- Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream and Five Acres in Maine
- Viking, 256 pp.
In September 2007, Lou Ureneck, a 56-year-old journalism professor at Boston University, was hospitalized for atrial fibrillation, the exclamation point following a decade-long tailspin that included divorce, his mother’s death, financial failure, deepening depression, and a withering sense of purpose or connection. The week-long stay at Massachusetts General underscored what he’d already begun to realize: he needed to change. Or rather, to return. While the idea of building a rustic, off-the-grid cabin in the northern Maine woods might appear self-indulgent or even needlessly Thoreauvian to some, to Ureneck it was neither frivolous nor isolative. It was absolutely necessary. “I was building a cabin because I wanted to pare down and find the me that had been misplaced in life’s big and little catastrophes,” he writes near the beginning of his trim and insightful memoir, Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream and Five Acres in Maine. “The project would be a move toward integration—not separation, escape or temporary stimulation.”
Ureneck’s mid-life crisis, like many, stems from a longing to recapture lost youth. To him, this meant nature. From the age of thirteen, he lived in Toms River, New Jersey, spending endless hours fishing and hunting along the shores of Barnegat Bay. Sitting behind duck blinds or checking muskrat traps in the pre-dawn hours offered him a peace frequently unattainable in his uncertain home life: his father abandoned the family when Ureneck was seven; his mother frequently moved him and his younger brother, Paul, to evade bill collectors, sometimes in the middle of the night; his beloved stepfather, Johnny, was an alcoholic. Thus nature became his surrogate, providing solace and nourishment. Somewhere along the line, however, Ureneck got lost in the confinement of modern urban life. Thus, his retreat to the woods, like his memoir, becomes both a quest and a homecoming. Outwardly, he is sallying forth to build something new; inwardly, he is resuscitating his most ancient and essential parts.
It’s the outward journey, however, that frames the book. The chapters detail different stages of the building process, and Ureneck’s easy prose takes us from foundation to roof with the clarity of a crisp December morning on his new land. “A cabin is a courtship, not an elopement,” he writes, a homage to the patience and courage required when one embarks on creating a genuine, lasting home for himself. This particular courtship lasts almost two years, many more if you consider that the lumber—cut from the trees on the property Ureneck had shared with his former wife—had been stacked in Paul’s backyard for over a decade. Ureneck acknowledges that this wood, previously milled to become a group of smaller cabins, a “family settlement” as it were, carries obvious metaphoric weight. These trees had been felled just before his downspin began, an omen, perhaps, of the turmoil to come. “I would fit the old lumber,” Ureneck writes as plans for the new cabin begin taking shape, “into the frame of a new structure.”
He finds the land for this structure in the town of Stoneham in Oxford County. Conscious of his outsider’s footprints from the outset, he hires local labor, uses local resources when possible, and commits to learning as much as he can about the former inhabitants of the land on which he is building. The various personalities we meet—excavators, inn employees, carpenters, lumbermen—embody the classic elements commonly ascribed to small-town folk: graciousness, suspicion, resourcefulness, work ethic, generosity, and pride. Each contributes to the project, either directly or peripherally, by lending either a hand or an obstacle, and sometimes both. As cabin begins to take shape, so does our understanding of the area in which it stands. Ureneck’s well-researched digressions—including miniature studies of the paper industry, the environmental impacts of Chinese nails, the history of native Abenaki tribes, and speculations about the plight of the working poor in a global economy—add wonderful layers to the book and mirror his real-life efforts to integrate himself into his new community.
His reflections on the natural world, however, contain the book’s best writing. Even before beginning construction, Ureneck spends copious amounts of time in his new woods, driving three hours each way on weekends in order to just walk the land. “I wanted to make this hillside my own in the way that the landscape of my boyhood had been my own,” he writes about those joyful early months. “I sat on stone walls, leaned against trees, knelt for a closer look at the brooks…I ran the soil of the hillside through my fingers—it was simultaneously gritty and smooth, a dark pudding of rotten leaves and glacial rock flour—and tasted its bitter twigs.” Ureneck has a poet’s eye for detail, and over several seasons on the land he treats us to some beautiful imagery. We see rabbit tracks disappearing into a “stiff parchment of leaves,” a “doily of early snow” covering the forest floor, and mist-topped mountains resembling “steaming teapots.” We witness the complex mating ritual of a pair of geese and meditate with him as he sits, “down on his haunches, Gandhi-style,” gazing over a “tableau of pond, beaver lodge, setting sun and serrated dark line of the treetops.” Some metaphors feel slightly forced or excessive, but the majority of them are beautiful and the overall effect is of a tender brush painting a beloved subject.
