In her new book of essays, At the End of the Road, Ruth Mary Lamb reflects on her experiences living in a remote valley west of Lake George. In 1990 she and her husband, Sandy, left their busy life in Boston to live in a ramshackle farmhouse they dubbed Journey’s End.
Ours was a reverse migration: from easy living to pioneering. We looked forward to problem-solving without electric or phone lines, using primitive plumbing, and harvesting enough firewood from our 160 acres to keep warm in winter. We would put in gardens and try living simply. Most of all, we hankered to observe the network of creatures and plants already in place at Journey’s End without disturbing their lives any more than necessary.
The Lambs moved to the Adirondacks in 1990 after their retirement (Sandy had been director of the Boston Health Department; Ruth was a nutritionist). It didn’t take long for the couple to realize that the simple life wasn’t that simple. They struggled with making the house livable, cutting enough firewood for the winter, starting garden beds in the rocky soil, getting a reliable supply of water into the house and dealing with the animals who wished to homestead with them—mice, porcupines, bats, chipmunks and deer.
Lamb’s book is a blend of finely observed nature writing, pointers about rural living and thoughtful reflection on her retirement life in the mountains. She includes eight pages of color photos of the house and of some of the plants and animals on the property. The slim, self-published book has an odd oversize format, but that does allow for a bigger image of the bright cover painting of autumn in Wardboro Valley.
I enjoyed the earthy quality of this book. Yes, there are beautiful descriptive paragraphs about the beauty and abundance of nature, but mixed in with them are descriptions of how to create a waste system without a flush toilet, the history of the abandoned valley and a candid chapter about how living amid the fecundity of nature helped Lamb get over her fear of intimacy.
In the chapter titled “Homesteading,” Sandy, angry at a destructive porcupine, hits the animal with a shovel and unintentionally kills it. Later, a plague of chipmunks demolishes the Lambs’ gardens. At first, they trap the cute little rodents and drive long distances to release them. But that doesn’t solve the problem. Ruth and Sandy realize they must kill the pesky animals, and so they drown them in a rain barrel.
My first try results in the chipmunk escaping from the trap to swim round and round, unable to scramble up the slippery smooth sides of the barrel. I stare in horror at my victim, before lurching into action to push him under. Once his lifeless body floats up to the top I shudder with remorse, yet know I will keep fighting. The chipmunk population boom has turned these popular beasties into a garden menace and we can no longer live at peace with them. As I reset the trap and place it by the broccoli, I imagine I hear cannon shooting. The war continues and I fear we have become murderers again.
With hard work and energetic play—hiking and snowshoeing in the hills near their home—the Lambs settle into Wardboro Valley, learning the ways of their plant and animal neighbors and the finicky appliances in their non-electric home. I chuckled at Ruth’s description of “burping” the huge old propane refrigerator by standing “the six-foot fat lady” on her head, and it made me smile to think of a cell phone connected to their truck—when a call comes in, the blast of the truck horn sends Ruth or Sandy running to answer.
The Lambs are the only year-round human residents in a valley that in 1853 had 23 houses, four sawmills and two schools. When they arrived their home had no electricity and no indoor plumbing, as if time had stopped for the old farm. Lamb tells the struggles of digging deep ditches to get pipes below frost line and choosing an effective indoor waterless toilet. Abenefit of the human-waste composting system is a rich humus for the gardens.
Reflecting on our human manure composting experiments, I see them as a metaphor for what is happening to us. All our Wardboro experiences stew in us, continually enriching our minds and bodies. I flourish keeping track of wild plants and animals, gardening, and writing in my journal. . . . Sandy is stimulated by his retirement jobs: wood chopper, problem solver, renovator, and maintenance man. We are not the same people who arrived too early that March.
In describing the journey from urban professionals to self-sufficient Adirondackers, Lamb’s comfortable writing style draws readers in. It’s as if she has invited us over for a bowl of homemade soup and bread just out of her woodburning cookstove. After eating we’ll go for a walk to the beaver pond and the heron rookery. The conversation will be lively and far ranging, but we’ll make sure to leave time for silence, too. The rich life of the valley will demand our quiet attention.