RD Lawrence’s journey from his idyllic early childhood on Spain’s Costa
Brava in the 1920s to renown as Canada’s leading naturalist writer was
marked by an intense period of stress and injury during his active
involvement in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. This remarkable
journey is described in his autobiographical memoir
The Green Trees Beyond, published in 1994.
- 1967 and 1968: Frank H. Kortright Award for "Excellence of writing in the field
- 1980: Best non-fiction paperback from Canadian Paperback Publishers Association for
The North Runner
- 1981: Named honorary member of the Mark Twain Society for "contribution
to conservation writing".
- 1984: Best non-fiction award, Canadian Authors Association for The Ghost Walker.
- 1993: Awarded Commemorative Medal of Canada by Ontario Lieutenant Governor Henry NR Jackman to
mark the 125th Anniversary of Confederation. Award in recognition of "your contribution and
service to your community".
- 2004: Awarded "Lifetime Achievement in Wildlife and Wilderness Conservation Through
Writing" by Earthroots, a conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of wilderness, wildlife
and watersheds in Canada, with a focus on Ontario.
- 2007: The IFAW posthumously recognizes RD Lawrence with
its Lifetime Achievement Award for his "passion, dedication and commitment to animals and the
natural environment". Award presentation picture (PDF).
Timeline and Commentary
The youngest of five children, Ronald Douglas Lawrence is born to a Spanish mother
and a British father during a storm aboard ship in the Bay of
Biscay (the family is returning to Europe from South Africa). He
is christened aboard HMS Thunderer, a British warship in
the harbour of Vigo, Spain.
Takes an unsupervised swim in the Mediterranean Sea at age five. Sees
marine life for the first time.
RD’s father, a journalist for Reuters news agency, moves the
family from Arenys del Mar on the coast of Catalonia, to
Barcelona. There he is educated by Jesuits and an English tutor.
Explores Barcelona’s sewer system with Gallorte, his best friend.
During summer vacations, RD explores the
countryside and marine life on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. Catches and studies small sharks. Begins to appreciate
the complexity of ecosystems.
The Spanish civil war erupts. Aged 14, RD returns home from summer
camp to find his family gone and their home ransacked. Enlists in
the Republican militia as a private soldier under his mother’s
maiden name. Leads troops through the sewer system to attack the
fascists. Shoots his first enemy soldier, but Gallorte is killed.
Serves as interpreter between the Republican politicians and
Unit is deployed to Madrid. Receives head wound in firefight.
Recuperates in Barcelona. Serves as
interpreter for English-speaking volunteers arriving to fight the
fascists. Cut off by fascists forces in area of Pyrenean
Mountains, retreats across mountains into France, where he is
interned with others. In October 1938, released and sent to
England where he is reunited with his family. Continues schooling.
Joins a regional paper as a cub reporter as part of a work-study
as assistant photographer aboard the Queen Mary liner.
Travels to New York for the first time.
Back in London at outbreak of World War II, RD lies about his age to
enlist in the British Army. Deploys to France with an
anti-aircraft unit as part of General Lord Gort’s British
Expeditionary Force. Retreats to Dunkirk before advancing German
forces, and is transported back to England on a coal barge.
Joining the Royal Armored Corps, RD sees combat in North Africa
as a gunner inside American-made M3 tanks. Narrowly escapes with
his life when his tank is knocked out. Promoted to sergeant, he
receives a tank command. Endures hard fighting with the Eighth
Army against Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Italian forces. Wounded
by shrapnel in the left leg in June 1942, he convalesces with
childhood friend Nick Hawkins in the Red Sea fishing for sharks.
In May, 1943, two days after defeat of the Afrika Korps, RD learns
Nick has been killed.
Returns to England with his tank regiment to train for invasion
of Normandy. RD is 21.
At Sword Beach RD guides his tank to shore from a landing craft under fire and
over the next two months fights his way to the Normandy town of Bayeaux. Leading a detachment of three tanks, his tank is knocked
out by German antitank guns. Although the sole survivor of the
vehicle, he is badly wounded by subsequent mortar shrapnel.
