Lee's Ferry

The Wilding of
Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter:
Melissa L. Sevigny’s
Brave the Wild River

Review by Geri Lipschultz

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Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of The Grand Canyon
By Melissa L. Sevigny
W. W. Norton & Company | 2023 | 304 pages

Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, by Melissa L. SevignyHere is a journey that sweeps up the reader in its seamless weaving of histories with a geographically rich narrative: the story of two women who dare to follow their dreams. In Melissa Sevigny’s Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of The Grand Canyon, we follow the lead of Elzada Clover, a professor, and her protégé Lois Jotter, a graduate student—their journey on hand-made boats navigating troubled waters—on what will amount to a 43-day adventure on the Colorado River and its tributaries. Their mission: to “‘botanize’ the canyons and discover the plants that thrived in secret nooks… up and down the Colorado’s sheer cliffs and shifting sandbars.” Their wish: to “bring out a trove of pressed plants for scientific research. The plants would be an essential record of a region that was changing fast.” Clover was in her 40s, uninterested in romance, an adventurer; Jotter was more “bookish,” bemoaning herself an unmarried woman at 24. Both were pragmatic, serious, dedicated.  

Sevigny paints a world governed by white patriarchy. It’s 1938, a time when women’s pursuits were rigidly prescribed by societal mores, when women were defined by clothing (current fashion dictated brown overalls) and biology—when the very fact of a woman joining the dangerous enterprise itself made news.

The book opens with Jotter stranded overnight in Cataract Canyon, just past the confluence of the Green River, and what was called the Grand, renamed the Colorado, “an unruly thing, governed by the mad rhythms of a desert climate. Surges of snowmelt, thick with mud, came down each spring followed by torrents of storm water in summer.”

By 1938, only a dozen expeditions had traversed the Grand Canyon by boat since John Wesley’s Powell’s journey nearly 70 years before. And there had been only one woman on record, Bessie Hyde, on her honeymoon, when she and her husband both vanished, and our intrepid women would cross the path where the couple disappeared.

Clover knew that some of the cacti in the Southwest grew nowhere else in the world. No botanist had explored that part of the Colorado River as it runs into the canyons.

Clover and Jotter would be the first.

“Polite Botany,” was the experience of women in 1938; the “serious” work done by men.

So the fact of women taking part was news in itself—very much upstaging the finds in botany in terms of the media at the time, although later, some of Clover’s “pressed plants” would find their way into the U.S. National Herbarium at the Smithsonian: “Echinocereus canyonensis  (claret cup) and Sclerocactus parviflorus.

Along with the women, Sevigny places the Colorado River front and center, with the three boats of Norm Nevills—an entrepreneur Clover approached, his willingness owing to his hope for an enterprise in tourism—and the six passengers, including the two women. He gathered men to do the heavy work, but it’s the women who would be up early in the morning; it’s the women who would be preparing the food, gathering their plants, pressing them, doing their share of the paddling; and it’s the two women who, along with Nevills himself, had lasted the entire trip. Nevills replaced several of the men mid-journey.

Sevigny offers a full history of running the Colorado River—and this is also a history of occupation, of annexing the land, uprooting the First Peoples. Sevigny writes of the disagreement among scientists and National Park administrators over how the land is to be managed—the scientists at odds with those who want to create tourism, who want to manage the water, not realizing that the water was not as plentiful as it might seem.

Sevigny documents the rise of conservation when “tourism became the new timber” and how far behind the U.S. was in relation to Europe regarding the study of botany. Also, preservationists then praised the wilderness as pristine and untouched by humans, when in truth, “the land had been tended carefully by its Native inhabitants for generations.”

Sevigny, a science writer, interviewed Jotter’s son, and I cannot imagine how much time spent gathering and sifting through texts. Many if not all of the travelers wrote journals, and Sevigny captures descriptions of the plants, providing illustrations, along with the common and formal Latin.

In 1994, when Jotter took a second trip, it was under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Glen Canyon Environmental Studies Program, and “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.”

She writes: “[S]cientists no longer felt so cavalier. A seemingly tiny change in the global thermostat could set in motion enormous events: stronger hurricanes, floods, wildfires, heat waves, and droughts.”

Jotter’s second trip had “no runaway boats, no nights spent alone at the river’s edge.”

Sevigny interrogates this idea of wild: “The river wasn’t a wild place, not now. It was… a muscle of energy to turn hydroelectric turbines, a thousand-plus-mile-long ditch to deliver water to cities and farms, or a playground for tourists…. [I]ts heartbeat was squeezed into a different rhythm by the needs of people who lived hundreds of miles away, people who had never even seen it.”

And yet, it was a place where “bighorn sheep still nosed their stilt-legged lambs down to the water to drink. Ravens still launched from the pinnacles, feathers so black they looked like holes cut into the sky. Debris flows and flash floods still tore down the side canyons and reshaped the rapids with rough, eager hands. Each morning the sun painted a masterpiece on the south-facing walls and then calmly scrubbed it out again….”

This is a brilliant and elegantly written book. I felt so much admiration for all three botanists, especially for Sevigny, who did everything she could have possibly done by way of research and expertise to help me know these women, to conjure their lives, to imagine being there, to make me want to take such a trip, and finally, to make me mourn for the days when the Colorado was rich and vertiginous with water and flora and fauna, so well cared for by the First Peoples of this land.

As Sevigny writes, we cannot define wild as “untouched by human presence, for even the plants—especially the plants—show how the canyonland’s first inhabitants tended agave and prickly pear, coaxing them into new shapes… A wild place isn’t one unchanged by humans. It’s a place that changes us.”

Read “Blush and Rouge in the Grand Canyon: An Interview with Melissa L. Sevigny” in Terrain.org.



Geri LipschultzGeri Lipschultz has published in The New York Times, The Toast, Black Warrior Review, College English, and Ms, among others. Her work appears in Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing and in Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II. She teaches writing at Hunter College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her stories have received nominations for the Pushcart, and she was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service grant from New York State. Her one-woman show Once Upon the Present Time was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.

Header photo by kavram, courtesy Shutterstock.

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Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.