The American naturalist William Bartram explored the south before the Revolutionary War and left us with a legacy of illustrations and writings that would shape our young nation’s appreciation for nature. He explored nature with his emotions as well as his senses. Bartram had the head of an enlightened scientist with the heart of an artist. His travels through North Carolina shaped the important field of botanical illustration for years to come and would later in life actually move to North Carolina near the Cape Fear River to study the flora and fauna. In 1773, Bartram would set out on an epic journey from North Carolina into the southern wilderness of SC, GA, and FL.
I traveled up to Philadelphia and spent some time in Bartram’s Garden, America’s oldest living botanical garden, in preparation for an assignment for my Walking Seminar students along the Cape Fear river. The assignments objective is to develop new observational skills as well as a dialogue with the landscape of the Piedmont, which Bartram himself explored. The assignment also makes use of out semester long practice of keeping a sketchbook, a very important part of developing observational components of your brain, something the assignment aims to improve not just in drawing ability, but in other range of activities in the context of drawing in nature.
The area along the Bartram farm in NC is known for its rich variety of flora – those including Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, saxifrage, trailing arbutus, Solomon’s seal, bellwort and spring beauty, and I wanted to spend some time in their library as well as walk through the gardens to look into their studies as well as into Bartram’s interest towards the Piedmont of NC. The Special Collections Library at the garden in Philadelphia contains one of the most complete collections of writings, drawings, genealogical information, rare books, and photographs by and about the Bartrams and their gardens, many of which would have been in the Bartram’s family household themselves. The library also offers assisted research for a fee and also contains many books on the history of Philadelphia, 18th c. and beyond botany, Bartram diaries, journals, and plant lists.