The Lost Franklin Tree

franklinia

William Bartram, Franklinia alatamaha (1782)

As naturalist William Bartram traveled through the eastern woods and swamps of southern Georgia near Fort Barrington in 1773, he found many plants of interest to his pen, which he collected for study and propagation—both at home in Philadelphia and specimens sent to England for collaborative observation by naturalists there. One blooming shrub caught his attention: “I passed through a well-inhabited district, mostly rice plantations, on the waters of Cat-head creek, a branch of the Alatamaha,” he wrote in Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “On drawing near the fort, I was greatly delighted at the appearance of two beautiful shrubs in all their blooming graces. One of them appeared to be a species of Gordonia, but the flowers are larger, and ore fragrant than those of the Gordonia lasianthus” (native loblolly bay). He shipped seeds to his father, John, in Philadelphia and sent a second specimen to London.

Although Bartram had travelled through this region with his father eight years earlier, and remembers the plant, they had not collected seeds. They observed a few “very curious shrubs,” one with “beautiful good fruite” (seedpods), but their notes do not hold specific mention of the species.

On August 16, 1783, Bartram wrote Linnaeus, Chair of Botany at Uppsala University, with a description and sketch asking for a new genus designation, but Linnaeus died before replying. In 1788, Bartram sent another request to England but he received a reply that the “botanists in England will not…allow it to be properly named.” Sir Joseph Banks, new president of Royal Society, placed it in Gordonia.
That would seem to be the end of the story. But the curator of the Historic Collections at Bartram’s Garden, Joel Fry, suggests otherwise. He thinks the exchange lacks scientific discourse and was a move to “enforce European supremacy in botanical nomenclature.” Moreover, it may not have sat well with British botanists to name a species after Ben Franklin—a revolutionary leader—so soon after the Revolution.

Bartram remarks: “I have travelled by land from Pennsylvania to the banks of the Mississippi, over almost all the Territory in that distance between the Sea shore & the first mountains, cross-d all the Rivers, and assended them from their capes a many miles; & search’d their various branches Yet never saw This beautiful Tree growing wild but in one spot on the Alatamaha about 30 miles from the Sea Coast.” (to Barclay 1788)

The description of Franklinia does not appear in his journal sent to John Fothergill, so his account of it in Travels, while not suspect, is difficult to measure for accuracy of location and date—both of interest to the subsequent search for the plant throughout the nineteenth century. We know he collected specimens, for one flowered for the first time in the Bartram garden in 1781. It was still known in the wild in Georgia, reported by plant collectors Moses Marshall and Luigi Castiglioni both in 1790.

The last reported sighting in the wild was in 1803 by John Lyon, a Scottish plant collector. When he found Franklinia he located only 6 or 8 trees and remarked how strange it was that the plant should not be found in other locales in the U.S. Franklinia alatamaha is now extinct in the wild. Though The Nature Conservancy, which has purchased large tracks of former forestry land along the Altamaha River, has tried reintroductions from propagated plants (available from Bartram’s original collections), those attempts have failed. (More on this in a future essay.)

frankliniaalatamahastamp

Franklinia alatamaha, International Botanical Congress (1969).

In much of my research about extinction, memory, and memorialization, I have found cautionary tales. Monuments to the passenger pigeon, for example, talk about the loss as a tragedy brought on by humans. But Franklinia is a different kind of loss. It was lost not at the end of the nineteenth century when naturalists had become more aware of the power of human exploitation to drive species decline, but at the start of that century when the nation was still being cataloged, discovered, and explored.

While no one at the time seems to have mourned its loss, on August 23, 1969, the International Botanical Congress issued four stamps to commemorate plants associated with four regions of the U.S. to mark the 11th annual meeting of the organization in Seattle. Franklinia alatamaha was chosen to represent the South. The showy flower is in the foreground with a sprig of leaves and in the background stands a plantation house. This is the only one of the four stamps that includes a human element. Franklinia is conflated with the loss of human institutions and therefore is associated with domestic life. The only Franklinia trees remaining today are those propagated from the ones collected at the end of the eighteenth century. The memorial stamp then, is commenting upon the loss of the species’ wildness in its original home. At the same time, the Botanical Congress may have viewed this species as a success story–one which their field had saved from complete extinction.

In a later essay, I will explore and unpack the plantation house imagery, as well the local history and identity connected to both plant and plantation.

Resources & References

Braund, Kathryn E. Holland and Charlotte Porter, eds. Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram. The University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Bartram, William. Travels of William Bartram. Dover Publications, 1955.

