December 25, 2011

Book Review: 'Cabin' a reflection on regaining things lost


"The idea had taken hold of me that I needed nothing so much as a cabin in the woods -- four rough walls, a metal roof that would ping under the spring rain and a porch that looked down a wooded hillside."



By Lou Ureneck. Viking Adult. 256 pages. $25.95.

Thus begins Lou Ureneck's second nonfiction book, "Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine." Like "Backcast," Ureneck's 2007 work that won the National Outdoor Book Award, "Cabin" is reaping well-deserved recognition.

It's the story of how Ureneck and his younger brother, Paul, built a post-and-beam cabin on a hillside in western Maine. They did most of the building in winter, contending with drifts of snow and a storm that knocked over part of the structure.

But "Cabin" is much more than a builder's account of a hands-on project in the Maine woods. Ureneck is 56 when he sets out to turn his dream into reality. At that point in time, he's been hospitalized for a potentially serious heart ailment. His mother, the mainstay of his childhood, is recently deceased. And he's still conflicted over his divorce 10 years earlier.

"I was looking for something," he writes, "that would put me back in life's good graces. I wanted a project that would engage the better part of me, and the notion of building a cabin -- a boy's dream, really -- seemed a way to get a purchase on life's next turn. I won't lie. I needed it badly."

So building the cabin, a place to be enjoyed by two brothers and their extended families, becomes a metaphor for putting together a battered life in middle age. That approach gives Ureneck an opportunity to reflect on subjects familiar to readers.

He writes, for instance, about growing up in the 1950s on the Jersey Shore when it was a magical place of bays, inlets and estuaries filled with wildlife -- nearly all of it swept away in a siege of development that was taking place even as Ureneck explored his favorite haunts.

"There is no love like the first, and there is no landscape like the one we grow up in," he writes, "but love has more than one life and I hoped I could possess this landscape (the site of his cabin) with some of the feeling I had felt for the first."

In ways that are probably not accidental, "Cabin" is very much a 21st-century version of Thoreau's "Walden." The writing is almost as elegant as Thoreau's. Ureneck's meditations on nature are as profound.

"Has the departure of nature from our lives impaired our ability to make moral decisions?" he asks. "And by extension, does this account for the way we treat the earth?"

As in his earlier book, "Backcast," Ureneck returns to melancholic subjects played out in childhood. How his father walked out of his life when he was 7, leaving the family in poverty but for his mother's work as a hairdresser. And the love he had for a stepfather who was kind yet hopelessly alcoholic.

But overall, "Cabin" is a testimony to overcoming adversity by building anew. It's about two brothers working happily side by side in good and bad weather, both knowing they're on the right track.

Ureneck teaches journalism at Boston University. He was executive editor of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for almost 15 years and was later editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Cabin" is a wise and interesting book, one to read slowly and savor.

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.


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