Written by Howard Burton
I knew of Ruth Kirk, but when I saw her recently on the PBS television series on the National Parks, I realized the impact she has had.
When Ruth Kirk moved to Panorama, it was suggested at that time that an article be written about her as an example of the interesting people that live here at Panorama. The idea fell by the wayside, but when the television series aired, I realized it was time to share her story with everyone.
Ruth Kirk is the author of thirty-five books, including three children’s books. Ruth has also been honored with numerous awards including those of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Library Association, the Washington Governor’s Arts Award, the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing that blends personal observation with research, and nomination for the National Book Award in the science category.
Ruth was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Her husband, Louis Kirk, was a National Parks Ranger and his assignments took the family all over, including Death Valley and the Dakotas. She never picked out a favorite place. “Wherever I was at the time,” she said. Traveling and moving a lot, they developed the ability to say goodbye before they got to say hello.
Ruth has always been a writer. Her first book was entitled Exploring Death Valley. Ruth and her husband lived in the Valley during the early 1950’s and she felt that “the tourists needed a book on how to see what is there and how to understand what they are looking at.” Ruth called it the “Paper Ranger” and it was in print for 40 years.
It was while taking basket making lessons from the Panamint Indians in Death Valley that Ruth learned about photography. She borrowed her husband’s camera because he couldn’t take the pictures: “he would scare them.” With their Leica camera she tried her hand at photography. This experience pleased her and with the eventual success of these pictures and others, photography became a new skill which found its way into much of her work.
“We moved to Mount Rainier in the early 1950’s, transferred by the National Park Service from Death Valley and the tall cactus country of the Mexican borderlands. The van driver who brought our goods commented: ‘you’ve moved from the ridiculous to the sublime’”… To Ruth, the Pacific Northwest was the perfect place to settle. “To me, this is not the ‘other’ Washington mentioned in tourism ads as an oblique reference to Washington D.C.. This is the right Washington.” This statement reflects how many of us feel about our home here in Washington State.
Because of her connection with the National Park Service, Ruth was invited to participate in Ken Burns’ new National Parks TV series. She said they flew her to San Francisco where the interviews and taping were produced.
With the death of Mr. Kirk in 1992, Ruth moved to Olympia, Washington. In 1997 she married her friend of 40 years, Dr. Richard Daugherty, an archeologist, and moved to Panorama. Together, they combined their knowledge and skills in writing Archaeology in Washington.