Ronald Lawrence (Profile)

Now 74 and living on a 100-acre wilderness spread in the Haliburton Highlands, 170 km north of Toronto, Lawrence avoids discussing the two years he fought in Spain, or the five he served as a British soldier in the Second World War.

Lawrence, Ronald
Lawrence's travels, a combination of adventure and biological research, have provided the raw material for his nature books. He is seen here with his dog Yukon (courtesy Maclean's).

Lawrence, Ronald (Profile)

In July, 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Ronald Douglas Lawrence joined the Republican forces defending Spain's precarious democracy against fascist rebels. Within days of enlisting, the Spanish-born Lawrence (Spanish mother, British father) got his first taste of combat. He and his best friend were ordered to lead a contingent of troops through the sewers of Barcelona, where Lawrence lived, to the city's waterfront. The objective was to come up behind three dockside warehouses and ambush the enemy soldiers holed up inside. In the ensuing gun battle, the friend died, and Lawrence killed his first man. He was a few weeks shy of his 15th birthday.

Now 74 and living on a 100-acre wilderness spread in the Haliburton Highlands, 170 km north of Toronto, Lawrence avoids discussing the two years he fought in Spain, or the five he served as a British soldier in the Second World War. Those years, he says, were full of death, destruction and sorrow, a striking contrast to his life's work since then - the observation, study and preservation of the natural world. For years, he has been caring for injured and orphaned wildlife, ranging from rabbits and raccoons to foxes and wolves, sent to him by humane societies and individuals across the country. And he has been writing. Over the past three decades, Lawrence has produced 29 books - his most recent, a collection of essays about animals called A Shriek in the Forest Night, was released in April by Toronto-based Stoddart Publishing - that reflect a lifetime spent studying and observing nature. "As far back as I can remember," he says, "two things have always been part of my life. One is writing. The other is an interest in the environment."

A tall, distinguished-looking man with greying hair and dark, intense eyes, Lawrence has spun his personal experiences and observations into compelling fiction and nonfiction about the animal kingdom. In spare but highly evocative prose, Lawrence has described the exhilaration of swimming with sharks and whales, the thrill of running with wolves and pumas. He has also challenged much conventional wisdom about animal behavior. Lawrence maintains, for example, that sharks, far from being the born killers of myth and Hollywood movies, only attack humans when threatened or provoked. "He has a very deep sensitivity to landscapes and wildlife," says Monte Hummel, president of the Toronto-based World Wildlife Fund Canada. "But he's an undiscovered asset to this country because he's never advocated his issues in a public, strident way."

Besides being one of Canada's most prolific contemporary writers, Lawrence is also one of the most widely read. His books have been published in 16 countries and 14 languages, including German, Italian, Norwegian, Chinese and Japanese. Cry Wild, his most popular work and one of five books he has written about wolves, sold a 1½ million copies in the first three months after its release in the United States in 1991. Yet he is far from a household name in Canada, largely because of his disdain for any kind of promotion. "He's a publicist's nightmare," says Anna Porter, chairman of Toronto-based Key Porter Books, which will publish his newest work, a study of owls titled Silent Flyers, next spring. "He does not want to be in a hotel room. If we can get him to Toronto for one night, he'll do an interview in the morning and he's gone."

While avoiding media exposure, Lawrence and his wife, Sharon, 54, have opened their home near the resort town of Haliburton to more than 6,000 visitors in the past 12 years. Most are Canadians, but others come from the United States, Europe and even Japan. And for some, a trip to the Lawrence spread is a near-mystical experience. "There was a young couple in their early twenties from Belgium who had read Ron's books," recalls Sharon. "They kept asking in letters if they could come and visit. Finally, the husband phoned and said they were going to come, and this was January. They stayed two weeks and just looked at the trees, and watched the birds and animals. They couldn't get over the land and the lakes. The woman said to me, 'I didn't think there was a place like this left in the world.'"

Lawrence developed a fascination with nature as a child. The youngest of five children born to a journalist and his wife, he spent his early years in a village on the Mediterranean in northern Spain with, as he puts it, "the sea in front of me and mountains behind me." His idyllic boyhood was shattered by political turmoil, culminating in 1936 with the start of the Spanish Civil War. Lawrence described his war experiences in his 1994 autobiography, The Green Trees Beyond, which he says he wrote only after repeated requests from publishers and friends. And he candidly acknowledged in the book that military combat left him an emotionally scarred young man. "In war, the enemy was to be killed, wounded or captured," he wrote. "I felt no pity, either for the enemy or my companions, and I sought no friendships."

Lawrence fled Spain for France in the summer of 1938, after fighting in numerous gun battles and being wounded twice, and made his way to Britain, where he was reunited with his family. In September, 1939, he was back in uniform, this time as a British soldier. His Second World War experiences were even more harrowing, as he saw soldiers killed all around him. Lawrence trained as a tank gunner and fought against German forces in the deserts of North Africa for more than two years. He landed on the beaches of Normandy late on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and was knocked out of action two months later when he was severely wounded in a furious tank battle.

