Louise Dickinson Rich died in 1991. She received a modest obituary in this newspaper but deserved much more. Her books about living in the Maine wilderness have fired my imagination since I was a teenager.

Rich’s autobiographical book, “We Took To The Woods,” an instant best seller when published in 1942, still serves as a succinct, humorous and profound description of every true Mainer’s fantasy — living deep in the woods undisturbed by modern gadgetry.

Louise, Ralph and their two children lived in the wilderness on the Rapid River between Umbagog and Richardson lakes in the Rangeley region.

Hers was a life without privilege. After describing the untended birth of her son Rufus, Rich wrote that she read a magazine story that reported about people living in homes in America that had no running water, no bathrooms, and no doctor to help with the borning of children.

“I cluck my tongue,” she wrote, “suitably appalled for a moment until true realization hits me between the eyes. My God, I think, that’s us they are talking about! Why — we’re the underprivileged!”

Rich did not believe her children were “hopelessly handicapped because they take baths in washtubs in front of the kitchen range, read by the light of kerosene lamps, and sleep in unheated rooms.” That’s a provocative philosophy today, when kids are thought to be handicapped if they do not have a cellphone and laptop computer.


The standard of living at Forest Lodge was low, by any standard. But the Richs didn’t mind.

She wrote, “You don’t mind cheap clothes if everyone else is wearing clothes just as cheap. There are other things that contribute to health besides a balanced diet. There are fresh air and sunlight and lack of nervous tension. I think, probably, whether you’re better off in the country or in the city depends, in the final analysis, on where you’d rather be. Your best off where you’re the happiest.”

The Richs blissfully avoided the clutter and bustle of life in the organized towns. They were well-informed, with plenty of reading material and time to read.

“We get our news a little late,” she wrote, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run we have a clearer and more sensible idea of what is going on than those who read every special edition and listen to the special spot-news broadcasts on the radio all day long. Frankly, I don’t see how they can possibly know where they’re at from one moment to the next, and I should think they’d all go raving mad.”

Rich summed it up 65 years ago in words that could be written today: “So we have our 15-minute dose of everything’s going to hell each evening, and the rest of the day we try to forget about it.” Amen.

Life in the wilderness eliminated “spare time” and the choices one faces in filling that time. “Now almost everything we do is useful,” writes Rich. “There is no line of demarcation between work and play.


“It makes it hard to explain what I do with my spare time,” she explains, before launching two pages about smelting.

Reading Rich’s book today makes her life seem almost artificial, a sealed-off existence deep in the Maine woods.

When Rich left the Maine woods to move to the coast, she left many of her things in her house. I stayed in that house once, surrounded by her things, which was awesome, and I took my photo sitting at her typewriter.

Franklin Burroughs, a Bowdoin professor and one of my favorite authors, in his exceptional book, “Billy Watson’s Croker Sack,” writes about a Hemingway character, Nick, whose own wilderness experience is “an artificial experience, one carefully sealed off, in the way that a tennis match or chess game is sealed off, from the rush and confusion of ordinary life.”

Certainly, Louise Dickinson Rich’s life was not ordinary — sealed off, yes, but real, not artificial. Perhaps that is what continues to draw me to her books. Today, any attempt to duplicate her life in the wilderness would be artificial, at least in Maine.

There is no wilderness left here. Roads crisscross the north woods, and tourists raft and canoe down our best rivers to find adventure and escape from their city lives.

Rich’s life offered up so many Maine traditions — a life of carefully baked beans and biscuits, skating and smelting, woodstoves and kerosene lamps, wild berries and wilder animals, hard work, real conversations, and solitude.

In Maine today, we can’t take to the woods like Louise Dickinson Rich, and we are all underprivileged because of that.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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