Mrs. Priestly

By Kathy Morrell 

Members and the friends of the YFBTA presented this short dramatic piece for
the 2009 Fall Meet of Nature Saskatchewan.

Vignette One: Sensible Shoes

Mrs. Carson

Dear me, I don’t think we’ve met.  My name is Mrs. Arnold Carson. As you can see, I’m setting the table for tea.  (Shakes head.) I can’t serve my best shortbread this afternoon.  With this terrible war, sugar is rationed.  Well, there you go – what can you do? Mrs. Priestly is joining us this afternoon.  Now I have to tell you about this fine lady before she arrives.  Mrs. Priestly is, above all, a woman  - of sensible footwear.  To tea, she wears her dress shoes – brogues with a low heel.  She is a lovely lady – a fine English lady – but not much into fashion. 

Mrs. Priestly has a most interesting background.  She was an English war bride, came to Canada with her husband, Bob, after the First World War.  Now they have three children – Diana, Frank and Michael.  Diana and Frank are serving overseas with the Canadian Armed Forces.  Mrs. Priestly’s sister lives on one of those islands in the English Channel.  Jersey I think.  It’s been occupied by the Germans since the outbreak of the war. The German Army ensures there’s no contact with the outside world – no letters, no post cards, nothing.  To make matters worse, another sister is imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. Mrs. Priestly hasn’t heard from her sisters in years.  Not that she ever complains.  She runs her home for her husband and little Michael and keeps busy with her – well, I guess you’d call it her nature studies.

From my living room window, I often see Mrs. Priestly leaving home on her nature expeditions. In the spring, she wears rubber boots.  In her hand, she carries a metal case, a vasculum she calls it.  She uses it to collect plants. Says it makes a really good lunch bucket, too.  Goodness me – with lunch, it’s obvious she plans to be away all day.  Now I ask - who’s going to do the dusting and iron her husband’s shirts and embroider the tea towels?  One day at church, I asked what she did all day in her rubber boots.  She told me she went out to the muskeg.  Now, I always thought of muskeg as that boggy land in the Arctic, but Mrs. Priestly tells me that muskeg is simply marsh land.  She ought to know – she did study botany at the university in England you know.  They do strange things over there – imagine, a lady studying botany.  With all that education about plants, it’s no wonder Mrs. Priestly is so interested in the muskeg – that marsh, you know, the one over there by the golf course.  Mrs. Priestly being a sensible woman – she wears her rubber boots to the muskeg.  She came for tea one afternoon last week. Explained that rubber boots were essential. How could she collect her plants from the slough without rubber boots?  How could she wade ankle deep in the freezing cold water without rubber boots?  How could she step onto the muddy bank of the ravine to study a mallard nest without rubber boots?  Well, what could you say?  Ah, Mrs. Priestly is a gentile English woman, but different.  She is a lovely lady and so dedicated to Holy Trinity Anglican Church and the Yorkton Benevolent Society.  But still – rubber boots!

In the winter, we gather for tea and conversation around the tea table.   Not that we gossip. We always say that Mrs. Priestly is fine lady and very sensible.  On her winter excursions, she always wears a heavy winter parka, a fur hat, warm woolen gloves and winter galoshes.  And of course, she always has her binoculars strung around her neck.  A few months ago, we were all requested to turn in our binoculars to help with the war effort.  Mrs. Priestly did her duty of course and took her field glasses into the Yorkton Armoury.  She was very pleased to learn that her binoculars just wouldn’t do, that she could keep them.  They weren’t the right type. She could continue on her winter expeditions with her binoculars – and her snow shoes.  Yes, snow shoes.  Now, what lady wears snow shoes?  Oh, I’m sure they are very sensible for a lady bird watcher in the winter.  She says she sees chickadees and snow buntings and cedar waxwings and ever so many other birds.  She keeps a list. That’s what birders do.  They keep a list. Strange, if I do say so myself. Mrs. Priestly is a sensible woman, very friendly and all.  But still - snow shoes and rubber boots, too!


My husband says I have to be more accepting of others.  Maybe – just maybe – he’s right.  I hear that Mrs. Priestly is a – now what was that word – I think they call her a naturalist.  I’m just a housewife.  But Mrs. Priestly – she sees a wider horizon.  And she leads all these fine young people – Stuart Houston, Vernon Barnes, Neil Black, Harvey Beck, and his sister Ruth, too. Her enthusiasm is contagious.  She’s an inspiration to all of them.  My Arnold says to me - where would we be if everyone were the same?  I just have to be a little more accepting. But still – rubber boots?

