Monday, November 5, 2012

Book review: We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich

I had heard about this classic book first published in 1942 and never out of print since then, as a must read for people that were interested in sustainable living and organic farming. When I started reading it, I immediately realized that this wonderful gem of a book doesn’t really have anything to do with sustainable living and organic farming, however, it is a great and fun read about how to survive as a family that lives partly isolated among the mountains and lakes of northwestern Maine. They lived on a 5 mile long road that connected two lakes that functioned as waterways.  Every fall and every spring they were totally isolated while the ice on the lakes froze or unfroze, until either a car on the ice or a boat on the water could again connect them to the ‘outside’.   

Their life is content, but not sustainable in our sense that you can live on the land without anything from the outside – they get their income from transporting tourists and logging supplies along their 5-mile road, they need to ‘import’ most food and all other supplies like gasoline, engine parts, and kerosene, and only get deer meat, fresh fish, and some corn locally (their back yard).  

Louise moved to ‘the woods’ when she got married, and subsequently had a baby during a winter storm (without problems), and at one point didn’t leave the ‘neighborhood’ of the few neighbors within a couple of miles away for a few years.  But people came to them, timber workers in logging camps in the winter, tourists looking for wilderness in the summer.  She describes her life, her practical problems with food, storms, clothes, and cooking, and her love for the nature and culture of the local people with great love and humor.   

You smile when you read it, and the writing is suffused with common sense that is ever more important in even today’s world, 70 years later, and eons away from a cottage without electricity.   It is a wonderful read, and Louise puts life in great perspective, looking out from a mountain top in Maine onto the world and its stresses and overabundance of things we don’t really need to thrive. So read the book, it is great!

And of course, in light of the recent horrific hurricane Sandy, an experience that will taint our lives in the future more than we expect, I think, a book like this is even more relevant.  What is important in life, really? What do you need to survive, to love, and to be happy?  It certainly isn’t instant gratification through fast food, expensive clothes, or pretty, but useless things.  Recently I have been very happy over having a non-damaged house and a safe family after the storm, over the incredibly orange sunrises we have had, and the fact that great books work without electric power of any kind.  That is, real printed books on paper, my favorite kind of book.

Some select quotes from this book to illustrate these points, and remember, this was written in 1942, not 2012:

“Christmas in the woods is much better than Christmas on the Outside. We do exactly what we want to do about it, not what we have to do because the neighbors will think it’s funny if we don’t; or because of the kids, who will judge our efforts not by their own standards but by the standards set up by the parents of other kids. We don’t have any synthetic pre-Christmas build-up – no shop window displays, no carol singers in department stores, no competition in the matter of lighting effects over front doors.”

“Here I can be a rotten housekeeper, and it doesn’t make much difference.  After all, this is the woods. People don’t expect quite so much in the line of shining silver, polished glass, and spotless woodwork. […] Now I am learning to spend my time wisely; and I don’t think it’s very wise to spend two hours waxing the living-room floor on a lovely day when I could be out fishing. “

“We went up the road and across Pond-in-the-River Dam just as the sunlight struck the tops of the trees on the ridge. The valley was still in shadow, with steam rising white from the churning water and turning to a lovely pearly pink as it reached the sun-shot air above. I knew how fish feel as they swim about in the depths and look up to see the light of day above them.”

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