Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dick Proenneke



Dick Proenneke is the man.

After nearly losing his eyesight in an accident working as a diesel mechanic, this sturdy, upper-middle-aged gent decided he wanted to enjoy life while it lasted.

And so, Dick moved to Alaska in his fifties, and build himself a cabin entirely by hand, with hand tools. He ended up staying there for thirty years.

Or as Thoreau wrote in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

[...] I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- [...] to know [life] by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.


Last Tuesday night, Chicken-Man hosted a screening of all three videos documenting Dick's experience. He was a diarist and filmmaker, hence the excellent record of this beautiful adventure. All of the shots were recorded by Dick's camera on a tripod, and the narration is from his own journals.

The first video details the building of the cabin, and it's incredible to see the craftsmanship and attention to detail as the rough logs get planed and shaped, moss becomes insulation, and river rocks and mud become a gorgeous fire-place. If you watch any of the Dick Proenneke series, this is the one to watch. The beginning of it is the YouTube segment posted above.

In the second film in the series, he is in his eighties, still living in the cabin with only the bears, moose, rabbits, wolverines, and fish for company, along with the little birds he feeds by hand with his homemade sourdough. Another filmmaker has come to visit Dick and record him on his long walks and canoe rides through the mountainous wilderness.

To watch Dick steadily plod along with his bow-legged gait, endlessly chopping wood, sawing, carrying water, fishing, and watching the animals through his binoculars you can feel the peace and satisfaction coming through.

Watching the films, I was reminded of why I love the idea of self-reliance in the first place. The endless news about global warming, the calculus of energy use for homemade vs. store-bought goods, it all fell away.

A love of making your own home has to be some kind of drive inside of you, and while hauling your own water and making food from scratch isn't for everyone, for some of us it's the path to happiness.

It is interesting, of course, that although both Dick and Thoreau remove themselves from society, they still record their experience. It makes me feel better about writing this blog! I hope that some of these small projects here might inspire you the way these men have inspired so many.

"Some men are satisfied making parts of things," Dick says. "As for me, I like the whole." Then he swings open a door that he framed, built three identical hinges entirely out of wood, and a dead-bolt to boot.

"What was I capable of, that I didn't know yet?"

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