Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Anne LaBastille, 1933-2011

I learned from a Facebook fan page that the environmentalist author Anne LaBastille died on July 1.  Here are some websites from this past weekend, and one from a few years ago, which describe her life and work. http://adirondackdailyenterprise.com/page/content.detail/id/525384/-Woodswoman--Anne-LaBastille-dies-at-75.html?nav=5008 http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2011/07/remembering-anne-labastille.html?flv=1


(Update: here is an interesting 2016 article about her and her estate: http://www.adirondacklifemag.com/blogs/2016/08/16/anne-labastilles-legacy/

Occasionally I write authors and artists whose works I enjoy, and in Dr. Anne’s case I was familiar with Woodswoman and The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille, as well as a National Geographic article about Wisconsin that featured a picture of her resting---tanned and quite attractive, I thought---in her canoe. I didn’t tell her that, but I told her I enjoyed her writing.  She wrote back, I wrote back, and for about ten years we sporadically exchanged notes.  Mostly I got postcards from her, sometimes short letters, and I wrote a bit more.  I was just starting out in free-lance writing, and her example of independence and resourcefulness in managing her career, as well as her writing style, were inspirational to me.  In one note, she apologized for not writing sooner because she had a break-in at her home, the same crime that she described at the end of Woodswoman III.  She also alluded in letters to her painful experiences as a guest professor, which she recounted in detail in Woodswoman IIII
I was always respectful and appreciative of her time. In fact, until now, I never told anyone we were occasional pen pals, to respect her privacy. We were both only children, had PhDs, liked going barefoot, and felt a lack in our lives for having never met our grandfathers. I was honest with her that I wasn’t active in environmental efforts---and didn’t even know what a “grebe” was until I read Mama Poc—but that I enjoyed ecology-related books and planned to support organizations more conscientiously. In retrospect, I appreciate that she didn’t dismiss me as an inadequate fan just because we weren’t “on the same page” about issues crucial to her.

I regret that we fell out of touch and never had the chance to meet.  During the mid-00s, I had to move my elderly mom to a nursing home in another state, sell my childhood home, and complete a short book-writing assignment by a deadline.  Consequently I didn’t write for a year, and I never heard back the two or three times I tried to reconnect, including giving her the book I’d written.  She may have been ill by that time, or I may have seemed like an absent friend. But while we corresponded, I was able in small ways to help her by citing and recommending her books, and calling attention to her books to some independent booksellers.  One time she was chagrined that some company was making her books available online without permission. Since she didn’t use computers, I did some research for her about the company and sent her information if she wanted to deal directly with the situation, which she appreciated. She was also pleased that I gave my father (a dog lover and former hunter) his own copies of her books and that he became a fan prior to his death. 

She had many grateful fans, and I was only one, and a minor one. I enjoyed collecting all of her books, including the children’s books, her two 1960s books, and her 1974 scientific monograph about the Lake Atitlan grebes.  She autographed several for me.  Of course I included self-addressed padded envelopes for her to use. She liked the following review that I wrote to help "spread the word" of her efforts. 

Book Review of Woodswoman, Mama Poc, Beyond Black Bear Lake, and Woodswoman III (written for Springhouse magazine, published in the June 1997 issue).
Some Springhouse readers will already be familiar with this author. I read some of her National Geographic articles back in the mid-1970s but remained oblivious (in spite of her memorable surname) that she’s a best-selling author with a large following. I love nature-related books (one of her articles had introduced me to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac) and last year I finally checked to see what else she’s written.  I selected one of her books and liked it so much I didn’t wait twenty years to find others!   All her books are available from bookstores or from West of the Wind Publications, Westport, NY 12993.

Dr. LaBastille is a wildlife ecologist and consultant who lives in Adirondack Park, a six-million acre area of state-and-privately-owned land in upstate New York. She was born in New York City, grew up in New Jersey, and received her Ph.D. from Cornell. She has written several books: Woodsman, Beyond Black Bear Lake, Assignment Wildlife, Women and Wilderness, The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille, and Birds of the Mayas. She also wrote titles in the “Ranger Rick’s Best Friends” series for young people and has contributed to Nature, Travel, Reader’s Digest, Outdoor Life, Audubon, National Geographic, and others. She has worked as a professor, lodge-co-owner and manager, a freelance ecologist, park commissioner, guide, consultant, writer and photographer. She has received top awards as a writer and conservationist.

