A real nice morning for that special day. A few nights ago I was reminded of Christmas. It was -6° calm and very frosty. By lantern light every busy and spruce sparkled – a million tiny candles winking on and off as I went to the woodshed … On the stump out front I had nailed a big strip of gut fat. I hollered for the birds and it was some minutes before they arrived … Boy oh boy! what a Christmas present. They would work like beavers – get tired and rest for a while and then back at it again. If I called them, they would quit and come to the door for hotcakes.
Everything in order I started to open parcels. Nine in all – excuse me – one in the cache makes it ten. Ten plus small gifts from Glen and Patty, Laddy & Glenda which turned out to be candy and cookies.
Before I got involved I remembered my little turkey bird in the cache. It would be frozen solid and I had better get it thawing …
What a batch of stuff – everything from soup to nuts. Two packages of Beef stick that is very good and will keep well into spring. Two gallons of chopped dried onions. I had ordered one and please write the price on the can so I could pay. Two came and as a gift. Any more I wanted I could pay for. Fruitcake, candy, nuts, a new Taylor thermometer which is a nice one – a tube case with a clip so one can pack it to the mt. top. Dish towels and some material to cover my aluminum foil of the fireplace cover. I find the foil is of benefit in keeping the cabin warm. Heat is reflected back into the living area from it. The excess that I cut off stands against the wall behind my stool next to the stove. Sit there and I can feel the heat reflected from the foil. Items too numerous to mention. Even genuine imported Millet Spray bird feed for caged birds and wild birds. Be interested to learn if I have any birds that will sample it.
Cinnamon drops and lemon drops, dish towels and pot holders and on and on. Nectarines a batch, semisweet chocolate, lentils and white beans and a note “Is there anything we can do for you?” And I suppose the next plane in will have more. I should hang out a sign “Twin Lakes general store.” With the flag flying my cabin has already been mistaken for a Post Office. I do appreciate everything and wish there was some way I could repay everyone for everything for I feel in debt. If only they had all gotten together and sent in a 25 lb. sack of rolled oats from “Nature Kitchen” I would have been “happy as a clam”. It would be evening before I pawed through the boxes again and find Christmas wrapped gifts that I missed first time around. I hate to disturb the contents because I often end up with more than the box will hold when I try to put it back.
Everything neatly stacked in a corner, I did more work on my ice creepers. An uncommon amount of creeper ice this winter. Straps wear and heel claws need replacing.
In our forthcoming illustrated book, “Cadi & the Cursed Oak,” much of the plot centers on an acorn cup.
Once there was a cup.
But it was not an ordinary cup, for it was a silver cup with an oak sleeve turned in the shape of an acorn, one hand high, as if it had been crafted for a child.
And on a winter day in Dolgellau, a small town in northwest Wales, it was Cadi who found the cup, lodged between a stone wall and her grandmother’s oak coffer.
Cadi pulled the cup until she heard a quiet “pop” muffled by the coffer’s cobwebs. A tiny split opened in the wood, smaller than the breath of a bee.
“Oh,” Cadi whispered, fearing what her grandmother would say. Cradling the cup, she examined the two silver discs attached to the wooden sleeve. One had an engraving of an oak tree above the words Ceubren yr Ellyll, and 1813. The other was engraved with a coat of arms and ASGRE LÂN DIOGEL EI PHERCHEN.
It was so lovely and so unknown, Cadi thought she might cry. Although she had never seen the cup or heard talk of it, it was beautiful and important-looking. And the tiny crack grew heavy in her mind.
Cadi and her grandmother are fictional, of course, but this cup, made by John Reilly, exists at National Museum Wales. According to the museum, “On 25 June 1824 one of Wales’s grandest 21st birthday celebrations took place for Sir Robert Williams Vaughan, the son of Merioneth’s biggest landowner. Held on the Nannau estate in Dolgellau, 200 guests sat down to an extravagant banquet … Various items produced to commemorate the event are now in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru, including two of the six acorn-shaped toasting cups made for the occasion. They were made from the wood of the Derwen Ceubren yr Ellyll, ‘the hollow oak of the demon,’ the ancient tree at Nannau associated with Owain Glyndwr.”
