Following her heart, Anne LaBastille was a pioneer for the singular spirit.
While changing the papers on the bottom of my pet parrot’s cage, a headline in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye — well, actually, it was a photo of a beautiful woman wearing a parka, smiling and hugging a German shepherd, a glimpse of wild landscape in the background. The title read, “Chronicle of Life in the Wilderness” and above that, bold block letters: OBITUARIES.Curious, I removed the paper from Mimi’s cage to find out more. Written by Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson, the article began like this:
“Naturalist Anne LaBastille became something of a cult hero among modern women for embracing a distinctly frontier past. When her marriage fell apart in the mid-1960s, she took refuge in the wilderness, building a log cabin on a hidden lake in the Adirondack Mountains and then carving an influential writing career out of her remote existence.”
Whenever I hear about someone bucking the status quo (in the 1960s you married young and stayed married no matter what) you can bet it catches my attention. If you were around back then, or if you’re a fan of the 1960s-era Mad Men series, you know that staying single or (gasp) getting a divorce would paint you as a flawed individual, to say the least.
Yet Anne LaBastille was hardly that. From the cabin she built by herself on the shores of a remote lake in Adirondack Park, N.Y., she had a huge impact on the readers of her many books, which focused on conservation, hiking and fishing — all things that she did herself.
“She had a devoted following, both male and female,” says Dick Beamish, a friend and the founder of Adirondack Explorer magazine. “I think she inspired a generation or maybe two of young women who love nature, with what they could do with their lives, how to put it to good use, to be independent and not live in the shadow of husbands or others.”
The last part of that quote is particularly poignant: “… to be independent and not live in the shadow of husbands and others.” Let it resonate! I wonder how many times Anne LaBastille heard the remark, “Why isn’t a beautiful, accomplished, smart woman like you married?”
Besides writing books and articles for magazines, including National Geographic, she was said to cut a striking figure with her long blond hair (which in later years she let go white) as she hiked through the woods in the company of her beloved dogs. Among the anecdotes in the Times article was a story of how, even though she wanted to live a quiet life in her lakeside cabin, bags of mail would be delivered to her dock and some of her curious fans would even try to find her. One time, while typing away outside wearing only a bikini, a fan in a kayak paddled up. Startled and wanting her privacy, she sent the disgruntled man away.
That’s not to say she didn’t have friends; like many singulars, her friendship portfolio was diverse and dear. When she learned that she’d built her cabin too near to the lake, her friends helped move the structure, sliding logs underneath it during a rainstorm, no less, and rolling it back to a safe distance.
One of her closest pals, Doris Herwig, met LaBastille while writing about the Adirondacks for National Geographic nearly 50 years ago. She recalled the day she saw LaBastille driving a “clickety, rickety old truck” with a dog in the back: “Out steps Daisy Mae with bare feet and a little poufy Daisy Mae blouse and long pigtails,” said Herwig — hardly the stereotype of a middle-aged single woman, even today.
Besides her books and articles, this extraordinary woman persuaded the Guatemalan government to create a refuge for a native species of bird threatened by extinction, the giant grebe (poc in Mayan) and then helped launch an educational eco-program to try to protect its natural habitat. LaBastille later wrote about the attempted rescue of the bird in her 1990 book, “Mama Poc,” the title coming from the handle given to her by the Guatemalan villagers.
If that wasn’t enough, she found time to get her master’s degree in wildlife management from Colorado State University and her doctorate in wildlife ecology from Cornell University.
Her life was not exceptionally long, but it was certainly well lived because she had the courage to believe in herself and follow her singular passion. She enjoyed her personal independence, treasured her free will and was willing to go against society’s conventions to be true to herself.
LaBastille had Alzheimer’s disease and died at the age of 77 on July 1, 2011, a pioneer that blazed a trail that both single women and single men can look to as an example of what you can accomplish when you follow your heart. I’m grateful I had the chance to “meet” her.