A Woman Crosses Death Valley

First trip post-vaccine protection: Palm Springs in April. Can’t wait! The girlfriend and I will hit the town. The husband disdains hot places, although P.S. in spring, nestled in its desert valley, can be chilly at night and tepid during the day. And anyway, someone has to babysit the furbabies.

I love the desert.

This morning while I was browsing Instagram, I saw a post from Death Valley National Park about a woman named Edna Brush Perkins. Writing in the early twentieth century, she published two books about deserts; one about the Mohave and Death Valley, the other about the Sahara. She loved the desert, too. Ok, I thought. I’m in.

We called it “Need for a Vacation,” not knowing that every desire to withdraw from the crowd is a personal assertion and a protest against the struggle and worry, the bluff and banality and everlasting tail-chasing which goes on inside the walls of the stateliest statehouse and the two-room suite with bath. Our real craving was not for a play hour, but for the wild and lonely place and a different kind of freedom from that about which we had been preaching.”

Edna Brush Perkins, 1922

I’m adding her to my coterie of women who pushed societal boundaries, and who meet the major eligibility requirement of obscurity. Edna Brush struck a conventional road at first, born in Cleveland to her inventor father, responsible for the arc light and the first workable wind turbine, attending exclusive schools and marrying a doctor. But about this time, the suffragette movement was gaining steam, and Edna dove straight into the deep end.

According to the Death Valley N. P. website, Edna chaired the suffrage coalition of greater Cleveland, helped establish the Cleveland Women’s Club, and wrote liberally about the women’s right to vote until the 19th Amendment was passed. During this time, she had three children, summered with her family on Rhode Island beaches and studied art. The quote above, from her 1922 book “The White Heart of the Mohave”, gives a perfect description of her frame of mind when she and her close friend Charlotte Jordan decided to cross Death Valley.

A copy of this book is on order from AbeBooks, although it is also uncomfortably available as a free Google book and we know how difficult one of those is to navigate.

Edna’s next goal was to tackle the Saharan Desert, but for this blog today I was unable to find out if she was accompanied again by Charlotte on this journey. However she did write and publish another book, “A Red Carpet on the Sahara” three years after her Death Valley book.

I’ve now spent the entire afternoon trying to locate more information about Edna. She is quoted in PhD candidates dissertations. She is mentioned in her father’s biographical entries—the Brush family, who lived on Millionaire’s Row, Euclid Street, Cleveland, earned their opulence from an iron mill. Her paintings are referenced as part of the Cleveland Museum’s catalog. In the few archival notes from the Women’s City Club and the Suffrage League, on the Western Reserve Historical Society website, her name is not mentioned. She was fifty-years-old when she died.

So here is an image of one of her paintings. These, and two books still available in print, are all that survives besides her living descendants. I think her story would make a great novel.

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About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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A Woman Crosses Death Valley — 4 Comments

  1. So … a contemporary of Georgia O’Keeffe, also the lover of a desert. And close to Willa Cather’s contemporary too!

    So many women did so much more than women are ever credited as accomplishing, not only in that era, but all of them, yet were unnoticed and ignored.

  2. Thanks for this. I agree women generally have not had recognition as they should but regarding Edna Perkins and her classic work and book “White Heart of the Mojave”, for those of us who love the So Calif deserts, she has been recognized and considerably so. She has been included and praised in the excellent bibliography “Enduring Desert” by E.I. Edwards in 1969 and as Edwards states, “Dr. Margaret Long in her notable book on Death Valley, The Shadow of the Arrow, (1941) pays generous tribute to Mrs. Perkins”. For those of us who collect significant desert material Edna Perkins is not new but has long been highly regarded.

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