By: Gary Paul Nabhan
Ann Zwinger, whose writing appeared frequently in Orion, died this past weekend. Ann served on Orion’s board of directors from 1996 to 2003, and was awarded Orion’s John Hay Award in 1996.
I am sorry, but I cannot comment on Ann Haymond Zwinger unless I tell you how I met her and how she sent many of us on altogether new trajectories.
Imagine yourself a scruffy, somewhat lazy and spacy seventeen year old trying to make sense of the world at a time when the country is immersed in regrettable wars, when race riots are erupting on the streets, and when drugs and demons are plaguing your closest friends. That moment is now, but it also describes what was happening in the spring of 1970. I had dropped out of school to work for free at the Washington, DC, headquarters of the first Earth Day, but when I left the Capitol that spring, I felt sure the world was soon to end, due to war, contamination, and overpopulation. All I wanted to do was experience nature before its glory was further tarnished, so I joined seven friends who were driving to the newly established Canyonlands National Park, in Utah.
One of those friends was Susan Zwinger, a young poet and artist whose works were already receiving acclaim, and as we passed through Colorado on our way to Utah we stopped to borrow some backpacking equipment from her mother. From her mother? Ann was older than my own mother (who never owned a backpack her entire life), but she was more than just a camper. She was a fit and charismatic outdoorswoman who had just finished her first book of natural history writing and illustration, Beyond the Aspen Grove, all while raising three artistically talented daughters. Her botanical illustrations adorned the walls of their home in Colorado Springs. Her field observations and sketches were neatly kept in notebook after notebook. And the first copies of her first book had just arrived at the Zwinger residence.
Damn, I thought to myself in my surly, seventeenish manner. A book of natural history written by someone who isn’t dead, like Thoreau and Leopold and all those other guys? And Mrs. Zwinger had started on a second book as well. It turned my head around.
A couple years later, when I passed through Colorado Springs with my friend Steve Trimble, we worked up the nerve to call and see if Susan was home. She wasn’t, but Ann invited us over. Steve and I were entranced. While others were on the streets raging against machines, Ann’s drawings and stories reminded us in a quiet but powerful way what was at stake. The beauty that her drawings and narratives evoked were enough to quell my rants, and I began classes in botany, scientific illustration, and creative writing because of her.
She moved from one landscape to another, gaining a commanding knowledge not only of plants, insects, and birds, but of geology, hydrology, and culture as well. She saw in patterns, but also had a remarkable gift for observing detail. On a sloshing backpack trip with me up Aravaipa Canyon in southern Arizona, Ann identified plants and insects faster than I could, getting them down to genus or species, all without having been in the landscape before. When I commented how flabbergasted I was by her capacity for taxonomic discernment, she simply replied that she had an artist’s training to look in detail at shapes of wings, antennae, corollas, and fruits, and etch them into her memory. Although she trained informally with some of the best botanists and entomologists in the West, her degrees were in art and art history. I’ve never met anyone who has used artistic training to better advantage in being a naturalist.
That, in fact, was her highest calling—the humble vocation which these days has almost become just an avocation: being a naturalist. While biology departments were retiring their classes in natural history to make room for quantitative genetics or theoretic ecology, Ann was exciting millions with her books, art exhibits, and readings that paid homage to what we loved to call “humankind’s real oldest profession—the birds and the bees.”
Nineteen books, hundreds of field journals, thousands of drawings and tens of thousands of miles of river rafting, bush flying, and backcountry hiking later, Ann Zwinger’s fingers and toes have stopped reaching out to run another river, climb another mountain, and remind us of the breathtaking beauty of this world. She mentored and influenced dozens of us, not just Susan Zwinger, Steve Trimble, and myself, but the likes of Hannah Hinchman, Terry Tempest Williams, and Susan Tweit as well. She paid her dues as a leader not only of Orion, but also of the Thoreau Society, the John Burroughs Association, the Nature Conservancy, and many other organizations. She was a mentor, writer, artist, citizen, mother, wife, and friend. But more than anything else, she was a “nearsighted naturalist” with a unique vision and a warm heart.
Goodbye, Ann. See you on the other side of the rapids.
Gary Paul Nabhan, now known as Brother Coyote, is an Ecumenical Franciscan brother engaged in Richard Rohr’s Living School at the Center for Contemplation and Action in the Southwest. He co-edited Stitching the West Back Together: Collaborative Conservation in Working Landscapes, recently released from University of Chicago Press.