Melissa Sevigny recounts the true story of forgotten female botanists who explored the Grand Canyon
Listeners know Melissa Sevigny from her incomparable science reporting here on KNAU. Now, she’s delving into botany and river running in a new book. Brave the Wild River recounts botanists Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter’s historic 1938 journey down the Colorado River to survey the plant life of the Grand Canyon. The pair risked their lives during the unprecedented 43-day journey only to be nearly forgotten in history —before Melissa, of course.
KNAU’s Bree Burkitt spoke with Melissa about her own research into the pioneering botanists.
How did you stumble across this story?
It was in 2018... I was looking for something at Northern Arizona University's Special Collections online. A little hyperlink popped up that said, "Women Botanists" and I was curious. So, I clicked on it and there was just one name in there. And the name was Lois Jotter and there was a little description that said, “She ran the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 1938 with her mentor and her colleague, Elzada Clover.” And they were both botanists, and they made kind of the first formal plant collection for Western botany in that region. And I was really surprised that I had never heard either of their names before. I wanted to know more about their story and I started looking around and there wasn't very much written about these two women, and particularly about the science that they were doing. So, I realized that if I wanted to know the story, I was going to have to write it myself.
What was the research and writing process like for you?
I wrote this book based on archival documents that are housed at Northern Arizona University and other places. Both of these women, I think, had the foresight to realize that what they were doing mattered. And they kept detailed diaries and letters, and they saved all of that material. So I was able to really kind of tap into especially their diaries and get a very vivid picture of what they were thinking and what they were feeling as they went down the river.
So did your research extend past archives and books? Did you actually go to the Canyon?
Yeah, I knew when I got started on this project, I was gonna have to run the Grand Canyon myself, and I was terrified.
Because I'm not really that adventurous. You know, whitewater rafting was not on my bucket list. I was pretty nervous. And I was lucky enough to hook up with a botany crew that was doing work in the Grand Canyon weeding a non-native grass species. I think that was good. I think that was good that I didn't go into this project as a river runner because neither of these women did. Lois actually packed up all of her boxes... She packed up her apartment into boxes and labeled them just in case she didn't come back and yet she did it anyway because she wanted to make this plant collection. Of course, running the Grand Canyon is much safer now than it was in 1938, but having that sense of trepidation going in kind of helped me channel what Elzada and Lois must have felt.
And so why do you think their story was so hidden? I mean, we know the stories of Powell – we know all these other great explorers on the Colorado River – but these two women as historical as they were, like you said, it's been buried.
I think we just don't tell a lot of stories about women, particularly when they're doing things that at the time were not seen as things women should be doing. They were kind of, you know, pushing their way into a world that was dominated by men, both in their scientific careers. Elzada had a PhD, Lois was well on her way to getting hers — that was incredibly rare in the 1930s. And they were pushing their way into the Colorado River, which, you know, at the time, people considered it to be something that men do — men ran rivers, and it was considered to be incredibly daring and incredibly risky. And so, these two women come along, and you know, they're not really interested in like making a name running the river, they want to collect these plants and this is the only way they can get into this region to collect plants.
Melissa Sevigny, congratulations on the book and good luck on your book tour.
Brave the Wild River is outn now. Melissa Sevigny will recount more of Lois Jotter and Elzada Clover’s journey at Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff on Thursday, May 25.