Sunday, July 23, 2017

Woodswoman Then and Now

(My collection of Anne La Bastille books)

My friend, Karen, and I had plans to camp in mid-July, when I saw that the Adirondack Museum (now the Adirondack Experience) planned a day of events to celebrate the life of Anne La Bastille, the author of Woodswoman and many other books.  As fans of Anne's books and her lifestyle, Karen and I made a quick change to begin our trip one day earlier in order to go to the museum.

In preparation, I began to re-read Woodswoman, in which Anne begins a new life in her own log cabin on remote Twitchell Lake, far from roads, electricity, and running water, while she also creates a career in wildlife ecology.  I estimate that I read Woodswoman eight times in the 1980s and 90s, but had not read it in 15 or 20 years.

(My father with a heavy load going up a peak in, 1978)

With this current reading, I was initially surprised and disappointed in my sense that the book had aged along with me.  Published in 1976, Woodswoman was contemporary when I first read it.  My father and I were having many of the same experiences in the woods that Anne had.  We backpacked heavy loads over the peaks, camping on or near the summits, cooking over campfires, and drinking water from every stream, trusting its purity.  We knew that we would not see bald eagles or moose, or an abundance of alpine plants, which had been absent from the Adirondacks for many decades.

(My father drinks from a collapsible cup near Avalanche Lake, 1976)

Few people backpack over the tops of the mountains today, most doing day trips or camping at the trail's base.  Camping on high peaks' summits is illegal, as are campfires. Now, we fear giardia and purify any water we drink.  Bald eagles are common, and moose number in the hundreds.  Alpine flowers and vegetation have made the high summits even more beautiful. 

I realized that I had read the book so many times in my 20s, because I was in the Adirondacks so much less than I had been while growing up.  As a young mother, I went with Anne vicariously. I wished to see snow falling softly out of a cabin window, to swim at night under the stars, to see northern lights pulsate over an Adirondack lake, and to pitch my tent where other people were miles away.  In ensuing years, I have done all of those things, but I did not know then that I would have the opportunity later.  Did the decades since I had read Woodswoman indicate that I no longer needed Anne's words and had outgrown her landmark book?

I was half-way through my current re-reading, when Karen and I arrived at the museum before 11 a.m., the time of the first presentation on Anne's life.  Leslie Surprenant, the speaker, told us that, no matter how well we thought we knew Anne, we would learn something, and we did.

(Leslie Surprenant talks about Anne's ancestry)

Anne gives only brief mention of her parents in any of her books. Leslie told about her family over the generations and how different members contributed to who Anne became -- what she gained from them as well as what she chose to leave behind.  As a longtime friend of Anne, Leslie shared stories of Anne's devotion to breaking barriers for women in science, her eccentricities such as always wearing pink lipstick and pink toenail polish even while hiking Adirondack trails barefoot , her passion for the environment, and her love for her friends and her dogs.

The next presentation on the moving of Anne's cabin equally fascinated us.  One of the reasons for this day's celebration was the opening of a large new building at the museum, which included Anne's cabin. An Adirondack Experience spokesperson described how the cabin had been taken apart and moved piece by piece, with sleds and snowmobiles across Twitchell Lake's thick ice in subzero weather.

(The cabin now at the Adirondack Experience museum)

Photographs of the cabin, before the move, showed a place that seemed foreign to the picture I had in my mind of Anne's idyllic abode. Over the decades, Anne had added bits and pieces to the original structure to the extent that small metal roofs and sheds stuck out in every direction.  What had happened to the charming home she had originally built?  For the most part, time and a demanding career had made more space necessary, and Anne had hurriedly constructed new additions without concern for aesthetics.  As part of the presentation, we watched a video showing how the de-construction revealed the original 12x12 cabin that had been the focus of Anne's life in the woods.

