Why Would Anyone Care About Sara Lemmon?

I confess. I’m smitten.

People who know me well are (all too) aware that for the past several years I’ve been obsessively plugging away at a research project.

Sara Plummer-1865_smI’m now going public with my obsession.

I’m so smitten that the voice of this plucky woman has pulled me — not once or twice, but three times — all the way from Tucson to Berkeley. That’s where her letters are stored, in the University of California and Jepson Herbaria archives. And that’s where I’ve photographed her century-old correspondence, all 1,200 pages of it. With my iPhone.

I’m now (slowly) transcribing those pages.

But there’s more to this story than just words…

Sara Plummer Lemmon wasn’t only an observant, prolific, and engaging correspondent: According to one source at the time, her gift for drawing in the field combined with her thirst for scientific knowledge made her “one of the most accurate painters of nature in the State.”

Tragically, most of her illustrations were lost, possibly in one of the fires that accompanied the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Fortunately, two boxes of her artwork had been stored in Hawaii and were donated recently to the Berkeley archives. Times being what they are, the university lacked the funds to examine and evaluate the extremely fragile works, which are all on paper.

So, with the help of generous donors (thank you, again!), I hired a local conservator whose efforts revealed 276 watercolors and field sketches. Which of course I also photographed.

Here are two of them – both signed and dated, and painted by Sara in the field, in Southern Arizona’s Huachuaca Mountains in the fall of 1882.

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WBrown-SLemmon-35

More details on her artwork (those brown spots are called “foxing” and have a fascinating story all of their own) to come in a future post.

Most recently, I’ve submitted a nonfiction book proposal to various agents, along with three publishers. Here’s how I’ve described the book:

LIKE DEATH TO BE IDLE: Sara Plummer Lemmon, 19th-Century Artist, Scientist, and Explorer, blends popular science, history, and biography. It uses Sara’s exquisite artwork and lively correspondence to bring another female ‘Hidden Figure’ of science to general readers. Her story is one of tenacity and grit, of Western exploration, pioneer women, Apache warfare, the Civil War—and romance.”

Who IS this woman? and why would anyone in 2017 care about her?

Sara Plummer was born in Maine in 1836 and educated in Massachusetts. She then taught art and “calisthenics” (known to us as gym) in New York City. In 1870 her story becomes that of the early American West: At 33, driven by poor health in the East Coast climate, she relocated—all alone—to Santa Barbara. There she taught herself botany and established the community’s first library in the back room of a stationery store. In 1880, she married John Lemmon, a Civil War veteran and renowned botanist, and moved to Oakland; the couple spent the rest of their lives collecting and describing hundreds of new trees and flowers, all illustrated by Sara. Her letters document their often-harrowing trips through the unsettled West, including the Arizona Territory and northern Mexico. By then she was an acknowledged botanical expert in her own right: She was the second woman allowed in the California Academy of Sciences—and the first to be invited to speak to the group.

In addition to being an artist, scientist, and writer, Sara somehow also contributed her time to journalism, women’s suffrage, and forest conservation.

I believe Sara’s story is a universal one of determination, resilience, and courage—and is as relevant to our nation today as it was in the 1880s.

And I believe it deserves to be heard.

Stay tuned …

My New Hero: Harry

Today got off to a slow start, but I eventually drove across town to the Douglas Spring trail, hoping to run off some of the election gloom I’ve been wallowing in all week. The morning was glorious: sapphire sky, breezy, but still warm enough (in November?!) for T-shirt and shorts.

The crunch of dirt underfoot, a lucky glimpse of a javelina scampering off among the sentinel saguaros, a lizard rustling under a leafless fairy duster, ocotillo branches waving gently, the backlit thorns of prickly pear paddles amid pillows of winter-dry grasses—it was all as cathartic as I’d hoped.

The Douglas Spring trail, in Saguaro National Park, east of Tucson

The Douglas Spring trail, in Saguaro National Park, east of Tucson

But still I brooded about how politics can fracture friendships, about the fragility of a warming planet, about the value of wearing safety pins.

After an hour, lighter-hearted but still not quite ready to face the world—or Saturday chores—, I turned around.  A hiker was working his way up the trail slowly toward me, an older man using two hiking poles and wearing a hat, white polo shirt, khaki shorts, sturdy boots. As he came closer, I could see an old-fashioned cell phone, the kind with a stubby antenna, in his shirt pocket and two water bottles hanging off his hip belt.