Woodswoman begins as LaBastille, reflecting upon her experiences as she sits in her cabin during a beautiful, dramatic winter, recounts her early goals of studying wildlife and living in a natural environment. Several years before, her marriage succumbed amid the pressures of running a resort lodge in the Adirondacks; the need to remove herself from that situation caused her to return to her long-time dream of a private haven in the woods. LaBastille found a track of land at a reasonable price near a location she calls Black Bear Lake. She recounts the construction of her 12 by 12 cabin, heated with a wood burning stove, lighted by candles and kerosene lanterns, then gas lamps running off her propane. Two males who helped her with the cabin’s construction gave her the nickname (at first an exasperated response to her requests) which became the book’s title. Settled, she loved to contemplate the beauties of the park, the scents of the forest and the many animals of the land. Unfortunately, an attorney showed up stipulating that her 14-ton house had to be moved 12 feet back from the lake to conform to codes, which she grudgingly accomplished. Trespassers showed up, too, whom she dismissed in no uncertain terms.

Much of the book recounts the splendor and history of the park. She notes that the park is the largest track of wilderness east of the Mississippi and half the park has been legally designated “forever wild” since 1894. She is visited by beaver and deer, shrews, bats and monarch butterflies. She writes with awe concerning the great trees, the spruce and fir; she writes concerning the history of logging in the region, and the lives of the park’s residents (don’t miss the description of “Adirondack haircuts”). She delights in skinny-dipping in the clean water, in developing her practical outdoor skills first learned during her initial and happy years of marriage, and in living a healthy lifestyle that many of us would find too Spartan (no TV, electricity, or phone). Her first two pets were a kitten and silver fox—the kitten was too lively and the fox was sadly killed—but Pitzi, a German shepherd puppy she found in Guatemala which doing her doctoral research, became her companion for twelve years. Helped by her guide friend Rob, LaBastille became one of the very few licensed women guides of the park.  She finds love, in a chance encounter with a man she calls Nick, and she weaves a bittersweet story through her observations of the park. After they go their separate ways, she ruminates about the difficulties of the successful career she has established, the difficulties of being a woman whose education threatens some men, and her own dreams and hopes. But in the last chapter, an eventful stay in DC helps remind her of the impersonal quality of the city, contrasted with the tranquility of her cabin and her many friends and contacts there. The book ends wistfully as the author looks to the unseen future, confident of the rightness of her choice to live close to wilderness.

Mama Poc covers the period of LaBastille’s life from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, thus including the same general period as Woodswoman but including additional years.  [Of course, Assignment: Wildlife, which I’d not yet read at this time, and the later Jaguar Totem also cover this period.] LaBastille documents how a single species went from health (albeit rarity) to extinction in less than a quarter century. 
Around 1960, she and her husband studied birds in Central America and Mexico, and during that time she encountered a rare bird, the giant pied-billed grebe classified Podilymbus gigas. Unlike the common grebe of the U.S. (Podilymbus podiceps) the larger grebe lived only at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where it required certain amounts of territory for health and breeding. The grebes were called “pocs” by the native Indians, and thus LaBastille became “Mama Poc” and “the crazy bird lady” by people curious at her presence and work. She began to document the life of this bird, with its estimated population of only 200. After her divorce she traveled again to Guatemala, meeting and befriending several people including Armando (they fall in love), Edgar Bauer (who appears on the book cover with the author), and others who work with her on gathering census data and observations. Unfortunately, the grebe population fell to 80 during five years when new species of fish were introduced to the lake.  What should she do? She and Armando created “Operation Protection of the Poc” and obtained the interest (partly thanks to LaBastille’s creative use of Spanish!) of the agriculture department to hire a game warden, which Edgar became, and they began educational trips around the region.
For the next few years LaBastille returned to Guatemala and accomplished a great deal. She learned how best to get things done in the country and she gathered both grass-roots support and the support of Guatemalan leadership. Soon Edgar had better equipment with which to work, the poc was featured on a postage stamp, and folk who loved the lake grew concerned for the grebes.  Sadly, she and Armando realized their cultural differences and other issues which made marriage impossible. That sad realization coincided with the happy news that the grebe population as growing again.

