Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to honor the women from the Adirondacks who have lived here, and those who have written about women who helped to preserve this special place and loved its many facets. A number of books have been published the last decade or so that chronicle the lives and stories of women who contributed to the history and culture of the Adirondacks.
“Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives” is the theme for the 2015 National Women’s History Month. Two women ingrained into the fabric of my Adirondack life are Anne LaBastille and Barbara McMartin.
Reading Anne LaBastille’s first Adirondack book Woodswoman, shortly after it was published in 1976, led me to have the confidence to even think I could live in the woods, in the Adirondacks. Attending “Women in the Woods” weekends at Great Camp Sagamore, where Anne was a featured guest, reinforced my growing desire to put my heart and soul into this place I had learned to love. Anne showed her strength and vulnerability openingly as she spoke to us about her adventures.
Kate Winter, in The Woman in the Mountain, writes of LaBastille:
The mystical runs as an undercurrent through her prose, but hers is not a spiritual quest which leads her to a certified religion. She is by her own definition ‘a-religious,’ self-reliant in spiritual matters.
One of LaBastille’s charms was to teach us physical skills that made us self-reliant, such as splitting firewood. She’d tell us about her adventures alone, embellishing them by showing her gratitude when others helped. The self-reliance in spiritual matters was subtler, manifesting itself in the way she treated the natural world as her cathedral.
In 1999 I organized a session for the Conference on the Adirondacks and the Lake Champlain Basin, and asked Anne to be on a panel dedicated to acknowledging the contributions of women. She wrote back declining the invitation, but offering: “You are absolutely right – we need more female involvement and perspectives in the Adirondacks. And we need ecofeminists reaching out to save our resources here… I wish you luck. Great idea.”
She writes of her perspective on ecofeminism in Woodswoman III, published in 1997, thirty years after she moved into her first cabin. She shares how in the beginning she was fearful of being alone, thankful for the men who helped her in her early years in the woods. In 1997 she’s concerned about a new set of issues – crowds at the lake, hostility of the big boat group, and the continued decrease of wildlife in the Adirondacks. She expounds on the need for women to apply their sensibilities and talents to environmental issues: “Since we’re the natural care-takers in this world, I feel the greatest good that women can do is help the environmental movement. Women can save Earth’s creatures and the planet.”
LaBastille provides us with a good model to do just that – be a caretaker of the planet. She wrote about her experiences living as an environmentalist, an ecologist, an Adirondack guide, and as a Commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency. She died in 2011 at the age of 77 after a long illness. In a eulogy in the Adirondack Explorer, longtime Adirondack guide Joe Hackett said “There’s no question she was the most influential Adirondack guide of the twentieth century. ”
The last time I saw Anne was at a Farmers’ Market in Elizabethtown, a few miles from my new Adirondack home. I approached her and said, “Thank you for all you’ve done for the Adirondacks, and for me. I’m living in Keene now. Your writings were an inspiration.”
The summer after she died in 2011, a friend and I went to a memorial arranged by her friends in a parking lot on Twitchell Lake, where her cabin is located, the place she called Black Bear Lake, near Big Moose. Some neighbors who had helped her throughout the years offered to take us to her cabin where they provided a tour of where she did most of her writing. What a treat seeing the cabin as its location had been undisclosed for many years to respect her need for privacy. To honor her way of life, the cabin will be moved to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake as part of a new exhibition, The Adirondack Experience, expected to open in 2017.
Another great Adirondack woman was Barbara McMartin. I first met Barbara at the Third Annual Conference on the Adirondacks at Great Camp Sagamore in 1996. A group of about eight attendees were sitting around a large conference table in the main building at Sagamore chatting, learning about each other. I shared that I wanted to write a book about easy hikes and trail walks. Barbara interrupted my description and curtly said, “I am just about to publish two books on the subject. Don’t bother.” I was taken aback, but thrilled when I learned the person saying this was Barbara McMartin as I had used her hiking books about the Southeastern Adirondacks for many years. Her legacy continues. In addition to trail directions, maps, and photos of traditional guidebooks, Barbara, with the help of other contributors, produced a series of guidebooks covering most of the Park, incorporating prose highlighting the natural and human history of the area.
Barbara McMartin’s straight talk was well-known around the Park. I learned to appreciate it while observing her presentations at numerous conferences and workshops. She told it like she saw it – what we needed to do to preserve the lands, water, and air while making a greater piece of the Park available to more people. I especially liked how she emphasized ways to take advantage of the Adirondack assets available to us through roadside vistas and short walks. Barbara wrote about ecotourism in the North Country in Adirondack Life: “travel to remote, unspoiled places in search of scenic beauty and wildlife. The word implies both ecology for relationships within the natural world and economics, the business of a region.”
The last time I saw Barbara McMartin was at an Adirondack Research Consortium meeting in Lake Placid in 2005 where she moderated a plenary session entitled: Developing a Research Agenda for the Adirondacks and was presented an award for her contributions to the Park. I became emotional at this meeting with the realization that Barbara’s health was failing. At the end of the session I sat next to her, thanking her for all she had done for the Adirondacks. She died a few months later.
Barbara McMartin received many awards throughout the years, including one from Governor George Pataki. Her son James recently emailed me: “I don’t know what awards she was most proud of, but I think she was most proud of her chairing the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee for many years. This advisory committee was formed by the Department of Environmental Conservation to provide local governments and various interest groups a forum to discuss Forest Preserve issues, which Barbara chaired from 1979 to 2003 where she helped write many policies.”
Barbara McMartin was the author of 25 books including guidebooks and histories of the Adirondacks. Her 2002 book, Perspectives on the Adirondacks: A Thirty-year Struggle by People Protecting Their Treasure is on my active bookshelf, where I refer to it often.
There are so many women still living who are making contributions to preserving our Adirondack way of life, who are making a difference in their communities, for the environment. For example, Saranac Lake is a mecca for strong, creative Adirondack women. Here are a few:
• Melinda Little – entrepreneur, President of the Community Store
• Zoe Smith – Adirondack Program Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society
• Sandra Hildreth – artist and environmentalist, founder of the Plein Air Festival
• Gail Brill – community activist, graphic designer
During this National Women’s History Month, think of women you know who are contributing to the well being of the environment, of our communities. Show them your gratitude.
Women writing about Adirondack women:
THE WOMAN IN THE MOUNTAIN: Reconstructions of Self and Land by Adirondack Women Writers by Kate H. Winter (1989). State University of New York Press.
BREAKING TRAIL: Remarkable Women of the Adirondacks by Peggy Lynn and Sandra Weber (2004). Purple Mountain Press.
HISTORY BETWEEN THE LINES: Women’s Lives and Saranac Lake Customs by Caperton Tissot (2011).
ADIRONDACK ROOTS: Stories of Hiking, History and Women by Sandra Weber (2011).