In 1773 William Bartram, native of Philadelphia and son of Royal Botanist John Bartram, began a four year journey to collect and document the flora and fauna of the southern colonies. His travels brought him to the upcountry in 1773 and 1775, first to the Georgia Piedmont with a surveying party, and later into the mountains as he explored the lower and middle towns of the Cherokees. In 1791, Bartram published a record of his journey known as the Travels, documenting his discoveries and observations on nature as well as the Native Americans he encountered. Unlike other texts by explorers and scientists of the time, Bartram offers the reader deeply contemplative and highly inspiring views of nature as it appeared in the eighteenth century South. The Travels, still in print to this day, has long served as an invaluable source of information and inspiration to writers, artists, scientists, and all who love nature in the South.
In my own journeys through the South, ranging from camping and exploring as a child growing up in Augusta, Georgia, to studying the presettlement Piedmont as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, I have found only a few remnants of the landscapes Bartram spoke of. That has been particularly true in the Piedmont. Throughout the upcountry, the exhaustive agricultural practices and intensive logging of the nineteenth century, and the industrial agriculture and silviculture, as well as suburbanization, of the last century have caused profound changes. Equally transformative has been the suppression of wildland fire, alteration to hydrologic systems, and the spread of invasive species. With that in mind, when I have the chance to venture to seemingly pristine nature or even drive the streets of a suburban neighborhood, I continually wonder: what did this place look like before Europeans arrived? There is no better way to answer that than to turn to Bartram’s Travels.
In this exhibit I present a few of the upcountry environments that have most attracted me, not only aesthetically but also because of their importance during Bartram’s time. While most of these paintings portray existing places, some show scenes that no longer exist and are wholly or in part imagined. Four environments from Bartram’s time are explored: mountain balds, river valleys, woodlands, and streams and rivers. In learning about them, I was surprised to find how disturbed and manipulated these seemingly natural landscapes were, not only in recent history, but in Bartram’s time as well. For example, frequent fires, mainly caused by Indians, were a defining factor in all but the wettest landscapes from mountain tops to Piedmont ridges and even into river valleys. Also surprising is the degree of disturbance in the Piedmont. Throughout the region there is virtually no remnant of the original topsoil, much less forest, and virtually all stream valleys have been buried under several feet of silt. With such profound alterations, historically and ecologically, I can think of no more compelling subject to paint than these environments as seen through the window of Bartram’s Travels.
There is much debate about the formation of mountain balds, but it is certain that balds have been disappearing in the last century. In fact, the wide open landscape that Bartram describes high on the crest of the Nantahala mountains as “a grassy plain, scatteringly planted with large trees, and at a distance surrounded with high forests”, is certainly not there today. While a view similar to what Bartram saw toward the Snowbird mountains can still be seen from the crest of the Nantahalas today, as pictured in Wesser Bald, it must be viewed from an observation tower. The grassy opening suggested by the name “Wesser Bald” has been replaced by a dense forest. A mountain bald experience more in keeping with Bartram’s description can be found 40 miles away in the Shining Rock Wilderness. Ironically, the distant views and grassy open spaces seen in Fork Mountain Trail are a relic of the catastrophic fires that swept the area after its fir forests were clear cut in the early twentieth century. Perhaps this fire scar environment suggests that the balds Bartram saw were a relic of Cherokee- and/or lightning-caused fire. European settlers that followed the Cherokees were known to expand the mountain balds with fire and axe to improve grazing for their cattle. It seems reasonable to think the Cherokees also maintained the balds, perhaps for game.
Lowland Indian Agriculture
It can be rather disappointing to look for landscapes that suggest the condition of the Keowee valley as Bartram saw it. The Keowee valley, so beautifully described by Bartram, was long an important agricultural area for the Cherokees and was
reportedly still quite beautiful up until the 1970s, when the Keowee reservoir obliterated it.To find a setting suggestive of the Keowee Valley, I explored other nearby valleys such as Station Cove. They still offer a rough sense of the landscape Bartram encountered in the lower Cherokee towns, but it is the Little Tennessee River valley near Franklin, North Carolina, that I found the best prospect for envisioning the Cherokee lowlands. As Bartram crossed into that valley he described it as “…a narrow vale and lawn, through which rolled on before me a delightful brook, water of the Tanase; I crossed it and continued a mile or two down the meadows, when the high mountains on each side suddenly receding, discover the opening of the extensive and fruitful vale of Cowe, through which meanders the head branch of the Tanase…”. In the painting Little Tennessee River Valley I show those meadows in the foreground, though not at the time of year Bartram visited. Besides the snow, this partly imagined scene is a variation on Bartram’s Travels in that it shows cane (Arundinaria gigantea) invading the fields along the river. Francis Harper, in his annotated edition of the Travels, says that part of the route Bartram followed in reaching this valley was in fact rerouted at some point to bypass a dense canebrake. Today, small canebrakes can still be found in the valley invading field edges near the river. The historic canebrakes and indeed the open valleys the Cherokees maintained were very much a landscape that resulted from their frequent burning.
In the South, Native Americans and many of the settlers that followed them used fire extensively to manage the landscape. Fire was used for improving agriculture and hunting, easing travel, and controlling pests, among other things. Fire, mainly caused by Indians, but sometimes by lightning, occurred throughout the Piedmont and the mountains, creating landscapes that would be unfamiliar today. In the Piedmont, particularly on the uplands, fires would have passed through the understory of woodlands every several years, setting back the fire-intolerant trees and shrubs and maintaining an open, grassy ground plane. An example of how that might have looked comes from documentation of the revolutionary war battlefield of Cowpens, South Carolina, where soldiers fighting in a woodland could be seen at a distance of 500 yards. I have painted in a variety of woodland settings and even painted prescribed fires to better understand the various degrees of openness that Bartram would have found in the vast woodlands of Georgia and the Carolinas. I feel sure he would recognize the imagined scene I present in Old Growth Oak Savanna.
Streams and Rivers
Bartram may or may not have crossed the headwaters of Connelly Creek as he explored the spring-time environs of the Cowee mountains, but in my exploration of that area, I found the leafy green banks and clear rushing water of this scene to be a perfect summation of the cool, inviting nature of an undisturbed mountain stream. While such a setting might not be uncommon high in the steep forested folds of the southern Appalachians, the same cannot be said for the Piedmont. From the terrible erosion of the cotton era, several feet of clay and silt have buried stream valleys across the Piedmont, leaving their streams confined to deep trenches and with waters that run muddy whenever they rise. It is only at their rocky shoals where there is enough energy to keep the silt moving, that these waterways can be seen as they formerly were. Anthony Shoals on the Broad River near Elberton, Georgia, may be my favorite such place. It is one of the rare places in the Savannah River watershed where a free flowing river runs across a wide swath of bedrock. The main stem of the Savannah, the river Bartram knew well, would be unrecognizable to him now as it lies beneath three massive reservoirs. Other rivers have suffered less severe fates, though they too may be unrecognizable. For instance, the crystal clear water and rocky bed Bartram saw on Georgia’s Oconee River near Milledgeville have become only a memory buried in sand and silt. Nevertheless, its murky currents can still speak of the time before Europeans arrived in North America far more clearly than the still waters of a reservoir.
- Philip Juras