If one pole wants to bend things to my will, the other pole knows just how silly this is. If one pole craves applause, then the other pole says fuck ’em. Over the years I have come to believe that there needs to be a counter life, something that runs against the main river of ambition, a current that burbles back against the river. I think the best decision I made in the last twelve months was to tear out the desk. This isn’t a place for desks. It is instead a place to pick up one book and jump to the next whenever I feel like it, and a place to wrap my hand around a cold bottle of beer—tonight a Ranger IPA—and scribble down a few notes in the pages of my journal, my only audience the dozen or so shy but loud birds that hide out in the marsh. And while this shack might appear flimsy to others, I believe it offers me some real protection. It’s here that I find my sheltering grass, the place I run back to after letting go with my brash and bold cry.