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USF professor relates to 18th century naturalist William Bartram personally, professionally

SALT SPRINGS

Tom Hallock slips into the vegetation past the cabbage palms and the live oaks and the bay magnolia. A pileated woodpecker hammers a distant pine and the katydids hum what sounds like a requiem. There is no sign of William Bartram, but Hallock has a good imagination.

Closing his eyes, Hallock can imagine the 18th century naturalist creeping carefully through the hammock, stopping, shunting aside the leaves, scrawling something in a notebook with a stubby pencil.

Hallock can imagine the lonely young man breathing in mosquitoes and brushing the ticks from his leggings, all the while trying to make sense of primeval Florida and perhaps his own damaged self-esteem.

What was Bartram thinking on that humid Florida day in 1774?

Perhaps it was as simple as "Here's another interesting plant. Wonder what it is."

Possibly he felt the old stab of melancholy and wondered if he could ever make his father proud.

• • •

In the Ocala National Forest, Tom Hallock reaches through the thicket, crushes a leaf in his hands and breathes deeply. "Spicy, huh?'' he says. "This is really cool to find this plant. It's a yellow anise. Known as Illicium parviflorum today. Bartram first described finding it at Salt Springs in the 1700s. As I stand here, time has closed the 200 years or so between us."

Hallock, 45, is an English professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who enjoys fishing, swimming in springs and growing plants. He is thin and bookish. He is a Bartram fanatic for reasons that include literary and self-interest. In a low time of his life, thinking about Bartram helped lift his blues.

Born in 1739, Bartram was a Philadelphia Quaker who may have had a daddy complex. An eccentric dreamer whose interests seemed to start and stop with plants, Bartram wrote a book about his explorations in southeastern North America known today as Travels.

Bartram identified at least 358 plants in the American South, many new to science. He provided some of the first authoritative descriptions of rattlesnakes, sandhill cranes and alligators. He wrote compassionately about the American Indians who inhabited Florida. They called him "Puc Puggy" — the Flower Hunter.

The Flower Hunter was science-minded and logical. Yet he could be gentle and emotional. He seemed to find the dry language of science insufficient for describing the majesty of nature. So in his writing he alternated the arid lists of plants and animals with romantic prose celebrating the natural world. A talented illustrator, he filled the book with graceful portraits of the plants, animals and Indian people he encountered. Travels is both literature and a historical record.

Modern readers who wade through the pages can be bewildered by Bartram's 18th century prose. But adventuresome readers often are bewitched. Travels has remained on bookstore shelves since 1791. First editions go for about $15,000.

A traveling man himself, Hallock was born in Tennessee and raised in Mississippi, Pennsylvania and New York. He got a doctorate from New York University and taught literature at Valdosta State in Georgia, but felt out of sorts with the world. He moved to St. Petersburg to teach at USF a decade ago and wondered if he'd made a mistake.

He and wife Julie Armstrong were less than enchanted with the flat, humid landscape and the strip malls. "I know I must be missing something," Hallock told friends. He and his black coonhound, Virgil — named after Dante's guide in the Inferno — began exploring. "Bartram gave me a way to look at Florida."

Like Bartram acolytes before him, he eventually wanted to know more about the mysterious author of Travels.

Now he does. And we do, too, because of it. Hallock, Villanova's Nancy Hoffmann and Philadelphia botanist Joel Fry recently edited a collection of the naturalist's art and unpublished writings. William Bartram, The Search For Nature's Design also includes correspondence between Bartram, friends and loved ones.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo won't be displaced on the bestsellers list. Published by the University of Georgia Press, the new Bartram book costs $49.95, boasts 608 pages and weighs 5 pounds — much too heavy for even the most devoted flower hunter to tote into the woods. Tolstoy needed four years to complete War and Peace; Hallock and colleagues toiled on their Bartram collection for seven years.

"When we started gathering information, I could see," Hallock says, sitting in the shadow of a Florida oak. "Now I have to wear bifocals."

He ruined his eyes in libraries all over the country, but especially in Philadelphia at the Bartram House and Gardens, established by William's father, John. An intimidating father, John was King George III's botanist and co-founder of the American Philosophical Society with Benjamin Franklin. John loved his nine children, but especially William, whom he sent to college and invested his hopes.

Alas, William fell short of his father's expectations in every endeavor. Incompetent or indifferent when it came to women, he never married or produced children to carry on the family name. He had no apparent marketable skills. He failed as a merchant in North Carolina, blew his inheritance and headed home, the humbled prodigal son.

Next, his father set him up in the business of growing indigo near St. Augustine. A stranger in a strange land, William fell into a deep depression and barely managed to feed himself. A family friend who visited the plantation wrote the young man's father that the underachieving son was feeling the pressure "of his solitary & hopeless condition so heavily as almost to drive him to despondency …" That letter, and 200 others, is included in Hallock's book.

