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."
© 1996 Tim Treadwell / NCNatural.com
Bartram portrait (above) is based on original by Charles Willson Peale