Elizabeth Winpenny Lawson
When and where does the “About” begin?
Not too long after World War II. After serving as an infantryman in World War II in France and Germany, my father, John Lawson, came home to he knew not what. His father had died when he was four, and his mother committed suicide shortly before his return from the war.
When he was able to leave Europe, for there was a lottery system for American soldiers getting home, he found the only ‘home’ he had–the young woman, Charlotte Chevalier, who wrote voluminous letters (one was 14 pages!) to him during the war. Her letters were lost in the mud of a ditch in France when he was shot. He finished college, with difficulty, and took a trip to see a half-brother in Georgia, who would commit suicide like their mother a few years later.
Traveling north from Sea Island, Georgia, my father and mother happened upon Highland County, Virginia, in the fog. When the fog cleared, they saw a landscape that felt like home. Impetuously, desperate to anchor themselves, they decided to stay–in a log cabin in Vinegar Hollow over the hill from the Mustoe Post Office & General Store.
My father planned to leave aside soldiering for farming and writing. Soon, undoubtedly too soon, two daughters were born. Failing to earn enough money to support his family in either farming or writing, he sold half the farm and moved to New York City. Some years later from a distance he wrote award-winning books set in the landscape of Vinegar Hollow, You Better Come Home With Me and The Spring Rider, which won the Boston-Globe Horn Book Award in 1968. Barbara Wersba wrote in her New York Times review of You Better that “reading this book is like falling in love.” He died at age 69 at a time of great stress while taking care of my mother who had Alzheimer’s. It was difficult to find caregivers in this remote place, but he wouldn’t leave the hollow. He had returned and he wasn’t going to leave again.
I realize now, years after my father died, how brave he was to engage with peace time as best he could, and, years after my mother died, how brave she was to become his help mate. Grateful to be their daughter, I think how lucky for me that they got lost in the fog and wandered into Highland County. I found a Muse in Vinegar Hollow, who won’t let me go.
It is a place where you can fall in love with a barn, especially if you have seen a calf die there after a difficult birth. A barn protects both life and death. The hollow is a place where at night there are no lights but the stars.
The writer William Stafford in his poem describing “When I Met My Muse” writes that she said: ” ‘I am your own way of looking at things. When you allow me to live with you, every glance at the world around you will be a sort of salvation.’ ” I do look around me, carefully, having learned to see in the hollow.
Although “natural history” is defined, narrowly, as the observational study of plants and animals in their natural environment, I take the broader view that all history is natural, all species worthy of attention, and a writerly approach the most valuable method of archiving ephemeral, irreplaceable, and irrepeatable details of appearance, behavior, and relationships for reflection. My mother always said that I was literal, as in way too literal. Perhaps that is a sign of the naturalist. Further, I have no sense of irony. Another sign of the naturalist?
Maybe I should be likened to a dog who sniffs the world with enthusiasm?
I love being a student and have accumulated an abundance of degrees, most recently, in 2011, an MFA in Nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University [SNHU]. Previous degrees include a BA in English from Bryn Mawr College, an MA in Botany from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD in Plant Biology from Cornell University. But I would like to write as an amateur. The definition of an amateur, which I learned from a film about golfer Bobby Jones (Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius), is one who loves. Which takes me to my attachments as a daughter, a sister, a wife, an aunt, a grandmother, and a friend. My first husband, the botanist Michael D. Whalen, died at 35 of a brain tumor, when our children Jack and Charlotte were 7 and 4. Eight years later I remarried the nurseryman and landscape designer David Fernandez, and we have a son Douglas.
These relationships, with the living and the dead, influence my thinking as a naturalist, my concern for adding to meaningful conversations about cultivating benign, inclusive attitudes of disinterested acceptance and cultivation of all species and natural resources. Recently I completed a scholarly essay on Margaret E. Murie for an anthology entitled Green Voices: Defending Nature and the Environment in American Civic Discourse, published by SUNY Albany Press in 2016. Murie, one of my heroines, called the “grandmother of conservation” by many, said that grandmothers still have work to do in mentoring and encouraging fellow citizens to protect the Earth for future generations.
My previous work experience includes horticulture (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK for one year as a work-study student; Brooklyn Botanic Garden, NY for two years as a botanical instructor), copy-editing for many years for the Botanical Society of America and the Ecological Society of America, and most recently in my last decade plus of work, teaching for the Writing Department at Ithaca College, where I covered Professional Writing, Technical Writing, Science Writing, Academic Writing, Personal Essay, and Writing as a Naturalist. Although all are interesting and rewarding genres to teach, I find my home in writing as a naturalist.
Always entranced by the many ways in which my students grew through writing, I now aspire to do the same. Why do I write? I write to work, to mingle a naturalist’s perceptions into conversations with other people, and along the way I’d like to be as good company as a young girl, like Clara of the starry eyes, or an old tree, like this black birch still standing in the hollow, the scent of wintergreen in every twig.