Many objects made from the cursed oak exist in Wales still today.
What happened to it, to the tree? Cadi asked.
“A terrible storm, in 1813,” said her grandmother, who began to walk again. “A man named Sir Richard Colt Hoare visited here. Sir Richard was a wealthy man, an antiquarian. He also loved plants. He collected exotic plants, he planted thousands of trees, and he loved to draw them. While at Nannau, Sir Richard became enchanted with the blasted oak. By this time it measured 28 feet around and was more than 900 years old. So he sketched it. That very night, lightning struck the tree and destroyed it. The remaining wood was collected and quite a few things were made from it – tables, candlesticks, picture frames and some lovely stirrup cups, set in silver and shaped like acorns. I own one of the cups, although it appears to have gone missing.”
Cadi dared not move.
“There are two silver discs on it, opposite each other. One disc says ceubren yr ellyll, the hollow oak of the demon. The other, ASGRE LÂN DIOGEL EI PHERCHEN, a good conscience is the best shield.”
Cadi’s grandmother turned and looked at her.
Legend says if you drink from it, the tree’s stories will haunt you.”
They walked a bit more and then Cadi quietly asked, “How do you get the dreams to stop?”
“You can’t stop stories, child,” her grandmother said. “Even bad ones. Every living thing has a story. And every story deserves to be told.”
This is the actual sketching of the Nannau Oak, by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, which is part of the Stourhead House collection (National Trust). The inscription on the top of the frame says “The Nannau Oak fell to the ground 27 July 1813. This frame is made of the real wood.” The inscription on the bottom of the frame says, “Sketched by Sr Richd. C. Hoare on the morning preceding the night on which it fell.”
This Victorian breakfast table, sold at auction by Bonhams in 2014, is said to be made from the Nannau Oak. It came with a printed etching of the tree and text about the tree as referenced in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Marmion,” framed in wood also said to be from the cursed tree.
Here you can see more photos by Philip Nanney Williams, author of “Nannau: A Rich Tapestry of Welsh History,” of a book slide made in 1848. It was reportedly made from wood from the Nannau Oak supplied by the third bart’s wife, Lady Vaughan of Rhug. Philip was of wonderful assistance to me during the research phase of this book.
The website nannau.wales, created by Ian King, provided a wealth of information while working on this book. There I found a transcription of a 1960s tourist guide, which included an image of candlesticks and more cups made from Nannau oak.
Philip writes about these candlesticks, made from the Nannau Oak, in Chapter 3 of his book. Made in 1840, they are modeled on the chimney of the Archdeacon’s House, Bangor, where Owain Glyndŵr met with Henry Hotspur during the rebellion.
And according to Woolley & Wallis, this folding table has a 19th century veneered top with “Ceubren yr Ellyll,” inscribed underneath on a later turned folding base.
Building a book, tool chest, chair, backyard fort, orchard, business plan, well, cabin or even a family requires the same basic steps. A desire, need or circumstance that you can’t shake. Gathering or making the things needed. A plan (or not). And then, a lot of steps. Followed by a lot of problems. Solutions, failures, successes. The building continues until one day you think, whoa. I made this.
Near the end of the process of building “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke,” Monroe Robinson’s well ran dry. There was a second well on the property that hadn’t been used in more than 30 years. Monroe immediately set to work, rebuilding the old pump house that had almost wasted away, replacing the electrical service, water lines, water pump, pressure tank and controls. He worked on it for seven days straight (“seeing clear, clean water gush from a hose feels close to magic,” he wrote to me), and finished just in time for the annual apple juicing day he and his wife, K., hold for neighbors and friends every year. Using an apple grinder and press that Monroe made, folks take home nearly 100 gallons of juice each year.
“Children of all ages love to crank the apple grinder and long handle of the pressing screw, and especially hold their cup in the stream of sweet apple juice as it falls from the press,” he wrote.
Monroe signed the contract for “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” in December 2018. We spent nearly three years building this book. Monroe, of course, has spent more than 20, beginning with his first summer caretaking for Dick’s cabin in 2000. For months we thought this book wasn’t going to be printed until after the first of the year. It gave me so much joy to email Monroe and tell him his book was being shipped to the warehouse early.
