Book excerpt: ‘Calling Wild Places Home,’ by Laura Waterman

Published: 05-17-2024 9:31 PM

East Corinth writer Laura Waterman co-authored many books with her husband, Guy, most notably “Back woods Ethics,” their 1979 guide to enjoying and preserving wilderness. The Watermans moved to an off-the-grid home in Corinth in 1973 where they homesteaded and wrote about mountains and wilderness. Guy died by suicide in 2000. Laura kept writing, producing a memoir of her marriage, “Losing the Garden,” in 2005, among other books. Below is an excerpt from the prologue of a second volume of memoir, “Calling Wild Places Home: A Memoir in Essays,” published this year by Excelsior Editions, SUNY Press.

When my agent suggested I write a second memoir. I welcomed the chance. Already I had material with the essays I’d written since Guy’s death that sprang from our homesteading life and the work we had done tending trails above treeline. Working in both these landscapes had taught me much. I had learned that the work each requires is similar, if you kept in mind that what you wanted to preserve and perpetuate was the health of the land itself.

As I began to focus on this project, I was taken back in memory to my childhood, in a search for the origins that led to my writing collaboratively with Guy that had come so naturally. I had long thought that my English-teacher-writer father had served as a model for me. But how, and why? This led to another essay that would be about books, books I grew up on, books Guy and I had read aloud together, and what the edifices—small-town to large-city libraries—that housed books had meant to the life of my mind, and my heart, as well.

While I had written Losing the Garden about our homesteading life, I had not looked closely at my relationship with the twenty-first century when I moved into it soon after Guy’s death. I was still too close to the world we had lived in, a world without central heating, electricity, plumbing, telephones, and road access. Though we might have successfully grown a large organic vegetable garden, though we might have built a plentiful library and made room for a Steinway grand piano, for various reasons we had chosen to plant our feet in the nineteenth century. Now, with my life on the brink of change, I had some choices to make. How did I feel about living in an electrified house? I quickly discovered that a light bulb or two could cut me off from looking out the window and seeing the stars, as I could do when I was living with kerosene lamps and candles. Would I retain heating my house as well as cooking with wood? Would I work up the wood myself as Guy and I had done with crosscut saws and axes? How about refrigeration? We had depended on a root cellar. Also, now, I would be living right on a road. We had had, in winter, a mile-and-a-half walk from the village where we kept our car to our cabin. We had become very comfortable with that walk that fit seamlessly into our life, a life spent largely outdoors. We had fostered a connection to nature that I knew was going to change. Yes, my adjustment to the twenty-first century merited a closer look!

For one thing, I would no longer be sugaring. Sugaring deserved its own remembering, its own essay. It was our favorite time of year. I wanted to capture that period when the sap from the sugar maples runs clear as a mountain stream from a small hole drilled in a tree into our waiting buckets. Just the act of boiling out the water over (in our case) an open fire, turned this sap into an elixir fit for the tables of kings and queens. Sugaring required our greatest devotion and our hardest work. I wanted, in memory, to call up that period when winter loosens its grip and spring returns to the earth.

I began writing these essays in my late seventies. By then much had changed in my relation to mountains. I wanted to capture that, too: how aging had increased my joy of being in the mountains at the same time it had limited what I could accomplish. And how this limiting of big ambitious mountain days had focused in on explorations from my door, my own home territory, where I found unexpected beauty and experienced a sense of discovery.

I wanted not just to scrutinize my whole relationship with Guy, a daunting task in itself, but to be able to reply to those bold enough to ask me, “Laura, how could he do that to you?” In other words, didn’t I feel anger? Those mostly unspoken words did not occupy me. I had always felt Guy’s sense of fairness. He was a principled man. He understood obligation. Now, though, I had come to see that he was a desperate man as well. We were good at working as a team, though in this case, Guy’s over-riding need to get out of his own life upset the balance and put me in the position of responding. Yet, I never felt that Guy was not respectful of what was important to me, what I needed, particularly in a practical matter, to continue on without him. His suicide, as I see it, was not so much a selfish act, as a desperate one. I loved him. I would, I knew, on some level, be able to live without him. More than that, I could support even his ultimate overwhelming need to take his own life, which meant leaving me.

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