Hallock relates to the out-of-sorts Bartram. Born with poor hearing, Hallock remembers his parents pointing out that "Tommy doesn't listen well." He was a smart kid who never looked forward to report card day. He did well in college, but says "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life and had to move back home with my parents as an adult." He wears aids in both ears, gnaws his fingernails and suffers from insomnia. He worries that "I'm boring. I'm just an academic."

• • •

After the indigo plantation failed, William Bartram returned to Philadelphia and his father's home, where he would always be known as Billy. At least he was good with plants and could help in the family horticulture business.

In 1772, he caught a break. A British physician, John Fothergill, hired him to conduct a survey of plants and animals in the American South. Fothergill, of course, hoped to profit from the information. Billy Bartram jumped at the priceless opportunity to establish himself as his own man.

He traveled through wilderness in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, compiling lists of flora and fauna all the while. In 1774 he made it into North Florida, traveling the St. Johns River, Paynes Prairie (near Gainesville) and west to Manatee Springs near the gulf.

He was memorably terrified by alligators. "Two very large ones attacked me closely, at the same instant, rushing up with their heads and part of their bodies above the water, roaring terribly and belching floods of water over me. They struck their jaws together so close to my ears, as almost to stun me." He encountered "incredible numbers of small flying insects … greater than the whole race of mankind." He watched the mating dance of sandhill cranes and drew pictures of turtles, snakes and many plants.

When he returned to Philadelphia in 1777, the nation was at war with the crown and his father was ailing. After his death Bartram grieved. But he also may have felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. He began writing, first a biological record of his travels for his benefactor in England and a memoir of his travels for posterity. He took his time, eventually blending the two into one extraordinary work.

American readers ignored Travels for the most part; Europeans were enthralled. The British romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was inspired enough to use Bartram imagery in a new poem, Kubla Khan.

Bartram never became a celebrity in his lifetime and never traveled again. By some accounts, he suffered from bouts of depression. If so, he tried to keep the dark thoughts at bay the only way he could. He was writing nature notes in his journal under a pear tree when he dropped dead in the garden — at age 84.

• • •

As he worked on his Bartram book, Hallock was challenged by more than the usual writer's angst. A close relative with severe manic depression needed constant supervision. Another loved one in Illinois attempted suicide. Hallock fished the box cutter out of the tub, washed away the blood and spent a lot of time visiting the mental hospital, trying to buck up the patient's spirits while wondering about his own literary ambitions.

"A book about nature," he wrote in an essay, "came to feel like madness. William Bartram became folded in my mind with the sweet, industrial smell of hospital soap and the dull thud of a steel door."

In Bartram's day, before the advent of psychotropic drugs, a man might keep himself on an even keel by working with plants. Returning to St. Petersburg, Hallock instructed his USF students and taught himself plants — Bartram's plants.

In his yard Hallock grew coontie, a plant Bartram's native people baked into a bread, beautyberry and oak-leafed hydrangea. He grew Walter's viburnum and planted a Passiflora incarnata hedge along the fence.

Last February he and his wife adopted a 9-year-old boy. Hallock is teaching his son how to fish and how to swim and something about Florida history. The boy asked why they didn't have a real lawn; you know, one with St. Augustine grass. Hallock told him about Bartram and native muhly grass. If muhly grass was good enough for Bartram it was good enough for the Hallocks.

At Salt Springs, in Ocala National Forest, Tom Hallock admires the cedars and the magnolias. "Is it a Magnolia grandiflora? Or a Gordonia lasianthus?" He gathers seedpods to send off to the curator of Bartram's garden in Philadelphia.

Now he rests on a picnic table and from his backpack removes a dog-eared, marked-up copy of Travels. He reads the part where Bartram sees the spring for the first time.

"Behold, for instance," Hallock reads aloud, "a vast circular expanse before you, the waters of which are so extremely clear as to be absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether … At the same instant innumerable bands of fish are seen, some clothed in the most brilliant colours …"

Tom Hallock removes his shirt. He removes his shoes. He goes swimming in William Bartram's spring.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

THE TOME

William Bartram, The Search for Nature's Design: Selected Art, Letters, & Unpublished Writings

By Thomas Hallock and Nancy E. Hoffmann

University of Georgia Press, 608 pages, $49.95

Meet the author

Thomas Hallock will be a featured author at the 2010 St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, 10 a.m. to
4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Admission is free. For information, go to festivalofreading.com.

To see video
of Thomas
Hallock, go to
video.tampabay.com.

USF professor relates to 18th century naturalist William Bartram personally, professionally 10/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 6:50pm]

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