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Les Rowntree

After some 30 years of teaching geography and environmental studies at San Jose State University, I took early retirement July 1, 2005 so I could devote more time to writing. But I'm not really retired; instead the term “re-careering” seems more fitting since I have enough book projects to keep me writing full time for several years. More specifically, those projects involve updating and revising our world geography textbooks; writing a new introductory environmental science textbook; editing a reprint of my grandmother’s 1936 book, “Hardy Californians”, and writing a natural history book about California’s central coast.

Besides writing, my re-careering also means a greater commitment to those non-profits and NGO’s addressing the world’s rather daunting environmental and political problems. While this involvement has always been a part of my life, I'm delighted to have more time for these activities.

Not to worry, though, that all this serious stuff might make me into a one-dimensional dullard. Nope, so far that’s not been a problem; and I look forward to even more hiking, skiing, kayaking, sailing, yoga, bird watching, botanizing, music-making, and traveling.

For those who seek some biographical information, I offer the following:

• I was born in Carmel, California, long ago when it was still a quaint village of artists, bohemians, and other interesting folk. My parents arrived there independently in the 1920s from the East Coast and, despite our aversion to what Carmel has now become, my family (and this includes uncles and aunts) continued to live in and around Carmel until rather recently. However, my ancestral and spiritual home lies south of the village in the Carmel Highlands and Big Sur. This is where my father grew up and my grandmother, Lester Rowntree the botanist and writer, built a modest home in 1932 on a hillside just above the foggy Monterey pine forests, overlooking Pt Lobos and the Pacific Ocean.

• Although my parents moved back to the Carmel Highlands in 1969, they fled post-war Carmel and moved us to Berkeley where I attended public schools and college (for a time, at least). Although I was away from Berkeley for several decades, I moved back in 1987 and now have no intention of leaving again. Call me parochial if you will but I’m happy here.

• My undergraduate years were characterized by two very different periods: the first when I had no idea why I was in college and floundered about, changing my major often and moving restlessly between different Bay Area colleges. At that time I was far more interested in sailing, mountain climbing, and folk music than in my classes. The second phase came after an extended gap year (that was closer to three, actually) of traveling in Canada and Europe, getting drafted by the US Army, and working as a hippy carpenter building off-the-grid houses in Big Sur. After an epiphany on the slopes of Mt Conness in the Sierra, my pathway finally became clear as I discovered the fields of environmental geography and conservation biology. Since I was living in the Carmel Highlands at the time, I commuted to San Jose State to restart and then finish my undergraduate career.

• After graduating from SJSU, I went to the University of Oregon for an outstanding and highly enjoyable graduate school experience. Before starting school, though, I spent the summer working as a US Forest Service lookout in the Cascades of southern Oregon where, besides scanning the landscape for forest fires, I furthered my interests in mountain human and biological ecology. This interest led to my Ph.D fieldwork in the Austrian Alps.

• With Ph.D in hand, and despite a love for the state of Oregon, the lure of a job back in the Bay Area won out and I returned to San Jose State in the early 1970s to teach geography and environmental studies. And now, some 30 years later, after having taught and learned from thousands of remarkable and inspiring students and growing intellectually and professionally because of my stimulating and engaging colleagues, well, here I am, re-careering. Any questions? If so, there’s a link to my email elsewhere on this page.

Lester Rowntree

Lester Rowntree was born February 13, 1879 in England’s Lakes District and died three days after her 100th birthday in Carmel, California. During her long life, she was a pioneer in the study of California native plants and a tireless champion for their conservation and protection. In her two books, Hardy Californians (1936) and Flowering Shrubs of Californian (1939), and over 700 articles Lester, drawing heavily upon her extensive fieldwork, wrote about the natural history of native flora and how these plants would behave in domestic gardens.

But Lester was much more than a field botanist, horticulturist, and writer, for many have described her as a female John Muir who rambled about the Sierra for months on end living on beans and rice, worshipping the high peaks, and dancing about nude in summer thundershowers. Usually she traveled alone; at other times with a pack mule as a companion to carry her heavy photographic and collecting gear. Little question she was a certifiable eccentric with her irrepressible free spirit, restless peripatetic ways, and Big Sur bohemian life. In her words,

"It took adversity to bring me the sort of life I had always longed for. Not until after my domestic happiness had gone to smash did I realize that I was free to trek up and down the long state of California, and to satisfy my insistent curiosity about plants, to find them in their homes meeting their days and seasons, to write down their tricks and manners in my notebook, to photograph their flowers, to collect their seeds, to bring home seedlings in cans just emptied of tomato juice….

