If you Google “guy who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years,” Dick Proenneke’s name and website will pop up and you’ll go, “That’s him!”
And then you’ll see the name of the video and you’ll go check it out again from the library and you’ll watch it and have the same incredulous look on your face you had the first time you followed the ultra-adventures of this retired diesel engine mechanic as he makes his way back to the wilderness he loves in order to live alone in a cabin that he first has to build by hand with spruce trees harvested by hand before the temperatures drop and winter sets in. At this point, he’s 51.
You’ll see him persevere on every level, using hand tools — including tools he’s made by hand — to do every single thing involved in constructing the 10×12 foot cabin, using gravel from the lake as base, notching the logs perfectly, making brilliant wood latches on the Dutch door, capping the thing with a sod roof, and doing all sorts of other finely tuned and mysterious things. The apex of this virtuosic display and proof of ultimate coziness and surety will be the wood kitchen ladle he hand carves, engineering a scoop that measures just the right pour for a perfectly sized flapjack. Genius! He is a model of self-reliance, far beyond what most of us dream of or even think about — until we see it.
And then, in your mind, you’ll go back to all the clever, self-sufficient, brave, handy people you’ve encountered, the likes of which you’ve never been, but the likes of which you’ve run across a number of important times in your life in fact, in fiction and in person.
You’ll think about “The Swiss Family Robinson” (the movie) and how the marooned family with the four strapping boys builds the tree house and engineers that fabulous water wheel contraption and other impressive gadgetry. Then you’ll think about having read “Robinson Crusoe” in college, and his taming of everything around him, quantifying, categorizing, accounting for and lording over. And then you’ll remember your encounter with Thoreau and Emerson and the Foxfire books. And how you read the “Little House on the Prairie” books to your daughter and how cabins were built and dresses sown; and flour and lard will take on new meaning. And then, of course, you’ll think on the several times you read “Tomboy Bride,” wondering each time how on earth they could haul it all up that road and live lives wearing those shoes they did.
After your brief survey of ingenuity and self-reliance and strength you’ll have to look around you and your world, and then at yourself and your motley group of skills and wonder, what is self-reliance, anyway? A set of skills? A mindset? Both?
You had a father who could fearlessly build or fix pretty much anything. He did house repairs, car repairs. He built an early hang glider, saw a cocktail dress he liked on a pack of cards and pulled out the sewing machine and recreated it for my mother. He baked a hard roll and called it the perfect food, based on the science of food combining at the time. He tarred the driveway cracks, hiked with a compass, and spent hours and hours at the library when something needed researching. What about you, though?
Well, sure, you started out strong. There’s that early training in knitting and sewing. In kindergarten in a foreign country, you make your first stitches (a mallard on burlap), then a cross-stitch sampler in first grade. In elementary school back in the States, you learn perhaps the most handy of all your skills, production level gum-chaining, using trashed gum wrappers that accumulate on the outside of the chain link fence on the school grounds. There is macramé as a 7th grader, a beautiful obsession with knots used for the purpose of hanging plants from the ceiling, and then a brief love affair with calligraphy, which your father indulges to the point of introducing you to a man who actually does it for a living. In college, you learn to saber fence. You knit sweaters for boyfriends. Later on, you learn to make gingerbread houses, put a bead on a wire and call it an earring, draw caricatures and make crepes.
It occurs to you that in the Alaskan wilderness — in any kind of wilderness — you would be toast. And the only thing you can come up with in answer to this dismal state of affairs is that at the very least you will have made the marmalade on this burnt, doomed and ruined piece of toast yourself.