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Do you know Bartram's Travels? Carlyle asked. In classic coy correspondence with Emerson, he said: Treats of Florida chiefly, has a wondrous kind of floundering eloquence in it; and has grown immeasurably old.
Carlyle's next proclamation: All American libraries ought to provide themselves with that kind of book; and keep them as a future biblical article, prompted me to seek Bartram's ancient and future testament.
TRAVELS -1791, First Printing -
I cautiously held the hand-sized book the cherubic librarian sacredly gave me, explored its binding, replaced in the nineteenth century, and opened it to the frontispiece, a portrait of Mico Chlucco the Long Warior or King of the Siminoles.
Opposite, the title page in venerable detail: TRAVELS Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, and in smaller type, The Cherokee Country, The Extensive Territories Containing ... An Account ... BY WILLIAM BARTRAM.
At the top of the bestained page, in script, the book's proud owner's India-ink notice: Alexander Wilson's Book, Philad, Dec. 9th. 1806. Wilson, befriended and impassioned by Bartram, became the father-poet of American Ornithology.
The imprint of Mico Chlucco had bled in a brownish wash, caused by leaching of chemicals into the paper fabric, onto touching pages, Printed by James & Johnson, M,DCC,XCI. The brown age I saw throughout the book.
In 1771, Chief Cowkeeper and the young men and maidens
welcomed William Bartram to Cuscowilla (now Micanopy).
They shook arms, not hands, and Cowkeeper said, "You are come."
The pipe was filled and handed around followed by "thin drink."
Bartram enucleated his travels and mission of plant collection, and Cowkeeper
saluted, pledged support, and named Bartram Puc Puggy, or "Flower Hunter."
ON BARTRAM'S TRAIL BY CAR IN ALACHUA COUNTY
Two Birthdays On my birthday I treated myself and did something I have often wanted to do but have not because of X, Y or Z.
With the 200th birthday of Travels on my mind The attention of a traveller, as he said, should be particularly turned to Nature,
wondering whether his visions were still pristine romantic landscape scenes or desecrated pollution sites, ecologically dead,
with map and a paperback version of Travels, I left on my birth morning in a sunroofed Subaru to celebrate Bartram in Alachua County.
River of Styx, River Styx
I stopped on the roadside and walked to a tributary creek, the River Styx, and stood on the 1930's bridge. Bartram's voice from creek-water perspective:
a vastly extensive and sedgy marsh, expanding Southerly like an open fan, seemingly as boundless as the great ocean. Bartram's version was little changed.
Lake Cuscowilla, Now Tuscawilla
As I drove the backroads I did not see any gopher tortoises, as Bartram had on foot. On SR 25A I halted on the grassy sideway and walked to a fence, with my view, like his,
obstructed by the vast forests upon the coast of the great and beautiful lake of Cuscowilla, its name now changed and drought reduced at no great distance from us, his vision intact.
Cuscowilla, Now Micanopy
SR 25A converges with 234 in Micanopy, named for a later Seminole chief, and like Bartram, by riding a mile farther, I, too, arrived at Cuscowilla, near the banks: a pretty brook of water ran through town, and entered the lake just by. Like Bartram's arrival among mythical Yamassee mine was among Doc Hollywood myth producers.
Alachua Savanna, Now Paynes Prairie
On US 441, on the borders of the great Alachua Savanna, now called Payne's Prairie, I drove, as Bartram had walked, for near a mile, when at once opens to view, the most sudden transition
from darkness to light, that can possibly be exhibited in a natural landscape. Bartram's vision was altered only by automobiles traveling at highway speed.
I drove on, with sideway glances, and like Bartram surveyed the extensive Alachua Savanna, a level, green plain, and scarcely a tree or bush; encircled with high sloping hills,
covered with waving forests. Power poles and a four-lane highway had changed the scene from a pastoral Bartram vision to a Futurist impression.
I turned and entered the Prairie Preserve and could scarcely believe what I saw: a bounding roe, just as in Bartram's account. He views rapid approaches, rises up, lifts aloft
his antlered head, erects the white flag and fetching a shrill whistle, says to his fleet, "follow"; he bounds off. They knew their safety here. A Bartram vision unchanged.
At the observation tower in the Preserve, I was surprised and delighted traveler, just as Bartram had noted, but being placed so near the great savanna,
how is the mind agitated and bewildered, at being thus, as it were, placed on the borders of a new world! The mind seems suspended and impressed with awe. I too was spellbound!
