Robbie Hart, PhD, Ethnobotanist

St. Louis Character: Missouri Botanical Garden’s Robbie Hart finds his passion in the Himalayas

Posted in St. Louis Business Journal
Apr 15, 2021, 5:30am CDT

Robbie Hart in the Chinese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he’s director of the William L. Brown Center.

Robbie Hart’s work at the Missouri Botanical Garden has taken him across the globe.

Hart, an ethnobotanist, studies plants and their impact on human populations. His research specifically focuses on climate change in the Himalayas and how it affects indigenous people there. The research has brought him to places like China, Nepal and Bhutan.

Hart is director of the Botanical Garden’s William L. Brown Center, which studies how plants, humans and the environment interact and the preservation of plants. He’s received numerous accolades for his work, including being named to the Explorers Club 50 list, which highlights “trailblazing explorers, scientists, and activists.” Hart also has been named a National Geographic Explorer.

What brought you to St. Louis? I came here for the garden and came here as a graduate student. I ended up studying at University of Missouri-St. Louis, but I was actually attracted to it by a program that Dr. Jan Salick, who’s now an emeritus curator at the garden, was offering to look at biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood development in the eastern Himalayas. I was really attracted to this because I worked in the Himalayan region before. I knew I really wanted to work on this intersection of biodiversity, but also people’s livelihoods. Jan is really a pioneer in this field of ethnobotany that I knew I wanted to continue to be involved in, so it was a really exciting chance to get to work with her.

What does your work in the Himalayas entail? I was born and raised in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains in Washington state, so a lot of my research actually is in these similar temperate and mountain areas. I’m really interested in Alpine plants. These are plants that grow above the tree line, which is the elevation beyond which you don’t get trees anymore. Maybe some woody shrubs, but mostly these little herbaceous plants you can see growing in the Bavarian Garden in the Botanical Garden here. They’re really interesting plants. They’re things that remind me of my home area.

What makes these plants interesting to study? They’re plants that are immediately affected by climate change because they live in this very temperature-dependent system in a lot of places. If the general temperature condition changes, the situation for the plants can also change a lot. Most of my work then is looking at how these mountain plants respond to climate change. Also, because I’m an ethnobotanist, I’m trying to work into that how people’s traditions that use these plants have to respond in regards to this change.

It almost seems like this type of work is part scientist and part anthropologist. My undergraduate training was in linguistics, which wasn’t within an anthropology department, but is a closely allied field. I have colleagues in ethnobotany who are trained as anthropologists. We definitely engage in the same sort of methods. We’ll go out and we’ll do lots of interviews with people about what they use plants for or how they see the conservation value of a certain plant. We’ll be aggregating information from these interviews or we’ll be doing things like participatory methods — so working with people as they construct calendars of the seasons and talk about how climate change is shifting that ecological, seasonal calendar.

What do you like to do in your free time? I’ve just been so enchanted by St. Louis. I haven’t lived in a city before. As I said, I’m a mountain kid. It is great that we can get outside the city so quickly and we can get to a trailhead. I love the fact that I live right here in the little corner between the Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park. We can get out into a city green space in about 45 seconds. That could be walking in the garden or walking in the park here. In a normal year though, I would be taking much more advantage of the cultural amenities of St. Louis. We spend a lot of time in the art museum. As someone from a small town, I’m just wowed by the wonderful restaurants and the food scene in St. Louis, and the beer scene.

Do you have a favorite spot in the Botanical Garden? A really big part of my compensation package is being able to walk into the staff gate at the garden and walk through the Bavarian Garden. It’s one of our newer gardens, but it’s where a lot of Alpine plants are planted. Being able to stroll through a garden like the Japanese Garden at sunset is pretty special.

What’s something people may not know about you? My wife is a mystery novelist. So I am occasionally called in to find interesting botanical poison or something like that to be the botanical consultant for mystery novels.

More about Robbie Hart

Title: Director, William L. Brown Center; William L. Brown curator and associate scientist

Age: 37

Hometown: Port Angeles, Washington

Family: Hart and his wife, Elsa, live in the Shaw neighborhood

Education: Hart has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He graduated with a degree in linguistics from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He also holds an Associate of Arts degree from Peninsula College in Washington.

Nathan Rubbelke
St. Louis Business Journal

Watch NASA’s Perseverance Rover Land on Mars on Thursday

NASA’s live landing broadcast on Thursday begins at 2:15 p.m. EST (1915 GMT). You’ll be able to watch that live here and on’s homepage, courtesy of NASA, or directly from NASA’s YouTube channel.

Launched in July 2020, Perseverance is the latest in a series of missions focused on assessing how habitable Mars was in the ancient past. The mission represents a crucial pivot point in NASA’s Mars exploration because the rover will cache the most promising samples for a future Mars sample-return mission to Earth later this decade, if everything goes to schedule.

Another historic first for the Perseverance mission will be a helicopter, called Ingenuity, that will test flying on Mars for the first time. The hope is to use such small drones for scouting ahead of astronaut missions, or exploring dangerous regions, in future Mars missions.

Read on for our NASA TV webcast guide for NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover landing this week. NASA also has a Mars 2020 rover STEM toolkit available here for students and teachers.

New Member, Michael Taylor

The St. Louis Explorers Club welcomes new member Michael Taylor, FN 21.  The New York Times recently ran Taylor’s opinion piece about two cave conservation threats in Alabama and Tennessee. CLICK HERE TO READ A Ray of Hope in a Slimy Southern Cave


Chapter Connect – St. Louis

Our St. Louis Explorers Club was featured on Explorer Club International’s Chapter Connect on December 3, 2020! Please view the video below.