While Lawrence will not discuss his wartime experiences, he has saved a couple of souvenirs that he readily shows visitors to his Haliburton home. The first is a jagged piece of steel about half an inch in diameter - the largest of the 39 pieces of shrapnel that British doctors removed from him in August, 1944. The other is a German bullet fired from a machine-gun on a Messerschmitt fighter plane. It hit his belt buckle and ricocheted into his abdomen, worming its way between skin and muscle without causing serious damage.

In the decade after the war, Lawrence felt adrift and homeless. He disliked peacetime Britain and no longer felt comfortable in Spain. He studied biology at Cambridge University for four years but did not obtain his degree because, he says, he wrote his thesis in everyday as opposed to scientific language. Returning to Spain, he worked as a journalist and wrote a couple of murder mysteries that were published in Spanish. In 1950, Lawrence married a British woman, the first of three wives, and moved back to England where they had a son in 1953. But still restless and full of doubts, he sailed for Canada in June, 1954, with plans to have his family join him later. Upon arriving, a strange feeling came over him, he wrote in his autobiography. "Unaccountably," he recalled, "it was as if I had come home after a long absence."

Lawrence settled in Toronto and landed a job as a reporter with The Toronto Star. Six months later, he quit, packed his car and drove almost nonstop 2,108 km to Rainy River, Ont., a town 430 km west of Thunder Bay on the U.S. border. It was New Year's Eve, 1954, when he arrived and, within days, he had purchased a 100-acre wilderness homestead. For almost three years, he survived by cutting wood on Crown land and selling it to a nearby pulp mill. His wife and son joined him in July, 1955. She stayed long enough to have a second child, a daughter, and experience winter in the Canadian wilderness before returning to England with the children, and filing for divorce. They are his only children and, although he has had some contact with them as adults, he does not see them often.

Lawrence left the homestead in October, 1957, and drove west with his dog, Yukon, who was part wolf. They spent 14 months in a remote wilderness region in northern British Columbia, never encountering another human being. "Some people think it was escapism," he says now, "but it wasn't. I wanted to achieve a sense of oneness with the environment."

In fact, Lawrence had settled on a lifestyle that he pursued until 1984 when, at age 63, he settled in his Haliburton property. He would take a newspaper job - for big-city dailies such as Toronto Telegram or obscure weeklies in places like Kitimat, B.C., and Assiniboia, Sask. - live frugally, save his money, then head for the wilderness. His second wife, a newspaper librarian whom he met in Winnipeg, died in June, 1969. He met Sharon, a former kindergarten teacher, in Toronto the fall of 1973, and they married two months later. "In our first 11 years of marriage," she says, "we moved seven times".

Lawrence's travels, a combination of adventure and biological research, have provided the raw material for his nature books. His first book, Wildlife In Canada, published in 1966, sold a few thousand copies and quickly disappeared. Later, he spent nine months tracking and observing a puma in southeastern British Columbia, which produced two books, The Ghost Walker, a nonfiction work, and later a novel, The White Puma. He has also devoted six months to studying a beaver colony in central Ontario and, in 1971, cruised up the West Coast from Victoria to Alaska in a 28-foot pleasure craft.

By trying to get as physically close to his subjects as possible, without disrupting the rhythm of their lives, he has witnessed some extraordinary natural phenomena. Lawrence tells of rabbits, under acute stress due to food shortages, committing suicide by crashing head first into trees. He reports seeing beavers and other herbivores eat flesh. Michal Polak, 31, an Ottawa native and longtime friend of Lawrence now teaching biology at Syracuse University, says that the naturalist and author has collected an enormous amount of information about wildlife, and that many of his works are textbook quality, but much more interesting.

Given his love of wild creatures and places, Lawrence is deeply offended by many of the practices of contemporary industrial societies. He can quickly become outraged, for example, when discussing clear-cut logging. And he is appalled by spring bear hunts and wolf kills aimed at preserving deer populations. "We are abusing the natural system," Lawrence says. "The official animal population counts are crazy. They are only estimates and the manner in which they are done doesn't make sense." But he has kept his anger out of his books to avoid turning them into polemics. "I don't let my feelings interfere with my writing," he says. "My goal is to inform the reader, and let the reader make the noise."

After decades of roaming the country, Lawrence rarely ventures far from his Haliburton property and his rambling, two-storey house. With its cedar exterior, pine interior panelling and big stone fireplace, the home exudes comfort and warmth. The land around it, he says, is a microcosm of the Canadian wilds. It has a pond, a creek flowing into a lake, granite outcroppings of the Canadian shield and plenty of wildlife. "I'm anchored," he says. "I'm too old to wander around with a pack on my back." But he is not too old to write, and is busy on his 31st book, which compares reactions to stress in humans and animals. Age may have cured his wanderlust. It has not dampened his creative energy.

Maclean's August 19, 1996