NCNatural Digest

William Bartram
Spiritual Naturalist

Most widely known for his published accounts of his "Travels" in the south east colonies of what became the United States during the period from 1773-1776, William Bartram is today recognized as one of the first spiritual naturalists. He was the first American born botanist and the first naturalist to use the term "sublime" in describing nature. His accounts of the joy he experienced in the power and beauty of nature were in his day ridiculed as overly romantic although his descriptions of specific flora and fauna were always highly regarded. His descriptions of the native american peoples that he encountered were viewed as magnifying the virtues and over-looking the vices of races that were regarded by the climate of his time, as uncivilized and lacking in virtue. To the early american settlers who had come from Europe, nature and wilderness were viewed as godless and unholy and therefore they felt, it was their duty to tame the country and make it civilized. Looking at the history of white settlement across the american continent, usurping native peoples and exploiting the land and its resources, we can see how powerful that vision has been for many people.

Certainly, many of us today recognize our attachment to nature and its importance to our own well-being, but it is largely owing to the likes of Bartram, and the native peoples, that we've come this far in our appreciation of nature. His descriptions of nature reveal the emotional attachment that he felt to the whole of creation as in his description of the awe of a mountain thunderstorm in Rabun County, Georgia, near the North Carolina border...

"It was now after noon; I approached a charming vale,  
amidst sublimely high forests, awful shades! darkness   
gathers around, far distant thunder rolls over the 
trembling hills; the black clouds with august majesty 
and power, moves slowly forwards, shading regions of 
towering hills, and threatening all the destructions of 
a thunderstorm; all around is now still as death, not a 
whisper is heard, but a total inactivity and silence 
seems to pervade the earth; the birds afraid to utter a 
chirrup, and in low tremulous voices take leave of 
each other, seeking covert and safety; every insect is 
silenced, and nothing heard but the roaring of the 
approaching hurricane; the mighty cloud now expands 
its sable wings, extending from North to South, and is 
driven irresistibly on by the tumultuous winds, 
spreading his livid wings around the gloomy concave, 
armed with terrors of thunder and fiery shafts of 
lightning; now the lofty forests bend low beneath its 
fury, their limbs and wavy boughs are tossed about and 
catch hold of each other; the mountains tremble and 
seem to reel about, and the ancient hills to be shaken 
to their foundations: the furious storm sweeps along, 
smoaking through the vale and over the resounding hills; 
the face of the earth is obscured by the deluge 
descending from the firmament, and I am deafened by 
the din of thunder; the tempestuous scene damps my 
spirits, and my horse sinks under me at the tremendous 
peals, as I hasten for the plain."

The majority of Bartram's Travels were in the lower south, particularly Florida. He did follow the Savannah River up from the coast of Georgia to its headwaters in northwest South Carolina and Georgia on into North Carolina as far as the Nantahala Gorge near Andrews, NC. His route is now roughly followed by the Bartram Trail. Many of the ancient paths that he travelled are still present and offer excellent hiking, along with the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and vegetation that he described well-over two hundred years ago. One particularly fine stretch of the Bartram Trail runs through Mountain Rest, South Carolina by the small, yet exquisite, PigPen Falls to the Chatooga River Gorge, south along the river and then across Earl's Ford to the west, up War Woman Creek towards Pinacle Knob in Rabun County, Georgia. The Chatooga River is a national wild and scenic river and one of the oldest rivers in the world. The Chatooga (pictured here, near its headwaters) also offers the best whitewater kayaking and rafting adventures in the southeast with many Class 5 and one Class 6 rapid at Woodall Shoals.

I have two maps showing Bartram's approximate route from South Carolina to North Carolina. (caution-big fat image files).

The first shows his route with contemporary landmarks. (really BIG- 140K)

The second shows his route as it was in 1775, with Cherokee villages. (not as big - 20K)

I find it very interesting, being acquainted with a lot of the area that Bartram passed through, to relate his experience to the present. Particularly in the areas of western North Carolina that he passed through, I can still envision the scenes. Bartram describes open, cultivated valleys with well worn paths and roads, and native villages visible in the distance perched on the hillsides. He came through the area in May and caught the beginning of summer. In one passage he describes the Tennessee river valley, near Franklin, NC as "profusely productive of flowers and fragrant strawberries, their rich juice dying my horses feet and ankles". He catalogued many of the trees and flowering plants of our region, including some interesting rarities - the Franklin Tree, now believed extinct, and a very northern individual of the Casine yaupon or Ilex vomitoria at Jore, - a tree sacred to the Cherokee and many other Native tribes of the southeast which was used to make the ceremonial "black" drink.

There were many thousands of Cherokee living in the area. Fortunately, some of them were able to hang onto their legacy and remain in the area, by buying up tracts of land and putting together their own preserve, the Qualla Boundary and other smaller tracts. Their history and legends are preserved to a large extent. Also, some of the ancient mounds that were here when the Cherokee arrived are still intact, such as the Nikwasi Mound (Bartram's "Nucasse", also sometimes "Nequasee") in downtown Franklin, NC.

A lesser known aspect of Bartram's legacy is his influence on the arts in America. He was able to carry his respect for nature and his fellow man into his visual artistic productions as well as his literary ones. His linking of the natural world to the term "sublime", defined by Webster as "noble; exalted; majestic.", gave impetus to a trend developing in Europe from people like John Ruskin, to see the natural world as something to be respected and admired rather than hated and destroyed. Well known both at home and abroad by notable thinkers, artists and naturalists of his day, his views of nature helped define an American style of landscape art that was later exemplified more fully by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River Scool. Although probably not a great visual artist in most peoples opinions, he was a capable illustrator during a time when America did not have many great artists nor a tradition of artistic production. Without a traditional context to fall back on and desiring something unique, the writers and artists of America turned to nature as a source and setting for their works eventually creating a grand tradition of excellent landscape art. The documentary and scientific character of American art retained an important place as long as there remained areas to explore.

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© 1996 Tim Treadwell /