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Rebuilding a Life — in the Woods

After a string of setbacks, a journalist reassembles his life in the mountains of Maine

The one tonic capable of elevating Ureneck’s mood is his link to the wild, a relationship that is woven into his earliest memories and throughout the book. As a boy living on the New Jersey shore, Ureneck would rise before dawn and, “in the dark or the magical half-light of a winter morning,” trap muskrat and raccoons in the marshes near Barnegat Bay. As an adult, on his frequent forays into the woods around his Maine cabin site, Ureneck — often borne by snowshoes — rekindles his connection with nature and comes face to face with the geese, deer, grouse and beaver that are denizens of his sylvan backyard.

If regret colors Ureneck’s reflections on the past, an ever-expanding sense of purpose and optimism animates his account of the cabin’s construction. The author’s hard-earned resilience shines through as he shrugs off the occasional setback — footer holes flooded by November rains, rafters flattened by March winds — and gets on with such everyday immediacies as pounding nails and leveling walls.

He also nicely captures the local building crew. There’s 76-year-old excavator Bill Parmenter, for example, “six feet of sunburned sinew” who doubles as a dowser: Parmenter uses a handheld metal rod to help Ureneck locate a source of water on his property. There are fond portraits of the patrons of Melby’s, a country restaurant where Ureneck often ate breakfast. “Hard luck and hard work,” he concludes, are “facts of life in this remote corner of Maine.”

“The cost of a thing,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” Thoreau’s investment in his cabin on Walden Pond paid off in insight and perspective. Ureneck profits in a similar vein when, near the end of Cabin, his extended family gathers for a Thanksgiving feast inside the all-but-completed structure. There the author finally resembles a man at peace, full of hope as he faces the snowy world glimmering outside his cabin windows.

David Brill is the author of As Far as the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker and Desire & Ice: A Search for Perspective atop Denali, which chronicled his bid to summit North America’s highest peak at age 45. He has written for National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Health, and many other national magazines.

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