Though the name of William Bartram is well known
to hikers and nature enthusiasts in the Southeast, tracing the footsteps
of one of the 18th century’s more peripatetic botanists traditionally
has proven to be quite an undertaking, with only a patchwork of
hiking trails, Bartram memorials and sidebars in trail guides for
But An Outdoor Guide to Bartram’s Travels (University
of Georgia Press, 2003), painstakingly researched and written by
three Bartram fans from Emory, brings together all of Bartram’s
wide-ranging journeys to be explored “by foot, canoe, bicycle,
horseback, car—or armchair.”
The book is a labor of love and adventure by Charles Spornick, coordinator
of the Beck Center for Electronic Resources in Woodruff Library;
Alan Cattier, director of academic technology in the Information
Technology Division; and Robert Greene, retired science coordinator
at Woodruff Library.
With Greene taking most of the photographs and Spornick and Cattier
splitting the writing duties, the trio worked on the book in their
“spare” time over much of the past six years. It started
when a former student in Cattier’s “Literature and the
Environment” class happened upon two draft chapters Spornick
had written on the Bartram trail.
Remembering Cattier’s interest in the New England tradition
of nature writing, the student suggested Spornick and Cattier get
together, and the book was born over breakfast in an Emory Village
For those unfamiliar with Bartram, in 1773 he decided to leave the
comfort and security of his native Philadelphia—Bartram’s
father, John, had served for a decade as royal botanist to the colonies
for King George III—and venture below the Mason-Dixon line.
Over the next four years, Bartram traced a course through much of
the Southeast, recording the flora, fauna and landscapes he encountered.
The journey survives today through Bartram’s Travels Through
North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, published
But Travels is far from a trail guide. Weighted with the
Latin specimen names of Bartram’s training and written in
a prose style that is less than breezy (even for 18th century standards),
the book initially received little attention in its home country.
However, it seized upon the imaginations of English Romantics like
William Words-worth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who were enchanted
by Bartram’s sometimes fanciful descriptions—the author
was known to take certain liberties with time and place—of
a land they’d never seen.
An Outdoor Guide seeks to recapture some of that Romantic
spirit; its authors invite the reader to imagine the transformation
the American South has undergone in two centuries and what it might
have looked like to Bartram himself.
“[Working on the book] compelled me not only because of the
interesting ways in which Bartram wrote, but also because you get
such a window into the environmental impact over the last 200 years,”
Cattier said. “I mean, when was the last time you saw elk
in Clayton? Bison in Augusta?”
“My own training as a historian came into play in ways I never
expected,” said Spornick, who said he and his coauthors did
quite a bit of detective work in trying to nail down exactly the
geographical points about which Bartram wrote. “Little did
I know I’d be in the position of trying to reconstruct Travels,
for example, as a way of understanding Indian culture.”
The book’s structure mirrors Bartram’s five separate
excursions around the Southeast. Often, a section will identify
exactly the location Bartram must have been and point out the changes
that have occurred, inviting readers to go and see for themselves.
But many of Bartram’s coordinates now fall on private land,
and for those, readers will have to be satisfied with textual descriptions
and occasional photographs.
“It’s tricky to try to map a landscape that’s
changed so much,” Cattier said. “Now you see sections
of the trail going through a Wendy’s or a McDonald’s
or a K-Mart; we were shocked both by the beauty and the mundaneness
of the landscape.”
“Sometimes we’d have these amazing discoveries, but
then we’d think, ‘Well, it doesn’t make sense
to put this in the book,’” Spornick added. “So
there were some sad moments.”
Even if their readers may not be lucky enough to stand on the same
patch of ground as did Bartram, more often than not Spornick, Cattier
and Greene were, and the memories of their own travels in researching
the book—of herding their families into cars on weekends for
yet another “Bartram Trip” masquerading as a vacation—are
what they will carry away from the experience.
“Doing our monthly ‘Bartram Trips’ got to be a
regular thing for us,” said Spornick, adding the trio went
through “three cars and one trailer” in the process.
“The legacy of the book for me,” Cattier said, “will
be the memory of fun weekends out exploring.”