STANWELL-FLETCHER, Theodora




Author Tags: Outdoors, Women

Long before Gilean Douglas's books, and long before Eric Collier's Three Against the Wilderness, one of the most successful memoirs of pioneering in British Columbia was Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher's Driftwood Valley: A Woman Naturalist in the Northern Wilderness, reprinted 17 times in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Born in 1906 in Pennsylvania and raised in a Quaker family, Stanwell-Fletcher received degrees in English literature and economic geography. Prior to becoming one of the first women to receive a PhD from Cornell in the new science of ecology, 'Teddy' accompanied her father on a year-long tour of Australia, New Zealand and the East Indies to study rare birds. She first visited Canada to study birds for two summers at Churchill, Manitoba, an experience that inspired a novel. While in the sub-Arctic she met her husband-to-be Jack Stanwell-Fletcher, an Englishman who worked as a policeman in northern Canada prior to surviving as a trapper. They married in 1937 and travelled by rail to Hazelton, the 'end of the line' in northern British Columbia. Accompanied by an Indian guide named Ben, they proceeded on horseback for several days until they reached Babine Lake. Here they learned of an idyllic lake called Tetana from a Dakelh named Dominick West. They managed to travel another 30 miles north from Takla Landing on Takla Lake to Tetana Lake where they built their new home. It was a perilous, sometimes frightening winter full of revelations. Skinning birds, cooking bannock and sometimes desperately searching for dry firewood, she learned a new disdain for the so-called nature poets of England such as Wordsworth, Longfellow and Keats. With her biologist's training, she observed and catalogued plants and animals, collecting specimens for the Provincial Museum in Victoria despite ten-foot snow drifts and a pack of wolves as neighbours.

Her parents arrived for a visit in June only to be threatened by a forest fire in July. The couple learned the rhythm of the changing seasons until they departed for Pennsylvania at the end of December. Jack Stanwell-Fletcher returned to their cabin in Driftwood Valley in the spring but Theodora stayed in the United States and gave birth to their daughter Patricia in the fall. Early in 1941 she returned to Driftwood Valley but they left in the autumn in order for Jack to join the U.S. Air Force. Back in Pennsylvania, Theodora published a scientific paper in 1943 and began writing her wilderness memoir based on her Driftwood Valley journal in 1945. After the war the Stanwell-Fletchers were divorced. He remarried; she remarried twice. In 1947 she became the first woman to win the John Burroughs medal for excellence in nature writing for Driftwood Valley. One of her granddaughters has recorded, "She was of good health until the spring of 1998 when she fell ill. She slowly recovered but never to her original health. This Christmas, with family visiting, she again fell ill. She finally passed on in mid-January. She was found in her bed with her bird book and binoculars at her side. She had just turned 94."

Some of the residents of the B.C. Interior who are described in Driftwood Valley appear in the photographs gathered by Jay Sherwood for his second book about the photographer and surveyor, Frank Swannell, entitled Surveying Central British Columbia, A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1920-1928 (Royal BC Museum, 2007).

BOOKS:

Driftwood Valley: A Woman Naturalist in the Northern Wilderness (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1946; reprinted Toronto: Penguin, 1989; Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1999).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2007]