More About the Author
May Theilgaard Watts was a poet, artist, gardener, and above all, a teacher. She is best known for her book Reading the Landscape: An Adventure in Ecology (later published in an expanded edition as Reading the Landscape of America,) and as founder of the Illinois Prairie Path.
May was born to Danish parents in Chicago, on May 1, 1893. Her first teaching job was in a one-room schoolhouse. At the start of the school year, she would take a train out to a rural school district, where she lived with a farmer's family. During the summers, she came home to her parents' house in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, and attended the University of Chicago. There, she took classes from the pioneering American ecologist, Henry C. Cowles, whose work she would popularize in her books.
After graduating from college, May she taught at a Chicago-area high school until her marriage in 1924 to Raymond Watts. While raising her family, she spoke and wrote widely about native plants and landscapes. From 1941 until her retirement, Watts worked as staff naturalist at the Morton Arboretum, west of Chicago, where she created the Arboretum's innovative education program.
May and her husband, Raymond Watts, started the publishing imprint Nature Study Guild Publishers to publish her pocket guides Tree Finder and Flower Finder.
In 1963, at the age of 70, she instigated the movement to convert an abandoned railroad right-of-way into the Illinois Prairie Path. May died in her home in Naperville, Illinois, in 1975, with a piece of unfinished writing waiting for her in her typewriter.
When Reading the Landscape was first published, in 1957, its jacket included a quote from the naturalist Edwin Way Teale: "Mrs. Watts has a valuable and original idea in considering the whole ecological interrelationship represented by each different landscape in turn." Her publisher appended a definition of the word "ecology," evidently not expecting readers to be familiar with the word.
Ecology is no longer an arcane term, in part because of May Theilgaard Watts' work, through her books, lectures, and field trips, to interest non-scientists in nature and its interrelationships.