The most famous tree guy

that no one now has ever heard of is William Bartram. Maybe you are the exception.

If you visit Bartram’s Garden outside Philadelphia you will find the oldest ginkgo tree in North America, grown from a seedling that was imported to Bartram in 1785  as a gift from noted plant collector William Hamilton of The Woodlands, in England. The Garden is now a 50-acre botanical garden on the banks of the Schuykill River, but it was once the home of naturalist and wilderness champion William Bartram.

Bartram lived out his years in the house where he was born, built by his father John and added onto over the years. John before him was a well-known botanist, in 1765 designated the “Royal Botanist” by King George III, which meant that he shipped exotic native American  seeds and plant samples across the Atlantic to not only his majesty but grateful wealthy gentlemen for their estates.

William Bartram wasn’t always a success. Though his artistic skills impressed people at an early age, he first embarked on a career as a merchant in Philadelphia and a rice farmer in the Carolinas before his father welcomed him into his botanist world in his mid-30s. He is most famous for a four- (or five-? apparently his counting skills were uneven when he was out in the woods) year stint in the unsettled wilderness of the southern United States, beginning in 1753, which he wrote about in the illustrated Travels in 1791.

Bartram waxed rhapsodic about wilderness. The key descriptor of the time was “sublime,” as in  “the sublime wilderness,” just as Thoreau would in the next century. Thoreau, a true kindred spirit, would write a friend, “I grow savager and savager every day, as if it fed on raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of untamableness.” Not sure I totally get that grammar, but it sounds much like something William Bartram would have felt in spades out in  forest. The two of them could have gone camping together.

For Bartram, many places he goes are sublime. Camping next to Florida’s Lake George, he talks about being “seduced by these sublime enchanting scenes of primitive nature.” I love the story about his specimen collection in Georgia. He climbed far up a range “from which I enjoyed a view inexpressibly magnificent and comprehensive…. of the mountain wilderness through which I had lately traversed.” Then he adds, “my imagination thus wholly engaged in the contemplation of this magnificent landscape… I was almost insensible… of…a new species of Rhododendron.” He was a wonderful artist.

Both William and John Bartram thought snakes were great and only killed them on the trail. when absolutely necessary, even rattlers. Black snakes they judged harmless enough to keep around the house as mice hunters. (We had families of black snakes at the Cabin and I never cared for them much.) Bartram drew many gorgeous if dangerous snakes. You may still find some if you hike Bartram Trail, which follows his approximate route through the states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. I’d like to try at least a part of it, though admittedly I’d rather drive down to Philadelphia and walk the more civilized pathways of the gardens where he spent so much time—the site is open 365 days a year, dawn through dusk.

He was also a champion of the afternoon nap, best performed in the shade of a favorite tree in his yard. Let’s hope that when George Washington visited the homestead he didn’t have to shake Bartram awake.

Which would you  rather do, hike Bartram Trail or visit Bartram’s Garden?

3 Comments

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

3 responses to “The most famous tree guy

  1. I have not read those bios! I’ve been into Wilderness and the American Mind, a classic. Thanks for your reply!
    Jean

  2. Eileen Patch

    Have you read The Brother Gardeners and The Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf?

  3. Eileen Patch

    I’d rather visit the garden. I have, but not in a long time.

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