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We Took To The Woods | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine | May 2016 |  www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

Here the people seem to possess the secret of tranquility
and to live lives of more than surface contentment.

Louise Dickinson Rich penned those words as one of her many attempts to explain to all her readers from “away” just exactly why a sophisticated woman, born in Massachusetts, a descendant of the clan of poet Emily Dickinson, and a best-selling author would choose to live a very basic existence deep in the woods of Maine’s western lake region. It was a way of life she ambled into by accident, but one she embraced with all her being and one which transformed not only her and her family’s lives, but brought inspiration to ever so many of her devoted readers.

My husband Greg and I were among those readers.  We read her classic, We Took To the Woods, together after our first summer visit to Maine, and though at that point we had never actually been to the Rangeley region, the immediacy of Rich’s prose made us feel we knew her, Ralph, her children, her pets, and her natural world in intimate detail. We went on to devour all her other books, the two sequels Happy the Land and My Neck of the Woods, as well as her later narratives about Cape Cod and coastal Maine.  Her words resonated somewhere deep in the recesses of our consciousness, and when we ultimately made the decision to retire to Maine, we knew she had been the initial reason.

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Not that we moved to a cabin on the Rapid River. In fact, like Rich, we were city kids who detested black flies and primitive living conditions, but unlike her we did not happen upon our destinies.  We carefully chose a college town near Maine’s largest and most cultural city, yet only minutes from the ocean and steps from the woods.  It was a sensible compromise, and one which proved to be transformative for us in so many ways. For while Rich’s accounts of surviving the practical realities of harsh winters, isolation, child-rearing, and making a living from the land and its resources amuse and inform us, it is the metaphysical bent of her prose which transcends the anecdotes. Like Thoreau and Henry Beston before her, she believed, Nature is simply something indispensable, like air and light and water, that we accept as necessary to living, and the nearer we can get to it the happier we are. And it is the inner tranquility, the now -seemingly-lost purity and simplicity of purpose and values that shines from her writings and from the life she chose to lead.

Louise Dickinson Rich was born in Huntington, Massachusetts, in 1903 and grew up in Bridgewater. Her father was the editor of the local newspaper and Emily Dickinson was a cousin, so literature was perhaps her birthright, but like most educated young women of her day, she was trained to become a teacher. Her few years spent in a high school English classroom convinced her this was not her vocation. In 1926 she married John Bacon, but he proved to be an  “insubstantial playboy” and they divorced in 1931.  Invited to join her sister Alice on a canoeing trip in western Maine, she met Ralph Rich serendipitously while walking past his house one morning. It was a union of kindred spirits that blossomed from that first chance conversation followed by luncheon in 1933 to marriage a year later, two children, Louise’s career as a best selling author, and a shared life in the wilderness for twelve years until Ralph’s sudden death in 1945. Louise chose to remain in Upton for some time, stumbling into a third brief, unhappy, alcoholic marriage, before determining to raise her two children, Rufus and Dinah, as a single parent and moving first to Cape Cod and then the Gouldsboro peninsula, a place of wild and rugged beauty near Maine’s Acadia National Park. When she died at the venerable age of eighty-seven at her daughter’s home in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, she had to her literary credit some twenty-two books and a byline beloved in such magazines as The Atlantic, Good Housekeeping, and Readers Digest.

Perhaps it was her writing which kept Louise Dickinson Rich connected and “sane” in the isolation of the woods, though at times she must have felt she was leading a double life. She once wrote about her trip to New York City to visit her publisher that one has to get out of Upton once in a while in order not to go queer. But she countered that comment with another:

    Mainiacs away from Maine are truly displaced persons, only half alive, only half aware of their immediate surroundings. Their inner attention is always preoccupied and pre-empted by the tiny pinpoint on the face of the globe called Down East. They try to live not in such a manner that they will eventually be welcomed into Paradise, but only so that someday they can go home to Maine.

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The wilderness of the mountains, Richardson and Umbagog Lakes, the Rapid River whose torrents swept past their tiny wooden house, the few loyal friends among the locals, the glorious beauty of the place in the summer and the challenge it posed in the severe winters all filled her with a strange vigor. And then, of course there was Ralph, a successful Chicago mechanical engineer, who had, following a divorce, moved to a camp in Maine, determined to lead a Thoreau-like existence, a man with literary tastes (and ambitions) as well as a sturdy, practical sort who was an astute Maine guide, an outdoorsman, and someone who was inventive and skilled enough to fix anything. He came seeking a quieter, less stressful, more essential life, away from the bustle of the city, and he found his soul mate in Louise. Both were witty, urbane, and yet disarmingly concrete in their approach to life.

And it is this very blend of sophisticated intellect and folksy charm that emerges as Louise Dickinson Rich’s singular literary voice. A female author in that day was forced to write articles about domestic life, but even in these, Rich’s style is delightfully whimsical, her advice subtle, tongue-in-cheek, such as in this passage where she talks about her work as a plumber’s mate:

    I learned a lot about elbow joints and shut-offs, but I gave up on the day he herded me into a bathroom, asked me to hold up the end of the bathtub while he tightened the connection, and then left me standing there lifting while he got out the makings, rolled and lighted a cigarette and went out to find the proper wrench. I am good-natured, but enough was enough, and holding up the end of a bathtub for fifteen minutes more or less was more than enough.  Resigned my commission as plumber’s mate. (Backstairs)

And more than anything else, she is a charming raconteur. Her ability to spin an anecdote and have the reader split his sides laughing or nod in quiet identification is born of a long tradition of American writers from Mark Twain to Henry David Thoreau. And while Louise and Ralph were certainly living a life unfamiliar to most of her readers, she somehow managed to make her experience accessible, even embraceable.  There is something of the everywoman in her plainspoken forthrightness.

