William Bartram was born to study nature, I suppose. His father, John, was a self-taught botanist, who collected seeds of the New World, designed gardens, experimented with crops, and hobnobbed with his friend, Benjamin Franklin, discussing together their scientific observations and ideas.
Growing up in this milieu, William loved being his father’s right-hand man, researching together with him as they tramped through forests and tended an experimental nursery. His dream of accompanying him on his months-long excursions through the wilderness, investigating the unknown plants of this continent, finally came true at age 14, when the two of them went by horse and foot into the Catskill Mountains.
All his life, William devoted himself to the study of the natural environment of America, through wilderness wanderings, artistic drawings, bird study, journaling. Along the way he encountered and learned from a number of Native peoples, becoming an enthnographer of sorts, detailing their intriguing lives and languages.
Deborah Kogan Ray has structured this biography as a series of journal entries, extending from 1747, Bartram’s eighth birthday, to 1777. She includes lovely details of the sweet camaraderie between father and son, fascinating narrations of their intrepid journeys, glimpses of the nation’s history unfolding during this time period, all undergirded and shot through with the delight and reverence for nature these two men held. An extensive afterword fills in more detail on both John and William Bartram’s lives, some of the many species of plants identified by them, and a short bibliography for those of us who would love to read more.
Her illustrations, done in watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil, are as usual incredibly warm, inviting, beautiful views. She’s also given us some nature sketchbook style illustrations, in keeping with Bartram’s journal entries, and a gorgeous map of Bartram’s travels on the endpapers.
I could go on quite awhile here about the many levels on which I love this book! As an educator and parent, I was in awe of the education Bartram received by spending extensive time out-of-doors observing and
interacting with nature; the fact that at age 9 he was capable of tilling two acres of ground, planting medicinal herbs, tending an experimental nursery, identifying many plants by the structure of their seeds; the fortitude he developed as a young boy living for extended periods in the wilderness; the scientific discussions he engaged in with keen thinkers, even as a young boy. All quite marvelous.
Easily accessible for those ages 6 and up, this is a fabulous and inspiring biography.
Here’s the Amazon link: