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May 10, 2002

Remembering the Late, Great Lady: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence

In a recent conversation with Barry Penhale, who published and keeps in print most of the books of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, he referred to her as the "late great lady," and thus the title of this article. Louise, who lived on the Mattawa River in Calvin Township, was one of Canada’s greatest naturalists, an internationally known writer, and "one of Canada’s most remarkable women." I keep a copy of Louise’s book, The Lovely and the Wild, handy while watching the birds and animals from my window each winter and spring, and I have read the rest of her seven books over the years. I have admired her since 1989 when Marilyn Mohr (now Marilyn Simonds) then of Chisholm Township wrote a memorable ten-page article about her in Harrowsmith magazine.

When I checked the thick Nugget file on Louise, I was reminded of the many honours she received and how the Nugget, especially Gord Mculloch had regularly reported on her. When I started to write this article on April 27, I noticed in her obituary that she had died on April 27, 1992 at age 98, ten years ago to the day. As I glanced out my window I noticed about two dozen grackles and red-wing blackbirds feeding on my lawn, with about fifty slate coloured juncos and purple finches, and a red squirrel waiting their turn. I felt as if Louise was looking over my shoulder as I wrote.

Louise in Sweden and Russia

Louise led several lives, any one of which is a story in itself. She was born Louise Flach in Sweden in 1894 and was connected to aristocracy and royalty through both her father and her mother. Her father was a trained naturalist, and many like-minded people visited their home with Louise learning from them. At age seventeen, as her autobiography Another Winter, Another Spring says, "I left the opulence…hungry for something I could not identify or name, an opportunity to feel passion, a chance to spend energy and heart recklessly."

The cover of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence’s life in Sweden and Russia, showing Louise and her first husband Greb de Kiriline.

In spite of her family’s resistance she became a graduate nurse and looked for challenging work. With the Russian revolution in full swing, she took a job in a camp in Denmark for Russian officers wounded by the Bolsheviks. Here she met Lt. Greb de Kiriline, the son of a Russian general, who she asked to teach her Russian. They fell in love and married. In a story that is reminiscent of Dr. Zhivago he returned to Russia to fight and she followed, on one occasion stowing away in a boatload of men. Gleb and Louise met briefly and were imprisoned. As a Swedish nationalist she was released and followed him from camp to camp until he disappeared deep into Siberia where, unknown to her, he was shot.

Louise looked for him for years while she became a leading nurse, helping the victims of the war. She later wrote Another Winter, Another Spring, which tells this love story and struggle for survival. She returned to Sweden, and in 1927 came to Canada as a Red Cross outpost nurse, ending up in Bonfield east of North Bay. When I spoke to Charles Champagne of Corbeil recently about a plane crash on his property I mentioned Louise. He pointed down Derland Road to the old schoolhouse he attended in the 1930s, and where Louise was the school nurse. She traveled by dogsled in the winter, and Model-A in summer, and taught using a hand puppet to get her story across. Charles has a great affection for her and visited her on occasion.

The Quint Nurse

When the Quints were born in 1936, Dr. Dafoe wanted the best nurse available and chose Louise. She worked hand in hand with him and others during that critical first year. In spite of lucrative lecture opportunities, Louise was ready, in her own determined way, to find a simple, meaningful life, and bought a property on Pimisi Bay, forty kilometers east of North Bay and had a log house built. Here she wrote the book, The Quintuplets First Year (1936). She spoke Swedish, Danish, Russian and French, but wrote perfect English. She won the King George V Jubilee medal for her work with the Quints. In 1939 she met and married Len Lawrence who became her companion and mentor for the next fifty years.

Louise de Kiriline, Dr. Dafoe and Yvonne Leroux with the Quints. (Dionne Quints Museum collection (with expressed permission of A.&C. Dionne)

Louise the Naturalist

Louise slowly became attuned to her natural environment and reached out by letter to several top people in the naturalist and ornithological community. They responded enthusiastically. She began to band birds and keep notes, and eventually with the encouragement of her husband and friends to write for various publications. She eventually wrote over 500 reviews, 17 scientific papers, and 5 books on birds and animals. Her book The Lovely and the Wild, which tells about her settling into Pimisi Bay and her evolution as a naturalist, features profiles of various birds and animals adapted from her articles in the Audubon magazine. She received the John Burroughs Memorial Medal for the book. Among many other honours, she received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University and there is a scholarship there in her name. Her other more scientific books are The Log House Nest, To Whom the Wilderness Speaks, and Mar.

Barry Penhale from Natural Heritage Books, while visiting Hartley Trussler several years ago, contacted Louise, and Barry and his wife Jane became devoted friends. He eventually reprinted five of her books in soft cover, and they are still (thankfully) in print and reasonably priced (1 800 725-9982 or Gulliver’s). Dr. Robert Nero, the well known Canadian naturalist and poet, became good friends with Louise and wrote a book of poems (a Natural Heritage book) called The Woman on the Shore as a tribute to Louise. He says in one verse of a poem that he wrote for her when she turned ninety:

I see her now

On a bench beside the bay

Bird calls drawing her

Out of herself

Words streaming through

Her serene mind

A desire to write

Making her blue eyes shine

Good Swedish friends Lars Ohman and his wife Maria were left Louise’s property on Pimisi Bay, and they have maintained it and used it regularly. Lars indicated in a recent call that her archival material is in safekeeping in the National Archives in Ottawa. We are fortunate to have had Louise living in our midst.

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