In 1976, Anne LaBastille, an ecologist and free-lance writer, published Woodswoman: Living alone in the Adirondack Wilderness. Sometime around 1984, I pulled it off the shelf at the Waldenbooks in Rosedale shopping mall and took it to my mom to buy for me. As a rule, she never censored anything I wanted to read, and despite the unlikely topic for a pampered girl my age she let me add it to my collection. Later that night, tucked up in a bedroom hung in yellow gingham wallpaper sprayed with pink roses, I devoured the story of a woman who spent her summers splitting endless cords of wood to get her through harsh upstate New York winters in a 500 square foot cabin she built herself on the far side of a large lake accessible only by dirt road and motor boat.
“As far as the maintenance of my cabin, I can handle most tasks myself: painting and repairing the roof, simple carpentry, cutting firewood, hooking up and draining down the water system in summer, creosoting posts, dock, and sun deck, simple repairs to the chain saw, axes, and tools, taking down any dead trees which threaten the camp, and digging new holes for the outhouse.”
I pulled my cadre of stuffed animals around me in awe as I read. This was not the kind of woman I had ever met before. Certainly, this was not my mother – never in a million years would I catch Mom creosoting posts, the purpose of which was a complete mystery to me, or repairing chainsaws. I couldn’t even picture it. Carefully placing the book next to Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, and The Black Stallion on my shelf, I let myself feel the rebelliousness of a woman shedding the yoke of imposed frailty to get shit done by herself.
As the bright lights from the gas station across the street cut through the night and lit up the lace curtains at my window, a seed was planted. When LaBastille spoke of living simply, with as little disturbance as possible to the earth, something in me recognized something in her. “Why do I need an electric hair drier? I have the wind,” she wrote, explaining her insistence in not hooking her cabin up to the electric grid. Already, I was the kind of girl who gathered acorns and cottonwood fluff and pretended to live as an orphan off the land. I had a small jack knife and a collection of sticks I’d whittled into sharp points to make arrows. I’d made a pact with myself to never cut my hair. And yet, I still didn’t fully understand the sacrifices needed to live the kind of life I was reading about. Making simple changes in my own behavior didn’t occur to me. I still begged my parents each night to leave the bathroom light on all night in an irrational fear of the dark.
A few years later, I came across another Anne, also an ecologist and writer, who spent her time alone in remote cabins. This time, the book was Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard. This time, instead of the pragmatic day-to-day descriptions in LaBastille’s memoir, the prose was poetic and inspired. The descriptions, startling. Nowhere else had I read about the philosophical underpinnings of giant water bugs sucking the insides out of frogs, of the gut-twisting romance that came from falling into the black eyes of a white weasel, of the miracle of seeing a tree explode with birds. Now there was magic involved in the act of observing nature, and the seed that was planted with LaBastille began to germinate.
When Kevin and I first moved into this mountain house in 2006, we had problems with field mice taking liberties with the food in our pantry. Having no heart to set out snap-traps, I captured the mice in little plastic cages no bigger than the length of my hand. In the mornings I’d hear them scrabbling at their slippery plastic walls, and smell the urine and fear. At first, Kevin and I would drive the mice up the mountain another thousand feet to set them free in the woods. It didn’t take long before we became too lazy to drive so far for a mouse. Soon we were setting them free at the foot of our long driveway, near the home of a woman who just happened to be another Anne. We had it on good word that she was ornery and unfriendly, so we sent the little creatures off with the encouragement to have-at-it in her cozy abode, and leave ours alone.
And why wouldn’t a septuagenarian woman living alone in the mountains be ornery and unfriendly? When it’s only you against gender expectations, against nature, chopping your own wood and unplugging your own toilets, an acerbic personality is forgivable.
It took a few years and an unpleasant incident before we were finally invited into Anne’s home. One Friday, we accidentally set the garbage out for pick-up, not realizing that a holiday had set the schedule back. A bear got into evidence of a week of our discarded life and a long weekend of holiday shenanigans and spread the crap all over the hillside. It was Anne who discovered the mess and had braved the bear and opportunistic ravens to clean it up. I learned about it when she wrote an angry message on the town’s internet message board demanding that neighbors be more conscientious about the pick-up schedule and warning that any more mistakes and the bears would become a regular nuisance and would end up euthanized by animal control. Horrified that we’d caused this, and anxious to keep the outrage to a minimum on the internet, we bought an enormous orchid and set it on her doorstep with a cutesy card in which we’d written our apology. The next time she saw us, she invited us inside to view the orchid and have a beer on her back stoop.
That evening we learned she was the type of person who held season tickets to the Denver orchestra and preferred to sit behind the musicians so she could watch the conductor’s face. She was retired from a job of making sure children were safe in their foster homes. She was no one to cross, but all it took to get on her good side, it seemed, was a bowl of nodding white orchid blooms.
When we moved to San Francisco in 2012, I gave Anne all of my ceramic pots and a large bag of potting soil. She was a gardener, and kept a greenhouse where she carefully nurtured the growth of god-knows what in this unlikely environment where I could only manage to grow lettuce and geraniums. I wish I’d had more time to get to know her. I could have used her wisdom.
Anne died last year of, I think, leukemia. She’s buried next to her husband in the cemetery here in town, near the graves of gold-rush miners. I read on her tombstone that she’d been married for only three or so years before her husband kicked it in the 1970s, but I know she often visited his grave while she still lived and never remarried. Some might think this odd, but the romance of it brought tears to my eyes. What a tough piece of old leather she was.
There’s an incongruence between the romantic notions I harbor of the person I’d like to be, and the person I really am. I’m reminded of the one time Kevin and I went winter camping and how I left the house feeling confident, but spent the night in a tent pitched on a foot of snow, sleepless and choking back tears, with three Nalgene bottles full of boiling hot water stuffed in my sleeping bag to keep warm and our chihuahua shivering at my feet. We decamped the very next morning, cutting short a three-day weekend vacation.
I worry that this experiment I’m working my way through, of living high in the Rocky Mountain foothills by myself, is incompatible with the person I really am, a bundle of sharpened twigs in a gingham-and-roses life. But I have the other Annes to buoy me, and the text Kevin sent last week to keep my feet lifted from the ground and my head in the clouds: “The fact that you are motivated by what people tell you you can’t do is part of why I love you. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Currently reading: The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex: A first-hand account, by Owen Chase, and Rough Beauty, by Karen Auvinen
Progress on Book 3: Nada