“Some of these roving beauties stroll over the mossy, shelving, humid rocks, or from off the expansive wavy boughs of trees, bending over the floods, salute their delusive shade, playing on the surface; some plunge their perfumed heads and bathe their flexile limbs in the silver stream; whilst others by the mountain breezes are tossed about, their blooming tufts bespangled with pearly and chrystaline dew-drops collected from the falling mists, glistening in the rainbow arch.” (William Bartram describing mountain vegetation, May 1775)
Students of quantum physics describe the observer effect, or the change that the act of observing has on the phenomenon being observed. This is one reason I’m fascinated with the accounts by early travellers through the Southern Appalachians. There’s charm in the florid writing style that has almost become a language foreign to our own. That language offers sensual pleasure of words for words’ sake, mostly missing from modern discourse. Rarely, someone like Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier will compose sentences that leave this reader breathless with the sounds and images created. Not surprisingly, Frazier steeped himself in the accounts of the mountain travellers, William Bartram in particular.
You could say that by the act of observing, Bartram, like a quantum physicist, changed the phenomenon being observed. The world he observed would have been different absent his observations On one level, his words depict a world that was in this place before us. Even more intriguing, those words depict HIS PERCEPTION of the world that was in this place. And then there’s the simple visceral delight of the language he used.
Bartram’s Travels can be read as a documentary account of the people and places he visited, or as a journal revealing a curious botanist exploring unfamiliar territory, or as lush transcendent poetry uttered like the glossalalia of a enraptured believer overtaken by the spirit. To the degree that his writing succeeded on all those levels, it had a great power to influence Charles Frazier and many writers who preceded Frazier.
When he traveled into the Cherokee territory of western North Carolina in the spring of 1775, the 36-year-old botanist had already explored much of the southeast and met with many Native Americans, including an amused Seminole chief who had named him “Puc Puggy” or “the flower hunter.” Puc Puggy could not have arrived at a better time. Spring was the perfect season for new discoveries in the rich plant life of the mountains. Frontier life, though, was unsettled. Cherokee relations with nearby white settlers were tense. Only a year later, General Griffith Rutherford followed in Bartram’s footprints to destroy one village after another.
Bartram advanced down the Little Tennessee River, through the Cowee Valley and crossed the ridge to reach the waters of Alarka, where he described a scene that was both innocent and salacious, and particularly poignant in light of the tragedy to come a year later. Puc Puggy:
“enjoyed a most enchanting view, a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkies strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads or bounding over the hills; companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busily gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets, lay reclined under the shade of floriferous and fragrant native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jessamine and cerulian Glycine frutescens, disclosing their beauties to the fluttering breeze, and bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams; whilst other parties, more gay and libertine, were yet Collecting strawberries or wantonly chasing their companions, tantalising them, staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit."
No American naturalist had as much effect on the English Romantic poets as Bartram. Samuel Taylor Coleridge borrowed Bartram’s descriptions for Florida waterways for his poem, Kubla Khan. And William Wordsworth was inspired by Bartram’s accounts of Cherokee life along the Little Tennessee. This would be the second significant export from Cowee Valley to England. A decade before Bartram’s arrival the Cherokees were selling kaolin clay to buyers for Josiah Wedgwood’s English pottery works, the same Josiah Wedgwood who had a grandson named Charles Darwin.
With a Cherokee chief as a central figure, Wordsworth’s poem Ruth, borrowed extensively from Travels:
He told of Girls, a happy rout,
Who quit their fold with dance and shout
Their pleasant Indian Town
To gather strawberries all day long,
Returning with a choral song
When day-light is gone down.
He spake of plants divine and strange
That ev'ry day their blossoms change,
Ten thousand lovely hues!
With budding, fading, faded flowers
They stand the wonder of the bowers
From morn to evening dews.
He told of the Magnolia, spread
High as a cloud, high over head!
The Cypress and her spire,
Of flowers that with one scarlet gleam
Cover a hundred leagues and seem
To set the hills on fire.
If you’d ever want to return to a day along the Little Tennessee in the spring of 1775, William Bartram is your best bet to make it happen. Wordsworth expressed what Bartram certainly thought, when he wrote that there is “a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things.”
And I say, Amen to that!