Woman, Watching – Louise de Kirilene Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay is a remarkable title, but I now understand that Mrs Lawrence was quite a remarkable woman. Biographies are so much more skillfully written when the author really knows their subject and Merilyn Simonds’ latest book is the story of her friend and neighbour who was also a world-renowned expert in Canadian Ornithology.
Louise de Kirilene Lawrence was born in 1894, into a family of high-ranking Swedish nobility. With a Princess as Godmother, Louise had the privileged upbringing of a debutant but she displayed a headstrong, practical nature. During WWI she trained as a nurse and looked after soldiers on the Eastern Front. After the disappearance of her Russian husband Gleb, she continued nursing in remote communities on the Volga Steppes, waiting for news that never came. Louise eventually crossed the Atlantic and joined The Canadian Red Cross Outpost Service, taking care of families during the Great Depression. Later, she gained fame and international recognition after officially nursing a set of famous quintuplets, The Dionne babies. This backstory skilfully establishes Louise’s character, her drive and pragmatism, and the author covers all of this quite admirably in the first four chapters of the book.
Simonds offers an absorbing narrative, following Louise’s path from Sweden to Russia and Canada, from debutant to nurse and finally… naturalist. To get away from the limelight, Louise settled on a remote piece of land near Pimisi Bay and built her ‘cabane’, ‘The Loghouse Nest’. This unspoilt haven spawned a lifelong habit of observing birds and meticulously logging their behaviour. The depiction of Louise’s life is not one of eccentric isolation, the cabin was always full of visiting writers, ornithologists and experts, trading stories and information. After World War II, when her second husband Len Lawrence returned from active duty, their life continued to revolve around nature, living on the same stretch of land for fifty years. Louise Lawrence’s methodical research has become one of the most revered sources in Canadian Ornithology.
This story has been pieced together after close examination of letters to friends, fellow birders and professors throughout the world. At the heart of the book, there is a profound appreciation of birds, following this novice as she reaches out for advice, corresponds with experts and finally becomes one herself. Simonds has woven in her own very interesting angle, meeting Louise as her neighbour, visiting her at the ‘Loghouse Nest’ and finally staying in the cabin to write this book during the Covid 19 lockdowns of 2020. This perspective makes the book both deeply personal and respectful, the academic side of Lawrence’s work is reverently outlined and acknowledged but the voice of Louise is clearly heard among the snippets, quotes and aphorisms. I’d thoroughly recommend this book to any fan of nature, birds or if you are in need of incredibly strong female role models. Simonds brought her to life like only a good friend could; Louise de Kirilene Lawrence who observed birds, nature and people and was indeed ‘a woman, watching’.
- Woman, Watching – Louise de Kirilene Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay by Merilyn Simonds is published by ECW Press ($28.95). To order a copy go to ecwpress.com for UK purchases please visit www.hive.co.uk (£24.99)
Emma Russell is a teacher and freelance writer currently based in Somerset. Fortunate to have lived and worked in different countries, Emma is fascinated by foreign cultures, from culinary delicacies to storytelling and obscure traditions. Current hobbies include making miniatures, word related puzzles, escape rooms and blogging about books. Emma is currently completing an MA in Travel and Nature writing at Bath Spa University.