Lou Ureneck spent 20 years in Maine, advancing to become editor of the Portland Press Herald before leaving the state and eventually landing in Boston. In his latest book, “Cabin, Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine,” ($25.95, Viking) Ureneck — now working in Boston — returns to a state he says he can’t get out of his system, and finds … again … exactly what he was looking for.
“Cabin” follows the construction of a woods retreat, from its theoretical creation in the author’s mind, through fits and starts, trials and errors and, eventually, to completion … if one can ever truly say that a work in progress such as a cabin has really reached completion.
“A cabin is a courtship and not an elopement,” Ureneck writes, explaining the deep thought he put into every phase of the cabin’s construction.
Paralleling the tale of the cabin, and forming its foundation, is the story of two brothers who grew up under tough circumstances, had their fair share of hardship and renewed their bond while working toward a common goal in the western mountains of Maine.
“[My brother, Paul, and I were] rebuilding something,” Ureneck said during a Wednesday phone interview. “We’re building the cabin and we’re kind of rebuilding our relationship. We always had a close relationship but people get to be adults and they follow their work and they get separated. Paul and I had been separated for some time … the cabin was a chance for us to get back together.”
Of particular concern to Ureneck was the fact that when their mother became ill several years ago, he was working in Philadelphia and Paul filled a more active role in her daily life in her final years.
“There were some things I needed to pay back to Paul and [building the cabin together] gave me the opportunity to talk to him about that,” Ureneck said. “The cabin gave us the chance to talk about those things. When you’re together all day long, working, you can be quiet for a couple of hours, then you can talk for a few minutes and then you can be quiet again for a few hours. Just like fishing.”
“Cabin” is not a fast read. And that’s not a bad thing. Instead, it’s a book to be savored and absorbed, piece by piece, as the mood strikes. Peruse a few pages at a time while sitting in front of a wood stove on a chilly autumn afternoon. Tackle a chapter in the evening before turning in as the winter wind rattles the windows. Meander along with Ureneck as the project progresses, tracking Maine’s changing seasons along the way.
“I had come through a rough part in my life and I was looking for some project that would put me on a better course, something positive,” Ureneck said on Wednesday. “I like to be outdoors and I like to build things so I settled on the cabin as the project.”
In “Cabin,” Ureneck explains the allure of cabin building, and illuminates the metaphor that propels the book, in the early going. Working as a journalism professor at Boston University, he began rough planning for the project and began trying to answer a key question: Why was building a cabin so important to him?
“As I dodged the Boston traffic, the idea of a small cabin had become a way for me to at least think about nature, to put some tree bark and pine sap into my thoughts if not my life,” Ureneck writes. “I took it as a sign that the cabin was the right prescription for what ailed me.”
Later in the same chapter, Ureneck expands on that notion a bit more. “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,” he wrote.
And while the cabin building was clearly a healing process, actually writing about the project — which Ureneck first did as a blog for the New York Times — seems to have clarified the project’s role in his life, and in setting things right after a gradual slide away from the natural world and into urban life.
Ureneck is a thinking man’s outdoor writer. His prose is not of the “tap a vein and let the stories pour forth” model. Instead, his words are chosen precisely, a clear product of careful contemplation about the task at hand and the point he’s trying to make. Kind of like building a cabin, one might conclude.
More reminiscent of Thoreau than Field & Stream, Ureneck successfully captures the tangible facets of Maine’s wilderness — the smells, the sounds, the sights — and his journalistic curiosity unveils the less obvious elements of a rural existence.
Neighbors who pitch in. Town politics. Natural and American history. The fact that many Mainers have an innate distrust of people who intrude upon their own rural existence. All topics are explored, pondered and reflected upon in “Cabin.”
The result is a sometimes somber but ultimately uplifting book about the ability of people to face challenges and make worthwhile changes, and the restorative powers that magically exist, waiting to be harnessed, deep in the Maine woods.
“Maine is a very special place and it means a lot to me. My heart is in Maine. It means a lot to me,” Ureneck said. “At one level, what this book is is an appreciation of Maine. And those were the parts of the book that I enjoyed writing the most. Just kind of considering the wildlife and the trees and ponds and so forth, and how very, very special they are. There’s no place like it in the world.”
Ureneck will be touring in support of the book’s release for the next several weeks. You can see him at Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta at 10 a.m. on Friday; at Sherman’s Bookstore in Camden at 1 p.m. on Saturday; at Longfellow Books in Portland at 7 p.m. on Sept. 30; at Devaney Doak & Garrett in Farmington at 2 p.m. Oct. 1; and at Kennebooks in Kennebunkport at 7 p.m. Oct. 6.