Canada’s best kept secret
by Douglas Pugh, The RightEyedDeer Press
On a ship, struggling its way through a storm in the Bay of Biscay, a child is born. Transferred later to a Royal Navy ship for the act of christening, the English father and Spanish mother conjure up the name of Ronald Douglas Lawrence.
Born into such an adventure, Ronald Douglas Lawrence – more commonly known in later life as R.D. - was to go on to live a life of quite the adventure himself. With that start in life how could he not?
While the global media and public are highly familiar with such naturalists as Attenborough, Canada has its own leading light in this sphere, often not noticed so well, in that quiet, good natured Canadian fashion of being polite.
Publishing thirty books during his career, R.D. bridged the gap between himself and nature, and then took the reader with him. The adventures in each book are intensely personal and wonderfully shared.
R.D. had that ability to stand back and use his patience and empathy to try and understand things from an animal’s perspective. The books cover his adventures in the backwoods of Canada, the raising of orphaned animals and their eventual return to the wild, trips that took in sea life, and even a young adult novel.
R.D. was not totally ignored, he won national awards for non-fiction, international awards for conservation, his books were published in 32 countries, in 16 different languages, and yet still the title of a recently launched documentary DVD about R.D. Lawrence ‘Canada’s best kept secret’, does not seem out of place.
Probably most famous for his campaigns towards better understanding of wolves, R.D. made his final home – and of course a wildlife sanctuary – at Wolf Hollow in Haliburton County.
R.D.’s early years were as varied and perhaps as exotic in some regards as his writing. His teenage years encompassed fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and enlisting in the British Army whilst underage, saw him serve in Dunkirk, North Africa and Normandy during World War 2.
Academia beckoned, but R.D.s thesis, written on the subject of the humble stickleback fish, was deemed as good but the plain English utilised was disliked. R.D. refused to compromise and re-write it in more academic terms, standing fast to his principles and leaving unqualified.
The wilds of Canada beckoned, and following a stint reporting for a few Canadian newspapers, R.D. bought his first homestead far in the North of Ontario, somewhere that even hardened Canadians would think more than twice about.
“Only an unknowing Englishman would have bought such a place,” laughs his widow, Sharon Lawrence, “ I don’t think he had any concept of how tough it could be, but even understanding that after a while, R.D. ploughed on dauntless as ever.”
While clearing his land and developing the homestead, R.D. rekindled his love and fascination of nature, something first experienced as a child swimming in the friendlier waters of the Mediterranean. R.D. became enamoured of the local wolf pack, amongst all the other critters that he encountered in these remote places, and his curiosity lead him to further and further exploration of the area, and a greater understanding of the animals themselves.
R.D. observed and studied the pack in a quiet manner, open to understand what drives these creatures, respectful of pack structure, their basic need above all things to survive. In itself a potentially dangerous study to be sure, but with care and respect for the nature of the beast, R.D. learned far more about the animals in their own freedoms and habitat.
R.D. also went on a fourteen month exploration of the British Columbia wilderness accompanied only by his faithful wolf-dog hybrid, Yukon. A spell in the Prairies of Canada followed, resuming his journalism in Winnipeg.
Buying a wilderness property North of Toronto, R.D. and wife Joan studied their love of the wild and wolves in particular. These happy times were suddenly over when Joan sadly died of a brain haemorrhage at the tender age of just 33.
This lead to a selling off of the property and R.D. returned to British Columbia, this time though buying and sailing a boat, studying marine life and sea ecosystems.
His books at this time had been released most years, meeting much critical acclaim but not particularly doing terrifically well on sales.
On his return to Ontario again, R.D. met up with his third wife, Sharon, and began writing books on a full time basis, working from his experiences and journals. After signing a new deal with a large American publishing house, R.D.’s next work ‘Paddy’, a touching story of a rescued beaver, sales go through the roof.
“ ‘Paddy’ sold more books than the previous eight books had over their ten year spread,” says Sharon, “it was amazing.”
In between relocating to a new animal refuge in Haliburton, ‘Wolf Hollow’, R.D. not only works on advocating ecological awareness and a better relationship between man and nature, but carries on writing book after book.
“R.D. always made sure that he had one ready every year in time for my birthday,” says Sharon, “ he worked regular hours in his cabin, only stopping for lunch and supper. He did have a habit of reading a ‘Whodunnit’ every night though.”
Helping to establish The Wolf Centre in Haliburton Forest, in 1993, is one of his most rewarding feats. The centre allows visitors to sit amongst a free roaming pack, safely hidden behind one way glass and listening via carefully positioned microphones. These wolves are not domesticated, something that palpably races through your mind as you sit quietly among them.
Sadly, R.D. passed away in 2003, stricken by Alzheimer’s but enduring to the more than respectable age of 84. He left six books in his cabin that were unfinished.
Since then his wife Sharon has been re-releasing the thirty books written by this heroic, charismatic figure, each and every one of them exploring man’s relationship with the wild, and especially not judging creature’s actions by our own framework, but by observance.
A centre dedicated to the memory of the great man, R. D. Lawrence Place, was founded in Minden, Ontario, featuring R.D.’s much travelled desk and some of the equipment used on his expeditions, along with photographs and notes.
You can find the re-released books of this forward thinking naturalist, along with a recently released DVD biography, ‘Canada’s Best Kept Secret’. The DVD is a very popular sale on the www.MadeInHaliburton.ca site, with sales worldwide.
Further information about R.D. can be found at www.crywild.com
R.D. is the kind of ‘Secret’ that should not remain a secret, no matter how quiet and polite Canadians may be. He was and should be a treasure kept burning brightly.
As R.D. himself said ; ‘ Once I quit this planet, I care not one whit about the leftovers and I wouldn’t mind a bit if they were put to good use by the animals of the northern forest, but I would like my passing to be noticed by at least one other human being.’
I think his passing should be noticed by us all.