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Record details

  • ISBN: 0670886319
  • Physical Description: print
    226 pages : illustrations, map ; 23 cm
  • Publisher: New York : Viking, [1999]
Subject: Women medical students Fiction
Yellowstone National Park History Fiction
Genre: Epistolary fiction.
Historical fiction.

Chapter One

A. E. Bartram
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
March 10, 1898

Prof. H. G. Merriam
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
Bozeman, Montana

Dear Professor,

    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
Bozeman, Mont.
April 2, 1898

A. E. Bartram
Cornell University
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 travellers—they 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 development—if 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.

    I remain,

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

* * *



* * *

Howard Merriam
Bozeman, Mont.
April 19, 1898

Dear Mother,

    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 occasional fish dinner—he is a superb fisherman. But then he should be. He is on first-name basis with all those bugs!

    Ironically, I find myself now in the position of having to enlist the help of Andrew Rutherford (you remember, the weather man), who represents agriculture in all its glory and could not care less about native species. I so badly need to field a team that I might even be able to put up with that foul-smelling thing he sticks in his mouth. (These days, knowing how I feel about it, he has taken to stuffing the pipe—still burning!—in his pocket whenever he comes upstairs. Better he should catch fire than my office, temporary as it is.)

    Rutherford is ambitious in an off-handed sort of way. I might talk him into giving up his daily beaker of brandy and weather checks if he thought I might name an edible grass or two after him. And back him in his fight against naming the two new buildings after Lewis and Clark. You know how I feel about the significant contributions made by the two explorers, but I am getting desperate. And these days I really do not feel up to the fight.

    One thing I have discovered as I have gotten older is that I do not have the heart, or maybe it is the stomach, to take on these kinds of arguments—particularly with colleagues like Rutherford. He is one of those men you encounter in academia who find it more convenient to champion a single complaint rather than dedicate themselves to any specific field of study. For some contrarian reason known only to Rutherford himself, Lewis and Clark have attracted his particular ire.

    It should be interesting when this man Bartram joins us. He apparently has dedicated his naturalizing career to studying the plants of the expedition. I did not have the heart to tell him that neither Lewis nor Clark ventured anywhere near the Park. If he does not know it now, he will figure it out in time. I hope it is not too much of a disappointment.

    As you can see, I am in the thick of it here. Appreciate your letters and kind thoughts. And yes, these days even your prayers. You have managed to deliver a botanist with medical training. Maybe now you can drum up a new research facility and herbarium—named after Washington and Jefferson, of course. Got to keep Rutherford happy! To be honest, the way it has been snowing this last week I would settle for a sign of spring. See what you can do!



* * *

A. E. Bartram
Philadelphia, Penn.
April 25, 1898

Dear Jess,

    I have booked passage for Montana, so before I go I would like to arrange for storage of my meagre campus possessions. Can you accommodate them? There is not much. Mostly books, and a small trunk of personal "treasures"—botanical drawings, illustrations, my water colors, &c. There is the collection, of course, but that I am leaving with Lester until my return this fall. In spite of our differences at the moment, he is a good curator and will guard it, I am certain, with his life.

    The visit with my parents, as I should have predicted, has been a mixed blessing. My mother is convinced that if I go to Montana she will never see me again. "Where is Montana?" she keeps muttering. "I don't even know where Montana is." Her mournful sighs sound not unlike the last Sialia of summer.

    Father, the great supporter of Indian rights in the West, has kept our conversations focused on Native American vision quests, their use of medicinal plants, inter-tribal rivalries now that they are confined to the reservations, that sort of thing. His inquiries only fuel my mother's emotional fire, I fear.

    Underneath all his apparent scientific interest in native peoples, and the feigned concern he shows my mother, I am certain my father is pleased about my plans. He has been, after all, supportive of my naturalizing from the very beginning. In fact, at one point he suggested shipping me off to England for schooling, hoping, I suppose, I would become a latter day Franz Bauer, while keeping the Bartram name alive and well in the annals of natural history. Or maybe he did not want to clean up any more of my early, admittedly foul, attempts at taxidermy. Regardless, I wish I would have known then what I know now. I would have jumped at the chance to study at Kew Gardens, and would have made my mother's life hell if she refused me the opportunity.

    So, you see, this is my second chance at it. I know you, too, think this trip is foolhardy, and that I am putting my medical career (not to mention my personal life) at risk but, to be honest, I only pursued medicine to please my mother, who always dreamed of having a physician in the family.

