Ann Haymond Zwinger, 1925 – 2014

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.


  1. Thank you for this, Gary. I remember Ann coming to our office for board meetings when I first started working for Orion, it was a thrill to meet her.


  2. Thank you, Brother Coyote, everything you say is true. Ann mentored so many of us in a love of natural history and the dignity of being a naturalist. Our days together in the Great Basin remain precious to me. Ann Zwinger in the field was an indomitable joy. Bless her, bless her beautiful daughters. And may we all follow her illuminated path of ongoing discovery.

  3. Your tribute to Ann is lovely, Gary–and captures so much of her warm and generous spirit. I met Ann when I was an undergrad at Colorado College, in 1970. My buddy and I had a tiny grant to follow bighorn sheep on Pikes Peak. The Forest Service district ranger booked the two of us to speak to a school group on the same day that Ann spoke about alpine tundra, her newest area of expertise as she worked on “Land Above the Trees.”

    I was 20, and knew practically nothing, but Ann treated me like a peer. I was dazzled. For years afterwards, Ann encouraged me to be the person she already had imagined me to be. She edited my early pieces of writing with a sharp pen and with enough praise to keep me going. She invited me to have dinner with her and Herman (always a raucous evening). And when I began to ask her to contribute to anthologies, she was ever gracious, always crisply professional, always collegial. Her work, of course, was impeccable and elegant.

    Ann was my first mentor. How did I get so lucky? She cared so deeply about place, family, teaching, words, art, community–and the future of us all. What a remarkable woman; what a model. What a loss.

  4. Oh, dear Ann! What a steadying, clarifying, illuminating presence she was, in every setting, whether on a trail, in conversation, or at a board meeting. Two favorite memories of her: In May 2005, while camping with several other writers and scientists on a knoll overlooking Mount St. Helens, she emerged from a tiny tent at dawn, every hair in place, wearing a tweed jacket and immaculate slacks, then she turned to salute the volcano, where a fumarole flushed pink with early sunlight, one elder greeting another, and then she walked to the chow tent, where several of our camping comrades, frazzled, unkempt, droopy-eyed, brooded over cups of coffee. “What have you seen so far this morning, gentlemen?” she asked. Age 81, brisk, bright, she had recently returned from the Galapagos Islands. The second memory: Walking with her along the Wabash River in Muncie, Indiana, where she had grown up, and where she had learned to love the patterns and textures and creatures of Earth, listening as she recalled youthful hi-jinks and joys. She was a rare soul.

  5. Ann was such a gracious presence,shrewd and discerning. Taking a walk with her was humbling and interminable, as she’d stoop to name every being and its parts along the way. She was so generous to me, such a good natured friend and colleague, a gal pal who could laugh about the madness of the world while standing firmly on the sane ground of attentive presence. My favorite experience with Ann was in Mexico City. We were on our way with an Orion group to the Monarch Refuge in Michoacan to bestow the John Hay Award on Homero Aridjis. Our flights had been late. Our van was leaving very early in the morning. We moaned and groaned in our shared hotel room, exhausted but game for whatever, as long as we could have our breakfast of oatmeal before hitting the road. We synchronized our watches, carefully checking the time zone, ordered room service for an ungodly early hour, and attempted a sliver of sleep. Alarms went off. Quick showers were had. No breakfast arrived. We harumphed and decided there just wouldn’t be time anyway, so we wheeled our suitcases down to the lobby. It was empty and dark except for the floor polisher. We looked at each other in shock. How could two seasoned and savvy traveling broads have gotten it so wrong. I inquired at the desk about the time. About the breakfast. Taking pity on the little ladies, the desk clerk arranged for our oatmeal to me brought to us in the lobby on a lovely linen covered wheeled cart with just the two of us there in the near dark, savoring a simple meal, our own folly and friendship. Dear, dear Ann, I miss you and will hold you always as a treasure in all you gave to the world and the little portion of that I was privileged to know.

  6. I was a college freshman taking a class called Writing the Natural History Essay. My professor was Ann Zwinger. 80 or so years old. Pearl earrings and a perfectly coiffed hairdo. Tromping around the valley floor twisting her ankles in gopher holes. The sun setting and a smile on her face.

    We were on a field trip to Colorado’s San Luis Valley. I’ll never forget the “homework assignment” Ann gave us that first evening: Find a place, a gully or a rock or shrub, and spend as much time there as you can over the next four days. Sleep there. Take your meals there. Anchor yourself to your place. Get bored. Get tired. Get cold and confused. See it from all angles. Notice everything. Journal it all down. This is how you will find your essay.

