ALD23 Books: Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa L Sevigny

Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa L Sevigny

In the summer of 1938, botanist Elzada Clover and PhD student Lois Jotter set off from the University of Michigan to travel the Colorado River, accompanied by an ambitious expedition leader and three amateur boatmen. The expedition held a tantalising appeal for Clover and Jotter: no one had yet surveyed the plant life of the Grand Canyon, and they were determined to be the first. Journalists and veteran river-runners proclaimed that the motley crew would never make it out alive, but the reputation of the Colorado River as the most dangerous river in the world did not deter the women from their mission. The adventurous expedition is all the more remarkable considering the context of attitudes towards women in botany at the time, which, like many other areas of science, was very much male-dominated. 

Through the vibrant letters and diaries of the two women, science journalist Melissa L Sevigny traces their daring 43-day journey down the Colorado River, during which they meticulously catalogued the thorny plants that thrived in the Grand Canyon’s secret nooks and crannies. Along the way, they chased a runaway boat, ran the river’s most fearsome rapids, and turned the harshest critic of female river-runners into an ally. These brave and pioneering women garnered significant publicity and curiosity at the time for their expedition, and their work has had a lasting impact on the scientific understanding of this unique landscape. Clover and Jotter’s plant list, including four new cactus species, would one day become vital for efforts to protect and restore the river’s ecosystem. 

Brave the Wild River is a joyful and spellbinding adventure story of two women who risked their lives to make an unprecedented botanical survey of a defining landscape in the American West at a time when human influences had begun to change it forever.

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About the Author 

Melissa Sevigny is a science journalist and reporter at KNAU (Arizona Public Radio) in Flagstaff, Arizona. She has worked as a science communicator in the fields of planetary science, Western water policy, and sustainable agriculture. Her lyrical nonfiction explores the intersections of science, nature, and history, with a focus on the American Southwest. Sevigny is also the author of Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016) and Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016). She earned a BS in Environmental Science & Policy from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

You can follow Melissa Sevigny’s work here:

Website: Melissa L. Sevigny – Science Writer (
Twitter: @MelissaSevigny

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

Posted in Ada Lovelace Day 2023.