Stone Blind

[published in Bartram’s Living Legacy: The Travels and the Nature of the South, ed. Dorinda G. Dalllmeyer, Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press, 2010]

‘Twas best imperfect—as it was—
I’m finite—I can’t see—
The House of Supposition—
The Glimmering Frontier…

– Emily Dickinson

            There is almost nothing to be said about William Bartram’s trip through Mississippi, my home state, in the summer of 1775. The episode is literally shrouded in darkness. As his boat left Mobile, Bartram was struck blind by an unnamed ailment that caused “corroding water” to stream from his eyes and scald his face. Once across today’s border into Louisiana, and approaching what he saw as the brink of death, he fell into the hands of a good Englishman who nursed him back to health. In between these two points, his lavish narrative falls silent: “I was incapable of making any observations, for my eyes could not bear the light, as the least ray admitted seemed as the piercing of a sword.” [p. 420]

            As if the Mississippi Sound were Bartram’s road to Damascus, the remainder of his Travels is a different book. Although it covers as much ground as does his journey to this point, it claims only a seventh of the prose. Gone are the ecstatic descriptions, the interjections of helpless joy and awe, the appeals to the Creator in whose “glorious apartment” we are so lucky to dwell. Instead, the road back to Philadelphia is haunted by the specter of human violence, interrupted by unaccountable gaps, and suffused with Bartram’s own “dejection.”

What did he not see in Mississippi? Or: What did he see by not seeing?

            “You take notice of the failing of your eyesight. Perhaps you have not spectacles that suit you. . . . Therefore I send you a complete set, from number one to thirteen, that you may try them at your ease.”[1]

            In July 1771, under the gathering clouds of revolution, Ben Franklin found the time to do some shopping. The target was a gift for a friend, an accessory which, in Franklin’s opinion, no respectable eighteenth-century individual should be without: namely, a decent set of glasses. This was the Enlightenment, after all! Across the civilized world, men squinted into telescopes and microscopes, ladies marvelled at magic lanterns and cameras obscura, and opticians scrambled to meet the new clamor for eyewear—monocles and lorgnettes, scissors-glasses and pince-nez, and of course Franklin’s own contribution, the elegant bifocal. What higher calling than to see, to see clearly, and to see far?

            Franklin’s disenlightened friend was John Bartram, the Pennsylvania naturalist, who had written that spring with his customary plainness: “My eyesight fails me very much and I am going to thro all my business into my Son John’s hands except part of my garden.”[2] At seventy-two, Bartram had been forced at last, by frail bones and failing senses, out of his career as a swashbuckling explorer and collector of natural treasures. It had been only six years since the last of his “long and dangerous peregrinations”[3] (as Franklin anxiously called them), a nine-month trek into wild Florida during which Bartram chased alligators, parleyed with Seminoles, killed and ate a bear, and skewered a six-foot rattlesnake with a stick. Now, though, the humblest tasks proved daunting: as he confided elsewhere, “My eyes is so dim that I cant know my own children 3 foot distance & I write with trouble & must hould my face within 2 or 3 inches of the paper.”[4]

            Among those nebulous offspring was William, who was then thirty-two, and suffering from a different species of blindness. What William Bartram failed to see, in short, was a way to be a respectable 18th-century individual. As a child, he had spent much of his time buried in a sketchbook—“his darling delight,” according to his father, who fretted from the beginning about the boy’s chances at a “handsom livelyhood.”[5] Once William came of age, he stumbled around from job to abortive job, in an escalating series of disappointments to John: surveying, medicine, printing, and engraving (this last a brainchild of Franklin himself) quickly proved uncongenial, and during a misbegotten stint as a shopkeeper in the Carolinas, John lamented to a friend that William “will be ruined…every thing goes rong with him.”[6] Yet the elder Bartram could not stomach failure, and after each of William’s unhappy ventures he set right about enabling another. When John landed a commission from King George to plumb the flora of the Floridas, he immediately signed on his wayward son as companion and illustrator.

            What little we know of William, as a person, seems to crumble under the weight of contradiction. An acquaintance described him as “tender and delicate,”[7] and yet he was to spend years hacking his way across the Southern frontier. He boasted an “inimitable degree of patience,”[8] and yet a gentle joke at his expense could send him into aggrieved silence. He said little in person, but became notorious for his lush, ebullient prose. And while he quickly lost focus when faced with matters of business, his concentration on a wildflower could be awesome. Had such a personality been confined to Philadelphia, it would likely have gone unnoticed and forgotten. But once William was out in the deep woods—as he was at fourteen, chronicling his father’s trek through the Catskills, and now again at twenty-six, plunging up the virgin St. Johns in the old man’s canoe—he came alive.

            The Bartrams would be bewildered by my Mississippi, needless to say—this quilt of strip malls and sand pits, casinos and combines, chicken houses glinting from the airplane window, green legions of pines marching in lockstep toward pulp. But even in the most sterile corners of today’s South, isn’t there something they would recognize? Even in this parking lot, this bleak planet with its motley crew of aliens—Bermuda grass from the savannas of Africa, tiger mosquitoes from the rainforests of Southeast Asia, rock pigeons from the sea cliffs of the Mediterranean—isn’t there some unpinpointable Southernness that the land exudes?

            Something of a languid, lascivious quality, I would say, borne of implacable fertility and decay. Something in the kingsnake’s tender embrace of the rat, and the kudzu’s embrace of the crumbling house; in the warty creases of the sugarberry trunk as it swallows a fencepost, and the imperious silence of the river as it swallows a levee; in the primordial murk of the slough water, and the droning passion of the August cicadas, and the obscene sweetness at the heart of the magnolia blossom; and then, in the honeyed sting of that front-porch gossip, and the predatory drawl of that used-car salesman, and the sly bend and stretch, the fugitive wildness, of that blues guitar. . . .

            Go on down this road and you soon end up in the funhouse of archetypes, where myth and reality mirror each other in infinite feedback. But here are three images, real images:

            There is a tendril of Virginia creeper, sallow from lack of sun, groping like a tentacle into my parents’ bedroom. The restless clay beneath our feet has lurched in its sleep again, and this time has opened a fissure between here and the living room. We can’t see through, but the vine can, emerging from another world like a herald of apocalypse. How long, after we’re gone, before it claims this husk of plaster and wood?

