Monday, August 22, 2011

Anne LaBastille, 1933-2011

Anne LaBastille often lived in a log cabin on Twitchell Lake without plumbing or electricity. Associated Press.

Anne LaBastille often lived in a log cabin on Twitchell Lake without plumbing or electricity. Associated Press.

By Paul Grondahl

With a rock star’s charisma, a movie star’s allure, and an environmental advocate’s passion, Anne LaBastille was a larger-than-life figure who tramped across the wild and wooly narrative of the Adirondacks with gusto. She stood just 5-foot-1 and weighed barely a hundred pounds, but she packed a wallop in the public imagination as a fearless woman who in some ways out-Thoreaued Thoreau. She lived alone in a small rustic cabin that she built, without electricity or plumbing, on Twitchell Lake near Old Forge. Her only companions were her beloved German shepherds and the cathedral of pines that enveloped her clean, well-lighted place. She wrote movingly about solitude and what it felt like to be one with nature.

To outsiders, her life seemed austere and simple, but she was a bundle of contradictions:  tough yet tender, naïve yet calculating, and repulsed yet attracted by the power of her celebrity. She spoke in a near-whisper, allowing her writing to do the shouting. She had few peers when it came to stubbornness. Still, she was admired for steadfastly fighting for the preservation of the natural world. Her appeal was broad and lasting, yet her footprint on the earth was light and fleeting. She found all the philosophy she needed in the still, crystalline waters of a mountain lake at dawn.

She wrote: “Sometimes I sit in my log cabin as in a cocoon sheltered by swaying spruces from the outside world. … Life seems to have no beginning and no ending. Only the steady expansion of trunk and root, the slow pileup of duff and debris, the lap of water before it becomes ice, the patter of raindrops before they turn to snowflakes.”

When LaBastille died on July 1 at age seventy-seven at an assisted-living facility in Plattsburgh after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, she was remembered by a legion of fans of her books, folks from across the state, the nation, and the world who saw her as an inspiring voice for women and the environment. To her Adirondack friends, though, her personality was overlaid with more complex truths. They spoke of a woman who worked tirelessly to promote the writing that supported her financially by creating a persona that ended up typecasting her in its folksy backwoods idiom. The “Woodswoman” role she played to the hilt had come to seem more like incarceration than freedom long before the slide toward the end—when dementia had robbed her memory, unmoored her on a current of paranoia, and sealed off all avenues to the fertile mind and fierce intellect that produced sixteen books, more than 150 magazine articles, and two dozen scientific papers.

“It’s hardly an exaggeration to call Anne the Carl Sagan of conservation,” said James Lassoie, a professor of conservation at Cornell University. He was a longtime colleague of LaBastille, who held a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Cornell and who taught there as an adjunct associate professor. “To many, she embodied the Adirondacks because she was able to communicate a feeling of concern and ownership to countless readers worldwide.”

Her outsize image left an indelible mark on a region that has produced more than its fair share of colorful characters, harmless eccentrics, and memorable misfits. The power of LaBastille’s myth had not been seen in the Adirondacks since the hermit Noah John Rondeau held court at his log hut in Cold River City in the 1940s. Decades after the 1976 publication of Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness, which launched her writing career and sold more than a hundred thousand copies, sacks of fan mail continued to arrive by boat at her remote cabin, forwarded from her publisher.

Smitten men drove long hours to see her, bearing trophy fish they had caught and wrapped in newspaper or wooden handicrafts they had carved. Some asked for LaBastille’s hand in marriage. She was, after all, a skinny-dipping, pink-lipsticked babe in Daisy Dukes who drove an old pickup truck and knew how to gut a brook trout, pitch a tent, and cook over an open fire.

“She was every outdoorsman’s fantasy,” said Joe Hackett, a guide and outdoors columnist for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise who had known LaBastille since the early 1980s. “She had her detractors, but that was professional jealousy from guys who liked to take potshots because she was a woman. There’s no question she was the most influential Adirondack guide of the twentieth century. ”

LaBastille was a charter member of the New York State Outdoor Guides Association when it was reorganized in 1981, nearly a century after its founding. She was among a few pioneering women who broke into the male-dominated field. She created envy among some of her fellow guides, with her Ivy League degrees and renown as a scientist, along with several books and a high-profile article on the Adirondacks in National Geographic to her credit. She received awards from numerous organizations, such as the World Wildlife Club and the Explorers Club, as well as honorary degrees from colleges. She was a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency, a post she held for seventeen years as she routinely took environmentalist positions that clashed with the agendas of snowmobilers and sportsmen.

“Being a woman in a man’s world was hard for her, to say the least,” said Doris Herwig, a close friend of LaBastille’s for more than fifty years and operator of Hayfield Tours in Queensbury. “She was strong, determined, knew her stuff, and was also thick-skinned. When she put her mind to something and wanted it, you better move aside. Her tenacity was remarkable.”

Even before she gained notoriety as a fierce defender of wilderness in the Adirondacks, she had spent years doing field research at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where she struggled to save the endangered giant grebes—a flightless and pied-billed bird. Beginning as a graduate student in the late 1950s, she used charm, political guile, and a relentless work ethic to save the big birds, which she chronicled in a 1990 book, Mama Poc. Her success in preserving the habitat of the birds from commercial development, unbridled tourism, and the cutting of reeds for baskets could not overcome an earthquake that opened up a fissure that caused the lake’s water levels to drop precipitously. As a result, the giant grebes became extinct.

