The Forgotten Scientists of the Grand Canyon
An interview with science writer Melissa L. Sevigny about Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon
In late June 1938, three small boats pushed off from the banks of Green River, Utah, with plans to run the raging Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, all the way to Lake Mead. In addition to Grape Nuts, a bottle of Four Roses whiskey, and the latest USGS survey maps tied up with a “lucky string,” the boats carried something rather unusual on board: women.
At the time that Elzada Clover and her assistant, Lois Jotter, set out to become the first botanists to catalog the Grand Canyon, rumors still swirled that prehistoric creatures might lurk in its labyrinthine side canyons. Only 12 non-native expeditions had made the trip down the Colorado River since John Wesley Powell’s inaugural 1869 trip, and almost all of those rafters were men (the only woman to have attempted the journey vanished without a trace, along with her husband).
Though Clover and Jotter had serious work ahead of them, the contemporary coverage focused almost exclusively on the fact that the pair were women. Clover and Jotter weren’t much better respected by the men accompanying them; in addition to their significant scientific duties, they served as cooks for the crew on the entire 43-day journey. Even in spite of the distractions, though, Clover and Jotter’s catalog of over 400 species, including four previously unknown cactus species, remains the botanical ur-text of the region: “There was simply no other comprehensive plant list [of the Grand Canyon] published prior to the closure of Glen Canyon Dam,” explains science writer Melissa L. Sevigny’s Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, an excellent new book about the river expedition. “Anyone who wanted to understand how the vegetation had changed — because of dams, exotic species, or any of the other human and natural influences at work on ecosystems in the past half-century — had to refer to Clover and Jotter’s work.”
Sevigny aimed to do Clover and Jotter justice by restoring them to their rightful place in science — and remembered history. But her book is also a rollicking, keep-you-up-at-night adventure story, told in utterly enveloping and immediate prose. Happily, Sevigny is earning her accolades; the book has received a rare triple-crown of early starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist.
Brave the Wild River is out on May 23. Ahead of its publication, I had the chance to speak with Sevigny about Clover and Jotter, her writing process, and the continued uphill battle of women in the sciences today. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was it about the story of Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter’s expedition that made you go, ‘Oh, I need to write this and I need to write it immediately’?
It was the fact that they were female scientists that drew me in. I always wanted to be a scientist; I wanted to be a geologist when I was a kid. I stayed on that path for quite a while and then I became a writer. I feel myself drawn to those stories because I suspect they might have changed things for me if I had known more stories about women in science when I was on that path.
I was surprised that I had never heard of these two women before, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter. I’ve lived in Arizona all my life. I thought I knew a lot about its history, and yet somehow their names had never come up. Something about that really compelled me and the more I looked, the more I realized I couldn’t find what I was looking for, which was the story of the botanical work that they did. If I wanted to know that story, I was going to have to write it myself.
Your style of writing is incredibly immersive, to the point that as a reader, I almost forgot you weren’t actually on the boats yourself. How did you get into the heads of Clover and Jotter and the other expedition members? What is your research process like?
I was lucky enough right from the start to have the diaries of both of these women. A diary is such an immersive document, you really do feel like you’re in their heads. They’re writing things down that maybe they wouldn’t say out loud to anyone. And so I got to know them first through their diaries, which were wonderfully descriptive, and through letters, which are another really intimate form of communication. They had friends and family that they were very close with and that they would write these letters to on the trip. Whenever they could stop and post a letter, they would do that.
But I also had to do some other things to get into their heads and one of them was raft the Grand Canyon myself. I was incredibly nervous. I’d never done a whitewater rafting trip before. But I knew I was going to need to do that.
I went with a botany crew; we were tasked with weeding out an invasive species of grass. I wanted to do that so I could get a sense of what it was like to actually have to work as a botanist on the river. It was a small group: We had three boats and six people, just like they did. Of course, a lot of things have changed since 1938 about river rafting, but it did feel like a very immersive experience. I remember at one point, turning around to watch the boat behind me come through a rapid and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s Lorin Bell.’ That is a character from 1938 in my book; it was not, in fact, Lorin Bell. Time, it feels different down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And sometimes I did forget that it wasn’t 1938.
I love old diaries — I feel like we don’t record-keep like that anymore! At least you had a rich source to work with.
I’m grateful to them for having the foresight to keep the materials because while they were alive, people often told them — or gave them the impression — that what they did wasn’t that important. And if they had listened to those people, they wouldn’t have kept these materials. The fact that they saved their diaries, they saved their letters, they saved the newspaper clippings, and they donated them to these archives shows a lot of foresight and a lot of courage. I couldn’t have written this book if they hadn’t felt that way.
Did you keep your own diary on your rafting trip?
I did keep my own diary. I made sure I wrote in it every night. I also had a waterproof river map with me and I made notes on it before the trip of things I wanted to make sure I looked at. Because there would be a moment in the diaries where they would say, like, “We looked up and we saw the Desert View watchtower.” That would be the whole description. And so I knew, okay, stop and look up here so that you can describe what they were seeing.
When I got home, I typed up little bits of description out of my diary and I printed them out and I cut them up with scissors and then I actually would tape them into my draft and work at integrating them in.
