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 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.
He found the young woman, Charlotte Chevalier, who had written letters to him during the war, finished college, and took a trip to see a brother, who would also commit suicide a few years later.
Traveling north from Sea Island, Georgia, they happened upon Highland County, Virginia in the fog. They settled at the end of Vinegar Hollow in a log cabin over the hill from the Mustoe Post Office & General Store.
My father hoped to leave aside soldiering and become a farmer and a writer. Soon two daughters were born.
I only 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, and how lucky I was to be their daughter. I found a Muse in Vinegar Hollow, who won’t let me go.
It’s 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 life and death.
William Stafford in his poem “When I Met My Muse” describing his first encounter with his Muse writes about the encounter: ” ‘I am your own way of looking at things,’ she said. ‘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, with eyes that 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 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], where I completed drafts of my manuscripts, Letters from Mustoe and You Better Come Home With Me (the latter title borrowed from my father’s first children’s book honoring Highland County, Virginia). 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. These relationships 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 natural resources. Recently I completed a scholarly essay on Margaret E. Murie for an anthology entitled Green Voices, under review now at an academic press. 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 have grown 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 or an old tree.