To Live Alone in the Woods and Write

Melissa Faliveno on Belonging, Anne LaBastille, and What It Means to Be a Woodswoman

A little over a year ago, I quit my job, put my student loans in forbearance, applied for state healthcare, and deposited a modest advance. My first book was due in two months, and six weeks of it would be spent in the state where I grew up. I packed two bags—one with clothes, one with books—kissed my partner and pets goodbye, and left New York for Wisconsin.

When I got there, I went first to my hometown—a place known for trolls carved into tree stumps and the country’s first mustard museum—and then an even smaller town nearby, once destroyed by an F5 tornado. I went to a cemetery in the county where much of my family is buried. I went to diners and feed mills and dive bars, where I interviewed mothers and queer women, gun owners and storm survivors. Then I drove north.

My rental car was a cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle. I’d hoped for something less conspicuous, something that might help me fit in better where I was going—where everyone drives SUVs and pickups, are loyal to Ford or Chevy (my late grandfather’s life-long career at the General Motors plant in Janesville made us a Chevy family; when GM collapsed and he lost his pension, we became less faithful). I would stand out in other ways too: with my short hair and boyish body, a uniform of black t-shirt, black jeans, black leather jacket and boots. Where I was going no one looks like me, and everyone dresses in shades of beige (a law of the land I would soon remember is key in spotting ticks). Only the Harley guys, who stop at the Beer Bar before rumbling back into the woods, wear leather.

It’s a strange thing, to find yourself in a place you call home and feel so apart from it. I’ve lived in New York for more than a decade, but I’ve been going to the Northwoods since I was a kid. My parents have a cabin there, in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, in a wilderness preserve on a chain of three lakes. I’d been fishing those lakes since I was small, my father and I in a row-boat at dusk, baiting hooks with nightcrawlers. I’d been hiking those trails, jumping off docks into those waters since before I can remember. Still, I was nervous. I would be a woman alone in the woods. I would be unarmed. (I’m pretty firmly anti-gun, but in a place where most men have a gun strapped to their hip, I was keenly aware of my lack of one.) Even though I knew those woods by heart, I was an outsider.

*

Chequamegon-Nicolet is a mostly new-growth forest. In the early 20th century, the logging industry stripped the land of old growth, but the area is still home to some of the oldest trees in the state—more than 1.5 million acres of maple, oak, aspen and beech; miles of spruce, fir, cedar and pine. It is land, of course, that was stolen—the area where my parents’ cabin is located was home first to the Chippewa, or Ojibwe, a First Nation tribe of Wisconsin, and in particular the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa. When I was a kid, I never heard this part of the Northwoods story. I heard only of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, went to lumberjack festivals and cut slices from trunks, counting rings on dead trees to­ decipher how long they had lived.

When I left my job to write, it always felt temporary. I always assumed I’d be back in an office, working as an editor, a few months after I left. But now a year has passed.

Today, there’s an invasive species threatening the forest. It’s called crown vetch, a perennial vine that blooms lovely purple flowers. But its root system is complex and tenacious; it runs deep and takes hold quickly. Without intervention, it could take over completely.

*

I’m a person who thrives on order. I like routines and schedules and deadlines and lists. I like the structure of work, punching in and out, keeping the same hours within sturdy walls. It’s a lesson I learned early. I don’t come from money, and started working at thirteen, holding jobs like my parents had that kept me on my feet. I was the first in my family to graduate college, and worked my way through two degrees. I wanted to be a writer, but I come from a place where creative pursuits are hobbies, where work could never mean writing. Historically, the two have always been at odds.

So I built a fifteen-year career as an editor—first at two presses, then for nearly eight years at a magazine for writers. I found myself, somewhat miraculously, with an office in a Manhattan high-rise, helping create a publication I’d been reading since college. Between Brooklyn rent and student debt—an unscalable mountain that grows taller each year—I still lived paycheck to paycheck. And it was exhausting, getting up before dawn to write, commuting to the city, getting home after dark. But I liked my job. I felt capable, confident, and stable. I hadn’t planned on leaving.

