Out of the Woods

With his brother’s help, Lou Ureneck surmounted windstorms, planning boards and the pain of the past to build a simple timber-frame cabin on a hillside in Stoneham, Maine.

Photo by Brian Vanden Brink

COM Professor of Journalism Lou Ureneck had lost a job and his mother. He’d been through a divorce and a health scare. It was time to reconnect with both nature and family.

Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for his previous effort, Backcast, Ureneck has scored again with his account of a year spent in the Maine woods, frugally building a traditional post-and-beam cabin with the help of his laconic brother. “Ureneck has an immensely observant eye for the richness of nature,” writes a Boston Globe reviewer. What follows is an excerpt from Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine (Viking, 2011), by Lou Ureneck.

I had a rough idea of the cabin I hoped to build. I wanted it small and simple and tight to the weather. I wanted it snug. I did not want a shack, and neither did I want a vacation home. The very sound of the words “vacation home” made me grimace. I hate even to see it on the page. I was not looking to pile up possessions or bring expensive diversions into the woods. I did not want televisions, microwaves, toasters, electric can openers, popcorn poppers, food blenders, electric blankets or tchotchkes of any kind. This would be something like a monk’s cabin or, better, since I wanted to include books, binoculars, some magazines and a sketch pad, a naturalist’s or writer’s cabin. The woods would be my diversion, and I would look forward to the dramas of big snowfalls, noisy woodpeckers, new seasons emerging out of old ones, furtive pine marten and summer thunderstorms. I thought of a deck officer’s quarters on a sailing ship—a gentleman’s space reduced to its Spartan essentials: desk, chair, chest, bunk, a wooden box with sextant, glass and compass, a table for reading maps and a few good books. Everything would fit together tightly, and anything loose would be stowed in its proper compartment against rough weather. 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 of the last decade. The project would be a move toward integration—not separation, escape or temporary stimulation.

I decided I would not bring power up from the road. I would let Central Maine Power Co.’s lines pass by without planting poles on the hillside or stringing a cable through the trees. Maybe I would admit a portable radio to listen to a ball game on a summer evening. I liked the way a baseball game called on the radio collapsed the universe down to a ball, a bat, nine leather gloves and one person’s knowledgeable commentary. I had noticed one day while driving to the hillside that a ball game heard over the radio slowed my breathing, maybe even reduced my heart rate—not a bad thing for a guy with my medical history. A small radio would be a good addition to a cabin. The Internet—well, that was an open question. I liked being able to search for a good curry recipe or refresh my memory on the definition of the categorical imperative, but the Web would be a temptation to distraction and pointless stimulation. I preferred books and the company of humans, occupying their bodies and holding glasses of Scotch in their hands. I was not seeking a virtual experience. In a pinch, I could always drive to the town hall and use my laptop to poach the Internet signal in the parking lot.

Of course all this asceticism and roughing it was environmental ideology, pure and simple, and not all of it intellectually consistent. It surely was not cabin construction. I hadn’t yet lifted a hammer or bought a nail. But it was a necessary step, I think, and a pleasant one. A cabin is a courtship and not an elopement. Through this period, in that first winter, I was filled with the agreeable feeling of anticipating a cabin—the contemplation of assembling and inhabiting it—and not of making any final decisions about the specific details of shape, size and pitch, nor of actual work. Of course, many details passed through my mind, but I was trying them on casually without making decisions. It was the infatuation stage of cabin construction. It was enough for me to sit (or lie) down with the idea of a cabin, to own it and enjoy it, anticipation being the purest pleasure.

But as winter ran down and infatuation matured into intention, I began to feel the need to order my ideas about the cabin’s design and get serious about the practical aspects of this big project. I already had sunk $32,000 into it—serious money for me. Despite the deep snow, I was impatient to do something, anything to get started. I took out a yellow legal pad and began a list of tools I would need: framing hammer, finishing hammer, circular saw, wood chisels, mallet, combination and roofing squares, chalk line, nail apron, tape measure, carpenter’s pencils, cat’s paw, drill, wood bits, four-foot level. I browsed antique tool catalogs and wandered the aisles of Home Depot. With scissors and Scotch tape, I built a cardboard model of a cabin, drew in the windows and wondered if winter would ever end. ■