The woman who rode with wolves (and taught herself the art of photography)

Mary Schäffer's botanical watercolours evoked the perishability of the plants she studied, solo, after her husband's death.

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On a visit to western Canada in 1907, Rudyard Kipling passed through Banff, where he saw “two women, black-haired, bare-headed, wearing beadwork squaw-jackets, and riding straddle”. These he took to be Indians: surely, no self-respecting lady of that era would have taken to her horse without a side saddle.

However, on further scrutiny, he saw that one of the women possessed “the comprehending equal eyes of the civilised white woman”, and was puzzled that such a personage would be out on the trail in hobnail boots and buckskin jacket, her riding dress cut short to the point of immodesty. What he didn’t know was that the woman he had glimpsed was the daughter of a well-to-do Quaker family from Philadelphia, who had studied art with the notable American flower painter George Cochran Lambdin, and had recently concluded an important study of the flora of the Canadian Rockies.

At that point, Mary Schäffer would have been about 45. Born Mary Townsend Sharpless in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1861, she was encouraged in her love of art by her father, an amateur naturalist. In 1889, on her first field trip to the Rockies, she worked with her future husband, Charles Schäffer, on what was intended to be a definitive Flora of the area: he as the author, she pressing specimens and making illustrations, but contributing little to the scientific side (she once called herself a “dumb-bell about botany”). This was not atypical; even women who did not see themselves as dumb-bells were allotted the role of helpmeet while men pursued the serious intellectual work. In 1903, however, her parents died and so did Charles, and Mary was left to continue the book alone. This she did, teaching herself the relatively new art of photography, learning more about the science of plants and, now that all her links to Philadelphia were broken, moving to Banff. Here, she asked the man who would become her second husband, a local trail guide named William Warren, to build her a suitable home. The 1912 house delighted her – she called it Tarry-a-while, and remained there until her death in 1939.

By now she had finished the Flora she had begun with Charles; Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rockies, illustrated with her paintings and photographs, was published in 1907. But her interests shifted: gradually, with Warren’s assistance, she had become an accomplished horsewoman and explorer, and her attention turned to the landscape and its people, particularly the Stoney Indians, whom she befriended (they named her Yahe-Weha, meaning “mountain woman”). In 1911 she published Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies, now considered a classic of Canadian topographical literature.

Today Schäffer is revered for her courage, her love of her adopted land and – like her contemporary Mary Hunter Austin, another unladylike horsewoman whose solitary explorations of the American south-west produced the 1903 classic The Land of Little Rain – for her pioneering feminist spirit.

Yet I cannot help but return to Schäffer’s watercolours of mountain plants. To study her botanical illustration for Campanula rotundifolia is to experience directly the paper-fine lightness and fragility of this alpine flower; the same sense of perishable tissue that nevertheless succeeds in extreme conditions is beautifully evoked by her image of Calypso orchids. It is hard not to be moved by a letter she wrote in later life, in which this gifted but modest woman allowed herself a fleeting cri de coeur: “No one may know I went among those hills with a broken heart and only on the high places could I learn that I and mine were very close together. We dare not tell those beautiful thoughts; they like to say ‘explorer’ of me, no, only a hunter of peace. I found it.”

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais