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The First Two Botanists Who Surveyed, and Survived, the Colorado River

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In the summer of 1938 the first women known to travel the entire Colorado River—and survive—documented the flora and fauna of the region before it was further reshaped by Western development. They were white botanists in academia who battled both the usual obstacles in scientific expeditions and some unusual ones: doubters telling them they were doomed to fail, a lack of funding, the serious risk of injury or even death and, for one of the botanists, her father’s permission. Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter wrangled the only experienced river runner available, Norm Nevills, who insisted they find some river runners turned expedition volunteers to accompany them safely through the journey. The two scientists woke early to make breakfast for the group and search for plants, traversed the rapids and cliff walls with the men in boats all day and then made dinner while annotating their findings. Their research has implications for how humans manage the fragile river system that today provides water for some 40 million people and whose limits are being tested as overuse and climate-fueled drought sap it dry.

Melissa Sevigny is author of Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon. In her book, Sevigny brings readers along for the whitewater rafting, the near drownings and the gnawing hunger Clover and Jotter experienced on this breathtaking scientific expedition.

Sevigny sat down with Scientific American to discuss Clover and Jotter’s journey, her personal experiences on the river and the process of writing nonfiction that reads like an adventure book.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

How did you first learn about Clover and Jotter? What initially sparked your interest?

Spark is a good word. You know, there was something there right from the very beginning that I just had to chase down. I grew up in Arizona all my life, and I thought I was pretty up to date on the Colorado River, and yet when I encountered these women’s names, I had never heard them before. I was shocked! I ran across their names just by chance. I was looking for something online in the special collections department of Northern Arizona University, which is here in Flagstaff, Ariz., where I live. A hyperlink popped up that said “women botanists,” and I was curious, so I clicked on it. And there was just one name in there—Lois Jotter. It turned out her collection was housed at the university, and so there was a description of what was in those files, and her diary was there and letters that she wrote. She was kind of a pack rat. She kept everything to do with this trip. I learned that she had gone down the river in 1938 with her mentor, Elzada Clover, and I just wondered, Why hadn’t I heard of these women? I was very curious about the science in particular. The few things that I could find that had been written about them really focused on them as women who ran the river at a time when women weren’t really doing that. That wasn’t the story that interested me—what interested me was that they were scientists at a time when women weren’t doing that either. That was the story I wanted to uncover.

Where do you think the field of botany would have gone without this research? Would someone else have just done it without them? Or were they seeing a gap in the field and filling it themselves?

That’s a great question. Of course, there were botanists working in the region as a whole, including a lot of women botanists whose names I hadn’t heard before, such as John Wesley Powell and his sister Ellen Powell Thompson. But nobody had gone down the river because people weren’t really doing that there. There wasn’t a way to just sign up for a river trip. And of course, the Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon and, to a lesser extent, Glen Canyon [all situated along the Colorado River] were very inaccessible. It was hard to get there on foot or by horseback. There were also Indigenous people in this region who knew a lot about the botany. So I’m really talking about the first botanists, from a Western science perspective, who were making a formal collection and were going to publish papers on this collection. They really were the first to do that. I think for [Clover], in particular, she saw it as kind of this blank space on the botany map that hadn’t yet been filled in, and she was very attracted to the idea of going there and filling in that blank space in the map. It’s an interesting question. If they hadn’t done this trip, what would have happened? Would someone else have come along and done it instead? I think, yes, eventually, but I don’t know if there would have been that kind of comprehensive look at the botany before the dam went in and changed everything if these two women hadn’t done it.

I get the sense while reading the book that the two botanists realized the timing and importance of their research in the moment. Was there any evidence of that in their diaries?