Several years later, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Guatemala in 1976, killing 23,000 people and creating fissures at the bottom of Lake Atitlan, causing it to drain slowly. But a reduced water level threatened the giant grebes, which needed much more territory in which to thrive. With Edgar, LaBastille also discovered that many vacation homes and tourism adversely affected the lake. Edgar devised a plan to increase the reed growth at the late, but as Guatemalan policies grew more heated he was killed by unknown assailants in 1982.  When LaBastille returned in the mid-1980s, a census revealed rapid diminishment of the grebe population, which were doomed. Too little was known about the birds’ habits to breed them in captivity; meanwhile, the human population around the lake thrived.  As a valedictory, LaBastille spotted two male pocs at the lake during a late visit which included a bleak but comic attempt to get medical care for an Indian’s dog.  One determined person can make a difference, she writes, and her successes with the pocs, both in increasing their numbers and encouraging public awareness, is a case in point.
Beyond Black Bear Lake begins as LaBastille recounts the many intrusions into her life after Woodswoman’s publication: visitors sought her out, some well-intentioned and respective, some not. Her fan mail increased beyond her ability to handle it, and her phone machine (at a nearby house) included truly weird calls. Likewise the human population around Black Bear Lake increased. LaBastille resolved to build a new cabin near the parcel she owned farther into the woods. She loses her beloved Pitzi when he encounters a car coming too fast down the road. She resisted obtaining a new dog but serendipitously met Condor, a German shepherd puppy who, like Pitzi, learned to ride in a canoe and carry the mail bag. Later, in the book, LaBastille acquires Condor’s puppy, which she named Chekika after a Seminole chief.

Concern for the effects of acid rain and technology upon her land (which she discusses) she selected Lilypad Lake for a retreat home she’d call Thoreau II. Careful to be aware this time of bureaucratic regulations (which she encountered anyway), she set to work on her retreat, recounting the process of cutting and dragging logs and raising the place. Frighteningly, she dealt with a proposal to store nuclear waste in the Adirondacks. Fortuitously, a hip injury became occasion for a friendship with a local surgeon named Mike to grow into a mutual love and affection. She writes of Rob, her old friend who taught her to guide and who, in his old age, willed himself to die rather than be hospitalized, and of Rodney Ainsworth, a hawk-nosed, cigar-smoking and tender-hearted guide with whom she also became close friends. (She writes additionally of the admirable Rodney in Wilderness World.) Finishing her house, she muses concerning the similarities and differences between her Thoreau II and Henry David’s own famous cabin at Walden Pond, which cost only about a hundred dollars less than LaBastille’s). She reflects on her happiness as an unmarried woman and the rightness of her life spent living in wilderness, solitary with nature, as she built her career as a writer, photographer, and ecologist. She dreams of the educational and ecological work which her estate will someday continue.
LaBastille’s most recent work, Woodswoman III, represents her ongoing reflections and experiences in promoting environmental issues. Her encouragement of women to pursue active environmental appreciation, as well as to nurture their own independence and self-reliance, is another ongoing task. Astonished at time’s passage, she describes her satisfaction at living for thirty years at the edge of wilderness. Her life still balances quietness and contemplation with professional fervor. As a writer and consultant, her daily routine is hectic and resistant to quite writing time. Recently she purchased a tract of land which she christens Kestrel Crest Farm; there, powered with electricity for her grudgingly acquired phone and fax, she humorously describes both her work day and her schedule as an “ol’ book peddler” around the park. She also describes the enjoyable and rewarding experiences as she revives her work as a park guide, and farming her land with a Thoreau-like, barefoot ease.

In the park, she is greeted by loons, a respected porcupine, and a hearty pheasant named Napoleon. She loses her beloved Condor to old age and infirmity but Chekika is soon joined by the Arizona-born puppy Xandor, another shepherd (regrettably, with similar infirmities endemic to the breed). She appreciates ongoing friends (like Andy and Albert), honors the park’s founder (a determined New Yorker with the memorable name of Verplank Colvin), and she enjoys the temporary company of a mouse who hitchhikes in her truck until a witnessed highway accident makes the mouse disdainful of human chaos.
The natural and human worlds remain enriching or terrifying. A twister strikes the park (leaving the remote Thoreau II in unknown condition for a while). In two chapters she recounts a new environmental hazard, the large boats (50 HP and over) which had long been discouraged but now threaten the environment and local neighborliness alike. LaBastille also suffers cut brake line, arson, and burglary; the first two are assumed to have been in response to her environmental activism. Her experience reminds her of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In all her books LaBastille style is informative and genuine; her words are never forced or self-conscious. The naturalness of her style attracted me to seek out her other books. Her happiness and delight at the natural world are everywhere apparent. Although LaBastille says her fan mail came mostly from women, I don’t think she writes for women alone, though she is particularly encouraging to women. Like Thoreau, she aims to convinced people of the value of nature. But Thoreau, writing extremely and rhetorically, couldn’t imagine that people wouldn’t walk several miles a day like him!  LaBastille is more invitational. Even Mama Poc is not stylistically characterized by blameful outrage (although she did feel outrage and sorrow); she still makes clear that one person can accomplish great things in conservation and natural preservation.
Many of us lead lives of quiet inattention to the natural world.  I’m not different. One of the benefits of books like hers is to call people like me to a kind of repentance. Read her books if you’d like an enjoyable impetus to appreciate the outdoors. She discusses the need for natural wildness, responsible recreation, and protected lands. She doesn’t eschew urban life but sees the modern city as that “wilderness” where you may lose your spiritual center. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t appreciative of the noise and the risk, even though we may feel at peace as we lounge comfortably with the TV remote. The solitude and silence, which nurtures and sustains LaBastille in the Adirondacks, may go the way of the pocs if we’re not better stewards of our world, time, and lives.

