The Materials at Hand

The possibility of a log cabin

I picked up a book from my friend’s coffee table. It was about building styles from around the world and I flicked through it, barely looking at the pages, while I waited for him to come back with our drinks. And then I saw it, a cabin of grey, notched logs sitting in a field somewhere remote. It was the start of what has been a five-year daydream, the possibility of a log cabin.

Log cabins have their roots in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. In these places with their bitter winters and their forests of tall straight coniferous trees, it was the ideal method for quickly building something that would keep the cold out. Only simple tools were needed and they could be built with the materials at hand. Even screws and nails were unnecessary.

As Finns and Swedes settled in North America they brought log construction with them, and the design spread. Hundreds were built across the continent. Abraham Lincoln was born in one. They gained their reputation as a building of the frontier, a symbol of freedom and self-reliance. All those things that could make them still seem an alluring prospect to a New Zealander a hundred and something years later.

In addition to Lincoln, six other US presidents spent their early years in log cabins. Other log home inhabitants have included country singer, Patsy cline; and gonzo journalist, Hunter S Thompson, but it’s a man named Dick Proenneke who really sums up the dream of these simple dwellings. In 1968 Proenneke retired early from his job as a diesel mechanic and with his modest savings, travelled to the remote valley of Twin Lakes in Alaska where he built a spruce cabin from the logs he felled and dressed the summer before. Among his supplies, was a Bolex film camera and he filmed hundreds of hours of footage of the lake, the wildlife, as well as his efforts to survive. The footage of him building his cabin is a master class in log construction. With an axe he quickly carves out wooden handles for his tools, and it’s mesmerising, almost meditative to watch this small but iron limbed man go about his work. He carves out the notches in his logs, and lifts each into place. He rips planks for his door and even builds a wooden lock. Proenneke would live in his cabin for the next forty years, making do on the food he could forage as well as a few air dropped supplies.

New Zealand doesn’t have the log cabin tradition of North America or Scandinavia, but we don’t lack enthusiasts. A Log Builders Association was founded in 1982 following a visit by Canadian expert Allan Mackie. (Like many log cabin characters, Mackie was another true individual, a paratrooper, forest ranger, sailor, and artist as well as a log building expert). The Association is still going strong, holding classes each year to share techniques with enthusiasts. What’s more they are based in Masterton, just down the road from where I now live. Plenty of fuel for a busy day’s dreaming about a pile of logs, an axe and a field somewhere remote, the possibility of a log cabin.