The diaries were interesting because they’re very immediate thoughts of what’s happening on the river. And you can see this shift that happens early in the trip. Even before they get to the river, they’re spending a lot of time writing about plants and natural history. Then they hit the river, and it’s not exactly what they expected, and they’re doing a lot of work getting the boats downriver to just survive in general. And the diaries have a definite shift—shorter entries, much more hurried entries. But I did find that afterward, when they had time to reflect on what they had collected, they spent more time talking about, specifically, the Indigenous history of the region and how certain plants were used by Indigenous peoples. I learned from one of Clover’s students that I interviewed that she always referred to herself as the first “non-Native” woman to run the river; she would correct people if they said she was the first woman to do it. She spent time the following year with a Havasupai tribe, and I think she was very aware of the long Indigenous history of the river and respectful of that. It came sort of as a surprise. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that from a white woman in the 1930s.

Park naturalist Edwin Mckee with botanist Dr. Elzada Clover examining a yucca in the native plant garden by Yavapai Observation station, July 1938. Credit: National Park Service/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This book primarily takes place in 1938, and when looking back at people’s politics, we often describe them as “from a different era.” Can you tell me how you understood how people were understanding Clover and Jotter as women in botany, a field that is thought of as women galavanting in gardens collecting flower pressings. And can you also speak to how they interpreted this bias against them?

What a big question. We could talk about that for hours. I tried to be very unflinching when facing the racism and the sexism of the era—both what they experienced as women and what they inflicted as white people. Early in Clover’s career, before she became a botanist, she worked at a segregated school for Mexican American students. I dug as deep as I could into the very scant records about that school, and it did seem to have a racist program of instruction that was trying to Americanize these Mexican American kids. She must have been complicit in that. I wanted to be unflinching when I discovered parts of their story that … we look back on now and say, Well, that really was a different era. I didn’t want to dismiss it by saying it was just a different time. On the flip side of that coin, people are a patchwork of identities, and parts of their identities will confer privilege, and parts of their identities will invite oppression—and we see that in these women. I think the fact that they’re white is the reason they were able to do this trip. We don’t have a comparable story of a Black woman or an Indigenous woman doing this kind of trip. I hope the stories are out there, and we just haven’t found them yet. But I think the fact that they were white meant they were able to scrape up the money, and they were able to feel relatively safe going on a trip with a bunch of strange men. The sexism they faced was astonishing. I wasn’t entirely prepared for it. I wasn’t expecting to write so much about the sexism, and I think that’s how they felt. I think they went into this trip wanting to think about science, and they were continually being asked by the newspaper reporters questions that just zeroed in on their gender—continually having their personal appearance described, often in very unflattering ways, continually being asked, Did do you know that the only woman who did this has died?, things like that. It’s clear in their diaries that they were very, very aware of the sexism they were facing. If they had been men, it would have been much easier to do this trip.

As a science journalist, what is it about their research that you were so shocked or enamored by? Is there a particular sampling or particular incident that struck you?

They made this really comprehensive plant list of more than 400 species of plants that they somehow managed to create as they went down the river, and I was just fascinated by that process. You know, it’s not too different from what botanists do today when they’re taking samples. That must have been an incredible process when they were collecting cactus; it blows me away. But what really interested me was that process of putting together a plant list with Western and Latin names, which is a colonial process, and I was aware of that going in. They did find “new” plants to Western science, but that didn’t interest me as much as their observations and how the plants fit into the environment. Very early in the book, I knew I wanted to write a scene where they reached the Colorado River, and they’re looking at it together. And the leader of the trip, Norm Nevills, is looking at the river to see how to get through these rapids. I wanted to write the scene where [Clover] is standing there, and she’s looking at the plants. I discovered that she wouldn’t be seeing an “ecosystem” because that word barely existed. It was invented in 1935, and nobody was using it yet. So when she looked at it, she didn’t see an ecosystem. What did she see? She used words like association or community. She was using these other words to talk about how the plants fit into their environment. And you can tell from the scientific papers that these women wrote that they were thinking very strongly about what we would now call ecosystem science. That really fascinated me because it was the beginning of the way we now think about ecosystems, and you could see them kind of puzzling it out in real time.

You also took a trip on the Colorado, following in these researchers’ “footsteps” and keeping your own diary. What was that experience like?