The first of anything after a build is magic, no? Holding your book, holding your baby, filling a tool chest, pulling up a chair to the dining room table, locking up a new office space, camping outside in your fort, pumping clean water, picking a ripe apple, and lighting a gas lantern and standing outside, looking in.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
August 1, 1968:
The lake dead calm. A perfect day to move …
Clock wise around the cabin and set everything out that I want to go. Pack it down to the beach. Clean up the cabin and scrub the counter and shelf under and the woodwork of the stove stand. Everything in order. I loaded up and paddled down. Everything found its place and there was lots of room for everything. The cabin didn’t look cluttered as some do. An item or two to make. A knife holder for on the wall and on that project the worst accident of my cabin building career. The piece of wood I was working turned and I raked my thumb with the freshly sharpened ripsaw. The blood ran and I went down and stuck it in the lake and the lake was turning from green to red so I doped it, wrapped a rag around held by a piece of tape and went back to work.
Everything squared away and I saw it was two o’clock.
First night on my new bunk. I think that five inches of foam rubber will make it just right. And too I can hear Hope Creek real plain. That will be a pleasant sound to go to sleep by. I packed my drinking water from Hope Creek and I think there is none better that I ever tasted. I must light the gas lantern this evening to see how it looks inside and from the outside.
Dick doesn’t make a big deal of this move but I will. It had been only slightly more than 10 weeks since Dick packed three loads of gear to his building site four miles along the still-frozen shore of Twin Lakes.
Dick fabricated his own mallet, log scribe and many handles for other tools he would need. He sharpened his saws, axe and auger bits. He canoed to locations miles away and felled, peeled and rafted approximately 300 small trees to use as rafters, furniture legs, bed rails, woodshed/outhouse logs and more.
Dick had built his cabin! He had completed much of the furniture for his home. He had sawn lumber from spruce logs to make his own front door, and for door and window jambs. He had essentially built his home and what he needed inside with his own hands and now had moved in.
He also finished building his woodshed/outhouse/storage structure, except for the sod on the roof.
In the 1977 video “One Man’s Alaska,” produced by the National Park Service, Dick said, “I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week and in 10 days’ time I had the heavy logs up.
“I think there is a lot of satisfaction in having everything that you made yourself. Even your door hinges and everything, cut’er out by hand with the tools you got. I moved in August first. There was still work to be done but it was livable.”
Something that quietly becomes clear in Nancy Hiller’s newest book of essays (“Shop Tails,” now shipping) is a subtle underlying theme of worth. “Blue-collar” vs. “white.” Grades earned, degrees obtained and at which institution. Worth in the eye of friend, teacher, sibling, parent, boss, client, beholder. Critique. The worth of a commission. Representation in a shop. The worth of a stray. Staying, leaving and their reflection of your worth to self and others. The worth not of a house, but of a home. The worth of pets, even when problematic, and love, and life. The worth of good pudding. Self-worth.
“What I wanted, for 50 years, was to prove that people were wrong about me, to exceed their low expectations. When people mentally translated my work as a furniture maker to “She makes ‘furniture’ out of pallets or fruit crates and decorates her work with cut-outs of ducks and bunnies – you know, because that’s what women like,” I would show them my take on an Edwardian hallstand with a perfectly fitted door and drawer and a cornice of compound bevels. Anyone who assumed that, as a tradesperson, I would be less intellectually curious and articulate than someone who works in an office (any kind of office would do; this is a matter of longstanding prejudice against “manual” and “blue-collar” workers) would have to square that assumption with a growing body of published essays and books in which I brought my academic training in classical languages, history and ethics to bear on the social and economic significance of commonplace things such as kitchen furnishings. I did my best to illustrate the ways in which a house, typically thought of as “property,” could fulfill many of the roles we usually associate with a human partner. In response to the critics who might deride my ways of putting cabinets together, I would point out that there really are as many ways to build a cabinet as there are cabinetmakers, not to mention that the cabinets I build, however simple their construction, are far stronger than most that are commercially made.”