“That was a profound setback for Anne, and she took it very hard because she had devoted her life to saving those birds,” recalled Dick Beamish, founder and chairman of the Adirondack Explorer and a close friend since the early 1970s. “Anne would never admit it, but she lived a rather lonely existence. She tried several times, but I don’t think she was cut out for living with other people long term. She became a loner.”

Unpopular pro-environment positions she took as an APA commissioner also contributed to her going it alone. “Her dedication to nature and protecting it was fierce,” Beamish said. “She was an arch-environmentalist to the end. No matter what, she took the position of protecting nature.”

Near the end of her APA tenure in 1993, after facing a rising chorus of haters and threats, a barn on her property in Westport burned down in a fire that was later ruled arson. “That shook her to the core. She wasn’t really the same after that because she was alone and she was a target,” Beamish said.

LaBastille was married once, early in her life and for only a few years, to C.V. “Major” Bowes, owner of Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake. He declined to be interviewed at length about LaBastille. “I had a lot of respect for her,” he said. “She was the one who got me interested in the environment.”

To those who knew her well, perhaps the biggest contradiction in LaBastille’s life was that she professed to crave solitude and to dislike signing books and giving talks, but she was tenacious when it came to setting up her own public appearances and building the Woodswoman brand.

“The fans just kept coming, and they all wanted to touch the hem of her garment,” recalled Betsy Folwell, a writer and creative director at Adirondack Life who watched LaBastille hold hundreds in thrall at public readings and writing workshops. “She was an Adirondack celebrity and truly one of a kind. Nobody can take that away from her.”

LaBastille had the marketing of her persona down to a science. She told a group of aspiring authors at an Adirondack Writing Center workshop at Silver Bay that she never went out in public without her dogs and a red-and-black flannel shirt. She role-played for her students about how they should approach chit-chat with a fan at a book signing. “She could really turn it on,” Folwell said.

On the other hand, she played fast and loose with her birth year and routinely tried to shave two or three years off her age even with friends. Her given name was Mariette Anne LaBastille. To detractors who nitpicked her about the facts—many said she was prone to embellishment—they were missing the point about what she was trying to sell: the notion of a lone woman surviving in the wilderness and doing it as well or better than most men could.

That’s why hundreds of women would queue up to ask her to sign one of the Woodswoman books or to snap a picture of the pigtailed, blond-haired effervescent woman. At the annual Author’s Night at Hoss’s Country Corner in Long Lake most of the wordsmiths would sit next to stacks of unsold books, feigning disinterest, while LaBastille’s corner was mobbed and she sold case after case.

“She had very high standards and would not compromise, which is laudable except that it leaves you lonely,” said Ellie Horwitz, retired chief of information and education for the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife and a friend since both were at Cornell in 1967. “She ended up having a hard time just being Anne instead of the role of the Woodswoman. The irony is that she taught so many of her readers how to conquer their fears, but she couldn’t come to grips with her own. It’s too bad more people didn’t know the real Anne.”

Born on Nov. 20, 1933, in Montclair, N.J., she was reared by parents considered brilliant and eccentric. Her father, Ferdinand Meyer LaBastille, was on the faculty at Columbia University. Her German-born mother, Irma Goebel, was a stage actress and musician.

Even toward the end of LaBastille’s life, when dementia set in and caused her to push away even her closest friends, there remained a grace and deep well of strength in her. Writer and guide Elizabeth Lee met LaBastille by chance at the post office in Westport four years ago, and a friendship blossomed. Lee helped LaBastille stack firewood and rake leaves at her farmhouse, and they talked as they worked. “She was brave and courageous despite her health problems,” Lee said. “I saw her age in two years as much as many people do in twenty. But self-sufficiency was a real value of hers, and she held onto it as long as she could.”

Lee visited LaBastille at the assisted-living center in Plattsburgh, where she pushed her in a wheelchair and listened to her stories when the words came. “She had memories of different people and places, and things were fuzzy, but she still had a sense of humor and sarcasm.”

Lee took LaBastille outside two days before she died. She longed to be in the fresh air and complained about being stuck inside. The two women ate strawberries in the sunshine, and LaBastille spoke about how she loved the smell of fresh basil in her garden.

“I came along at a time when she was really lonely and isolated, and I feel lucky I got to know her,” said Lee. “I was never interested in whether she embellished the facts or not. It’s part of a good guide’s job to spin a tale, after all. So what difference does it make?

 

2 Responses

  1. james fulginiti says:

    Anne and I exchanged mail for years ,she helped me through some rough times . I was a New York City Police Officer at the time and we became pen pals.She was coming to NYC to visit and was going to visit myself also but it never happen. She wrote me letters ,notes on napkins ,and never missed one letter I wrote her ,she would respond within a month and I don’t recall her address but it was after months of writing back and forth that she sent me an address other then the one everyone was using .Her response to my letters came quicker as hers to me.I was so lucky to be her friend and her mine ,I sent my book to her Woodswoman and she wrote me a note and signed it for me.What she wrote I will never reveal ,and it was spirtual in meaning nothing else. I just decided to look her up and sadly I see she has taken the journey , but I know we will meet sometime in the next life and atlast a handshake ,Rest in Peace Anne.

  2. Oregon Woodswoman says:

    Like so many others I was drawn to her books, not because of her living alone in the woods. I live alone in the real woods, but the key point for me, was being a woman alone, period. I am glad to read here that she had a friend at the end. We all need that.

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