Featuring special guests:

– Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson FN’11
– Dr. Bruce Chalker FN’18
– Dr. Jeffrey Bonner FN’03
– Dr. Sherman Silber MN’98
– Lotsie Holton MN’97
– Aaron Addison FN’15
– Marguerite Garrick MN’03

Explorers Club: Scaling Everest won’t get you in

But the exclusive society, which has a St. Louis chapter, had been expanding to include the interested as well as the daring and the talented.

PubDate: Thursday, 5/26/2005
Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Edition: Five Star Late Lift
Section: West Post

Of the Post-Dispatch

At the annual meeting of the St. Louis chapter of the Explorers Club recently, Mike Bush stood respectfully against a wall while the club’s officers sat at a table conducting business.

“I’m not a full member,” he explained.

As Bush is the first to admit, his current endeavor — circling the eastern United States entirely by water — is the sort of unique, fun and expensive expedition that will not earn him membership in the 101-year-old club dedicated to fostering exploration and the hunger to explore.

“Not by itself, it won’t,” he said. “The club is not a travel club. I’d have to maybe do a study of pollution in the Mississippi. You have to make a significant scientific contribution to become a full member.”

So, instead, Bush, a Ladue businessman, belongs to the club as a “friend,” a lesser tier of membership that entitles him to pay dues and be a fascinated and appreciative audience for the talks given by those making breakthrough discoveries.

One of the most exclusive and for years one of the snootiest professional societies, the Explorers Club has been expanding its membership in recent years to include the interested as well as the daring and the talented. Formed originally by a group of Arctic explorers come in from the cold, the club for years had a membership as rarefied as the air on top of Everest: Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong have been national members.

But the club’s mission — fostering exploration and the instinct to explore — proved increasingly expensive to fund. And there was the embarrassment to the club of its all-male membership, excluding such celebrated field researchers as Mary Leakey and Jane Goodall. In this century, the conquest of nature occurs as often in the laboratories as on the summits.

So, charting a new course, the club dropped the bar on admitting women as members in 1981. Then it began awarding a version of membership to people who financed the advancement of science, as well as those who did the actual research.

Then the club started recruiting the young. With corporate memberships, student memberships, friends memberships, the club now has more tiers than Machu Picchu. There is a spot for almost anyone interested in furthering the cause. Full shoulder-rubbing privileges are included.

Still, the St. Louis chapter’s journey to grow and revitalize itself has been an uphill trudge at times. The just-replaced chairman of the chapter concedes as much.

“People in New York think this club is a big deal. People in St. Louis don’t know about it,” said Lotsie Hermann Holton, who served as the chapter’s chairperson until she turned over the gavel at the annual meeting at the Deer Creek Club in Ladue.

Formed in 1988, the St. Louis chapter has 38 national members and 11 friends. Holton is a full member of the Explorers Club. She has a strong exploratory record including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but she says that’s not what earned her the coveted status. She says she was made a member in recognition of her educational efforts — touring schools, showing slides , explaining environmental challenges and cultures. Advancing science through education now counts as a qualification for full membership.

Meanwhile, mere physical feats in high places no longer necessarily win admission to the club. “They turned down a guy who climbed Everest,” Holton said, awed at the level of achievement that was insufficient. “Just to say ‘I climbed Everest’ is not enough.”

Also in the St. Louis chapter as full members are Dr. Mabel Purkerson, kidney researcher and a emeritus faculty member of Washington University medical school, and Dr. Sherm Silber, the infertility specialist who accomplished the first reverse vasectomy and who is known affectionately to club associates as Sherm the Sperm.

Silber hosted a recent Explorers’ meeting at his house, speaking about reverse vasectomies for zoo animals belonging to endangered species.

At a dinner at Washington University’s Whittemore House late last month, Erik Lindbergh spoke about his grandfather’s flight to Paris and his own retracing of it.

And Dr. Peter Diamandis , founder of the XPrize and one of the most eloquent defenders of the Explorers Club, discussed the future of space travel at the annual meeting May 3 held at Deer Creek.

Still, the local chapter hasn’t fully escaped the modern image of the Explorers Club as exclusive on the one hand and decorative on the other, less about advancing science than about expensive dinners and self-congratulations among well-heeled travelers.

“I think we need to publish some profiles of our group so we can show the wide diversity,” Purkerson suggested. It was her first idea as chairman of the chapter. She replaced Holton.

Carolyn Lesser, author of non-fiction children’s books and an international fellow of the Explorers Club, got the secretary’s position.

“They probably think because I write, I can type,” she joked. “I want us to recruit from the academic and scientific community here. I hope to draw from those circles.”

Peter Diamandis arrived. When Diamandis needed money for the XPrize, members of the Explorers Club came through. But he sees the club’s role in modern society as serving a much larger purpose than financial underwriting.

“You know why we need this club?” he demanded. “Because we need a place where risk is allowed, where risk is embraced. We have grown into a risk-averse society. But great discoveries are always by people willing to take some personal risk. You know what a breakthrough is? A breakthrough is something that the day before was a crazy idea. Without risk, you can’t have breakthroughs. It’s critical for our society to shelter that little group that’s willing to risk the most fundamental they have. The Explorers Club does that.”

