Book Review: In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas
Book Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Book Review: Brave the Wild River by Melissa L. Sevigny

They brought knowledge, energy, and passion to their botanical work, but also a new perspective. Before them, men had gone down the Colorado to sketch dams, plot railroads, dig gold, and daydream little Swiss chalets stuck up on the cliffs. They saw the river for what it could be, harnessed for human use. Clover and Jotter saw it as it was, a living system made up of flower, leaf, and thorn, lovely in its fierceness, worthy of study for its own sake. They knew every saltbush twig and stickery cactus was, in its own way, as much a marvel as Boulder Dam—shaped to survive against all the odds.

Brave the wild riverEvery summer when I was a kid, we went to Lake Powell. There was some age I had to achieve before I could go—I think I had to be six and know how to wear a life jacket without freaking out, and I learned how to waterski on Utah Lake the summer before I went, on tiny, kid-sized skis—but I don’t think there was a summer we missed going until I was 15 or 16.

Between those Lake Powell summers and my seventh-grade geology adventures, even before I ever hiked a single inch of Utah’s red rock desert, I have loved the Colorado River Plateau. So Melissa L. Sevigny’s book Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon was a must-read for me.

It tells the story of two botanists, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter, who, in the 1930s, manage to put together a group of rafting boats and guides so that they can map the botany of the Colorado, from its convergence with the Green River to the newly-built Boulder Dam.

At that point, the Colorado only had one dam, Boulder. It was a wild and mostly-uncharted place that had claimed almost all the lives of anyone who had tried to raft it. For two women to undertake such a thing was basically unimaginable to most of American society.

And yet, they felt it was important and then they made it happen.

It’s hard for me to explain how much I loved this book. It touches on so many things I feel passionate about: women doing what they want to do in the world, unfettered by society’s inability to imagine their possibilities. The preservation of the wild places. Understanding the way that men’s thought processes are so often destructive and women’s are more preservative. The beauty of the desert. People who persevere despite setbacks. Wildflowers and cactus and trees and plants. Adventures in the great outdoors. Scientific knowledge. And yes: the Colorado River.

It even brought me to an ugly cry. At the end of the book, the author writes about one of the scientists, who was still alive at the time, being invited to raft the river again. The layer of her memories—the way the river was, the way it is now—highlighted how much damage we have done and will continue to insist on doing to the world. (Yes, even my beloved Lake Powell. It shouldn’t exist and we can’t undo what it’s done.) It is infuriating and maddening and so sad to me, and I continue to be unable to understand humanity’s blind destruction of the only place we have to live.

I haven’t been back to Lake Powell since 1998, when I went with some other adult friends. And while I would desperately love to visit Rainbow Bridge again (perhaps one day I will hike there), I don’t think I will ever seek it out. It is too painful to be there without my dad, or to face my own layer of memories, how we used to be with how it all turned out.

But I loved seeing the river through Clover and Jotter’s experiences.


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