The private lives of the Adirondacks' most public figure
by James Howard Kunstler
AN OCTOBER GALE raked the lake whose true identity cannot be revealed, a small open motorboat plied toward the vacant public dock. Two German shepherds the size of timber wolves stood in the prow, snouts to the wind, while a tiny woman in a yellow rain suit huddled in the stern and guided the battered aluminum craft to a soft landing. Anne LaBastille pushed back the hood of her rainsuit. Despite the inclemency of the day and the vicissitudes of the years, she looked prettier than she appears in her photographs.
She has been a fixture in these mountains for more than 20 years, and something of a self-made legend since the publication of her first book, Woodswoman, in 1976. Fame also brought certain inconveniences. Her privacy was compromised and critics took potshots at her. (A detractor in Blue Mountain Lake dubbed her “Condo-woman” because she spent several winters in Lake George and Florida condominiums.)
But the sniping can’t obscure her real achievements — four books, a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Cornell, hundreds of magazine articles, including important pieces for National Geographic on acid rain and Central America, a commissioner’s seat at the Adirondack Park Agency, and the creation of a singular way of life dedicated to treading lightly on the planet.
I climbed aboard the launch and soon we were motoring along the shoreline of “Black Bear Lake,” as she dubbed it in her two autobiographical titles. Ten minutes later we pulled up to her dock. Nestled among the conifers was her little cabin, “West of the Wind,” begun in 1966. I was surprised to see a half-dozen other houses so close across the water from her place. She said they were summer camps, unoccupied the rest of the year, but their brooding presence suggested that this was not pristine wilderness.
There is a sun deck now in the spot where the cabin was originally built—the whole damn thing had to be winched 12 feet further back from the shoreline because of a covenant in the deed, which, in youthful high spirits 22 years ago, LaBastille had not bothered to read carefully. The cabin has been improved over the years. What used to be open porches at both ends are now glassed-in. But compared to even the smallest suburban box her home is tiny. The main room—used as both an office and parlor—is 12-by-12 feet. The door lintels were built at five feet and four inches, just her height. (I whacked my head more than once.) She sleeps in a loft up under the gable end, in a space not much larger than her double mattress.
There is still no electricity at “West of the Wind.” Anne depends on kerosene lamps and flashlights. Her stove and refrigerator run off bottled gas—she ferries in the cannisters. Her water is pumped from the lake to a holding tank above the cabin and feeds down by gravity. She packs her trash out. The hygiene system is still a basic outhouse up the woodland path, in the shadow of a gigantic white pine that she likes to contemplate from the seat within. The biggest change since Woodswoman is that Anne has acquired a telephone. Since she absolutely depends on writing and lecturing for a livelihood, being out of contact with the rest of the world eventually proved untenable.
After the raw and blustery boat ride, Anne urged me inside and put on the tea kettle. A fire burned in the Franklin stove that stood in one corner of the main room. The walls were decorated with bright Latin American tapestries from her many research trips to Guatemala and the Amazon. Racks of antlers hung along the walls and a variety of animal pelts were also on display. Some of them were road-kill, picked up along the mountain highways.
The black bearskin draped over the back of her desk chair came from a young male that Anne shot when it threatened to attack her first dog, Pitzi (who was later killed by an automobile). Perhaps to further justify the act, she ended up using every last scrap of the bear, ate his meat (“It tasted like roast beef”), and made a necklace of his claws. Hanging from the wall beside her desk is the pelt of Mapuche, the silver fox she rescued from the Cornell Veterinary School lab. It had been used in the control group of a rabies experiment and, though not infected, was going to be destroyed anyway. She brought it here and tried to reintroduce it to the wild. Mapuche was shot by a local family who saw the fox skulking around a pen of rabbits they kept for the kids. A trapper took the skin back to Anne, memento of a sad lesson in wildlife management.
Nowadays, Anne makes it a point not to tame wild animals. She feeds only the birds, because it is such a pleasure to watch them through the window, and, unlike the bears and raccoons, they do not try to invade her cabin and tear things apart. Porcupines remain a constant menace to her two dogs, Condor and Chekika. Only the deermice are allowed to coexist inside “West of the Wind.”
Her reputation as a public figure is many-sided and not without controversy: there is the woodswoman, rugged lady of the back-country who courts danger and loves skinny-dipping; there is the scientist who aids the worldwide effort to protect wildlife; there is the professional journalist who struggles to make a living; the political appointee with a big say about who gets to build what in the Adirondacks; and finally there is the single woman nearing fifty who obsessively guards whatever private life remains after the books, the lectures, the magazine articles, the newspaper interviews and the TV appearances have worked their remorseless hoodoo on her own sense of self.