            There is an abandoned hotel downtown, once the pride of the city, and now the target of renovators. The plans call for a sleek, modern beast—boutique rooms, restaurants, luxury apartments, upscale retail. But the developers run into an unforeseen problem: a fetid coat of pigeon droppings, twelve inches deep on the upper floors, seething with bacteria and fungi. It will take months and untold cost to “remediate.” Meanwhile, on the roof, a sycamore sprouts from the grime along the gutter, partially obscuring the building’s dilapidated name.

            There is a pair of toads floating in our formal pond. It has rained, and the night has been full of an eerily mechanical bleating. These two, still locked in weary embrace, are the last stragglers from an orgiastic event. But on closer look, this is not a tender scene. The female is dead, and not only dead, but mangled: one of her limbs has somehow been torn off. The male, his urges unfulfilled, clings on in blind devotion. Out of a dim sense of outrage we prod the toads with a stick, but this only serves to nauseate us further.

            “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” say older Southerners still, when they anticipate an opportunity. Sometimes, they know, the creek is going to rise, and all you can do is sit and watch it. There will also be times when you will ford that creek, or drink it dry, or entomb it, for a time, in concrete. It is that push and pull that gives the South its inexhaustible drama. Our engagement with nature here is not a guerrilla action, as it is in deserts or jungles, or a show of shock and awe, as it is on the welcoming black earth of the Midwest, or the gentle coastal plains of the Atlantic. It is a war.

            By the summer that John got his glasses, William had only lengthened his résumé of frustrations. Seduced by the wide spaces of Florida, he had decided to linger on the St. Johns after his father’s expedition, and to try his hand at growing indigo and rice. Though the stoic John indulged this latest “frolick,” keeping his son well-stocked with equipment and advice, the project soon disintegrated: a failed crop, an insubordinate slave, and the strain of isolation sent William slinking back to St. Augustine within a year. There he collided with one of the most colorful personalities in the whole Southeast.

            William Gerard De Brahm was “a man of Parts, & Spirit,” in the words of an acquaintance.[9] What the “Spirit” stood for was his torrential, mangled English, his disregard for orthodoxy, and his reputation for being as ornery as a mule. As for the “Parts,” how else to describe a man who could convert to Protestantism at the expense of his career in the Bavarian army; found a utopian village on the American frontier with a shipful of Swabians; produce the definitive map of the coast of South Carolina and Georgia; claim the discovery of the Gulf Stream current; and publish a mystical opus titled Apocalyptic Gnomon Points out Eternity’s Divisibility Rated with Time Pointed at by Gnomons Sidereal?

            Long before Apocalyptic Gnomon, the success of De Brahm’s Georgia map had landed him a stint as surveyor of Florida; and when a bright but aimless young naturalist showed up in St. Augustine, he was quickly snapped up as a draftsman. History has not preserved the details of, or even much interest in, the relationship between these two men. It could not have lasted much more than six months, part of which time Bartram spent offshore, charting the coastline, and then onshore, assumed dead after a shipwreck. De Brahm’s role in his life comes across as does Franklin’s, an intriguing but glancing intersection. But men of ideas are certain to have had an impact on the young Bartram—even, or especially, when they clashed so fiercely as these.

            If Franklin was the hero of the American Enlightenment, De Brahm was perhaps its most eccentric opponent. The two shared a wide spectrum of interests—and even dueled (indirectly) for the honor of the Gulf Stream’s discovery—but the differences in character could hardly have been more stark. In place of Franklin’s buoyant cultural and technological faith, De Brahm seems to have harbored an ambivalence toward progress which eventually mutated into a spectacular, prophetic fanaticism. In his three mystical books (published many years after his encounter with Bartram), the old cartographer renounces the “Despotism” of imperialist expansion, and the role played by “sublimest Reason” in abetting it.[10] Apocalyptic Gnomon previews a world-ending clash between the forces of “Silent and quiet…Wisdom” and tyrannical “Nimrodism,” in which a select few (including the American Indians, or “Euphratian Aborigenes”) would at last be rewarded for their resistance to the temptations of empire.[11]

            Much of De Brahm’s cosmography seems almost medieval in its ambition and fervor, but Apocalyptic Gnomon has other elements that come across as startlingly modern. For one thing, this man was a proto-feminist. In his version of the Eden story, it is Adam who sins by scorning the wisdom of his female companion, succumbing to the urge to subdue nature; in his version of Armageddon, it is “the Eternal Female,” with its patience, calm, and humility, that triumphs over the rapacity of masculine desire.[12] De Brahm exhorts his disciples (of which there have been few) to forsake the legacies of Adam—“the Evil of Men’s Will-Laws,” the “polite Refinement” of “carnal Governments,” and the arbitrary boundaries imposed by “Geometrical Art”[13]—and instead to lead modest, simple lives devoted to spiritual understanding.

            There is no evidence that he was expounding such ideas in St. Augustine, and there is no evidence that Bartram ever subscribed to anything quite so radical. Yet there are subtler connections. Part of the older man’s conception of “the Eternal Female” involved a fundamental receptivity, an opening of the pores to the winds, vapors, and “Effluvies”[14] that in De Brahm’s worldview were the primary vehicles of change. The ideal society would be that which adapted itself most completely to its environment, with its peculiar blend of converging elements; and the ideal man would be one who reconciled himself most fully to his material situation, taming his desires, rendering himself open and absorbent. Here, De Brahm anticipates the “transparent eyeball” of Emerson. But he also echoes some of the more rapturous passages in the Travels, those in which Bartram seems momentarily seized, pervaded, inhabited, by larger forces:

Now the earth trembles under the peals of incessant distant thunder, the hurricane comes on roaring, and I am shocked again to life: I raise my head and rub open my eyes, pained with gleams and flashes of lightning; when just attempting to wake my afflicted brethren and companions, almost overwhelmed with floods of rain, the dark cloud opens over my head, developing a vast river of the etherial fire; I am instantly struck dumb, inactive and benumbed; at length the pulse of life begins to vibrate, the animal spirits begin to exert their powers, and I am by degrees revived. [p. 386]

            This is Bartram the naturalist, in the purest sense: possessed by nature. But this is not the only Bartram. There is a tension that simmers at the heart of the Travels, stirred by the currents of the Enlightenment, and (as De Brahm would have insisted) inescapably charged with gender: the tension between receptive, “transparent” naturalist and penetrating, conquering explorer, which comes to a boil, I think, when Bartram is blinded in Mississippi.

            Where I come from, wilderness is nowhere, and wildness is everywhere. There is wildness, certainly, in those few places that pass for untouched: Sky Lake, with its cypresses as old as the oldest cathedrals, their chapel-sized feet easing into the muck; Red Gum Forest, whose virgin sweetgums rise with a Doric perfection from a clamor of palmetto; Cat Island, miles out in the Gulf, where I perched in a wind-snarled pine, waiting alone in the dusk for a late boat, and feeling the rare thrill of solitude. But there is something even wilder, in a way, in those great many places that were touched and forgotten—the old fields, the collapsing houses, the abandoned railroads. And somehow wildest of all are those places that simply refused the touch. Places where nature, faced with the full, furious onslaught of progress, simply shrugged it off like a cloud of gnats. Small, homely places, toughened by siege, and very often hidden, because civilization hides its failures. Places like Little Bear Prairie.

            Little Bear is named for the stuffed animal that guards its entrance. Technically, this animal is impossible to identify to species, since years of rain and grime have mangled it beyond recognition. What is left of its face suggests a charmlessness that dates it to a more primitive era of cartooning, and helps to account for its presence here. You will see the bear, its stuffing spilling out and its limbs akimbo, once you duck through the hole in the chain-link fence, at the end of the weed-choked gutter, behind the crumbling shell of the old apartment complex, where the Prairie begins.

            Little Bear Prairie was named by me: the only person, to my knowledge, ever to see it for what it is.

            To dip into the Travels, as a Southerner, is to stumble through a looking-glass. Here is a landscape that seems broadly familiar—black water, pine hills, horseflies—but that also seems to belong to a parallel dimension, one in which forests morph into “perfumed groves,” springs become “crystal fountains,” and the breeze plays an “awful reverential harmony.” Here, tempests and “crocodiles” hold sway, and everything is wreathed in an epithet: the “sonorous crane,” the “rapacious wolf,” the “animating Zanthoxilon,” the “libertine Clitoria.” Here, dew sparkles “like the gem that flames on the turban of the Eastern prince.” [p. 155] What sort of eye sees these things?

            The journey of the Travels was, among other things, an escape. Since Bartram’s “frolick” as a rice planter, feckless youth had given way to a floundering, and sinking, middle age. Another mercantile venture had gone sour, his career as a naturalist had been reduced to painting seashells for a dilettante duchess, and by 1770 he was forced out of Philadelphia (more or less incognito) by crippling debts. He reappeared in North Carolina, taking up with relatives, only to see the death of his uncle and young cousin—two other William Bartrams—as well as his aunt. His cousin’s fiancee, overcome by grief, drowned herself in the Cape Fear River.

            At some point during this star-crossed period, William’s fantasies about returning southward reached a fever pitch. He wrote to his father for support, only to have the idea of another Florida sojourn dismissed as a “wild notion.”[15] But the Quaker doctor John Fothergill—to whom William wrote with a barely contained desperation—saw it differently; and, whatever the balance of pity and self-interest that motivated Fothergill (he wrote to John of the shame of letting such a “genius…sink under distress”[16]), his decision to sponsor what would become the Travels must have rung out across the Atlantic like shattering chains.

            Bartram returned to Philadelphia to pack, under the skeptical eye of his father, and finally set out in the early spring of 1773. “Nothing can be more sublime than the view of the encircling horizon,” he exults on the ship to Charleston. [p. 2] Setting foot at last in the deep South again, he is seized by “an idea of the first appearance of the earth to man at the creation.” [p. 3] Life has begun anew.

            Punctuating the first two years’ worth of the Travels—and reaching a crescendo in present-day Florida, where Bartram is farthest from the beaten path—are lapses into a rapturous, unbound present tense, passages in which time and space seem to fall away. Sometimes they erupt without warning, exclamation points suddenly hurtling up from the text like fireworks: “Ye vigilant and faithful servants of the Most High! ye who worship the Creator, morning, noon and eve, in simplicity of heart; I haste to join the universal anthem…O may I be permitted to approach the throne of mercy!” [p. 100] At other times Bartram’s volubility gives way to a chastened silence, and everything becomes “inexpressible”—as in the majestic Tombigbee swamp, “the richest I ever saw”: “as for the trees I shall forbear to describe them, because it would appear incredible.” [p. 410] And at still other times, we find him simply reciting Latin names like an incantation, seemingly bowing to the power of nomenclature to invoke the ineffable. But we are never far from a milder prose, in which Bartram seems to recall his mission, and dutifully lays out the facts. Right after his speechlessness in the swamp, he reports: “Set off in the morning, and in the course of the days journey crossed several creeks and brooks, one of which swam our horses.” [p. 411]

            The pastiche of styles can be bewildering, and nowhere more so than in Bartram’s “Introduction.” He begins, in one of the driest passages in the whole text, by presenting himself as a mere “journalist”; meekly acknowledging his debt to his father; and mechanically outlining the matters to which “the attention of a traveller…should be particularly turned,” first and foremost being “men and manners.” [p. xiii] But the very next paragraph is an outburst of characteristic exuberance, in which the world is presented as “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator…furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing.” [p. xiv] The rest of the introduction serves as a haphazard tour of this “apartment,” bounding eagerly from grapevines to elephants to orioles, before closing with a perfunctory page on “our Indian brethren.” [p. xxxiv]

            The first impression given by all this is of a loose collection of scenes, a sort of jumbled preview of the show to come, bound together clumsily under the rubric of the traveler’s duties. Bartram seems to offer little pretense that he is truly interested in “men and manners,” since these things go essentially unmentioned in nineteen of the twenty-two pages of the introduction. But on closer look, his aimlessness is deceptive. Consider the curious, indulgent aside—a sentence spanning thirty-six lines—that narrates the struggle between a spider and a bee:

