Alex learns through these strangers' guidance as she struggles to find independence from a world where her rock-climbing, male-bonding behavior is embarrassingly unladylike. She establishes a religious belief in nature's order during this unique period of growth in both United States history and a woman's life.
Letters from Yellowstoneby Diane Smith
In the spring of 1898, A. E. (Alexandria) Bartram--a spirited young woman with a love for botany--is invited to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park. The study's leader, a mild-mannered professor from Montana, assumes she is a man, and is less than pleased to discover the truth. Once the scientists overcome the shock of having a woman on their team, they… See more details below
In the spring of 1898, A. E. (Alexandria) Bartram--a spirited young woman with a love for botany--is invited to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park. The study's leader, a mild-mannered professor from Montana, assumes she is a man, and is less than pleased to discover the truth. Once the scientists overcome the shock of having a woman on their team, they forge ahead on a summer of adventure, forming an enlightening web of relationships as they move from Mammoth Hot Springs to a camp high in the backcountry. But as they make their way collecting amid Yellowstone's beauty the group is splintered by differing views on science, nature, and economics. In the tradition of A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects and Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, this delightful novel captures an ever-fascinating era and one woman's attempt to take charge of her life.
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A. E. Bartram
Ithaca, New York
March 10, 1898
Prof. H. G. Merriam
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
Dr. Philip Aber of the Smithsonian made a presentation on campus last week in which he discussed your planned field study in Yellowstone National Park. Although I have studied medicine during my tenure here, I prefer the study of botany over anything else. I have a personal collection of over 5,000 specimens, some of which I inherited from a distant relative on my father's side, and have worked extensively on classification. For the last three years I have summered in Philadelphia studying the Lewis expedition, and have initiated an illustrated documentation of their collection, specializing in the Rocky Mountain species, e.g., Lupinus argenteus, Linum Lewisii, Clarkia pulchella, and, of course, Lewisia rediviva.
I have found this work to be immensely satisfying, but it has, of necessity, focused on studying species out of place and time. I am indebted, as we all are, to the earliest collectors, but am equally interested in exploring the complexities of plant life in their natural environs, and contributing to a scientific understanding of the plant kingdom. I am young, single, and without any engagement to confine me here. With your expressed interest, I could reach Montana by May 15; May 30 at the latest. Please advise at your earliest convenience as I am most anxious to make plans.
A. E. Bartram
Howard Merriam, Ph.D.
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
April 2, 1898
A. E. Bartram
Ithaca, New York
Dear Dr. Bartram,
Your letter arrived at a most fortuitous time. I am indeed planning a scientific expedition into the Yellowstone. My goal is threefold: to study Rocky Mountain specimens in their native setting and to initiate a collection of those specimens for a research herbarium I wish to establish here at Montana College. Based on this work, I plan to prepare a complete enumeration of Yellowstone and other Montana species.
As you may know, aside from Coulter's preliminary work, little has been done to systematically collect, classify, and analyze the plant life of the northern Rocky Mountains, and much must be done if we are to better understand the region and its potential. I have selected the Nation's Park as a starting point for my investigations because it shelters a diversity of virtually undiscovered plant life in what could very well be the last uniquely wild place in America. But that will not last, given the tourism promotion of the U.S. government and its railroad friends. Sadly, the situation throughout the West is much the same. Agriculture may be the future of this region, but it will destroy the land as we know it. Needless to say, there is much to be done and very little time before a wealth of native species is lost to us forever.
We will establish a camp of operations at Mammoth on or about May 1, weather permitting. I suggest you plan to meet us there as soon as possible after that date. You are welcome to pursue your own interests in plant life and the environment. I ask only that you contribute to both the Montana and Smithsonian Institution's research collections, and provide me with a copy of your field notes.
Although the high-mountain country around the Park warms slowly (and this has been an unusually severe winter), I plan to start my work in the areas around Mammoth Hot Springs and other geothermal activity so we should not be too delayed. Having collected extensively around the hotpots of Northern California while a graduate student at Berkeley, I look forward to comparing the species in these northern climes.
You, too, may find this unusual environment of interest. Thanks to a federal program of road construction, the Park is rapidly becoming overrun with tourists and other travellersthey say more than 10,000 last year alone!but I think you will find that most of the natural systems and wildlife which have evolved in concert with the geothermal areas, and which can add to an appreciation of plant life in this region, are still firmly in place. I do not know the Park well, but I assume you will also find ample opportunity to investigate the bitterroot in all its unusual stages of developmentif not in Mammoth and environs then in the higher backcountry once weather and other conditions improve.
I notice that in your letter you did not call out the Lewis monkeyflower. Perhaps a specimen did not survive the multiple owners and travels back and forth between Europe that the Lewis collection reportedly made before finding its permanent home in Philadelphia. You may wish to refer to Pursh's illustrated Flora for additional information. The monkeyflower is, if I may say so, a lovely specimen. To encounter it at 9,000 feet is to share in some of the adventure of that first great American naturalist as he reached the elusive headwaters of the Missouri. Those compact petals and almost sensuous corolla lobes lilting along the creekbeds must have been as joyful a sight then as they are now. As you can tell, I, too, am devoted to the work of Meriwether Lewis and look forward to learning more about your studies.
