William Bartram (April 20, 1739 ? July 22, 1823)
More than two centuries have passed since the publication of William Bartram?s Travels in 1791. That his book remains in print would be notable enough. But Bartram?s work was visionary. It fostered the development of a truly American strain of natural history, ornithology, and botany. His writings transcended scientific boundaries to deeply influence Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other Romantic poets. And his text continues to ignite the imaginations of Southerners who love nature.
One would not expect a Pennsylvania native to be so closely identified with the South. Born in 1739, William was brought up in a family who valued science and the arts. William?s father John was a noted botanist with strong connections to the European scientific establishment. In his early teens, William acquired field experience on his father?s collecting expeditions in Pennsylvania and New York and worked alongside him in the family?s extensive botanical garden. In addition to his growing scientific expertise, by the time William was sixteen his natural history illustrations were being circulated in England.
His first exposure to Southern landscapes came in 1765-1766 when he accompanied his father on a botanical expedition traversing South Carolina and Georgia to the headwaters of Florida?s St. Johns River. William remained in Florida, where he failed in an attempt to start his own plantation and nearly lost his life in a shipwreck while working as a surveyor. He was no more successful in running a mercantile business following his return home.
It was his skills in botany and drawing that would attract the patron he needed to focus on what he did best. In the fall of 1772, Dr. John Fothergill, an English plant collector who knew Bartram?s talents well, commissioned him to return to the South to undertake a multi-year expedition, collecting new plants and seeds and drawing all types of natural history subjects. One month before his thirty-fourth birthday, William Bartram set off on the travels that would consume him for nearly four years. William Bartram returned to Philadelphia early in 1777 and would not stray far from home for the remaining forty-six years of his life. Resuming his place at his father?s gardens, he continued his botanical studies and wrote not just Travels but on a wide variety of topics. Bartram also served as mentor and adviser to a new generation of American scientists who would go on to make their mark in botany, ornithology, entomology, and other disciplines as well as scientific illustration.
Bartram?s ability to marry science with poetry ensured Travels a worldwide audience for the last 200 years. What is the source of its staying power? For those interested in natural history, the narrative of his 1773-1777 sojourn in the South marks a baseline for understanding the content of the Southern landscape at that time. Bartram?s journey was foremost a biological expedition, and thus Travels is replete with descriptions of the plants and animals he encountered as he made his way west from the Southeast Coast to the Mississippi River. However, this was not simply a listing of species because Bartram provided some of the first descriptions of what we would now call ?ecosystems? as well as notable details of animal and plant behavior including unprecedented insights into bird migration. Many of his finds were beautifully illustrated in Travels. Paramount among his talents was Bartram?s power of observation. Through Bartram?s words, modern readers can visualize the South of the 1770s, a landscape that resounded with vast roosts of passenger pigeons and the wingbeats of Carolina parakeets, where old-growth hardwoods and millions of acres of longleaf pine forests stood, and clear rivers ran free to the sea.
And yet the South was no unpeopled wilderness; it had been inhabited for at least 12,000 years. William Bartram was a cultural historian, too, carefully recording the way in which the Indians used the land along with the changes wrought by the arrival of the Spanish, French, and English settlers. He contrasts the sophistication of colonial society in the coastal region with the challenges of the frontier. Unlike many writers of his day, he describes the Indian culture with the same respect as he accords to that of the European settlers. Indeed he devotes the final section of Travels to outlining his observations of the civil, cultural, religious, and agricultural accomplishments of the Indian tribes he encountered during his journey.
For the reader in search of a great story, Bartram?s Travels does not disappoint. Being on the road with Bartram involves cliffhanger encounters with dreadful weather, charismatic predators, and even deadlier humans. But the thrills are leavened by singular images he paints of his journey. How can a reader not be charmed by the mental image of the Quaker William Bartram who, upon encountering a coachwhip snake slithering along a sandy path, decides to jog alongside it to accurately estimate its speed of travel? Or to be fascinated with the exotic as when Bartram presents fishhooks and sewing needles to the Indians who in return give him a fawnskin of honey? More importantly, these events take place not in some faraway locale like the Malay Archipelago, the Galapagos Islands or even Walden Pond, but in our homeplace, landscapes Southerners know and love so well.
The high quality of these aspects of Travels would be sufficient to secure Bartram?s place in American writing of the late colonial period, but he goes further. Throughout the book, Bartram reveals a deep spiritual connection to nature as a manifestation of divine Creation. He writes disapprovingly on the wanton killing of predators, wasteful slaughter of wildfowl, and destructive farming practices--the settlers? perception of a seemingly endless bounty clouding their appreciation of very real limits of the carrying capacity of the land. He rejects the elevation of humans over animals and plants in favor of seeing all life as a continuum, with humans an integral part of nature rather than apart from nature. Bartram?s holism lays the foundation for major themes of modern nature writing as well as environmental philosophy.
Critical Description of Work:
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Bartram's Travels sits on the cusp of two centuries of pillage, ranging from unsustainable logging and agriculture all the way to modern-day sprawl facilitated by laissez-faire land use, the automobile, and air conditioning. Were we to project similar rates of loss into the future, there would be very little of value left.
Knowing what has been lost, we might be tempted to wallow in nostalgia for the long-gone world Bartram describes. Instead, reading Travels heightens our commitment to saving what remains. It provides us with a starting point for reconstructing and reclaiming the natural heritage of the South. Across two centuries, William Bartram encourages us on our own quest, offering the great gift of his words, calling us go forward in joy, gratitude, and constant wonder.