…I soon noticed that the object of his wishes was a large fat bomble bee (apis bombylicus) that was visiting the flowers, and piercing their nectariferous tubes; this cunning intrepid hunter (conducted his subtil approaches, with the circumspection and perseverance of a Siminole, when hunting a deer) advancing with slow steps obliquely, or under cover of dense foliage, and behind the limbs, and when the bee was engaged in probing a flower he would leap nearer, and then instantly retire out of sight, under a leaf or behind a branch, at the same time keeping a sharp eye upon me. . . . [p. xxx]

At this point, Bartram has already spoken of a bear who “cried out like a child” upon the death of its companion [p. xxvi]; he will go on to commend the sexual harmony and selflessness of certain songbirds; and, more ambitiously, he extols the charms of that “sportive vegetable,” the Venus flytrap, with its “sensible faculties…similar to those that dignify animal nature.” [p. xx] But this intense focus on the tiny spider’s exploits, offered without moralistic commentary, seems somehow most provocative of all. Here Bartram flirts with the implication that living things, no matter how small or peripheral, demand our attention absolutely—not simply with an eye to their human qualities, but on their own terms, however exotic those may be.

The ungrammatical bit about the “Siminole,” which reads as a hastily appended afterthought, suggests that he saw the need to rationalize all this spider talk for a dubious audience. Just how radical would this sort of talk have been? Bartram’s assignment was to catalogue the flora and fauna of the South: to distill each species to its essence, to condense it into a scrap of Latin and a flattering sketch, and to determine its place as a cog in the human system. As an agent of Enlightenment, his task was to cast aside the cloak of wilderness and bring these things to light.

But what if, in doing so, you were seduced by the darkness? What if you looked into the eyes of that spider, those eight unblinking eyes, and found—not a checklist of field marks, not a reflection of the hunter—but simply a daunting, bottomless wildness? What if you were forced to come to terms with the futility of vision?

            It is virtually impossible to see into Little Bear Prairie from any angle. Any angle, that is, except straight down, which is how I found the place. The scattered cedars, dark and squat, stand out from an aerial photo like penguins on ice. Around here, where pine is the default conifer, cedars testify to a funny soil: sticky rather than loose, bitter rather than sour, yellowish-gray rather than red-brown, and constantly in motion—swelling when wet, shrinking when dry, lurching and heaving and cracking with the changes. Though it is fertile stuff, it will not grow most trees, whose roots are slowly torn to bits by the pressure if they survive the moisture extremes.

            Getting into the Prairie is not simple. You have two main options. One is to sneak in by the gutter behind the apartments, feeling faintly criminal, and climb through the gap in the chain-link. The fence sits on top of a stone wall, onto which you will have to clamber, minding what seems to be a constant stream of biting ants along its edge. Then you paw your way through a screen of poison ivy, and you’re in. Your other option is to park a block away on the far side, walk quickly over the heavily trafficked bridge, cross the railroad tracks—looking out for trains and authority figures—and plunge through the dense thicket of greenbrier and blackberry that flanks the tracks. (You’ll be cut up, but you’ll forget about it by tomorrow, thanks to the chiggers.) On the third side—the Prairie is roughly triangular—a narrow strip of overgrown swamp, with a pair of wailing owls, buffers the tract from the adjacent neighborhood. The African-American and Hispanic families here have more urgent concerns: there are crack dealers and street gangs within walking distance.

            Once inside, the Prairie will stretch out before you in its entirety. It measures roughly one acre. There are scattered trees, sugarberry and ash and Chickasaw plum along with the cedar, which through years of stress have become caricatures of themselves, dwarfed and wizened. From the fringing thickets come the deranged mutterings of chats and catbirds: two species that shouldn’t be here, that you won’t find within miles.

If you are attuned to such things, you will notice that most everything here is native. This is not trivial. Here on this tiny island, at more or less the exact center of a sprawling metropolitan sea, right next to the railroad with its relentless current of weeds and pests, is a humble community that looks much as it would have a thousand years ago.

            To tell its story, though, you must go back much, much further, to a time when there was no land here at all. At this spot forty million years ago, you would have been treading water in a real sea, a tropical sea, with the shoreline perhaps just in sight to the north. Beneath your feet would have been vast reefs of giant oysters, over which forty-foot sharks, seventy-foot killer whales, and twenty-foot sea pythons prowled amongst schools of fish.

            Over time, the sea rose and fell, but mostly fell; and the air warmed and cooled, but mostly cooled. Some seven million years ago, a global drought sent grasslands spreading across continents at the expense of forests. For much of the rest of history, middle America was dominated by a swath of prairie that stretched its fingers deep into, if not clear across, the South. As recently as thirty thousand years ago, this greatest of Plains supported an awesome pageant of mammals, with mammoths, mastodons, camels, ground sloths, short-faced bears, long-horned bison, and six species of horses jostling for space in present-day Mississippi.

            But this world would not last. After the great shuffling of landscapes that accompanied the last glacial advance, after the formation of the modern Mississippi Valley, and after the momentous arrival of humans, the prairies of the Southeast were cut off and reduced to scattered slivers, with their largest denizens fated to dwindle under the pressure of isolation, hunting, and a changing climate. By the time of Bartram’s expedition, though the sloths and mastodons were long gone, the prairies still had the capacity to awe: earlier in his summer of blindness, his passage through Alabama takes him into “expansive illumined grassy plains…above twenty miles in length, and in width eight or nine…which present a magnificent and pleasing sylvan landscape of primitive, uncultivated nature.” But once the advancing pioneers figured out how to work the tough prairie soil and discovered its terrific fertility, agriculture and fire suppression together delivered the coup de grace. Every inch of soil eroded through mismanagement—and on the prairies, there have been many—represented the erasure of centuries, or even millennia, of ecological work. Today, the Southeastern prairies constitute one of the most devastated and imperiled ecosystems on the continent.