Commentary: An old debt, a new canoe

St. Louis Public Radio | By Robert W. Duffy
Published September 22, 2011 at 10:19 AM CDT

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2011 – For the past two years or so, I’ve heard my friends Rick and Lotsie Holton talk about a canoe they’d commissioned. Early on, when the subject of the canoe came up, I only half listened and assumed they were talking about some recreational or fishing-trip craft they were having built for their personal use. They are rather outdoorsy. I misjudged their commission, however: Their canoe and their intentions were considerably more serious.

On Saturday (Sept. 24), this truly spectacular canoe will be dedicated in ceremonies in Washington state. The vessel carries as freight two centuries-worth of unresolved conflict. Once the ceremonies are concluded and the canoe is given to its designated custodians, a delicate and fascinating form of settlement will be realized.

First, some background.

In the early 19th century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on their celebrated expedition, launched by President Thomas Jefferson, to explore the vast western geography acquired by the United States in its purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Its significance is immeasurable, and as we’ll see, it continues to resonate.

The prelude to the journey began in Pittsburgh, where the expedition’s keelboat was built. Capt. Clark brought the boat down the Ohio and up to a place now covered by the Mississippi’s waters but located somewhere near what is now Wood River. Clark, Lewis and their men spent the winter of 1803-04 in the camp pitched there, upstream from St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.

In May 1804, the actual voyage began when the explorers set out across the Mississippi, into the mouth of the Missouri and from there upstream from the St. Louis region to the western reaches. They proceeded to make a journey to the Pacific Ocean and back began, a voyage at once productive and arduous and vexed.

Fast forward to March 17, 1806, when the explorers were on their way back to St. Louis. On that day, Lewis and Clark made very interesting and quite strange entries in the journals kept by them on the Voyage of Discovery. The entries were made as the Corps of Discovery was finishing up a decidedly wretched winter at Fort Clatsop, located in the Oregon country near the mouth of the Columbia River. Lewis likened it to prison.

Lewis wrote, “…we yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one from them in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter.”

In the same vein, Clark wrote, “We yet want another canoe as the Clatsops will not sell us one, a proposition has been made by one of our interpts and sever[al] of the party to take one in lieu of 6 Elk which they stole from us this winter …”

Clearly, because of the near-identical nature and even the petulant language of the entries, Lewis and Clark had reached some accommodation with history and conscience and achieved a rationalization for the truth of what was, in fact, grand theft. The Clatsops, a relatively small band of Chinook Indians, had paid the explorers back for the purloined elk with three dogs, which would be consumed as food by the corpsmen.

For two centuries, the question of who cheated whom has lingered and simmered.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with historian James Ronda, part of the research conducted for the PBS documentary, “Lewis and Clark, The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.”

Ronda was asked what the theft actually meant.

“The stealing of that canoe is an extraordinary moment,” he said. “After all, the winter at Fort Clatsop was the winter of discontent, the winter of frustration and anxiety and eventually anger. They need to find a way home. They know that part of going home means having canoes. They weren’t able to buy as many canoes. They’d tried trading and they discovered that the lower Chinook and the Clatsop people were in fact better traders than Lewis and Clark were. That they’d been out-tradered. And now they decide that they’re going to steal a canoe and for the first time, the expedition really violates its own moral code. Violates Jefferson’s instructions. Again, its own moral code. And the explorers steal one of Coboways’ canoes. (Coboway was the Clatsop chief who’d become a friend of the explorers.)

“It is an extraordinary moment. They were frustrated and angry and fearful and eager to escape a place that that Meriwether Lewis saw as a prison. He said at one point that he was counting the hours ’til his escape from that damp mildewed prison. And stealing a canoe seemed a small price to pay to escape from the prison. It was an extraordinary moment.

“And I think it was also an emblematic moment. Here were the outsiders breaking their own rules. And then, going home. An emblematic moment because it pointed to the future. That there would be more thefts, thefts that could be easily justified as other strangers coming from the East would steal things. Land, resources, water and lives. And then justify that by saying that these people were not real people after all. That we could take from them whatever we needed for our own purposes.

“And so this canoe theft was in so many ways, not just an extraordinary moment, but it was also, I think, a moment that pointed to the future.”

In 2006 – far into the future – Meriwether Lewis was found guilty of theft in a mock trial put on by the Lewis & Clark Law School and the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Ore. The verdict was rendered by a jury. In 2007, a similar trial was conducted at the University of Missouri School of Law at Columbia. That trial ended in a hung jury. It had voted 7-5 to acquit.

Lotsie Holton (Carlota Clark Hermann Holton) has a special connection to all of this. She is a seventh generation descendent of Capt. Clark.

Ray Gardner has a special connection to all of this. He is tribal chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation and a descendent of the Native Americans from whom the canoe was stolen.

The Holtons and Ray Gardner met during the bicentennial of the Voyage of Discovery, and from that meeting grew the notion of a reparation to be made by the Clark family, and the commissioning of the canoe.

Rick Holton has dug deep into the lives and traditions of Native Americans and has been powerfully moved by the yield of his research. In 2010, in fact, he served as a volunteer consultant to the Beacon during our first Festival, when a group of us visited Sugar Loaf Mound on South Broadway. We decided to make it somewhat more than a sight-seeing trip.

Rick Holton introduced us to Eve Pearlmutter, who is of Native American ancestry. She officiated in a ceremony of cleansing when we visited Sugar Loaf. Pearlmutter has worked with the Holtons on the canoe project as it progressed, and has been an invaluable and passionate spokesperson for the ceremonial weekend.