“Most of her detractors are people who think she hustles too much, and these are all people who have salaries, who
never had to live off their wits like Anne does,” said one former colleague, Jonathan Fairbanks, who ran the Skidmore College wilderness workshop in the 1970s and now teaches at Marlboro College in Vermont. He gives her high marks for her skills as a guide. “She didn’t approach anything casually. She was thorough and conscientious and always reconnoitered an area before she led a group through. She also managed to keep her femininity in a masculine world. She’s worked hard for everything.”
In her role as a commissioner of the APA, Anne LaBastille gets mixed reviews. “We have these crazy laws that are so impossible for even a lawyer to understand that the little guy often makes mistakes accidentally. She’s very sympathetic to the little guy,” said one APA insider who asked not to be named. “What flows from that is that in some cases she’s soft on enforcement. She has a great tendency to see everyone as the little guy.”
“My impression was that she was quite an active participant,” said John Wargo, now a faculty member of the Yale School of Forestry, who worked with Anne on the APA in the ’70s. “She was always extraordinarily interested—as opposed to somebody who just showed up unprepared—and she was commonly a focal point for environmental issues.”
But it is probably as an inspirational leader for women that Anne LaBastille had the broadest impact.
“She was a very competent and stimulating leader, but not in a loud, boisterous way, never gung ho,” said Lorraine Vitale, who also worked in the Skidmore Wilderness program.
“She’s strong, she’s very independent, yet she’s feminine, and in that sense she’s been a real role model for women who are struggling,” said John Wargo.
“She’s sometimes not the friendliest person when it doesn’t suit her purposes,” a neighbor from Black Bear Lake told me, wishing to remain anonymous.
WE BEGAN THE INTERVIEW in the small but surprisingly well-equipped kitchen, bright with red and blue enameled steel tableware. Anne rustled up a lunch of roasted chicken, butternut squash baked with maple syrup, and a home-made chocolate-maple-raisin cake.
What was the subject of your Ph.D.?
A bird, the giant grebe of Guatemala: Podilymbus gigas.
What was so special about it?
It’s endemic to one lake in the world, can’t fly and it can’t walk. So, it was a pretty unique thing to study. Over the years while I did my thesis on it, I started a conservation campaign to try and save it, because they put largemouth bass in the lake, which ate all the little fish that the grebes and the people used to eat. The bass are still there and things are still bad. There were a lot of other circumstances that happened to destroy the habitat, and destroy the birds. I declared them extinct last November . My next book is going to be about the process of extinction and all the tragedy involved in it. I hope people don’t consider this just a Central American book. The point I’m trying to make is that this is happening to animals all through the world. And whether it’s grebes or gorillas, or Dian Fossey’s work, or chimpanzees, or what have you, it doesn’t matter because we are impoverishing our world at a great rate. This is how it happens.
Does it frighten you?
It sure does, because it’s getting worse all the time, and it’s happening so fast that I don’t think we have much hope.
I think that people are going to have to accept a cut in the standard of living in order to begin solving the problem.
Do you know anyone who’s willing to do that?
How do you feel about the current political picture in respect to these environmental problems?
Look, my lake is dead. I just had to cut down the second-to-last of the 16 virgin red spruces that were around this cabin when I built it 22 years ago. It really broke my heart to cut it down—180 years old and 80 feet tall and dead from acid rain!—and I’m not going to be alive to see that tree come back. Nobody asked me, “You mind if I kill all your trees?” If some President would get busy and pass a Clean Air Amendment and make these factories and cars clean up their exhaust, these things might not happen.
Does it depress you to that degree that you ever think of leaving this area?
I couldn’t because I love it so much. And I don’t know any other place where we have the kind of controls that the Adirondack Park has against development.
Some people are saying that they’re not adequate enough.
True, but they’re better than anywhere else in the country.
Where are the weaknesses?
I don’t think our intensity guidelines are strong enough. I don’t think our shoreline restrictions are firm enough. The laws about cutting shoreline vegetation should be stronger. And right now our weakest link is that we don’t have enforcement. We have two men for the entire six-million-acre park, and it’s a farce. People can get away with murder.
When was it that you first began noticing the acidification of your lake?
