Not The Target Market

We Took to the Woods

In We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich, lets us in on her life in the Rangeley area of Maine during the years 1933 – 1942.  Louise is the quintessential outsider turned insider, and she writes for all the rest of us outsiders by answering a series of questions laid out in the chapter titles such as “But How Do You Make a Living?”, “Isn’t Housekeeping Difficult?”, “Don’t You Ever Get Bored?” or “Don’t You Get Awfully Out of Touch?”  Her style is breezy and fairly informal, as if she is giving a talk rather than writing a book.  She sees the humorous side to most things and presents it with a dry, understated voice.  If you don’t actually laugh out loud, you will definitely smile and nod as she takes us deep inside daily life in “The Woods.”

Louise writes: During most of my adolescence – specifically, between the time when I gave up wanting to be a brakeman on freight train and the time when I definitely decided to become an English teacher – I said when asked what I was going to do with my life that I was going to live alone in a cabin in the Maine woods and write.  

It took her awhile to realize she was doing just that …as I had been so busy coping with the situation that I hadn’t even realized that I was living my old dream.

Her household consists of her husband, Ralph, their son Rufus (who was born earlier than expected and with only Ralph in attendance, except that he was at that exact birth moment trying to boil some water), and their “hired help”, but more like close family friend, Gerrish.  As both Louise and Ralph were ardent animal lovers, there were also numerous four-legged family members, including at one time, Rollo, an orphaned baby skunk.

Here is her description of the family cat:

He is big and tough and mean, and he’d as soon as not fight the whole family at once.  His idea of an average day is to get up at noon, trounce the dog for looking at him, go out and chase a deer away from the clearing and set out the two miles for Middle Dam, there to visit with his girl, the Millers’ cat, after half murdering her other three suitors.  Then he comes home, looking so smug you could shoot him on sight, and sleeps until noon the next day.

And one of the dogs:

Kyak, though we love him dearly, we have to admit is strictly an Art Dog.  His grandmother was with Admiral Byrd at the South Pole, and his great grandfather helped carry the serum to Nome.  If they could see him, they’d turn in their graves.  He is very good example of the Siberian husky …but he is completely non-functional.  Try to put a harness on him, and he will lie down with all four feet in the air.

And of trying to get Rollo, the orphaned baby skunk, fed when they first found him:

Cookie, Kyak’s mother and the best dog we ever had, was our dog of the moment. … Kyak and the other pubs were a couple of weeks old, and we were still keeping them in a pen in the corner of the kitchen, where they’d be warm and where Cookie could reach them easily.  While we were debating the skunk commissary question, she came in to dispense the evening meal to her family.  That seemed to be the answer.  We found an unoccupied nipple, told Cookie everything was under control, and added Rollo to the roster.  She looked a little startled, but being the dog she was, took our word for it that the situation was entirely ‘comme il faut.’

Cookie was willing, and Rollo had the right idea, but a husky is built on a somewhat grander scale than a skunk, so it wouldn’t work.

Rollo was eventually fed, and then grew up thinking he was a husky.  In reading about the mayhem when the other husky pups played with him, you don’t know whether to laugh or just stare wide-eyed at the page.

Louise is equally good at describing the kinds of things you would expect to find in a book about the Maine woods – fishing trips, berry picking, outhouses, town meetings, salt pork and beans, being stuck with dwindling supplies during “ice out,” and the Hurricane of 1938, along with things you might not have thought of – their four cars (when there are no roads,) their summer and winter houses, the woods telephone with its loosely strung wires which are at the mercy of moose and storms, how Santa delivers presents when the ice is late in forming, and Ralph’s work as a surveyor’s rodman when a porcupine fell out of a tree and missed his head by inches.

Endpaper map from the 1942 edition showing the book’s setting

Louise makes it very clear she has no love for housekeeping; she would rather be fishing.  At the same time, she recognizes that whatever housekeeping needs to be done falls to her lot.  In a futile effort to introduce some order into a house with little in the way of storage, and men who want to leave all their projects and all the things they might possibly need for those projects, in plain sight, Louise introduced me to a term, which, despite my long New England lineage, I had not heard before:  the culch corner.  Culch is the New England word for that clutter of partly worn out or obsolete objects that always gathers, like moss, on a non-rolling household. 

And she describes her “culch corner” this way:

This is a sort of extra-territorial ground for junk.  Anything that’s been put in the culch corner – a wide corner shelf with a box on it – I can’t touch, much as my fingers may itch to pitch it out.  There’s everything there – old bolts, old wrought-iron cut nails, bits of unrelated metal, old wool, wiping rags, coffee cans, broken hack saw blades, a divorced work glove or two, parts of a dog team harness, lengths of fish line, a coil or two of synthetic gut leaders (known woodswise as “sympathetic gut”), and some old wooden wedges.  It’s a mess, but it’s better to have this one big mess in a corner of the kitchen than a patina of messiness spread all over the house.”

Even taking the culch and the outhouse out back into consideration (it is a supreme test of fortitude to leave the warmth of the fire and go plunging out into the cold, no matter how great the necessity), it is obvious throughout the whole book that Louise knows she is living in the best place in the world, and wouldn’t trade places with anyone, not even for a million dollars.  What’s more, she does such a good selling this belief, that even those of us who know we would be utter failures at coping with life in the deep woods, are mighty tempted to give it a try.  Maybe.

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