Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Paperback: 256 pages
• Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)
• Price: $15.95
• ISBN-10: 0393320596
• ISBN-13: 978-0393320596
My last page read in Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness, I immediately picked up Woodswoman II: Beyond Black Bear Lake. This hasn’t been a story I’ve wanted to put down. Anne LaBastille’s ongoing autobiography has followed lines too closely to my “retirement” plans north to upper Michigan for me to miss, and I have found inspiration, motivation, and quite a bit of education, and not a little forewarning in reading about her experiences as a woman living alone in the woods.
This second in a series does a quick recap of how LaBastille’s adventure began. After a divorce, LaBastille decided to build her own cabin in the Adirondack wilderness, making her living as a freelance writer and ecologist. This book begins with her growing problem with intruders and overly ardent fans. With several books by now published, many articles, and an increasing number of academic lectures and speaking tours, her need for solitude and seclusion is coming under (mostly) friendly attack. Fan mail comes by the bag full, phone calls await at a neighboring camp (LaBastille’s cabin has no electricity and no phone line), and a stunning number of fans search her out in the woods, even though she has carefully avoided naming her exact location, using fictional names for landmarks and lakes. Some pursue her for years until tracking her down. LaBastille is horrified, and eventually forced into building a second, more remote cabin that she calls Thoreau II, crediting Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond.
“What do such visitors and callers hope to find when they search out the Woodswoman? I still don’t know exactly, but I’m sure America is lonely. Americans are looking for identities. They want to attach themselves to authors, singers, actors, and TV stars. These searchers have fantasies. They need to sublimate to enrich their lives. They want to talk. Many are under the impression that I have nothing to do … They don’t know about the grueling self-discipline and constant juggling of time that being a freelance writer and ecological consultant entails … As I see it, the problem is one of boundaries—the delicate line between social contact and solitude. Some people respect privacy; others don’t. Europeans seem much more courteous about such matters than Americans. By my willingness to write about my life, I’ve created a two-edged sword. My readers nourish me through sales, yet they threaten to devour me with overattention.”
LaBastille struggles to be kind and accommodating, while preserving her lifestyle and juggling her work. Finally, she must retreat. Duplicating Thoreau’s cabin, she finds a spot much deeper into the woods, much more difficult to reach, requiring treks across land as well as water, and over a couple year’s time, builds a second, much smaller cabin. This one is only about 100 square feet (the original, called West of the Wind, is around 400 square feet), the size of a walk-in closet for some, but all that she requires. She still balances time between her two cabins, depending on obligations and needs.
Another natural outgrowth of LaBastille’s life in the wilderness is her role in protecting it. Her education is in ecology (a PhD from Cornell University), and she becomes a board member of the Adirondack Park Agency, helping to regulate the goings on in the area. She watches with horror as the population around the lake grows, and with it, pollution, including noise pollution. Vehicles abound, on land and on water, and they all make a roar. Large boats toss her canoe in their wake. And all that pollution ends up in the air, too, where it becomes acid rain, coming back down to raise the pH-levels of the water and the soil. A valuable section of this book is devoted to explaining acid rain and its devastation. Lakes that appear pure are actually dead, as fish die out and plants no longer thrive. Not all of the book’s adventures take place in the Adirondacks, as LaBastille writes about trips abroad to expand her research, including a visit to the Baltic Sea. There, she learns what the Scandinavians understood long ago: acid rain is destroying even the most pristine areas, seemingly wilderness, but far from immune to the pollution produced by humankind.
Whereas this memoir begins as a love story between woman and wilderness, it now also becomes a wakeup call to its readers to be aware of what our more “civilized” lifestyles are doing to the earth that sustains us. As the author fights the good fight, she gains enemies around the lake among those who come for recreation and care little about the consequences. She finds the gas lines cut on her boat, and others threaten her. On the other hand, her efforts to protect the park from becoming a deposit area for nuclear waste are successful. One woman can indeed make a difference.
Career rising and gathering speed, LaBastille increasingly needs her time at the more remote of her two cabins. Her dog, Pitzi, is always beside her. Alas, life cycles conclude, and the death of her loyal friend is a moving chapter. Back to fun is her introduction to a new German Sheppard pup, Condor, and later, Condor’s offspring, Chekika.
Other risks of wilderness living arise, too. No more, possibly less, than they do living anywhere else. LaBastille must deal with chemical burns to her eyes when she drops a bag of cement down too hard and raises a cloud of cement dust (this, however, leads to a pleasing and enduring romance with Doctor Mike, another independent type who is just as devoted to his medical work as she is to her ecological work). Or falling into a lake with a running chainsaw. Or new batteries, sold by mistake as the wrong size, giving out in the middle of a very dark forest, very far from home.
Along with the risks come human stories that are the same no matter where one lives: of relationships taking shape, of progressing age, and of the moment one has to say a final farewell to a dear old friend. Whether intending to or not, LaBastille makes a good argument for the individual’s right to determine one’s own death with dignity, rather than being kept indefinitely on life support. She cites her own worst nightmare as being afflicted by some progressive disease of mental deterioration, and one reads this wincing, as latest news seems to be that the author has succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.
So much more reason to live the life one chooses, fully, with gusto, holding nothing back. We only have this one, and to live it with courage, as this woodswoman does, surely makes sense in an ever more senseless world. When considering the roads not taken—of a life more conventional and traditional for contemporary women, of marriage, office career, and broods of children, LaBastille writes:
“Why do I continue to bumble through the woods at night on mushy snow? Carry impossible loads by backpack and canoe? Go for backcountry saunters rather than shopping mall sprees? Cut and split firewood instead of turning up a thermostat? Build a little cabin to write at instead of buying a condo to relax in?
Perhaps it’s because the world around me seems to be so complex and materialistic. It’s my small rebellion to keep myself in pioneerlike fitness, to promote creativity, and to maintain a sense of adventure in my life. It’s also my desire to exist in tune with sound ecological and ethical principles—that is, ‘small is beautiful,’ and ‘simplicity is best.’”
“Actually, I believe it would be much harder for a small-town woman to go to a city to pursue a career as a surgeon, TV anchorwoman, or stock analyst than to become a woodswoman. For me, the urban habitat and atmosphere would be far harder to deal with emotionally and much more dangerous physically than the wilderness … as for marriage, I don’t think it would work for me now. I’ve gradually had a 180-degree change of attitude toward matrimony. Much as I adore Mike, I enjoy being single. It feels right."
LaBastille seems to have found her niche. As long as she has her pocket of privacy and peace, she writes, she can handle whatever life hands her. I look forward eagerly to reading Woodswoman III.