Flown to England, surgeons contemplate amputation
of his right leg. Operation to
remove shrapnel is deemed successful, but two slivers of shrapnel
are left behind (spine and shoulder).
Invalided from the Army, RD writes for a local newspaper.
Following the Japanese surrender, enters Cambridge University
to study biology. Concludes ‘life’ cannot be defined but could be
characterized. Writes final thesis on the stickleback fish in
plain English, shunning the university’s preference for ‘babblespeak.’
His professor applauds the paper for content but demands it be
‘properly rewritten in a scientific way.’ Believing the scientific
approach elitist and incomprehensible to the layman, RD leaves
academia without his degree.
In September, 1949, RD returns to Spain and bumps into a former
sergeant in his old Republican unit who is still fighting Franco’s
government. Accompanies a guerrilla raid on a bank as an observer.
The killing of five security guards sickens him, and he realizes
the guerrillas’ cause is futile. He mails an account of the raid
to the London Daily Mirror.
In Barcelona, becomes engaged to Shirley, the daughter of an English
engineer. They marry in England, where RD works as an
interpreter for a shipping firm. Joins the Daily Mail as a
foreign correspondent, and covers events in southern Africa. A
son, Simon, is born.
Frustrated by routine, and yearning for a more natural life, RD
sails in June for Canada in advance of the family’s immigration.
Works for the Toronto Daily Star.
In December, leaves in search of affordable homestead land in
Ontario. Along the old Trans-Canada Highway, he encounters
temperatures as low as –20 C (–4 F), but feels a kindred spirit
for the wilderness and its people.
In late January and early February, has two close encounters with
wolves while logging spruce near his homestead in the region of
Fort Frances, Ontario. Is “filled with the desire to study those
hauntingly fascinating animals,” but also to continue his
biological studies as a ‘generalist’.
sled dogs Susie, Sooner, Rocky and the wolf-dog Yukon.
Wife Shirley and Simon join RD. Daughter Alison is born. Shirley and children return to England,
the marriage over.
spends 14 months in the wilderness of British Columbia with Yukon.
See The North Runner.
Becomes science reporter for the Winnipeg Tribune, where he
meets librarian Joan Frances Gray. Later joins the Winnipeg
As foreign correspondent for the Toronto Telegram, RD
reports from central Africa. On his return marries Joan, who is
now working in Toronto. On weekends, they maintain a wilderness
property north of the city where RD studies the local wolf pack.
See The Place in The Forest.
North Star Farm, 350 acres of mostly wilderness, where RD and
Joan care for a menagerie of orphaned
and abandoned animals. See The Zoo That Never Was
RD works as publisher of a weekly newspaper owned by the
dies of a brain haemorrhage at age 33. Seeking to re-capture a
sense of his own mortality, RD sells the farm and heads for
British Columbia. See
Voyage of the Stella, and
The Ghost Walker.
Returns to Ontario. Marries Sharon Janet Frise, a Toronto
kindergarten teacher. Begins writing books full-time in Toronto, at
Sharon’s cabin on Gibson Lake, and in the Yukon Territory where
Sharon teaches kindergarten for a year. On their return to
Ontario, RD continues his field studies observing aquatic
ecosystems, including the beaver inhabiting Gibson River.
RD and Sharon buy a 100-acre property in Ontario’s Haliburton
Highlands. On a trip to British Columbia and the Yukon Territory
to monitor the government-sponsored wolf kills, they rescue and
rehabilitate two tiny wolf pups, which they name Tundra and Taiga.
See In Praise of Wolves. There begins two decades of wildlife
rehabilitation, including nine more wolves, among them Alba, Silva, Leda, Numa,
Shasta, Alberta and Brigit.
In 1993, RD is instrumental in helping establish the
Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre in Central
Ontario with a captive wolf pack from Michigan. The Centre’s
mandate is research and education.
November: RD dies from Alzheimer’s Disease. He leaves six books
August: Friends and family gather at the Haliburton Forest,
Ontario, for a memorial celebration of RD Lawrence’s life.