I stepped aside to give him room to pass, and we both paused to say “Good morning” and to comment on the beauty of the day and our surroundings.

Somehow, the conversation continued—about the steepness of the trail, about the route we’d each chosen today, other Tucson trails we like, recent rattlesnakes we’d seen and where they were, other places we’d hiked: Glacier in Montana for me, Loon Lake in Idaho for him. He told me about the triumph of walking 200 miles of the John Muir trail many years ago—today he’d be doing about an 8-mile loop.

I was curious about his age. I told him I ran the Flagstaff trail half-marathon last month and about accomplishing my goal of being the first female finisher—on Medicare.

Honesty then compelled me to admit that I was also the only female finisher on Medicare. Every other woman at the run was under 65.

He laughed, then looked thoughtful for a moment as he did the arithmetic. “I’m 23 years older than you,” he said. “I’m 89.”

We chatted another couple of minutes, introduced ourselves—”My name’s Harry,” he said—, shook hands, wished one another many more steps on the trail, and said good-bye.

As I headed back down the mountain, I thought about how much I’d enjoyed meeting Harry.

And that I like him.

No matter who he voted for.

The Not-So-Romantic Tumbleweed

Russian Thistle

Yesterday I yanked out a pickup load of Prickly Russian Thistle from a a 6′ x 8′ area around the water trough. Most of the green vegetation behind the truck is the same plant. All the area shown was burned in the 2011 Horseshoe II fire.

You know the scene—the one from the old Western where a sole tumbleweed rolls across the desert vista, representing the wide open spaces of the American West … or comes to rest at the abandoned ranch as a symbol of desolation …

Some of us aren’t so fond of this iconic but spiny and invasive film star. But it does have an interesting story. And perhaps, in the narrative of the New West, this irritating character isn’t all bad?

The name “tumbleweed” refers to a strategy rather than a particular botanical species. Plants in this group grow into massive flower clusters, sometimes 6 feet across. In fall, the big round bundles die, dry out, and break off at the base, leaving a living root behind. Then they’re blown across the landscape by the wind, shedding seeds as they bounce across roads, pastures, and neighborhoods.

Since one plant can produce as many as 250,000 seeds, it’s been a highly effective dispersal method. Native to Eurasia, the plant was imported to South Dakota from Russia in the late 1800s in a shipment of flax seed. It now grows throughout the West from sea level to above 8,000′.

To make the plant even more unpopular in wildfire-prone areas, the airy spherical shape that allows the seed balls to roll, also turns them into efficient fire spreaders.

And as if drought wasn’t already a challenge here in Arizona? According to this source, one Russian thistle used 44 gallons of water when out-competing a wheat plant.

Here’s something disturbing I’ve noticed this year: Our local tumbleweed, the Prickly Russian Thistle, was rare here before the 2011 Horseshoe II fire ripped through the Chiricahuas, burning 230,000 acres, including most of my land.

Now, on much of my property, it’s the dominant plant.

So, are Russian thistles totally evil? At first stab (they’re spiny enough to flatten a tire), it sure seems like it.

Yet, according the US Forest Service studies, these plants are a valuable first step in Nature’s repair system. Russian Thistle is an “initial colonizer in primary and secondary succession”—which simply means it’s the first species hardy and determined enough to move into nutrient-deficient burned areas. They dominate for two or three years. Then, starting in Year 4, they become stunted and are slowly replaced by members of the mustard family. Gradually, these pioneer plants produce enough organic material for—we hope—the re-establishment of native grasses and, eventually, shrubs and perhaps even trees.

So, maybe, as annoying as it is, the Prickly Russian Thistle doesn’t wear as black a hat as I thought.

But I’ll still be glad to see the next character in the ongoing story.

If It’d Been a Snake …

Gopher snake

I’d walked through this door 30 seconds earlier and never saw the snake.

Well, it was a snake. But, thank heavens, not a rattler.

I cleaned the cat box just now and carried the goody-bag out the back door to the garbage can, which lives about 10 feet away. I turned to come back in—and got my adrenaline jolt for the day.

There, in front of the door I’d walked through seconds earlier, was a large snake.

