Review: Anne LaBastille’s ‘Woodswoman’

It’s no secret that I love nature writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s Emerson’s essays, Thoreau’s Walden, or Annie Dillard’s anything (in any book at any time), I’m there. I’m reading it. I’m reveling. In fact, if I weren’t such a wimp about snakes and big bugs, I’d probably be living in a log cabin myself.

I blame my family’s annual vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains for my rustic inclinations. Nature hikes and picnics on the banks of the Little Pigeon River are fixtures in my summers; they have been since I was a little girl. And as I discovered last year, there’s nothing that beats reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on a rock in the middle of a stream. There just isn’t.

Whatever the reason for my obsession with nature, I was thrilled to come across another Thoreau-ish character last semester while researching a paper on Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (another great nature read, one with a flair for the post-apocalyptic). That character was Anne LaBastille, and the book was Beyond Black Bear Lake, which I soon learned was the sequel to her first book, Woodswoman.

Published in 1976, Woodswoman really begins in 1965 when Anne purchases twenty-two acres of Adirondack land and builds herself a log cabin on the banks of Black Bear Lake. Newly divorced and seeking a change of pace after years of hectic hotel management, Anne admits she had wanted to live “in a Thoreau-style cabin in the woods” since childhood. Her motives for the move were simple, not unlike the greats gone before her. “I hoped that a withdrawal to the peace of nature might remedy my despair,” she writes. “I reasoned that the companionship of wild animals and local outdoor people could cure my sorrow. Most of all I felt that the creation of a rustic cabin would be the solution to my homelessness.”

Cabin-building isn’t the only topic that Anne covers. She describes Adirondack winters and the struggle to survive them, luxurious summer days spent skinny-dipping and sun-tanning on the shores of Black Bear Lake, and the fleeting two weeks of spring that bring renewed life to the park each year. None of her tales are dull. Anne recounts camping trips where she almost died and hikes that ended in 20-foot falls, then shocks you by admitting that none of these incidents scared her more than the eight months she spent living in Washington, D.C. She walks railroads through mountains, befriends a silver fox, and even moves her fourteen-ton cabin twelve feet to avoid violating a legal agreement. And these are only a few of her adventures.

As a narrator, Anne is spunky and independent, fierce when she needs to be, and intensely concerned with preserving the world around her. She is also warm and welcoming, making it impossible to call her anything but “Anne.” Honestly, she amazes me. Not many people have the guts to live in a cabin in the woods by themselves, much less without modern amenities like running water and electricity. And yet, she does just that.

Easier and more entertaining than Walden, Woodswoman was worth my time. Yes, I found myself comparing Anne’s writing to Annie’s on more than one occasion, but that’s par for the course with me. Besides, Anne’s clumsy dialogue and excess of adverbs only annoyed me a little; mostly, I just wanted to know what happened. So if you’re not up to Thoreau and want someone a little more down-to-earth than Dillard, give Woodswoman a go. You won’t regret it. 3.5/5 stars.

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