Gingko leaf

Rant for John Bartram

            So you’re in his Philadelphia garden, expecting an eye-popping tour, because, after all, John Bartram is one of your heroes, and you’ve traveled halfway across the United States to visit his eight-acre garden on 45 acres of sacred ground on the Schuylkill River, the plot from which he shipped so many American plants to England, practically turning that island’s landscape into a miniature America, with magnolia, birch, hawthorn, pine and oak, allowing the wealthy British to “paint” their landscapes with fall foliage for the first time, and Bartram, ever humble, hardly ever paid, toiling to promote American botany, all botany gaining from his persistent exploration, cataloging, classifying, cultivating of dozens and dozens of new species he discovered; and you’ve read that the oldest Gingko tree in the United States (still a sapling when Bartram died in 1777), as well as Franklinia trees, named for his friend Benjamin Franklin, and not seen in the wild since 1803, are both in Bartram’s Garden and you’re hoping the tour will explain the complexities of Bartram’s life, his passion for plants, his fight for freedom—not from England, but from the wars that would stop the shipments of plants to Europe and from England and France to Philadelphia—because he is already free and independent and active, and you want to see the remains of that activity, like the facsimile of the broadsheet catalog, America’s first botanical offerings, printed in 1783, a 22-by-17-inch sheet of paper with almost 220 “trees, shrubs, and herbacious plants,” which you imagine will incarnate the past, as will the plots of plants, maintained year after year, in spite of illness, age, war and weather, and you have brought your camera and your tape recorder with plans to stay as close to the tour guide as possible, and you enter the garden, maintained by a private society of friends, and the gift shop is closed and no tours are being given this month, and the place is weed-strewn, and un-mown, and you remember reading what George Washington said during a visit in 1787, when he found the working garden to be “not laid off with much taste,” and now even the signage is spoiled by rain and mold and you realize that your plans are as difficult to execute as his were, and like him, you accept that, and you talk your rant into your microphone and you take pictures of what you think is the oldest Gingko, and the Franklinia, and you leave, saddened but knowing that there are books, the same books that lured you halfway across the country, and you will read them, the pictures you’ve taken at your side, and you will donate to the private society and hope that someday John Bartram’s garden will be the place that it never was but in your own overzealous imagination.  

"Rant for John Bartram" first appeared in Foliate Oak








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