As time went on, the Holtons became stunningly aware that stealing a canoe from native people had considerably more significance than having your SUV swiped. In conducting routine day-to-day business, canoes such as this one can be described as utilitarian, although extraordinarily so. But actually, such canoes are not only monumental in size but also accommodate a wealth of tradition and an enormous spiritual cargo.

It is no aluminum two-person summer-camp craft. Built by John McCallum, owner and boatwright of Applegate Boatworks, Veneta, Ore., it is 36 feet long and 6 half feet wide amidships. The design of the canoe is authentic and traditional, although contemporary materials such as plywood and fiberglass tape were used in its construction. For an informative and fascinating account of the construction, go to the, and click on The Canoe.

Beginning today (Thursday, Sept. 22) and continuing through Saturday, Clark family members and friends of Clarks, and Native American men and women whose stake in this is powerful and transcendent, will come together for tours of historic sites and, most powerfully, for ceremonies surrounding the canoe and the presentation of it from the Clark family to the Chinooks.

In the big scheme of things, redressing a 200-year-old wrong with a canoe, however magnificent, may seem a minuscule entry in the ever-growing list of man’s inhumanity to man.

But every now and then, such an entry acquires the prominence of the majuscule, and distinguished by its being written on the positive side of a line that separates generosity and sincerity from mendacity and arrogance.

Furthermore, as so often happens in ceremony, in which material objects are raised up as symbols of inward and spiritual grace, and rather than being evanescent the object is consecrated and vital. As such, it operates as would a pendulum, arching back in time as a means of touching some transgression, then proceeding forward, signaling movement ahead toward redemption.

The new canoe, built so sturdy and strong, and endowed by ceremony with a special hallows, can be and should be a symbol of a Greater Craftsmanship, in which something shiny and new is a means of repairing something haunted, and very, very broken.

The World Is Just Barely Enough

by Jeannette Cooperman
published in St. Louis Magazine
May 29, 2009

John Wall—cliff-scaler, car-racer, skydiver—is convinced we’re all extremophiles. (Perhaps he’s projecting.)

We’re in the dining room of the Racquet Club East, John Wall’s laptop open on the white linen tablecloth. At the top of the screen, a tiny skier pushes off, whooshing down a 60-degree slope in what’s almost a free-fall. It’s controlled, though—has to be; jagged rocks edge the narrow, twisting path of smooth white snow. Behind the skiier, a shadow follows, an exaggerated gray echo of the helicopter that hovers, ready to pick him up at the bottom. Ascent would be impossible.

Wall clicks to a second video, and I watch him jump from a plane, sense the two extra seconds he waits before pulling the parachute release. Then come a series of photographs: Wall at a North Pole research station. In a whiteout on the Matterhorn. Hanging on to the tail of an airplane as it flips in midair. Climbing over the bridge railing to jump into Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. Running off a cliff in Mexico.

The waiter returns to inquire what kind of salad dressing Mr. Wall would like.

“Oh, just something light,” he says. “Something that won’t kill me.”

Wall moved to St. Louis in 2000, stalled for six years (there was always another mountain to climb), then entered Washington University School of Law at the age of 31. By then he’d also written to Lotsie Hermann Holton, granddaughter of Gussie Busch, to inquire about joining the legendary Explorers Club.

Holton, then president of the club’s St. Louis chapter, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, summited Kala Patthar, tracked lowland gorillas in the Congo, and flown a Russian fighter jet to 80,000 feet, reaching Mach 2.6. “He found me on the Internet,” she recalls, and reads the letter aloud: “Dear Mrs. Holton, my name is John Wall… My credentials as an adventurer are somewhat more interesting…” She rattles off his list: ski-patrolled in New Zealand and Argentina, flew cargo into Angola, logged 3,000 sport parachute jumps and 6,000 flight miles (the numbers are higher now), filmed aerial stunts, taught wilderness medicine and rescue techniques in Alaska… “I would cherish the opportunity to meet you over lunch and discuss the possibilities, however remote,” she finishes. “He’s humble, too! Oh, and I met him, and his family knew everyone I know in Memphis, and he’s such a personable guy. So once I knew he was legit, I submitted him for membership.”

Members of the century-old club have been first to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point of the ocean, first to the surface of the moon. “Gretchen [Freund] is just off to Mongolia,” Holton remarks, “where horses are going extinct. She lives there with the reindeer people.”

No one outside the club is quite sure what the membership criteria are, and application is a grueling process: “It took one woman eight years to muster the courage and the materials to apply,” Holton confides, “and the last guy up Everest didn’t get in.”

Wall, however, did.

“We often meet here,” he tells me, leading the way across the club’s dark lobby to point out the table where Charles Lindbergh proposed his transatlantic flight. “It’s the perfect place for the Explorers: It has the breakaway rugged individualism and also a slight cultural elitism that goes along with it.”

“I was always drawn to folks who explored the wilderness,” Wall says. “The one I most remember, because it got me a trip to the psychiatrist when I was 10, was Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole.”

Amundsen prepared for the expedition by fasting, letting snowballs melt in his hands, and sleeping with his windows wide open in the dead of winter. Young John opened his windows, too—but he was in Memphis. So he clutched ice and stopped eating dinner, and his mother hauled him off to the doctor. Diagnosis: an overactive imagination.

His godfather fed that imagination. Lucius Burch, a lawyer who once represented Martin Luther King Jr., was also an amateur explorer who flew a single-engine plane to South America and searched underwater for a scuttled slave ship. “He used to take me traipsing around with him,” Wall says. “We searched the Mississippi River for pirate treasure, whether there was any or not. My title on the boat was the Grand Assistant Luggage Tender and Distinguished Neat Scotch Mixer.”

