Cabin 135: A Memoir of Alaska
By Katie Eberhart. University of Alaska Press, 2020. 334 pages. $19.95.
In 1983 Katie Eberhart and her husband moved into a house near Palmer that had been built 48 years earlier for a farming family in the Matanuska Colony. Eberhart’s unusual memoir, a collage of short meditations about the history and renovations of that house, gardens and landscapes, and the passage of time, captures her curiosity about the world and her attentions to life’s connections. Instead of following a chronology, “Cabin 135” is shaped by juxtaposition, leaping in a never-dull way between places, times, and imaginings. Recurring headings such as “Cabin,” “Time,” “Earth,” and “Terrain” orient and refresh the reader at each turn.
The house itself plays a central role. It was built in 1935 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal resettlement project that brought 203 Midwestern families for fresh farming starts in Alaska’s agricultural heart. The cabin was home to four families before Eberhart and her husband purchased it. The original owners, who selected the property from among the colony’s offerings — tract No. 135 — as well as the log house plan, lived there for 20 years, a considerable time considering that more than half of the original colonists had left the Valley within five years. Over the years the house had been added to and changed out in various ways, just as the land around it was divided and reshaped.
The story of the Matanuska Colony, largely a failure as a social experiment, has been told elsewhere and is given minimal attention here. (A few sources are listed in the reference section.) Life as it must have been for the original inhabitants is suggested by discoveries of the original well and a dumping ground in the woods and from receipts found in a doorframe — in 1937 $1.40 for putty and $224 for livestock feed. The author is astonished that Henry LaRose paid $60 a ton for hay, and remarks that, since the feed purchases were made in April, the hay raised by the family hadn’t lasted the winter. Why were those receipts hidden inside the kitchen doorframe? Everhart speculates that perhaps LaRose had been “fuming about the cost of the imported hay” and “decided that this was a story that someone in the future needed to know. And he trusted the house to deliver the message.”
In several other “time” sections, the author imagines Henry’s wife Clystia in her new home, first receiving a sprout of lilac as a gift and digging a small hole for it beside the house, later smiling “as she stepped out the door on the south side of the cabin, only a dozen steps from the well. After hauling up a bucket of water and returning to her many tasks, she poured some onto the newly planted lilac.” Half a century later the enormous lilac is treasured and cared for by Eberhart.
Eberhart, who has degrees in geography and economics as well as a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, once worked for the State Division of Agriculture. Throughout her text, she pays considerable attention to landscape, plant life and seasonal change. In a section titled “Wind,” for example, she discusses the winter wind that flows from the Matanuska Glacier, “with an endless source of pulverized earth” and the summer wind, the Knik wind, that “rampages off glaciers and blusters along a river channel, lofting plumes of silt and grit that from a distance resemble a tornado tipped sideways.” Both winds drive silt into the house and are responsible for the area’s rich topsoil.
Eberhart follows the events of her garden and the surrounding forest through two time periods — seasons and years. In a “Forest” section, “I lay on my stomach between thorny rose stems and pale shoots of wild geraniums” to watch as “an orange-butted bumblebee buzzed past my face and plunked onto a tiny orchid that swayed beneath her weight. . . . The scene felt almost invisible, and it would have been for anyone who never ventures into the forest, or who doesn’t look down.”
The author’s world, though, is considerably larger than Cabin 135 and its environs. Her memoir ranges through both time and space — back to her childhood, into an imagined future, and on travels to Denali Park, the Arctic Coast, Iceland, Switzerland and the experimental Biosphere-2 in Arizona. The connective tissue is Eberhart’s curiosity about the natural world and the forces that shape human lives. As she puts it, “the stories I tell here root around in nature.”
In Iceland, for example, she wonders about the country’s lost forests and why, after generations, there had not been any effort to replant. On a visit to a relative in Switzerland, she hikes past a receding glacier “on ground worn bare by tromping” and later compares the experience to a solo hike in the Talkeetna Mountains, thinking “how we are laced into the wider frame of climate, geology, history, and settlement.”
That is exactly the gift of this lovely memoir — to carry readers into a very interesting, inquiring mind and show how, in the places that begin as home, our explorations can lead us outward into the wide world of wonderment and connectiveness.