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Edith and Frederic Clements were early pioneers in ecology and the holistic approach to nature – yet ...
2022-04-06 09:00:00

Through Storm and Drought
The Life of Edith and Frederic Clements

Through Storm and Drought

Over the years, they traversed prairies, deserts and wetlands. They travelled through storms and floods. They climbed summits to admire mountain flowers. They were the first to understand that the climate was changing and that it was essential to tackle those changes. Meet Edith and Frederic Clements: two wandering ecologists, who brought life back to the wasteland and saved America from hunger.

Read in 15 minutes

“Why wait?” he asked her on a spring day in 1899, after returning from a research trip somewhere north of Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a beautiful, sunny day. They had just found a pretty mimosa with pink, furry blossoms. He was right. There was no reason to wait. They didn’t want to be apart. They had so much in common, especially their passion for exploring the world of plants and watching life unfold. Edith was supposed to go to Omaha for the summer, whereas Fredric was going to stay on campus to teach summer courses. But as she confessed many years later, “the thought of separation was intolerable.” They met at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He was a lecturer, whereas she was still a student. In her free time, she was involved in the life of her sorority, played tennis, served as captain of the basketball team and practised fencing. At the end of year ball, Frederic got as many as three dances with her. That’s how it all began.

The environmentalist power couple

They soon got married. The ceremony was very modest – even their closest friends learned about the wedding after the fact. Both expected their families to approve of their decision. Their parents didn’t care much about festivities and avoided splendour. Getting married seemed like an obvious choice, after which they didn’t want to look back; they had no second thoughts. There was so much waiting ahead of them: a shared life on the road, in the field, in awe of nature.

Edith and Frederic Clements (public domain)
Edith and Frederic Clements (public domain)

Was it a big love story? Definitely! Although Edith and Frederic Clements left behind very little writing of an intimate nature, their correspondence proves that they loved each other passionately. Based on Edith’s memoir Adventures in Ecology, (published in 1960 – 15 years after Frederic’s death), it seems that their life together was a great adventure. It was full of extraordinary events, insatiable curiosity, travel, work, research and, last but not least, vision, which is so rare among scholars. Today, the Clements need to be saved from oblivion, but back in the 1930s and 1940s they were well-known and were often asked for help, all over America. Their achievements in biology and trailblazing work in ecology were compared to the discoveries made by Marie Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre in the fields of chemistry and physics. It would be hard to find a third power couple like them in the entire history of science. While Edith was aware of her circumstances (she admitted that she was working by her husband’s side for free), she and Frederic were a team and his discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without her contribution. Frederic didn’t intend to overshadow his wife. She was his real partner in her own right; she didn’t stay behind. During their many research trips, they drove 500,000 miles and it was Edith who was behind the wheel most of the time.

An omnipresent evil

In 1931, Americans who lived in the South had a good reason to believe that the apocalypse had begun. First, a cycle of droughts was witnessed in the Midwest and Southern prairies. Farmers had to watch helplessly as their crops died. Then severe storms started. They were referred to as ‘black blizzards’, since they spread dirty dust. The number of dust storms grew quickly, from 14 in 1932 to as many as 38 in 1933. In 1934, three-quarters of the country and 27 states altogether were affected by the drought.

The most severe storms swept across the US in 1935. It was estimated that throughout the year, winds blew away 850 million tons of dry soil. According to survivors, accounts of that nightmare weren’t exaggerated. Everything was wrapped in suffocating dust and darkness. The storm would blow away dried soil all day long. There was dust everywhere; in people’s eyes, in every crack and fissure. Like a dust flood, it submerged entire households. Even at noon, you couldn’t see the sun. Rolling dust blocked the daylight. The effect was surreal: Southerners felt as if the wind carried some dark power that was destroying them. There was no way to escape it. People would run away, but the dust followed them everywhere. It shook their wooden houses, where they would crouch down in darkness. Children couldn’t play outside, since the air was deadly. Survivors described the dusty wind as an omnipresent evil.

The earth, on which human life depends, took revenge for years of intensive farming and soil sterilization. In consequence, it wasn’t possible to cultivate crops any more. Cattle, which had nowhere to graze, died of hunger. Farmers – not so long ago proud of their work – were now unable to feed their children. Moreover, an alarming number of hares and grasshoppers came to inhabit the dry soil.