(Mrs. Carson continues setting out the tea things while the light dims.) 

Vignette Two: The Muskeg in Spring

Ruth Beck

(Appears in spotlight – rest of stage dark)

It’s an April morning at the muskeg  – seven o’clock to be exact. Mrs. Priestly likes an early start. My name’s Ruth Beck.  Harvey – he’s my brother – he’s usually up for these nature hikes, but he’s got the flu.  I came instead.  Vernon, Neil and Stuart are coming down the street.  I can see them.  Mrs. Priestly will be along shortly. 

It’s a perfect morning. The snow runoff gurgles down the cliffs of the ravine and pools in huge puddles along the shore line of the marsh.  The water is turning green – that perfect spring green that signals the season of new beginnings. It’s a colour hard to describe - a soft shade like tinkling notes down the piano keys. A crow shows off its glossy black feathers from a piece of driftwood at the far end of the muskeg. The ducks are here, too, in their bright spring plumage - the pintail, the mallard, the blue-winged teal, and the ring-necked duck.  A robin chirps a series of sharp staccato trills to an audience of attentive females.  There’s a muskrat, too, sliding into the murky water.  Three white tail deer cross the highway towards the marsh and scramble through the ditch floundering belly deep in the mushy grey snow.  It’s a perfect spring morning at the muskeg.

Harvey would love a day like today – a day when he could hike with his buddies and Mrs. Priestly - writing down everything in his little notebook.   Mrs. Priestly is a naturalist, you know, and she says that keeping records is important.  She treats us all like VIPs.  No, Mrs. Priestly treats us like adults.  She’s one special lady.

Vignette Three: The Blue Jay

Stuart Houston and Ruth Beck

(Spotlight comes up on table with old typewriter at one end and paper and stencil at the other.  Stuart enters and joins Ruth around an old typewriter.  He takes off cap and jacket, hangs them on a wooden kitchen chair, sits down and takes off his rubber boots.)

Stuart: Am I glad to see you! There’s so much to do.  Have you seen Harvey, Vernon and Neil?  I thought they were supposed to here by now. (Taps foot)

Ruth: (Laid back attitude) They’ll get here.   Stuart Houston – just slow down.  Now, what’s there to do?

Stuart: Well, I’m nearly finished typing the mimeograph stencils for the newsletter.  Mrs. Priestly’s writing is so hard to read.  Can you figure out what this says?

(Ruth peers at a yellow jot pad and shrugs his shoulders.)

Ruth: Grouse – well, maybe grouse.  Mrs. Priestly will check it for you.  What do you want me to do?

Stuart: We’ve got to make the covers for the newsletters.  Here are the stencils and paper. You’ve done the covers before.  I just hope Harvey and Neil…We’ve got hundreds of subscriptions.  Did you know that?  We’ve got to get busy.

Ruth: Ah, don’t worry.  They’ll be along.

Stuart: Should be on time.  Anyway, you can get started on the covers.

(Sits at old typewriter, begins to type and then stops to talk to Ruth once again.)

The Blue Jay – that’s what we decided on for the title.  Good choice if I do say so.  There’s lots of blue jays around here.  Besides, we all know the bedtime story, “Sammy Jay”, the bird who carries the news to the “little people of the Green Forest and Green Meadows.”   That’s just like our magazine.  It carries the news to all the people interested in the natural world.   The Blue Jay – it’s a perfect name for our little newsletter.

(Stuart resumes his typing and turns once more to talk to Ruth who tries to ignore Stuart’s on-going monologue.)

Mrs. Priestly would like to see more local clubs – like ours, the Yorkton Natural History Society.  Mrs. Priestly calls our newsletter – “The Official Bulletin of the Yorkton Natural History Society”.  Doesn’t that sound great?  We’ve even been mentioned in “Chickadee Notes”.  That’s a column in the Winnipeg Free Press, you know.

Right now, I’m typing a questionnaire from Mr. Dewey. 

(Takes up another piece of paper.  He stands up and takes it over to Ruth so she can see it.) 

It says here he’s the Chief Federal Migratory Bird Officer for the Prairie Provinces.  He wants to know more about the snowy owl. He must think pretty highly of us if he thinks we can help him.

