In Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa Sevigny follows two pioneering botanists on their historic research trip through the Grand Canyon in 1938. The first white women to raft the Colorado River, they weren’t expected to make it. The fact that they did is a testament not only to their guides, but also to their own tenacity and perseverance. Sevigny’s book relies on archival material and research to bring readers along on this ambitious expedition, while also delving into Indigenous history, women in science, the history of western exploration, and the water issues that have plagued the West since it was settled.
Melissa and I chatted about her book on a sunny spring morning in March. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Boon: How did you find this story? Or did it find you?
Melissa Sevigny: So, 2019 was the Grand Canyon National Park centennial, and I was looking for stories about the Grand Canyon. I ran across the names of these two women—Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter—botanists from the University of Michigan who rafted the canyon in 1938, and made the first formal plant collection there. I was really surprised that I’d never heard of them before, and when I poked around to learn more about their story, there was almost nothing written about them. A few months later I visited an exhibit of Grand Canyon photography at Northern Arizona University here in Flagstaff. And there was a photo of these two women, rafting the river eighty years ago. I stood there looking at the photo thinking to myself, You know, I’ve got to do something about these women. Then the curator of the exhibit walked by, and I said, “I’m thinking about writing something about these two women.” He said, “Wait right there,” and disappeared into the archives. He emerged with a box and started pulling out all of this bright pink bubble wrap. Inside the box was a hat. It was Lois Jotter’s hat—really more of a helmet—that she wore when she rafted the river. That was the moment when everything crystallized for me. I realized this story was calling me and I needed to write it. I went out into the library and sat down at the first table I came to and started to write.
SB: I found it fascinating that Elzada Clover was so bold as to propose and participate in this expedition in an era when women just didn’t do these types of things. Why do you think it worked out?
MS: Some historians have dismissed Clover as naive, and that she just dove into the trip without knowing what she was getting into. I don’t think that’s correct. She knew that she was signing up to go down a river that she’d never really seen before, with a group of people that she didn’t know. She understood that she was venturing into something that was risky in a lot of different ways. But Clover was so passionate about plants—every one of the people I talked to who knew her personally said that was central to her character. She had this dream of making a collection of all the cacti in the Southwest, and she was doing it, on her own dime.
She seized every opportunity that came her way. She had this fortuitous meeting with Norman Nevills, who wanted to start a commercial river running business and, unlike many of his fellow river runners, was willing to take women down the river. His idea was that if he could convince people that rafting the Grand Canyon is something even a woman can do, then it must be easy. Right? And then more people will sign up to do these river trips. I’m sure Elzada realized that, but she was like, This is my chance. This is my opportunity. And it was really amazing to see her chase this dream despite many people telling her it was a terrible idea. People at her university treated her as both foolhardy and far too adventurous, and she was snubbed for wanting to do it. But she and her colleague Lois were really committed to getting this plant collection. They were going to make it happen.
SB: Clover and Jotter fell into the role of looking after their male guides by making meals, setting up camp, and helping line the boats around rapids, all while conducting their own research. Do you see parallels with women in science today?
MS: So many parallels that it shocked me! So much of what they experienced then is still happening today. When I first started the book, I wasn’t expecting to write so much about the sexism they faced. I’m a science reporter. I was focused on telling a science story. And my annoyance at having to deal with the sexism in my book is probably exactly how they felt as well. I found blogs written recently that tell women if you’re going on a river trip, don’t feel like you have to do the cooking. It really hasn’t changed since 1938. And journalists telling the women to smile, we all know that, right? Journalists fixated on the women’s personal appearance—there were a lot of really unflattering descriptions of how they looked, which weren’t being applied to the men. You know, it’s all stuff that I recognize, that’s still happening today. And I wasn’t really prepared for that, I’m not quite sure why.
I think it’s going to be hard to shake off that entrenched idea
that the history of the West is a man’s history.
SB: Elzada in particular was disappointed that the journalists never mentioned the science; they just talked about what the women looked like.
MS: That was a frustrating disappointment that hounded her for the rest of her life. Newspapers would cover the trip and not mention the botany, or even worse, a lot of the newspapers dismissed it. They’d say things like “they collected a few plants,” or “the plant collection wasn’t that important.” And that kind of hardened into this narrative that up until modern day has appeared in the few things that have been written about them. There’s this perception that the science they did wasn’t that important. From the start I suspected that was wrong. I would talk to botanists who work in the Colorado River region and they would say, “Yes, we still use the papers they published today.” Something I wanted to really correct with this book was to restore the importance of the work they did.
Pick up a copy of Brave the Wild River here.
SB: I like that idea that you wanted to restore legitimacy to their scientific work.
MS: I did feel in writing this book that I was in the place I wanted to be. Something clicked for me—with recovering stories that have been lost or neglected about scientists. I want to keep doing that kind of work.
SB: Alison Hawthorne Deming wrote a blurb for the book, in which she says it “redefines the Grand Canyon not as a testing ground for masculine virility, but as a proving ground for women’s tenacity and intelligence.” What are your thoughts on this?
MS: Yeah, I really like that. It’s unfortunate that when you look for historical books about the Colorado River or the Grand Canyon, they really are about men. In the American West as a whole, there’s this idea that history is a white man’s history. We think of these big adventures, people moving into these “unexplored” areas. But we know these stories aren’t true. I mean, we know there were Indigenous people there first, we know that there were women going along with these men every step of the way. And yet, for some reason, those stories aren’t being told. I do think that’s changing, but I think it’s going to be hard to shake off that entrenched idea that the history of the West is a man’s history.
SB: You include a lot of Indigenous history and stories. Why was it important for you to do so?
MS: I knew that approaching this story as a white woman writing about two white women, I had to be respectful, do my research, and understand the Indigenous history of the region, which is a very long history. There are eleven federally recognized tribes that consider the Grand Canyon sacred and part of their homeland, including the Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo tribes.
For this book, I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t share anything that hadn’t been told to me by a tribal member. I read written sources as background, but there’s always the danger that what’s in those sources wasn’t actually meant to be written down and shared. So I did a lot of consultation as I went along. I wanted to be clear that Indigenous people ran the river, Indigenous people understood the botany first, and they’re still there and still engaged with the protection of this region.
Read more from Melissa here.
SB: You address water issues in the West, including John Wesley Powell’s definition of the 100th meridian as the line dividing land suitable for farming from land not suitable for farming. Has that line shifted since Powell’s day?
MS: It has, and it is shifting still. And you know, I guess I should say that it’s launching off what we discussed previously. This is a white man’s idea of how to divide the country—the Hopi have been out here dryland farming for thousands of years. They know how to farm without a lot of rain. But that was how Powell decided to define the aridity of the West. And in a lot of ways, it was a powerful way to define it, because people weren’t thinking that the West really is an arid place. This was a time when people—white people—were moving west with the idea that rain would follow them and they’d be able to turn the desert into a garden. Now we’re coming up on a reckoning with that false idea. So yes, the line is moving, aridity is spreading because of climate change, and we’re reaching the hard ecological limits of this region. I wanted to weave a little bit of that into the book without being too heavy-handed. But mostly, I wanted to remind people that we set the foundation for what we’re seeing now with drought and with climate change in the West a long time ago. Now we have to reckon with it.
SB: You mentioned that you’re not adventurous, but you took your own trip down the Grand Canyon. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
MS: When I got the book contract, some of my friends asked, “So you’re going to raft the Grand Canyon now?” and I was like, “Ooooh, right.” I was pretty resistant to the idea because white-water river rafting is just not really on my list of things to do. I like hiking and camping and some light backpacking, but gosh, I never imagined doing something like that. I didn’t want to go with commercial trips; they’re quite expensive, and I was frightened about being stuck with a group of people I didn’t know for two weeks. Being a woman traveling alone also gave me pause. I wanted to get in with a group of people that I had a reason to trust. A friend of mine connected me with a group of botanists and river runners who were going on a very small, two-week trip to weed an invasive species called Ravenna grass. I could volunteer my time to weed out this grass and that would make the trip a whole lot cheaper, and I’d also be with people who were interested in science and could tell me a lot about the botany.
I kept a very detailed diary of what I was seeing and I made notes on my river map of moments where things happened for Lois and Elzada, so when they came up in the trip, I could make sure I was paying attention. It’s such a surreal experience being down there, cut off from the outside world, no cell phones and no internet. Time passes in a very different way, a slower, more rhythmic way. Time passed with the way the sun rose and fell. Time passed with the way the river moved the boats forward. After a while I felt like I had slipped back in time to 1938. After a while I became very immersed in what their experience would have been like back then. A lot has changed on the river, so I had to remind myself of that. Even things as subtle as the sound the river makes because it no longer has as much sand in it since the dams have gone up. But the geology is the same and the experience of being down in this very deep, deep canyon is the same, and the rhythm of the weather is the same. All of that really made me feel connected to their experience in 1938.
SB: What are you working on next?
MS: My agent keeps asking that, too! This book was kind of a gift to me because the story grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go until I wrote it. I felt like I had very little choice in the matter. It was also such a gift to have the archives I had for Lois and Elzada. They had the foresight to keep their diaries and letters and thought that they were important enough, despite what everybody was telling them, to archive at universities. I could tap into that and tell a really rich story. I honestly don’t know if I’m ever going to get that kind of gift again in my writing life.
Recently I’ve become interested in the women who worked as fire lookouts in the West during World War II. All the men were sent to war and so women took the job of “manning” the fire lookout towers; they were sent to these very remote places for months at a time. I’d like to know more about these stories—something about it is kind of tugging at me. Maybe some readers know women who did this work and will reach out to me. Either way, I want to keep doing this kind of work, telling these stories.
Melissa L. Sevigny is the author of Brave the Wild River, Mythical River, and Under Desert Skies. Her writing has appeared in Orion,The Atavist Magazine, River Teeth, City Creatures, Terrain.org, Fourth Genre, Flyway, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by grants from the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers and the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and honored with numerous awards. Sevigny has worked as a science communicator in the fields of planetary science, western water policy, and sustainable agriculture. She volunteers as the interviews editor for Terrain.org and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.
Sarah Boon has published work in Flyway, City Creatures, the LA Review of Books, Longreads, Catapult, Narratively, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. She is a former environmental scientist who served as an editor and director of Science Borealis, Canada’s science blogging network. She is currently working on a book about her field experiences as a woman in science and a writer.