Monday, September 28, 2015

Botanists in Paradise—a letter to the Earth

Last week I received a long hand-written letter.  After reading the first few paragraphs, I found myself in a state of shock!  It had been written by Aven Nelson, first botany professor at the University of Wyoming; his wife, Celia Alice; and Leslie Goodding, one of the early botany undergrads.  But this is not the first Letter to the Earth from Professor Nelson.  Several years ago, he left one on my truck—about the Laramie columbine.

I’ve transcribed the letter verbatim.  Bracketed comments are mine.

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September 23, 2015
34985 North Pearly Gates East
Elysian Fields, Paradise

Dr. Hollis Marriott
Associate, Rocky Mountain Herbarium
Department of Botany, University of Wyoming
Laramie, Wyoming

Dear Dr. Marriott:  [not sure why they think I have a PhD]

We were most happy to hear of the upcoming open house for the Rocky Mountain Herbarium.  Professor Nelson received the flyer by email, with the help of a recent arrival.  We have such fond memories of the momentous project that laid the foundation of the herbarium.  We are writing to describe that trip and its lasting impact: the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, Professor Nelson’s greatest legacy.  Perhaps you will find occasion to share these stories and photos with attendees at the open house.

In this account, we occasionally refer to an individual writer for clarity.

Leslie Goodding:  In the fall of 1898, extraordinary news spread across campus: Professor Nelson would be going to Yellowstone Park the next summer!  This would be a botanical expedition of vast importance—three or four months collecting plants.  He had announced that he would take along two student assistants.  Of course many students were anxious to accompany Professor Nelson on that expedition, and were willing to work for nothing just to see the Park.  I was only 19, and just finishing high school where I took a botany class from Professor Nelson.  Apparently I made a good impression, for in spite of my inexperience, he hired me as a student assistant—at $10 per month and all expenses paid.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune!
Geyser-gazing in 1899.
Yellowstone—a wonderland of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls and wildlife—was America’s first National Park, designated in 1872.  We Wyoming citizens were proud to have the Park in our state but … most of us could only dream of visiting.  The cost of a commercial stage tour was prohibitive.  Thus it was quite extraordinary that a university professor—annual salary $1800—would be traveling in Yellowstone for 14 weeks with his family and two student assistants!

Professor Nelson's first graduate student, Elias Nelson (no relation), was the other assistant.  On June 13, 1899, he and Mr. Goodding rode a Union Pacific freight train to Monida, Montana—western gateway to the Park—with equipment and supplies.  The local citizens were puzzled when the boys unloaded a wagon, three horses, harnesses and saddle; canvas tent and bedding; cook stove, table with detachable legs, benches, chairs, and crates of provisions; and thousands of sheets of heavy felt paper.

Mrs. Nelson:  Professor Nelson, our daughters, and I arrived two days later.  We were all eager to begin the trip!  I began my diary entries, and encouraged Neva [older daughter] to do the same.  The girls made a strong impression on young Mr. Goodding.  He came from a poor family in the tiny town of Granite east of Laramie, and his English was hardly perfect.

Leslie Goodding:  I remember that day!  When they arrived, I realized I had acquired two English teachers, a young lady thirteen years of age and a tiny tot of eight.  Professor Nelson and his wife tolerated no sloppy English in their daughters.  Naturally it hurt like the blazes to have my speech corrected by two little girls but I swallowed my pill.

We left Monida on June 19, in our light lumber wagon.  In bad weather, we stretched a canvas bonnet over the wooden hoops, but more often we traveled coverless, enjoying the scenery.  The driver and a second man sat on state-of-the-art spring seats.  The third rode the small black saddle horse named Grace.  Mrs. Nelson and the girls sat on the passenger seat behind the driver.
Mr. Goodding at the reins.  Nelson ladies sit behind.
Professor Nelson:  We were six in all, and not a shirker in the lot.  We carried a brand new canvas tent, 12 x 14 feet in size, with a stout ridgepole and a reinforced hole for the stove chimney.  For twelve consecutive weeks, no one slept under a roof other than the tent, and the two boys usually under the vaulted star-studded skies.
We all wore felt campaign hats.
The sheet iron woodstove could be used inside the tent for cooking as well as warmth.  But when the weather was fine, we cooked and ate outside.  Can you imagine?  It was absolutely wonderful to dine in flower-filled meadows with snowy peaks in the distance!
The box-like object by Neva Nelson's feet is a plant press.
We carried enough food for the entire trip, but fortunately did not have to subsist entirely on rations.  The streams and lakes teemed with fish so large that they broke the only line we had with us.  Most evenings the men fished, but they caught nothing … until Elias developed the technique of throwing his plant-digging chisel though a big fish as it moved upstream.  On July 2, he caught 23 fish!
Most days we broke camp early.  We traveled Park roads, stopping at promising sites where there might be plant species we hadn’t yet found.  The men went out to collect, each with a vasculum across his shoulder [for carrying collected plants; today we mostly use plastic bags].  Smaller plants were taken in their entirety, including roots.  For larger species, we selected representative parts—a section of the stem with leaves, a good number of flowers, and fruit if available.
Professor Nelson's vasculum and several of our Yellowstone field books.
We collected many many duplicates—30,000 in all.  [This number is unbelievable! ... but true.]  These were sent to herbaria around the world, in exchange for specimens to add to the University of Wyoming herbarium.  Some sets were sold to institutions and private collectors (including one in India!), to raise money for summer field work and a student assistant during the school year.  At that time, the University provided no financial support for the herbarium.

Most days we travelled and collected until late afternoon, and then looked for a camping site with water, firewood, a flat spot for the tent, and grass for the horses.  Plant pressing commenced as soon as the tent was pitched and materials unloaded, often continuing into evening and sometimes the next morning.

