William Bartram: Divergent Friend
I’ve taken a fancy to do some traveling for the dog Days this year. I plan to join William Bartram, an independent-minded Quaker naturalist and artist, in a journey through much of the southeast U.S.
This is not the Southeast of today, but that of 1773, so technically there wasn’t a U.S. yet; whatever. Bartram spent four years wandering the Southeast, drawing plants and animals, maps, and doing sketch portraits of Indians he visited with, and he visited with many.
I first noticed Bartram a few years ago, and prepared a series of posts about him & his solitary exploring journeys for times of reflection. I call him a “Divergent Friend” because he went his own way, following his own leading. He was not a “rebel” or a troublemaker; yet he was hardly typical or “normal” either.
Consider: at home, a revolution was brewing; slavery was a spreading plague; many diseases threatened. But Bartram was drawn away from all that, the “activism” and the debates, into the natural world: seeking out creatures without voices, and territories not yet claimed by his ancestral “civilization.” He’s remembered today (by those who remember him) as a pioneer. Leadings are like that: not always driven by the “news of the day,” with significance that may not be discernible until many years after they were followed.
Here’s the book he produced from his long rambling. Although he returned to his Pennsylvania home in 1777, he didn’t publish the book til 1791; he was in no hurry.
And here is one of his charming, often lovely, plant drawings. I was struck early on, in looking at these, by a feature that comes out more in his writing: while his art was definitely “scientific,” aimed at adding to the knowledge of plants animals and geography, it was also religious (or, if thee insist, “spiritual”). That’s one reason I’m drawn to it for what many churches call “Lent,” a season of reflection.
Some of Bartram’s images have been used on postage stamps. Here’s one.
It reminds me of one of William Blake’s stanzas:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.