NCNatural Digest

William Bartram<BR>Spiritual Naturalist<BR>1739-1823

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 /
Bartram portrait (above) is based on original by Charles Willson Peale