Building a home with her partner, Ruth, on their farm means learning to live with solitude, endless trees, and the wild animals the couple come to welcome as family. Whether trying to outsmart their goats, calculating how much firewood they need for the winter, or bartering with neighbors for goods and services, they hone life skills brought with them (carpentry, tracking and hunting wild game) and other skills they learn along the way (animal husbandry, vegetable gardening, woodcutting).
Legler’s story is at times humbling and grueling, but it is also amusing. A homage to agrarian American life echoing the back-to-the-land movement popularized in the mid-twentieth century, Woodsqueer reminds us of the benefits of living close to the land. Legler unapologetically considers what we have lost in America, in less than a century—individually and collectively—as a result of our urban, mass-produced, technology-driven lifestyles.
Illustrated with rustic pen-and-ink illustrations, Woodsqueer shows the value of a solitary sojourn and both the pathway to and possibilities for making a sustainable, meaningful life on the land. The result, for Legler and her partner, is an evolution of their humanity as they become more physically, emotionally, and even spiritually connected to their land and each other in a complex ecosystem ruled by the changing seasons.
|Publisher:||Trinity University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The cabin sat in a dark glen along what was once the main trail to Mt. Blue, shaded by second growth Maine pines, hemlock, and birch, within easy ear-shot of a bubbling stream beside which hikers, led there by the old trail, once stopped for rest and water. The hiking trail up this popular mountain in Western Maine had long since been rerouted, however, and now the derelict log structure with its falling-in tar paper roof and leaf-strewn porch was hunkered down in the woods off of a short, rarely-trod spur path. My partner Ruth and I had recently moved to Maine from Alaska where we’d spent the first two years of our couple-hood, me teaching at the Universityof Alaska Anchorage, and Ruth working as an electrician and fire alarm technician. In Maine, we’d bought 80 acres of wooded land with a house and barn-like shed and had launched ourselves into growing our own food, something we’d both done before we met, but put our backs to now with renewed effort as a couple, hoping that our gardens would grow to provide most of our own food year-round. I suppose you could call it homesteading, but with none of the sod-busting and wilderness-taming of times gone by. In the 1970s it was called going “back to the land,” when waves of urban-born, politically-motivated young people moved to rural Maine, inspired by the likes of Scott and Helen Nearing and their book, Living The Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, which chronicled the couple’s move to rural Maine in 1932, and their 20 years of work restoring soil, gardening, farming, and engaging in political activism on behalf of the earth. Ruth and I were both fascinated by people who chose to live close to nature, so of course we couldn’t resist taking the detour off the hiking trail to look at the cabin. We were hiking with Ruth’s sister Elaine, Elaine’s husband Dave, their son Jake, and our 9-year-old summer guest Kyjon Wright from Manhattan, who was visiting us as part of the Fresh-Air Project, which has been bringing city kids to the woods for more than a hundred years. We all trooped off into the woods to take a closer look at what had once apparently been the Forest Ranger’s residence. What we saw was piles of dirt and leaves blown into the corners, spider webs hanging from the beams, a stained mattress that some squirrel had pulled apart for a warm winter nest, a torn shirt or pair of pants in a rotten pile, a rusted woodstove, a pot with a hole in it, a broken down bookshelf, a wooden chair with only two legs and some beer bottles and hamburger bags. Too bad. It seemed like a sweet place. Back on the trail, other hikers came sweating up behind us, exclaiming loudly, “I knew that old cabin was here somewhere.” The pair was an older woman and a younger one, perhaps mother and daughter. The older of the two, huffing and puffing, said that she had hiked this mountain many times in her younger days, and remembered the old trail going by the stream and right past the cabin door, so that you could have a chat with the ranger, if the ranger was in, that is, and not up at the rocky, wind-swept top of the 1,300-foot mountain sitting in the fire tower watching closely for puffs of smoke from the dark, rolling ranges of tree and rock that stretched for many miles in all directions. While we rested companionably beside the trial we all got to talking about living in the woods. Living in the woods, in a cabin such as the abandoned one behind us, was not hard to imagine. Sweep it out, seal the cracks, haul up a cot and a table, install a little gas cook stove, put in a pump that would bring the stream water right to your countertop, light up the woodstove, and viola! You would have a cozy place to live, a place away from the noise of cars and sirens, machines in general, and people. In my youth, I had stayed for summers in places like it while I worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Utah and Wyoming. All my life I’ve wanted to live in a cabin in the woods just like this one. I often felt I should have been born in a different time, when things were slower—when people traveled by horse, by boat and on foot, sent letters, went to bed when it got dark, grew their own food, kept diaries, danced and made music for entertainment. I looked longingly at the derelict cabin and said, “That would have been a nice place to be a Forest Ranger.” Ruth and I told the women hikers about a friend of ours who had lived for eight years in the woods, keeping watch from a fire tower at Allagash Lake in Maine’s Allagash Wilderness. This was one of the first things we learned about our friend, Marilyn, and something that impressed us deeply. Anyone who could do that, live in the woods alone for eight years, was a person with inner resources beyond those available to most of us. Maine is famously the home of what some have called “the last true hermit,” profiled in the popular book The Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel, who writes about how 20-year-old Christopher Knight headed off into the woods in 1986, spending almost 30 years without talking to nearly a single other human being. He was raised in Albion, ME, by what sound like emotionally distant parents, who, by the way, never reported him missing. The woods Christopher built his camp in were not really the deep wilderness some news accounts make them out to be, but woods not much different from those surrounding mine and Ruth’s farm, where there are lots of places among the boulders and knolls one might set up a secret camp. News stories tell of Christopher’s “capture,” his rustic camp, how he survived the Maine winters, stealing propane canisters and other supplies from nearby seasonal cabins, including books. He cut his hair, took baths with melted snow, concealed his tracks, stockpiled so he didn’t have to travel in the winter and leave tell-tale footprints. Finally caught and charged with multiple petty burglaries, which had perplexed camp owners for many years, he was sentenced to time in jail, charged with a fine and served probation. In interviews he was hard pressed to offer motives for his actions, but did express remorse for stealing, and likened himself to famous contemplatives such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Merton, saying that solitude “bestowed” upon him increased perception. When he applied that perception to himself, his ego fell away. “I lost my identity,” he said. “There was no audience, no one to perform for. . . I was completely free.” I think he knew things, or came to know things, that many of us also long to know—namely, how to be at peace in this world, live in harmony with what is, consume only what we really need, and be satisfied with what we have, rather than long for what we don’t. For a while longer Ruth and I, our hiking companions and our trail mates debated the merits of such a life as one lived in the rustic cabin beside the stream, sipped our water and snacked on crackers and raisins. “Well,” one of the women said as we set off again, “I think I’d go a little soft in the head if it was me, you know. I’d go. . . what was it they used to call people who’d been in the woods too long?” She paused while she tried to remember, then suddenly recalled the word: “Woodsqueer!” I looked at Ruth and she at me, and we smiled at one another over those two lovely words joined together. I suppose there are people who think Ruth and I are a bit woodsqueer. We are those geeks you see in nylon, quick dry cargo shorts, the pockets full of binoculars, bird books, wildflower guides, and a pocket knife snooping through the woods. I always pack a raincoat, at least one waterbottle, a snack, a flashlight, some matches, a compass, a whistle, always have a hat and a bandana and toilet paper and a knife, and usually a bag to carry things in, in case I find something interesting or edible. I don’t know when I set out what will be in that bag when I return, but there is usually something out there worth bringing home. Sometimes it will be mushrooms, other times a handful of ripe wild raspberries, edible flowers, seeds I’d like to try to plant in my garden, or maybe I’ll ditch the bag all together and fill my water bottle with blueberries. You never know what you are going to find out there in the woods—it’s a queer place. We are the hikers you see wandering off the trail as you are walking along and you wonder, who are those freaks and what are they doing? We like to reassure people by saying, perhaps a little too self-consciously: Hi! We’re just looking at flowers! We often played a game when we hiked. It was called: What if we got lost and had to spend the night outdoors. To us it was wildly entertaining. We’d start with the essentials. Fire. Check. We had matches in our backpacks