Brave the wild river : the untold story of two women who mapped the botany of the grand canyon

The Colorado River was, and still is, one of the most dangerous rivers in the world: wild, unpredictable, and more challenging to navigate than skilled, seasoned river runners could imagine. In 1938 two botanists, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter, joined a group of river runners in order to chart the plants of the Grand Canyon. Besides the Colorado River, there were additional challenges for the two botanists.

Botany, as well as other scientific fields, was dominated by and exclusive to men. Some areas of botany were thought to be all right for the gentler sex: the gathering of plants for decorative purposes, or perhaps some inoffensive plant pressings, but perish the thought that women had the intellectual capacity to understand the scientific aspects of botany. And, it was considered not at all appropriate that women would have to go tramping through all kinds of outdoor areas; definitely not thinkable that they would have the stamina to climb even the smallest of hills, and get dirty while gathering plant specimens.

Melissa L. Sevigny presents the dual biographies of two women whose professional lives crossed and united in the study of botany. It is the history of how they fought for permission and for funds to conduct a formal study of the plants in the Grand Canyon, which had not been documented and surveyed. Physically it was necessary for them to river raft down the Colorado River, that wild, unpredictable river. They would be the only two women among a group of men. At the same time, sociologically they were waging uphill battles on many fronts, personal and professional, that were equally daunting--predominantly misogyny, that came from unexpected people and institutions. Despite all of this, the enthusiasm, curiosity and determination of both women never abandoned them. At times they may have been weary and had doubts about the feasibility of this project, but they never gave up on their initial goal to survey what was unknown about the plants of the Grand Canyon. In researching the Elzada Clover Papers and the Lois Jotter Cutter Papers, Sevigny shares with us the delights these two botanists had in finding plants they had never seen, heard or read about.

In addition, she documents the contributions of indigenous peoples to botany; the pluses and minuses in building dams, resorts and other business ventures in immense natural areas; the issues with press coverage that should be accurate and not sensational; and the reality of expeditions: how the group dynamics can change; the effects that the adventure can have on participants during and after the expedition.  Having lived for days-on-end in an intense state of awareness and activity, some find it difficult to adjust to normal daily life. This happened to several people who were on the expedition. We are also reminded that In the 1930s botany was a burgeoning field and the concept of ecosystems was not fully understood or even considered.

On a concluding note, Melissa L. Sevigny reminds all of us about the realities of the present, in 2023, and the place of women in the sciences. This unfortunately validates what Kate Zernike documented in The exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the fight for women in science,  and what is presented in the documentary, Picture a scientist. In the United States we have a very long way to go in providing equitable support and opportunity for women in the sciences. 

“The same challenges that Clover and Jotter confronted decades ago remain barriers for women in the sciences today. In the United States, half of all bachelor’s degrees in science, engineering, and mathematics go to women, yet these women go on to earn only 74 percent of a man’s salary in those fields. A recent study found that it will be another two decades before women and men publish papers at equal rates in the field of botany, a field traditionally welcoming to women. It may take four decades for chemistry, and three centuries for physics. Stereotypes linger of scientists as white-coated, wild-haired men, and they limit the ways in which young people envision their futures. In a famous, oft-replicated study, 70 percent of six-year-old girls, asked to draw a picture of a scientist, draw a woman, but only 25 percent do so at age sixteen.”

This must be remembered as we encourage young girls to enter STEM programs. As they advance in these fields, in studies and professional work, they will need a great deal more support from all of us. All of us will benefit from the work they will do.