My First Naturalist Teacher

by Morris Flewwelling

We are the product of our environment, and our lives are shaped greatly by our parents and significant members of the community. Hilda Buckman Crook was a mentor who had a profound influence on my life. When I was 10 years old’ she was the first published author I knew and she had what seemed to be a huge library. The collection focused on her two great passions, art and natural history and I had full access to that wonderful trove.

Hilda was a woman ahead of her time. Her entrepreneurial sense, her lifelong penchant for learning and discovery, and her vocal concern for the environment were all quite out of the ordinary for a farm woman in the Alberta of 1950. Hilda was born in England in 1893, the eighth and youngest child of Dr and Mrs. Sydney Buckman. Her father and Grandfather Buckman were both distinguished invertebrate palaeontologists. She grew up in a modestly privileged and academic Edwardian household. Hilda showed an early aptitude for art and natural history and she was given a third-floor room for her museum cum studio. After grammar school she attended Oxford where she studied Art for two years.

Hilda’s grandfather and parents, with the patronage and support of Viscountess Lady Harberton, were active advocates of the ideals of the Rational Dress League. The League was formed in 1890 to encourage women to replace corseted bodices and long skirts with blouses and knickerbockers. The garb became known as “rational dress” and Hilda’s mother became captain of the Western Rational Dress Club. The Buckmans clearly were in the vanguard of social reform.

In 1914 Hilda sailed to Canada with her brother George, to join her sister Isabel and another brother Ron on a homestead near Ricinus, Alberta. Within a year she ventured alone to Molewood, Saskatchewan, where she worked as a farm domestic. She returned to England for a visit, and finally in 1924 came back to Alberta. For the next two decades Hilda turned her entrepreneurial to such pursuits as store clerk, threshing cook, housekeeper, dressmaker and writer. Her most successful venture was creating unique Canadian souvenirs from birchbark, deerskin, and pine cones to market in Banff, Jasper and cities in Alberta and British Columbia. Her products became the hallmark souvenirs of their day. All the while she painted and gathered sketches, watercolours and information for a book on Alberta wildflowers and edible plants. Although she lived in High River, Rocky Mountain House, Victoria, Olds, and Edmonton, her heart remained with her homestead near Ricinus.

In 1939, at the age of 46, she married Fred Crook, sold her homestead, and moved to a farm near the narrows of Buffalo Lake, southwest of Mirror. It was at the Crook farm that I spent idyllic childhood times. The place was a virtual menagerie with peacocks, guinea hens and all manner of exotic fowl, the usual farm animals, and a huge breeding stock of carp and goldfish. Each summer 400-500 baby fish were produced and each winter the huge adults were housed in the heated stock tank – a rare rural spectacle!

Every day I spent at the farm included a trip to the lake, the bog or the woods. Hilda taught me hoe to identify birds and plant families, how to observe detail, how to use a botanical key and how to identify fungi and mushrooms. We observed and studied. Anything new or unfamiliar was taken home for research in the library. We gathered edibles and came home to rare and exotic feasts. Hilda sought adventure in every place. She was ready to try new ways of preparing food and was a student of alternative medicine.

The farm had neither electricity nor running water when Fred and Hilda decided to retire to Mirror in 1962. Very shortly thereafter Hilda, aged 70, suffered a stroke which left her paralysed on her left side. As she was fully ambidextrous, the disability was but an “inconvenience” and she continued unabated to type, quilt, garden, hook rugs and make her clothes with the use of only one hand. At the age of 83 she attended a Creative Writing course at the University of Alberta, and at 85 went unaccompanied on a six-week tour to Australia. She was a regular at Farm Women’s Week at Olds College. In 1984, at the age of ninety-one, she travelled alone by bus from Mirror to Calgary to present her brief in person to the Alberta public hearings on the environment and soil fertility. It was her last major undertaking, as she died less than a year later of pneumonia at the age of 92.

The foregoing biographical sketch provides only an outline of Hilda’s endeavours, but it illustrates clearly her sense of optimism, adventure, survival, and convictions. However, it does not begin to show how Hilda’s life and work inspired and led young people like me, and how she challenged the conventional thinking of my parents’ generation. Hilda was an environmental evangelist in the 1950s. Alone as a volunteer, she organized Nature Club on Saturdays at the old rural Ripley School where the local farm children pursued fascinating activities and learned about natural history – a forerunner of today’s interpretive programs at museums and nature centres.

Hilda generated cash income through her writing published in The Western Producer. Her works chronicled seasonal observations, research insight and results from her own experiments in horticulture and cooking. She shared new local knowledge with her readers at the time when it was a subject ignored or yet to be discovered. Her collected writings reveal a person who greeted challenge and saw opportunity in every circumstance. Gardening and horticulture included trials with landscaping features, new varieties and endless experiments with hotbeds, cold frames and greenhouses. Magnificent gardens flourished with no watering. Mulching was the key, and the principles and practice of organic gardening were among Hilda’s most fervent accomplishments. Her garden, to the end, was a testament to soil conservation practices. Indeed, her two abiding interests in the years immediately prior to her death were concern for soil fertility conservation and applications for solar energy. She had a passive solar addition built on to her house during her 91st year.

Her final wish was that her modest cottage and organic gardens in Mirror be maintained as an "organic gardening institute" to demonstrate to future generations how to use and renew our soil. As executor to Hilda’s estate I felt it was not possible to create the institute of her dreams with the resources of cash and property. I hoped she would take satisfaction in knowing that the proceeds from the sale of her properties were divided equally between Olds College soil conservation project and the development of the Kurimoto Japanese Garden at the Devonian Botanic Garden of the University of Alberta.