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‘Botanizing Utah’—scientist follows 1890s photo safari of the West

November 14th, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photos by D. Whitney Smith

LOGAN—By waving a 130-year-old photograph atop a slickrock outcrop, high above Moab Valley, botanist and emeritus Professor Bill Gray of the University of Utah said he evoked a nostalgic conversation from a well-weathered Vietnam vet and ex-uranium miner who lived in the southeastern Utah town.

University of Utah botanist Bill Gray describes his journey to rephotograph the West from the same spots chronicled by 1890s scientist Marcus Jones. D. Whitney Smith photo

“I got a little of his history,” Gray said. “Basically, I waved this photograph and said, ‘I think this photograph’s taken somewhere up here,’ and he got intrigued. Everybody you wave these photographs at gets intrigued. It’s just a sure win.”

The photographs Gray speaks of are 8 x 10-inch copies he produced after digitizing a collection of roughly 1,000 glass slides recently discovered at the Rancho Santa Ana Botany Garden in California. The Botany Garden inherited the slides, all left behind by Marcus Jones, an avid botanist, geologist and mining expert, from Pomona College.

The slides contain Jones’ photographs of plant specimens, geological features and beautiful vistas he came across while trekking through Utah in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Gray said.

“I thought [it] would be a fantastic resource to digitize those [photos], make them available and look at some of the changes that have gone on in the 100-plus years since many of those were taken,” Gray said. “I got a small grant from the Utah Native Plant Society. I had very limited time—I had a couple of days.”

Gray visited USU Monday evening in the Vet Science and Bacteriology Building to talk on “Botanizing Utah by Horse and Buggy” to a roomful of fellow botanists and community members, about his recent experiences working with Jones’ extensive photographic record.

19th century botanist Marcus Jones took this photo near Rockville, Utah . . .

He also said he got to know Jones by reading through many of the detailed pocket diaries Jones wrote on the trail. Gray said the diaries made it possible to understand just how rugged a horse and buggy trip through the dry and rocky desert might have been.

“Marcus Jones was a pretty incredible character—not a very pleasant character,” Gray said. “He was very versatile. He taught at the U. He was the librarian there. He was a Congregational minister. He was a promoter of Utah’s resources, made surveys available, and litigated against smelters up in Idaho for polluting. So, he’s really quite remarkable.”

Gray said his wife, Sylvia, seemed uninterested in helping on the project at first, but she eventually became just as enthralled by the work as he did.

In fact, Gray and his wife eventually set out to follow in Jones’ tracks and retrace what Gray said is Jones’ most notable trip—an 1894 journey that in April of that year included the Arizona Strip Loop. While shooting “repeat photographs” along Jones’ trail, Gray said he actually found some juniper trees that were still there more than 100 years later. Gray illustrated this in his presentation by showing two pictures—one taken by Jones and one taken by Gray. The same juniper tree appeared in both pictures, just slightly larger in the second.

. . . and University of Utah botanist Bill Gray took this shot from the same place more than 100 years later.

During his 1894 trip, decades after John Wesley Powell pioneered much of the region, Jones described approximately 100 new species. Gray said that’s an amazing amount of work for one botanist to do with the help of just a single carriage driver.

“As a botanist, by his account, he collected close to half-a-million plant specimens,” Gray said, admitting that it may have been closer to 250,000. “That’s very hard to do. He described about 800 new species or varieties, and he sold his collection to Pomona College, because the University of Utah couldn’t afford it.”

To fund his exploits, Jones collected as many specimens as he could and sold them. Gray said he later spent most of his money funding various mining projects and “getting well over his head in photographic equipment.”

“Collecting ethics in those days [were to] collect as much as you can and sell it,” Gray said. “So, a lot of his money came from collecting and selling pressed plants to museums all over Europe and America.”

Mary Barkworth, director of USU’s Intermountain Herbarium located in the basement of the Junction eatery, said ethics regarding plant specimen collection have changed since the late 1800s.

“It’s the impact of the collecting that is of concern,” Barkworth said. “You certainly don’t go out and collect 100 of this and 100 of that.”

Barkworth, an adjunct professor in USU’s biology department, also helped to organize Gray’s visit to USU on behalf of the Herbarium.

Another faculty member who attended Gray’s talk, Professor Charles Kay, said he has done work similar to what Gray has done with matching new photographs of rural Utah to older ones.

“It’s a real detective story,” Kay said, as he described the thrill of looking at an old photo and then hunting down the exact place where it was taken. Kay has done work like this throughout southern Utah.

“I’ve made almost 2,500 repeat photographs myself in Utah,” Kay said. “There’s been a vast increase, mainly, in palatable woody vegetation, vast increase in pinyon-juniper, vast increase in conifers, and contrary to what you might think the ranges have improved dramatically, especially the woody riparian vegetation.”

Changes in Utah rangelands over time

Essentially, this means that Utah’s various ecosystems have seen increases in the amount of vegetation available to animal populations for food and habitat. Gray said, however, that even in Jones’ time, there were issues with overgrazing by range animals.

“He was complaining 120 years ago about the effects of livestock grazing,” Gray said, referencing one of Jones’ diary entries.

In an interview after his talk, Gray said that, while in Capitol Wash in Capitol Reef National Park, Gray and his wife found the exact shrub that was in one of Jones’ pictures.

“You’re looking and getting general impressions, and suddenly you’re looking at a single shrub and there’s 120 years between when he took the photograph of it and when I took it,” Gray said. “Getting that sense, that was really incredible. Also, knowing that the travel conditions—moving on and camping and then moving on—that’s rugged country.”

Gray said there’s still much work to be done in curating, logging and organizing Jones’ artifacts, including an unfinished manuscript Jones began writing, entitled Flora of the Great Plateau.



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