Dr. Bartram, before closing I fear I must be perfectly frank with you. Although you appeal for no commitment, I would be remiss to ask you to travel such a great distance without some word about your prospects once you are here. I can reimburse you, of course, for your travel to and from Montana. I can, naturally, provide for your room and board in the field. I can also offer a small stipend, but only upon successful completion of the work, and only if the expedition proceeds as scheduled. Since you are a collector yourself, you know the financial and other hazards that await us in the field. Please understand that I cannot afford to finance any unexpected expenditures out of my own pocket. Such expenses must come from my very limited expedition funds. I had hoped to be joined by my colleagues here at the college, which would have cost me little, but due to a marriage, a death, and a trip to our nation's capital, those plans have not been realized. Thus, I find myself embarrassingly short of funds to adequately support and reward your participation.
Additionally, although there will be much classification to be accomplished during the fall and winter months, I cannot guarantee a position to you upon completion of our field work. Although I have great plans to establish a botanical research herbarium, these plans are not shared by the college president, who believes the study of botany is somehow in conflict with the educational and agricultural missions of the college. That agriculture is the growing of plants and that botany is the systematic study of those plants seems to have escaped him altogether. He is, you must understand, an historian, and as such more interested in building monuments named after the dead (dead naturalists at that!) than exposing students to living, breathing science in the here and now. But I digress.
I do hope you will consider my offer. If, under the circumstances, you feel that you are unable to do so, I will understand completely and will continue to hold you in the highest regard for your expressed interest in my work.
yours most humbly,
Howard Merriam, Ph.D.
p.s. I cannot help but remark upon your name. If you are indeed a member of that prestigious family of botany, I can only say how pleased I would be to have you join our group, and I pledge to do my utmost to find an appropriate position for you here at the college. If not, be assured that the offer still stands. HGM
* * *
WESTERN UNION TELEGRAM
APRIL 16, 1898 PROFESSOR SORRY TO HEAR ABOUT THE UNFORTUNATE
TIMING OF THE MARRIAGE THE DEATH AND THE TRIP TO
OUR NATIONS CAPITAL HOPE THESE CALAMITIES DID
NOT BEFALL THE SAME PERSON YES I AM A DISTANT
BARTRAM BUT CLOSE ENOUGH THAT MY FATHER WANTED
TO NAME ME AFTER DARWIN MY MOTHER WISELY
DEMURRED NOT YET A PHYSICIAN HOWEVER HAVING
ALLOWED MY NATURALIZING TO SUBSUME MY MEDICAL
STUDIES WILL MEET YOU AT THE MAMMOTH SPRINGS ON
OR ABOUT MAY 1 AGREE TO YOUR TERMS AS STATED
YOURS AE BARTRAM
* * *
April 19, 1898
You said you were praying for me. Well, your prayers have been answered. I have just heard from a medical student and young botanist at Cornell University who is willing to join the expedition, and will do so with little or no financial commitment on my part. And, he is a Bartram at that!
I may have told you that Miller bailed out. Too many commitments he says, now that he is married. It was a disappointment, but fortunately my work does not depend on a cartographer. That aspect of the Park has been fairly well documented by the government by now. But Gleick has been making similar rumblings, and now informs me that he is off to Washington for a month. I think his reservations are more related to the increasing severity of the president's highwaymen reports than to any time commitment at the Smithsonian. Gleick lost a friend to some sort of holdup when they were surveying for the railroad, and I do not think he has ever recovered. His lack of interest is a real loss for me. Gleick is a surgeon by training, a crack shot, and he knows the land. Besides, he believes in the value of science and is the only true ally I have on campus.
There is Peacock, of course, but he will disappear into his private world of beetles once we reach the Park. The only thing I can count on from him will be the o-too!!," "can't act," "nothing greatbut nice face," "great looking but awful reading: too bad," "heavy in legs," "big in fanny," "not strong enough," "not outstanding," "not for us," "a little too worldly," "pregnant."
Mike McLean had seen hundreds of young actresses and Bob and Saul had interviewed several, but their Liesl still had not been found. The six other children had already been cast, as had Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, and they were already in rehearsal. So Bob and Saul were at a point where they had to find the actress for the part. Saul fought hard for me: "Let's give her a try."
Bob Wise finally agreed that Saul could give me a screen test to see how my eyes looked. But a soundstage wouldn't be available for my test for two weeks. Saul hired me without a contract, telling me I was temporarily Liesl and warning me that I wouldn't be permanently cast unless I passed the screen test two weeks down the road.
Despite this caveat, I was thrilled. I quit my job at the doctor's office that very afternoon and the next morning drove to the Fox lot, fresh and exuberant. Even though I only had the job conditionally, I was excited. I had a job as an actress in a movie!
Whether or not I would ultimately become Liesl, however, hinged not on how well I could sing or dance or act, but on how my blue eyes would look on film. Life is like that sometimesdetermined by things you can't control, like who your new governess turns out to be, or the color of your eyes. All we can do is look straight into the lens and let fate lead us where it will.
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