(Anne's 12x12 space)

After the second presentation, Karen and I walked across the museum campus to see the cabin in its new home.  It was just as we imagined, with Anne's colorful rugs brought back from her consulting work in Guatemala, her writing desk in front of the window and rocking chair before the woodstove, her guitar,  the wooden bars she had nailed up the wall of bark-covered logs to reach her sleeping loft, and more.  We made sure to absorb the scene and to incorporate it into the visions we had carried from Anne's books over the years.

Karen and I perused other buildings and exhibits at the Adirondack Experience, and then went to nearby Lake Durant to set up our campsite and have dinner, returning to the museum for the evening presentation.

We were captivated by the information shared with us by a panel of experts, again including Leslie Surprenant, friend and executrix of Anne's estate, and also a woman from the Adirondack Park Agency, another from the Adirondack Center for Writing, someone from the Adirondack Experience museum, and a man representing the Department of Environmental Conservation.  The hour-long program explained important aspects of Anne's will and estate planning.  Panelists discussed decisions that had been made to best preserve the essence of Anne's intentions.

Anne donated a large portion of her estate to Cornell University, from which she had received her bachelor's and doctoral degrees.  In addition, Anne wanted her cabin and 32 acres to become a writer's retreat.  In her first year as executrix, Leslie tried to distill a plan for how to do this.  Restoring the cabin would be expensive, and what modern writer would want to live without electricity, running water, road access, or internet?

(The Adirondack Experience is a beautiful and interesting museum)

In a perfect-timing scenario, the Twitchell Lake Inn offered space for rent, a first in  its more than 100 year history. The Inn is a beautifully restored lodge on Twitchell Lake across from Anne's property.  The Adirondack Center for Writing secured the location for the Anne La Bastille Residency Program, in which six carefully selected writers would spend two weeks writing and sharing in creative camaraderie.

Leslie and others felt that this residency fulfilled Anne's desire to offer writers a retreat during which they would have the opportunity to focus on honing their craft. The dilemma of how to satisfy Anne's desire to protect her cabin and land remained.  The Adirondack Museum asked to have the cabin, beginning the process of disassembly.  It was determined that Anne's 32 acres should be donated to the adjacent New York State Forest Preserve.

While this all sounds cut-and-dry, establishing how to fulfill Anne's will was far from it. Each of the panelists gave us an understanding of the huge 6-year project Leslie has had to deal with.  Although a close friend of Anne's, Leslie never expected to have this task.  Now, almost completed, the results show her conscientious care over a myriad of minute details and complexity, which have created a legacy Anne would be proud of.

(Cedar River Flow)

Karen and I spent the next day paddling the Cedar River Flow and thinking about our time at the museum.  The Flow and the Cedar River are wild and beautiful, with mountains rising from every side.  We reveled in the solitude and quiet.  We thought of Anne in her canoe, as we watched a bald eagle, loons, herons, and osprey. 

In the evening, I continued my reading of Woodswoman.  I came to the chapter "Animal Visitors," and was struck by its timelessness, as Anne described the call of loons, hearing an owl from her sleeping loft, being harassed by a nesting goshawk and kept awake by mice.  Perhaps I had been premature in thinking that Woodswoman showed its age.

(Karen, the only person I see on the Flow)

I was fascinated when I re-read her conversation with a ranger who spoke about overuse and erosion of trails in the Adirondack high peaks and the need for a permit system -- in 1972!  Their conversation could occur today.  Anne worried about motor boats disturbing the nests of loons, and we fight for non-motorized ponds in 2017.  Her battles against acid rain in the Adirondacks continue and were a prelude to the changes occurring from climate change right now.

Finishing my re-reading of Woodswoman, I looked back with affection at the details I had considered historical rather than timely.  As with Anne's will, all of the specifics could no longer apply as Anne envisioned them, but the essence is loud and clear.  Woodswoman remains an important and wonderful part of Anne La Bastille's ongoing inspiration and legacy.

(Anne La Bastille, Guilderland Library, 1993)

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