Something About Mary . . . DeDecker / by Wynne Benti

Almost two decades ago, Walt Wheelock, publisher at La Siesta Press, handed me a tattered olive-green box with the letters “MES” handprinted in black ink on one side. Inside were the original manuscript and photographs for the book, Mines of the Eastern Sierra, written by Mary DeDecker. He said, “you need to republish this book.”

Considered one of the top three women botanists in California, Mary DeDecker, who studied fine art at UCLA, was completely self-taught and recognized internationally for her expertise in botany. She founded the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and wrote Flora of the Eastern Mojave published by the California Native Plant Society.

On July 4, 1974, while exploring Eureka Valley, northwest of Death Valley, Mary discovered an entirely new genus and species of plant, Dedeckera eurekensis. The discovery of an entirely new genera of flowering plant after 1950 in the continental United States was, and still is, a rare event. When John Thomas Howell at the California Academy of Sciences and botanist James Reveal at the University of Maryland confirmed Mary DeDecker’s discovery, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, Reveal and Howell proposed the genus Dedeckera, and added the specific sobriquet eurekensis in honor of the plant’s Eureka Valley location and the discovery of a new genus and species.

Mary was a deeply concerned conservationist. She was honest, bluntly so at times. During the proposed expansion of Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert outside Barstow, Mary studied the native plants in and around the base. She reported the countryside devastated, the plants destroyed. Mary often opposed the BLM’s management style when it came to the California desert, so it was somewhat ironic when the BLM presented her with an enormous plaque for her work on native plants. Perhaps they were secretly thankful, like we all were, for the education Mary gave them.

When Walt Wheelock asked writer and desert journalist, L. Burr Belden, who could write a book about the old mining camps of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, Belden said, without hesitation, “Mary DeDecker!” Her book, Mines of the Eastern Sierra along with Belden’s Mines of Death Valley were combined into one book, Death Valley to Yosemite: Frontier Mining Camps and Ghost Towns, published by Spotted Dog Press.

Unlike so many residents of the Eastern Sierra who had the luxury of knowing and working with Mary, I was a latecomer, barely squeezing into that tiny window of precious time passing. Meeting and working with authors like Mary DeDecker, is one of the reasons I love being an independent book publisher. During that space in time, towards the end of a life that spanned a century and ended at the beginning of a millennium, I learned that Mary DeDecker was a woman of integrity and intelligence who had, among her many accomplishments, created her own amazing life. —©2014 Wynne Benti

©2014 Wynne Benti (Originally published at www.MadamPublisher.com, 12/13/14)