    It turns out that when you follow Ann’s advice you find much more than just an essay. In my case, I found the mysteries of an old gray fallen juniper and 1,000 variations of weather and light. I found wonder. I found a way of life, a practice to see me through all the days and years to follow. Ann confirmed the hunch that had been developing in my mind and heart ever since I was a little boy. Find a place. Hang there. Notice everything. What else is there to do?

    Thank you, Ann.

    And don’t get me started on Charles Bowden. I was supposed to visit him this October: to talk, to conduct an interview, to learn something I needed to know. Something he knew. Something almost nobody else could say, let alone write. My last email, sent after he passed, sits unread in his Inbox. What a week.

    Much respect to these people. Gratitude overload.

  7. Beautiful tribute.

    Ann worked with my students at The Orme School in Arizona through the Orion “Stories in the Land” teaching grant (1996). We made an inspiring walk with her up Ash Creek and into the deeper reaches of the ranch.

    I will miss her. I will remember her. I will keep her books in reach.

  8. In the fall of 1974, on a Ken Sleight Green River trip in Dinosaur Nat’l Mon., I got to have Ann ride on my little 12′ raft, the Canyon Wren, and to start a beautiful friendship which enveloped my entire family.

    Ann was an original director of Wild & Scenic, Inc., which my wife Susan and I started in ’76 to run sportyak trips on the San Juan and Green. She was a wonderful promoter of our river trips, and created connections which led to important funding for Grand Canyon Youth, Inc., a Flagstaff non-profit currently providing educational river trips for kids.
    Ann loved rowing a little sportyak every year! Herman, her spectacular professional aviator/amateur astromomer husband, would fly Ann over to SE Utah for the launch. He rode mostly under a parasol, on a support raft, but in later years he’d start asking to borrow Ann’s yak, which she didn’t loan out much. He played the impeccable gentleman to her beautiful lady.
    Ann was river grandmother to our three children, who were learning to row their own little boats in those years. We had a tradition of celebrating the Zwinger’s wedding anniversary in June on the San Juan River, with champagne and caviar! They had a great relationship, and a fine family together. She didn’t last too long after Herman passed on. So sad to lose them, so glorious to have spent weeks in the canyons with them. Once we even had a frigid Thanksgiving in Chaco Canyon! Ann and Herman Zwinger were real sports!
    Thanks all of you for your stories, especially yours, Coyote.

  9. Thanks Gary. Beautiful words for Ann. I, too, was one of those many Ann sent on altogether new trajectories. In fact, she launched me right from prison. It was Richard Shelton who first carried her books to me, a young wannabe nature writer who joined the creative writing workshop he directed at the Cimarron lockup in Tucson. Beyond the Aspen Grove. Wind in the Rock. The Mysterious Lands. A Desert Country Near the Sea. Her words, her use of description and metaphor, taught me how to make the language sing. Her intimate pencil drawings of rabbitbrush and buffaloberry, red-spotted toads and bug-eyed canyon treefrogs inspired me to illustrate the wild denizens of my own small world, the trespasses of insects and birds. She became my mentor of my wilderness of razor wire and chain-link.

    When I got up the nerve, I wrote to her and included a few drawings and attempts at essays. She immediately wrote back, and over the years of my incarceration, we developed a correspondence, sharing our publications and illustrations, and discussing the art of writing. “Do you collect metaphors?” she once asked me. “You with your science background ought to have a great many at the tip of your fingers.” As I write this from my desk, I look up at my red, word-packed “Metaphor Book” she inspired. Yes, Ann. I still do. And they’re still within reach. I hope to share a few with you when we meet in the next mysterious lands.

  10. You couldn’t have said it better, Gary. And thank you, Ann for your art and your words that have inspired thousands. You will be missed.

  11. I met Ann Zwinger when I was very young. She came to my hometown Vail, Colorado in the early seventies to celebrate the opening of the Vail Nature Center. Twenty years later when I worked as the director of the Center I invited her back for the anniversary celebration. She arrived just as I had remembered her and her presence reaffirmed the importance of community-based nature centers for awakening a sense of wonder and inspiring environmental stewardship. Today a few of her original sketches are on display. I feel she was one of those special people that helped direct the life course of so many naturalists including my own life and commitment to natural history and place-based education. I am grateful for her inspiring presence as a mentor naturalist and for her gifts to our little mountain community.

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