The Daring Life and Art of Pioneering Plant Ecologist Edith Clements – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

There is one book that I would instead have produced than all my novels,” Willa Cather rued in her most candid interview about creativity. That book was Rocky Mountain Flowers: An Illustrated Guide For Plant-Lovers and Plant-Users (public library | public domain) by the pioneering plant ecologist and botanical artist Edith Clements (1874–1971).

Wildflowers from Rocky Mountain Flowers by Edith Clements, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Wildflowers from Rocky Mountain Flowers by Edith Clements, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Together with her husband, the influential botanist Frederic Clements, she pioneered the science of plant ecology, lending empirical substantiation to her contemporary John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In her 1960 memoir Adventures in Ecology: Half a Million Miles: From Mud to Macadam (public library), penned shortly before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with Silent Spring and half a century before the climate calamity we are now living, Edith Clements prophesied:

There seems little doubt that the application of the principles of ecology to human affairs, whether personal, national or world-wide, would go far in solving the problems that beset us.

Edith and Frederic Clements, early 1900s.

Having begun as Frederic’s doctoral student — the first woman awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, then an epicenter of botany and earth science — Edith went on to be his partner in science and life.

Young, passionate, and poor, they headed for the Rocky Mountains to build a research station for a controlled study of how various environmental conditions impact plants, their acclimatization, and their relationships.

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