Saturday, August 18, 2012

Anne LaBastille's Books

My post about Anne LaBastille has been my most-viewed piece on my little blog here, which I appreciate very much!  ( I thought I’d write a little more about Dr. Anne, especially her books.

My first edition
As I wrote at my earlier post, I was one fan of hers among many, and I never met her. I sent her an appreciative letter in 1996, she wrote back, and I enjoyed a sporadic “pen pal” correspondence with her for about ten years. I wrote her things in my life, and she wrote short letters and postcards with goings-on in hers.

I’m a college teacher in the liberal arts, not a conservationist (though I conscientiously recycle and do not vote for candidates who deny climate change). Nor am I someone who craves a lot of outdoor time---her self-described raison d'être! I told her I didn’t even know what a grebe was until I read her books, and that her books definitely broadened my horizon and inspired me. But we were only children/ freelance writers with PhDs/ barefoot-goers/ persons who grew up without living grandfathers. These things provided common ground.

She knew I tried to spread the word about her books to local bookshops, and I helped her on at least one occasion that required online work; as all her fans know, she hated computers. I sent her funny birthday cards each November. She was touched when I turned my dad on to her books, during the year or two before he died, and that Dad and I watched together the Mountain Lake PBS show about her (on VHS) that she recommended. I had a difficult year in the mid 00s and didn’t write her (or anybody) for several months, and sadly, for whatever reason, she didn’t write back when I tried to restart our correspondence.

Following a recent move, I unpacked my library and made sure all her books were together. In fact, I believe I have ALL her books and am grateful that she autographed several. (I asked her permission to send them to her and included a SASE for her to use.) Her older books are well worth seeking in bookstores and online sellers and libraries. I thought it would be fun to go through them all, in case her fans would like to find some of the scarcer texts.  

The first book of hers I purchased was “The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille” (West of the Wind, 1992). I forget what it cost, but now it’s a fairly expensive collector’s item. (However, when I checked online, I realized other of her books have risen in price since she died. ) "Wilderness World" has interesting essays, her photography, and even some of her poetry.

I have her four children’s books, all published by the National Wildlife Federation for the “Ranger Rick’s Best Friends” series: “White-tailed Deer” (1973), “Wild Bobcats” (1973), “The Opossums” (1974), and “The Seal Family” (1974).

Several of her books resulted from her long-time Central American work. Here are three related books:

“Birds of the Mayas” (West of the Wind Publications, 1964), written and illustrated by Anne LaBastille Bowes, folklore as told by Ramon Castillo Perez
“Bird Kingdom of the Mayas” (Van Nostrand, 1967), by Anne LaBastille Bowes and illustrated by Anita Benarde.
“Birds of the Mayas: Field Guide to Birds of the Maya World” (West of the Wind, 1993), written and illustrated by Anne LaBastille.

The 1967 book is the folk tales from the first part of the 1964 book (which, like “Woodswoman,” is dedicated to her husband). Both the 1964 and 1993 have nearly identical covers, and although Mr. Castillo’s name isn’t on the cover of the 1993, he received a long grateful acknowledgement inside the book.  The 1993 has more current information about Central American birds, the quetzal, and the Lake Atitlán giant grebe.

Speaking of the lake and the rare Podilymbus gigas, she wrote two books about that bird:

“Ecology and Management of the Atitlán Grebe, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala” (The Wildlife Society, August 1974, monograph no. 37).
“Mama Poc: An Ecologist’s Account of the Extinction of a Species” (W.W. Norton, New York. 1990).

The first is a 66-page scientific monograph about the lake and the giant grebe, including conservation efforts up to that date. Some of the people who appear in “Mama Poc” are mentioned in the text and the detailed acknowledgments. Of course, “Mama Poc” is the 25-year account of her and others’ efforts to preserve the Lake Atitlan giant grebes, and as such is a detailed, tragic chronicle of extinction.

What a story is “Mama Poc!” We have only conjectures about the extinction of many species, and information from different authors about other species’ decline, like the passenger pigeon. But here is one’s person’s sustained and disciplined observation of the species’ last years, though obviously she would’ve preferred to have written a different ending.

Another related pair of books (which you can connect with the previous books as representative of her conservation efforts) are:

“Assignment: Wildlife” (Dutton, 1980).
“Jaguar Totem” (West of the Wind Publications, 1999).

The 1980 book was the original sequel to “Woodswoman,” before “Beyond Black Bear Lake.” With the dust jacket depicting her high on a rock formation and chest-deep in Atitlán reeds, the book chronicles her many conservation and environmental activities during the years covered by “Woodswoman.” Some of the stories are elaborated in “Mama Poc.” In “Woodswoman III,” she writes how disappointed she was that “Assignment: Wildlife” fell out of print and was remaindered fairly quickly. I purchased my copy from her. I’ve seen copies on online book sites, but “Jaguar Totem” reprints most of the stories of “Assignment: Wildlife,” updates the stories, and provides information and statistics current to that time. Some of that information is depressing, others hopeful.

So much of her work, especially the “Woodswoman” series, aimed in part in inspiring and empowering other women. “Women and Wilderness” (Sierra Club Books, 1984) is her groundbreaking series of profiles of 15 women who work in conservation and ecology, including Margaret Murie,  Carol Ruckdeschal, Nicole Duplaix, Eugenie Clark, and the others. The book shows interesting intersections of environmentalism and feminism.    

