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Building and Brotherhood in the Maine Woods

COM’s Ureneck celebrates redemption found in family, nature

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It was 2008 and Lou Ureneck had faced a recent series of  setbacks in his life: a divorce, a lost job, and the death of his mother. Feeling unstable, Ureneck was looking for something, he says, “that would put me back in life’s good graces,” a “project that would engage the better part of me.” So he came up with the idea of building a cabin in the woods of western Maine.

In his new memoir, Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine, the College of Communication professor of journalism recounts his experience building that cabin with his brother and his nephews. But this is much more than a tale of building a retreat: it is a deeply moving account of how he succeeded in reconnecting with his family, nature, and ultimately, himself.

Ureneck’s story begins with the purchase of 5.49 acres of land in tiny Stoneham, Maine, for $32,000 and his dream of constructing a simple post-and-beam cabin. To build it, he enlisted the help of his younger brother, Paul, a construction and project manager for a commercial real estate company in Portland, Maine. Paul’s expertise—and the help of his three sons—made the project possible. Ureneck admits that at the beginning of the project, he didn’t even own a pair of workboots.

The author takes readers on his journey through the preliminary building stages (involving troublesome town boards and fines for missed building permits), salvaging for materials, and his decision to opt for the old timber-frame method of construction, using wood joinery rather than nails as much as possible. With the help of his brother and nephews, the cabin was finished in just over a year.

On a more profound level, Cabin, as the subtitle suggests, is the story of the deepening bond between two brothers who had grown apart. At one point in the book, Ureneck observes that “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.”

“The cabin was a project for the both of us right from the very beginning,” Ureneck says, sitting in his second-floor COM office on a recent afternoon. “It’s very unusual when you’re in your 50s to get a year with your brother, so this was really one of the great benefits of building the cabin, to get this time to spend and to work together.”

The memoir began as a blog written for the New York Times: From the Ground Up. Ureneck interweaves snippets of history about Stoneham, anecdotes about his family, and scenes from his childhood.

“When I started to build, I wasn’t thinking about a book; I was looking for a project that I could lose myself in, something to engage me physically and mentally and that would bring me together with my brother,” he says. “The project was a success and my mood improved. I felt a lot better about life.” He says the whole experience has taught him “when we hit rough water in our lives, it’s not a bad idea to think about what it is we can do that will have us looking forward rather than backward.”

Published last month by Viking, Cabin has been positively received by critics. The Boston Globe notes that “Ureneck has created something bracing, beautiful, and profoundly heartfelt,” and from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “pitch-perfect…Cabin is as close as a book could come to really capturing that feeling of going to the woods to live deliberately.”

A former editor of the Portland Press Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer and previous chair of COM’s journalism department, Ureneck is the author of another highly praised memoir, Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska, which chronicles his efforts to reconnect with his then-teenage son through a fishing trip to Alaska. The book won the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award in the Outdoor Literature category and was selected as a National Geographic Traveler’s book of the month.

In advance of tonight’s reading and book signing at Barnes and Noble at BU, BU Today spoke with Ureneck about Cabin, the project’s impact on his life, and what he is currently working on.

BU Today: Your adventures building the cabin first appeared in a blog for the New York Times. When did you know there was a book there?

Ureneck: First I had the idea of building a cabin, so I wrote an essay in the New York Times about thinking about building a cabin. The essay was well received so it turned into the blog From the Ground Up. It was a record in real time of the cabin going up. So each time I would go up to Maine and do a little work, I would file my story to the blog that evening. The amazing thing about the blog was the audience. I would get comments from people in Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia. There were people all over the world who were interested in this little cabin project up in the hills of western Maine. I continued to write the blog even after the cabin was complete and my readers have stayed with me.

But the book is a deeper, more resonate and considered work than the blog. The blog, though, provided me a structure for writing the book. And from time to time when I was writing the book, I would consult the blog to remember what I was doing on a particular day. It was a kind of diary.

Has your brother, Paul, read the book?

I had him read it before I handed it in. I wanted to make sure he was OK with everything, and he was. He is an easygoing guy and he said, ‘You know, this is all true and accurate, so I’m fine with the book.’ Had he objected to the book, it would have been a real problem, because I probably wouldn’t have published it. The relationship is too important to me. At the same time, I did not want to publish anything that was not accurate, so I was really fortunate that he was happy with the book and I think he is proud of it. I admire him as a builder and I think that he admires me as a writer, so I think we make a pretty good team.

What did you and Paul learn from each other?

I was reminded what an even-tempered and grounded individual he is. He’s also a very good builder. We encountered many problems in the construction of the cabin—probably because I was trying to scrounge materials—that I probably could not have solved myself. Paul was able to figure it out, so I learned a lot about building from him, and also about working through things calmly.

How did the time you spent with your brother and nephews change your relationship with them?

I have a deeper relationship with my brother, and I am more engaged in the lives of my nephews than I was before. It’s one of the great rewards of having built the cabin.

Did the experience of building a cabin enrich your life as a teacher?

The project has enriched my life in many ways. The year I spent working on the cabin made me a better person and a better brother. A book teaches you how to write as you’re writing it; it’s a kind of teacher that directs the work. As a consequence of the cabin, and then of the book, I am a better writer, and therefore, a better teacher.

You had no cell phone service and often no electricity, so you had a lot of time to observe the natural world around your cabin. What was it like to be so far removed from those distractions?

Being up there without distractions was an important part of the experience. Our life is filled with so many interruptions. It’s not often that we really get to spend long periods of quality time with a person as I did with my brother and my nephews. The radio wasn’t blasting; we weren’t going to check email. There was no cell phone coverage. It was just us and the tools and the materials and the project. And that’s exactly the way I wanted it.

It’s obvious that you appreciate having had the time and money to build a cabin.

I built the cabin on a budget; I didn’t want to be extravagant and neither could I be extravagant. I took the money I earned from Backcast and bought the property to construct the cabin. So I’m fortunate that I had enough money to take on this project and that I had the summer, because I elected not to teach any classes at COM that summer. I had the time during the summer and the holiday period over Christmas break, and we were essentially able to build it in one year.

How did the project rejuvenate you?

The building helped me generally in my life. The physicality of the building was a joy and was very satisfying. To be out there in the cold winter, lifting and hoisting and stepping over things. And there is a pleasant hum that comes from completing a project. Here, I am pushing paper, tapping the keyboard, but up there I was nailing boards and cutting heavy timbers, fitting things together. It’s a different kind of work and a different set of satisfactions.

Are there connections between writing and building?

Sure. Some of these connections are on the level of metaphor. When we talk about writing, we often talk about structure and architecture. I tend to be a visual writer in that I plan the work with little sketches and drawings and so forth. So as a writer, I think as a builder. And that informs the way I do my work. I’m very conscious of structure when I write. Building gives me a vocabulary for thinking about structure; it helps me as a writer, no question about it.

You write in the book that your daughter says you have “attention-surplus disorder,” meaning you always need to be focused on a project. Do you think you’ll ever feel the cabin is really finished?

There is always going to be something that needs to be done at the cabin. Trim to be replaced, a window to be fixed, shingles to be repaired. We recently put a roof on the shed, plus I’ve planted an apple orchard, and that’s going to require work, which I enjoy. I have plans for a barn. I love to build barns, and I’ve built one before. I’ve planted a garden; I would love to have a hive for honeybees. I’ve thought about a raspberry patch.

How often do you get to the cabin these days?

I was away this summer doing research in Europe, so not much this summer, but now that I am back, I’m trying to get up there two or three weekends a month, so as often as I can.

What are you currently working on?

The next book will not be a memoir: rather, I think it will be a reported nonfiction book about a historical event that occurred following World War I. I spent a lot of time in Athens, Greece, this summer in a small, lovely library. It has a wonderful set of archives. I was doing research for that project, really trying to see if I could get the information I needed to write this book.

Lou Ureneck will read from Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine tonight, Tuesday, October 4, at 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., Kenmore Square. More information is available here.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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