    You must believe me when I say that naturalizing is in my blood. I do not want to live—and die—a closet botanist in New York, sneaking out to the field only when it does not interfere with my so-called real work. You, of anyone, should understand that.

    Besides, I want to match the best I have against the best the world has to offer before it is gone. That is what the West is all about, is it not? Why else would Meriwether Lewis have risked his life, and the lives of so many others, if not to be the first to witness—and to understand—that part of the natural world which was unknown at the time? The National Park is still such an enigma—at least in the scientific world. I want to be the one who helps the world better understand it. And understand it in context—not in some book or museum. It will be a true test of my own mettle.

    So please do not think ill of me for taking advantage of this opportunity. I am not deserting my career; I am pursuing my life's work. Besides, it is only for four months. I can always pick up where I left off if I, too, decide at summer's end that leaving medicine is a mistake.

    Now that you hopefully understand why it is essential that I "seize the day" as they say on campus, I have to confess that I, too, have my own reservations about the trip. Professor Merriam, the head of the expedition, has written to me making the grossest assumptions about the state of my botanical knowledge. He refers me to F. Pursh as if I have never heard of him and his work; suggests I may have somehow overlooked the Mimulus Lewisii, which he refers to as the monkeyflower. I can only hope that he does not presume to instruct me in the field, he who writes of the "compact petals" and "sensuous corolla lobes." I fear I may be joining a party of romantic old women revelling in their botanical gardens, rather than an expedition of practicing scientists.

    Be that as it may, Professor Merriam can rejoice in his precious flowers "lilting along the creekbeds" all he wants as long as I am free to practice my own brand of science while being assured of the professional recognition afforded Smithsonian-endorsed field work. That stamp of approval, coupled with my other work to date, should help me establish a real career in botany, for which I so long! As for Merriam and the rest, I have never been one to feel constrained by the limitations (scientific or otherwise) of those around me, as you well know.

    So I am off! If it is convenient, I can arrange for my books to be shipped directly to your Hudson Valley address. Or, if you prefer, I will leave them in your study at Cornell. In either event, please let me know as soon as possible as I will be returning to campus within the week. I will be leaving from Ithaca to avoid any last-minute scenes with my parents.

    My best to Jonathan, Lester if you see him, and to your own dear family.

    I remain, as always,

    most sincerely yours,


Howard Merriam, Ph.D.
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
Bozeman, Mont.
April 25, 1898

Dr. William Gleick
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D.C.


    Well, I have sold my soul to the devil (or James Hill, depending on your point of view). I can only hope that neither calls for payment until this fall. In the meantime, I have put together the barest bones of an expedition, to include Andy Rutherford and Daniel Peacock, the best I could do, and have notified President Healey of our plans, promising we will all be back on campus in time to satisfy our fall teaching. How I do hope you can join us!

    We will be met in the field by a young scientist from Cornell and, with any luck at all, by my benefactor there at the Smithsonian—Dr. Philip Aber. Do you know him? His area of specialty is the flora of the European alpine tundra but, with his appointment to the Smithsonian, he has developed an interest in western montane environments. He has been most generous in his support (in exchange for which we will provide him with specimens for his collection). It might do us both a world of good if you stopped in to see him while you are in Washington.

    The other scientist, A. E. Bartram, has studied extensively the botanical discoveries of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He is also, I might add, a direct descendent of John and William Bartram. Needless to say, I am going to do all I can to keep him working in Montana beyond the summer months. Imagine: a Bartram working in the new herbarium!

    Before I leave campus, I am doing my best to ensure that there will be a new research herbarium to appoint him to upon our return. Just yesterday I had an impassioned meeting with the president in which I turned his own argument against him. If we are to have a future in Montana, we must build for it, I told him. Picture the herbarium as a library, an educational resource from which all—students, faculty, and, yes, even administrators—will benefit, a place to house and catalogue our collections, study the intricacies of the plant kingdom, and teach our students about the natural world. There is no real separation between teaching and research, or at least there should not be, I argued, and to prove my point, I have invited two students to travel with the expedition—at their own expense, I might add—to enhance their education. I have no illusions. They are simply looking for a way to get out of working on their father's ranch over the summer, but needless to say I did not tell President Healey that. I even invited him to visit our camp to see real science in action.

