Botanist, photographer, and writer Mary Beal often took people by surprise when they came across her all alone in the Mojave Desert. Unmarried and unaccompanied female botanists were rare, and her friend Harold Weight wrote in a 1948 issue of Desert Magazine that, “If you should come upon a small active woman in some isolated corner of the Mojave, wrapped about with photographic equipment and clinging to the canyon wall with fingers and toes while she decides whether to study a flower or investigate a mineral specimen, it will be quite safe to say: ‘Hello, Mary Beal.’”1
Beal was born in Rock Island County, Illinois in 1878 to Albert Milton Beal and Henrietta Thompson Beal.2 While in her twenties, Beal moved to Riverside, California with her family. Between 1906 and 1910, Beal worked as a librarian at the Riverside Library where she befriended the naturalist John Burroughs.3 This friendship changed Beal’s life as Burroughs introduced Beal to his friend John Muir, the influential naturalist. When, in 1910, Beal began experiencing respiratory problems, she wrote to Muir for advice, knowing his daughter Ruth had moved to a ranch in the desert.4 Beal soon relocated there, to the Van Dyke Ranch in Dagget, California, which was operated by “Judge” Theodore Van Dyke and Dix Van Dyke. Upon arrival, she pitched a tent to serve as a temporary residence before building a cottage on the land where she would live and work for the rest of her life.5
At the ranch, Beal became a botanist, one of the more welcoming scientific fields for female researchers at the time. Each day, after mounting her horse, Dolly Varden, Beal would set out to record the flowering plants of the Mojave, bringing chia seeds for her lunch.6 She taught herself the discipline of plant identification with the help of guides such as Willis Linn Jepson’s Manual of the Flowering Plants of California, and used photography extensively to document her work.7 She corresponded regularly with Jepsen, sending him dried specimens and photographs as well as “whiffs”- partially dried plants the smells of which, she said, would transport him to the beautiful Mojave and bring him joy in the process.8
Beal shared her expansive knowledge of the botanical world of the desert through a regular column in Desert Magazine, which also published the photographs she took of plant life and carefully hand-colored. She also contributed 1,042 specimens to the Jepsen Herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley.9 In 1952, California State Parks honored Beal by naming a trail at Mitchell Caverns after her, where she had previously worked to identify and classify every form of living plant life. She died in 1964.
- Sizek, Julia. “When Women Seldom Travelled Alone, This Botanist Wandered the CA Deserts in Search of Rare Plants.” KCET, September 22, 2016. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/mary-beal-botanist-desert-magazine-willis-linn-jepson.
- Wooden, Cindy, and Matt Hadro. “A Scarlet Bloom.” Angelus News, September 9, 2019. https://angelusnews.com/voices/a-scarlet-bloom/.
- Clark, Hillar. https://www.nps.gov/moja/learn/news/upload/07%20spring.pdf
1 - Julia Sizek, “In Bloom: Mary Beal’s Mojave,” The Mojave Project, Published 2015. Accessed August 5, 2020. https://mojaveproject.org/dispatches-item/in-bloom-mary-beals-mojave/
2 - “Mary A Beal,” Find A Grave, Accessed August 9, 2020. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/8554682
3 - Tarol, “Mary Beal,” Summit Post, Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.summitpost.org/mojave-national-preserve/175743.
4 - Peter Wild, “John Muir and the Van Dyke Ranch: Intimacy and Desire in his Final Years,” John Muir Newsletter Vol. 5, no. (University of the Pacific, 1995), 1,3.
5 - “Mary Beal Wins Aclaim as One of Foremost Desert Botanists,” San Bernadino County Sun, 16 Oct 1955 sun, 74. Dix Van Dyke, Dagget, Life in a Mojave Frontier Town (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1997),135.
6 - Van Dyke, Dagget,169.
7 - “Richard G. Beidleman, “Willis Linn Jepson – The Botany Man,” The Jepson Herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley (2000). Accessed August 10, 2020. https://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/history/biog/jepson/jepson_the_botany_man.html
8 - Sizek, “In Bloom.”
9 - https://webapps.cspace.berkeley.edu/ucjeps/publicsearch/publicsearch/
Acknowledgements:This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946