Jones Brings Story of Braun Sisters to Life

Published on March 09, 2017

In the 1930s, what began as a botanical research trip propelled two scientist sisters into the fight to save the virgin forest of eastern Kentucky, and forever changed the history of ecological science and modern environmental conservation.

Drawing on both storytelling and theatrical traditions, Eastern Kentucky University faculty member Dr. Alice Jones has spent the past year researching Lucy and Annette Braun, and writing a one-woman play based on their lives. Jones, a lifelong thespian and active performer in Richmond and Lexington theater productions for many years, will present the inaugural performance of “Sisters of the Forest” on Wednesday, April 5, at 7 p.m. in EKU’s Pearl Buchanan Theatre. The one-act play, presented in association with Rose Barn Theatre and Costume Possum Productions, is free and open to the public, and Jones will be available afterward for conversation.

Jones, an environmental geographer who has studied the relationship between land use and water quality in eastern Kentucky for nearly 20 years, credits Bill Martin, retired director of EKU’s Division of Natural Areas, for stoking her interest in the Braun sisters. “He tells stories about the sisters and Lucy’s ‘Mother Forest’ theory of the mixed mesophytic forest with his own well-worn copy of ‘Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America’ in his hands, which was the principal text of his grad school years,” Jones recounted. “The more time I spent in eastern Kentucky doing my own research, and the more times I heard Bill talk about the Doctors Braun and their lasting impact on ecological science and conservation, the more I wanted to tell the story of these two women scientists whose names, I think, should be as familiar as Rachel Carson and John Muir.”

Jones’ play documents how the sisters’ “life-changing” trip in 1934 to Lynn Fork in Perry County shaped “both the trajectory of their ground-breaking research in ecological science and forestry, and their pioneering roles in the history of modern environmental conservation and activism.”

Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, the mountain residents granted the spinster sisters access to their homesteads and forests in and around Pine Mountain and Black Mountain to conduct research that formed the basis of Lucy’s “Deciduous Forests,” the 1950 book of such scientific importance that it has never been out of print. “What the sisters learned in their fight to save the Lynn Fork forest also shaped the early conservation movement, both in effective use of science in community and political organizing and the development of land trusts as a tool of environmental preservation.”

“Deciduous Forests” is based on a total of more than 25 years of fieldwork, beginning in about 1923, with visits to more than 300 forest stands in 17 states, covering 65,000 miles and documenting more than 30,000 trees throughout eastern North America. “What makes that even more impressive is that the pair didn’t even learn how to drive until 1931 – when Lucy was 32 and Annette was 37,” Jones exclaimed. “They were quite the intrepid little badasses – driving their own car (at one time, a Model A Ford) off to remote locations all over North America and hiking up and down remote forests on their own at a time when women didn’t do such things.”

The more Jones researched the sisters’ lives, the better she came to appreciate their differences – Lucy was “bossy” and Annette introspective and quieter – but also their “deep, intertwined” relationship and “how their personalities and interests played off of each other. Now that I’ve ‘lived’ with both of them for a while, I think what I most identify with is how their natural curiosity and life of the mind interwove across both their personal and professional lives: their love of nature, their love of travel and even their love of art. Annette was an accomplished botanical artist, and Lucy decorated her field gear with hand-painted sunflowers.”

After watching David Hurt present a Chautauqua performance on the life of Lilley Cornett (namesake of EKU-owned-and-managed Lilley Cornett Woods in Letcher County) at Pine Mountain Settlement School, Jones began to think more seriously about her research and the possibility of writing a play, which she first envisioned as a Chautauqua-style performance about only Lucy.

In Spring 2016, she received a professional development award from University Programs at EKU and arranged to live for a month at the Ledford/Craig House adjacent to the Woods, hiking the old growth forest every morning and enjoying “conversations” with the sisters. Jones also took several research trips to Cincinnati, where the sisters lived and worked. She visited the Edge of Appalachia forest preserve in eastern Ohio, where the sisters did much of their fieldwork, and even met with Devere Burt, retired director of Cincinnati’s Natural History Museum, who bought the sisters’ house from Annette in the mid 1970s and still resides there.

Lucy Braun photoJones will begin her performance as herself, telling the story of the two sisters. Then, complete with appropriate fashions – jodhpurs adapted from a pair of thrift-store slacks – and simple set, she will assume the characters of the sisters. “I try to be consistent in my body language, mannerisms, vocal characteristics and even where I am physically positioned on the stage to help the audience keep the three characters – Lucy, Annette and me as the narrator – separate and distinct. But I think the fact that I play both of the sisters helps reinforce the interconnectedness of their relationship. They were at the same time two separate and different people and also ‘two yolks in the same egg,’ almost inseparable for more than 80 years.”

Noting that most of the existing research centers on Lucy, Jones hopes her program brings Annette “out of the shadows somewhat. Lucy would not have been able to do what she did without Annette. And Annette was not just Lucy’s ‘second.’ She had her own pursuits, scholarly work and identity. And it was Annette, not Lucy, who was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati.”

A second performance of the play is scheduled at the University of Cincinnati on April 11, as well as a performance at the Pine Mountain Settlement School as part of the school’s Lucy Braun Weekend June 9-11.

Jones’ play comes at a time of renewed interest in the sisters. A Cincinnati filmmaker, Meg Hanrahan, is working on a documentary about Lucy Braun; the Cincinnati Natural History Museum plans to feature the Brauns’ collections when it opens its remodeled archives section in early 2018; and Elissa Yancey at the University of Cincinnati is looking to write a book about the sisters.

“As a result,” Jones said, “there are talks about featuring both Meg’s documentary and my play at the museum, as well as taking them to Cincinnati area schools.”

Jones also hopes to present her play at schools and other venues throughout eastern Kentucky.

“There are separate histories that I hope to shed light on: the history of women in science, the history of ecological science, and the uniqueness of the mixed mesophytic forest ecosystem of eastern Kentucky.”

Inset photo: Lucy Braun