    I know he will never abandon the safe confines of this campus—he is far too busy stabbing his critics in the back and worrying about his "New Century" campaign—but I am not going to give up. I am an educator, after all, and believe in the power of education! We will spoon feed it to him if necessary, but by d----, he is going to learn the value of research.

    Which brings me in a round-about-way to James Hill and friends. I have jumped into bed with Rutherford, the Anaconda Company, and Standard Oil, if you can imagine the aberrant offspring of that relationship! Gives you an idea of how desperate I am feeling these days.

    Since you left, the local rag has been afire with the news that the railroads are petitioning Congress for right-of-way passage through the Park. Since the railroads rely primarily upon the goodwill and false hopes of those they can dupe into moving West—coupled with the propaganda of their sponsored research in western agriculture, I might add—they are desperate for good fare-paying opportunities. What better way than a direct route through Yellowstone National Park? Needless to say, this does not go over well with the nature seekers who want to experience the Park in all its pre-historic glory, without all the fury and fumes of Jim Hill's mechanical dynamo.

    There is also much political posturing going on, depending on which journal you read on a regular basis, threatening the demise of the Park, the end of the natural world as we know it, that sort of fin de siecle doom and gloom. Sounds like a perfect fund-raising opportunity to me, or at least that is what I pointed out to our esteemed president.

    Healey needs money for his new buildings, there is some vocal and even contentious opposition to naming those new buildings after Lewis and Clark, and I am pressing for a new research facility and herbarium, which will take a significant investment—more than Healey says he has or at least is willing to commit. Why not run over three birds with one locomotive and approach the railroads for support of all this new construction? Present it to them as a unique opportunity to purchase a little goodwill in the West, as it were. We could name the new buildings the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific which would immediately defuse the Lewis and Clark argument, and there just might be enough left over in the existing building fund to support my new facility. I would even be willing to name it Hill Hall—Hill Herbarium???—if I thought it would make a difference!

    I fear I may have overdone it a bit. Healey was talking much too loud for a man of his size and tipping up and down on his toes, you know the way he does, but this time he looked more like a diver about to make a dangerous or maybe even fatal leap. Time will tell where he lands—and whether or not it is with a ripple, a splash, or just a dull thud.

    Pray for me, my friend. My mother does so nightly but I do not think she has much influence with the darker side of life where I have taken to cavorting. And, please, say you will join us upon your return. As you can tell, I am skirting with danger and will need all the help I can get!

    Yours faithfully,


A. E. Bartram
Livingston, Mont.
May 15, 1898

Dr. Lester King
Dept. of Biological Sciences
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York


    It has been a long but exhilarating journey. I am now stuck in Livingston, Montana, while my train awaits a private rail car from Chicago which will be joining us on our journey down the Paradise Valley and into the Park. Think of it: delayed, just this side of Paradise.

    So far, my western adventure has proven to be a most eye-opening experience, of which I am certain you would approve. The railroad is indeed a stononiferous organism, sending its tentacles out across the country with wanton disregard for soil, climate, or water (there is none outside of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers and their thin web of tributaries as far as I can tell). Pity the poor families who follow this mechanical messiah so far from human habitation in search of the elusive promised land. I fear they will not find it in the West which, despite railroad proclamations to the contrary, is as unsuited to cultivation as any desert on earth. Lewis was right: it is "truly a desert barren country." You can see it in the landscape, which is dry and desolate, dominated by a large species of sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata, best I can tell; I have enclosed a specimen for your review). This one species is often the only sign of botanical life to be seen for miles. From time to time, I have spotted Lewis' cottonwoods in bloom down by small creekbeds that we have passed on our westward journey. They appear to be Populus angustifolia, but are difficult to identify at such a distance. They are, as Lewis described them, quite reviving just to look at in such dreary country.

    By calling this a desert, for desert I am sure it will prove to be, I do not mean to suggest that it is devoid of life. Raptors circle high overhead like gulls following the wake of a ship, anxious for sight of rodents and other small mammals spooked by the train. Early this morning, I spotted a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus?) and later a large golden raptor (I am assuming Aquila chrysaetos?), feasting on a rabbit which had ventured too close to the rails. Eagles are easy to identify, if nothing else than by their sheer size, but most raptors are so similar looking to my untrained eye I am missing an opportunity to expand my natural history knowledge. So I have a favor to ask. If you have one, could you please send a field guide that includes bird silhouettes? Or perhaps you could check with the library on campus. Mrs. McGough might agree to lend me one on account until my return. In either event, I would be most grateful if you would assist me with my western education.