Our monsoon season has started, which at my Arizona mountain elevation, also means the start of rattlesnake season. This time of year I’m on high alert for rattlers around the house, flower beds, and barn. Usually, they’re just moving through, and I simply wish them well with a “Vaya con Dios” and let them go on their way.

Once, I had a mating pair on my door step.

But that’s another story.

This one’s about this morning’s gopher snake. Also known as bull snakes, Pituophis sp. are non-poisonous constrictors and common throughout the country. They have a particularly fascinating feature: Unlike other snakes, their epiglottis is divided, which amplifies the noise of their hiss. It’s not just louder—it’s also a very convincing imitation of a rattlesnake’s warning, aided by their behavior of flattening their neck and shaking their tail. Ironically, their defense strategy is so convincing that gopher snakes are often killed by people who mistakenly identify them as rattlesnakes.

Check out the sound here—along with more information, and a photo of one of these stunningly handsome snakes here.

They eat rodents, lizards, birds, eggs—and other snakes. Which may explain why I haven’t seen any pack rats or rattlesnakes around my house this year.

Welcome, friend.

California Condors – Up Close!

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California Condor #379 soars above Hualapai Hilltop trailhead near Seligman, AZ. Photo by Wynne Brown

Recently I was lucky enough to spend five days in the Grand Canyon with nine good friends, all of whom share a Portal, AZ, connection.

More specifically, we were in Havasu Canyon, where we camped, hiked, waded, ate hugely, talked, took hundreds of photos, laughed, clambered nervously down (and back up) a 196-foot cliff, explored a mine, leapt through waterfalls, and swam in clear turquoise pools.

The canyon is on the Havasupai reservation, and the campground, 10 miles below the trailhead, is accessible only by foot, by horse, or by helicopter. We chose to hike, and — because most of us are in our 60s or 70s — we also chose to go with a topnotch outfitter, Arizona Outback Adventures.

What a fabulous experience!  More details of the trip will wait until another time — because of what we encountered the last day in the final mile, as we slogged back up the hot, dusty trail to the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead.

Condors!

Not just tiny distant specks that left us wondering if they were actually California Condors — or were they just common Turkey Vultures? — or maybe Golden Eagles?

No, these were gigantic, spectacular, dramatic prehistoric-looking birds, “skymasters” that soared above and below and around us, so close we could read the numbered tags on their 9-foot wingspan — as we stood in awe and admiration, our hot, tired feet forgotten.

The condor recovery story’s been well-documented, but it’s a story that bears repeating, along with updated information.

According to both the National Park Service and the Peregrine Fund, in 1982, the total world California Condor population was down to 22 birds, and none existed outside California. (The only other condor is the Andean Condor, found, not surprisingly, in the Andes.) Three years later, after heated debate, every remaining California Condor was moved from the wild to a captive breeding program.

Now, three decades of intense multi-agency effort later, the California Condor population has grown to 404 individuals.

As of March 31, 2013, 234 are living in the wild. Seventy-three birds now call Arizona/Utah home, and twenty-nine live in Baja California, Mexico.

And what about this particular bird I photographed as it wheeled and sailed through the sky and past a dark salmon backdrop of Coconino Sandstone?

If you’re lucky enough to spot a condor and can read its wing tag, you can identify it at the Condor Tag Chart. The tag number is usually the last two digits of the Studbook number, and you can find the bird’s age, sex, the most recent release/fledge year — and any researcher comments that may have been recorded.

So this bird, Tag No. 79 (Studbook #379) is a 9-year-old male who was most recently released in 2012. Combing through the Peregrine Fund’s Notes from the Field reveals that the first time #379 was released was 11 a.m., March 7, 2009, at the Vermilion Cliffs release site high up on the Paria Plateau.

Then why list a 2012 release date for a 9-year-old bird? The condors need routine vaccinations, blood work, and occasional veterinary care, along with tune-ups for their satellite GPS transmitters. In addition, most of the 73 Arizona birds have been caught, tested, and treated for lead poisoning before being re-released. Lead poisoning has been responsible for about 50 percent of the mortality of California Condors.

But that’s another story.

For now — Welcome back, Skymasters!

Hooked on the Christmas Bird Count

Audubon logoThis past weekend was the 112th National Audubon Christmas Bird Count when tens of thousands of citizen scientists all over the country brave winter conditions to do a census of their local bird population. In my Chiricahua Mountain community of Portal, Arizona, it was the 38th annual count — and no courage was required with sunny skies, no wind, and temperatures in the 60s.

