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September 2009 cover image hunting dog

Plant Pioneer

Mary Sophie Young’s 1914 journal reveals a tough, witty botanist with a passion for West Texas.

By Megan Wilde

In August and September of 1914 — before Texan women could vote and highways tamed statewide travel — Mary Sophie Young wore out her shoes exploring the rugged Trans-Pecos. Accompanied by a college student and a pair of ornery pack burros, this plucky botanist trekked about 100 miles across the Marfa grasslands, through the Davis Mountains, around the Sierra Vieja, along the Rio Grande and into the Chinati Mountains.

She learned about much more than the region’s vegetation: “the characteristics of burros, how to treat wounds when they have worms in them, that hogs always have liver worms, how to cook frijoles, what jack rabbit tastes like,” she wrote in her field journal, which was published in 1962 in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and is archived at the University of Texas at Austin.

Born in September 1872 in Ohio, Young came to Austin in 1910 as a UT botany instructor. She later took charge of and greatly expanded the university’s nascent plant collection. She was the sort of gentle, generous professor who took needy students and stray animals into her home.

Though described by others as shy and frail-looking, she was a robust outdoorswoman, a trait she attributed to keeping up with several older brothers on childhood tramps. Being an unmarried woman with limited means never deterred her from far-flung fieldwork. With a .25-caliber Colt tucked in her long skirt’s pocket, she traipsed around the state, gathering thousands of plant specimens and completing two pioneering studies of Austin-area flora. But the vegetation of far West Texas, then a botanical frontier, particularly fascinated Young. Her journal from the 1914 trip — her first major expedition there — paints an amusing and endearing portrait of a turn-of-the-century woman naturalist afield.

Between botanical notes, she chronicled nights spent among flowering willows by a stream and on the starlit open range, where passing cattle served as a morning alarm. Other nights she and her 17-year-old assistant, Carey Tharp, shared a hay barn with cows, a rock pile with an inquisitive skunk and an abandoned ranch house with raucous rats.

“Carey shot holes in the roof after we went to bed trying to scare away a rat,” she wrote, “but there are no signs that there are any holes in the rat.”

She described daytime encounters with wilder critters, such as a squeaking coterie of prairie dogs outside Valentine and a nightmarish plague of caterpillars near Candelaria. A black bear and a rattlesnake startled her on Mount Livermore — the Davis Mountain’s highest peak. She pegged the snake with rocks and severed its tail as a trophy, which, she noted, “when cut off entirely, asserted its independence by waving the rattles defiantly in the air.”

The animals that figured most prominently in her journal, though, were her pack burros, Nebuchadnezzar and Balaam. When they weren’t running away, the donkeys were perpetually prone to stopping, eating, laying down and sleeping.

“If our Lord rode as lazy a beast as this one, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem must have taken a long, long time,” she wrote. After her attempt to ride Nebuchadnezzar deteriorated into a wrestling match, she declared: “Burros are a sore temptation to wrath.”

As frustrating as the beasts could be, she kept her sense of humor about them. “Burros are interesting personalities,” she observed after trying to put a pack on Balaam, whose shoulder was scratched. “They are like the fascinatingly mysterious heroines in the story books. When our two darlings were nearly ready, Balaam suddenly, but with deliberate intent, fell over on her side. We thought she had a giddy spell caused by her wound — (though she did not look faint) but when Nebuchadnezzar, seeing her, deliberately followed her example, we decided differently.”

Food troubles were her greatest source of vexation. Packrats raided their hardtack, and a herd of rascally horses ravaged their butter supply in the night. She ate weevil-flavored beans, cooked with worm-ridden corn meal and brewed coffee with cattle-tank water. After a few weeks in the field, she pined for a grocery store.

“This sounds like the diary of someone on an arctic expedition. The interesting item each day is how much food there is left,” she wrote. “I was hard up the first part of the summer, but did not expect to live on famine rations in August. We suggest boiled boots, rats and other famine delicacies. It is a shame we can’t go down in the canyon and eat grass like the burros. If the real old Nebuchadnezzar did it, why cannot we?”

With ever-dwindling supplies, she and Tharp supplemented their diet with cottontails, one “tough old grandmother” of a squirrel and even a jackrabbit. “It is good exercise to eat jack rabbit — gives you an appetite. Jack rabbit should always be served with toothpicks. Jack rabbit is economical, one piece two inches in diameter and half an inch thick will last an average man all day if he chews constantly and his jaws stand the strain. Jack rabbit meat would make good sole leather.”

Throughout her notes on food frustrations and animal antics, the landscape looms large. Her prose depicts rolling grasslands soaked green by summer thunderstorms and dotted with friendly mules and slick, fat cows. The Davis Mountains evoked her most vivid descriptions. “There was space: wide, brown, hazy, spotted with the shadows of the clouds,” she wrote of the view from Livermore. “The plain lay before us, stretching out miles and miles to the mountains, which like gray clouds skirted the horizon.”

Back at camp one evening, she described the “lonely time” in a dusk-embossed mountain canyon. “The air is very transparent and very still and everything glistens. There is something of that uncanny feeling of the consciousness of inanimate things.”

Such mountain vistas stirred deep sentiment in Young: “Now and then there is an outcrop of white rock which looks at a distance like a group of white houses. All the time you know they are not houses. Through the gleaming, clear air, they give the impression of a mirage and the feeling they give one is an uncanny one of intense loneliness. The yuccas have the same effect in a rather less degree. They stand up stiff and straight like men, on the hills against the sky. The sight of cattle affects me sometimes the same way. It is the suggestion of human life with the conviction of its absence.”

Young returned to the mountains of West Texas a few more times before her life was cut short. In February 1919, an operation revealed she had an advanced, untreatable cancer. She died in March, at age 46, in Austin.

It was B.C. Tharp, Carey’s older brother and Young’s successor at the UT herbarium, who later published her journal. In his introduction Tharp recalled that Young, leading up to her death, never complained about pain or the severity of her illness. Among the friends she left behind was a rescued mutt, named Santa Claus for his unruly love of stockings. After Young’s death, Santa Claus made daily expeditions from her home to her laboratory, whining as he searched for his bold, beloved companion.

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