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Yosemite Nature Notes 46(2) (1977)

Enid Michael
[click to enlarge]

Enid Michael

by Lisa Rhudy

Enid Michael, Yosemite’s first woman ranger-naturalist, arrived in 1920. She worked as a seasonal naturalist for over twenty years and during this time wrote 172 articles for Nature Notes; a reading of these would give anyone an intimate knowledge of the natural history of Yosemite.

In my estimation, she was as much a part of the story of Yosemite as James Mason Hutchings or John Muir.

A history of Enid Michael - 1920 to 1942 - parallels the history of the National Park Service in Yosemite. Over the years, she worked under four superintendents and three chief naturalists.

A vivid and strong personality emerges from the dry official letters in her personnel file, and her written impressions of each new administration come through dramatically.

In 1919, at the age of thirty-six, Enid Reeves married Charles Michael in Yosemite Valley. Enid’s passion was botany, his ornithology, and having met each other on a Sierra Club hiking trip, they began a lifetime of mutual sharing and learning. Enid left her job as a public school teacher in Pasadena to accompany Charles to Yosemite where he was assistant postmaster.

When Enid came to Yosemite Valley, W.B. Lewis was superintendent. Among the developments during his administration was the establishment of the Nature Guide Service. He employed Enid as a Nature Guide in 1923 and assigned her duties which included daily walks and note-taking, collecting botanical specimens for cataloging and display. In her first summer, over 810 species of flowers were displayed for the public.

During the next twenty years, Enid saw a rapid decline in the numbers of species of wildflowers growing in the Valley meadows. In a memo written to Superintendent Kittredge in 1942, Enid recalls that when she came to the Valley Mrs. Degnan was still grazing her cows in Leidig Meadow, and Mr. Lewis’ ideal of the valley “ . . . was that it should look like a lawn . . .”. The Sentinel Meadow, under Lewis’ direction, was systematically mowed, burned, and sown with Kentucky Bluegrass as this proved the best forage for horses and cattle.

“People who know flowers do not destroy them”, Enid wrote in 1923. During the ten years of the W.B. Lewis administration and while under the direct supervision of Chief Naturalist C.P. Russell, Enid continually emphasized the need for flowers to be put on public display.

An example of her subtlety in driving home a point is found in a letter written to Russell in response to his request for her comments on the edited copy of her book, “History of the Flower Show”: “I do object to the statement, ‘In August a week or more is devoted to collecting in the higher regions of the Park . . .’ in so much as it is not the truth.” She points out that for only one week, in 1921, was she granted this opportunity by Lewis, but never again was given the privilege; she would not allow this lie to be printed.

Enid’s true reactions to the Lewis administration became apparent when Col. C.G. Thomson replaced Lewis in 1930. Two years previously, Russell had asked Enid and the six other staff members to critique the Nature Guide Service; in her reply she had written: “Of recent years, Yosemite Valley has become thoroughly commercialized. Great crowds now come here, and we may depend upon the concessionaire to keep them coming . . . In the last analysis the only way to save the National Parks is to inspire in the public a real love for the out-of-doors”. In Col. Thomson, Enid found a superintendent who could inspire that love, and she often wrote him letters of praise: “Almost every morning on our walk we note with pleasure some change brought about by your observing eye and directive mind . . . For the first time during my service, I feel that my work is being appreciated . . . I feel that the consideration shown me is in large part due to your friendly attitude toward the Nature Service”.

In return, it appears that Thomson was extremely pleased with Enid’s work. Her slightest suggestion to him, such as the planting of evening primrose in open places in the Valley, or the removal of azalea bushes where the soil was too dry to support them, was carried out immediately. by Thomson himself. He continually praised her Nature Notes and wrote to her of his ambition to “ . . . see you break into the big league as a contributor to national magazines.”

In 1931, Thomson was able to give Enid a six month permanent appointment, and, with the donation of $4,000 for the landscaping of a wildflower garden, he asked Enid to direct that project. Thomson wrote: “Mrs. Michael is admittedly the best botanist in the park and we wish to take advantage of her knowledge on this subject”.

Enid threw herself completely into work on the wildflower garden but soon came to a head-on collision with Chief Naturalist C.A. Harwell, as his plans for the garden conflicted radically with hers. One can read in the letters between Harwell and Enid, and Harwell and Thomson, the strong-willed determination of this fifty-one year old woman to resist the supervision of Harwell. There was a personality conflict between the employer and his employee. In the fall of 1934, faced with a stalemate, Thomson was forced to dismiss Enid early and relegate full responsibility for the garden to Harwell. Harwell did not want Enid to return. Thomson cautioned: “You will miss her if she doesn’t return. The problem is administration — her great knowledge and ability vs. inability to get along with you. I’d ponder it deeply and seriously.”

When it became evident that Harwell did not want to change his decision, Thomson sought another opinion. He was not willing to dismiss Enid, but he knew he could not force his head naturalist to work with her. He wrote to the Director: “I would like to have the reactions of Dr. Bryant (asst. director) and the others who are interested and who know Mrs. Michael . . . because Mrs. Michael is not alone a vivid personality, but she has been a part of the ranger-naturalist effort here so many years . . . she has probably an unrivalled intimate knowledge of the flowers and the birds of Yosemite . . .”.

Dr. Bryant agreed with Thomson that Enid should be given another season as a trial period in which to prove her willingness to cooperate. Enid returned to Yosemite and continued to work seasonally for eight more years. Superintendent Thomson was replaced by Lawrence C. Merriam, and he by Frank A. Kittredge. Harwell left to be replaced by C. Frank Brockman.

The conflict over the garden was probably little remembered during the new administration. At the end of the 1941 season, Kittredge wrote Enid, “We shall look forward to seeing you back in the spring and to the carrying on of that fine garden project at the museum”. In December of that year Enid’s husband died. The following year, in the fall of 1942, all seasonal jobs were curtailed by the war, Enid worked her last season as a ranger-naturalist.

She once wrote that “ . . . the future generations need the flowers”. Probably no one person could have done more for those generations than she. One can only be grateful that, in 1920, she became the first woman naturalist in the National Park Service and was given the opportunity to work and to share her knowledge with others. As a legacy, she left us her Nature Notes, to be shared by all.

“That she knows botany from a scientific standpoint goes without saying,” an admiring visitor once wrote, “but more than this, she knows the flowers and trees from the heart also, and makes them real friends of ours . . .”.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management