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_sm

Photos by Wynne Brown; originals at the University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley

I’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.

36

 

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 …

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Dream Deferred

1999 Boston Marathon (Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Creative Commons license)

1999 Boston Marathon (Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Creative Commons license)

Recently, I ran across a poem by Langston Hughes:

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore– 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over– 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

According to Delores Moore, Hughes was describing the deep frustration of the American blacks to racial prejudice in 1951 — and predicting the explosive future.

Six decades later, Langston Hughes’ poem is still relevant in a world where so many of us defer our dreams until later in life, thinking we’ll have more time, or more money, or more opportunity.

But for some, “later” never happens.

• A blast in the local fertilizer plant flattens half the town …

• A stroke fells the lover we once had …

• A garment factory collapses in Bangladesh, killing hundreds …

• Or celebrating a loved one’s marathon effort on a shining April afternoon explodes into a mass of shrapnel, blood, and shattered limbs…

For those of watching on the sidelines, can anything good emerge from such grief and pain? Can distant tragedies have the power to change the way we live our lives at home?

Maybe.

Maybe, either in honor or defiance, we can choose to give our dreams a chance — and not let them dry up, or fester, or stink.

What’s my dream? Writing the longform journalism stories that have been tugging at my sleeve for years — deferred because they’re unlikely to pay the bills.

I have no direct ties to Boston, nor do I know any of the dead or injured beyond the intimate and gruesome details we all saw. Yet, three weeks ago the Tsarnaev brothers changed the way I view my work.

I no longer send my creative time to the bottom of the list, to evenings and late nights, when my energy level has sagged.

Now writing comes first, re-assigned to my personal prime time, to those golden morning hours. It may seem like a trivial adjustment, a mere tweaking of the time clock. After all, I won’t be turning down paying assignments. But, to me, by giving these untold stories precedence over billable hours, I’m giving my writing dream a chance.

So. What about you? What dreams have you deferred?

And what event has changed the way you choose to live and work?

“No Project Too Weird”

Zinsser-shelfWhat serious writer doesn’t have William Zinsser on his or her bookshelf? On Writing Well and Writing to Learn are both books I return to often.

This morning’s New York Times has a piece by Dan Barry about Zinsser’s transition from writing coach to one who still teaches — by listening. Zinsser, now 90, has glaucoma and can no longer see.

But he’s still teaching and, according to the article, is available “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.

“I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”

Thank you, Mr. Zinsser, for still being willing to help.

Copyright — Gone Wrong?

Basic RGBWhether you’re a reader, writer, author, or publisher — this New York Times Op-Ed piece by Scott Turow matters. And if you’re an author, it matters whether your books are bestsellers or self-published e-books.

In fact, it matters even more if you’re the author of e-books.

In the NYT piece, Turow writes:

Last month, the Supreme Court decided to allow the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright. Not only does this ruling open the gates to a surge in cheap imports, but since they will be sold in a secondary market, authors won’t get royalties.

This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.

Turow is president of the Authors Guild. In December 2012, he gave a speech at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC., in which he said:

New technology often brings conflict over copyright issues, but there is more money at stake than ever before. Google and others have made free use of copyrighted works under the increasingly expansive rubric of fair use—a use in which the corporate entity makes a profit while authors make nothing. 

To read more about it, see this article on the Authors Guild site.

Copyright is one of those topics that can make eyes glaze over. But, to all of us who care about books, copyright — and the wrongs it prevents — matters.

Enough even to bring this blog out of inactivity.

A Lesson in Writing — and in Making Bread

Shredded Wheat BreadI’ve been struggling for several weeks with a piece of writing that exploded onto the page – OK, so it was five, single-spaced, pages. This particularly piece shouldn’t be more than three pages, and even that’s too much to inflict on its intended audience.

After wrestling with it again early this morning, I contemplated throwing the whole damned thing out and starting all over again.

Groan.

Muttering crossly about wasted time and effort, I went outside to feed the horses and came back inside to make bread. The recipe (which follows) uses a mixture of boiling water, shredded wheat, butter, molasses, and salt. Mentally, I was still focused on writing — and inadvertently used 3 tablespoons of salt, not 3 teaspoons.

When I tasted the mixture, it was almost inedible.

Briefly, I considered persevering. Maybe adding the flour would make the bread sort of OK, if just barely? But one of these loaves is a guest offering for a dinner party this evening…

The parallel between writing and making bread wasn’t lost on me. Salt is vital to this recipe, just as details are what bring life and emotion to that piece of writing. But even though all those details are important to me – apparently, I needed the release of writing them — including all of them in this piece will choke my readers.

Fortunately, given that I live in a remote corner of Arizona and the nearest grocery store is a 2.5-hour round trip away, I still had enough ingredients to start a new batch of bread.

The dough, made with the correct shredded wheat mixture, is rising in the sunny east window. I’ve saved the too-salty mixture and will dilute it with a NO-salt version – after next week’s trip for groceries – for later baking.

