It’s Monday in the Adirondack state park. I’m driving through little towns, passing junk stores, lumber businesses, small cafes and adventure outfitters. I have heard people call this part of New York state “poverty with a view”. The Adirondacks are a collision of hardship and wealth, but mostly wilderness. Six million acres of it.
It’s almost LaBastille Day, and to celebrate, I’m going to camp alone for the first time in my life.
Dr Anne LaBastille was, in her words, a part-time hermit. She died 1 July 2011, and her last name calls to Bastille Day, a celebration of independence. A wildlife ecologist, writer and photographer, she built her own 12×12 cabin on Twitchell Lake after her divorce in 1964. She chronicled her life and research in more than a dozen books, including the Woodswoman series.
She wrote that her remote cabin was “the wellspring, the source, the hub of my existence. It gives me tranquility, a closeness of nature and wildlife, good health and fitness, a sense of security, the opportunity for resourcefulness, reflection and creative thinking.” LaBastille felt that a person’s true nature emerged deep in the woods, away from social posturing and distraction.
Her work remains relatively unknown in the male-dominated nature writing landscape, but I believe a copy of Woodswoman belongs next to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in a library. If you’re looking for a real declaration of independence, and a deeper social experiment, try a woman living alone in the Adirondacks for decades.
Thoreau lived at Walden for two years on borrowed land, financially supported by friends, with his mother cooking and doing laundry for him. In a scorching profile of the canonized author, the New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz wrote: “Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its south-west side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters.”
By contrast, Anne owned the land she called home and lived in a much deeper wilderness, without family support. Not only was she a certified Adirondack guide, she was also the first female professor of natural resources at Cornell, and conducted research on the endangered, and eventually extinct, giant pied-bill grebe bird. LaBastille’s prose could be uneven, and her socio-political angles dated, but her experiences were revolutionary for the 1970s and 1980s.
Despite her many contributions to the conservation, environmental and feminist movements, she remains a quiet cult figure in environmental literature. Her 1980 book Women and Wilderness examines this very phenomenon – the way female naturalists disappear from the record, particularly nonwhite women.
Women and Wilderness, like Anne herself, was ahead of its time.
I did not grow up camping, or knowing women who camped at all, especially alone. But my partner and I have camped on an island in nearby Lake George every July for 16 years, and I realized that if I put those trips end-to-end, I’ve already spent several months of my life camping in the Adirondacks. What’s one night alone?
For me, it simply affirms that I can manage alone. I can control my experience, select my own campsite, hear my unadulterated self loud and clear. LaBastille wrote that “camping can be the greatest expression of free will, personal independence, innate ability, and resourcefulness possible today in our industrialized, urbanized existence”.
My friend Kathleen Colson, a former safari guide and not-for-profit founder who lives year-round on a lake in the Adirondacks and has read all of LaBastille’s books, welcomes me on to her boat. We scope out remote campsites I can paddle out to later in the afternoon.
Kathleen, whipping her boat into a remote bay, suggests a tent site within earshot of a loon nest. “It’s not a great nesting year,” she says, cutting her engine. She reminds me that loons kill by diving deep, then rising beak-first with great velocity to pierce its prey’s breast.
The Adirondacks are exquisite, but the natural beauty here is not sweet. Neither was Anne LeBastille. She lived alone with two German shepherds in a vast wilderness, sometimes caught in serious arguments with angry hunters trespassing on her land and businessmen who sought to develop the Adirondacks.
I just want to make it through the night.
I’m conscious of the time. It’s 3pm and I have at least an hour’s kayak trip ahead of me, in a boat laden with dry bags. Kathleen waves me off.
The paddle is a slog. My mom calls and I can’t bring myself to tell her what I’m doing, because I know she will worry. So I talk to her from the middle of the lake, waves from boat wakes slapping my heavily burdened kayak. I pretend that today is just a normal day, and that I’m not worried about getting my tent up before sundown.
I hang up and paddle into the bay toward my campsite. I can’t help but think about how compromised the wilderness is in America at this moment, how its diminished state will only worsen.
LaBastille was fluent in the grief that comes with environmental change. She eventually acquired another homestead on Lake Champlain when winters at Twitchell Lake lessened, and the lake ice she required to access her cabin became unreliable. She studied acid rain and witnessed the eventual extinction of the bird she loved, the giant pied-billed grebe, which was only found on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and disappeared when the lake was developed for vacation homes.
I get the tent up. The black flies are out and biting. The last fishermen are giving it a go, every so often gassing the motor and coasting for a bit, waiting for a tug on the line.
Then, as the sunset goes salmon pink, a beaver swims by my campsite, so close that I can hear her breath.
The blue light of evening brings the silhouettes of pine trees and mountains into relief.
I climb into my tent and kill two mosquitoes. In the distance I hear coyotes and the mournful wail of a loon. Later, a barred owl. The other creatures in these woods are getting down to the business of survival.
What does it mean for a woman to camp alone? Not much, historically, if you consider the lives of our ancestors, early hominids, native people and pastoralists. Men and women taking to the swamps of the south to escape enslavement. The contemporary experiences of refugees, or even the urban homeless.
I don’t mean to paint a woman camping alone as a righteous victory in any way, but as an exercise in independence and self-reliance. I want to see if my joy can outweigh my fear.
In the morning, I step out on to dewy grass into total quiet, cut only by birdsong. I strip off my clothes and go for a swim in the glassy bay. The water looks silken and thick. I surface to a cloud of biting midges.
As a climate activist, I want to deepen my relationship to the natural world. I have no need to dominate nature, just a desire to live a little closer to it.
When I read the work of female naturalists like LaBastille and Robin Kimmerer, whose work blends the scientific, tribal and spiritual, I sense a shared love and humility in the relationship between self and nature, not the loud note of personal triumph and chest-thumping we hear so loudly in early environmental work.
It’s precisely why the canon of environmental literature must widen its aperture to include more work from women, people of color and gender nonconforming writers. The white-male-against-nature narrative has played out horribly. We have seen what has happened when the last big game are hunted and stuffed, the great old forests logged, Everest is polluted with bodies and plastic, and shorelines have been developed. The outdoorsman protagonist has become the antagonist. We need new narratives. We need a different kind of hero.
LaBastille wanted to see women as a “major force” in conservation. She felt that retreating to nature would allow you to first “inspire yourself, then calm yourself” – and periodically emerge with enough energy and insight to fight short battles.
Many of the conservationists I know are exhausted. The stakes are high, the anti-environmental counter current is strong, and species and ecosystems are crashing around us: the Great Barrier Reef, right whales, the Amazon, the last forest in Miami, coastlines.
When we were looking at maps of the lake, Kathleen told me that she returns to authors like Isak Dinesen and LaBastille year over year. “When I need courage,” she says, though I know she already has a deep reservoir. LaBastille often advised women to “stay strong and defiant, like a kestrel flying into the wind”. I wonder if she would be surprised at how much we need her words, at how radical her life still seems.