Sabbatical Blog-Week Four

Here I am at King’s Gap State Park, hiking with my friend Mary, enjoying a great 5 mile circuit hike of the Hollow trail and Ridge Overlook trail.  One month of sabbatical down, and one month to go.  Hard to believe, really.  The weather for the whole time has been so cooperative and has allowed me to get outdoors and really enjoy the Michaux, my garden, and life in general.

My research has had its ups and downs.  The disappointment is in the realization that my favorite Quaker botanists (and ones on which I’m focussing), John and William Bartram, never visited this area in their plant explorations.  Apparently, the closest that John came was in his travels up the Susquehanna where he writes about being in the Sunbury-Shamokin area.  He also traveled across PA to Fort Pitt, but again, no mention of coming down to the South Mountain region.  However, neither did Andre Michaux, for whom the forest is named!  That was a big surprise.  It is named in honor of the French botanists Andre and Andre Francois Michaux (father and son) who traveled extensively in North America from 1785 to 1805.  Besides vital work in identifying and classifying trees and other plants, they are considered to have much to do with the development of modern forestry in this country.  But like the Bartrams, they were never actually in the South Mountain region. (Although A. Francois traveled through by stagecoach and writes about being in Carlisle and Shippensburg in 1802 as he went west.) The Michaux father and son are a fascinating side note and one that I have to resist getting tied up with…much as I would like!

So these early botanists left their mark, but not their footprints, in this place about which I am studying and writing. HMMM.  The trick to doing research is to not get lured down intriguing rabbit holes, not get discouraged, and ultimately decide what it is that you are really studying.  For my purposes it isn’t essential that they were here, but it sure would have been nice to follow their footsteps here!  At the end of the day, however, I am still convinced that the Quaker sentiments of John were formative in his call to be a plant explorer.  He passed this call on to his son William.   John wrote, “it is through the telescope I see God in his glory!”  William, who had a pantheistic view of nature and believed in a spirit unifying all things,  said “We say this Divine Intelligence permeates and animates the universe. This is the immortal soul of nature…” I’d like to think that the spirit of these two Quaker botanists lives on in those of us who love plants, nature, and learning more about God’s creation.  They really did so very much for us all.  John alone introduced over 200 plants to the world.  Here you can see Monarda (bee balm) blooming in my garden…the parent of which was found by John Bartram near Oswego NY.

A biography notes the following about the elderly William as he neared the end of a long and productive life, and a visitor came to see him in his garden:  “Arrived at the Botanist’s Garden, we approached the old man who, with a rake in his hand, was breaking the clods of earth in a tulip bed.  His hat was old and flapped over his face, his coarse shirt was seen near his neck, as he wore no cravat or kerchief; his waistcoat and breeches were both of leather, and his shoes were tied with leather strings.  We approached and accosted him.  He ceased his work, and entered into conversation with the ease and politeness of nature’s noblemen.  His countenance was expressive of benignity and happiness.  This was the botanist, traveller, and philosopher we have come to see.” (John and William Bartram:Botanists and Explorers, Ernest Earnest, U. Penn Press, 1940, p 175) I can only hope that someone visiting me in my old age would see the same thing!

So, where does this all leave me, now at the halfway point in my sabbatical?  It won’t be complete in another month, that is for sure!  But here are the things I am hoping to accomplish (eventually):

1. identify not separate trails, but a semi-continuous walking trail throughout the Michaux that would feature areas of different geology, microclimates, wetlands, uplands etc; that also feature the plants discovered, introduced or popularized by my Quaker botanists. This would be the basis of my trail guide.

2. Obviously the above task dictates the need to identify a list of such plants that are native to our area, and still in evidence along walking trails.  What are some interesting stories about these plants and how have they been a part of a culture?

3.  Develop a fuller rationale and description of the relationship between their (the Bartrams) Quaker heritage and their subsequent love of nature.  What is unique in Quaker thought that seems to give rise to this phenomena?  This is Penn’s Woods, after all, and I think that we can use a fuller appreciation of the role Quakerism plays in our state history.

4.  Cull the botanists’ journals and writings for evidence of this belief in the “unifying principle throughout all of nature” to which they testified in their words and actions.

5.  How can we be plant explorers in this day and age when it seems as though everything is already known and facts are so readily available to us?  How can we cultivate wonder and curiosity that will carry us through our lives and keep us from ever being bored, or boring!

Thomas Slaughter, who wrote The Natures of John and William Bartram, observes that in the time during which these men lived, the 18th century, gardening was the model past-time and the farmer/gardener was the moral exemplar of our Anglo culture.  We can’t go back to a time that no longer exists, but we can “cultivate” a greater respect for the natural world.  “In John Bartam’s eyes, a flower’s beauty profits us by revealing the nature of God ( Slaughter, p 79).  Bartram also made a living by selling his plants and seeds, but he never lost his respect for nature or looked upon it as a commodity to be exploited.  This sabbatical has been an opportunity to reflect upon the past, and profit from the wisdom that may be what we need to survive into the future.

On Sunday Larry and I worshiped at the Pine Grove M.E. Chapel, near the Park HQ. M.E. stands for Methodist Episcopal which is the earliest expression of Methodism in America.   The chapel, built in the 1870s, has services during the summer at 11 am. It was fun to be able to drive 3 miles to church!  It was also good to be reminded of the days when churches were not fitted with AC, and you had to perspire a bit to get your religion.  Toughens you up!  The chapel does have electric lights now, but still retains the kersosene chandelier and wall lamps.  The pastor who conducts the services is retired, and preached a very credible 40 minute expository sermon on the 2nd chapter of Ephesians.   Our church-going ancestors sat in un-air-conditioned churches on hard pews and and listened to long sermons…so I guess it’s good to practice once in a while!  Zion should not expect me to recommend this to the worship committee, however!  It was a good experience, as has been this whole wonderful month.

Again, thanks for the gift, Zion.






Tired, hot feet cooling in a mountain stream!

The wildflower picture is of shinleaf, Pyrola rotundfolia.  It is blooming now.