Last week one of my twin 11-year-old boys was outside when our dog, Io, found a squirrel, already hurt and hiding in a bush. He pulled it out proudly, carrying it by its tail. My son yelled at him to drop it. On its side, its big beautiful brown eye stared at us while it breathed ever-shallower breaths. My other son appeared, and we gathered a box and a towel. One boy bit his tongue, the other was indignant: “We can’t save him. It won’t work.” Two defense mechanisms that failed to stop silent tears. I thought, It is OK to be 11 and soft while simultaneously thinking how best to end a small animal’s life in order to end its palpable pain, knowing I couldn’t possibly actually do it. (The squirrel died on its own shortly after.)
I share this story because my sons’ recognition of the squirrel’s worth in that moment reminded me of something Nancy wrote to me, the day before this incident:
“Every time I think about ‘Shop Tails’ I am filled with delight at the thought that the stories of these animals, some of them strays, some wild, others abandoned to the shelter, get to be commemorated in a book – a beautifully produced hardbound book, with pictures. There’s something about this that I still don’t even quite grasp. It’s the opposite of the usual publishing world, where Important People are the only ones who get remembered or have their stories told. (Yes, thankfully that has been changing over the past 40 years, but I still see a distressingly overwhelming hangover from the middle of the 20th century and before.) There’s something wondrous about this noticing of the rejected and otherwise-un-notable, especially those who had short lives. And of course I’m aware that there’s a vast genre of books about animals, this one is by no means alone, etc. But still! Little Alfie with his explosive digestive problems and impossible William, pathologically jealous Henny, champion-of-gratefulness/gimp-boy Joey, the turkey vulture by the side of the road, and ‘Henry’ the mourning dove, all get their day, as do others. It’s a kind of triumph. Yeah, these stories are written from my perspective, not the animals’, but that’s a limitation we have to live with.”
There’s a shift taking place in the woodworking community, where more people than ever before are getting to see their worth in more welcoming environments Among them The Chairmaker’s Toolbox, a slew of Instagram feeds that show work by members of populations that have long been underrepresented by the majority of woodworking populations, the proliferation of scholarships for classes at woodworking schools that are now available to members of underrepresented populations and the “Gallery” in Fine Woodworking magazine.
It took Nancy more than half a century to come to terms with her own worth, both in the shop and out. In doing so, she has acknowledged the danger of being too dependent on outside forces – of people who express their approval, just as much as those who express their opposition. Consider the consequences this can have on representation in community, in craft – even in the personal work you do, in the choices you make about the tools you buy or the pieces you make. They’re huge.
“It suddenly felt deeply exhausting,” she writes. “I let my awareness of that exhaustion sink in. Whatever might happen with the course of my cancer, I was not going back to my old ways of living.”
This book is a celebration of not just the “otherwise un-notable,” but also of the notable who are just beginning to realize their worth. And in that, I imagine Nancy’s not alone.
The illustration we used for the diestamp for “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” is fitting in myriad ways, the most important being it was created by Elan Robinson.
In 2000, Elan, who was 11 years old at the time, traveled with Monroe to Dick’s cabin.
“I knew I was traveling with a young and impressionable child and I wanted to create a meaningful experience in everything we did,” Monroe says.
By this time Dick had left his cabin to live with his brother in California. The National Park Service had contacted Monroe to restore the roofs on Dick’s cabin and woodshed.
“I wanted Elan to understand that their dad would do this work exactly as Dick’s original work, allowing future visitors to see Dick’s life and craft as it was, with as few changes as possible,” Monroe says. “I wanted Elan to understand the importance I placed on the impressive craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corporation workers during the Great Depression at Chiricahua National Monument where my father worked during my youth.”
Meeting Dick Proenneke
While Elan would spend many summers between elementary school and college graduation with their father at Dick’s cabin, that first summer was particularly memorable.
