I met Mildred Ericson at the Niagara Falls conference in 1991 and fell in love. Understand, I’ve been happily married now 40 years. But had I been a generation older, Mildred would have taken my heart down the stream and across the lake.
During one of the serious writing seminars, Mildred stood up and addressed the presenter. “This question,” she said, “may be a bit off the subject. But has anyone here seen a rose-breasted grosbeak? It’s my favorite bird, and I had so hoped to see one.”
Mildred sat down. The distracted presenter repeated her question. She waited in vain for a reply. I introduced myself immediately after the session and asked if a Baltimore oriole would do. She examined my name tag and entered my name in her notebook.
I’m describing one of those friendships that spring up and largely justify organizations like ours. Mildred and I corresponded, and at the Orono, ME, conference in 1994, she asked if I would edit some of her manuscripts, short hymns to the flowers and vistas in her Pacific Northwest. She had never sent them off, but she wanted someone to read them. I massaged her articles gently and sent them back. Mildred sent me a $5 bill. That Christmas, she sent us a box of Washington state apple candy.
A pale and willowy woman with a pious appearance and a deferential but confident manner, Mildred Ericson probably escaped the notice of many members, and others may have dismissed her as a relic. In fact, she was a trained botanist and an acute naturalist resting in late life on a long and distinguished career. Her letters always contained pressed flowers and leaves from the Seattle area with brief explanations — field notes — for her Pennsylvania friend.
During the Redding conference, we took a full day’s excursion together into Lassen National Park. Mildred produced a retired ranger ID card at the gate and got us in free. Word of her arrival spread. Rangers and other personnel intercepted and welcomed us. “Mildred Ericson” is a name National Park Service rangers learn at orientation. She quizzed them on their work and got them to demonstrate the new bear-proof garbage receptacles. She took pleasure in identifying a magnificent white-headed woodpecker. We drove up the mountain to watch kids in shorts and T-shirts play in the snow, a western flycatcher rasping behind them. On the way back, we stopped for cheeseburgers and iced tea in a backwoods café with barn swallows swarming in the sun above the entrance like bees. It was her last field trip.
Mildred Ericson was born in Minneapolis on April 19, 1914, and graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in botany, biology and zoology. She taught high school science at first, then worked as a recreational therapist for the Red Cross, and went on to teach extension ecology courses for the University of Oregon.She had — she still has — the distinction of becoming the first female ranger-naturalist in the National Park Service and worked as an interpretive naturalist at Sequoia and Yellowstone and in Washington, D.C. This distinction accounted for the deference at Lassen.
Over the years, Mildred sold more than 600 items and articles to such outlets as Sports Afield, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, The Saturday Evening Post and Boys’ Life. She also designed and wrote several Park Service brochures. She joined OWAA in 1952 and was a founding member of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association.
Mildred once wrote of herself, “My personality is chiefly dominated by my sincere love of nature, science and the out-of-doors. It seemed to be inborn in me. My greatest joys are being in the woods, fields, mountains and meadows viewing birds, animals, wildflowers and trees.”
She spoke with a flat, slightly plaintive Midwest inflection. But delight and humor came to her quickly — as, for example, when she explained to a young Lassen ranger how the Park Service had made her wear ankle-length skirts and sensible shoes while guiding parties into the wilds of Yellowstone, or when she made elaborate fun of me for mistaking the noxious Scotch broom for a more benign wildflower.
Badly injured when a Seattle motorist ran her down in 1997, Mildred contracted pneumonia, then respiratory problems complicated by diabetes. She declined slowly, and at 87, she died last May 27 in Shoreline, WA. But she asked her sister, Sylvia Jones of Tukwila, WA, to direct any contributions in her memory to OWAA’s Bodie McDowell scholarship fund, ideally someday to support a young woman writing about the outdoors.
Mildred lived a full, independent outdoor life and made many friends. I may be the wrong person to recall her this way; I knew her for only her last decade. But I’ll miss her as much as anyone else and wanted to celebrate her singularity. Some may dismiss the thought of Mildred as a legend. Mildred herself would have rather spared the trees.
John Swinton is a freelance writer-editor living in State College, PA.