But when I sold my book—after working on it, in fits and starts, for nearly a decade, and still with so much work to do—I realized something: Either my job would come first or writing would. So I traded stability for uncertainty. I closed my eyes and jumped.

It’s interesting what happens when we let go of the structures that give shape to our lives. When I got to the cabin, a little place built of hand-laid pine, with a woodstove, sump pump, and freshwater well, I unpacked my books. I found an old wooden whiskey crate and built a little library. I worked at the kitchen table, which looked out into the trees. Over the next several weeks, I would watch the hardwoods bloom.

There was no wifi, and, like some inexplicable horror-movie plotline, the spotty cell service cut out completely at night. I’d lay in bed, the silence thrumming in my ears. Outside my window, I heard crickets, loons, and peepers. I heard the wind, like water, in the leaves. I heard the slow crack of footsteps in the trees, counted Wisconsin serial-killer stories in my head like sheep. The first week, I barely slept.

I worked until 6 pm, then sat on the porch with a beer and watched the birds. Each evening at dusk, a doe emerged from the woods.

But I built a routine. I got up at 7 am, made a pot of coffee, drank my first cup on the porch with a book as the sun rose above the trees. By 9 I got to work. I wrote and researched and revised; I transcribed interviews and took notes. I made lists and mapped out essays. Sometimes I took breaks—to go for a run or a hike, to drive my trash to the dump. I made sugar water for the humming birds, then watched them hover and buzz. Once, I found a secret beach—a secluded strip of sand found only by foot through the forest—and swam in the lake alone.

But every day I wrote. I worked until 6 pm, then sat on the porch with a beer and watched the birds. Each evening at dusk, a doe emerged from the woods. We watched each other, and soon she started bringing a fawn. It was so quiet I could hear them breathe. I had developed asthma in the city, but here the air was clean. I filled my lungs with it. I felt my mind open up, the world slow down. I began to see more clearly what for so long I had been trying to say. I started sleeping well.

*

One day, I met with a local conservationist. She was an older woman, with short hair, hiking boots, and a baseball cap, who spent her working life in Chicago but had retired to the woods full-time. She was heading up an initiative to clear invasive species and plant more native trees, and taught me to identify and eradicate the crown vetch. We spent a morning together, on our hands and knees in a ditch of weeds.

“The trick,” she said, “is to go deeper than you think.”

Every few days I went out alone to dig up the roots. They were thick, stick-like, and deep, the kind that could take over 500 acres of land in a matter of weeks. Wrist-deep in dirt, flies and mosquitos biting my neck, I wrapped my fingers around the roots. Bracing my body against the earth, I tore them up, sweating in the sun.

*

On Friday nights, I took myself out for fish fry, that hallowed Sconnie ritual more popular than church. I went to a different roadside bar or lodge each week, with names like Gooch’s and Angler’s. I’d sit at the bar, beneath mounted muskies, northern, and twelve-point bucks, and eat deep-fried walleye or lake perch caught fresh that day. I’d drink Spotted Cow or a brandy old fashioned or both, and talk to the regulars.

“Where you from?” They’d ask, sizing me up. They were always men; Northwoods women don’t sit alone at bars.

“Down south,” I’d say, “near Madison.”

“But not anymore.” They’d say. It was never a question. My accent gave me away, the elongated vowels of my Midwestern past long gone.

“New York,” I’d say.

“New York!” They’d howl, slapping the bar. “Why would you ever live there?”

I’d shrug and smile, tip back my beer. I never knew what to say.

I was still figuring out was what my book was about, but I knew it had something to do with this: a body in a place that used to be home, that is no longer hers, that was never hers at all. A body neither here nor there, but somewhere in-between.

