The Beautiful Credo of Naturalist Ann Haymond Zwinger

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The Credo series by Milkweed Editions provides readers with an opportunity to learn about the beliefs and principles which guide writers. This is the credo of Ann Haymond Zwinger: naturalist, artist, and author of numerous works on natural history. You can read more about her on Wellesley College’s Alumnae Achievement Award page, which Zwinger received in 1977. She passed away in 2014, and you can read a beautiful obituary about her life in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Ann Zwinger’s Shaped by Wind & Water: Reflections of a Naturalist is arranged in three parts: seven chapters of the writer’s personal reflections, a brief portrait of the author written by editor Scott Slovic, and a comprehensive bibliography of Zwinger’s work ranging from articles and anthology contributions to her debut book, Beyond the Aspen Grove (1970). She wrote the reflections in the first part of Shaped by Wind and Waterduring her stay at Hedgebrook, a retreat where professional women writers “are fed and housed and can work without worrying about the usual necessities and responsibilities”. Zwinger spends seven days comfortably residing in Oak Cottage, where she allows her natural surroundings to guide and inspire her path of introspection to write her credo.

Zwinger’s reflections are organized into seven chapters, each titled for one of the mornings she resided in the cottage. Each day she wrestles with her words, uninterrupted by the myriad distractions which fill our everyday lives. The solitude and complete focus she experiences is at once both unsettling and liberating for her. To lose any of the many things that writers seek distraction in is to force one’s self to focus on nothing but writing, putting word after word down on paper despite your best efforts not to. Fortunately, Zwinger’s solitude helps her find the words to eloquently express her purpose as a writer of natural history:

“I want to share my enchantment with the natural world and its intricate workings with anyone open to its wonders. Or maybe more important, to those who are not. For not knowing how the natural world works condemns us to misunderstanding it, creating untold disasters and a bleak future.”

Ann Zwinger’s prose is lyrical and her approach to science poetic. She is motivated by a humble desire to be “a link in a mental food chain that provides reliable and intriguing information about the natural world.” Zwinger, born into a family that nurtured her passion for art, writing, and the environment, recognizes and addresses this privilege throughout her reflections. She shares her hope that she will inspire and nurture others who care to observe and record the natural world. Her humility and honesty are qualities that enchanted those who met her in person, and are well-expressed through her writing. She charms her readers into wanting to learn more about the earth.

Zwinger’s first book, Beyond the Aspen Grove, was written at the request of a friend and literary agent who represented Rachel Carson. Carson, for those who may not have heard of her bestseller Silent Spring (1962) that inspired the environmentalist movement, was a formidable figure among naturalist writers. The attention of such an important figure in the publishing world and the invitation to write a book was a nerve-rattling experience for Ann Zwinger. She writes about the experience with clarity and poise, expressing a subtle humor through her recollections of fond memories.

Among of the powerful thoughts shared in Shaped by Wind and Water is the acknowledgment to the women who influenced Zwinger. She recognized that “Both my mother and my sister, because of the time and society in which they lived, never had the privileges that have come to me, and that many talented women today consider their birthright. That such talented, intelligent, dedicated artists were denied the opportunities that have fallen into my lap is an ongoing sadness, and an overwhelming, almost overpowering reminder to me to use my privileges well.” Her words are a reminder that women have not always held their current privilege to pursue their talents, whether in science or art. It is an unfortunate truth that women must continue to strive towards bettering their position in society, and fight every day to be seen as equals to men, especially in the field of science. Zwinger does not express bitterness or ruminate on this fact; her words are a nod acknowledging reality.

On my own shelf, have tucked Shaped by Wind and Water carefully between the famous naturalist E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence and noted scientist W.I.B. Beveridge’s The Art of Scientific Investigation: An entirely fresh approach to the intellectual adventure of scientific research. I think Zwinger’s credo fits well there.

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