This was an ecological crisis on a biblical scale, which lasted nearly a decade and became known as the Dust Bowl. It was the first catastrophe in American history that was induced by humans driven by a vision of easy money and encouraged by the government’s politics. A collectively generated crisis on a mass scale, it destroyed land considered to be the American breadbasket. Thousands of people ran away, leaving behind dust-crushed fields and houses. Many of them got ill, but some persevered. It didn’t take long for this disaster to unfold – only 30 to 40 years of soil overexploitation. As a result, one of the largest ecosystems of North America fell into ruin. The Dust Bowl is still considered one of the largest ecological catastrophes in history. About 260 million acres of farming land became either entirely or partly barren.

Edith and Frederic Clements split their research work between the lab and expeditions (public domain)
Edith and Frederic Clements split their research work between the lab and expeditions (public domain)

The Great Depression

This crisis overlapped with the Great Depression: a major economic crisis in the US. After Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, long-term national reforms and recovery plans were implemented. One of them was the agriculture bill known as the Taylor Grazing Act. This enabled the government to reserve 140 million acres of land for grazing, which was strictly controlled. To help farmers, the government bought their cattle and paid compensation. It also founded special institutions responsible for monitoring the situation, introducing new farming methods, and developing an agricultural system that was less detrimental to the environment – a system that would be described today as sustainable. In addition, the afforestation programme was launched. New trees were planted on lands that had previously undergone deforestation so that big farms could be built. The droughts were expected to last until 1939. This is when it started to rain regularly again.

The main concern was how to allow the earth to regenerate and ensure it wouldn’t be destroyed like that again. Enter Frederic Clements and his wife, Edith. He was already a renowned American ecologist, affiliated with the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., where he wrote his two major works: Research Methods in Ecology (1905) and Plant Succession. The former is a groundbreaking study on how to observe the life of plants, whereas the latter, co-authored with Edith, analyses the developmental process of different types of plants. It describes how barren land undergoes a series of stages, turning subsequently into a habitat for annual and gramineous plants, bushes and trees. It also links this process to climate. Edith recounted how manuscript pages were sitting on all tables in their small research lab. Their total weight was 15 pounds (around seven kilos).

Frederic was an ecologist and idealist, who viewed nature as a complex ecosystem governed by strict laws and causal relationships. He looked at it holistically as an intricate network of interrelations. Together with Edith, they were the first to offer such an integrative perspective on nature and the methods of its study. When desperate farmers were trying to understand the reasons behind the catastrophic Dust Bowl, the Clements provided clear explanations: excessive ploughing, overgrazing and climate change, which were all a recipe for disaster. Before the Dust Bowl, the couple had spent years observing how ecosystems evolved. They knew what climate change was and why some plants became extinct, while others, better adapted to new conditions, emerged. They understood the trajectory of these changes. They would travel to the mountains and plains, carefully watching droughts and deserts. They would visit the wastelands and observe great floods and their effects. They were able to identify the principles that governed these processes – they perceived nature as a form of life with its own internal logic, which helped to make predictions about the future with a high probability.

Frederic Clements on the roof of a building destroyed by a dust storm (public domain)
Frederic Clements on the roof of a building destroyed by a dust storm (public domain)

The nature of nature

The Roosevelt administration hired Frederic as a lead expert. His research-based guidelines were implemented by the Bureau of Forestry and the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture. He stood by his beliefs and didn’t approve of all decisions taken by the government. He was also quite flexible with regard to scientific theories. His goal was to finally create a set of practical guidelines for farmers: what to sow, plant and cultivate, and how to retain water in soil, enabling its regeneration, which was essential for the cultivation of crops. Dunes formed by the soil blown by the wind were levelled. Cacti that multiplied during the drought were removed. Grass planting, which enabled water retention in soil, was given priority. Then corn and other cultivable plants were also grown. Frederic also recommended controlled grazing: a method thanks to which animals didn’t eat the seeds and roots stored in the soil. Gradually, America’s breadbasket was being revived and it became possible again to harvest.

Subsequent generations of soil scientists and farm managers on prairies were grateful to Frederic for these solutions. Today, a lot of farmers still rely on them. Even though scholars and ecologists of the mid-20th century considered him too attached to his views or simply wrong about the role of ecosystems in the evolution of organisms, his achievements have gained in significance in the 21st century. This is mostly thanks to his groundbreaking discoveries about plant vegetation and his pioneering philosophical studies on the nature of nature itself.