and a bit of dry paper, and could always find something to stoke a fire with, even in the rain. Water. Check. Water bottles full and stream nearby. Food. Check. There was all of the above fresh foods, plus berries, and of course the extra crackers and cheese in our packs. What if we didn’t have any food? We’d have to kill a squirrel or a vole. Or catch a fish. How? The game would go on until we got tired of it. When I feel boggled by the pace and sometimes overwhelming variety and abundance of everyday American 21st century life, I play another game called How Did We Get Here? I keep going back and back and back until I am there in the woods with bow and arrow or a spear and a birch bark pot, a strong will for survival and enough knowledge about what grows wild around me so I won’t poison myself or starve. That’s how it all started, with people making do. Everything else: electricity, the lightbulb, the washing machine, the toaster, the grocery store, the ice box, the shower, the hair dryer, the dishwasher—that was all gravy. It’s a commonplace these days for those worried about the state of our planet and the state of our souls to speak of the “nature illiteracy” of most of today’s Americans. One test of nature literacy is whether or not you can name ten common plants and animals from your geographical region. I delight in testing myself. Western Maine. Mammals: moose, black bear (mostly gone now but my neighbor Steve Bien saw one recently), bobcat, deer, raccoon, porcupine, skunk, weasel, beaver, coyote, fisher cat, vole, mouse. Birds: spruce grouse, wild turkey, raven, crow, mallard, chickadee, bard owl, pine grosbeak, purple finch, Baltimore oriole, loon, eagle. How about edible plants? Mallow, chickweed, wild cress, cattails, wild leek, willow, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, thistle, coltsfoot, acorn, lambs quarter. Insects? Mosquitoes, deer flies, ticks, dragonflies, no-see-ums, butterflies. This is where my ignorance shows. What kinds of butterflies? What kinds of dragonflies? Fish? Trout, bass? My knowledge is getting thinner. Trees? Pine, hemlock, white birch, yellow birch, silver birch, red maple, sugar maple, silver maple, beech, wild cherry, hawthorne, popple, oak. I started my list with confidence, but by the end I run out of knowledge. Even though I do pretty well at my own queer games and quizzes, I hate to pass judgement on others. Afterall, we’re not all crazy about the same things. Some knowledge just doesn’t really seem pertinent any more to the modern urbanite, such as how to make flour from acorns, or how to skin and cook a wild duck that happened to fly into the side of your car and break its neck. What interests me more than shaming or judging someone who doesn’t know a juicy chanterelle from a deadly jack-o-lantern mushroom, is the question of what joys we might all be missing out on by not knowing more about the plants and animals that share our intimate lives with us—those not only in hard to get to wild places, but also in our backyards, front flower gardens, parks, vacant lots, roadsides, even cracks in the sidewalks. There’s been a lot of conversation in recent decades about “species loneliness.” Part of that loneliness comes from increasing extinction rates among non-human species—we are more and more alone as a species as other forms of life expire. I think part of that loneliness also comes from not knowing many other “other-than-humans”—such as birds and their songs, spiders, flowers, trees, and other lively beings. It’s kind of like living in a neighborhood or an apartment building where you don’t know any of your neighbors. It’s not only less fun to live in your own bubble, but it can be boring and sometimes frightening when you feel cut off and alone. There’s a relationship between knowing the names of your human and non-human neighbors, caring about them, and doing what you can to help them thrive. Just like with humans, we can start with knowing the names of our plant and animal neighbors, saying hello when we pass by, and checking up on them once in a while. That said, of course there are other ways of tuning into where you live by getting to know the human-built environment with all its beauty, complexity, creativity and grace. I had a colleague once whose son was, I suppose you could say the urban equivalent of “woodsqueer”—he’d memorized the entire Boston subway system map. I have another friend who’s crazy about architecture and can name every architect behind every building in America’s major urban centers. But, back to the question of whether you could live in the woods by yourself in a little cabin by a stream with no other people around for 30 years (like the Maine hermit) or 8 months, or eight weeks or eight days, or whether you could make your home in a small house on 80-acres of wooded land in the Western Mountains of rural Maine and grow your own food for the rest of your life. Would you go woodsqueer, or would you have to already be woodsqueer to start with? And what would you gain or lose? And what would you come to know about yourself and the world?