            And yet this community clings on in a few places—tracts with soil so stiff, or slopes so steep, or sizes so inconsequential, that they defied the plow and the backhoe, and are now counted and recounted by ecologists like pieces of sunken treasure. Some of them are strung unevenly along the midriff of Mississippi, at points where a certain devilish clay, the same substance that threatened to split my house in two, pushes its way to the surface. This clay owes its structure and chemistry to those shallow seas of forty million years ago; the rain of countless shells onto the seafloor infused the soft mud with calcium, tipping it from acid to base. It is a stuff that we live with every day, as we fill our potholes, curse our skewed doorframes, and lose our footing where it crops out in slicks. But the prairie, its better half, its crowning creation, has been forgotten. There was no reason to believe, at any rate, that it could survive in the heart of the city.

            I will never know what William Bartram would have seen here, where my city now sits. If he had kept his health, if he had put ashore along “the high and bold coast of Biloxi,” [p. 437] if he had yielded to the urge to press inland, he could have been here in a few days’ hard ride. Perhaps there was a Choctaw village here; or perhaps there were only woods, proud colonnades of oaks and hickories, spaced widely by the passages of fire, and parting here and there to reveal the “illumined plains” that Bartram so admired. Perhaps he would have pitched camp here, in these hills—modest hills, but the highest for miles around, sloping toward commanding bluffs along the Pearl River. Perhaps, in bringing his horse to drink from the creek just downhill, he would have stumbled across Little Bear Prairie itself. It would have been just one tiny wonder among a great many. But might he have noticed the same things I notice, pressed his fingers into this very clay, met the very great-grandmothers of these snails and ants and crayfish? Might our eyes have met, in effect, across the centuries? And what is it about this childish fantasy that draws me in?

            Instead, Bartram was laid up on an island in the vast marshes at the Pearl’s yawning mouth, driven nearly insane by pain and sleeplessness. For about a week he had been in an “almost frantic and stupified” state, and by now the “corroding water…streaming from my eyes, had stripped the skin off my face”; the night of his delivery to the Englishman James Rumsey, he was convinced the end was nigh, and “my torments were so extreme as to desire it.” [p. 420] Somehow, in the grip of this horrific condition, he found the presence of mind to suggest to Rumsey a remedy. It was not a minor one: cantharides, a beetle extract known in other contexts as Spanish fly, was at the time best known for its use by the Marquis de Sade. But the measure was a stunning success. Within fifteen minutes of applying the plaster, Bartram conked out and slept for a whole day. Here are his observations upon waking up:

I awoke intirely relieved from pain, my senses in perfect harmony and mind composed; I do not know how to express myself on this occasion; all was peace and tranquility; although I had my sight perfectly, yet my body seemed but a light shadow, and my existence as a pleasing delirium, for I sometimes doubted of its reality. [p. 420-421]

            Bartram quickly regains his strength and his romantic sentiments, painting Rumsey’s island as a veritable Eden full of “awful shades, venerable groves and sublime forests.” [p. 421] (Francis Harper identifies this as Prevost Island[17]; although I have not seen it, I suspect there is little to see, as it lay exactly in the path of Hurricane Katrina.) But his eyes have been left with permanent scars, and almost as soon as he departs, the delirious joy of recovery yields to a bleaker feeling. Crossing Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, Bartram and his crew of “three Negroes” ascend the Amite River, which he describes as “turgid and stagnate…dark loathsome waters.” [p. 423-426] At their makeshift camp on the riverbank, the travelers are kept awake by swarms of mosquitoes through the “long and tedious night,” ensuring, as Bartram sardonically notes, that “the alligators had no chance of taking us napping.” [p. 426] The next morning, he observes bottomland trees “of an incredible magnitude,” but passes up the chance for rhapsodic description, and in fact seems too weary even to list them: “Platanus occidentalis, Fraxinus, Ulmus, Quercus hemispherica, &c.” [Ibid.]

            After a quick and mostly uninspiring foray up the Mississippi River—whose majesty briefly reawakens a bit of the romantic in Bartram, as he pauses to appreciate “a prospect of the grand sublime” [p. 428]—the expedition abruptly hits its wall. The explanation we are given is terse:

The severe disorder in my eyes subverted the plan of my peregrinations, and contracted the span of my pilgrimage South-Westward. This disappointment affected me very sensibly, but resignation and reason resuming their empire over my mind, I submitted and determined to return to Carolina. [p. 436]

In his account of that return trip, we hear little about plants or landscapes. Instead, we hear of the “inexpressibly disagreeable” noises of the caravan with which he is traveling [p. 441]; we hear of his fear of “cruel captivity, and perhaps being murdered” at the hands of Indians [p. 442]; we hear of the collective bludgeoning of a trader acquaintance of Bartram’s, as punishment for his dalliance with a Creek chief’s wife; we hear of the laborious difficulties of crossing several swollen rivers; and we get this more direct glimpse of Bartram’s dark frame of mind: “I was at this time rather dejected, and sought comfort in retirement. Turning my course to the expansive fields, fragrant groves and sublime forests. Returned to camp by dusk, where I found my companions cheerful and thoughtless rather to an extreme.” [p. 458-459]

            This was a few days into the new year of 1776. The remaining twelve months of the Travels go by in a twinkling. That spring and summer, the season of American independence, Bartram skips over entirely, allowing only that he spent time “revisiting the several districts…where I had noted the most curious subjects.” [p. 467] At the turn of the following year, after an icy and “uncomfortable” journey featuring “almost insuperable embarrassments” [p. 480], he at last mounted the stone steps of his father’s house on the Schuylkill, where he would spend the remaining forty-six years of his life.

            On Little Bear, the deep past is unignorable. You may stub your toe, as I have, on an oyster shell from those Eocene reefs. Below the surface, no doubt, lurk more dramatic fossils; elsewhere on these prairies, the great whale vertebrae are so abundant that they were once built into fences. Meanwhile, there is no overlooking the thorns, spurs, and prickles that decorate the trees here. You will learn to mince around the plums, hawthorns, locusts, and bois d’arcs, whose armatures represent a more subtle sort of fossil: a defense against ghosts, the great browsers of the Ice Age. Such reasoning accounts, too, for the colossal knobby fruit of the bois d’arc, often—and rightly—dubbed “horse apples.” No wild creature in the modern South can take on these goliaths, which silently mourn the loss of their partners in dispersal.