We know you are a field botanist, Dr. Marriott, but it’s unlikely that you are familiar with field methods of our time, so we shall explain.  To preserve plants, we pressed and dried them in the field, as you modern botanists do on extended trips, but of course we had no electricity, refrigeration, nor inside facilities.  After removing a collected plant from the vasculum, we cleaned it of any dirt, and carefully arranged it between sheets of thin paper.  It was added to a growing stack of specimens, alternating with “blotters”or "driers"—12 x 17 inch sheets of heavy felt paper used to absorb moisture.  Stacks of pressed plants were tightly bound between wooden covers.  [Today we still press plants, but generally we use corrugated cardboard and driers of some kind; see this post.]

The next day we took the presses apart.  Damp blotters were replaced with dry ones, and the presses reassembled.  We continued this way until the plants were dry … in addition to pressing daily collections.
Professor Nelson checks drying plants (near the end of the expedition, hence the whiskers).
We dried damp blotters by spreading them carefully on the ground in the sun.  But this got us into trouble on our first day in the Park!  A soldier appeared and was appalled to see so many papers scattered about.  He demanded they be picked up at once.  Then he found our rifles.  After sealing them, he sent us to Mammoth to meet with Captain Brown, an extra 46 miles—two days of travel.  And Professor Nelson had already obtained permission from the Army in January!  [In 1899, the US Army was in charge of the Park; there was no National Park Service until 1916.]

Though we carried several thousand reusable blotters, this wasn’t enough when it rained for days at a time.  Then we set up the tent, gathered wood, and kept a fire going all day to dry plant presses and blotters carefully arranged around the stove.  You can see for yourself that we kept working during rainy weather—if you look closely at our Yellowstone specimens, you will sometimes find bits of felt blotter paper stuck to the plants.

Hydrothermal features are the Park's greatest attractions!  We visited many. [Nelson ladies by trees lower left.]
At the Spone with retired superintendent George Henderson, such a wonderful guide!
Mrs. Nelson:  One major mishap befell us.  Perhaps we were fortunate there was only one given the wildness of the Park in those days, but I so wish it hadn’t happened!  On July 26, Elias and Leslie were collecting near the popular “Artist Paint Pots”—
“They consist of numerous openings in the highly colored clay, and are intensely curious, their brilliant coloring and fantastic shapes being the admiration of all.  But visitors should avoid leaving the regular paths, as the treacherous character of this formation renders it quite unsafe.” (1894 Yellowstone Park Guide, A.B. Guptill)
Indeed, when Elias stepped off the path a bare two feet, his left leg sank into hot mud.  He jumped to higher ground, and pulled off his shoe and sock along with a large patch of skin from his ankle.  A huge blister ran up his leg.  Leslie raced back to camp, saddled Grace, and returned to Elias, who rode to camp at a gallop.  With the help of several nearby tourists, I sprinkled the wound with soda, bandaged it, and covered the bandage with flour.  Elias was in great pain, but never uttered one groan.

I redressed the burn morning and evening.  At Upper Geyser Basin we met a Dr. Irish, who examined it and found it serious.  Elias must go to the hospital at Fountain, or return home.  We drove to Madison and put Elias on the stage back to Monida, all broken up over leaving.
Park roads were well-constructed, but many turned to mud when it rained.
This is the curious Golden Gate.  [Click on image to view sign and approaching wagon.]
We had to spend several dreary days at Yellowstone Lake, unable to travel due muddy roads.
By mid August, it was obvious that the season was ending.  We were finding fewer plants to collect.  The weather was deteriorating, and the roads turned to mud.  Once we had to completely unload the wagon to get it unstuck.  On August 19, it snowed!  But we continued to travel during the spells of good weather, collecting occasionally, taking photographs. Finally, in early September, we drove back to Monida to catch the train to Laramie.

Leslie Goodding:  I could see the Nelsons were ready to go home.  They collected very little, and Mrs. Nelson was busy with laundry in preparation for the train trip.  I suppose I was ready too … after all, I had worn the soles off my only pair of boots!  But to be honest, I was still just as excited as the day I found out I was going to Yellowstone Park ... the spark was still in my eyes:
It was just as well the expedition was almost over—the soles were gone from my boots!

Dr. Marriott, we hope that you find field botany as exciting and satisfying as we did.  We greatly appreciate the contributions you and many others continue to make to the Rocky Mountain Herbarium.  We sincerely hope that there’s a bright and bountiful future ahead for that great institution.

Dr. Aven Nelson
Mrs. Celia Alice Nelson
Mr. Leslie N. Goodding

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Now home to one million specimens, the Rocky Mountain Herbarium is the largest collection of Rocky Mountain plants and a world-renown institution.  We are celebrating with an open house on Thursday, October 1, 4-6 pm.  Rumor has it that Mrs. Nelson and Mr. Goodding will return to Earth to share their stories of Yellowstone.  We hope you can come!


Photos from the American Heritage Center, with the exception of the vasculum.

Aven Nelson Papers, 1870-1983.  American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie.  Guide.

Goodding, LN.  1944.  The 1899 botanical expedition into Yellowstone Park.  University of Wyoming Publication 11:9-12.

Goodding, LN.  1958.  Autobiography of the Desert Mouse.  San Pedro Valley News; Thursday, July 10.

Nelson, A. No date [1930s]. The Rocky Mountain Herbarium, in Aven Nelson papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Guide.

Williams, RL.  1984.  Aven Nelson of Wyoming.  Colorado Associated University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! You helped history come to life! If I lived closer, I can assure you I would be most likely to visit for the open house. If I'm ever in the area, I'll put the Rocky Mountain Herbarium on my "must see" list. :)