Merle Coulter was one of America’s leading
botanists and professor of botany at Wabash from
1879 to 1891. But he began his scientific career
on the rocks…
“Once upon a time a young man traveled from
Indiana to the West, to Utah and the Yellowstone.
He’d recently taken a degree in classics and
geology from a small liberal arts college named
Hanover in southern Indiana and he’d been
invited on a scientific expedition to help reconnoiter
the geology of that region.
But something happened as he cooled his heels in
the Wasatch Mountains; instead of cataloguing the
geological features, he became entranced by the
local flora, so unlike that of his native Ohio River
Over the next several months as the expedition wended
its way north in the Snake River Country, through
the Teton Basin, into the Madison River Valley and
into Yellowstone, he collected and catalogued hundreds
of plants. He returned from those expeditions—the
Hayden Expeditions of 1872 and ’73—a
Merle Coulter was one of the last of the “adventurer-naturalists.”
Thomas Nuttall, perhaps the greatest of such naturalists,
wrote in exasperation to his younger stay-at-home
friend, Asa Gray, proclaiming that he [Nuttall]
had done his work “not in the closet but in
the field.” He no doubt saw in Gray the end
of his era. As Joseph Kastner writes, “The
adventurer-naturalist was now being eclipsed by
the academic specialist.”
Coulter would never again roam so far afield botanizing.
But I can’t help but imagine that he looked
back on those summers in the Yellowstone Valley
and in the high country of Colorado as paradisiacal.
Indeed, we get glimpses of a very young Coulter
from some of the journal entries he made that spring
and summer of ’72.
May 24th, he describes an impromptu journey he and
several other members of the expedition made to
climb a peak that rose behind Ogden, Utah. The peak
was higher than they thought and two companions
turned back before Coulter and another reached the
summit, some 5,000 feet above the valley, at six
o’clock in the evening.
than get caught on the mountain at nightfall, they
sought out a short cut and found one in a snow-covered
col between the two peaks. Coulter’s friends
surveyed it for a moment, then sat down and shoved
off, checking his “break-neck speed”
with his geological hammer.
Coulter hesitated, but rather than be thought a
piker, sat down on his pockets and shoved off himself.
He writes, “If I had only possessed a board
I might have coasted with considerable ease, but
this thing of sitting down flat on the snow with
nothing but buckskin between me and any sharp-pointed
crag that might be lurking just beneath the surface
was anything but a pleasant prospect. But down I
sat and started and traveled towards my destination
with as much ease and rapidity as I had before in
the [railway] cars.”
and his companion made it back to their hotel late
that night, “sore and almost in rags, but
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