Burch’s lineage rivaled the Kennedys’, but his friend Jack Wall, John’s father, had grown up “in a one-room, dirt-floor house in Arkansas, with a very young mother and a drunk for a father. He was a World War II pilot, fearless,” Wall says. “But he was trapped by his Depression-era work ethic and his attempts to build his empire.”

Wall’s mother, on the other hand, was one of those wonderful anomalies: a well-bred young woman from an old Memphis family who explored Europe alone, worked as a canoe guide on the river, and was one of the first 100 women in the world to learn to fly a helicopter.

Studious and methodical, she was regularly exasperated by her firstborn, who is, as his younger brother, David, puts it, “the poster child for ADD. He was voted the most intelligent in his high-school class, but he graduated with a C average because he’d never turn his homework in. Not too long ago, one of his friends said John called him up and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing this weekend?’ The guy said, ‘I’m going to Europe with you, you jackass!’ John had forgotten all about it.

“He’s great to know at first,” David adds, “and then he’s a pain in the ass, and then you learn to appreciate him. He’s quirky as hell, but he’s the most charismatic person you’ll ever meet.”

As kids, inspired by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, the brothers built a primitive raft and wound up paddling alongside as it sank. But by high school, they were flying one of their dad’s planes (he owned aerospace companies) to Colorado for weekend ski trips. They’d fly back Monday at daybreak and shower in the school locker room.

Their father didn’t heap cautions on their heads; instead, he gave them dizzying freedom, the only counterweight his emphasis on responsibility and self-reliance. Again and again, he’d warn them that “nothing is more pathetic than self-pity.”

And so, at 17, Wall took his multiple-engine licensing exam in his old man’s King Air. He managed the huge craft fine, but on his return flight, the electrical system failed. No landing gear descended. The radio went dead. He kept circling the tower, trying to hand-crank the landing gear down. Finally, he grabbed the clunky, early-model mobile phone and called the operator to get the tower’s land line. The air-traffic controller talked him down (it took 300 cranks; the manual had said 50). Emergency vehicles were waiting on the airstrip, and someone had called Wall’s father at his office.

“He didn’t come,” Wall says, his expression hard to read. “He told them, ‘John will know how to handle it.’”

One of his photos is of a cliff in Mexico, the treetops so far below, they photograph as a green mist. That’s all you see, rock and mist—unless you pull out a magnifying glass and find the speck of orange clinging to the side of the cliff, halfway down. Wall.

There are dares, guns, hunting trophies, scars he won’t discuss—yet what he seeks from his adventures is not machismo. It’s the sensation of being very small, dwarfed by nature’s immensity. Skydiving, for example, he describes as “a very relaxed feeling of being in control but not being in control at the same time. There are things that are bigger than me that I can’t overcome and things inside me that want to be bigger than me—laziness, distraction—that I can overcome.”

Isn’t it perhaps a bit foolhardy, all that risk?

“I always go into things as prepared as possible. If I am responsible for people, I am extraordinarily cautious. I’ve never had anybody seriously hurt in any of the trips I’ve led. When it’s just me and a couple buddies, we will often take greater risk—but it’s always measured.”

Might he have a bit of a death wish? “It’s a life wish,” he corrects. “If we are not growing and expanding, our humanity has died. I often think that if an alien were looking down, humans would resemble ants; our coming and going has become so repetitive.”

But repetition can be soothing…and safe.

“The only thing I get about that,” he tells me, “is the value of the human relationships you form in that sort of existence. Or the learning that can be done; an academic is no less an adventurer than Sir Edmund Hillary.” He shakes his head. “But the being content with what you are and being so terrified of discomfort—that, I don’t get.”

A few years ago, he decided he’d grown too comfortable always being the expert. “So I tried to find something I had very little interest in and would be very bad at doing: golf.” And how did he do? “Horribly,” he says happily. “I’m a miserable golfer. Every time I went, I was the worst in the group. I got myself comfortable with not being in charge.”

And does he still play?

“No. It’s too slow.”

Arctic sunrises, whitewater froth—as he clicks through photos, I murmur, “So beautiful… That light!… Amazing!” I sound like a bad and possibly drunk poet. Wall just shrugs. “I’m not one to sit around and fawn over sunsets,” he says. “Nature’s something to be lived in and used.”

So maybe—I need a theory here—he’s an adrenaline junkie? “I think that’s cheapening it,” he says slowly. “For the most part, people who place themselves in these situations are those who are the best equipped for self-denial and the least affected by addiction. For all the endorphins you get at the top of a summit, there are hours and hours of misery. For that brief moment of endorphins, I wouldn’t do it. It’s actually the misery that draws me to it.”

His personality’s a tug of extremes, held in careful check. He’ll freeze or roast for days, happily doing without plumbing or a pillow, yet he orders his shaving cream from England. “I’m very sensitive to the need for sensory comfort,” he admits. “The thing I hate—more than anything else in the world, other than being told what to do—is need. I try to eliminate every sense of need from my life, turn every need into a want so I can take it or leave it.”

His grin’s reluctant, conspiratorial. “I’m not an ascetic. I just require myself to have the abilityto be one.”

Wall’s eyes, a clear sea green edged darker green, glow when he talks about carrying a stretcher out of Death Canyon in Wyoming. “There’s nothing more exciting than battling the elements and battling death at the same time,” he says. Yet he complains bitterly about the people in Hurricane Katrina who “didn’t do anything to help themselves, just stood and waited for government to come and protect them.

“We as a society overvalue human life,” he says abruptly. “The most disgusting thing I’ve ever read is the lyrics to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ where there’s nothing to live or die for, nothing bigger than you.”

He’s an elitist but not a snob; his yardsticks are strength and courage, not money or blood. “I’ve been on a ski trip with an Italian count and a couch-surfing ski instructor, and I have never recognized those things as differentiating,” he remarks. And yet he finds the idea of equality, the idea of a sort of sameness or necessary fairness, “unpleasant, because it takes away the chance to succeed or fail.

“It’s easy for me to say that, being born into the degree of privilege I was born into,” he concedes. “But I’m espousing my father’s philosophy, and he grew up in very mean circumstances.”

“Doesn’t inequity bother you?” I ask, thinking of his Porsche and his planes, and how different his life would be if he’d been born in Somalia, maybe to an HIV-positive mother, in a village hard hit by civil war.

“Equity bothers me. We’re not supposed to be equal. Can you imagine how reprehensibly dull things would be if everyone had an equal measure of talent and ability?” He looks into the distance. “What I like is the greatest amount of individual choice and individual responsibility. People need to be able to fail and suffer consequences, otherwise there’s no drive to push past it.”

So would he take the ultimate risk, give up his wealth and live in poverty? “Absolutely not. Because that eliminates choice.”

In this shot, the sky’s a Disney blue, and Wall is floating, his body horizontal, his left hand holding a novice jumper steady, his right curled into a fist against the rush of air.

“It feels like swimming,” he says. “And then you’re falling at about 120  miles an hour, and the first jumps go by like that [he snaps his fingers], because your senses are so overwhelmed. There’s nothing in the world that feels like it. Now, after 3,000 jumps, I feel like I’m hanging up there all day. But the first time, I was acutely alert; I think I probably left fingernail marks down the side of the plane.”

Cute but not true, I decide. Then I remember that he was terrified of heights as a boy—“afraid of climbing trees,” his brother snorts.

Wall nods. “Every time I would feel that fear welling up,” he says, “I would cram myself into it as full force as I possibly could. Now, I couldn’t tell you if the sensation I get is a fear or a lust.”

Maybe he did leave those fingernail marks.

Wall and two friends were climbing the Matterhorn, trying to be the first that year to reach the summit, when a storm blew up without warning and whited out everything around them. The wind was about 75 knots (86.4 mph), Wall says, and they made a sort of last-statement video diary: “We’re headed out, and we’re not sure where we’re going.” They finally backed off; the summit wasn’t reached for several more weeks.

“It’s usually the disastrous trips that are the most memorable,” he says now. “There have been plenty of easy summits, bluebird ski trips when the conditions are perfect, skies are blue, the fun is memorable, and that’s about it.”

Wall likes adversity. He thinks we need it. “There are creatures in nature called extremophiles that are biologically designed to thrive in difficult conditions,” he says, “and they languish in more moderate conditions. I think the human species is extremophile. We’re like the wild turkey: Ben Franklin wanted it to be the national bird, because it’s very intelligent and very tough and agile. However, when it’s domesticated, it becomes inept. A domesticated turkey will eat itself to death or drown in heavy rains by looking up.

“If you look at what we call our Great Generation,” he continues, “it was the generation that faced the most adversity. People are more neighborly in times of adversity; they are happier. Their choices are reduced; they are made more pertinent and more logical. When there is no adversity, we lose the ability to grow.”

I am beginning to have dark thoughts about this man’s guts and gusto. With a delicate shudder of schadenfreude, I imagine him clinically depressed, unable to trade his bathrobe for an anorak.

“Nah,” his brother says. “You’ll never see him upset for more than five minutes. Even when things are bad, he finds something funny about it. He’ll say, ‘I don’t want to live in a world where things go my way all the time; what’s fun about that?’”

But what if the serotonin fails him someday? What if something so awful happens that it zaps his will to explore?

“Describe the loss that would occur,” Wall says, his voice low but the challenge unmistakable. “Because I’ve lost 25-plus friends or family members to death.”


Wall has no regrets, but he has had a couple of “Shit, I shouldn’t have done this” moments. Like the time Hurricane Ivan whipped North Carolina’s Nantahala River, normally a docile Class II river, into a monstrous fury, swollen 23 feet above flood stage, and there was Wall, kayaking with two buddies, Eric Snyder and Dave Pederson, whom he met when he moved to St. Louis.

“The minute I moved from the still water into the current and felt its speed and warmth—it’s normally very cold and clear, and it was warm and muddy brown, so I knew there was a whole lot of extra water, and it was moving at a high speed—I knew we had made a very big mistake,” he says. “But there was no place to exit. I looked over at Eric and kind of grinned and said, ‘This was a terrible idea.’ He called me an unpleasant name, and Dave just sort of grinned and said, ‘Well, at least we’re having fun.’”

They made it, swept alongside roofs and cars and dead cows—and wound up rescuing the only other person fool enough to be out there, the owner of a rafting company who’d lived there 15 years and never seen the water anywhere near that high. “We peeled ourselves out of the water and then saw him, wedged into the opposite bank. He had a broken femur, and he was hypothermic, pretty much out,” Wall says. “We ended up backboarding him on a boat, using it as a long body splint.”

He pauses.

“It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.”

Wall still can’t quite believe Snyder got married. “John’s got a new girlfriend all the time,” Wall’s brother sighs. “Sometimes he’s got one driving in someplace and another one driving out. He’s always on the lookout for something exciting, and they can’t keep up with him.”

