The Last Adventurer-Naturalist

From a Chapel Talk by Marc Hudson

John 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 Valley.

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 botanist.

John 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.

On 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.

Rather 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.”

Coulter and his companion made it back to their hotel late that night, “sore and almost in rags, but proud.”


Read the full text here