Frances Williams

Published Aug 20th 2000 in History & People

My mother is dying of cancer. I love her. A parent hopes to be a positive influence and role model to his child. Frances is my premier inspiration and foremost mentor. Deborah says I idolize her. She shaped my childhood with a deft and gentle wisdom, unobtrusively influencing my interests and enthusiasms. As people have learned of her illness, kind words such as those of Nancy Henderson ("Your mother has been such a gift to this community") have brought tears of joy and gratitude to us.

Nancy was not only speaking of Frances' role as County Librarian from 1968 to 1979, but also as an educator of natural history. Frances gave hundreds of talks on the natural world of the southern Llano Estacado and edited the Midland Naturalist's monthly newsletter, The Phalarope, for 35 years. My Mom's contributions to the science of ornithology are acknowledged by the authors of every book that mentions the birds of West Texas.

When Frances and Harold Williams were courting, they shot .22 rifles at cans floating down the Canadian River in Norman, where both graduated from the University of Oklahoma. Frances' first degree was in French, but she later returned for a Masters' in Library Science. During the war years ammunition was expensive, so they started sitting and watching birds come to the water. Curiosity led Frances to start observing their different behaviors and to record the annual cycles of migration.

When Frances and Harold arrived in Midland during World War II, they were befriended by Ola Dublin Haynes, a pioneer settler's daughter. Ola introduced them to local ranchers on whose spreads Frances was able to pursue her field research of the Cassin's Sparrow. Her work, published in Arthur Bent's Life Histories of American Birds, remains the definitive work on this diminutive sparrow.

Frances is widely recognized as the foremost ornithological pioneer of West Texas. She is our regional version of Margaret Nice or Florence Merriam Bailey, women scientists who persevered despite the diminishments of non-egalitarian cultural biases, i.e., sexist fundamentalism.

As a founding member of the Texas Ornithological Society, Frances helped to bring scientific rigor to amateur ornithology throughout the state. She served 25 years as a member of the organization's Bird Records Committee, and an equal period as the Southern Great Plains editor for the Audobon Society's journal, American Birds. In recognition of her work, she was one of only 150 people who have been awarded Life Membership in the American Birding Association (out of 10,000 members).

If not for pioneers like Frances, there might not be a Sibley Nature Center. A person that performs good works creates a ripple effect -- inspiring one person who inspires another who inspires another until suddenly everybody realizes that a substantial body of work has been accomplished. Frances has recently compiled the work of dozens of members of the Midland Naturalists, creating an important archive entitled "Birds of Midland County." Her collection of bird data has inspired others to do the same for butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and plants -- the generous sharing of which the Sibley Nature Center is deeply indebted.

Frances is the epitome of unconventionality. One of the first professional women to wear pants to work, a field scientist at a time when women were supposed to be June Cleaver, Frances also was a stalwart defender of social diversity in the face of bluenosed priggishness that demanded certain "offensive" books be banned from the County Library.

"It is what you do that counts, not your looks, nor your personal quirks, beliefs or pretensions." Frances was raised a John Calvin Presbyterian. "What will be, will be, so don't complain, whine, lie, disparage, or demean. Negative attitudes are a waste of time. Only boring people are bored. People who do not use their minds are zombies."

Frances did her utmost to instill curiosity and a love of knowledge in her sons. We were taken to the field to roam and explore as soon as we could walk. I was her bird-dog as she did her research. "Go to the yucca, then the lote, and turn at the Buena Mujer before coming back." I knew the English (and some Spanish) common names for hundreds of native Llano Estacado organisms before I could read. She read to us every night. One of her favorite children's books was Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. The stories' twists of logic and fate appealed to her desire to instill curiosity.

Frances fought one of the most insidously horrible monsters of the 20th century -- television -- in the process of giving me my vocation. We did not have a TV when I was a young child. The only time I ever got a whipping was at age 13, when I repeatedly disappeared to neighbors' houses to zone out until she tracked me down and dragged me home.

By her actions, comments and encouragement of interests that I could pursue in books, I learned that television engenders unconscious, non-participatory receptivity. It has turned Americans into interchangeable drones having no sense of home or culture that is based on natural, regional influences. We have lost a good deal of our instinctual desire to engage in joyful, interactive relationships with our home place by allowing our nighttime stories to be supplanted by the vapid pablum of network programming. We seldom learn to observe and interpret our surroundings because our connections to our homeland have been severed by mindless addiction to the flickering blue boob tube. Television creates boredom because it does not challenge the mind.

At the age of eighty, Frances is still an adept observer. We take walks along the trails of Gone Native each "coolish" morning, Frances leading the way on her 3-wheeled electric cart. Still engaged in field observation, she points out to me everything that interests her. "Look at that hognose snake -- why is it curled up at the mouth of the pipe from the windmill? Is it cooling itself in the water? Is there a breakfast frog waiting in the pipe? Or is the snake hoping a frog will leap up on that little lookout rock?"

Her love of interaction with nature has taught me that every plant and animal has a story to tell. Meaning can be inferred and interpreted from the very presence and physical condition of every living thing. Self-paced and self-motivated curiosity is every human's instinctive educational system. Observation of the natural world is the best way to train the mind, because children are innately fascinated with creepy crawly strangeness. Even snakes can be utilized as riveting stimulators of intellectual curiosity, and should not be feared or hated as symbols of evil.

By the time I reached high school, I had become contemptuous of the "modern" public educational system. Invented a hundred years ago and not substantially changed since, "school" has devolved into a non-challenging baby-sitting service for many students. Schools rarely educate children about their regional homeland -- local folk history, regional cultural traditions, and the natural world surrounding them is rarely mentioned. (Programs such as Dr. Patty Smith's storytelling extravaganza, or the outdoor learning areas at the Carver Center, at Trinity School, or Permian High School are signs that the tide is turning.) When schools neglect to acknowledge the influences of homeland on a child's definition of self, we risk the creation of rootless, apathetic consumers or angst-ridden nihilists who are homicidally angry at being cast adrift without moorings.

I became neither a consumer nor a nihilist because our family camped 30 to 45 nights a year and traveled every back road of the Southwest, taking joy in watching birds and identifying flowers. Frances taught me more than I learned in most of my high school classes: science by avocation, history by reading, cultural diversity by traveling, language skills through her love and constant use of books, and spirituality by immersion in the natural world.

Religious dogma -- be it Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, or Hindu -- is the plaintive sound of our OWN voices, weakly attempting to describe and define an immensity beyond comprehension. For Frances, the natural world is God's true cathedral. " God speaks to us most powerfully as Mother Nature. The beauty of thousands of Sandhill Cranes strung out against a kaleidoscopic sunset, trumpeting in joyful celebration of a successful day is one of the most profound expressions of God's presence in our lives. We should bear witness to the glories given us."