Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Faculty Voices: Jackie Briggs Martin


looking up at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden
I had written an entire blog about butt in chair, the importance of sticking with writing when the going is rough, of believing that writing is hard so if it’s hard for us we shouldn’t take it personally. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “talent,” just that it’s hard. But it seemed a little doze-y. So I decided to write about not-BIC, but exploring, the "writing” that we do when we are not in the chair, when we are looking for stories.

I love winter, don’t get me wrong. I love the snowy monochromatic landscape, being warm inside when it’s cold outside, hot soup, candles, sweaters—all the trappings of the cold season. Still, I do miss green, so today a walkabout in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis seems just right.

Eloise Butler was born in Maine in 1851, moved to the Midwest with her family and eventually came to Minneapolis where she taught botany in high school. She was a scientist who studied algae and discovered three new varieties. As one who learned by observing, she was troubled that her students had no place to go to observe plants in their natural setting. In 1907 the Minneapolis Park Board set aside a portion of what is now the Theodore Wirth Park.  Eloise and her botanist friends thought this area especially choice because it included  “a swampy bog, fern glens, hillsides, upland hills and trees and nearby, the Great Medicine Spring”

When Butler retired in 1911, she became the curator of this garden, continually adding plants—threatened plants from development areas and imported plants she thought might grow. To help promote the garden she wrote a regular column for the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune.  In one of her articles she wrote about a medium telling her there were two botanist spirits who wanted to help with her work and that is why she was able to easily find the plants she was looking for at any particular time []! 

Eloise Butler and this visit to the garden is a powerful reminder that there are wonderful stories everywhere—the more we look, the more we find them.  In this garden we have: a serious botanist, a dedicated teacher who entertains the idea that she might be getting help from the spirit world; a group of women scientists, with no power except their own determination, who decided Minneapolis needed a natural area where plants can grow undisturbed.

Eloise Butler reminds us all of the power of looking, the power of paying attention—whatever our own obsessions or interests might be.  Joyce Sidman reported last Saturday at the CLN non-fiction discussion that one of her books began in a conversation with her sister about beetles. Jen Bryant said she glanced at a painting by Horace Pippin on a visit to an art museum and that was the beginning of A Splash of Red.

looking down at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden
Let's give winter a break, get out of our chairs for a bit. There may be spirits that will help us find what we are looking for.


  1. Beautiful. I will head out today and stop staring out my window!

  2. I hope the helpful spirits are out there, too.

  3. Jackie - I loved this. Time to take walks with my little graduation journal! My daughter Laurel (who came up to help me celebrate Jan 19th) is working at the big botanical garden in Richmond, VA. She'll be interested in this article too!

  4. I wonder what the story is behind the Richmond botanical garden. Who started it? When? There's a lovely new picture book called The Tree Lady about Kate Sessions who was the driving force for planting trees in San Diego.

  5. I was so lucky to walk in this garden with you and Phyllis at a summer residency. I remember so well that tiny frog on that enormous leaf, a testament to nature's intricate wonders.