Back on US 441, I stopped at a Bartram-marked observation ramp, walked out, and a furrowing gator, Bartram's old champion, perhaps absolute sovereign,
darts forth from the reedy coverts on the surface of the waters; at first as rapid as lightning. Beer cans, fast food cups and straws glittered.
Great Sink, Now Alachua Sink
A side road trip brought me to Bartram's long projecting point of the high forests, beyond which opened to view a little creek, meandering through the turfy plain,
joining the main creek that at length delivers the water into the Great Sink. On the savanna border, I saw the Alachua Sink, still exactly as Bartram had described it.
Like him, I descended the hill onto a charming green meadow, explored the borders. A group of rocky hills almost surround
a large bason, the general receptacle, the water draining from the vast savanna. The verdant grasses were soft underfoot and yielded to golden-brown vested plains.
After an hour more, like Bartram having satisfied my curiosity, in viewing this extraordinary place
and very wonderful work of nature I considered other trail stops: Colclough Hills, Bivens Arm, Lake Kanapaha.
I had, however, other days ahead and decided to heed Coleridge, who noted: Travels is a delicious book
and like all delicious Things, you must take but little of it at a time, and I drove home.
A Southern gopher is remarkably different from a Northern gopher, Gopherus polyphemus not Geomys bursarius.
In 1774 Bartram discovered the dens of the great land tortoise called Gopher; this strange creature.
An accomplished burrower's tunnel slopes downward: from its surface, collared by up-heaved earth, it runs for 20 feet, and is gopher-turning-around wide.
The gopher uses shovel-like front feet, stubby hind feet, armed all around with sharp, flattish strong nails to dig its tunnel and roundhouse.
Its shell, Bartram noted, is hard and boney, consisting of many regular compartments. The color is ash or clay. A camouflage,
when motionless, most would overlook as a stone or old stump in a field. Thirty million years without gopher change.
In warm weather gophers emerge daily, leaving their many guests-frogs, insects, snakes, perhaps an owl, to guard their homes.
Bartram noted: It is astonishing what a weight one of these creatures will bear; easily carry any man standing on its back.
I have never tried the experiment. I wonder if men were smaller or gophers larger, or both?
FLIGHT OF SAVANNA CRANES
As we talked he looked toward the sky. They're arriving, he said. Who? I asked. I turned my newcomer's eyes to Alachua skies as we stood among savanna grasses on Paynes Prairie.
The sandhills, he said, or savanna cranes; as Bartram called them; the Indians named them Wattoola. See the flight formation. Listen. They alter, gliding and flapping. A low, loud rattle.
Now, two hundred years after Bartram, behold the loud, sonorous, watchful savanna crane with musical clangor, in detached squadrons form the line with wide extended wings, tip to tip. They rise and fall as one bird.
Bartram observed them alighting on palms or pines, on lofty roosts. Naturalists today say this is incomprehensible, they do not land in trees. Did Bartram err or has sandhill behavior changed? We watch them and wonder: will they land in trees?
COLCLOUGH HILLS IS NOW A THICKET
The entry now off SR 331, up S.W. 32nd Way, around a Myrtle Oak, to the right, up a tree-lined street
to what was, to Bartram, the most elevated eminence upon the savanna. Now Audubon Sanctuary, its view
of the vast verdant bay is blocked by a thicket of sweet gun, oaks and loblolly pines. Is a hill without a view a hill?
The hills no longer descend gradually by a range of gentle grassy banks. Instead, they are truncated
by a four-lane expanse of SR 331. I heard a cat-like meeeow, meeeow. A slender, dark gray bird,
with a black cap, called: high, raspy, and variable, in response to our chance encounter.
The cat-bird, Bartram noted, is one of our most eminent songsters. It made my thicket day.
KANAPAHA BOTANICAL GARDENS
I explored Kanapaha Gardens on a Sunday morning just after sunrise. I wandered by Bartram's group of shelly rocks, on the banks of a beautiful lake, partly environed by meadows.
I whiffed the fragrant flowers of palms and palmettos in patches. Timucua Indians proclaimed the palmetto leaves Kanapaha. I listened to the wind rustle them and imagined thatched huts.
Nearby, I skirted Bartram's limestone rocks and his partly encircled spacious sink or grotto, which communicates with the waters of the lake. I beheld his large floating field with golden blossoms waving to and fro.
Zzzz-zz. Zzzz. Zzzp. I was bitten, standing by the waters, because no brisk cool wind kept the persecuting musquitoes at a distance, as it had for Bartram.
Each morning as I walk to work, I see at Lake Alice, as Bartram saw all over Florida, a very curious bird, the people call them Snake Birds.
