Christmas is coming, and what a cooking fool I’ve been! On the docket for today are peanut butter balls and lemon-frosted shortbread. Two ice cream pies—with homemade chocolate ice cream—are in the freezer. In keeping with this season of miracles, my husband, Clif, and I have actually been using a fair amount of self-restraint, and we haven’t gained any weight.
All of the treats I make are rather simple, using basic ingredients such as butter, eggs, and flour. What makes them special is that these are treats Clif and I only have very occasionally. Let’s face it. At our age, Clif and I do not need a steady supply of chocolate chip cookies, lemon-frosted shortbread, and peanut butter balls. But how nice it is to nibble on them during this time of long nights and twinkling lights.
I have just finished reading One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, which is a selection of excerpts and photographs taken from the journals of Richard Proenneke. Devotees of Maine Public Television will be familiar with Richard Proennneke and his movie Alone in the Wilderness, which is a pledge-week favorite in our house. Shot in the late 1960s, Alone in the Wilderness follows Dick Proenneke as he builds a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and lives a solitary life. (And, yes, Proenneke did all the filming.) Because I am probably the least handy person in Winthrop, and maybe even in Maine, this movie has a special fascination for me. Not only does Dick Proenneke, a mechanic by trade, build the cabin by himself, but he also pretty much makes everything that goes with it—hinges for the door, bunk beds, a stone fireplace, wooden spoons, and bowls. All the work, including felling the trees, is done with hand tools, and not surprisingly, Proenneke has a very lean body. And the man could cook. He makes stews and cranberry syrup and sour dough pancakes. He hunts and he fishes.
In addition to being the ultimate handyman, Proenneke was also a good writer and a keen observer of the natural world. His love of and his respect for nature thrum through One Man’s Wilderness as does his engagement with the world around him. There are even a few dramatic moments, as when he narrowly escapes being mauled by a bear, tries to rescue a caribou calf, and waits patiently for Babe Alsworth, a bush pilot, to bring missionary girls to the cabin for a visit. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that like the famed Godot, the missionary girls never come.)
Those with a survivalist bent will be impressed with Proenneke’s self-sufficiency, and it is true that this man took doing things by hand to a level most of us only dream about. Yet, self-sufficiency isn’t entirely accurate. Proenneke gets regular supplies, delivered by Babe Alsworth every three weeks or so. Proenneke might be solitary, but he isn’t totally cut off from the outside world and indeed relies on it for some of what he uses.
Instead, what impressed me was Proenneke’s creativity, curiosity, and his utter engagement with his environment, which he measured, recorded, filmed, and wrote about. His energy and his capacity for hard work impressed me as well. I was also struck by his Zen-like attitude toward chores: They are necessary so you might as well take pleasure from them rather than resent and hurry through them. (A good lesson for me!)
On very little money, Proenneke nonetheless lived a “rich” and rewarding life. He did not live a life of squalor or misery. He had enough, and he knew it. (I certainly realize that many in this world do not have enough and indeed need more.) To a large extent, Proenneke used what was at hand to fashion a simple but comfortable life. It seems to me that Proenneke’s example can be followed by those of us who don’t live in the wilderness, that the creative, engaged, thrifty life is available to those who live in the country, the city, and even the suburbs.
As the population of the planet edges toward 8 billion, Proenneke’s lessons and wisdom are still relevant today.