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Following in the footsteps of......Isabella Bird

Graham and Iris explore!

Following (almost) in the footsteps of Isabella Bird a hundred odd years on.
NRPS members naturally share a passion for photography, but members who lead an evening for the rest inevitably bring a host of others to the table that enrich the evenings and heighten our curiosity. Graham Nicholls did exactly that last week, when he shared with us his passion for American flora, one that he explored extensively back in the 1980s with the other love of his life, his wife, Iris. A successful horticulturist and ardent plantsman back then, Graham was much in demand in the USA as a successful author and speaker. The (then) young couple travelled the length and breadth of the vast country in borrowed or hired, iconic, eighties vehicles, from which Graham typically leapt at frequent intervals to examine and record floral specimens, either carpeting an otherwise barren landscape, clinging to rocks or lurking in crevices in all the most inaccessible locations.

More than one hundred years prior to this, in the 1870s, Isabela Bird, a Victorian English lady, daughter of a vicar, defied tradition and made a life for herself across the pond as an explorer, photographer and naturalist. Travelling across the USA, often on hired horses after basic railroad journeys, she too recorded her experiences in letters home to her more traditional, stay at home sister. Graham discovered a book inspired by this collection of accounts called “A Lady’s Life in The Rocky Mountains”, and fascinated by her exploits, he and Iris sought to visit the places she mentioned whenever they could. In his talk on Thursday, he related the diversions in a journey they made from Denver to Cape Cod, and a later one made in 2011. He viewed Long Peak from a lower altitude-one that she had reputedly climbed accompanied by her friend the notorious “Rocky Mountain Jim”, who later met an untimely end. Whilst she may not have been the first to do so, she was undoubtedly the first to do so “dragged and bundled up” in a silk dress!

With unfailing and characteristic humour, Graham entertained us with tales of hairpin bends. rocky ascents and tricky manoeuvres of his own, interwoven with the history and hardship endured by Isabella on horseback in the same terrain, and snippets of historical information gleaned from the book. All this was ably illustrated by his own photos, taken of places like Pike’s Peak and Crested Butte, on cameras which demonstrated his brave, early move from film to digital, following a chance encounter on a lonely trail with some Japanese!

It was a truly joyous account of a life well lived, that featured a host of personal memories and obstacles the intrepid pair jointly overcame on their travels. We enjoyed the photos of Graham and Iris themselves, in the days when he wore shorts and she enjoyed a first lobster feast! We look forward in anticipation to Pamela’s evening next week on Zoom, when we will hear of her recent trip to Senegal. So much to look forward to!!

Jenny Short. 09.11.2023