Merilyn Simonds is visiting the Callander Museum on Saturday, June 10 to discuss her new book, a biography of a local naturalist legend, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence. The event is from 1 to 2:30 p.m. and includes Simonds’ talk, time for questions from the audience, and a book signing. Admission is free, light refreshments will be served, and the museum is located at 107 Lansdowne Street, Callander.
Louise de Kiriline Lawrence? The name may not ring a bell, but Lawrence was a towering figure within bird watching and naturalist circles, and Simonds’ work is the first biography about this fascinating woman who lived in the forest near Mattawa with her husband, documenting the natural world surrounding her, with a keen affection for birds.
Entitled, Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay, Simonds’ book from ECW Press offers a deep-dive into a Lawrence’s life and work. Simonds details Lawrence’s work as a nurse for the Dionne quintuplets, her family ties to Swedish aristocracy, her stint as a Red Cross Nurse during WWI, her time in Northern Russia and capture by the Bolsheviks, and eventually, her settling in Pimisi Bay, near Mattawa, in a small cabin with her husband.
Lawrence lived a full life before this move, but this relative isolation in the woods allowed her to delve into the natural world, and she began publishing many articles and books on the local bird populations.
Simonds use to live in Callander, not to far from Astorville, on the West side of Lake Nosbonsing. Louise was on the East side, near Rutherglen, and it was during this time, the two met. This was from 1975 to 1987. Simonds now lives in Kingston.
“I knew her when I was just starting to write,” Simonds said, “and she was just finishing her writing career. I met her in North Bay at the launch of her last book, To Whom the Wilderness Speaks, in 1986.
At one time, Lawrence was in charge of the Bonfield Red Cross Outpost Hospital, which meant she provided medical care to those in the region. “She travelled by Model – T Ford and dog sled,” Simonds explained, “and her beat was 2,500 square kilometres.” This was when she became involved with the Dionne family.
“She was very prolific,” Simonds said, and her articles and books had a wide general audience. However, the birders really ate them up, and in birding circles, her contributions to the field remain impactful to this day.
“She was very well-known in the ornithological community around the world.” She was also the first Canadian woman to be elected to the American Ornithological Union and the first Canadian to be awarded the John Burroughs Prize for her book The Lovely and the Wild.
Simonds combed through decades of letters, journals, and notes to research the book, and she also drew from some personal audio recordings of interviews with Lawrence.
Although she wasn’t well known by the public, “she was a fascinating woman, very strong minded, resilient, and generous. She was wonderful.”
With the new biography, the remarkable life of Lawrence will reach new people (it’s going into its third printing) and bring to light one of the region’s more famous residents who you may have not heard of yet but should take the time to meet.
“I’m very excited to come to the Callander Museum, as I’m sure there will be lots of people in the audience who knew Louise, and I look forward to hearing their stories.”
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.