Remembering Esther Allen (1918-2011)

Today, Abby forwarded me an email she just got about a tribute to Esther Allen, to be held this Thursday (December 1) at the Wissahickon Nature Club. Esther died in June at the age of 93. I only met her once: back in April, Abby and I went on a Raccoon Creek State Park wildflower walk on a beautifully clear spring day. But even just being around her for a couple of hours, I found her an inspiration!

Esther Allen examining trillium

I didn’t even know who she was that April morning. I looked her up the day after the walk. What was special about her?

The wildflower walk

When Abby and I showed up for the wildflower walk, it turned out that there were a lot more people present than expected, so we split up into two groups. One of the groups sort of formed when someone said, “Let’s follow Esther!” For a while, I didn’t know who was being referred to.

Then it became clear that our group was going very slowly, following an old woman (whose age was not obvious to me). We stopped frequently while she pointed out and identified wildflowers and often told stories about the first time she had seen something. What struck me about Esther was how curious and excited she was about everything we saw, treating everything as a unique individual specimen rather than “oh, that’s an X”. In the photo at the top of this blog post, she spent quite a bit of time puzzling over the trillium we saw, and wondering whether it was a hybrid, because of its strange color.

Esther Allen on trail

We saw quite a few wildflowers, as well as interesting fungi.

Here’s a cute closeup of a phlox I saw:

Closeup of phlox

More on Esther

I enjoyed being in the presence of Esther’s calm, alert, and upbeat demeanor. She seemed to be someone who knew how to find peace and beauty in the moment while in nature.

Also, I was impressed by how she had no qualms about managing, however slowly, down some of the steeper, rockier sections of the trails we were on, and going through some muddy spots also.

I simply had never met someone so old, so I consciously made a mental note that at 90, I’d like to be out there too, even if I have to use a cane. I don’t ever want to be one of those people who end up being lonely or bitter, sitting around watching TV while waiting to die.


As Abby and I eventually left the group to return to our car, hiking much more quickly on our own along some other trails, we encountered a sign indicating the Esther Allen Trail, recently renamed from its old name. I was stunned. It felt really weird to just have been hiking with someone and then being on “her” trail. After returning home, I looked her up on the Web, because clearly we must have been in the presence of someone special.

But even without knowing her entire history of service as a naturalist, and her famous mother, Grandma Gatewood, I knew all along that I was in the presence of a kind and strong human spirit. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to walk and look at wildflowers with her.

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