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Alice Eastwood’s Three Hundred Thousand Specimens

On April 18, 1906, the morning of the great San Francisco earthquake Eastwood’s first response was not to secure the protection of her own home and valuables, but to run to the Academy of Sciences, where she is the curator of botany, and work against the growing blaze to save the treasure trove of specimens she has spent her life collecting and organizing for the institution. The marble stairway leading to the botanical work rooms was broken, so, after hanging up her lunch on the nearest prehistoric creature, she pulled herself hand over hand up the remaining bronze banister, finally reaching the top and dashing to her office, making split decisions about what can be saved and what must be sacrificed while from the window she can see an unstoppable wall of fire slowly crunching down upon the Academy.

Wrapping up samples from century-old collections, the forty-seven year old curator and Western flora expert rushes up and down the banister organizing the rescue efforts, hiring carts to bring the scientific treasures up the hill and away from harm, bossing the police around. They tried but failed to prevent her re-entering the endangered building. Keeping her Zeiss lens firmly in her pocket as the one object in the world she absolutely, positively cannot be without. When fire finally ravages the Academy, and eventually her private home as well, she takes solace in having saved 1,497 crucial specimens even as her booklover’s heart aches at the thought of the Academy’s priceless collection of rare scientific texts, now nothing more than ashes on the wind.

Alice Eastwood was tough. She was still going on adventures in her seventies and eighties. She was part of California botany’s storied age, when the only way to get rare desert plants was to load up a horse and ride into the unknown. In later life, she’d tell harrowing stories of riding fifteen hour stretches up nearly vertical hills while collecting in Montezuma Canyon with rapidly vanishing provisions, of huddling in a shack in the Yukon while waiting for the blooming of the willows, of losing her footing while trying to cross a mountain river and having to swim against the current threatening to send her over a waterfall, of using her expertise in walking on top of quicksand to gather a rare specimen, of eating oatmeal made with water fouled by cattle excrement just to have something to eat.

She could out-hike everybody in the exclusive San Francisco Cross Country Club, a fact they conceded when they offered her the only membership ever extended to a woman. On expeditions, she was cook, organizer, lead scientist, and field guide in one, and designed a new form of skirt that would allow her to ride and collect and still meet the marvelously arbitrary fashion expectations of the day. The fact that her skirts ended at the ankle instead of at the floor was viewed with steady and scornful askanceness by those who live and die by monitoring such things. She was also a Latin teacher, who spent time at the end of her life translating some of the deep treasures of the botanical record into accessible English, a choral performer, a shrewd businesswoman who managed to preternaturally keep her investments on an even keel even in the depths of the Great Depression, and the author of over three hundred botanical articles, two hundred of which she wrote after age fifty.

Eastwood’s childhood was grim but it toughened her will without also deadening her curiosity. The result was an individual suited for steady, rigorous, physically demanding work who could still appreciate beauty and convey that beauty through image and inspired word. She was born in Toronto, Canada, but her mother’s early death caught her father squarely unprepared. Panicking, he fobbed his children off on various relatives and left to make a stab at going into business for himself. He recalled them when he thought things were going well, but when he ultimately failed, it was off to Catholic boarding school for young Alice while he sought his fortune in America.

While there, Alice and her sister made dolls out of newspaper and furniture out of cardboard in the best “This stick’s the only friend I have – she’s named Ms. O’Daniel and she’s dying of consumption” tradition. Alice’s fine mind was noticed and she found that she adored school – the books, the studying, the teachers, the tests – loved all of it. And more than that, there was the garden where she learned the thrill of identifying and tending plants.

Eventually, her father had found work in Denver and wanted her to leave her sister behind so that she could tend home for him. As things turned out, she wasn’t to live with her father and her brother, but rather to be the maid for some other family, at least until he could start up a new store where she was expected to wake up at four in the morning so that she would have enough time to draw the water and do all the cooking before leaving for school. Then, after school, because her father’s business was doing about as miserably as his previous ventures, she had to work as a seamstress to pay for her own education and the family’s expenses.