About ten years ago, the fish started decreasing. It used to be classic brook-trout fishing. We had fewer and fewer fish and couldn’t understand why, and we got some old records that showed the pH had been 6.5 in the 1930s. I got a pH meter and started taking measurements, and it was terrible, down to 4.5, 4.2. I remember one Christmas I was here and it rained, all the snow melted and the ice was kind of mushy, and the pools of water lying on the lake were 3.9. Then the trees started dying. The tree die-back begins from the top down, and the root hairs are killed, and the tree literally thirsts to death.
What about the state’s response to the problem?
The state’s wonderful. They’re the only people who have done anything. New York was the first state to pass an Acid Deposition Act, in 1984, and I’m proud that our government did that. A few other states have followed, but not the whole country.
How about federal government’s response?
Lee Thomas, the head of the EPA, and a bunch of congressmen were all standing around after he took a helicopter ride in August 1985—the DEC took him on a trip all through the High Peaks, and showed him the devastation to spruce at the high elevations, and acidified lakes. He was up for over an hour, and he said something like, “The devastation was much worse than I imagined; we’ll have to do something about this.” And it’s been absolutely zero. They claim it needs further study.
Anything you ever wanted to know about acid rain has been studied by the Scandinavians, impeccably, beautifully.
What’s next after fish and trees go?
Probably my stomach. I don’t know what’s in the water. Aluminum. We know that mercury is released from the soil from the acid rain action. I drink that water day after day after day. The beavers don’t seem too affected, though it would be interesting to do some research on their tooth enamel and fur.
Is there any niche in the chain of living organisms where acid rain has not had a bad effect?
Probably there are very few species that aren’t being af fected in some way. They all have different tolerances. My red spruces are dead, but the beeches and hemlocks are all right. Only how do we know that in years their tolerance won’t break down too? How do we know the deer aren’t being affected? They’ve done research in Poland on deer that live downwind from the Cracow steel mills, and found their antler growth was diminished, and that the does were having malformed fawns because their caicium metabolism was upset. If you can find it in Poland in roe deer, why not here?
AFTER LUNCH WE RETIRED to the other room to sit by the stove. I was hoping to capture something of Anne’s personal side in this less formal setting. She was determinedly reticent about whole areas of her private life. It seemed ironic to me, insofar as her books focus so much on her own emotional responses to the wilderness—sometimes to an exhibitionistic degree. I had been able to piece together this much about her personal history, partly from her own books:
Anne LaBastille was born in suburban New Jersey. Her mother was a concert pianist, father a language professor. Both are dead. She has no other close living relatives. She first came to the Adirondacks as a teenager in the early ’60s to work a summer job as a horseback riding instructor at a small resort. At twenty, she married her boss, a man nearly twice her age. The marriage was troubled. She felt completely dominated, unable to be herself. Within a few years she left to make a life that was all her own.
Looking back, what’s changed for you in the last 20 years?
I came here as what I considered to be a poor, divorced, end-of-the-road woman. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t have a Ph.D. yet. I knew I wanted to live in the woods, but I thought my life had lost all meaning.
What do you think when you look back on that person?
I feel sorry for her.
What was her problem?
Lack of confidence.
Was there a particular moment or day when you felt you finally got a grip on your life again?
No, it just came gradually. But now, today, I’m full of optimism about myself and what I can accomplish. I’m not optimistic about the state of the world—global warming, pollution, no birth control, deforestation, etc. I don’t see a happy ending to that scenario. But on the personal level, I feel very upbeat about my life, and what I can do maybe to change those trends, and, if not that, at least to help a lot of people to get on with their lives. Since Woodswoman came out, I get dozens and dozens of letters from women who are divorced, or whose husbands have died, and who are suddenly deciding to have careers in their forties and fifties: ‘How did you do it?’ ‘Is there hope for me?’ I always write back and try to encourage them.
Were there many years when you worried desperately about money?
Oh, sure. I gleaned whatever I could. Road-kill deer, raccoon. That first year I think I made $3,000. After I had my degree, I always knew I could go out and get a job. I should be in Washington, D.C. working—who knows?—the World Wildlife Fund, making big bucks, but I don’t think I could stand it there.
What else has made a difference?
Being asked to join the APA. Before that happened I was just one little person with 20 acres of land. But now I feel like I’ve made this enormous leap. I’m sitting as chairman of the operations committee. I have to pass on every single application that comes in, anybody who wants to develop—subdivisions, condos, hotels, I have a lot to say about this six-million-acre park.