    For an education it is proving to be. Yesterday, a young girl of ten or eleven, knowing of my interest, lured me to the back of the train to see a large herd of what she identified as big jack rabbits bounding through a field. Sadly, she had never seen an American Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana—interestingly not at all related to their African "cousins"), but then neither had I, except in books. We are indeed prisoners of our ignorance—and our urban lives. Just having the opportunity to see American species roaming free on their native land is enough to justify this trip as far as I am concerned.

    I have not, however, spotted even one American buffalo (Bison bison—what a grand, double-barreled name for what was once a grand American beast!), but not for a lack of trying. All the way through Dakota and eastern Montana, I was forever poking my head from some window, scanning a landscape so vast and open I could almost detect the curve of the horizon silhouetted against the thin, western air. But not a sign of the beasts. This does not bode well for the twentieth century if indeed 60 million buffalo can be destroyed in one generation just to fuel man's fleeting sense of fashion and his ever-present greed.

    My fellow passengers, having to contend with open windows and the perpetual sight of my behind (as opposed to my be-front), are quite certain I am a fool, and living proof that B. Franklin was right: beware of strangers who keep journals. Aside from the young girl who follows me everywhere, they all keep their distance. Even her parents. Their reservations (could it be fear?) were confirmed as I have spent this afternoon in Livingston not in the admittedly charming café which adjoins the station here, but walking the tracks, digging in the dirt, probing into any space that might support life in this rich, evocative land.

    I have enclosed a handful of specimens for my collection. Common I know, but of interest to me because they appear to have established a symbiotic relationship of sorts with the railroad, thriving along the areas most disturbed by rails, rock, gravel, &c. When I crossed the road into an open pasture I found not a sign of them. It would be interesting indeed if the railroad, separate from the activities of man and the plow, proves to be the greatest harbinger of change when examining the evolution of flora and fauna of the West.

    In any event, treat these specimens kindly. William Clark camped on this spot (or very near to it as far as I can tell), so even if they are not of any botanical or sociological interest, they do come from semi-sacred ground. Please care for them as if they were the rarest member of the Orchidaceae.

    I must end now. The Livingston station master warns me that I should enjoy this brief respite of spring since I will be transported back to "six inches of winter" once we make our ascent into the Park. I hope he is wrong, since I am anxious to get to work, but will take the long way to the post office and enjoy the sun just in case. Livingston's weather, in spite of a cruel and unpredictable wind, feels so fine.

    I hope you do, too.


Andrew Rutherford, Ph.D.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park
May 18, 1898

Dr. Robert Healey
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
Bozeman, Mont.

President Healey:

    Have established temporary camp outside Mammoth Hot Springs complex. Not much to report. Butte company commissioned to provide room & board. Miners, it must be noted, an undemanding lot. Immigrants & ruffians, willing to settle for broken-down cots, rough blankets, and ragged roofs over their heads, & be glad for it. Had I known I would be setting out in middle of snow field, sharing camp with Chinaman who speaks little English, mountain man who doesn't speak at all, & two layabout ranch hand kids, would have declined your generous offer. Even promised ag extension facility inadequate for summer spent in this primordial cesspool. Seen one bubbling cauldron, seen them all.

    Have made my bed, so will lie in it. Lopsided as it is. Will need supplies to sustain me, however. Please forward following:

1. two heavy woolen blankets
2. tarpaulin
3. waterproof jacket large enough to fit over my top coat
4. pair of oiled boots
5. large brimmed felt wool hat

Josephson at Bozeman Mercantile knows my size. Will arrange for shipping. Rain gauge would help allay perpetual boredom. So would brandy. Prices at railroad-owned hotel reminiscent of your tales of highway robbery.

    Little else to report. Merriam not wasting time. Mean temperature 46º & barometer falling. Little to do but wait out weather. Fool that he is, Merriam has taken to horseback searching out warmer conditions—or greener pastures. A search futile as this excursion will prove to be. Could even be dangerous, given volume of snow in backcountry. If desperate, you might want to settle for demonstrable foolishness. Leave it at that. Save us all some misery.

    Physician from Cornell to arrive on afternoon train. Once here, may break camp. If so, will notify of new address so provisions can be sent.

    Sincerely yours,

A. B. Rutherford, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 Diane Smith. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-670-88631-9

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