May 5, 2003

Book follows Bartram trail around Southeast

By Michael Terrazas

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 direction.

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 eatery.

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 in 1791.

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.”