The two botanists and their students from the Alpine Laboratory, where the Clements worked for over 40 years (public domain)
The two botanists and their students from the Alpine Laboratory, where the Clements worked for over 40 years (public domain)

The Clements on the road

In the new millennium, a growing interest in the herstory of science (i.e. the role of women in research development, discoveries and inventions) allows us to revisit the legacy of Edith Clements and her actual contribution to field research conducted together with her husband. In Adventures in Ecology, Edith didn’t paint the whole picture when it came to her own achievements. Employing an adventure-centred mode of storytelling, she undermined the role she played in researching American flora. This amusing and anecdote-filled account of the Clements’s shared research experience focuses on how they spent most of their life on the road. They drove across rarely-trodden routes leading through the American wilderness and hills. Their story consists of a long list of failures and accidents, like pulling cars out of marshes, lakes and sand drifts. Edith, who was usually behind the wheel, learned to drive on slippery mud, ice and dunes. She humorously describes these numerous accidents, as if they didn’t care about the difficulties they faced. After all, it was exactly thanks to these obstacles that their honeymoon lasted longer than they’d originally planned. Clearly, they both enjoyed not only the research-related but also the adventurous aspects of their work and relationship. Climbing mountain peaks to explore the plants growing there, climbing through snow drifts without proper gear, sleeping in random places; in cabins and barns in the middle of nowhere, in hammocks around trees, or in guesthouses run by Mormons – just anywhere they could.

The travelled the States far and wide. The Dust Bowl didn’t take them by surprise, since they had already seen all sorts of smaller scale disasters throughout the country. When comparing their work as plant ecologists to other scientific professions, Edith explained (since it was poorly understood back then) that their job consisted in observing vegetation, making inferences based on past experiences, and predicting the environmental future. It also involved analysing simple organisms, which, in turn, required travel – to study them closely, they had to go to hot deserts and climb cold rocky summits. Edith paid a lot of attention to experimental farming as a research method: she would observe the life of plants in a controlled environment, with adjusted lighting, humidity and temperature. These were pioneering attempts at an empirical description of the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they were living and evolving. Edith viewed ecology as part of the social sciences and conducted research for the common good and a better understanding of humanity. She thought about how to apply the laws of nature to interpersonal relations and found clues on how to tackle the major challenges that civilization was facing. She was a visionary. Nowadays, when climate change is a fundamental concern for the future of humankind, Edith Clements might be cited as the first woman ecologist, who understood that our life and the life of the planet are intimately tangled, and that nature provides answers to our questions about the future.

The difficulties didn’t discourage her. On the contrary, they prompted her to action. As she put it in her account of the field trip to scorching Dakota: “Perspiration pours into my eyes and down my nose, and every fresh gust threatens to send the entire outfit, including myself skittering down the steep slope. By this time, I am a wreck; by the end of the day I am several wrecks. I tell Frederic that I am offering myself a burnt sacrifice on the altar of his love of work. He looks at my peeled nose and red neck and assents as calmly as though a mere wife were a small price to pay for the rewards of scientific research.” Frederic and Edith were capable of enjoying their collaborative work and joking about it, fully aware of their unequal professional status. Edith’s notes suggest, however, that she didn’t hold a grudge. Too much was happening; she was too busy doing research and making discoveries to ponder how unfair the world was. It also seems that as far as their relationship was concerned, they were equals. In the field, they made a perfect team, complementing each other. Both of their names appear on their most memorable achievement: the compendium titled Rocky Mountain Flowers (1914).

Edith also had a capacity for visual arts. Although they had a portable camera, which they would set up even on the steep slopes, she spent hours making detailed, colourful and lively plant drawings. She used to say that she was painting portraits of plants. Even though impressionism was the biggest trend in painting back then, with Georgia O’Keefe rising to prominence, Edith stayed committed to her detail-oriented realism. She wanted to accurately represent the truth of each petal, each symmetrical structure of the leaf. Her colour drawings can be admired today by everyone: they’re available free of charge as part of the public domain. The Rocky Mountain Flowers compendium has become the main point of reference for both researchers and laymen. Later, the Clements also completed similar compendia devoted to the West Coast and Midwest plants. Edith’s drawings were a big hit – before World War II, they appeared, for instance, in National Geographic.

A laboratory in the mountains

They were both born in 1874. Edith in Lincoln, Nebraska; Frederic in Albany, New York. Edith’s father, George Schwartz, was a pork packer. Their family moved to Omaha, where Edith was growing up as the third of seven children. She was a very good student, just as she was expected to be. She was very likeable – independent, cheerful, pretty and helpful. This made her popular in high school. She went to college in Minnesota, where she studied business for a year and then transferred to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. An outstanding student, after graduation she was offered to teach German. Frederic, who was by then her husband, encouraged her to focus on botany and ecology instead. He impressed her intellectually; he could read three novels a day and had a memory like an elephant.

