Woman, watching Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the songbirds of Pimisi Bay

Merilyn Simonds, 1949-

Book - 2022

"From award-winning author Merilyn Simonds, a remarkable biography of an extraordinary woman -- a Swedish aristocrat who survived the Russian Revolution to become an internationally renowned naturalist, one of the first to track the mid-century decline of songbirds. Referred to as a Canadian Rachel Carson, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence lived and worked in an isolated log cabin near North Bay. After her husband was murdered by Bolsheviks, she refused her Swedish privilege and joined the Canadian Red Cross, visiting her northern Ontario patients by dogsled. When Elzire Dionne gave birth to five babies, Louise became nurse to the Dionne Quintuplets. Repulsed by the media circus, she retreated to her wilderness cabin, where she devoted herse...lf to studying the birds that nested in her forest. Author of six books and scores of magazine stories, de Kiriline Lawrence and her "loghouse nest" became a Mecca for international ornithologists. Lawrence was an old woman when Merilyn Simonds moved into the woods not far away. Their paths crossed, sparking Simonds's lifelong interest. A dedicated birder, Simonds brings her own songbird experiences from Canadian nesting grounds and Mexican wintering grounds to this deeply researched, engaging portrait of a uniquely fascinating woman."--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 508.092/Lawrence Due May 13, 2024
Toronto, Ontario, Canada : ECW Press [2022]
Main Author
Merilyn Simonds, 1949- (author)
Physical Description
403 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Issued also in electronic formats
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • 1. The Golden Bird
  • 2. The View from the Terrace
  • 3. Hungry for Something
  • 4. Untrammelled Landscapes
  • 5. Hold Fast to This
  • 6. This Gentle Art
  • 7. Like the White Wings of Angels
  • 8. Nothing Happens Haphazardly
  • 9. A Strong Wall around Me
  • 10. Ennobling Influence
  • 11. The Eyes of the Heart
  • 12. A Limitless Capacity to Rebound
  • 13. Visions of Woodpeckers
  • 14. With High Heart
  • 15. A Fine and Baffling Interplay
  • 16. Lest Living Lose Its Zest
  • 17. As Long as It Lasts
  • 18. Never a Day Alike to the Other
  • Source Note
  • Author's Note
  • Acknowledgements
  • Credits
  • Photo Credits
  • Bibliography of Works by Louise De Kiriline Lawrence
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was a watcher. For 50 years she kept meticulous records about the birds she saw, where they nested, and how successful they were while also running a bird-banding station. Living in the boreal forest of Ontario, Lawrence was a self-trained and dedicated ornithologist who wrote life histories of northern birds and published almost 100 papers in popular magazines and scientific journals. Author and birder Simonds lived nearby, met Lawrence, and was moved to write about her after Lawrence's death. Lawrence was a singular woman, born to Swedish gentry before she became a nurse with the Red Cross during WWI. She met a Russian POW who became her first husband, moved to Russia, then lost her husband to a Bolshevik prison. She subsequently emigrated to Canada, becoming a Red Cross outpost nurse and caring for the famous Dionne quintuplets. The observational skills and precise recordkeeping that helped keep the babies alive carried over to her years of bird observations, which she embarked on after her second husband left to fight in the WWII. Simonds' own birding and life story are woven into the narrative, adding to the addictive quality of this marvelous biography of a true pioneer of ornithology.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Simonds (The Convict Lover) excels in this beautifully written and moving biography of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence (1894--1992), a nature writer and distinguished Canadian ornithologist. Through a diligent analysis of Lawrence's correspondence, scrapbooks, research notes, and book drafts, Simonds recreates both her subject's inner life and considerable achievements. Lawrence was born in Sweden and served as a nurse for the Red Cross during WWI. She and her first husband, Gleb Kirilin, were imprisoned by the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war--Kirilin, a Russian military officer, didn't survive, and when Lawrence was released, she immigrated to Canada, where she remarried and began keeping "meticulous records" of the birds she saw at her Ontario cabin. By the end of her first year she'd identified 73 species and had begun to write prolifically; she was eventually invited to join the prestigious (and male-dominated) American Ornithologists Union. Her nature writing received multiple awards, and she made crucial discoveries in the field of ornithology, setting a still-standing record for counting bird song and "pars the meaning of bird behaviour that scientists are only now proving to be true." Simonds's prose shines and brings the reader into the remarkable moments bird-watchers live for. This brilliant account does justice to a pioneering figure who merits wider recognition. (May)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

The March sun wasn't yet warm enough to slump the snow when the evening grosbeaks descended on Louise's feeding station. She was watching out her kitchen window, as she always did, a cup of strong coffee in hand, her reward after a vigorous bird walk at dawn, a habit of forty years that she had not yet given up, even on the cusp of ninety. The flock of black and yellow birds mobbing her tray of sunflower seeds was the largest she'd seen in years. For decades, she'd been collecting data on evening grosbeaks for her ornithologist friend Doris--how many came to her feeder, male or female, when and where they nested, how long it took the eggs took to hatch and the young to fledge. She made a mental note to check her records to see if the numbers this spring were truly record-breaking. Suddenly, amidst the black and yellow throng, a flash of pure gold. Louise lifted her binoculars. Obviously a grosbeak--those thick seed-cracking bills--but solidly yellow, like an oversize canary. The other birds settled back to their feeding, edging the uncanny bird off the tray whenever it tried to snatch a seed, until finally, the gilded bird rose like wisp of pure sunshine and disappeared among the trees. *** My feeder was half an hour southwest of Louise's, flying as a hungry bird might along the canopy-highway of boreal forest between her log house nestled in the pines on the edge of Pimisi Bay and my R2000 prefab, tucked into hundreds of acres of forest just south of Callander in Ontario's Near North. Evening grosbeaks shifted across my wooden feeding tray as if by some prearranged schedule, clearly not women and children first as it was the males that were snuffling up the sunflower seeds, cracking them open and scooping out the meat with their thick, curling tongues, blackening the snow with shells. The motorcycle gang, I called these birds, gold slashes above the eyes like cool yellow sunglasses, wings glossy as black leather jackets with a startling white blaze. My sons were at school; my husband at work. I stood alone at the sliding-glass doors, counting. A hundred birds, at least. Silvery females were jostling for seed now. Suddenly they fluttered up, a small explosion, leaving a strange, golden bird alone on the tray. *** I met Louise de Kiriline Lawrence in 1980, just a few years before the golden bird landed on both our feeding trays. She was an imposing woman--tall, square-jawed, and high-cheeked with plain Scandinavian features, her hair clipped sensibly short though still elegant, her clothes finely made and artfully chosen. A handsome, no-nonsense woman with penetrating eyes. I was barely thirty, living in the bush with two young boys scarcely in school. I had just written my first book; she had just published her last, although neither of us knew that then. Excerpted from Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay by Merilyn Simonds All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.