Laura Waterman - conservationist and author

“Vermont Conversation: Acclaimed Vermont author Laura Waterman reflects on her life in the mountains and her husband’s death,” VTDigger, March 2024. listen »

Adventure Journal interview with Laura: “Mountains As Direction for Living,” issue 21.
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Hear podcast from Outside/In Radio: “Nature Has Done Her Part” – aired on NH Public Radio, Feb 2020

Laura’s story …

What we like to do as children, if we are lucky, we can end up doing as adults. I was formed by the books I read: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books had me regretting I was born in the wrong century for going west in a covered wagon. I read The Conquest of Everest by Sir John Hunt and Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna about the ascent of the first 8000-meter peak when these books came out in the early 1950s. I was twelve and didn’t see why I couldn’t climb mountains like that since it seemed to take mostly determination, and I was quite sure I had plenty of that. I began keeping a book list in 1954, the summer I graduated from eighth grade. When I look back on my lifetime of reading, these book titles and authors illustrate the history of my mind through the various stages in my life.

My husband Guy Waterman (1932–2000) played among the roots of large trees growing up in Connecticut. As an adult, he managed to throw over his city corporate life for that of a climber and homesteader, duplicating that joy, that spirit, by working in his woodlot and advocating on-the-ground mountain stewardship.  …continued below…

View this short interview with Laura Waterman, who moved to Corinth, Vermont in the 1970s with her husband, Guy Waterman. They developed Barra, a self-built, off-the-grid homestead where they raised their own food and made a living from their writing.

…continued from above…
Looking at what I read as a child, it’s not surprising that a homesteading–climbing life suited me, nor is it surprising that I became a writer. I was not born a writer. I served a long apprenticeship, co-authoring books with Guy. Though in the 1990s I began writing short fiction on my own. It was because of scaring my childhood self half-silly by reading the stories of Edgar Allan Poe in bed at night, that I knew, long before I’d written a word, that I’d give nearly anything to write my own stories that could provoke such strong feelings in a reader.

We met at the Shawangunks, Guy and I, the premier climbing cliff in the Northeast. Guy was a seasoned climber, I a beginner. From my first contact with rock all other parts of my life dropped away. Guy and climbing superseded my city life. I had moved to New York City in 1962 after college to work in publishing. By the spring of 1970 my life took an irreversible curve and Guy and I began to plan together our exit from city life to a rural country life of self-sufficient living with plenty of time for mountains. We read Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life and took seriously much of what these gurus of homesteading advised: plan carefully, live within your budget, factor in time for other interests, and in1973, we moved onto 27 acres in Vermont. That summer we built a small home and planted a vegetable garden.

We needed to earn money and hoped that writing could be our “cash crop.” This was Guy’s field. Before coming to New York he was a speech writer in Washington. He liked to say that he had written for three presidents through none were in the oval office at the time: Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon. I understood the hard work of writing not only by way of the publishing companies I’d worked for, but from my father, whose example of early rising for writing time before he left after breakfast to teach his eight o’clock class, formed the daily routine of my childhood.

The books Guy and I wrote grew out of our mountain life and what we witnessed: excessive trail erosion, trampling around shelters, braided paths through the alpine tundra above treeline, a result of the backpacking boom of the 1970s. A Boston magazine, New England Outdoors, gave us our start with a monthly column. Two books grew from these columns: Back woods Ethics: Environmental Issues for Hikers and Campers, first published in 1979, received a National Outdoor Book Award Honorable Mention, and was republished in 2016 as The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping. Next came Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness(1993, 2014). Our interest in mountain history grew alongside our commitment to mountain stewardship and resulted in two more books: Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trailblazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains (1989, 2003, 2019) and Yankee Rock & Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States (1993), updated by Michael Wejchert in 2018. Guy’s and my final book together was A Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True (2000), a posthumous publication for Guy.

For nearly twenty years, we had maintained trails in the alpine areas of New Hampshire’s White Mountains as volunteers for conservation organizations and the U.S. Forest Service. Our mountain life dovetailed with our homesteading work since it all required a dedication to land stewardship. Guy and I often said that our work on the Franconia Ridge felt like an extension of our backyard.

After Guy’s death in 2000, friends and I who cared deeply about Guy and what he stood for in the mountains, started the Waterman Fund. Dedicated to fostering the spirit of wildness, the Fund supports education, research, and stewardship in the alpine zones of northeastern North America. In 2012, the American Alpine Club awarded me, and posthumously Guy, their David Brower Conservation Award.

My own writing continued, first with a memoir of our 28-year experiment with climbing and living a self-sufficient life. Losing the Garden: A Story of a Marriage came out in 2005. Guy’s death was a suicide, and I wrote this book also to attempt to make sense of this — or at least gain some understanding of my own role in our mutual life.

But I had never forgotten that decade of writing short fiction, and in 2008 I committed myself to an historical novel, about the Greely Arctic Expedition, 1881-84. Starvation Shore was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2019. Much of my research for this project was carried out at the Dartmouth College Library, about 30 miles down the road from where I live. Here I had access to Sgt. David Brainard’s diary, a document of the last nine months when the men were starving. Dartmouth made me a copy of Brainard’s journal and I began each morning’s work by writing out a transcription of an entry. The challenge for me was becoming familiar with his handwriting. But I carried as my model my father’s early morning work with transcribing Emily Dickinson’s handwriting. His edition of Dickinson’s poetry was released by the Harvard University Press in 1955. I was fifteen. I had grown up with my Dad’s work. On the pine paneling of his study he had thumbtacked photostats — black sheets showing Dickinson’s back-slanted scrawl in white — as an aid to dating the poems. I felt right at home when I turned to the daily entries in David Brainard’s diary. Afterall, I was returning — in a manner of speaking — to my childhood: the joy and comfort of books.

I live now about two miles from our homestead in a 6-acre clearing that provides ample room for a vegetable garden and a small pond. I’m at work on a second memoir as well as a novel about the opera singer Maria Callas.

Here is a quotation that has marked my life: “Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, and power and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe