Woodswoman

Anne LaBastille plays with her dog, Krispy Kreme, in Westport. Author and environmentalist, LaBastille guards her privacy: 'You never know who the fruitcakes are and who the real people are.'

WESTPORT -- The petite woman in the lumberjack shirt leads her German shepherd straight into the cafe, saying it's cold out and they should let the dog stay.

"I'm always for trying stuff," Anne LaBastille says, passing the no-pets sign and opening the door.

After decades of living in a wilderness cabin she built, field research in Central American jungles, a divorce, a science Ph.D. from Cornell, turbulent years on the Adirondack Park Agency board, a career writing books and articles, consulting and guiding in the outdoors, she also tends to stand her ground.

In 1997's "Woodswoman III," the autobiography covering her third decade living in a cabin in the woods, she urged older women, those of her generation, to "become a fierce eco-feminist and care for Planet Earth."

That was her response to the arsonist, never caught, who torched her barns five years earlier, presumably because of her environmentalist positions on the Adirondack Park Agency.

PRIVACY IMPORTANT

Right now, her only project is selling the house in Westport, with its pond and 42 acres of farmland, which are "a lot to take care of."

She wants to get back to the cabin, though not in winter anymore.

Hard experience has made her cautious. She won't give out her phone number to a stranger, or directions to her house. It was in 1992, during turbulence that pitted environmentalists against those opposing development restrictions, that her barns were set on fire.

"She was a very reliable green vote," recalls Bob Glennon, former APA counsel and executive director. "She was a valiant lady."

LaBastille absolutely won't disclose where her cabin is located, or the real names of the homesteads she euphemistically called Black Bear Lake, where she built the first one, or Lily Pad Lake, where she described building the second to get farther from intrusions.

She wrote once about the kayaker who tracked down the photogenic blonde from clues in her first "Woodswoman" book and startled her as she was working at a typewriter on her sun deck in a bikini. She was not amused and would not let him step onto her property.

"You never know who the fruitcakes are and who the real people are," she says.

CHILDHOOD DREAM

Her hair is white now, held back by a pair of hair clips, her face well lined. She won't tell her age.

In jeans, sneakers and red and black checked shirt, LaBastille looks smaller than Krispy Kreme, the big dog that didn't get to stay in the cafe. One in a long line, the German shepherds have been LaBastille's steady companions.

"They're so loyal, and so affectionate," she says, though they make some people nervous.

The restaurant manager backed up a step and insisted the animal couldn't stay. LaBastille reluctantly led the dog out to her pickup truck, ran the engine awhile to warm it up, then returned inside for lunch at a table overlooking the truck, the Westport street and the broad green park rolling down to vast blue Lake Champlain.

"Nobody'll steal her around here," she said. "If they do I'll chop their heads off."

She grew up in Montclair, N.J., the only child of a languages professor and a concert pianist who emphasized manners and dancing classes.

"What I wanted to be, I wanted to live outdoors and be an Indian and everything you read about when you're little," LaBastille recalls.

PACESETTER

The environmental and feminist movements began around 1970, LaBastille noted, but she headed years earlier for the outdoors and a career in sciences dominated by men. Cornell set her directly on the path.

"That was the best thing in my life. I was studying biology and ornithology and all of the things that could be taken in with nature. On the back of that ... I was going to be some kind of explorer, and it came true, more or less."

Summer work in the Adirondacks led to marriage to an innkeeper, several years helping run the inn, divorce, then the cabin deeper in the forest.

Over a decade, she completed a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology and taught at Cornell to help pay the bills.

OUTDOOR SKILLS

"Moving into my little hand-built cabin on 22 acres of old-growth forest in 1965 gave me time to build up a reputation as a reliable freelance writer and ecological consultant," she would write.

Along the way she'd also learned to shoot, use a chain saw, study the way humans can obliterate other species.

Her thesis research was the ecology of giant pied-billed grebe, a flightless bird found then only at Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands, now extinct.

"Why did this bird suddenly disappear and it would not be back again?" LaBastille says. "It was a very tragic thing."

OFFERING HELP

In "Woodswoman," the 1976 autobiography that has sold more than 100,000 copies, she recounted an overloaded boat of hunters lost in a November snowstorm who arrived at her end of the Adirondack lake at dusk. She moved two of the five into her own small boat and led the others 1.5 miles to the launch and parking area, then motored home alone, with little visibility despite a flashlight.

"Frigid waves lashed the side of the boat, drenching me with spray which quickly turned to ice. Inching toward shore by dead reckoning, I just missed smacking into the granite rocks off my point."

In these North Woods, she wrote, decisions are always made in favor of helping others.

TOUGH TIMES

But 1992, one of her 17 years on the APA board, from 1975 to 1993, would test that notion and show another side of the Adirondacks.

"We had guys hanged in effigy. We had all kinds of manure on the front porch," Glennon recalls of those days. "We had angry mobs, substances in the mail. Three guys in a car were shot at. A bullet hit the car."

"What made me very sorry was when her barns were burned," he says. "It just terrified her. Somebody set it. It was a way of trying to scare her. There was eco-violence then."

"There was so much to learn," LaBastille says of the unpaid seat on the board that regulates development in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park. "It was my second Ph.D."

Of the fire, she says, "It was very hurtful."

She soon left the APA, slept with a gun for several years and wrote that the experience hardened her heart to the farm that became little more than a summer food supply and winter way station from the cabin, which became more refuge than ever.

Yet, walking in Westport, LaBastille keeps noticing things like the flock of ducks flying in, the beauty of the water. Some details from her past don't come readily to mind.

"I'm a little numb today," she says, on a damp morning in late November.

When she was writing the time went fast, she recalls, acknowledges that life at the cabin was "a lot of solitude," then adds, "We all need more of that."

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