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Book review: Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage by Laura Waterman


Published March 2, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

There are Captain Ahabs and Don Quixotes in this world -- idealists, touched with genius and not a little madness, who spend their lives on a quest for something purer and better than what life seems to offer. But every romantic anti-hero has sidekicks, confidants, onlookers -- in a word, enablers, who often imagine, until it's too late, that they're simply along for the ride.

At the end of her memoir chronicling a 30-year marriage, Laura Waterman compares herself to Melville's Ishmael, the only survivor of Ahab's wreckage: "I was the one left to tell the tale." And tell it she does. The book is a portrait of the East Corinth resident's deceased husband, Guy Waterman. On a deeper level, it's also a portrait of the author herself.

Waterman asks: What makes one person decide to cleave to and support another person's obsessive quest? Why did a bright young woman from an academic family choose to retire with a man almost a decade her senior to the Vermont woods, where they lived without electricity or plumbing on a budget of less than $3000 a year? And why, 27 years later, did that same woman stand on the porch and watch her husband disappear into the woods, knowing that he did not intend to return alive?

An author in her own right, Laura Waterman has previously published in literary magazines and journals, and collaborated with Guy on several outdoors-focused books. Losing the Garden begins in February 2000, when 68-year-old Guy Waterman committed suicide by exposing himself to the elements on Mount Lafayette -- an event he had been planning for more than a year, with his wife's knowledge. Next, Waterman zooms back in time to establish her characters, asking, "What brought us to this pass?"

By himself, Guy Waterman seems to have lived enough to fill several books. A brilliant, exacting, obsessive man, he had several public lives -- as a jazz pianist, Nixon speechwriter and rock climber -- before he and Laura embarked on their experiment in bare-bones homesteading. He was an eloquent promoter of life in the great outdoors. Yet that love of the wild was also a source of personal tragedy, as two of Waterman's sons disappeared into the wilderness forever.

The story of John Waterman, presumed dead on Mount McKinley, will be familiar to readers of the 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. There, author Jon Krakauer portrays Guy Waterman as a cold, distant father who showed little interest in his three sons after divorcing his first wife.

Laura Waterman tells a different version, in which John's death in 1981 was a blow from which Guy never fully recovered. But she doesn't whitewash her husband's character or attempt to disguise his flaws. Waterman says Guy "needed to keep the pressure on," which is something of an understatement. He counted every blueberry he picked, mapped out each hour of his day on 3-by-5 index cards, memorized Milton, and played mental games of fantasy baseball in his idle moments -- all in an effort to drown out the "demons" in his head.

And Laura, who loved Guy, supported him. Granted, he was a control freak, but he could also be witty, creative and charismatic. More importantly, her life had melded with his. Perhaps the most rich and revealing part of Waterman's memoir is her description of the marriage as a symbiosis, in which she could no longer distinguish Guy's attitudes from her own. When a friend asked why she didn't seek outside help for her husband's depression, she answered, "I was living in Guy's world."

Waterman's "total empathy with Guy" during their marriage, and her changing self-awareness after his death, explain the book's somewhat patchy texture. Waterman says she originally planned it as a memoir of successful homesteading, similar to Helen and Scott Nearing's classic books: "The story would be about the practical aspects of how we lived." As she wrote, however, Waterman found herself perplexed by her own inability to tell the story as an I, rather than a we. As she rediscovered her own perspective, disentangling it from Guy's, she writes, "I came to see this was the story of my own awakening."

That's the story readers will probably find most compelling. For descriptions of the couple's life in Vermont, Waterman draws heavily on her daily journals, which contained "no personal stuff," and some sections of the book have a bland, censored-for-public-relations feel to them. Other passages, reflecting her new insights after Guy's death, are so candid they're almost painful to read.

Toward the end, Waterman writes, "What everyone saw was that we were a united couple -- idyllic, really -- who lived in a kind of Garden of Eden." The text's sometimes disjointed feel suggests that Waterman hasn't fully reconciled the chasm between appearance and reality. But her reluctance to accept the "loss of the garden" is, perhaps, part of the nature of love -- and of idealism, which Guy and Laura Waterman shared.

Throughout the book, Waterman describes herself as her husband's sidekick -- the "worker bee" to his "shaman," the Ariel to his Prospero, the Ishmael to his Ahab. With Losing the Garden, a book sure to be of interest to anyone tackling the issue of either sustainable living or "death with dignity," the loyal retainer comes into her own.