            But it is hard to keep up such wide thinking here. This place, with its improbable, hermetic calm, encourages a kind of Bartramian reverie. On a prairie, the scale of wonders is small: you lose focus on the gnarled ash tree, and instead see the fantastical lichens that have swallowed its twigs, with their fronds and barbels and polyps that suggest the deep sea. The babbling catbird fades, and in its place are the tick-tick-buzz of the meadow katydid—there he is, with those red insomniac eyes, on the nearest grass stalk—and the fighter-jet whiz of the robber fly, in hot pursuit of a bee—and the faint clatter of the leaf-footed bug, touching down on a rosehip like a moon lander. Fainter still is the rhythmic munching of the tussock moth caterpillars, with their splendid tufts of tiger-striped fur; these form little herds on milkweed leaves, whose sticky sap they outwit by severing the veins at their base. And what you will not hear at all are the ultrasonic battles that unfold after dark, once the adult moths take to the air. Each moth fires off a cacophony of clicks from a pair of drumlike organs on its thorax, jamming the signals of the bats that pursue it.

For the better part of the year, Little Bear is taken up mostly by wildflowers. By late spring you will see the orange bonfires of butterflyweed, the dainty white sombreros of prairie clover, and the luminous orbs of yellow-puff, floating just above the ground; its creeping, fernlike leaves close at the touch. Midsummer sends the raspy stems of rosinweed soaring over your head, each capped with a bold yellow bloom that follows the sun like a supplicant. (Among prairie herbs “the most conspicuous both for beauty and novelty,” according to Bartram [p. 398]). Beneath their canopy lurk more delicate colors: the cool lavender of wild bergamot, with its gaping blossoms shouldering each other like nestlings, and the purple-dusted white of mountainmint, whose clusters of miniature flowers drift like tiny, camphor-scented cumuli. As fall approaches, two monarchs hold sway—ironweed in its flamboyant fuchsia and crownbeard in its frosted white, dueling for attention at eye level—while the gangly stalks of pink gaura dart between them like jesters. This is when you must be quick to gather the wild persimmons, sweeter and more copious here than any I have seen, before the animals beat you to it.

            This is only a start, of course. There are also the snails—the teeming crowds of snails, tending their secret kingdom: the tiny spirals and helices that carpet the earth and line the grasses, and the giant marauding wolfsnails with their sinewy pink cones, each building its shell with calcium bequeathed by those distant, seafaring forebears. And there are the mysterious crayfish, who reveal themselves only by their turrets of clay; the unearthly twig ants, with their sleek golden bodies and giant black eyes, darting in and out of holes in a hollow stem; the snout butterflies, raised on sugarberry leaves, with their preposterous mouthparts stretched by the hand of Nature to mirror the stalks of dead foliage. . . .

            Reason resumed its empire. With that grim, almost De Brahmian phrase, William Bartram explains his decision to bring to a close the defining experience of his life.

            Like many great explorers, it seems, Bartram rarely ventured far into the jagged terrain of his own mind. Thus we can only guess at the tumult that accompanied that decision in Louisiana, or the regrets and fears that fueled his melancholy in the months to come. To think about this is to consider a host of possible Bartrams, wraiths of conjecture, materializing and receding from view.

             There is a Bartram whose affliction is simply physical: his ravaged eyes, as he says, make continuation impossible. Indeed, like his father’s, they—his left eye, specifically, which bore the brunt of the damage—will confound the rest of his life. A letter of 1789 includes the confession: “My weakness of sight, I hope, will plead for me, when I assure you I have been obliged to write the greater part of this with my eyes shut, and that with pain.”[18] Years later, when entreated by Thomas Jefferson to join a major expedition into the West, Bartram would cite his poor vision among reasons to decline. Meanwhile, he would take sporadic notes on the migrating birds of Kingsessing, publish a few modest essays on natural history and ethnography, and putter around in his father’s celebrated gardens. His most influential role, during this long twilight, seems to have been that of informal teacher, receiving pilgrims in the form of young botanists and ornithologists (Alexander Wilson was one) and dispensing encouragement.

            Seen from this angle, he brings to mind that “ancient chief” of the Muklasa whom he met on his return through Alabama—“stone-blind by extreme old age,” yet brimming with knowledge—who had once offered to his people his bare chest and a hatchet, in an admission of obsolescence. “I cannot see to shoot the buck,” he had said, “I am but a burthen to you…now let my spirit go.” Said the people: “We will not; we cannot; we want you here.” [p. 499-500]

            There is also a Bartram who grieves the end of a great romance. I know something of the sorrow of return, having made travels of my own. Those cross-country camping trips of my childhood, with their feverish pursuit of elusive birds and exotic plants, held at their ends a bleakness that ran far deeper than the fear of the coming school year. At the heart of it, though I couldn’t have known at the time, was a grappling with the ultimate futility, the ephemerality, of the whole thing: the recognition, in the rearview mirror, of the journey as impossible escape. Bartram seemed to know, too, that he was chasing something forever out of reach. One hears it, faintly, in his poignant account of the fabled island paradise in the Okefenokee—that “most blissful spot of the earth,” populated by beautiful “daughters of the sun” and inexhaustible fruits, but surrounded by “perpetual labyrinths” of swampland—which, whenever approached by mortals, “seemed to fly before them. . . .” [p.24-25]

            Then there is a Bartram who is more attuned to his times than he lets on—a Bartram whose Quaker pacifism is stung by tidings of war. Though the Revolution receives not a mention in the Travels, he was certainly not oblivious to it and may, in fact, have become briefly entangled: one biographer claims that during that lost summer of 1776, Bartram “joined a detachment of men” in Georgia to defend against an illusory British invasion.[19]

            While Bartram was a patriot, his love for his fledgling country took the form, for a time at least, of a dreamy optimism that looked forward to the transcendence of war, intolerance, and oppression. “I forsee the Magnificent structure,” he wrote in 1790, on the eve of the Travels’ publication.[20] In a way, much of the book, with its glorification of the American landscape, its musings on sustainable development, and its insistent appeals on behalf of white-Indian relations, can be read as a blueprint for this structure. But Bartram’s faith in progress must have taken a blow from many of the things he saw, heard, or simply sensed in the South: violence between British and American, white and Indian, Indian and Indian, and white and black (he crosses paths with a “predatory band of Negroes” in South Carolina [p. 471]); careless use of the land; and a callous attitude toward the plants and animals that had so captivated him. These disillusionments must have festered quietly within Bartram for years, for they finally erupt in an extraordinary, undated document that—because it quotes the Constitution—must have been written sometime after 1787.

            The piece is titled “Americans I Request Attention,” written on the back of a plant catalog.[21] Bartram opens by addressing, impudently and ironically, “Ye Chiefs in the National Council.” His direct target is the issue of slavery—a subject “the most indispensably deserving your serious consideration perhaps that ever hath or ever will come before you”—but in the startling fury of his prose, it is hard not to hear the venting of a whole life’s full of discontents. After declaring the God-granted equality of the “Black, White, Red, and Yellow People” and condemning America’s “woefull predicament” brought on by racial oppression, the gentle Quaker ominously warns that his countrymen are “filling up the cup of their calamity and destruction.”

This is a dark and strange Bartram, one that the world had not yet seen (and perhaps never would see, for we have no evidence that this essay was ever published). But it is a Bartram that we must, somehow, reconcile with the others.

            I am driving home from work. It is the first week of June; the prairie clovers will have just begun to bloom. My commute takes me only a half-mile from Little Bear, and from that direction, through the haze of summer, comes a gigantic column of smoke.

            I drive over to find the old apartment complex on fire. The street is thronged with spectators and police, and a fire truck blasts water from a giant ladder I’ve only seen on TV. For a moment, I have an irrational panic: what if the prairie has burned? But of course that’s the best thing that could happen. Little Bear’s greatest loss, in its years of isolation, has been its old friend fire—cleansing fire, rejuvenating fire, with its power to cull the cedars and beat back the new attackers, the tallows and silktrees and many others for whom this land’s past has not prepared it. My panic gives way to a mischievous excitement.

            But as I look around at the faces gathered here, I feel something else entirely. For these people, there is nothing cleansing about the fire; it’s just another symptom of squalor and decrepitude. According to the papers the next day, the police will not say whether arson is suspected. It could just as easily have been a stray spark. Neighbors report, after all, that the place has been a haven for dealers and addicts. News to me. Have I been blind to all this? In my dalliance on this useless scrap of earth, this beguiling blank on the map, what have I been forced to ignore?

            I leave and don’t return for weeks, afraid of becoming a suspect. The prairie is exactly as I left it. But changes may be afoot. I do some sleuthing in county records and find that the Little Bear lot belongs to the same absentee owner as the apartments—an owner who is coming under renewed fire from code enforcement, and who claims to have buyers lined up.

The prairie might not survive another assault, I realize. It’s been resilient, but it’s also been lucky—175 years of lucky, as far as I can trace it. I could tell you about its very first owner, the disgraced Treasurer of Mississippi, and his mysterious death; I could tell you about his son-in-law and defender, that “infamous liar and puppy,” that “filthy blackguard and cowardly poltroon,” who spat on the Governor and was run out of town. I could conjure up the hurried clanging of spikes, as the railroad gangs roared past in their rush to be first to Chicago; and the hissing of flames, as General Sherman laid waste to the landscape; and about many other things that may or may not be relevant. But I’m back on the prairie now, and these things are fading away.

            All these Bartrams, fracturing and dissolving before our eyes—and behind them must be yet another Bartram, one who unites them all. This man’s troubles run far deeper, for he has come face to face with the knot at the heart of his world, the paradox of Enlightenment. Blinded, he finds himself to be useless; sighted again, he betrays himself—for to see, he realizes, is to covet, and to look is to steal. He spends the rest of his days in a limbo of vision, one eye blank, the other alive and searching.

            Bartram was an anachronism—this much is clear from the bafflement that greeted his Travels in 1791, when it was finally published. The “rhapsodical effusions”[22] which he had spent fourteen years polishing were decried by one reviewer as “disgustingly pompous,”[23] by another as “rather too luxuriant and florid”[24]; a third sniffed that the book was merely “a curiosity.”[25] Worse yet, critics took aim at his factual integrity, scoffing at his tales of scaly leviathans and mocking his clumsiness with numbers. The latter in particular is an unavoidable peculiarity of the Travels, a “veritable ‘blind spot’” in the words of Francis Harper,[26] leading Bartram to double the lengths of rivers and to refer to dates that err by a decade or more. Bartram’s chronic innumeracy, and his inability to curb his sentiments, were crippling flaws in the eyes of a society that revered exactitude. Having asked to see the Southeast, they instead found it shrouded by the fantasies of an eccentric.

            Can we trust our eyes? Do we have a choice? These questions gnawed at the tenderest parts of the Enlightenment. Here is a thought experiment. Take a man blind from birth, and let him explore a sphere and a cube with his hands. Then endow him with sight on the spot. Will he be able to distinguish the two objects? This is Molyneux’s problem, posed by a friend to John Locke in 1688—a fiendish little riddle that baffled philosophers across Europe and grew, in the verdict of one modern observer, into no less than the central problem of Enlightenment epistemology. Its stakes are high, for an answer would suggest the extent of our dependence on our senses, and of the contingency of knowledge.

            Few of us have to worry about real blindness; but aren’t there many ways, any number of ways, of being blind? This was the dizzying message of Denis Diderot’s “Lettre sur les aveugles” (Letter on the Blind), which built on top of Molyneux’s problem a godless relativism so toxic to both reason and faith that he was thrown promptly into the dungeons of Vincennes. The protagonist of “Lettre” is a sightless scholar who repudiates religion and universal ethics on his deathbed. Through his blindness, he has found another way, a radically, irreducibly other way, of seeing the world—its spheres and cubes, but also its persons and institutions. Perhaps in this he is not so different from the eccentric naturalist, or from you or me.

