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.