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August 2011

Wordswoman

Anne LaBastille and her Adirondacks

At Cornell University Library’s Rare and Manuscript Collections the Anne LaBastille Papers includes eight feet of documents, with 43 folders of fan mail spanning almost four decades.

The bulk of those letters was written in the 1970s and ’80s, following the 1976 release of Woods­woman, LaBastille’s chronicle of life around her handmade cabin on Twitchell Lake near Big Moose. The book, still in print and distributed by a major publisher, has sold more than 100,000 copies in multiple languages—you can find one translated to Japanese at the Old Forge Public Library.

LaBastille was a smash. The young divorcée’s decision to go it alone in the mid-1960s in the Adirondack wilds empowered women who wanted to ditch their traditional roles. Men took notice too. In those years LaBastille, who wrote as breezily about swinging an ax as she did skinny-dipping, made woodcraft sexy during a time when Boy Scouts and lumberjacks dominated the scene. She had a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Cornell University; the savviness to earn a living from penning her experiences in publications like National Geographic, Backpacker and this magazine; and classic beauty that she marketed by filling pages of her work with her photographs—self-portraits, usually in her trademark blonde braids, camping, paddling, swimming, doing her daily tasks.

Though LaBastille was ad­mittedly reclusive, Isabella Wor­then, an Old Forge friend, re­mem­bers the writer’s charisma, ac­cessibility to her followers, her wil­l­ingness to make local appearances, in­struct workshops and support area school­kids. She says La­Ba­s­tille struggled to balance sharing her most personal thoughts on paper with her need for privacy. Sometimes Woods­wom­­an readers, after de­coding the whereabouts of her West of the Wind property, as she called it, on fictional Black Bear Lake (La­Bastille never named Twitch­­­ell), would float up uninvited. The Adirondack celeb­rity was cornered around town, when she shopped or pumped gas in her pickup or as she landed her boat at Twitchell’s public launch.

Some of LaBastille’s narratives reflected a cautiousness bordering on paranoia. In the 1977 Backpacker article “Across the Adirondacks” she recounted trekking the 132-mile North­ville-Placid Trail with her German shepherd Pitzi. During the journey the then-38-year-old licensed guide wondered if “any other women had ever hiked the NP Trail alone”; worried about meeting “a couple of tough men way back in the woods”; questioned what a fisherman had on his mind when she emerged from the woods in a wet bathing suit; remarked, after briefly sharing a lean-to with two teenage boys, that “it was plain to see they felt odd with a woman around.” She wrote, “They kept staring at me disapprovingly and then turning red-faced.” She closed with the revelation that from then on she “felt capable of going anywhere and meeting anyone on the trail.”

In the next issue, letters from a half-dozen readers slammed her for her distrust of men and fellow hikers, among other trail-etiquette faux pas. In much of her work LaBastille seems hyperaware of her gender, entwining it with her observations of the natural world, perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to her suburban upbringing that fo­cused on manners and dance classes—not the outdoors life. (LaBastille’s Adi­rondack pastimes of howling for wolves and swimming with loons were a childhood dream come true, says her friend Doris Herwig, of Queensbury.) Woods­wo­man and La­Bas­tille’s 1984 Wo­men in Wilderness, about fe­males in wild­erness-related professions, are often on the syllabi of university gender-studies programs. In the former, her description of hugging a monster white pine on her land and feeling “as though the tree was pouring its life-force into [her] body” has been dissected in ecocriticism texts and questioned by scientists, some troubled by an ecologist anthro­pomorphizing a subject.

Whatever folks’ intellectual take, La­Bastille was an effective environmental activist, bringing acid rain’s poisoning of Adirondack waters to the international stage. It’s when she shifted from spokeswoman to decision maker, as a commissioner for the Adi­rondack Park Agency (APA), the regional land-use planning office, that her opinions directly affected the park and its people. In one of her last interviews, in 2008, LaBastille told the reporter, “There was so much to learn. It was my second Ph.D.”

During her 17 years with the APA she voted from the heart, as an environmental purist, and was championed by the late Clarence Petty, a celebrated conservationist. But the pragmatic environmentalist community cringed at her oversimplified, seemingly naïve representation of fragile issues. Controversy ensued when LaBastille, who wintered at her Westport farm, Valley of the Kestrels, fought a farmer neighbor’s subdivision and, soon after, applied to subdivide her own property. One of her barns burned down; there was suspicion of arson.

The barn episode was “traumatic for her,” says Dr. Josh Schwartzberg, of Willsboro. “I don’t think she ever got over it.” Schwartzberg was friends with her during that time. “Anne was a sweet, gentle, warm person” who was “dedicated to the way she saw the world,” he says.

He remembers that she “worried a lot.” She had a sense that “the world was coming out of balance.” He adds, “She didn’t take to technology, with the speed of things. I think the trend of modern civilization made her unhappy.”

Nowadays it’s unrealistic to move a message and sell books one authors’ night at a time. It’s all about Facebook and Twitter—instant, constant connectedness. In her era, LaBastille, who shunned computers, was a whiz at branding, bringing her glamorous woodswoman self—plaid wool shirt, pigtails and frosted-pink lipstick—and, eventually, her four-part Woods­woman series to the people. Those who stood in line for a signature and a photo-op wanted a moment with the Adirondack icon who once wrote, “I share a feeling of continuity, contentment, and oneness with the natural world, with life itself, in my surroundings of tall pines, clear lakes, flying squirrels, trailless peaks, shy deer, clean air, bullfrogs, black flies, and trilliums.”

Today her name is all over the Internet—among bookworms, hikers, a group called RV ­Women. Comments are mostly from fans who write about their re­spect for her, who wonder where she’s gone. LaBastille has dementia; she’s now in a hospital in a city outside the Blue Line.

Imagine what a disease like that might mean—the gradual erasing of those you love. For LaBastille, one hopes the white pines she considered “among my closest friends” are still with her.

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