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.
2022 Foreword Indies Award Winner for the Editor’s Choice Prize, non fiction
“[A] lyrical, passionate, and deeply researched portrait.” — Margaret Atwood
“This brilliant account does justice to a pioneering figure who merits wider recognition.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[A] marvelous biography of a true pioneer of ornithology.” — Booklist, starred review
“Woman, Watching is an entrancing blend of biography, memoir, history, research, and homage that is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s radical, it’s ravishing.” — Kyo Maclear, author of Birds Art Life
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 herself 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.
About the author
- Short-listed, John W. Dafoe Book Prize
- Short-listed, Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Book Awards
- Winner, Foreword Indies Book of the Year Awards
Merilyn Simonds is the author of 20 books, including the nonfiction classic The Convict Lover, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, and most recently, the novel Refuge. The founding artistic director of Kingston WritersFest, Simonds is an influential champion of writers and writing. She lives with writer and translator Wayne Grady and divides her time between Kingston, Ontario, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Excerpt: Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay (by (author) Merilyn Simonds)
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.
“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.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“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.” — Booklist starred review
“A stellar, adventure-filled biography.” — Foreword Reviews, starred review
“What a life! Louise de Kiriline Lawrence escaped the Russian Revolution, was nurse to the Dionne Quintuplets, then moved to a log cabin and became an iconic birder and friend of Simonds, who has written this lyrical, passionate, and deeply researched portrait.” — Margaret Atwood
“Simonds — an author of both fiction and nonfiction, including The Convict Lover — is a master of her craft, and that’s clearly reflected in Woman, Watching. Her prose is rich and sprawling, spinning an in-depth narrative out of de Kiriline Lawrence’s life. Stepping into this story is like entering its subject’s beloved forest: there is always another layer, another secret path, another living, breathing thing left to discover. Woman, Watching is a book for long summer twilights or cold winter nights — preferably spent at a cottage or by an old stone fireplace. It’s the kind of book you’ll dive into only to shake your head a few chapters later and wonder where the day has gone. As with the woods, a reader can get lost in there if they’re not careful.” — Quill & Quire
“Woman, Watching is an entrancing blend of biography, memoir, history, research, and homage that is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s radical, it’s ravishing. This portrait of a world rich with diversity, and the subsequent thinning of that fullness, moved me deeply.” — Kyo Maclear, author of Birds Art Life
“Exhilarating. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence has found her ideal biographer in Merilyn Simonds. Woman, Watching is an inspiration and a joy.” — Candace Savage, author of The Wonder of Canadian Birds
“No ordinary biography, but an observational study as compassionate and clear-eyed as those undertaken by its subject — famed amateur ornithologist Louise de Kiriline Lawrence. Beautiful and powerful. Merilyn Simonds has written a remarkable book about a remarkable woman.” — Helen Humphreys, author of Field Study and The Evening Chorus
“The accounts of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence’s unfathomable journey across war-torn Russia and hardships faced in pursuit of someone she loved is a story unto itself, but combined with her migration to a sparsely settled area north of Algonquin Park, and the challenges she encountered on the road to becoming one of Canada’s most respected ornithologists, make this an epic story. In Simonds’s hands, the passion, the struggle, the celebration, and the sheer beauty of Louise’s story leaps off the page.” — Ian Davidson, Director (Americas), BirdLife International
“Louise de Kiriline lived several lives, and this stirring biography brings all of them vividly to the page. In sharing de Kiriline’s passion for birds and concern for their survival, Simonds has created a life history that is a lens upon an entire network of women ornithologists.” — Trevor Herriot, naturalist, activist, and author of Grass, Sky, Song