"I didn’t take up this for the poetry of it. I had no ambition to become a picturesque Lady-Gypsy. I honestly wanted to find out about California wild flowers. There was little written about them in their habitats and nothing at all about their behavior in the garden, so I made it my job to discover the facts for myself" (The Lone Hunter, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1939)

The adversity referred to was not only divorcing her husband at age 52 but also trading a comfortable middle class life for the hardscrabble, uncertain existence of a field botanist, seed collector, and writer. Although monetary reward eluded her, by 1939 when she turned 60, she achieved some success in her new life. By that time Lester had published two books and authored 100 articles, spent long months of fieldwork in California, Mexico, Canada, and Arizona, and was about to embark on a year-long botanical field trip across the United States.

Lester continued her fieldwork and writing through the next decade until struck by another form of adversity in 1949. Then, just as Lester turned 70, several wildfires destroyed her seed collection and nursery, as well as her writing studio, field notes, manuscripts and photographs. Her life was in shambles and once again the future uncertain. Shortly afterwards Lester began writing children’s books, drawing upon her field experiences for her characters, animal lore, and the strong natural history tone of these books.

Several years later, in 1951, Lester returned to England after an absence of almost half a century, and wrote:

“It has been a good many years since I returned to my native land. Most of the interim has been spent in the stimulating— though often tough—occupation of collecting seeds and plants of North American wild flowers, mostly in Mexico and on the West Coast. When fire put an end to my seed business, it released me for a summer in the British Isles. There I dawdled along country lanes and poked into hedges, searching after flowers I had not seen growing wild for years. I sniffed the fragrant hawthorn (May to the British) and listened entranced to the morning and evening bird choruses. I sat beside tidal rivers, watched the steady salt surge meet the freshness of placid streams and heard the excited cries of waterfowl as they followed the swelling river. At noon, I ate my cheese and biscuits sitting among the heather on the moors.” Browsing Through Britain, Horticulture, 1952.

Back in California, Lester continued doing fieldwork and writing well into her 80s until failing eyesight took its toll. Her free-spirited independence and vagabond ways suffered greatly when she flunked her driver’s test just before her 90th birthday. And yet, despite being housebound in her Carmel Highlands home, Lester enjoyed her final decades, surrounded by family and friends, and with her contributions to botany and horticulture recognized by numerous organizations. In 1965, she was appointed as lifetime honorary president of the newly-founded California Native Plant Society and was honored by the American Horticultural Society in 1971 for her work in preserving California native plants; a similar award was given her in 1974 by the California Horticultural Society.

Many have written about Lester and her life with native plants and a bibliography of those articles appears below. Additionally, a full and complete biography of this fascinating woman, written by her two grandsons, appears in the UC Press reprint of her classic 1936 book, Hardy Californians.

Articles About Lester Rowntree

“Lester Rowntree (1879-1979). Part Three: A Spirit of Keen Joy” (1995) Marie Ingram. Hortus. vol 9 #1. pp 69-87.

“Lester Rowntree (1879-1979). Part Two: Sanctuary---Conserving the Worthwhile” (1994) Marie Ingram. Hortus. vol 8 #4. pp 81-96.

“Lester Rowntree (1879-1979). Part One: The Peripatetic Gilbert White” (1994) Marie Ingram. Hortus vol 8 #3, pp62-81.

“As Thrilling as Any Western Romance” (1994) Virginia Lopez Begg. Pacific Horticulture. vol 55, #2; pp 16-18.

“Lester Rowntree: California Native Plant Woman” (1979) Rosemary Levenson, editor. Regional Oral History Office. The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

“The Wildflower Lover at 97” (1976) Skee Hamann. Fremontia: A Journal of the California Native Plant Society. vol 3 #4 (January) pp 3-8

“Lester Rowntree” (1968) John Woolfenden. Journal of the California Horticulture vol 29 #4 (October) pp 98-126.

“Plantsmen in Profile: XI: Lester Rowntree” (1963) Natalie G. O’Conner. Baileya, vol 11. # 2 June. p 53

“Lester Rowntree: Denizen of the Mountains” (1955) Cara R. Brandt. Journal of the California Horticultural Society. vol14#1 (January) pp 8-17