This morning I beheld the progress of head and neck periscopic, gliding on the water's surface, diving, resurfacing, snakelike.
The anhinga then leapt from the water to a low, water-overhanging snag and faced the breeze's currents. A body shake created rain ripples.
It is blackish, its large wings patched with silver, and a serpentine neck gives it the snake bird name.
It has no oil glands and gets so soaked on a dive that it cannot fly just out of water, or in the rain.
As Bartram noted: they delight to sit on the dry limbs of trees, hanging over the waters, with wings and tails expanded.
The anhinga used its dagger-shaped bill to sense the wind's direction, moved left a few degrees, half opened its wings, capturing air currents.
Its snake-like neck actuated its serrated bill preening shoulder to shoulder and down its back, anhinga bluish eyes affording guidance.
And the tail expanded on cue with long feathers spreadwide, much like that of a turkey, hence another moniker, water-turkey.
Snake-bird to some, and water-turkey to others. I prefer Linnaeus' name Anhinga anhinga, or simply anhinga, on morning walks.
BIVANS ARM IS NOW BIVENS ARM
Bartram recounted Bivans Arm: the extensive cove of the savanna, several miles in circuit, a delightful meadow, the grass growing through the water, clear water almost deep enough to swim our horses.
Bivens Arm is now separated from the savanna by SR 331 and 329 and bisected by US 441, and I drove around and all about it from every direction with a hope to see it as Bartram did.
Only upon entering Bivens Arm Nature Park off SR 329 or South Main Street can one appreciate what Bartram described. The walkways follow the border where the land sinks, where the water rises to a marsh.
Above the waterline, a live oak hammock: We perceived the ground to be uneven, by round swelling points and hollows, overspread with gloomy shade, occasioned by the tall and spreading trees. Ferns and lichens thrive in the shade.
Fern fiddleheads emerge along the wooden promenade. Reddish-gray lichens splash the bark of trees, and twining, groping vines reach up for a hold and sunlight.
But exiting Bartram's savanna cove by car (not by horse) I glimpsed a road-killed raccoon on route 441. Nature's corridor had been defiled.
JOHN BARTRAM'S HOUSE IN PHILADELPHIA WHERE WILLIAM WROTE TRAVELS
I stopped to take a snapshot at the entry driveway sign:
JOHN BARTRAM (1699-1777)
Famed natural scientist. Had the first botanic garden in the U.S. for receiving plants of America and exotics ... ... House and garden are 1/4 mile east.
No mention yet of his famous son, William. As I walked back to my car, a young man came rushing over, asking:
What you doing man? What you taking pictures of? I tried to close the car door but he held it open and questioned me about why I was here, not in prison. What you doing man? What you taking pictures of?
I explained my interest in the Bartram family, William in particular, and took the picture for information about John.
What you going to do next? He asked. I'm going to drive in and see
the Bartram house and gardens, where William worked on his Travels. Travels, he said. You been traveling since prison? Don't think I met you in prison, I said, but I have been traveling:
Through North & South Caroline, Georgia, East & West Florida and back in Pennsylvania. He let me close the car door, banged the car top with his fist and said, enjoy the Bartrams, John and William. I started up and drove on.
The Bartram House, built by John, stands on a hill that once overlooked the Schuylkill River. A hundred years of plant growth now enclose it.
The stone house reveals craftsmanship: three stone Ionic columns and four carved window moldings
grace the counter-Quaker façade. Ionic frieze, above the study window, sparkles:
IT IS GOD ALONE ALMYTYLORD THE HOLY ONE BY ME ADORD JOHN BARTRAM 1770
John's study, which may have become William's,
is simply outfitted with a Windsor chair and a rough-hewed, specimen-covered desk. It is easy to see William seated,
studying the Franklinia, with a large tassel of golden stamens, drawing it for posterity.
The study views the gardens, the river no longer visible
because of Shagbark Hickory, Hazelnut, White Oak and Stone Oak.
Outside the window in autumn dress stands a native fig from warm Asia Minor,
which Bartram gave eastern exposure. Further away is the rare Franklinia
which Bartram never saw growing wild but in one spot on the Altamaha.
Bartram's common flower garden, still in front of the house
cut back for autumn, still shimmers with goldenrod, lavender and sage.
Nearby the kitchen garden thrives with asparagus, reddish rhubarb, garlic,
rosemary, purslane, dogsbane and thyme. Their scents welcomed William back
to his father's house on the banks of the Schuylkill, January 1778.
Excerpted from A Celebration of John and William Bartram by Thomas Peter Bennett Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Peter Bennett. Excerpted by permission.
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