Read her books, too, if you need an injection of inspiration and courage for your own life. Impressively credentialed academically, she uses her training to serve, teach, train, encourage, and inculcate confidence in everyday people concerning wilderness. She has made her own way into areas of work and scientific inquiry traditionally dominated by males. Like many modern women she has struggled with commitments of career, singleness, love, and companionship. Like many people she discovers, in living, that the lost dreams of one portion of her life leads to wisdom and new dreams down life’s way; she accepts difficult circumstances as opportunities to make choices concerning her priorities. Those priorities balance personal needs as well as service to others. She is interested in physical health, emotional and spiritual well-being, lifestyles responsible to the environment, and the needs and mysteries of the earth. She is a “regional writer" in that she has selected a beloved region, lived in it and loved it, gained wisdom from it, and she lets the region stand for larger truths. As a “whole” kind of person, she validates those ecological values to which she has devoted her life.

(Here is another post of mine about Dr. Anne, her several books and their topics: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/08/anne-labastilles-books.html ) 


  1. Paul - Thanks for sharing this lovely post about Anne. I just learned of her passing today and was so sad to hear. I stumbled upon 'Woodswoman' years ago in the library and have since read (and re-read) many of her other books, too. I was such a fan as well.

    Donna Cardillo

  2. Something told me this weekend that I should check her Facebook page to see if there were any new postings about her. I got to the obituary section of the Post this am and saw her picture with Krispy Kream.

    I discovered her books some years ago and have all four of the Woodswoman series.

    I admired her for her intestinal fortitude to live alone in the wilderness with her trusty companions. I too have had five GSDs and currently one is sleeping about 3 feet from my chair. They clearly are excellent company at all times, but especially when you are in the wilderness.

    There are critics which claim that much of the experiences documented in her books are fantasy. They also claim that she lived much of the time in a condo at Lake Champagne. Others have said she suffered from extreme paranoia. There is clearly some evidence of paranoia in her writings but it seems reasonable to me rather than extreme. I hope that someone will write a book about her life that can sort out fact from fiction.

    I started seeing posts in 2009 about her illness which must have hit quickly. (I thought Alzheimer was a gradual illness but maybe something pushed her over the edge.) There was a mention that her two cats were at her vet and available for adoption and her GSD was living with a friend.

    In her books, she stated that when she died, she wished to be cremated and have her ashes buried with her GSDs who have all been buried at her cabin.


  3. Following is the correct Official Obituary of Anne LaBastille which we ask that you use in its entirety or use to correct misinformation in your article. Thank you.

    Doris Herwig
    PO Box 4042
    Queensbury, NY 12804
    518-798-1253 ph/fax

    PLATTSBURGH, NY * Mariette Anne LaBastille, PhD, a/k/a Anne LaBastille “The Woodswoman”, ecological consultant, free-lance writer, lecturer and photographer, peacefully passed on to her new life on July 1, 2011 at Meadowbrook Healthcare in Plattsburgh, NY.
    Born Nov. 20, 1933 in Manhattan, NY, she was the daughter of the late Irma Goebel of California, musician and stage personality, and the late Ferdinand Meyer LaBastille of French West Indies, Professor at Columbia College.  

    For a full Official Obituary, e--mail: hayfield@capital.net.

  4. Thanks to everyone for your comments! I agree that a biography of Dr. Anne would be awesome; I hope someone (who can do research both in New York and Guatemala) will undertake that project!

  5. I am simultaneously happily enriched and saddened, as I only discovered the Woodswoman and Anne LaBastille last month; it was a book I found in our donation box (I work in a library). As I got deeper into the book, I realized I must connect with this woman...but courted a vague lingering fear that I might be too late. And indeed I am.
    But I am so much more educated about her now, and I especially appreciate this blog, and knowing how many people were impacted by her.
    I will search our database to see what we've got of hers, and if not enough, will buy some and donate to our library. She is an inspiration.

