Mary M. Leister, 85, author and nature columnist for The Sun for two decades

April 05, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Mary M. Leister, whose nature columns were a fixture of The Sunday Sun for over 20 years, died of dementia March 29 at Hillside House in Clarksville. She was 85 and had lived in the assisted-living facility for the last five years.

It was Mrs. Leister's early-morning perambulations accompanied by her dog Kuonny in the fields, marshes and woods near her Sykesville home that inspired the monthly columns.

It was her deep love of nature and the countryside with all of its inhabitants -- from wildlife to plants, to the lowliest cricket and snake -- that entertained and enthralled Mrs. Leister.

No plant, no animal, no seasonal change escaped her powers of observation. She found pleasure and excitement in the daily drama of the fields.

Of a July day, she wrote, "All too soon the season advances. All too soon July--full, undiluted summer--is beating down upon us. Artificially clothed humanity and all the feathered and the furred are dragging and sagging through the sultry season, but the six-legged ones are basking in it. They leap and fly and crawl at their sprightliest, live at the utmost height and saturate the sweltering air with the unmuffled polyphonies of their alien existence."

In another column, she asked, "Why do frogs sing? For the same reason that birds and people sing. They feel good."

As cold gripped her beloved Heron Pond in November, she observed ice forming that would stay firmly in place, undisturbed, until spring thaw.

"Through all the vagaries of the winter's weather, no matter what happened to ice in other waters, the ice on Heron Pond grew only thicker and grayer and more progressively opaque," she wrote.

Of the katydid, whose summer serenades seem to coincide with the sultriest nights, she wrote: "The katydid section of the orchestra plays at full strength for only six weeks in late summer and for only a few hours of each of those nights."

She was born and raised Mary McFarland in Sarver, Pa.

"We were always reading, even if it meant nothing more than the cereal box at breakfast. We all had the reading-and-writing bug, but Mary was the only one who did something with it," said her sister, Nancy Reeser of Freeport, Pa.

As a child, Mrs. Leister began writing stories that were later published in Uncle Walt's Club, a children's feature, in the old Pittsburgh Press newspaper.

After graduating from high school, she moved to Baltimore in the 1930s and went to work as a clerk at Montgomery Ward.

And she continued to write, contributing articles, stories and poems to children's and nature magazines. She taught creative writing and was a poet-in-residence at Lisbon Elementary School and on the faculty of Roland Park Country School.

Some of her published books included Seasons of Heron Pond: Wildings of Air, Earth and Water; The Silent Concert; Flying, Fin, Fun and Scale; and The Wee Green Witch.

Mrs. Leister, who lived in Sykesville for more than 30 years, began writing her column for The Sunday Sun in the late 1960s. It later appeared as The Twelve Seasons and continued to be published into the late 1980s.

"She enjoyed the beauty around her, and that was her primary motivation for her daily walks. They simply pleased her," said Isaac Rehert, a retired features writer for The Sun.

"She was very articulate and as a describer of nature was very much in the tradition of Thoreau," he said.

On a spring day, Mrs. Leister stood by Heron Pond, watching the careful movements of muskrats and fish hovering beneath in the shallows. Soon they sensed her and beat a hasty retreat to safer quarters.

"The Rite of Spring was over and every wary dweller in the waters of the pond was back again to Maxim No. 1: The world is full of enemies," she wrote.

Mrs. Leister was a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Poplar Springs, Howard County.

Her marriage to Robert Leister ended in divorce.

A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. April 12 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 12700 Hallshop Road, Highland.

In addition to her sister, survivors include three brothers, William C. McFarland and James R. McFarland, both of Ellicott City, and the Rev. Jack McFarland of Sarver, Pa.; and many nephews and nieces.

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