House finchI’m — at best — a rookie birder, but I got to tag along on Reed Peter’s 2-mile territory that extended from his Cave Creek Ranch to Sunny Flats Campground at an elevation of about 5,000′.  We saw a total of 41 species, including house finches, lesser goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches, Gambel’s quail, many Mexican jays, along with canyon towhees, two red-naped sapsuckers, and lots of white-crowned sparrows. Most unusual was the arrival of a Scott’s Oriole on the ranch feeder!

Acorn woodpecker

My favorite bird is still the clownish acorn woodpecker — tragically, we arrived too late to rescue one from a passing Cooper’s hawk.

Sunday was the 37th annual Peloncillo count across the state line near Animas, New Mexico, and again I tagged along, this time with Reed Peters, Peg Abbott, of Naturalist Journeys, and a birder named Steve from Santa Fe. Wow — what a magnificent area! Our territory was a chunk of the Dunnegan Ranch, which is part of the 322,000-acre Nature Conservancy Gray Ranch, owned by the Animas Foundation and usually closed to the public. We traversed desert flats and sprawling grasslands, crossed clear flowing streams, scampered through narrow canyons, and crunched across oak/juniper woodlands. We recorded 46 species — and about 40 were ones we didn’t see in the higher elevations during yesterday’s count. Most of all, I learned that sparrows are HARD to identify! We saw hundreds of them, including Bairds, grasshopper, savannah, Brewers, white-crowned, black-throated, chipping, lark, and vespers.

Watching the prairie falcon skim over the grass tops, the roadrunner bask in the early morning sun on top of a juniper, and seeing a cloud of 100 mountain bluebirds descend into a nearby tree were sights I won’t soon forget.

Many thanks to the ever-patient Reed and Peg! I’m definitely hooked and hope to be more knowledgable this time next year when the next Christmas count rolls around…

Big valley and Animas Mtns

Peg Abbott soaks up the view of grasslands stretching across the Gray Ranch toward the snow-capped Animas Mountains.

A First-Time Gathering of the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon

FoCCC logoConsidered by many to be the crown jewel of southern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, Cave Creek Canyon now has a new friend — or, at last count, nearly 100 of them.

The Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (FoCCC) mission is

To inspire appreciation and understanding of the beauty, biodiversity and legacy of
Cave Creek Canyon.

To accomplish that goal, a year ago a small steering group began dealing with IRS paperwork and legalese in order to become an official 503(c) (3) Friends group. They also worked closely with the U.S. Forest Service employees of Coronado National Forest to find the best way for FoCCC volunteers to help support the USFS work and mission in Southeast Arizona.

Since getting established in September, the group has already
• set up a website and a Facebook page,
• teamed the Forest Service with local volunteers to establish benches in South Fork, clear VIsta Point, and maintain the Cave Creek Nature Trail,
• co-hosted a Portal-based Celtic Music weekend, and
• sponsored an educational forum with the Arizona Game and Fish Dept. to help landowners learn how to cope with the black bears in town following the Horseshoe 2 fire.

Hosted by the Chiricahua Desert Museum in Rodeo, N.M., forty-seven enthusiastic residents attended FoCCC’s first annual membership meeting, bringing offers to volunteer, along with discussion of many potential projects, including:
• adding an information kiosk at the opening of the canyon,
• replacing signs identifying some of the more noteworthy rock formations,
• photo-monitoring of regeneration after the fire that burned 230,000 acres,
• compiling a Biota Bibliographic project that would be a repository of links to scientific papers on the region,
• establishing an annual Bat Watch event, and
• providing hosts for the Visitor Center in order to keep it open longer.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way the meeting went,” said Reed Peters, FoCCC president. “The community certainly showed that Friends is something they care about and want to be involved in.”

Larry Pratt, Developed Recreation Project Manager for the Coronado, agreed. “I don’t live in this canyon, but my wife and I have been coming here for years,” he said after the meeting. “I’m very excited to see the formation of this Friends group and look forward to working with the members and seeing it succeed.”

For more information on membership, donations, or volunteer opportunities, check out the FoCCC website and Facebook page.

[DISCLOSURE: I’m on the Board of Directors.]