“The cabin and the surrounding trails were like a wonderland for a kid my age,” Elan says. “Dick never threw anything away, and I remember being really impressed by the stacks and stacks of empty ink jars stashed in Dick’s outhouse. I wanted to write and document my time there like he did. My journal from that first year is funny to read now because of how much I complained about missing my friends, craving different foods, being bitten by mosquitoes, and doing manual tasks like carrying water or putting oakum between the cabin logs to keep the cold out. My memories of that first summer are much more positive than my journal entries!”
Dick made his final visit to his cabin in 2000.
“I was thrilled that Elan would meet him,” Monroe says.
Dick and Monroe exchanged many letters after their first meeting in 1982, and Monroe says Dick always included Elan in his letters. Elan and Dick meeting in person for the first time was a significant moment for both Elan and Monroe. And they were thrilled to accompany Dick on the float plane that took him back to the National Park headquarters where he stayed a few days with Leon Alsworth.
“I only met Dick one time, for just an hour or so, when he visited his cabin for the last time,” Elan says. “I wish I had a better memory of what that was like. But I have a photo, and in my journal from that first summer my pre-teen complaining is interrupted with my entries about how excited I was to meet him. I feel pretty honored to have been there that day.”
On Hikes and Observation
Monroe spent 19 summers at Twin Looks and says many of the more memorable moments centered around the camping trips and hikes he took with Elan around Twin Lakes. They would regularly see dall sheep, brown bear, moose and caribou. Together, Monroe and Elan observed the behaviors of these animals, and Elan spent a significant amount of time sketching them.
Monroe remembers one hike that began with the two of them kayaking from Dick’s cabin 10 miles west before embarking on the hike.
“That night a wind came up so fierce that our tent flattened to the shape of our sleeping bags,” Monroe says. “Since sleep was impossible I opened the tent zipper at 2 a.m. to look out in the orange glow of the ‘midnight sun’ below the northern horizon. Elan set the mood by springing forth with, ‘Oh! What a Beautiful Morning’ as we both gripped our nylon tent before it blew away.”
One summer, Elan, Monroe and Monroe’s wife, K. Schubeck, spent nine days hiking a loop, beginning at Dick’s cabin and then moving west, around the Volcanic Mountains and into Big Valley through Low Pass and back to Dick’s – about 30-plus miles. Early in the trip Elan spotted a fox den that would be a significant site in the course of K. and Monroe’s wildlife observations over the next 15 years.
“We spent several hours sitting in the rain watching one red kit and three black color phase kits fight and play, including a dramatic display of kit competition when the vixen brought in a dead ground squirrel,” Monroe says. “Later on this trip Elan sat motionless next to me as a lone wolf trotted toward us. We watched as the wolf chased, lost, and then caught and gulped a ground squirrel.”
Most children have memories of sitting quietly and listening to adults who don’t realize they’re being so astutely observed. Elan vividly remembers a time when a number of folks from Port Alsworth were visiting Twin Lakes.
“They had all come over to Spike’s Cabin and were sitting in folding chairs in the tight space, talking about Dick, sharing memories, and even arguing about what Dick had thought or felt about this or that,” Elan says. “I was watching all of this from under the bug net on the top bunk. I think I was too young to take part in the conversation, but not too young to be impressed by the intensity everyone was expressing around their memories of Dick, and their strong feelings around his legacy. At school, we had been talking about heroes and legends, and about how stories around real people grow and transform as they are told and retold, and I was aware that I was watching that happen.”
“I did a lot of drawing out at Twin Lakes over the summers I spent there,” Elan says. “I recently dug up my journal from my first visit there, when I turned 12, and it’s full of drawings of animals, scenery and little scenes from our everyday life that summer.”
Monroe remembers an 11-day hike he and Elan took across the lake from Dick’s cabin over the mountains and west to Sheep Lick mountain. They watched caribou, dall sheep, brown bears, black bears and a wolverine, and they even found two fox dens.
“Their journal on that hike included many illustrations including flowers, plants, the skull cap of a young caribou left at one of the fox dens when the fox den had been used by wolves years earlier, the partial skull of duck that the foxes had not bitten apart and an illustration of Dick’s cabin,” Monroe says. “Each time I look at this journal I am impressed with Elan’s art and the skill in creating a written narrative that holds my attention whenever I read it.”
