Writers series: This is the fourth installment in an occasional series profiling celebrated -- and not so well-known -- Minnesota nature writers. Today: Grace Lee Nute.
When the spirit or the demands of the job moved her, Grace Lee Nute could grab a paddle, hop in a wood-and-canvas canoe and zip downstream with the best of them.
Her gender, slight frame and elite education might have caused some to underestimate her outdoor skills, but no one doubted her writing ability. Books such as “The Voyageur” and “Caesars of the Wilderness” documented the European settlement of North America with rich descriptions of the people and landscape and a thoroughness that settled more than one academic argument.
Nute occupies an interesting place in the canon of Minnesota writers who dealt with the natural world. Her Harvard Ph.D., granted in 1921, sets her apart, although writers such as Sigurd Olson also had graduate degrees. Other women writers of her generation, such as Helen Hoover and Florence Page Jaques, were equally popular. But what makes Nute stand out was her ability to spend months digging up historical facts and combining them with observations of nature, while turning it all into readable prose.
Observations about the environment were woven throughout her histories. For example, from her book “The Voyageur’s Highway,” about the route from Rainy Lake to Lake Superior and the characters who traveled it: “The North Country is a siren. Who can resist her song of intricate and rich counterpoint — the soaring harmonies of bird melodies against the accompaniment of lapping waters, roaring cataracts, the soft, sad overtones of pine boughs. Those who have ever seen her in her beauty or listened to her vibrant melodies can never quite forget her nor lose the urge to return to her.”
She was born in New Hampshire in 1895; degrees from Smith College (bachelor’s, 1917) and Radcliffe (master’s, 1918) preceded her time at Harvard. Shortly after receiving her doctorate, she moved to Minnesota to take a job as curator of manuscripts at the Minnesota Historical Society, where she stayed for 36 years. While there, she pioneered the use of microfilm and photocopying to preserve manuscripts. In her spare time, she taught history at Hamline University, the University of Minnesota and Macalester College.
Her workday, she liked to say, ran from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In addition to “The Voyageur” (1931), “Caesars of the Wilderness” (1943) and “The Voyageur’s Highway” (1941), other well-known books include “Lake Superior” (1944), which The New Yorker called “readable and intelligent,” and “Rainy River Country” (1950), a companion volume to “The Voyageur’s Highway.”
“Her overriding loves were her research and nature,” her niece, Karla Eastling, of Atherton, Calif., told a writer after Nute died. “She was gardening at age 92. She loved to watch and study birds, and she had traveled the routes of the voyageurs by canoe and snowshoe.”
Scant attention was paid to the lives of the voyageurs, men who canoed and portaged the length of the continent, until Nute took up the task. Her writing provided a foundation for what became stereotypical impressions of what she called the “gay-hearted, irrepressible” crews. From “The Voyageur”: “This day being Christmas, our people have spent it as usual in drinking and fighting.”
A review in a Canadian publication said, “Miss Nute has performed one of those tasks that we all feel the need of, but that most of us hope will be done by someone else, because they involve a great deal of tedious research.”
One of her editors, M.M. Quaife, said of Nute’s work on Lake Superior: “She long ago was captivated by the charm and majesty of the great lake. Year after year she visited it on journeys of personal observation … The lake at last has found a historian capable of measuring up to the inherent majesty and grandeur of the subject.” After reading the book, if we still know the Sea of Galilee better than Lake Superior, it will not be Nute’s fault,” he wrote.
About the plant life on Isle Royale, she wrote: “The swamps [are] full of magnificent pitcher plants, sundews and orchids in bloom; the forest floor is dotted with flowers of many kinds, pyrola or shinleaf, the twinflower, the lovely little ‘chicken on the wing’ or fringed polygala, and the rattlesnake plantain …”
At 62 she joined the editorial board of Naturalist, the magazine of the Natural History Society of Minnesota. There she joined such authors as Jaques, Olson, Olaus Murie, and Frank and John Craighead as well as artists such as Frances Lee Jaques and Les Kouba. In the early and mid-1960s, Nute answered the call to support further protection of what became the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
At 83, she wrote a preface to a reprint edition of “Caesars of the Wilderness” in which she urged more research on French explorers in France’s archives and bemoaned that “college students are still told the old stories” of men who “opened the continent,” rather than stories of those who labored in obscurity.
She died May 4, 1990, in a nursing home in Menlo Park, Calif., near where she had spent the final 10 years of her life, gardening and watching the birds.
Mark Neuzil is chair of the Department of Emerging Media at the University of St. Thomas and the author of several books on the environment.