They try, though; can’t help it. He’s handsome, and his gallantry’s not overdone or flourishy, but he’s always paying attention. “He gets out of the car and helps little old ladies—it’s almost embarrassing,” his brother says.

Wall insists he’s a romantic at heart—and says he probably romanticizes adventure, too. “There’s not much utility in what I do—unless you add the utility of joy, which I think is the ultimate utility. Other, perhaps, than honor.”

His Southern disingenuousness lets him say things like “I just love little critters” with a straight face. Still, he’s blunt. Asked how women react to him, he groans. “Do we have to get into that?” Long silence. “I tend to be appreciated in the immediate and loathed in the long term.” A moment of silence. “You can call it being set-in-your-ways or selfish,” he says finally, “but I’ve never been likely to put off the pursuits of the lifestyle I like to lead for the sake of any sort of relationship.”

(A month later, he makes sure to email a caveat: “Recently began seeing a very remarkable girl—don’t want to elaborate too much yet, but it may prove to be significant in one way or another.”)

Wall’s brother “got a wild hair” and joined the Army Special Forces. “George Bush used to go over and hang out with them,” Wall says, pointing to a photo of his brother with the recent president. “And here’s a buddy of mine hitting a golf ball off a chunk of Saddam’s grass.”

Wall took the shot; he spent last summer in Iraq with a private military company. “I can’t talk a lot about Iraq,” he says, and clicks to the next photo: explorer Steve Fossett’s memorial service. Wall flew out to New Mexico to help look for him.

Next to all this, you’d think law school would have proven too tame. Or impossible, given his ADD. “Law I find very interesting, and the things I don’t, I avoid,” he explains. “One thing I like about intensity is, it commands focus. When I’m bored, my brain almost itches.”

His classmate Daniel Tierney remembers the first day of law school: “We go around introducing ourselves, and John gets up, with this Southern drawl that’s right out of a John Grisham novel, and says he’s been living in Alaska for the past 10 years and skydiving and flying planes in the bush. He drives sexy cars, he jumps out of airplanes. I’ll say I might visit my parents in Wisconsin, if we have a long weekend, and John’s flying to Monte Carlo to drive race cars.”

Tierney’s politics are about 179 degrees from Wall’s: “His is not a code everyone can live by. It’s more of an ideal. He expresses a lot of frustration with what he deems a welfare state; it’s hard for him dealing with people who have received things they don’t deserve. If there’s one argument you could make against him, it’s that his upbringing…well, that he’s a bit out of touch.

“But it’s hard,” Tierney adds quickly, “to argue with how the man has lived his life. He doesn’t often say things and not back them up. We were volunteering at a group home for troubled students, the kids were rowdy and throwing books, and I don’t want to say I was scared, but… I was kind of scared. The first thing John does is lift up his shirt and show them this long scar up the side of his body.” Tierney pauses. “He acknowledges that he’s lived a fairly charmed life. But he still felt obligated to go out and make something of himself. If he had this ‘Let them eat cake’ attitude and didn’t have the scars…”

Tierney’s prepared to admit Wall’s extreme: “He’s the only person I know who has his blood type tattooed on his arm and tattoos on his feet indicating that he shouldn’t be resuscitated. He’s nuts. But he’s not a caricature. He’s a real person with real beliefs.”

John Kershman, an attorney who coaches Wash. U.’s national moot court team, was struck by Wall’s ease in difficult team situations, his courtesy and lack of ego. Asked to name one of Wall’s flaws, Kershman hesitates, then says, “Maybe he speaks his mind more than people are prepared to deal with it.”

That might be an understatement.

“I’m constantly being punched in the ribs by friends and told to tune up my appropriateness meter,” Wall says with a grin. “Politically, I’m to the right of Genghis Khan, and I’ll often say things that, especially at Wash. U., are extraordinarily unpopular.” He regularly dismisses suggestions that he enter politics: “I’m too irascible.”

Instead, he graduated this May and went to work for his friend Doug Morriss’ private-equity firm, tickled by the idea of flying around in the company helicopter. Yet he’s also helping with the defense of Johnny Briscoe, who was unjustly imprisoned for 23 years. “Even though he’s been grievously wronged, there’s no sense of entitlement on his part, and that makes me very excited to help fight for him,” Wall says. Oh, and in his spare time? He’s launching an archaeological expedition to the Himalayas to search for Allied aircraft missing since World War II.

This last photo looks like bad irony: blue sky and fluffy clouds and bright-colored jackets, happy as a children’s book, in a memorial jump for dead skydivers.

“A plane crash down in Sullivan, Mo., killed a bunch of my friends,” Wall says. “I ended up speaking at five funerals in four days. There was an engine failure, just very bad circumstances all at once. Had I not been out of town mountain climbing, I probably would have been with them.”

He says it calmly, no drama. Later, asked if he thinks he’ll fear death when he gets old, he says, “I fear getting older. I don’t fear death. I firmly believe that if I know it’s coming, I’ll be excited.” Dopamine, I remind myself. I’ve just read a theory—Wall would hate it—that explorer types are bold because there’s an abundance of dopamine flooding their neural circuitry, propelling them into the unknown.

He couldn’t care less. “Death’s something no one has ever explored and told about, except the occasional loonies you hear on the Discovery Channel,” he says eagerly. “So if I have the cognitive ability, I’ll meet it with a grin.” I must look dubious. “My primary sorrow will be the pain it will cause my loved ones,” he adds hastily, “and the fact that I enjoy things so much here. But if the enjoyment is what puts me in that situation?”

He shrugs. “That’s the cost of the ticket.”


7 Adventure Books to Read Now

I hope you are all well and coping with our confinement. I’m so glad St. Louis County has reopened most of our parks, especially on such a beautiful day!

“The thing about books is they let you travel without moving your feet” Jhumpa Lahiri. 

Lotsie suggests this list of adventure books to read in our plentiful spare time, and I’ll add “High In The Thin Cold Air” by Heinrich Harrer, and Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat.  What are your favorite adventure books?

Marguerite Garrick
TEC Chapter Chair
St. Louis Chapter

Whether in the mountains of Nepal, the wilds of Alaska, the uncharted terrain of Antarctica, or the remote jungles of Borneo, let your spirit of adventure soar with every page of these true and inspiring stories. Our staff handpicked seven of our favorites that ignite our love for exploration. This is the perfect time to get your adventure fix while also supporting independent bookstores.

We may be apart, but we’re all in this together. We hope you and your loved ones continue to be healthy and ready for adventure when it is safe to do so.



Jim Fowler Memorial Service

The Explorers Club will hold a special memorial service to honor and celebrate the life of Jim Fowler MED’66 at Club Headquarters on Friday, May 31st. The Club has a long-standing tradition of honoring those members who have gone on to higher exploration. Before a roaring fire, in the historic Clark Room, Members and guests will toast Jim with a glass of whiskey (or another libation) and toss their glass into the open fire.

Jim Fowler, one of the world’s best-known naturalists, presented information about wildlife and wilderness to the American public on television for more than 50 years. He first served with Marlin Perkins as co-host and later became host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and also hosted Mutual of Omaha’s Spirit of Adventure. Those programs received many awards including four Emmys and an endorsement by the National PTA for family viewing. In addition to ongoing appearances on many network talk shows, Fowler was the wildlife correspondent for NBC’s Today Show and a regular on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Fowler graduated with degrees in zoology and geology from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and is internationally recognized as an authority on predatory birds. He pursued a graduate degree by conducting the first studies of the world’s largest eagle, the harpy, in the wilds of the Amazon, and later tracked the movements of the Andean condor in Peru. His studies were interrupted by a career of travel and television.

He worked with many wildlife and conservation projects throughout the world. In 1994 he received the prestigious Explorers Club Medal, the Club’s highest honor, and later served variously as the Club’s Honorary Chair, Honorary President, as well as an Honorary Director. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa from Earlham College and the 2003 Lindbergh Award, which recognizes individuals for significant contributions toward the balance of technology and nature. In 2012, he received the National Conservation Achievement Award in Education from the National Wildlife Federation.

Jim is survived by his wife Betsey, his children Mark & Carrie, and two grandchildren.

Date: Friday, May 31

Time: 6:00 pm Check-in, 7:00 pm Service, Reception to Follow

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

This memorial is free of charge, and open to Members and their guests. To secure a place at the memorial, please call us at 212.628.8383 or email us at

Marguerite Perkins Garrick Remembers Jim Fowler

I was so sorry to learn dear Jim was gone, but glad he went peacefully, surrounded by his beloved family.

I remember vividly the first time I met him. I was nine years old and we were on the sidewalk outside our apartment building in Chicago. Wild Kingdom was taking shape and Jim had been hired as my dad’s cohost. He was so tall and good looking with that marvelous deep, rich voice that I’ll always remember it.

I’ve so many happy memories of him, like Jim diving into our backyard pool for a swim before dinner on our porch in Clayton. He must have been in town doing voice over work after they moved the set to a studio in St. Louis; he came to dinner a lot during those years; my parents were also so fond of him.

And I remember he took us all one day outside St. Louis to an open field where he flew his birds. I was so impressed by the trust he’d built with these beautiful raptors; It was magical to 12 year old me.

Then as the years passed I’d see him at special events like those Mutual of Omaha gatherings where he and my dad posed for a thousand photos with salesmen. And of course I’d see him and often his family at ECADs, but he was so popular and in demand, there was never time for more than a quick hug.

When I lived in D. C. I was working for Friends of The National Zoo when the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day was approaching.

I asked Jim to come down to do live feeds to the Today Show in front of the Pandas, and he said he’d love to. I cherish that memory of Jim being the perfect, charming spokesman for endangered species with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing munching bamboo in the background.

One of the last times my mother Carol went out was to go to the Zoo ( St. Louis Zoo, of course ) to receive a lifetime achievement award. Jim was there to present it to her and then he spoke. He made her so happy that night by refreshing her fading memory with so many good ones, and making her laugh, and laugh.  I’ll never stop being grateful.

I’m trying to recall the last time I saw him to really talk to and I think it was at a dinner Benjamin Hulsey gave during an ECAD weekend several years ago at The Racquet Club in NYC. I was seated with him and we had a great time reminiscing and talking about conservation issues. He talked a lot about his many projects, and efforts to reach the hearts and minds of people to convince them wildlife and habitat preservation were vital. How lucky I was to have that time with him.

He was such a strong voice for wild animal’s survival his whole life, impacting millions of people.

My deepest sympathy to Betsy, Carrie, and Mark. It’s the end of an era, and we’ve all lost one of our most respected and beloved advocates for wildlife conservation, and a really stellar human being.

With love,


Marguerite Perkins Garrick

Contact Us

The Explorers Club Saint Louis
c/o Cynthia Peters
8423 Kingsbury Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105