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Who does not identify with her humorous telling of the husband-wife adventure she and Ralph shared one night hauling in winter food stocks?

    Forty-eight cases of canned goods fill our trailer to the brim and weigh enough to be a strain on the trailer hitch. It was unfortunate that the hitch chose to give way as we were going around a down-hill curve. We kept to the road, but the trailer went flying off into the woods, dodging a dozen trees with uncanny intelligence and coming up whango! Against a house-size boulder. Cans of milk, figs in syrup, salmon, string beans, sliced peaches, clam chowder and what have you littered the ground. We got out and looked at the wreck and at each other.

    Ralph said a few things and then he said, ‘Help me get the trailer back on the road, and I’ll go home and fix the hitch while you pick up this mess.’

Or her matter-of-fact narrative about how their first child, Rufus, was born early on a wintry night with only a nervous Ralph to aid in the delivery and of how Ralph, having read somewhere that the baby should be greased, cut the umbilical cord, and rubbed the infant with olive oil:

    ‘Did you get him greased all right?’ I asked anxiously.

    He looked offended. ‘Certainly, I did I should hope, after all the pistons I’ve oiled in my lifetime – Pistons, mind you!’

But Rich was also capable of economy, an understated somber tone when speaking of the things held closest in her heart. Her terse account of Ralph’s sudden death (likely of a cerebral hemorrhage) in the midst of a sentence one frozen night as they sat by the fire is all the more intense for its restraint:

    One minute he was laughing with me, then he gave a sigh, then he was dead. I now realize what a wonderful thing it was to have happened. He might have made a partial recovery and been crippled and paralyzed in a wheelchair. He couldn’t have borne that. Life without action would have been hell for him. I’m glad now he was so lucky. But after the shock and the grief of the moment passed, I realized only one thing: that I was alone and that for the rest of my life I was going to be lonely. (Only Parent)

Reflecting on her loss a decade later, she remembered the terrible moment more poetically, but she also was able to draw meaning from it, this time in a more intangible way:

    Then there was the time in December. My husband and I were laughing over a silly joke in the evening after dinner, relaxed in our slippers before the open fire. We’d spent the day snugging down the cabin for the winter, and we felt good knowing that there were forty miles of lake and impossible road between us and the nearest settlement. We were having fun. ‘Louise, you gorgeous fool,’ he said and died. I don’t know how I could possibly have survived that- because you see, I loved him from the bottom of my heart –if it hadn’t been for my neighbor Alice Parsons. She came and sat with me, not saying a word, just with infinite wisdom being there …..

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The anecdote points up one of the core values of Louise Dickinson Rich’s life and one of the chief reasons she and Ralph chose to make a life in the woods, away from the winds of war brewing in the 1930s and 40s. And that was the sense of solid goodness, neighborliness, human comradeship.  She finishes the essay this way:

    I don’t know about God. He’s far too big for me to understand. But I have seen his visage reflected in the faces of the people who have helped me through my hard times. I hope to live so that someday, someone will say,
    ‘Louise Rich? Oh, sure, I know her. She isn’t so bad. She’s human.’

Perhaps ironically, as a writer and as a person, Louise Dickinson Rich was to discover and nurture her humanity, her beliefs by first withdrawing from the world and by immersing herself in only the essential – in Nature, in a far simpler, less consumer -driven daily existence, in community and unshakeable friendships, in a solid deeply loving marriage which was a world in itself to her, in her children and their education and future, and perhaps most of all, in her growing sense of self-sufficiency and independence.

After Ralph’s death in 1945, Louise’s career as a writer continued for another forty-five years. In fact, almost all her other published books were written post-Ralph. If their twelve-year marriage and life in the woods helped her to find her unique voice as an author, his death gave her the fierce drive to go on with her life, making sense of it on the page. It is an obsession I completely understand, and if I loved Louise Dickinson Rich’s writings from the first, I came to understand them even more fully after my own widowhood.

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As I write this essay I look out over my own rear lawn which merges into the thick pinewoods of the town commons. My glance rests on the tall metal sculpture Greg bought me as a housewarming present when we first moved to Maine; it is a steel moose who now nestles within a bed of grasses. And to the right of the house is a mailbox that has been made to look like a loon. After installing these totems Greg and I joked about what to call our new “pets.”  We settled on Ralph (for the moose) and Louise (for the loon), thinking back on our discovery of the couple in We Took To the Woods many years ago. But the game had a greater significance. We were honoring the shared impulses which had brought us – successful, type-A career New Yorkers - to Maine as well. Though our woods were far tamer than the wild forests, rivers, mountains, snows of Louise Dickinson Rich’s tale, they still seemed pristine, noble, sometimes menacingly dark, but always filled with a sense of vast possibility.

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Coarousel and Other Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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