Written in the Wilderness: The Life & Legacy of Anne LaBastille

To the north of Herkimer and Oneida counties, the Adirondack Mountain region—the largest tract of wilderness east of the Mississippi—inspires a sense of natural wonderment amidst dense forests, glistening lakes and panoramic mountain top views.

Anne LaBastille, award-winning author, impassioned conservationist and courageous advocate for the environment, spent much of her life writing and exploring, deep in this wilderness. Experiencing this intact environment increased her passion to protect it. Taken with the idea of preserving the forest, from both ecological and societal standpoints, LaBastille enrolled in the natural resource program at Cornell University. There she was the first female student to study wildlife ecology, later becoming Cornell’s first female professor of natural resources.

LaBastille built her name and reputation through environmental advocacy on issues such as acid rain, climate change and the need for conservation long before they were widely held ideas. She authored over 150 popular articles and 25 scientific articles, emerging on the scene at the crossroads of the feminist and environmental movements.

In 1965, LaBastille purchased property on Twitchell Lake in the Western Adirondacks and built a log cabin she called “West of the Wind.” Her home, only accessible by lake or trail, lacked modern amenities, providing peace and solitude as she concentrated on her writing. It was here that she authored her best known, four – volume “Woodswoman” book series.

LaBastille met long-time friend Leslie Surprenant on a cold winter’s night near Eagle Bay. Surprenant, who was only 12-years-old at the time, had struck ice on her snowmobile, shattering the windshield. LaBastille happened across her and invited the shivering Surprenant to warm up in the cab of her beat-up pickup truck alongside her beloved German Shepherd.

Surprenant, now retired from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, always knew she wanted to work in the field. Growing up not far from LaBastille’s cabin, Surprenant had heard about the “Woodswoman’s” work and when she attended college in Syracuse, she began writing letters to LaBastille. The pair kept in touch, LaBastille encouraging Surprenant’s interest in the environment even during her busiest stretches of writing, traveling, consulting, lecturing and teaching.

After college, Surprenant worked in Old Forge as a wilderness ranger. The two friends crossed paths again; their friendship developing over the years through professional collaboration and as trail mates exploring the Adirondacks. Surprenant knew this was the friendship of “two rock-solid Adirondack-ers” but she never imagined she’d fall into step as the executrix of her good friend’s estate.

When LaBastille died in 2011, her simple backwoods lifestyle allowed her the opportunity to give back. LaBastille’s wishes were documented in her will; she wanted to support female conservation students, make a meaningful contribution to writers, preserve her cabin and start a nonprofit foundation. As Surprenant sorted through the directives LaBastille left in her will, it became clear that she’d have to get creative to deliver the intent of her friend’s wishes. She quickly discovered creating a nonprofit foundation wouldn’t be feasible, leading her to explore the benefits of having an established organization act as a conduit for the funds. From this, her partnership with The Community Foundation began.

Surprenant established the Anne LaBastille Memorial Fund for Writers to benefit the Adirondack Center for Writing through the initial estate investment and a royalty agreement from LaBastille’s intellectual properties. A second fund, the Anne LaBastille Pack Basket Fund for Writers, was also established, named for “pack baskets” used by hikers on a trail. This made it possible to allocate money to establish a writer’s residency.

Surprenant worked with the Adirondack Center for Writing in Saranac Lake to establish a permanent writer’s residency. Now in its fourth year, the well-known and competitive program receives
applications from around the world. Six writers are chosen annually for the two-week residency at a lodge on Twitchell Lake, the site of LaBastille’s cabin. The program is a unique opportunity for writers in all genres to focus on their work and collaborate with other writers, while exploring and reflecting on the beauty of the Adirondack wilderness that surrounds them.

Delivering on another of LaBastille’s wishes, to maintain and conserve her famous log cabin, Surprenant facilitated “West of the Wind’s” move to the Adirondack Experience Museum on Blue Mountain Lake. The cabin was reconstructed and is on exhibit along with a collection of LaBastille’s writings and rustic belongings. Surprenant was also instrumental in establishing an annual scholarship program for women in science at Cornell University.

Carrying out her duties as executrix was complicated at times, but Surprenant says she’s proud of what she accomplished and has gained insights she hopes others will benefit from.

“When Anne got her mind on something, no amount of persuasion could change her position; she was headstrong,” Surprenant recalled. “If you have the means to do so, I’d recommend getting these things together while you’re still alive, so that you’re able to see the fruits of your vision and your effort. One of the saddest things is that Anne didn’t get to see her legacy.”

In some ways, LaBastille foreshadowed her vision of an enduring legacy through her work, as described in the epilogue of volume one of the “Woodswoman” series:

“Life seems to have no beginning and no ending. Only the steady expansion of trunk and root, the slow pileup of duff and debris, the lap of water before it becomes ice, the patter of raindrops before they turn to snowflakes. Then the chirp of a swallow winging over the lake reminds me that… there is always a new beginning.”