Sunday, January 2, 2011

John Bartram, Yet Another Great Pennsylvanian

I've always been fascinated by impersonators of the great and famous, and even more by those who impersonate the great but not-so-famous. Hal Holbrooke became known for a career spent lecturing as Mark Twain and made a great success of it; but while Twain is not internationally known he is, to Americans, probably the best known writer after that English fellow, William Shakespeare. So it isn't hard to see how Holbrooke could have made a go of it financially. And people like Washington, Lincoln, Lafayette--all of whose alter egos I have run into--are likely to offer a lot of gigs to those who wear their shoes.
But then there are those less- obvious subjects. Recently I learned of an impersonator of an 18th century Quaker farmer, naturalist, and explorer who has no obvious following in our time. Why make yourself over to represent someone like that?
My own feeling is that it must be spiritual. In fact, something like it happened to me, although instead of becoming an impersonator I wrote a book. I have not yet met Kirk Brown, the impersonator of John Bartram (the farmer and naturalist mentioned above), but I suspect that if and when I have that privilege I will find we have similarities in experience--we have encountered a person, no longer living, whose life we respond to, who we feel has something to teach us and the times we live in. And so, in a measure, we become disciples, followers of the message of this particular person.
I don't want to tie Mr. Brown to that, but I would be surprised if it didn't happen something like that.
But to turn to John Bartram (1699-1777), the largely self-educated scientist whose reputation in his time spanned two continents. Poor and largely self-educated, Bartram also was devout, conscientious, and intellectually curious. He lived in an era in which this could be enough to make a man a fine and well-earned reputation.
All of America's Founding Fathers were amateurs, in a way. They saw needs--social, educational, governmental, whatever--and set out to find ways to fill them. Bartram, who might be called a Founding Father of American Science, thought in the same way.
He had a special zeal for plants, and began by setting aside a space on his farm to grow those he found unusually interesting. One thing led to another. He lived to become the King's Gardener in North America, to go on long expeditions to find more plant specimens, and to become a friend of Benjamin Franklin and other famous Americans of his time. He was a founding member of Franklin's American Philosophical Society. Thanks to the respect in which he was held by famous Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus (and many other European scientists as well), Bartram also was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy.
Perhaps his greatest influence was on the British Isles. In what would be considered questionable practice these days--but perfectly logical in Bartram's--he shipped many American seeds and saplings to what was then the home country. There they were snatched up by the nobility, the rich middle class, even the king. American plants wound up in great British gardens, including private ones, the royal gardens at Kew, and gardens at Oxford and Edinburgh Universities.
We are lucky enough to be able to visit John Bartram's home at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. It is considered to be the oldest surviving botanical garden in the United States. Information is on the web site at
If you'd like to know more about this great Pennsylvanian, try "The Life and Travels of John Bartram: From Lake Ontario to the River St. John", by Edmund Berkeley Jr. and Dorothy Smith Berkeley.

No comments:

Post a Comment