  6. I have read Anne Labastille's Woodswoman series. They are excellent books. I even exchanged a little correspondence with her. May she rest in peace.


  8. Pauline MucciaccioOctober 27, 2011 at 5:21 PM

    Heart broken on hearing the sad news...never met Anne, but did correspond with her in years past..can't believe she's gone. She will always be remembered.

  9. Just learned today of Dr. Anne's passing. We had corresponded for awhile in the early 90's and I cherish the autographed books she sent me. Our loss; Heaven's gain.

  10. I am late to the party and just read Woodswoman 1 and 2 for the first time this past month. I love these books and am so sad that Anne has passed away. I am also so bummed that I will never be able to read Woodswoman 3 and 4. For some reason amazon is selling them for over $100! i have no idea why. I am so enriched to have read her two books but so devastated that I can't send her a letter and tell her so!

    1. Check your local library. I, too, bought the first two books only to find the last two were expensive. I borrowed both of them from my library. If your library is part of the Mid-York system they can order them.

  11. Having just discovered her books (2012), I am saddened to learn of her death. She was an extraordinary woman -- not too many people could live as she did for so many years without electricity, indoor plumbing and phones, not to mention using an outhouse for so many years at the cabin. I was shocked to hear someone burned her barns at her farm -- but there were acts of vandalism also up at the cabin -- someone cut her boat's gas line on the motor. But she didn't let that stop her. I am surprised she could not die up at her cabin surrounded by the animals she loved. I hope her wishes have been fulfilled by friends.

  12. To my dear soul-sister, it has been a full year since you went on to your new life. You can't imagine how much we miss you, all of us, those who loved you, who knew you in passing, and those who wished they knew you. Your legacy around the world will live on since you set a high bar for taking care of the environment we earthlings still enjoy. Personally I miss our times together, walking through the forest, midnight howling at the coyotes, playing with all of your beloved doggies over all these years, and just having "girl" time together, away from the trials and tribulations of daily life. Your memory will forever be alive in my heart. Doris

  13. I too, like all of you, am so saddened to learn of Anne's passing. I have only just recently discovered her and I am so drawn to her. I wanted to contact her too. That is why I searched the internet for info on her and ended up on this site. I am only just getting into her first book and I love it. When I saw her first book advertised on Amazon I went looking for the others. I also was only able to afford the 1st & 2nd ones and will have to depend on the local library for the others. I was so surprised to read that, since childhood she'd had a dream to live in a cabin in the woods, because that has always been my dream too - only I'd be afraid to do it alone. Even though she had so many talents to contribute to making her dream come true, I still think she was so brave. May she rest in peace!

    1. Bernie: thanks for your note! You might also search abebooks.com for used copies of her books, although the prices vary.

  14. I was introduced to Dr. Anne LaBastille writings this passed year by a friend that said I would truly enjoy her writing and the life she had led. She has reconnected me to the natural world of the living woods and the complexity of how important it is to protect our natural environment. The way she lived and wrote was a true testimony of her beliefs that the land was a gift for us to protect and care for and any living thing on it was a treasure that we must protect and nurture for the generations to come. I thank her spirit for the blessings I have received in her wonderful books and journals, that I have read. Anne was one of a kind.

  15. Leslie SurprenantMay 28, 2017 at 8:53 PM

    Just found this blog and see it has been about two years since the last comments. I was a long-time friend of Anne's and am the executrix for her estate. (She never mentioned that she had nominated me for this monumental job!). In the nearly 6 years since her death, I've worked with partners to:
    -- Start the Woodswoman Scholarship at Cornell University to support female grad students. Over $25K has been awarded
    -- Start the Anne LaBastille Memorial Writers Residency hosted by the Adk. Center for Writing - it's very competitive and 6 writers earn this 2-week free residency annually (and new in 2017 will be a writers workshop)
    -- Donated her land to NYS to be Forest Preserve protected as "forever wild" under NY's Constitution
    --Donated her cabin to the Adirondack Museum. It will open in permanent exhibit on July 1, 2017.
    --Provided endowments from $300K to over $400K to support the above

    You may be interested in knowing that the Adirondack Museum is having Anne LaBastille Day on Monday July 10. I will do my slide show biographical tribute which I developed to share Anne's story and legacy with fans and the public that does not know who she is.

    On July 9, I will be leading paddling trips to Anne's former property for the Adirondack Museum in conjunction with Anne LaBastille Day.

    You may also be interested in this article I wrote for the NYS Conservationist Magazine - go to "Original Woodswoman"

  16. Leslie, Thank you SO much for sharing this info! Are there more details about 7/9 & 7/10 on the Adirondack Museum site?