By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
The Field Book Project has made of a point of posting quarterly flickr sets, to highlight some of the great hidden treasures we catalog. In the honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to announce our newest set, featuring images of Mary Agnes Chase and her field work.
During the 1920’s and 30’s Mary Agnes Chase conducted field work in the mountains of Brazil collecting grasses now housed in the Department of Botany Herbarium, National Museum of Natural History. Much of her time in the field is documented in correspondence to A. S. Hitchcock and photograph albums she compiled that are now part of Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 229 and Mary Agnes Chase Field Books, 1906-1959 in the National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany. During her time in Brazil, Chase wrote to Hitchcock discussing challenges, progress, and observations of local life. Chase was a woman of strong opinions and wit, as you will see in the quotes shared below.
The first quotes are from Chase’s chronicle of her excursion to Serra do Caparaó (November 19, 1929). During the trip, the trail and overnight camping were made more difficult by persistent rain.
“We were to camp in at a cave. We reached it about 4:30. It looked very inviting at first, being dry, until the guide commented on the pulgas (fleas) then I saw that the dusty earth was alive. I got back into the rain and began to collect while the guide burned dry palm leaves over the ground. I went back and warned Mrs. M as they came up. It was raining hard and I supposed we would have to stand the surviving fleas.”(page 7)
“Serra de Gramina [sic] which I climbed with the Rolfs was the only rain forest I had seen before. Everything was covered with ferns, from little filmies(?) to tree ferns. It was wonderfully lovely in spite of the discomfort and weariness. The trail had not been used for two years, the guide said, and he had to do a lot of cutting.” (page 9)
Chase goes on to describe preparations for the trip up Caparaó, and her struggles to find local guides and staff, recounting the men who refused to assist, stating their belief that if the trip was difficult for men they knew, it would be impossible for women. Chase was a woman of unusual energy and endurance. Despite being in her fifties at the time of her ascent, she climbed several of Brazil’s peaks during her field work throughout the decade. The field work proved challenging, but she persevered with good humor, as shown in the recounting below when she and a female participant reached one the campsites during the climb.
“We struggled out of the bamboo and saw the men resting on the camps. I shouted for joy and old Antonio grinned and said something about “muito(?) courageus” for senhoras to make that ascent. He said no women had ever done it before and very few men.” (page 11)
The last quote I’d like to share exemplifies the humor that was typical of Chase. It was taken from Chase’s letter to A.S. Hitchcock, from Brazil in December 21, 1929:
“The summit was almost as rough and finding nothing up there I hadn’t found climbing up I stepped and slid downward to the more open campo near the base, getting in a drop on saccharoides group, not saccharoides itself and a few other things. Knowing my capacity for getting lost I told myself I could not get lost this time with the mountains ridge on one hand and river on the other.”
Publications about Mary Agnes Chase over the decades have often focused on her dedication to her work, sometimes overshadowing her many other qualities and interests. Late in her life a story was commonly written in several articles about her. The story said that when meeting new people, she would ask "and what grasses do you work on?" If the person didn’t answer in the affirmative, the conversation came to an abrupt end. Chase’s ability to laugh at herself sharply contradicts the characterization of Chase as a serious woman only interested in her botanical specimens. It is this and many other qualities that make Chase a fascinating subject.
To see more of Chase’s images, see her Flickr set.
Sherwood, John. (January 12, 1977). “Notes on Gentle People and Their Honest Love. “ The Washington Star.
National Museum of Natural History. (1978). The Magnificent Foragers : Smithsonian Explorations in the Natural Sciences. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. p. 24.