You write in the book that “it was a bad thought that they [Clover and Jotter] would be remembered (if they were remembered at all) because they were women, not botanists.” Was that a tension that was difficult to manage while you were pitching — and now are publicizing — the book? I catch myself saying “it’s about the first women to raft and botanize the Grand Canyon,” not “it’s about the first scientists to botanize the Grand Canyon.”
That’s a direct quote from something that Lois Jotter said. I found out pretty quickly that both these women wanted to be remembered as botanists and they struggled because people wanted to talk about them as if they were the first women to succeed at rafting the Grand Canyon. Elzada Clover actually pushed back against that for a very specific reason: She would refer to herself as the first non-native woman to raft the Grand Canyon. She knew that the region had a long Indigenous history — Navajo and Hopi both have stories of running this river long before a white person came along and did it. Elzada knew that and so that was one reason she pushed back against that label.
But the second reason was that she did want to be remembered as a scientist, as a botanist, and I don’t think that really happened for her during her lifetime. But it’s difficult to center a story on science when the fact that they were women shaped so much of their experience. When I first dove into writing this book, I wanted to stay on the science and I really thought the sexism that they experienced would be a smaller thread — I thought it would be there, but I didn’t want it to center it. But as I was writing, it was impossible to ignore all of the obstacles they faced because they were women, so I hope I managed to strike the right balance and do justice to their story. It was a frustration for them when they were alive and it was a difficulty for me when I was writing, like “How can we tell this as a science story when they’re constantly being told that they shouldn’t be scientists?”
I’m fairly new to full-time climate writing and have been, naïvely, pretty shocked at how much the natural sciences and academia are still so male-dominated. Though obviously we’ve made gains since the 1930s — though I think they’re smaller than many realize! — your book made me wonder about the Clovers and Jotters who are out there right now, facing uphill battles to be taken seriously.
I think that’s absolutely right. And I’m glad you said you were shocked by that because I was fairly shocked too, and then I was embarrassed for being shocked. I expected going into it — this is embarrassing to admit — I really expected the sexism would almost be kind of funny, you know, it would be like, “Look at how those people acted in the 1930s!” And it is funny, but it’s a much darker humor than I expected because women are still facing all of these things today.
Maybe not to the same degree — it might be a little more hidden or subtle now — but all of the same things that [Clover and Jotter] experienced: struggle getting a job, struggle getting a promotion, struggle to be taken seriously, to have a seat at the table. Smaller things too, like people fixating on their physical appearance, telling them to smile. All of those things still happen to women today. I wasn’t expecting to write as much about that going into this book as I did, but I knew I had to because it was a very real part of their story and an extremely relevant part of their story.
Toward the end of Brave the Wild River, you describe a 1994 river trip made by some Old Timers who had run the Grand Canyon before the Glen Canyon Dam went up. You write that the Old Timers’ observations about how the river had changed help reveal “why Clover and Jotter’s plant list mattered: as a hedge against the human tendency to forget how the world used to look.” How is Clover and Jotter’s research still helping us today?
It’s become only more relevant as time goes on. Clover and Jotter were the only people to make a formal plant list published in a Western scientific journal before Glen Canyon Dam went up. Today, there’s been a shift in thinking about the Colorado River. In their era, it was a given that people were going to build dams and they were going to harness this river. But today, a lot of people want to figure out how we can undo some of that damage, how we can protect the rivers, cultural values, and environmental values. And in that discussion, it’s hard to know how to do that if you don’t know what the river used to look like.
Clover and Jotter’s plant lists are just one part of that story. There’s also Indigenous wisdom about the plants along the river. There are other pre-dam records, but together it creates a picture of how this place used to look. Not saying that we can make it look like that again, but it gives us a way to pin our baselines in place so as we move forward, we can understand what kind of processes we need to restore this river. How do we want to protect it?
Since Clover and Jotter are no longer with us, you weren’t able to interview them for the book. Is there anything you wish you could have asked them? Any lingering mysteries or gaps of knowledge that you wish you could have filled?
Yeah, so many things. Gosh. I was lucky to be able to track down some of their relatives and some of their former students and had really wonderful interviews with them. But there’s always questions, like, did you get it quite right?
There’s a key moment in the book where [Clover and Jotter] lose part of their plant collection and all I have are these little scraps and I don’t know exactly how that happened. Like, what were you planning? Who did you give that collection to, who was entrusted with it, and then what happened? I’d love to fill in those kinds of details.
I’d also like to ask them how they feel about how their botanical work has been used today. So many things changed from the 1930s to the present day and they lived through those changes, but because I don’t have as detailed records later in their life, I don’t know how they felt about what happened to the Colorado River, how they felt about how their work was used or ignored or misused over that time. I would just love to sit and talk with them about that. That’s one of many, many questions I would have.
Is there anything else you want readers to know about Clover and Jotter?
This was a story about two ordinary women. I mean, I think they were remarkable, I wrote a whole book about them. But sometimes when we tell stories about science, we focus on the lone genius in the laboratory discovering a new element or breaking the laws of physics. Most science actually gets done in a much more incremental fashion. It’s about ordinary people who are passionate about some part of the natural world and they go out and they chase that curiosity and they move our knowledge forward. Just a little step. That’s what [Clover and Jotter] did and I think that’s how science works.
I started this conversation by saying that I wanted to be a scientist, right? I hope that young people or people of any age who are interested in science will see that it’s not something done by geniuses locked away in laboratories. Anybody can be a scientist.