A collector of her books might enjoy collecting some of her articles, too, like her 1964 "Reader's Digest" tribute to her mom (with the byline "Anne L. Bowes"). I've her four National Geographic pieces, including the one with a photo of her, in full Daisy Mae mode, snoozing in her canoe, with Pitzi on the lookout.

I've saved for last the four Woodswoman books from 1976, 1987, 1997, and 2003. (Later editions of “Beyond Black Bear Lake” carried the additional title “Woodswoman II.”) I thought the first two formed a nicely matched pair, with “Beyond Black Bear Lake” providing a heart-warming conclusion. The second two books carry the story of her work (and her dogs and cat) through the subsequent years. I found “Woodsman III” rather downbeat in places, but I never would’ve told her that. It shows the high stakes involved in the preservation of Adirondack Park and the tremendous difficulties she faced in being uncompromising about preservation issues. After her chronicles of a Thoreau-like quest for solitude and self-sufficiency in I and II, III and IIII bring you to the hard reality; age and environmental changes required her to spend more time at her farm. One speculates how she would have addressed changes in the publishing industry (after her descriptions of “book peddling” in III and IIII), considering how so many publishers have moved toward a significant electronic component.

As I look through the short letters and postcards she sent me (now tucked inside the books), I remember fondly being pen pals with her. As I say, I was simply one fan of hers among many, but I’m honored that she told me briefly about things that eventually became part of her books: the break-in at the end of “Woodswoman III,” Chekika’s struggles with arthritis and illness, the newly-arrived Xandor, and her ill-fated experiences as a visiting prof at a southern university, recounted in “Woodswoman IIII”. It’s lovely that she took the time to dash off notes to her fans!  

You get a wonderful variety of subjects from her books. I hope someone writes a biography of her someday, but you get plenty of amazing stories among her books. You're inspired by the fullness of her life.

For instance, her Central American ecological work is so interesting, and you marvel at her leadership, influence, and activities in another country while pursuing a domestic career. You can appreciate her writings about varieties of Central American birds. She did a lot of other conservation work, too, and you can read about those activities as well.

But amid her public work, she was also a solitary, creative person, and her accounts of seeking solitude and privacy (and dealing with loneliness) form a very different kind of story.

I also enjoy the stories of her several German shepherds and other animal companions, and you can follow those stories across several books.

Plus, she was active in book publishing and marketing. And she was a teacher, and a park guide----those stories across her books are interesting. Plus she was an advocate for women, in her writing, teaching, and guiding. And, if you want, you also can follow what she tells us of her personal search for fulfilling human companionship, and the stories of her close friends like Rodney.

Still another thing you can take from her work is a gentle spirituality of the earth, a sense of wonder. And you also get warnings about ecological problems like global warming, which have been coming to more public awareness lately.

If you’re a person who struggles with having solitary, creative time alongside some type of public leadership, you know that there is a psychological struggle which is sometimes terrible. I watched a documentary on Leonard Bernstein, which included the insight that he always stripped his emotional gears moving between his very extroverted conducting work and his introverted work composing music. At first I thought Dr. Anne’s testiness at intrusive people (like the stories that open “Beyond Black Bear Lake”) seemed ungrateful, but then I thought about how important it is to stay “in the zone” when you’re trying to create something. Having someone interrupt your process is troubling. And, of course, who wants people arriving unannounced to meet you, especially if you suspect that the person wants to meet an attractive woman?

You get flashes of self-centeredness and eccentricity in her writings but I thought she was laudably generous in her praise and credit-giving to the people who worked with her and helped her over the years. People who don't give coworkers and friends proper credit are kind of despicable, in my opinion, but Dr. Anne seemed warm and inclusive, and she names many people in her books' acknowledgements and dedications.

(That she wouldn't begrudge correspondence with someone like me---such a neglectful and rudimentary conservationist compared to her---shows a caring spirit that some of us lose, the more deeply we become involved in favorite causes and fields of interest. I can't even get some of my colleagues to return phone calls and emails, let alone maintain handwritten correspondence!)

You get a lot of encouragement and inspiration in her writings. Here, too, she had a heart for including and helping people. When I purchased “Wilderness World,” my first impression was that she's a very invitational writer. You didn’t get the outrage of Thoreau, who couldn’t believe someone wouldn’t make time to walk 20 miles a day! Dr. Anne helped you see what contributions you could make: you didn’t have to fly to Guatemala or build a cabin in the woods to do your part. Amid the difficulties and limitations of your life (whatever they might be), you can still make a difference. She provided a gentle prod to people whose self-esteem might be too low to realize their own potential and influence. Apparently she had the “Woodswoman” persona down pat, but I feel like her books were aimed at being a teaching and empowering tool for readers, motivated by a loving heart.

With regard to my own freelance writing, I’ve been stepping out of my own comfort zone lately, and rediscovering Dr. Anne’s books have given me a fresh injection of inspiration, as they did when I was first starting out. I almost never feel like the spirit of someone is guiding me---a lovely feeling that some friends of mine experience.  But this may be an occasion where I do feel led and assured.


  1. Thank you for writing about Anne LaBastille! I am in the facebook group and received this link today.

    SHe was incredible and should be better-known!

    Rip Jackson
    Ira, VT

    1. Thanks for your note! That Facebook group is an awesome community.

  2. Enjoyed your sharing your relationship with Anne immensely and your thoughtful reflection on all she contributed. Reading Woodswoman changed the course of career & certainly empowered me. Many thanks.
    Susan A. Smith

  3. I too had corresponded with here for several years. I was touched that she took the time to write; something unusual these days! I really wish I could have met her!