As time passes and the cabin begins taking shape, Ureneck uses his pauses to turn a philosophical lens towards himself, his project, and nature as a whole. He quotes Eliot and Heidegger, recalls his relationships with past homes, and ponders the importance of simple elements of the building process: the “forward heaviness” of a mallet in hand; the curling of fragrant pine shavings off the clean edge of a chisel; the rightness of fitting pieces of wood together to form a solid corner post. He relishes in this “honest” outdoor work, which roughs his hands and strengthens his muscles. As his (and our) time in the woods progresses, he considers the existential, and how being in nature, which is “free of the distorting complications of ambition, shame, disappointment or pride,” offers a “direct and uncomplicated relationship to the world.” Ureneck’s reverence is genuine because it’s so personal. He’s not proselytizing; he’s simply inviting us to consider something so basic that it must be true, if we can only quiet the clutter that prevents us from seeing it:
We respond to the grasses, the trees and the brooks because we sense the deeper truth in them. A brook cannot be false or a tree deceptive, and because we as a species grew up with them, and among them, we are essentially part of them and they of us….All of us, it seems to me, seek to recapture the sensations and selves of our childhoods, and nature offers the best way back, to the freshest parts of our true and original essence.
The cabin is a timber frame structure that Ureneck explains in terms that are technical yet easily understood by the layman. As weekends and summers unfold he convenes on the land with his brother and nephews to dig holes, set concrete, fashion mortises & tenons, erect rafters, nail sub-flooring, frame walls, and install windows. The chronicles of the building process are informative and entertaining, and the work proceeds smoothly, despite some minor financial, geographic, and weather-related setbacks, all of which seem “business as usual” for constructing a remote cabin in the woods. This sometimes leaves Cabin lacking significant conflict to drive its narrative. Problems arise; problems are solved. No big deal. Nobody is ever overly stressed or worried. Even Ureneck’s attempt to finish before Thanksgiving doesn’t seem all that consequential, given how many adjustments he’s previously made. Ultimately, Cabin does fine without a major climax. Its contemplative, free-flowing nature mirrors spending genuine, loosely structured time in the outdoors. Ureneck’s revival, like the cabin’s walls, proceeds at nature’s pace, and in the end we’re most interested in the subtleties, how Ureneck’s relationships—with the land, the building, the creatures, and the people—each help coax forth those long-dormant parts of himself.
The most important of those relationships, of course, outside of those with nature and himself, is the one between Ureneck and Paul. Through various narrative flashbacks and family history, we learn about Paul’s rebellious youth, school and work experience, and role as a father. We learn about how he helped build Ureneck’s first house, the one on the property where the cabin’s lumber came from. We see him as a dedicated and generous community member and a talented contractor. Despite this portraiture, Paul does remain slightly mysterious. He is a man of few words, one who shows up, works hard, and then leaves. We do get some email correspondence between them, and Paul offers sage advice on several occasions, but there are large swaths of the building process—and the book—where he disappears completely. In one spot, when Ureneck does attempt to wax philosophical about his brother, stating that the cabin embodies their “mutual biographies,” it falls a bit flat compared to his musings on nature. Still, Paul’s presence is what allows Ureneck to undertake this project in the first place, and eventually we realize that the central dream in Cabin, despite the subtitle’s suggestion, may be more about Ureneck’s revival than the dwelling itself. “In this experiment in mental health, building the cabin with Paul was one of the reasons I wanted to build it at all,” Ureneck recalls thinking when he first imagined a cabin in the woods. “When you get around to reassembling your life, as I was doing, it’s good to have someone at your side who remembers how the parts once fit together.” He does, and the result is a true homecoming.