*

Once a week, I drove to the public library in town. When I say “town” I mean a short stretch of road with a gas station, tackle shop, hardware store, several boarded-up antique shops, and at least three bars. The library was new, with a small collection and semi-reliable wireless. One day, while scanning the stacks, I found a beat-up paperback copy of Woodswoman, a 1976 memoir by writer and ecologist Anne LaBastille. I checked it out, the librarian misgendering me repeatedly as we talked. (To be fair, my own Woodswoman is pretty butch.)

In the book, the first of a four-part series, LaBastille decides, post-divorce, to disappear into the Adirondacks alone, build an off-grid cabin, and live a self-sufficient life in the wilderness. She chronicles her joys and her struggles—having to snow-shoe across a frozen lake to check her mail, surviving winters without electricity or running water, the fear of bears breaking into her cabin—and the particular triumph of not dying. Throughout the book she grapples with one warring question: to return to the city, or stay in the woods.

I’m a person who thrives on order. I like routines and schedules and deadlines and lists. I like the structure of work, punching in and out, keeping the same hours within sturdy walls.

“There is a dynamic and an energy in cities which is diametric to the life-forces of the forest,” LaBastille—who spent much of her life juggling writing, teaching, and conservation work—writes. “Still the cabin is the wellspring, the source, the hub of my existence. It gives me tranquility, a closeness of nature and wildlife, good health and fitness, a sense of security, the opportunity for resourcefulness, reflection and creative thinking.”

I sat on the porch and read these lines. I stopped on the word wellspring, turned it over on my tongue. My trip to the woods was far easier than LaBastille’s (I had running water and electricity, to start), but I knew the feeling. As a writer, I had never been more productive. I had never had this kind of space to think. I felt more awake and alive than I ever had. I looked at the trees, felt the sun on my skin, listened to the wind in the leaves and thought: What if I stayed?

I couldn’t, of course. LaBastille ended up staying in the woods for decades. But I had a life, and a partner, back in Brooklyn. I had to go home, and I had to go to work.

When I left my job to write, it always felt temporary. I always assumed I’d be back in an office, working as an editor, a few months after I left. But now a year has passed. I’ve finished my first book, completed a draft of a second, and begun outlining a third. My life is far less stable, but I’ve scraped together a living through teaching jobs. This fall I’ll start a new one, which carries the title visiting writer. I turn those words over too.

*

These days, I still wake up, make coffee, and read. Then, at this desk in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, I go to work. Outside, there is a towering cement wall, the empty husks of half-finished high-rises; no woods or humming birds or deer. Most of the trees on my block have been cut down. But there is one left, a Basswood, just outside my window.

When the pandemic hit New York, I thought about leaving. I could have packed up again and escaped to the woods. But lately I’ve been thinking about the privilege of escape. I’ve been thinking about exile as a choice, and as a forcing out. I’ve been thinking about the lands that make us, and the lands that people claim. I’ve been thinking about the word belonging.

I’ve also been thinking about this thing I keep hearing, about a “return to normal.” About grasping at the old structures and systems to which we once held so tight. To return to them, so many of us think, will keep us stable and safe. But maybe those structures and systems, so deeply rooted in us, are exactly what we need to let go, or tear up, to make room for new growth.

What I know for sure is that, at least for now, this city is my home. And as spring turns to summer, I’ve watched the Basswood bloom. It’s gone from budding to bursting, its leaves offering shade from the sun. There have been more birds, too: The other day I saw two cardinals; today I saw a blue jay. At night there’s a mockingbird, who sings his songs in the earliest hours of morning. And sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still hear the woods. I hear the crickets and the peepers, the owl outside my window. I hear the wind in the trees and mistake it for rain.

_______________________________

Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland is forthcoming from Topple Books.

Melissa Faliveno
Melissa Faliveno
Melissa Faliveno is a writer, editor, teacher, and author of the debut essay collection TOMBOYLAND, published by Topple Books in August 2020. The former senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Bitch, Ms. Magazine, Prairie Schooner, DIAGRAM, and Midwestern Gothic, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays 2016. She has taught nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Catapult, and starting this fall will be the 2020-2021 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Originally from small-town Wisconsin, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York





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