What kind of development bothers you most?
The kind that big corporate land developers are doing. They buy big acreages in the back country—100 acres and more—that have been totally open space and had nothing on it, and they divide it into long, skinny, spaghetti-type lots.
People might want to know why the APA can’t strengthen its rules?
We can’t. That’s the whole point. What [the developers] are doing is absolutely legal. The APA was not prepared for this when it was founded.
Is there a conflict between the APA and the local people who depend on a development for construction jobs, et cetera? Aren’t they in favor, in many cases, of development schemes that the APA would be against?
I guess I’m very cynical about the income of most people up here. I know too many people on unemployment, on welfare, who don’t need to be. If I were to try to find someone to come up here and help me do carpentry, or be a typist—and I’ve tried to find a good typist in this area—they wouldn’t be interested. Nobody wants to work. They do their 20 weeks in the summer and go on unemployment, and I don’t think that’s right. There’s plenty of work for people around here if they would want to work, but I know from personal experience too many people who refuse to work because they’d rather take the easy way. Therefore, it follows that having a lot of development come in is not the answer to the employment problem.
The whole issue of self-sufficiency seems very important to your world-view.
Yes, I think everybody should take care of themselves and not borrow money, and not have to go to the government for money.
IT HAD FINALLY STOPPED raining. Anne suggested a tour of her property, though I sensed that she mainly wanted to get some fresh air and take a break from the questions. She led me around to see her little stretch of sandy beach, her water tank, the two nearby lean-tos she built for passing hot summer nights (and stowing guests), and finally the last of the 16 virgin red spruces that once surrounded “West of the Wind.”
She had ferried in 500 pounds of lime and 200 pounds of fertilizer in an effort to save the tree, but to no avail. There seemed about Anne an air of abiding, inconsolable sadness that she had only fractionally revealed so far. I was anxious to try to get to the heart of it, so we went back inside the cabin one last time.
Solitude is obviously very important to you. Has that changed over the years?
No, I need it more. I’m not against people, I have many close friends, and I invite a lot of people up here. But I don’t like rude people, or noisy people, or insensitive people who don’t think or wonder. I like to talk about big issues, not gossip.
Are there different kinds of solitude for you?
There’s the solitude I need when I write. I go up to my ‘baby’ cabin [Lilypad Pond] for an hour or two and it’s like somebody took a big cover off my head, and all of a sudden I can hardly not write. It’s getting away from the phone and the mail and all the pressures. It’s completely still and nobody knows where I am. That’s one kind: creative solitude. Then there’s the solitude I feel when I sit on the dock—especially this time of the year, when there’s nobody on the whole lake at all. It’s so peaceful. Just yesterday a deer swam right across the lake. I couldn’t believe it. That’s the solitude of wilderness.
How about the solitude of a stormy night?
That’s spooky. I worry about trees falling on the cabin. Or fires starting.
Any irrational fears?
I don’t think so. Except my book is out in so many places, I think, ‘What if some nut in the city reading it gets a crazy idea to come up here and harass me?’
You still keep shooting irons deployed around the cabin?
Anything you regret about the way this life of yours has worked out? Anything you’d do differently?
I wouldn’t go back a year, or a day. I don’t want to sound braggy. I just feel I’m so lucky because I do such interesting things, and everything makes me feel more competent, and that I’m doing something worthwhile. I know so many people who are just dragging around from day-to-day. They don’t like what they’re doing, they don’t have any goal or purpose. I never want to stop working. I can’t believe in retirement. I just think I’ll do what I’m doing until I drop dead.
What sort of critter was this [an animal pelt hanging close at hand]?
That’s Mapuche, my silver fox. Isn’t it a little morbid to hang the pelt of a dead pet next to your typewriter? I like it because I can think of him and touch him. This [a long iridescent feather hanging above the window] is from the National Geographic article on the quetzal, the tailfeather from the male, 48 inches long. It’s endangered. They’re cutting down the cloud forest like mad for crops and lumber. Everything I’ve ever touched is endangered: grebes, the quetzals, the Amazon rain forest, the Adirondacks. Sometimes I look at the world and I say, ‘Wow, it’s closing in. These animals! These ecosystems!’ So I get to wondering sometimes, am I going to end up just sitting in this little cabin feeling hemmed in by this holocaust?
You’re kind of at the end of the road up here, aren’t you?
What better place to be if the whole world is going to end.