Despite all the extra work and continued disappointments, Eastwood finished high school as class valedictorian, but college was out of the question, and in fact in her 94 years of life she never received a higher degree. Money was required to keep the household running, so Eastwood was put to work as a high school teacher, where her ability to teach Latin, math, music, writing, and science with equal ease made her an invaluable addition to the faculty.

She pooled her resources with her father to jointly buy some income-producing property that would provide her with enough money to not starve even in the leanest times, and spent her vacations rambling the hills of Colorado, gathering botanical specimens, the first steps of a mania for collection that would net hundreds of thousands of samples stretched across six decades. Wherever she went, she seemed to find not only new species, but new friends, her enthusiasm and simple gratitude for help winning her the esteem of people from all walks of life: the Mormon widower who was so impressed by her that he proposed after a day’s acquaintance, the Mexican military official who wondered why she kept scrambling under the border fence picking plants, the railroad men and financiers and scientists and taxi drivers and military wives and Spanish cavaliers and Swedish philosophers who all counted themselves privileged to have offered shelter or a meal somewhere along the way to her newest discovery.

That knack for making friends landed her the job that was to define her life when she wandered in, unannounced, to the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and introduced herself to Katherine Brandegee, the Curator of Botany there in 1891. They hit it off immediately and soon Eastwood was offered a place at the institution. By 1894, she succeeded Brandegee in the position of curator, a post she would hold officially until 1949.

From this position, she strove to make San Francisco the most botanically educated city in the country, working closely with park superintendents and World’s Fair organizers to incorporate botanical displays all over the city. There was a rotating assortment of flowers set up to greet newly arrived immigrants as they left the Ferry Building, a Shakespeare garden that assembled all of the plants mentioned in the Bard’s works, a permanent exhibit of botanical curiosities open to the public year-round, and most importantly, a slew of conservation efforts to protect the Bay Area’s most precious botanical resource, its redwoods.

She wrote articles and books that gave the shrubs and flowers of everyday life personalities, that let people see the charm in plants that she saw, creating a city-wide enthusiasm for flora that spawned a Fuchsia Society, an Orchid Society, a Mt. Tamalpais conservation society, a wildflower society, and which transformed Golden Gate Park into one of the world’s most enthusiastically maintained botanical sites in the country.

Alice at age 80 Alice at age 93

Her historical studies of European expeditions to the Coast made her the world expert on the migration of Pacific plants back to the Old World, and wherever she went she was consulted to identify American native plants that had stumped the world’s experts.

After the fire of 1906 destroyed her life’s work and her home, she set about the task of rebuilding, and the 1497 specimens she saved grew, within four decades, to 300,000. Whenever she came into some extra money, she spent it on obtaining rare botanical texts for the new Academy library. She might buy a new dress every two decades or so, maybe a piece of used furniture from a thrift store, but overwhelmingly her resources went into her cherished causes: financing a new botanical journal so that it could be sold at a price cheap enough for college students to afford, supporting efforts to buy tracts of botanically important land that were threatened by development, and always more books and more samples.

She officially retired as curator on her 90th birthday, but continued to work in her office. Her pace slowed at 73 after a car hit her, smashing her knee, but of course she was back and walking again soon after, the only discernible change being that she did most of her collecting by car instead of on horseback.

In 1959, the California Academy of Sciences unveiled the Eastwood Hall of Botany, but the most fitting tribute seems to be the naming of the Eastwoodia elegans. There is only one species in the Eastwoodia genus, and it is a sunflower, and both of those facts match so well with everything we know of Alice Eastwood.

FURTHER READING: Alice Eastwood’s Wonderland (1955) by Carol Green Wilsonis the only full length biography I know of, and it’s wonderful. You follow Eastwood through desert, tundra, and mountain as she basically builds the Academy’s botanical collection with her bare hands. It’s a charming mix of unapologetic flower nerd euphoria and hair-raising survival, with a heady blast of San Francisco as it was during its first greatest age.

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