Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wild Women

How many of you recognize the women depicted in the two photos above?

On the left is Mary Kingsley who in 1893 left her home in England to travel through Africa alone. After both her parents died and she was free from family obligations, Kingsley decided she wanted to travel to Africa to study the culture and also collect specimens for the British Museum. Such an undertaking was quite unheard of at the time.

Kingsley slogged through mangrove swamps, paddled down rivers, climbed mountains, and fought off crocodiles, snakes, and scorpions. She returned to Africa on a second trip in 1895 to study cannibal tribes. She accomplished all this traveling while dressed in the proper attire of the day: long, woolen skirt, high-necked blouse, and hat (I think I’m most impressed with this). She was also an outspoken critic of missionaries and an advocate for women’s emancipation. She wrote two books: Travels in West Africa (1897) and West Africa Studies (1899). She died at the age of 37 (in 1900 of typhoid fever) while nursing Boer War victims.

Beryl Markham, pictured on the right, was a British-born horse trainer in Kenya who is known for her record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic. She was the first woman to make the Atlantic crossing solo and the first person to fly the route from England to North America non-stop (1932). She is depicted in the film “Out of Africa” as Karen Blixen’s young neighbor who is an outspoken, horse-riding tomboy. Markham also had an affair with Denys Finch Hatton (Blixen’s paramour). She later learned to fly and worked as a bush pilot. Her memoir, “West with the Night” describes her many adventures. Although not particularly focused on nature, her book includes some quite remarkable descriptions of horses as well as flying. She died in Nairobi in 1986.

I read the books written by Kingsley and Markham about thirty years ago and was inspired by their determination to follow their dreams, despite the many cultural barriers for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Markham’s book, West with the Night, is quite good—even praised by Ernest Hemingway (although he referred to the author as a “high-grade bitch”).

In the previous post, I talked about “gentleman naturalists” who were wealthy men pursuing their hobby of science, e.g., Charles Darwin. Kingsley came from a similar background and era, but was not wealthy. When she embarked on her African adventures, she had an income of only £500 a year. I think her achievements are all the more remarkable because she had little financial support and was also going against the cultural mores of her time. Later adventurous scientists such as Jane Goodall and Dianne Fossey were funded by grants, but were faced with similar challenges of working in a remote area and with minimal resources (at least initially). There are many other female scientists who have traveled and worked alone in remote wilderness situations—women you will likely never hear about.

Here are some more interesting books about adventurous women I’ve read or have waiting to be read:

Travelers’ Tales, Women in the Wild (Lucy McCauley)—collection of stories about climbing Mt. Everest, swimming Lake Titicaca, rafting in Borneo, and rescuing animals in Vietnam.

Off the Beaten Track, Three Centuries of Women Travellers (Dea Birkett)

Sand in my Bra and other Misadventures (Jennifer Leo)—“weird and wonderful tales of women on the road”.

The Thong Also Rises (Jennifer Leo)—“outrageous stories of traveling women”.

Reading the Landscape of America (May Theilgaard Watts)—stories about her travels to various ecosystems as a student and later visits describing the changes wrought by humans.

The entire series The Best American Nature and Science Writing—an edited collection of non-fiction, some written by female nature writers. If you’ve never read any of these collections, I highly recommend them.

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