A Fond Farewell to Naturalist Esther Allen

OPEN: A central figure of western Pennyslvania's wildlife community has died. Esther Allen was 93. Even in the last several years, Allen led tours and taught classes about wildflowers. The Allegheny Front's Justin Hopper spent time with Allen two years ago.

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OPEN: It used to be said that there was a Fountain of Youth in Pittsburgh's North Park, although naturalist Esther Allen will tell you that it turned out to just be a leaky pipe. But that doesn't mean the outdoors can't keep you young. At 91 years old, Allen still leads tours and teaches classes about wildflowers. And, as the Allegheny Front's Justin Hopper found out, she's tough to keep up with.
HOPPER: Pushing her way through the woods at Pittsburgh's North Park, Esther Allen stops frequently to pull at a tree branch with the hook on her Hemlock walking stick, or to fumble with the plants at her feet. Whether it's the colorful blossom of a trout lily, or a fern's canoe-like leaves doesn't matter to Allen.

ALLEN: I've known people who'd have a list of things they wanted to see, and they'd see them once and check they'd check it off, they're no longer interested. I can look at 'em over and over again. And there's people who only want to look at orchids, and they won't look at anything else, it's just orchids. Well, orchids of course are fascinating, they're beautiful flowers. But they're no prettier than some of the very common things.

HOPPER: It's those "common things" - ferns, mushrooms, and above all wildflowers - that seem a little less common when Esther Allen excitedly points them out. And for more than four decades, that's what she's done. On Allen's nature hikes around Western Pennsylvania, she's shown hundreds of people the beauty of the region's wild flora. No matter what level of interest those people have shown.

ALLEN: In my wildflower class, I had a man who was just along to keep his wife company, and I told him, before the class is over, I'm gonna teach you to tell the difference between little blue flowers and little pink flowers.
HOPPER: DID YOU SUCCEED? Oh, yes ñ I'd say, what's this flower? And he'd say, Oh, that's the little blue flower.

HOPPER: At the other end of the gamut, Allen's hikes have included trips with a nature photographer to shoot wild ferns and flowers listed as extirpated in Pennsylvania. The photographs, sent to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, will hopefully help update that list. But since the early 1970s, most of Allen's hikes have been with one of the only nature clubs in the area that shares her universal approach to the outdoors: the Wissahickon Nature Club.

It's a general nature club - the only really general nature club in the whole Pittsburgh area, the others are specific as to botanical and different - birds and so on. This one has been in existence, oh, probably 60, 70 years. We try to have a hike about once a month that's led by the president Chuck Tague and I. And between the two of us, we try to cover just about everything.

HOPPER: It wasn't until the early 1960s that Esther's interest in the wildflowers she coaxed into her North Hills backyard turned into a more consuming passion. Helping her sister mentor girl scouts, Esther began identifying and memorizing the flora she found in her adopted Pittsburgh home. She scoured the fields by day, and crouched over books at night. But even if she started her book-learning a bit later in life, Esther Allen comes by her naturalist tendencies honestly. Though her childhood growing up on a Southern Ohio farm didn't include much time for wildflower walks.

ALLEN: There were 11 of us children, and we were on a large farm, and we were put in the fields to work from the time we were about six years old, and we'd work from seven o'clock in the morning 'til six at night, then we had chores to do after that. So we didn't really do much nature study, as it were. We just worked, and it wasn't 'til I was grown and had my own family that I started getting out and started to learn - puttin' names to things.

HOPPER: Life on the farm had a similar effect on Esther's mother, who walked out of Southern Ohio in 1955, and into the history books.

ALLEN: My mother - when she was 67, she'd already raised 11 children, had about 25 grandchildren by that time, but she was living alone and she liked to be active, and she got to thinking that she'd like to do something special - and she didn't have any money.

HOPPER: It was just seven years after the first thru-hiker walked the entire 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Esther's mother, Emma Gatewood, read about the Trail in National Geographic.

ALLEN: It said that the trail was nice, easy, well marked, well maintained trail, with shelters about every ten miles, easy dayís walk, and so on. So she thought, "Well that sounds like it might be fun." She read on and it said that no woman had done it, and that clinched it.

HOPPER: Grandma Gatewood, as Esther's mother came to be known on the Trail, became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She went on to do it twice more, while hiking the 1,500 mile Oregon Trail in between. Esther gives presentations to schools and nature clubs on Grandma Gatewood, who's become a legend as much for her tough amateurism as for being - literally - a trailblazer.

ALLEN: She didn't have any standard backpackers equipment - she used an old shower curtain for her ground cloth, and made herself a duffel bag from some old jeans, that she just carried over her shoulder. She had no tent, she had no pre-prepared food, she ate mostly peanuts and raisins I think.

HOPPER: Allen never had designs on following her mother's footsteps. After all, she'd have to stop every few yards to examine a flower or a fern. And she's just as happy in the backyard wildflower garden she's let flourish for forty years. The one the neighbors call "Fort Necessity", thanks to Allen's homemade fence. She opens the door, homemade out of fallen branches, and looks over the beautiful garden her rather lassez-faire approach has created.

NAT SOUND: Wildflower Garden sounds, fence opening

ALLEN: I've put a lot of this stuff in here, of course, but then I let it do its own thing. I don't do much in the way of controlling it.

HOPPER: For decades, Esther Allen worked in a bustling Downtown lawyer's office, in the blackening smog of 20th-century Pittsburgh. But when she got home, she had the sanctuary of her garden and her hikes. To keep things in balance, and to keep her young.

ALLEN: I found that it was very comforting when I'd be troubled about anything. I could go out, and I could come home from work sometimes, and I would just be so tense and so upset, and I would change my clothes and just, start out, and first I would just be very tense and very upset, and suddenly something would catch my interest and I'd, just in minutes, I would forget all about my problems and just be so relaxed.

HOPPER: It's kind of the opposite of a lawyer's office out here

ALLEN: Oh, it sure was.

HOPPER: For the Allegheny Front, this is Justin Hopper.