Quiet after despair
Like Thoreau, author found solace in a cabin.
STONEHAM, Maine - Lou Ureneck discovered Henry David Thoreau when he was in high school. So smitten was he with Walden that he slipped the book between the covers of his algebra text so he could read it during class.
"He touched me deeply from an early age and shaped my sensibility. Until then, I didn't have a vocabulary and set of metaphors for thinking about nature."
Ureneck is saying this as he sits on the porch of the cabin he built in western Maine. Along with his brother and a couple of nephews, he spent a year toiling on the project, which he chronicles in his beautifully written new book, Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream and Five Acres in Maine (Viking, $25.95), which Publishers Weekly selected as one of the top 10 memoirs this fall.
The L-shaped timber-frame cabin is a straightforward structure, as honest as the rocky wooded hillside on which it stands not far from the White Mountains. In winter, through the bare trees, the sun glints off the water of Little Pond, down below. The silence is profound, and the place so wild that moose commute via the front yard and a bear broke into the kitchen and abused a picnic cooler. Thoreau would approve.
"A well-built cabin is an aesthetic as well as practical statement, and, on the high end, it is a manifesto of craft and simplicity," Ureneck writes. At another place in the book, he declares: "I was both making shelter and trying to write a poem."
The same could be said of the book. Much more than a how-to manual (though it offers plenty of practical advice), Cabin tells the tale of a man who has passed "his own personal equinox" and is reeling from life's blows (divorce, job loss, health scare, and the death of his mother, his only steady parent). Beset by depression and "visitations of panic and loneliness," he takes to the woods to pursue a lifelong dream. Along the way, he does plenty of reckoning, and the cabin becomes both pretext and instrument for redeeming and renewing himself.
"It was therapy," says Ureneck, 60, a journalism professor at Boston University and a former editor at The Inquirer. "The physicality of it - shaping the posts and beams, the hard sweaty work of lifting and climbing - was an important part of getting to feel better."
Ureneck revealed his plan to erect the cabin in a New York Times article in late 2008. He informed readers of his progress in a blog, "From the Ground Up," that attracted responses from around the world.
"There's something about going into the woods and clearing space and putting up a cabin and becoming close to nature that speaks to men," Ureneck says. "There's something that pushes us in that direction, something fresh and innocent. It takes men back to their dreams as a boy."
Thoreau was in his late 20s, still naive and exuberant, when he built his cabin on Walden Pond in an experimental attempt to "live deliberately" and "front only the essential facts of life." Ureneck, who started the project in his late 50s, a time when "life's losses begin to pile up," had a different perspective and purpose.
"I needed something to engage the better part of me, to set me in a positive direction and give me some traction in life's next turn," Ureneck says. "I like building things and working with my hands, and I'm happiest when I'm outdoors. Building the cabin enabled me to get back to that part of my life when I was close to nature."
Ureneck's first book, Backcast, about trying to repair his relationship with his son during a fly-fishing trip to Alaska, won the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award in the outdoor literature category.
In Cabin, he shows the same gift for emotional exploration and unflinching remembrance. A multilayered memoir laced with rich veins of natural history, the book contains three stories: the construction of the cabin; the reconstruction of Ureneck's relationship with his younger brother, Paul, his partner in the project and fellow survivor of a tumultuous childhood; and an explanation, as Ureneck puts it, of "my coming to consciousness about the importance of nature and place in life."
"As the stories get told, the cabin gets built," Ureneck explains.
Working on the cabin brought Ureneck closer to his brother, a construction manager who lives in Portland, as well as his brother's sons. It reminded Ureneck, a bookish loner, that his mental health depends not only on solitude but also the warm embrace of family, as epitomized by the Thanksgiving feast held in the cabin - "our little Zion" - to celebrate its completion.
"I value his judgment and competence," Ureneck says of Paul. "I lost track of his needs when I was preoccupied with my career. He took care of my mother when she was declining, and I felt I needed to make amends."
The book describes vividly the land of mountains, lakes, and forests in western Maine, on the outskirts of this village, about 12 miles from New Hampshire, where Ureneck erects his cabin. It captures as well the terrain of Ureneck's youth, the brooks, marshes and tidal ponds near Toms River, N.J., and the upper Barnegat Bay, where Ureneck roamed, fished and hunted, trapping muskrats and raccoons in the predawn darkness before the school bus arrived to haul him off to a lesser place of learning.
That natural classroom and paradise are gone, succeeded by housing tracts, marinas, and shopping centers, an evolution that evokes Ureneck's default mood, a deep and abiding melancholy.
"When you lose the landscape of your childhood, in some ways you're always an exile," Ureneck says. "You can't go back to the place where you made some of your best memories."
The son of a hardworking hairdresser who struggled to keep a roof over her head, Ureneck lived in 17 different places before he went to college and grew up without a family homestead. Like many who have suffered childhood wounds, he is a keen observer, blessed and cursed with extraordinary recall and sensitivity. For him, the sense of nostalgia and pain of loss are especially acute. He needs no psychiatrist to tell him what building the cabin is all about.
"The cabin would be my home of last resort," he writes. "It would root me in a place. It would be my hedge against that old and irrational fear, homelessness."
So, did it work, one wonders. Has the cabin met Ureneck's hopes and expectations? Has the reality matched the dream?
"There will probably always be a hole in my psyche and soul," he says. "I don't think anything will fill that, but the cabin has helped. The way it has brought us together has been a real joy for me. At my core, I'm a loner, and the cabin is a symbol of that. At the same time, I need a web of family relationships to be a complete and happy person."