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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Never Too Old for Field Trips: A Weekend Excursion to Bartram’s Garden

Below is a write-up by first-year graduate student Rob McClung about a trip he and the rest of Dr. Lisa Sewell's Ecopoetics course took earlier this month:

Photo by Rob McClung        

Philadelphia is often called a “city of firsts”: within its limits were established the nation’s first public schools, its first hospital, its first lending library, its first public parks, and on the banks of the Schuykill River, its first botanical garden, established by John Bartram on the 108 acres he purchased from Swedish settlers in 1728. Bartram (1699-1777) is remembered as the country’s earliest, and for many years its most prominent, botanist. A third generation Quaker, he remained a farmer throughout his life, but established himself as an authority on North American plants through a combination of autodidactic perseverance and extensive travel throughout the continent, taking him as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida to collect and catalog seeds and plant specimens.

The eminent local essayist Agnes Repplier described him as a quiet man who labored quietly within his “narrow bounds,” who thought much of his work and “little of the public,” and who “added generous shares to the useful knowledge of the world.” The original house, designed and built by Bartram himself, still stands today. I thought it handsome and distinguished, yet modest, in the classic Germanic style of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Its stone and lumber construction, dual end chimneys, and steeply pitched gable roof characterize it as typical of the period, but several unique architectural features mark the house’s singularity. I was much taken by the façade, which incorporates a triple column arrangement set against a central section of slate grey stucco on the second story. The center column divides the house, while the two outer columns separate the central section of stucco from the more classic pattern of stone that lines the remaining exterior. This arrangement creates a complex, almost jarring rhythm that is amplified by the open-air porch beneath the section of stucco, divided in half by the central column, and the alternation of four windows with three columns. The botanist certainly had a curious taste and an original aesthetic, and the startled onlooker who finds himself confounded by the apparent disharmony of elements--as I was--soon begins to speculate about his character when gazing at this particular architectural form of expression. I’d call him a neoclassicist with a flair for the quirky.

All speculation aside, what is known is that Bartram shared the curious and industrious spirit of his friend Benjamin Franklin, and in addition to farming and traveling, the enterprising Quaker established a thriving seed and plant business, a valued (and not unprofitable) commercial endeavor at a time when botany was virtually indistinguishable from medicine. Bartram exported his specimens as far as London and was eventually issued the prestigious title of “Royal Botanist” by King George III in 1765. The garden was no stranger to illustrious visitors that included Thomas Jefferson, who no doubt compared it to Monticello, and George Washington, who quipped that it “lacked taste.”
Photo by Auraleah Grega

But we in Dr. Sewell’s Ecopoetics and Environmental Criticism seminar thought it was splendid. On a chilly Sunday afternoon tinged with the effects of a peripheral hurricane, we enjoyed an engaging tour of the plant life within an enchanting yet charmingly untidy garden discreetly tucked away from the cacophony of the city. Bartram’s garden boasts an array of plant species that one will not find anywhere else in the state of Pennsylvania, as well as more Latin than you’ll find in a college textbook. So many species left a host of favorable impressions on the mind: Collinsonia Canadensis, named after the English botanist Peter Collinson; the Prickly Ash, or “toothache tree,” with berries that will numb the mouth sufficiently enough to warrant oral surgery--I volunteered to nibble one of its potent berries and was horrified to discover that it did indeed produce a tingling, numbing effect like that of Novocain. Other flora included sweet-smelling Sassafras; the London Plain Tree, an engineered hybrid of the American Sycamore and Oriental Planetree found all over Philadelphia because it resists city toxins (yes, even Philadelphia toxins); Bald Cypress; Bartramia Lichen, the only organism named after the eponymous botanist; Franklinia, the signature tree of the garden named after someone you can probably guess; and the Bottlebush Buckeye, or Aesculus parviflora, whose milky white petals look like real bottle brushes. Most astoundingly, after having read Arthur Sze’s delightful poem sequence The Gingko Light only a few days prior to our visit, we happened upon the oldest ginkgo tree on record in America, which calls Bartram’s Garden its home.

Photo by Auraleah Grega
Of course, a tree can’t really call a garden its home; nor can it speak, whine, shout or emote, either; I’ve done it, you see: I’ve fallen into the habitual trap of the pathetic fallacy. In our seminar, we’ve been radically re-orienting our relationship with nature by critically examining the ways in which language—figurative or otherwise—has, among other things, shaped such cultural constructs as “environment,” “nature,” or “wilderness,” and has traditionally been employed to represent these perhaps arbitrarily distinct ontological entities. The garden, however, merits philosophical (and poetic) attention because it occupies a unique place that, in a sense, defies the division between culture and nature formulated in a typical binary typology. We are only halfway into our semester, but already there is so much to consider when it comes to nature writing in an era where climate change is the most significant scientific, social, and moral issue facing humanity. What is the place of poetry in the age of global warming? Will it simply, in Auden’s words, make “nothing happen”? or can it be used as a sincere and effective mode of engagement with our endangered natural world? These are only a few of the perhaps quixotic, but nonetheless important, questions we hope to answer in our course. I, for one, tried not to think of these weighty matters as I walked along the garden paths; but tried, rather, in the manner of eminent “nature poet” Mary Oliver, to imbibe the surrounding natural beauty and suppress the quietly sublime and spiritual joy that Bartram somehow cultivated in the splendor of his garden.

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