Lester Rowntree 1 - Singing to Lizards

Lester Rowntree was born into the Rowntree family, makers of Rowntrees Fruit Gums and other delicious candies (or as we say in the UK, sweeties), but her parents weren't from a particularly wealthy branch of the family. She was born in the beautiful Lake District in the North West of England, where I have hiked and near where I went to college. When she was a child the family moved to America, first to the East Coast, then to California. She loved plants from the get-go and was always busting out of school and taking off for long rambles in the wilderness.

When she was over 50 (like me), Lester was diagnosed with terminal cancer (unlike me - so far - touch wood!), and shortly thereafter divorced (ya, I have been there too). As do many others dropped into that crucible of life and death, she decided to live the life she had always wanted to live, for whatever time she had left. As it turned out, she lived to be 100, and spent many of those years exploring California's flora, traveling the state for 9 months out of the year, alone, hiking to the wildest places, studying, gathering, camping out, and writing (as I would love to, in my sunniest fantasies). Some have called her the female version of John Muir. She was known to sing and dance with joy, naked in the wilderness. I like that in a dumpy little middle-aged woman.

The other three months of the year she spent in a cottage in the hills near Carmel, on the Monterey Bay, cataloging and writing. (I also live in the hills near the Monteray Bay, farther north). She supported herself by selling seeds.

She began criss-crossing the state like a shoelace back in the 1930s, and her best known book, Hardy Californians, describes the plants and animals (some of them humans) she met along the way. I read Hardy Californians with delight, amusement, amazement, jealousy, and a twinge of uneasy discomfort. To give you a taste of Lester's personality, writing, and love for nature, I'll close this post with a passage from Hardy Californians that gave me delight and amusement.
By the way if someone could ID the species of lizard in this piece, I'll add a photo of one.

Singing to Lizards
A passage from Hardy Californians, by Lester Rowntree, page 15.

The lizard clan is diverse and fascinating, – also some members are very sentimental and love to be sung to. I found this out one day by chance when I was meandering about and singing to myself in a stand of tall Mentzelia laevicaulis, well bedecked with its big glistening water-lily-like blooms of soft primrose yellow. This Mentzelia grows only in gravelly places which catch the maximum of sun; lizards also like such places. As I sang, two very unlike specimens came out from under the stones. One was over a foot long and incredibly beautiful with a bold tan armadillo-like design worked on his mustard-yellow body. He resolutely advanced and together we sat on a rock. I stopped my noise and he made preparations to leave. I began it again and he stepped on to my knee. He showed an enormous capacity for large doses of song, closing his eyes in absurd abandon and opening them whenever I shut up, his eyelids sliding back to reveal pleading orbs. This went on for some time till I finally had to tell him that I must go about my business, and as I placed him, limp from emotion, on the boulder, I pointed out to him that the music the rock wren yonder was making was much better than anything I could do. But his reproachful eyes followed me on my way.
About an hour later, I tried this on a rattlesnake, but it didn't work. Probably because the song was somewhat agitated.

Hardy Californians was originally published by MacMillan in1936. Reissued and expanded 2006, UC Press. You can purchase it from the CNPS, here.
Images of Lester from two sources:
Her grandson Lester's web site (book cover and pressing a plant), http://lesrowntree.com
The meetings page of the Marin County chapter of CNPS (Lester with burro), http://www.marin.cc.ca.us/cnps/meeting.html
Image of Mentzelia laevicaulis (Shooting Star) from the CWNP photo gallery, http://www.cwnp.org/photopgs/mdoc/melaevicaulis.html


ryan said…
Interesting. I always wonder about the people with plants named after them.
Katie said…
I trust your book recommendations; this one is going on my library list immediately!
Kelly said…
I just brought this back to our library. Loved it!!!! Despite her disclaimer that she will sometimes use the common names of plants it is filled with the botanical names. So I mostly had little idea of the plants she was talking about. I am a relative newcomer to the world of CA natives. Even so I found the book to be captivating! If I hadn't already fallen in love with the idea of growing native plants by reading Gardening with a Wild Heart by Judith Larner Lowry, Rowntree's book would have done it!
Tatyana said…
Great post! Enjoyed reading it,learned something new, smiled - thanks for that, Country Mouse!
Country Mouse said…
Ryan - what plants?? I need to learn about that. BTW I also like to know about such people - Douglas is very interesting - a fellow Scot, and possibly murdered, while in Hawaii! I'll maybe write about him sometime. Katie - I hope you like it as much as Kelly. Kelly - wow I'm so glad reading this blog led you to this enjoyable book! Tatyana - smiles in return! In another post I'll write about what I find a bit disquieting in Lester's approach. BTW a knowledgeable friend said the lizard might be a Southern Alligator lizard but there wasn't enough info to be sure.

Oh and Gardening with a Wild Heart also was an eye and heart opener for me, Kelly, when I was just getting into all this. You should try her book Landscaping Ideas of Jays too, if you haven't.
Barbara E said…
Great post. Lester Rowntree is a favorite of mine as well. In fact I have the manzanita named for her in my backyard, and both the plant itself and the person, make me happy.
Kelly said…
Actually I read the book before your post about her and had thought about what good blog material her story was! You two have an uncanny knack of writing about what I had been thinking would be a good blog topic. I will have an idea for something I want to tell or show in my blog and then I read it in yours first! The poppies post and the ribes post of yours come to mind, but there have been others. Kind of cool to know that I have some gardening comadres out there!
Until I saw the book on a list recently I hadn't equated the name attached to the manzanita with a real human being, let alone such an interesting one. (Okay, I'm a little slow sometimes...) It sounds like the plant--one of the great garden manzanitas--has a worthy namesake. I haven't made it to the book yet, so I appreciate your great post on her.
I love this story and appreciate being introduced to Lester Brown and her book. I've spent a big chunk of my life in similar pursuits, and now I'm wondering how wise it was, but that quote reminded me how valuable it is. (Me, I've sung sheep quiet, but that was in another land.)