By Hana Zittel
Published Issue 116, August 2023
Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon by Melissa J. Sevigny (2023)
When Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter began planning their 1938 journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, only one other woman had been documented as attempting the route before. A decade earlier, Bessie Hyde and her husband Glen disappeared during their venture and were presumed dead, despite their boat being found fully intact.
As a botany instructor at the University of Michigan, Clover completed her doctoral thesis on the plants of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and her interest shifted to the dream of documenting the vegetation of the Grand Canyon. To make this trip a reality, Clover enlisted a local river runner, Norman Nevills, whose previous experience only consisted of running the San Juan. Two men were selected by Norman to join the team in addition to Clover’s picks, Euguene Atkinson, a student, and Lois Jotter, a botany teaching assistant.
The lead up to this trek was marred by sexist views and insistence that the Grand Canyon was no place for a woman. Despite a doubtful press and public, the crew persisted with Clover’s dedication to the science of botany keeping the mission on target. Together, in the summer of 1938, in three wooden boats full of supplies, most importantly, supplies for documenting this previously uncataloged vegetation, Clover and Jotter set out to become the first two women recorded to have completed the journey down the Grand Canyon.
Melissa J. Sevigny’s coverage of this 43-day expedition illuminates another, lesser-known contribution of women to science. Botanical science and its popularity as a recreational pastime for women in the early 19th century resulted in the proliferation of the profession as an acceptable academic career for women when most fields were not, leading to the groundbreaking work done by Clover and Jotter on that river exploration. Sevigny’s coverage also details indigenous and natural histories of this land creating a wider view of Grand Canyon history. The compilation of detailed diaries and letters from the adventurers with natural history makes Brave the Wild River a beautiful and thrilling ride through one of the most treacherous journeys at the time.
Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World by Christian Cooper (2023)
Christian Cooper starts and finishes his memoir with sections referring to significant life moments in Central Park. In the first, “An Incident in Central Park,” he guides us through the exhilarating experience of being able to observe a Kirtland Warbler, recorded for the first time ever in the park.
The second incident in Central Park was one that was viewed all over the world. A white woman intentionally weaponizing her race and gender, threatening Cooper with the police after he asked her to leash her dog. Posted on social media soon after by his sister, Cooper knew that she was moved to share the event because she “was understandably outraged. Any Black relative would be; considering the long history of reckless police enforcement against Black bodies, it was all too easy for her to envision the worst-case scenario of what might have happened to her brother.”
Though Cooper discusses this incident, its life-changing impact and global implications, his memoir does not focus its lens on this moment. Filled with joy and growth, Cooper takes us through the beauty and adventure of birdwatching and how birding has woven its way into his life starting from his very first spotting of his “spark bird,” the Red-Winged Blackbird. He details his time at Harvard, being able to come out to his roommates, travels around the world falling in love, and his time in the comic book industry creating groundbreaking works highlighting queer and diverse characters. He injects birding tips in each section, bringing to the forefront how vital nature is in our lives. Cooper’s love of birds radiates from his writing, emanating the unique magic that absorbs so many into the intoxicating practice of birding.
Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.