I wasn’t expecting to find a link between Theresa Kishkan’s thoughts on Ukraine and Merilyn Simonds’ ornithologist, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, but there is one: Russia. Read on to see how the villain of the piece is again Russia. Sort of. Merilyn Simonds is writing about how she came to her most recent book, Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay (ECW Press), which was published on May 24, 2022, and in that context, Russia is but a bit player, a heart breaker.
by Merilyn Simonds
For me, the path to a book can be narrow and twisting, sometimes vanishing in the underbrush of fresh ideas, only to emerge wider than ever, an easy stroll through the forest—until it dips into a swamp. The metaphor may be strained, but it is not inappropriate.
In 1989, I wrote a profile of Canadian naturalist and nature writer Louise de Kiriline Lawrence for Harrowsmith magazine, and she liked it so much she asked me to be her biographer. She was 95 at the time; I was barely 40, a divorced freelance writer with two sons, trying to make ends meet by writing how-to books. Sure! I said, without a clue as to how I might go about fulfilling such a promise.
I had no doubt there was a book in Louise’s life. Born into Swedish aristocracy, her godmother was the Queen of Denmark, her father a noted conservationist. When the First World War erupted, she trained as a Red Cross nurse, fell in love with a wounded White Russian officer, Gleb Kirilin Nikolayevich, and followed him to the edge of the Arctic Circle, into the final days of the Russian Civil War. When the Reds defeated the Whites, Louise and Gleb joined a thousand sleighloads of refugees racing across to the tundra to the Finnish border. (Think Dr. Zhivago). They were captured and sent to a Bolshevik prison, where Gleb disappeared. Alone, Louise emigrated to Canada, to Ontario’s near north, where, as luck would have it, the Dionne family was among her patients, and so Louise became nurse-in-charge to the famous quintuplets.
That fame clung to her like a burr. When I met Louise fifty years later, she was still being introduced as “nurse to the Quints,” even though she’d tended them for only a year and had since made an international name for herself as a self-trained ornithologist, studying birds in the patch of wilderness where she’d built a log cabin to get away from the media frenzy around those little girls. I had brought my copy of To Whom the Wilderness Speaks to her book-signing at the library in North Bay. I arrived late, hoping the crowd would have thinned, but the room was still jammed with people pressing to be close to Louise. Even so, there was a spark between us.
We met occasionally after that. The few times we were together, we talked birds and writing and how the Northwoods inspired us and at the same time threw up its obstacles. I moved and she died, but the idea of this woman, alone in the woods, watching, stayed with me. What drove her particular brand of curiosity? What fuelled her passion for birds, a devotion that never faltered for half a century? What in her background or her character or her situation conspired to shape this immigrant woman, isolated in a log cabin in the northern Ontario bush, into one of Canada’s first and finest amateur ornithologists and nature writers?
I was intrigued. But a biography? I didn’t read them, and I couldn’t imagine writing one.
Like Louise, I’ve been watching birds since I was a little girl. But it wasn’t until ten years ago, when I started living part of the year in Mexico, in the wintering grounds of some of our summer songbirds, that it struck me that what I call “our” birds actually live in Canada only a few months of the year—just long enough to find a mate, build a nest, and fledge a family. The greater part of their lives is spent in the south, where Mexicans also call them “our” birds, nuestras aves.
Now, in early spring, I thrill to the murmurations as birds gather and swirl in preparation for their long trip north and thrill again to see them flock together in the fall to head south. I study the Wilson’s warbler hopping through the bougainvillea and wonder if it is the same bird I see in the apple tree back home.
Louise was like that. She watched birds wherever she was, piqued by differences, but most intently watching for commonalities. She returned to Sweden half a dozen times, mostly by ship and once by plane. Even from the air, she saw the world through the eyes of a naturalist: “There is a particular kind of ‘nap’ to this Canadian landscape. It is like the nap of a coarse Persian carpet, strong, deep, and everlasting.” She’d flown over six countries to get back to Scandinavia but found that same “nap” in only two: the place where she was born and the place where she died, thirty years ago this spring.
Finally, I could see my way to writing the life of this remarkable woman, chapters lifted from letters and speeches and research studies, told in her own words. My birds of the south interfeathered with hers. At its heart, a story of migration—between countries, between professions, between loves.
- Merilyn Simonds will talk about her book at the Bonnechere Authors Festival in Eganville on July 11, 2022. Click here for her book-related event details.
- “Woman, Watching” the video.
- Publishers Weekly review of Woman, Watching.
Header photo of murmuration: Creative Commons Share 2.0 Airwolfhound, Set 72157659607946156, ID 21446738793, Original title Starling Murmuration – RSPB Minsme.