Ruth: More than likely, he thinks Mrs. Priestly can help him.  Don’t you have some typing to do?

Stuart: (Ignores Ruth) We’ve set the subscription rate at 25 cents.  I hope that’s going to be enough.  We’re already running a deficit of $9.40.  We might have to increase the membership to 50 cents.  I don’t know if people will subscribe if they have to pay 50 cents. 

(Stuart thumps on the table.  Ruth jumps.)

But you know, Ruth, it’s worth all of that and more.  There’s lots of good information in The Blue Jay and Mrs. Priestly encourages so many good things – the Christmas Bird Count, Junior Audobon Societies, the protection of the Whooping Crane and the Western Red Lily.

(Ruth continues colouring ignoring Stuart.)

How are you doing there?

(Stuart starts back towards the typewriter and then remembers something.)

There’s a stack of letters here, too.  Mrs. Priestly is going to have a dash of time answering all of these. There’s one addressed to the secretary of the Yorkton Natural History Society and that’s me – Stuart Houston.  It has a British stamp and a London postmark. I’ve been dying to open it.

(Hesitates, looks around, opens letter and reads it.)

It’s from the British Natural History Society in London.  London, England!  They want a subscription to The Blue Jay.

(Throws letter up in the air.  He hesitates and peers at Ruth’s colouring.)

Ruth, I sure hope you’re doing a good job of the colouring.

Vignette Four: The Sudden Passing of Mrs. Priestly

Stuart Houston

It’s a long trip home. This train journey – well, I don’t know if it will ever end.  I’m not sure I want it to end.

I’ve just finished exams – premed at the University of Manitoba.  I’m hoping to get in – to be a doctor like my mother and father. That’s the plan, but…

You see, Mrs. Priestly won’t be there when I return to Yorkton.  She passed away last week.   My landlady cut her obituary from the pages of the newspaper.  I wondered at the time…  She and my mother – well, they thought it might affect my studying, my ability to write exams.  So they didn’t tell me.  

It’s a shock.  It’s hard to imagine how such a vibrant lady could – just die.  Mom said it was a cerebral hemorrhage. 

So sudden.  Very sudden.

I even missed the funeral.

They’d just finished another edition of The Blue Jay when it happened – too late to include an announcement, so Mom sent me a copy of the obituary they included with the mailing. 

(Takes a piece of paper from envelope and reads)

            “The death of Isabel M. Priestly on April 23, 1946, will come as a shock to many of the ‘Blue Jay’ subscribers.  As editor of the magazine Mrs. Priestly acquired a wide circle of naturalist friends in both Canada and the United States…

            Her death came as a great shock to all of us, for as far as we know, she had always enjoyed good health.  As yet we can scarcely realize that she has left us…

The service she rendered to the cause of natural history in the province will be remembered for many a day by her fellow naturalists.  As time passes we will remember her keen enthusiasm which stimulated a wide interest in the study of natural history, and all those who had the pleasure of knowing her will feel her passing as a decided personal loss…

The present issue of the ‘Blue Jay’ was compiled by Mrs. Priestly and was in the hands of the publishers at the time of her death.  After conferring with Mr. F. A. Dunk, Director of the Saskatchewan Provincial Museum, Mr. Priestly and many of the readers, it is felt that publication of the ‘Blue Jay’ should be continued in tribute to the memory of Mrs. Priestly…”

(Replaces piece of paper in envelope.)

I’m going to visit the muskeg when I get home.  I wonder if the others will come, too. 

Vignette Five: Ripples

Stuart Houston and Ruth Beck


Stuart: We went to the muskeg.

Ruth: I threw a stone

And there were ripples.

Stuart: Circles reaching outward

Circles without end

Ruth: Ripples beyond our lives

Ripples across a province

Across a country

Stuart: Across time

Ruth: Ripples moving people

Moving people outward

Stuart: Teacher Pauline Summers

Pauline’s students

Friend Cliff Shaw

Harvey Beck

Ruth: Frank Roy

Mary Houston

Stuart Houston

Naturalists all

Stuart: And the ripples move on

Gaining strength

Ruth: Moving outward

Moving people

Moving people outward

Stuart: Colleagues




Naturalists all



For the future…

We are the naturalists

Ours the legacy

The legacy of Isabel Priestly

Ours the responsibility,

The privilege

Let the ripples never end.

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