            The reaction to Diderot reflects more than just the risks of iconoclasm; it reflects the threat posed by blindness to a culture of light, a culture that wore its spectacles as badges of honor. Vision was the noblest of the senses, according to Descartes; optics was queen of the sciences, thanks to Newton and his magical corpuscles; and the fantasies of the age found their sharpest expression in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the tower from which one could watch, and regulate, everything in one’s domain. This fixation on sight was hardly an arbitrary fashion. William Bartram was born into universes, physical and social, that were rapidly expanding beyond the scope of simple observation. The culture to come would need a whole new set of technological and philosophical prostheses to keep up. But at what cost?

            That question would be seized upon, beginning in Bartram’s lifetime, by the Romantics—by Blake, with his blind god of Reason and the “shrunken eyes” of humanity;[27] by Keats, with his ode to blind Homer and the light “on the shores of darkness”;[28] by Ruskin, with his glorification of “the innocent eye” and its bearer, who paints what he sees as if newly sighted.[29] Artists of the era treated their solitary visions as treasures to be defended. Cezanne, badly myopic, berated a friend who offered him a pair of spectacles: “Take those vulgar things away!”[30]

            Bartram could not have known how his own work anticipated and fertilized theirs—that snippets from the Travels wound end up in Coleridge’s notebooks, and resurface in the “incense-bearing trees”[31] and “mighty fountains”[32] of “Kubla Khan”; or that the seductive, “glorious world” of the fantasized America in Wordsworth’s “Ruth” would drink so deeply from Bartramian imagery[33]; or that Carlyle’s recommendation to Emerson of the Travels, with its “wondrous kind of floundering eloquence,”[34] might feed the growth of transcendentalism. What would he have thought of this?

            I don’t know. But I think he saw further. I think that he felt, much more acutely than they, the modern ambivalence that would follow. In his epiphany in the Pearl marshes, feeling like a shadow of himself, perhaps he glimpsed the tilt of history and his place at its pivot. This wild land would yield to the roving eye of progress, offering herself as a canvas. And the naturalist, should there be such a thing, picking her way between the crude scrawlings of her culture? She would be the blind eye, the preserver of a shamanic vision—keeping the light on the shores of darkness, marking time for her partner, as he darts off toward the receding, virgin horizon.

            “My Eyes was ravished,” exclaimed the Bartrams’ friend Peter Collinson, about his encounter with a charismatic daffodil.[35] To be ravished by a flower—what an act of humility, of surrender! I like to imagine old William in his garden, enduring a series of ravishings by the beauties of his past. And yet he cannot have given up his wanderlust; he cannot have forgotten the feel of new, yielding earth under his feet.

            The future of nature must rest, to some degree, on a reconciliation between these two souls. In the meantime, I can only vouch for the Little Bear Prairies of the world—these curtained windows through the corridors of time, small and scattered as they are, and winking out as we speak, but always countless as stars: places where you can sit, shut your strained eyes, and for a few moments, be as still, and as whole, and as willing, as a stone.

[1] Benjamin Franklin to John Bartram, July 17, 1771, in Jared Sparks, ed., The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 7 (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1840), 535.

[2] John Bartram to Benjamin Franklin, April 29, 1771, in Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, eds., The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992), 739.

[3] Benjamin Franklin to John Bartram, January 9, 1769, in The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 7,432.

[4] John Bartram to William Bartram, July 21, 1771, quoted in Whitfield Jenks Bell, Jr., Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997), 60.

[5] John Bartram to Peter Collinson, September 28, 1755, in The Correspondence of John Bartram, 387.

[6] John Bartram to Peter Collinson, March 4, 1764, in The Correspondence of John Bartram, 621.

[7] Ernest Penney Earnest, John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940), 106.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] William Gerard De Brahm, Report of the General Survey in the Southern District of North America, ed. Louis De Vorsey (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 9.

[10] William Gerard De Brahm, Apocalyptic Gnomon Points out Eternity’s Divisibility Rated with Time Pointed at by Gnomons Sidereal (Philadelphia: Francis and Robert Bailey, 1795), quoted in Robert E. Paulett, “The Bewildering World of William De Brahm: An Eighteenth-Century Map Maker Surveys the End of Time,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 42 (2009): 481-99.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] De Brahm, Report of the General Survey,216.

[15] John Bartram to William Bartram, July 15, 1772, in The Correspondence of John Bartram, 749.

[16] John Fothergill to John Bartram, undated, in William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1849), 344.

[17] Harper at 407-408.

[18] William Bartram, “Observations on the Creek & Cherokee Indians, 1789”, Transactions of the American Ethnological Society 3 (1853): 1-81.

[19] George Ord, “Biographical Sketch of William Bartram,” Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports 2 (1832): i-vii, quoted in Francis Harper, “William Bartram and the American Revolution,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 97 (1953): 571-7.

[20] Cashin, 248.

[21] Ibid., 249.

[22] Anonymous, The Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine 1 (1792): 266, quoted by Harper at xxiv.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Anonymous, Massachusetts Magazine 4 (1792): 686-7, quoted by Harper at xxiv.

[25] Ebenezer Hazard, in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Series 5, Vol. 3 (1877), quoted in Bell, Patriot-Improvers, 422.

[26] Harper, “William Bartram and the American Revolution,” 574.

[27] William Blake, The Book of Urizen (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1997), 41.

[28] John Keats, “To Homer,” in Jack Stillinger, ed., Complete Poems (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 199, line 9.

[29] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 95.

[30] Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage, 1991), 267.

[31] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” in William Keach, ed., The Complete Poems (New York: Penguin Classics, 1997), 251, line 9.

[32] Ibid., line 19.

[33] William Wordsworth, “Ruth,” in Andrew Jackson George, ed., The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1904), 121, line 169.

[34] Thomas Carlyle to Ralph Waldo Emerson, July 8, 1851, in Charles Eliot Norton, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, Vol. 2 (Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1884), 228.

[35] Peter Collinson to John Bartram, August 4, 1763, in The Correspondence of John Bartram, 602.

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