And I’ve saved the piece of writing for later as well and started a brand-new version – this time with 3 teaspoons of details, not 3 tablespoons.

Here’s the recipe, based roughly on Judith and Evan Jones’  The Book of Bread. (I’ve converted all my bread recipes to three loaves: one to give away, one for the freezer, and one to start the moment it comes out of the oven, hot and delicious…

 Shredded Wheat Bread

(modified from from Judith and Evan Jones’ The Book of Bread)

Makes three 9-inch loaves

  • 3 C           boiling water
  • 2 1/4 C    bite-size shredded wheat biscuits, or 3 of the big biscuits
  • 3 T           yeast
  • 3/4 C       warm water to dissolve the yeast
  • 1/3 C       molasses
  • 3 tsp       coarse salt (or 1.5 tsp table salt) – that’s TEASPOONS! 🙂
  • 4 1/2 T       butter
  • 7-8 C  white flour, preferably unbleached

In a large bowl dissolve the yeast in the 3/4 C of the warm water.

In a separate bowl, add the boiling water to the shredded wheat. Add the salt, molasses, and butter. Stir until the butter’s melted and the ingredients well mixed.

Add the shredded wheat mixture to the yeast, then add the white flour, cup by cup, until the dough gets stiff.

Turn the dough out onto a floured working surface, and let it rest while you clean out the bowl and grease it. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, for about 10 minutes until it’s no longer sticky and feels resilient and smooth.

Place it in the greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place until double in volume—about an hour.

Turn the dough out, punch it down, form into three loaves. Place in greased loaf pans, cover lightly with a towel, let rise again until almost double in volume—about 45-60 minutes.

Bake in pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for about an hour, maybe a little more, depending on your oven. Let loaves cool on racks.

To freeze: Put each loaf in a brown paper lunch bag, then in a plastic bag (produce bags work great). The loaves will keep this way perfectly in the refrigerator as well — for two or more weeks — unless eaten sooner!

In love … with an octopus??

Photo by Brandon Cole

Photo by Brandon Cole

I confess. I’ve always been a lover of cephalopods – and not just for dinner.

In “Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of an Octopus,” published in the Nov/Dec issue of Orion magazine, Sy Montgomery has written a stunning piece of literary journalism. By meeting Athena, a 5-foot, 40-pound Pacific octopus, we see these creatures’ personalities, opinions, intelligence, ability to “see” with their skin, and even their need to play.

Not surprisingly, the article has leapt to the top of Orion magazine’s most-read list. Click here to see why. You can also download a conversation with the author here in which she explains more about how writing this story affected her.

A wonderful read — thank you, Sy Montgomery and Orion!

Even if it does mean I may never eat octopus again.

BioBlitz 2011 Adds 400 Species — and 94 Poems

Not only did 5,500 people spend Friday and Saturday out in Saguaro National Park counting everything from fungi to water bears, but nearly 100 poets contributed poems to the cause as well.

The Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park was an additional part of the National Geographic BioBlitz 2011. Organized by poet and artist Eric Magrane, invited regional poets were given a choice of two Saguaro species as subjects. Some poets were filmed reading their poems, and the video loop was shown at the Red Hills Visitor Center during the weekend. Others were invited to read their work at the visitor center either Friday or Saturday. Poets could also add all or part of their poems to a Jaguar Biodiversity Quilt that will be travelling around the state and can also submit their work to a special issue of the literary journal Spiral Orb.

According to KOLD-TV, volunteers added 400 species to the biota of the park. Two stories of the event are here and here.

I was only there Saturday, but from what I saw, the whole event was beautifully organized, from the shuttle buses, to the informational tents, to the 24 hours of data-gathering, to the poetic inventory.

I was honored that my poem was chosen to close the Poetic Inventory:

Bobcat (Lynx rufus)

I push your wheelchair up the hill 
behind the nursing home to the palo verde’s lacy shade. 
You help lock the brakes, I settle on the curb, and we sit, 
talking quietly—almost like the lovers we were
before the stroke blossomed through your brain, its branches snaking deep,
snuffing neurons, dimming your bright youthful mind, 
leaving your left side limp dead weight.

As we fall silent, wrapped in the Rincon mountain vista 
and memories of shared hikes and backcountry trips, 
a lanky form with black tufted ear tips and stubby tail 
emerges from the urban trash-entangled desert, prickly pears festooned
in grocery bags, gravel strewn with old carpet pieces, 
fast-food cups, a discarded pail. 

Ambling across the driveway, some hapless rodent swinging
inertly from its jowls, the regal bobcat doesn’t deign to look our way. 
It strolls between parked cars, then nestles in among the lantana, 
its blotches blending into the building’s drab beige walls— 
and disappears.

Thank you, Babe, you whisper, for bringing me here. 

No, I think, 
my face as wet with tears as yours.

Thank you, Bobcat, for bringing a gift of wildness that links us
to our past and—I pray—our future.