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Science, Botany, and Friendship: One Woman’s Journey into the West

In keeping with the theme of our latest read and since Letters to Yellowstone was certainly worthy of writing home about, here is a recap of our discussion and tribute to author Diane Smith.

Dear Mom,

This last Sunday, DC EcoWomen gathered in a cozy Capitol Hill living room to discuss our latest book and enjoy good company and food.  We all found the book enjoyable and inspiring, as it was the story of a young woman at the turn of the 20th century who travels across the country to put her botany skills to the test as she joins a science expedition into the West.  Our young protagonist, Alex, goes on countless adventures throughout the summer and expands her horizons as readers are confronted with interested and controversial issues that are still pertinent today.

As she embarks on this journey, the bookish young woman embraces the challenges of extreme weather and rustic living conditions, but the biggest hurdle she faces is one that no one anticipates: she is a woman in a man’s world.  Mom, throughout my life, you presented me with strong female leadership and exposed me to progressive ideas, and as a result, I have always felt immune to the persistent gender inequality in today’s society.  I am always amazed by historical accounts of this disparity.  Leave the exploring and outdoor adventures to the men – I don’t think so! 

This is certainly the attitude Alex takes as she stubbornly insists on staying with the field team after early misconceptions that she was in fact a man!  Through her dedication to experiencing the wonders of Yellowstone, Alex impresses the group with her compassionate scientific rigor as she carefully catalogues and falls in love with the landscape.  She really is a woman after our own hearts, and her love of nature made me think of all the times we’ve been refreshed and rejuvenated hiking the trails and swimming in the beaches along the West coast.

One interesting recurring theme is how one goes about turning that experience of nature into science.  The author shows us that a young student, a professor, a mountain man, a cowboy, a Native American family, and a writer can all have very different, yet true experiences of nature.  The characters argue that science is the process of creating meaning and common experiences from chaos – a way of describing and naming what was previously undiscovered or unexplained.  Alex insists on the precision of Latin scientific naming conventions, but eventually begins to appreciate the roles of traditional knowledge and sentimentality in the practice of science.  In essence, she learns that caring for a place or a specimen and experiencing it in context is as important to understanding it as studying its properties from a textbook.   This experiential learning is a technique that is becoming more and more popular today, where school children are encouraged to get their hands dirty to gain a better appreciation for all that they will learn later.

 All in all, it was a lovely afternoon.  We laughed over old 20th century images of women in petticoats, hunted buffalo, and naturalist illustrations.  We enjoyed home-baked cookies, cupcakes, s’mores, hot cocoa, and lettuce wraps in honor of the expedition’s ethnic culinary experiences.  This would certainly be a book you could enjoy!

Yours truly,




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