It was incredible. It was emotionally very intense! I couldn’t completely follow in their wake or in their line down the river, partly because of the pandemic. I was writing this book during the pandemic, and that really crunched the amount of time that I had to do fieldwork after the vaccines came out. Also, because of the dam, lower Cataract Canyon and Glen Canyon are now under a lake, so I couldn’t retrace those parts of the journey. But I did do the Grand Canyon two-week trip. And emotionally, I was not entirely prepared for that. I’d never done any kind of whitewater rafting before. I was going to be doing this alone, and I was, frankly, frightened. I found, through a friend, a botany crew that was going down. It felt right for me to go with a crew that was going to be doing some work on plants and to know what it was like to try to not only get down the river safely but also have to stop and do this plant work and kind of bushwhack into these places that a tourist wouldn’t attempt to get into. Like, how can I get through these thickets of arrowweed or tamarisk or mesquite and [try] to get back to the plants that we’re looking for? It was an incredible experience. I kept a diary, and I made myself write in it every night, even if I was exhausted. I had almost a complete draft at the point that I went on this trip. Their diaries were often very terse, especially as they got more and more tired. They would just say something very quick, such as: We saw the Desert View Watchtower; We saw this. I wanted to fill in the details, such as: What did the cliffs look like? What was the feeling in the air? What was the feeling of the way sand gets into your hair? I actually ended up writing the epilogue of the book while I was trapped in my tent during a rainstorm for several hours. That was the right place to do it.

This is such a really unique nonfiction book. I learned so much about science and history, but the book also reads like an adventure novel. How did you pull that off?

Ironically, I think that happened because I approached it as a science writer. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to convey science in a way that is exciting and understandable. I had things I wanted to get across with this book. I wanted to tell people about the importance of scientific research in this region and the importance of having a diverse group of people doing scientific research. And I wanted to package that in a way where you don’t really know that that’s what you’re getting, right? I want them to get the science in the midst of that adventure. I think the main thing I’ve learned about covering science for the past decade and a half or so is that it’s really not about the science; it’s about the people. People are always the center of any science story. And in this case, I have wonderful people to work with, wonderful characters who are also interesting and different and diverse. In my early draft, I was attempting to go back and forth in time to tell you things about how Glen Canyon Dam was going to be underwater and all these invasive species are going to come in, but it didn’t work. It was terrible. I finally figured out that I needed to stay in 1938, and I needed to stay in these characters’ heads. I wanted you to feel nervous or excited or afraid or whatever it was that they were feeling at these different moments in the book.

What do you wish more people understood about this natural landscape?

Oh, my gosh, yeah, so many things. I wish people understood that the work that needs to be done now on the Colorado River, which is in a crisis, is at a crossroads. It needs to be done by all kinds of people. Science is done by very ordinary people. These women were, in ways, just ordinary women, and I wrote a whole book about them. I think they’re remarkable, but they’re also ordinary women chasing their passion and pursuing their curiosity about the world. We desperately need more people studying and understanding the Colorado River region and the natural world as a whole. It’s from that knowledge that we find ways to protect it and also find the courage and the desire to protect it. Here in the Colorado River Basin, especially, we need to be listening to the knowledge of Indigenous wisdom keepers. We need to be listening to the knowledge of people who know this river and run this river and understand the region. We need to be listening to the knowledge of scientists who are coming from all different backgrounds and perspectives, all different genders and all different levels of ability. That’s really kind of what I learned in the process of writing this book, so I hope it will inspire people to understand that science is done, often very incrementally, by completely ordinary people, and anybody can engage in that process.

So are you a Clover or a Jotter?

That is really hard! Clover’s adventurousness is not something I necessarily share—her willingness to just get out there and do these, like, slightly crazy things. I’m more of a homebody. But it’s hard for me to say that I’m more of a Jotter either, because even though she was the less adventurous of the two, she was also really personable. People just instantly liked her, including me. When I read her diary, even though I never had a chance to actually meet her, she was an instantly likable person. I might be a little more like Clover in that I’m a little harder to get to know. I’m sorry, I can’t pick.

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