People who know me are well aware that I’ve been plugging away at an extensive research project for nearly seven years: a biography of Sara Plummer Lemmon, the 19th-century artist and botanist for whom Southern Arizona’s Mount Lemmon is named.
I’m delighted to report that my book proposal was accepted by the University of Nebraska Press! The Forgotten Botanist: Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life in Science and Art was published under their Bison Books imprint in Fall 2021. Not only that, but it was selected as a Top Pick among the 2022 Southwest Books of the Year!
In 2017 I gave up trying to keep up with individual email updates and created a newsletter to provide
- information on upcoming presentations and media events,
- manuscript updates, and
- backstory tidbits about Sara, her life and friends (including John Muir and Clara Barton), and the process of recovering and revealing her work
Thirty-five issues later, the most recent issue of the newsletter (March 11, 2022) is here and you can subscribe to the newsletter here. It’s free, and there’s an unsubscribe option if you decide you don’t want to keep receiving it. I’m proud to tell you it won Second Place in the Personal Newsletter category of the 2021 National Federation of Press Women contest!
My intention with it is NOT to flood your email boxes, but to only send the newsletters out when there’s a significant or particularly interesting update—and to keep them brief.
Here’s an excerpt from the first newsletter in November 2017:
For those who are new to this project: Who IS this Sara Lemmon woman? and why does she matter? Here’s part of the pitch letter I sent out to publishers and agents with the book proposal:
“LIKE DEATH TO BE IDLE: Sara Plummer Lemmon, 19th-Century Artist, Scientist, and Explorer (working title), blends popular science, history, and biography. Based on Sara’s extensive and lively correspondence and her exquisite artwork, the book brings another female ‘Hidden Figure’ of science to general readers. Her story is one of tenacity and grit, of Western exploration, pioneer women, Apache warfare, the Civil War—and romance. Sara Lemmon’s life is a universal narrative of determination and courage—and is as relevant to our nation today as it was in the 1880s.”
Finding a publisher these days is quite the endurance event in itself, but the reactions from agents and editors alike were positive and helpful. The key is persevering: The UNP proposal submission was my 24th.
In the meantime, Arizona Highways published my article, “The Southwestern Legacy of Sara Lemmon,” and you can click this link to find out more about Sara, and about how in 1870 she moved—completely alone—from New York to California, where she established the first library in Santa Barbara.
For some people, one solace for loneliness is letter-writing, which was certainly the case for Sara. Luckily for us, she wrote home to her family almost every week. The University and Jepson Herbaria Archives in Berkeley has much of that correspondence, in addition to a few of her paintings that have survived. Sara was considered “one of the most accurate painters of nature in the State.” Tragically, most of her scientific illustrations were lost, possibly in the fires that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
But, it turns out, not all the paintings …
As if handling and reading 1,200 pages of Sara’s hand-written letters wasn’t exciting enough for me, the re-appearance of some of her art has been an unexpected thrill: Recently, two boxes of her watercolors were given to the archives. The staff quickly realized that the works, all on paper, are much too fragile to be handled by anyone other than an expert—but no funds were available.
With the help of generous donations (thank you!!), I was able to hire a local art conservator to spend a full day at the archives and to watch as she opened the boxes and, ever-so-gently, lifted out the paintings, one by one, examined them front and back, and assessed their condition … fascinating!
But you’ll have to wait until another issue to discover what we saw that day. Here’s a sneak preview to whet your appetite – two signed watercolors, painted by Sara in the field, in Southern Arizona’s Huachuaca Mountains in the fall of 1882.
There’s more news, so much more … Stay tuned! And feel free to forward the newsletter link to anyone you think might be interested.
PS/ Comments on the project? Sara? the newsletter? Please email me at [email protected]
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