After traveling west for days among the wooded hills and valleys of the Piedmont into what was later to become Montgomery County, Alabama, finding himself surrounded by miles of open grassland must have been a remarkable experience for William Bartram. On what would later become the Federal Road, Bartram entered this grassland in 1775, calling the “primitive, uncultivated nature” of the prairies “magnificent and pleasing”. A few years before Bartram, surveyor David Taitt found that the Black Belt prairies offered “a very pleasant prospect for a considerable distance and appearing more like works of art than of nature.”
To follow the old Federal Road through that magnificent grassland, however, requires a bit of imagination. Today the eastern approach to Montgomery affords a prospect of highways, strip malls, and big-box stores. But if you examine the lay of the land in the nearby farm fields, refer to the post oaks in the fence rows, and include the clouds from the sky, a starting point emerges for creating an image of 230 years ago. To paint the rest of the picture requires an examination of the history and ecology of the Black Belt, and a visit to some of the tiny prairie remnants that survived the conversion of this entire region to agriculture in the 19th century.
The extensive grassland mosaic of the former Black Belt prairie stretched in an arc westward from Montgomery and northward into Mississippi, following the Cretaceous formation called the Selma Chalk. Over the eons, this underlying calcareous chalk combined with the plant matter at the surface to form a rich, alkaline, black topsoil. This soil was not only suited for development of natural prairies but also was ideal for crop production. Other less alkaline soils in the Black Belt region were more conducive to forest development, and the patterns in which they overlaid the Selma chalks determined the size and shape of the prairies. Combining modern soil maps with early 19th century surveys of the Montgomery area clearly delineates where prairies miles wide and long once lay along the Federal Road. These were the same “expansive illumined grassy planes” that Bartram traversed. The wide-open, rolling hills, wooded drainages, and distant forests in this painting reflect those historic patterns.
The vegetative component of this painting was largely inspired by a late summer visit to two small Black Belt prairie sites in Mississippi: the Osborn prairie; and the Chickasaw Wildlife Management Area. Among the diverse, herbaceous prairie plants growing in the shallow soils of these tiny remnants, the upright leaves and tall blooms of two varieties of rosinweed, Silphium terebinthinaceum and S. laciniatum, made a most striking appearance within the grassy matrix of little blue stem. The rosinweed that appears in the foreground of this painting is a relative of the species, if not the very same species, that Bartram described in detail on crossing the Black Belt. *
* This is an excerpt from Philip's essay appearing in: Bartram’s Living Legacy: Travels and the Nature of the South