One year Elan kept a nature journal as an independent study project for high school credit.
“I was really interested in botany at the time (I still am) and was really inspired by some of the detailed botanical drawings in the field guides we had at the cabin,” Elan says. “I learned from that summer that sketching the plants we found in detail was a really good way to commit the characteristics of each plant to memory.”
Monroe says Elan drew many illustrations of the Alaskan plants around Dick’s cabin, not only the physical plant but also how the Alaskan Native Peoples use the plants.
“After an injury to K.’s hip, Elan made a poultice of wormwood to relieve the pain and lessen the swelling,” Monroe says. “I was delighted with Elan’s interest and encouraged their efforts as an artist.”
Elan says they have had an on-and-off relationship with illustrating for most of their life.
“I drew a lot in elementary and middle school, but got a little more serious about it in high school,” Elan says. “I really liked the fine lines in the work of M.C. Escher and the moody inkwork of Edward Gorey, and I consumed any manga and anime I could get my hands on.”
Like many artists, there have been times that Elan has struggled with perfectionism.
“I’ve definitely had periods where that gets in the way of me being able to just have fun making art,” Elan says. “I got back into it again about five years ago when I was going through a really rough time with my mental health. I started buying cheap notebooks and drawing with ballpoint pen; the paper meant I didn’t feel so bad about ‘wasting’ nice paper on a drawing I wasn’t completely happy with, and the pen meant I couldn’t spend hours drawing, erasing and redrawing like I tended to do with pencil. I was doing it to try to express some of the stuff I was going through, but couldn’t express with words. I got to where I was drawing every day, often multiple times a day, without thinking at all about the final result, just about how it made me feel. As time went by, when I went back to things I’d drawn a year ago, I was surprised by not just how much I’d ‘improved,’ but how much I’d started to embrace my own style and feel confident about being able to produce something kind of consistent. I guess I needed to let go of meeting some standard of quality in order to feel more comfortable.”
Partnering Together for this Book
Elan says their dad’s work has been a huge influence in their work in the creative field.
“I’ve always wanted to be like my dad when I grew up (again, I still do),” Elan says. “I sometimes wish I had made more of an effort to learn woodworking from him, but even though my carpentry skills pretty much end with tightening screws and assembling IKEA furniture, I’m positive that growing up with my dad and around his artist and craftspeople friends meant that I always felt very supported and encouraged in all of my creative pursuits. I also think I learned a lot from my dad when it comes to attention to detail, and that shows up in the subjects I’m most interested in and the way I like to draw.”
These days Elan works as the community engagement operations manager at Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ+ community foundation supporting transformational work in five states in the Northwest, including Alaska.
“Graphic design has become an increasingly significant part of my role, and I do occasionally get to contribute illustrations to a design project,” Elan says. “I’m really lucky to have a day job that I feel passionate about and where my passions are supported. Outside of work, I write zines, including The Queer Language of Flowers, and occasionally do freelance illustration. I feel like I have a lot of learning to do still as an artist, but it’s been really fun and validating to find more outlets for my work in recent years.”
(You can find Elan’s work online here and on Instagram here.)
As a child and teenager, Elan says they were a little intimidated by the level of detail at Dick’s cabin.
“I tried to draw some of the objects around the cabin, and once spent hours trying to draw the cabin, and although I was pretty happy with how it came out, I knew it wasn’t accurate – I had trouble getting the number of logs and the other proportions right.”
So Elan was excited to revisit Dick’s cabin for their father’s book many years later.
Monroe says having Elan’s art as the cover for his book is deeply meaningful in that it symbolizes Elan’s presence in his care of Dick Proenneke’s legacy.
“It’s really special to me to be able to be a part of this book,” Elan says. “I think that the time I got to spend at Twin Lakes has had a big influence on me – on my relationship with craft, with nature, and with myself and my own sense of what I’m capable of accomplishing, so being a part of the ongoing legacy of Dick Proenneke is meaningful to me personally in that way. More than that, though, contributing an illustration to a book that I know my dad poured so much of himself into, and that I really believe only he could have written, makes me feel so proud.”
“The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” should ship before the year’s end.