After the wedding, they embarked on a trip to Pies Peak – a summit in Colorado, where a few summer houses were located. This is where they came up with the idea of establishing an experimental ecological research station that would operate in the mountains through the summer. First, they placed there one simple building with two small rooms. It was financed through a $200 loan. Over the years, they managed to expand it thanks to stipends and profits from the plant compendia they published. What came to be known as the Alpine Laboratory operated for over 40 years, with the support of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

In 1906, Edith completed her doctoral studies in botany and became the first woman at the University of Nebraska to hold a PhD. This is when the Clements started to admit students to their summer laboratory. Many generations of researchers, who had brilliant careers later, studied there. When Frederic became the dean of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Botany the following year, Edith accepted a lower rank job there, too. But she was openly critical of the discrimination against women in science. She was part of the American suffragist movement and took care of her professional career.

This paid off. In 1911, together with her husband, she received an invitation for a research stay in Europe – a visit which proved successful for both. Thanks to her proficiency in German, Edith established valuable relations in Germany. Frederic, on the other hand, shone among the British scientists. That was the beginning of their important collaborations and friendships that lasted for decades. In letters to her family, Edith offered a vivid description of scientists, creating psychological portraits of them. When the elite of European botany visited the US, they spent over a week at the Clements’s laboratory.

In 1914, Edith was included in the encyclopaedia Who’s Who in America. The description of her academic achievements found its place among the bios of the most important living Americans. In 1917, when Frederic was offered a job at the Carnegie Institution, they moved to Arizona, and then to California. They spent the subsequent years on the road, travelling through the country. Edith was indeed a better driver, but the main reason why she was the one behind the wheel on long trips in automobiles that tended to break down was because of Frederic’s illness, which they kept in secret. He had diabetes and high levels of adrenaline, which had a detrimental effect on his body – this was before hormone treatments had been invented. His disease, which required constant care, was another reason why the couple was inseparable. After Frederic’s death in 1945, Edith described in letters to her friends how desperate she was and how she had lost sense of purpose in life. Except the three days after the wedding when they were apart, they had spent 46 years together, day after day. He asked her not to leave him. She kept her promise.

The world is a plant

Although Edith made sure that Frederic’s latest research was published, academia didn’t treat them favourably. At the time, the major trends in botany were neo-Darwinism and genetics. A lot of scientists dismissed the observations made by the Clements, claiming that environmental factors don’t play such a significant role in the evolution of organisms. They were opposed to the holistic approach, which described ecosystems as complex and intricately entangled life forms. Frederic’s research papers couldn’t find a home for a long time. No university wanted them. Eventually, his former student archived them in Texas. Since Edith was taking care of her sick sister, it wasn’t until she was over 80 that she returned to writing. That’s when she published Adventures in Ecology, a humorous look back at the daring life of a couple of tireless explorers of nature. Although she intended to, she never managed to write a serious dual biography, which would depict the moments of crisis and difficulties they faced. It’s a pity, since her memoir, which reads more like an adventure book, doesn’t provide an entirely honest account of the sacrifices they made – and it doesn’t do Edith justice. She didn’t leave behind many records of her achievements, which for a long time made it challenging for historians to establish how great her contribution actually was. Edith died in 1971, childless. The Clements’s home university in Nebraska refused to archive their papers. The American Heritage Center in Wyoming accepted them gladly, however.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Edith Clements’s scientific track record began to be recognized and appreciated. Her writings were included in anthologies devoted to the most important American women researchers. Edith and Frederic’s contribution to the development of ecology is unquestionable and scientists agree that their research was pioneering. It is thanks to these first emissaries of ecology that we now conceive of plants as individual and sophisticated organisms, whose evolution depends on a wide variety of factors. And importantly, we’re aware that our behaviour has an impact on the future.

In writing this article, I mostly relied on the following books: Adventures in Ecology. Half a Million Miles: From Mud to Macadam by Edith Clements (Pageant Press, 1960), Rocky Mountain Flowers: An Illustrated Guide for Plantlovers and Plant-Users by Edith S. Clements and Frederic Clements (1914), and Founders of Plant Ecology: Frederic and Edith Clements by John H. Oberg (University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2019).


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.