Magee, Judith. The Art and Science of William Bartram. Penn State University Press, 2007.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Natures of John and William Bartram. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Wulf, Andrea. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession. New York: Vintage, 2010.

__ Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the         American Nation. New York: Knopf, 2011.

Categories: Plants | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Osa Johnson’s Jungle

Osa Johnson with her pet gibbon ape, Wah Wah.

Osa Johnson with her pet gibbon ape, Wah Wah.

When she walked through the tropical forest, adventurer Osa Johnson found the nature of the jungle troubling. In Last Adventure, her account of her last expedition to Borneo in 1935-6 with her husband Martin, she describes hacking through a “solid jungle wall of tangled foliage . . . nature’s last and strongest defense,” and being struck by the coexistence of the “beautiful and defiant.” To her, nature was a “riotous range of green,” containing a “mystical and silent aura of black-green gloom,” and the forest “a dazzling quiltwork of sinister and alluring palms.” But she also appreciated the beauty of the jungle because of its threatening mysteries. In Borneo, she observed, “the beautiful and the unaesthetic lived side by side.”

37_68_H1139_houseboat04 copy

The Johnsons’ houseboat afloat on Borneo’s Kinabatangan River.

When she made her way through the dense tropical forest, its foliage swept against her. It was, on experience, running counter to her ideal, organized, nature. It didn’t penetrate the walls of her home or the fences around her garden, like the scavenging elephants she had previously encountered, but forced itself onto her body. The touch of the jungle tore. On one trek, she discovered the “soft, slimy anatomy of a leech” on the back of her neck. As soon as she located one, she and the rest of the expedition realized they were covered with leeches. “I yielded to my first impulse, which was to scream,” she wrote, but then “I turned to the immediate practicality of removing the annelid.” While the experience initially disgusted her, leeches then ceased to be horrifying creatures and became objectified elements of the natural world she called by their scientific name.

Osa turned moments when the jungle appalled or threatened her into practical lessons about the ecology and wildlife of the region. Just as Martin’s films juggled education and science, Osa’s writing alternated between narratives of her own emotional encounters and practical advice for living in the jungle. While the “unaesthetic” or “defiant” may not always be made “beautiful,” it might at least be dealt with efficiently by the rational thinking of an American housewife.

In a recipe for soup, Osa further reveals the sometimes unpleasant duties of a self-made woman in the wild–this time in East Africa. “The point about Gazelle Consommé,” she confided, “is to first catch your gazelle. Then, having caught him, to make soup out of him. It is almost impossible, to bring yourself to the soup point when gazing into his large, soft, limpid eyes that beg you to open up a can of soup instead!” This “recipe” revealed her ambivalence about killing animals, yet she clearly felt that killing to satisfy her desire for a good consommé was a better alternative than consuming a mass-produced canned product.

Ever feminine, Osa poses with a lion kill and her makeup.

Ever feminine, Osa poses with a lion kill and her makeup.

Although Osa enjoyed hunting, she claimed never to have killed an animal without cause; either she and Martin was in clear danger of an attack or they needed meat. While the roles of protector and provider fell within the prescribed duties of female homemaker, acting out these roles through hunting exotic game was a novelty. To her audience, Johnson’s work in her home and garden fell within the expected realm of female work and the acceptable forms of feminine interactions with nature. As a hunter, Johnson had to carefully position her reasons for killing in order to retain her image as not just a female adventurer but a distinctly feminine one. She left the boundaries of home and its closely related garden and entered a landscape not controlled by male or female.

Throughout her life and adventures, Johnson considered her ability to create a home in the jungle among her greatest accomplishments and downplayed her excellent marksmanship. She saved Martin’s life countless times with her ability to act in moments of imminent danger, but she cast these moments as elements of chance. Osa hardly ever wrote of trophy hunting (though she did plenty of it) and portrayed her love of fishing as a childlike amusement. When she did brag about a kill, her pride was not in besting the animal, but in providing an elegant meal for her husband and guests. One of Martin’s photographs showed her grinning with pride holding a freshly killed turkey meant for Christmas dinner. When Osa wrote of this episode, however, she did not describe this posed moment but rather the moments after the kill, as she watched blood splatter from the bird and realized “as never before that there was more joy in shooting with a camera than a gun.” Still, she confessed, “this wild African turkey would taste mighty good on Christmas Day.”

Fur and animal prints were part of Osa's signature style. Here, she holds a fur shawl while signing a mock copy of her zebra patterned autobiography, I Married Adventure.

Animal elements were part of Osa’s signature style. Here, she holds a fur shawl while signing a mock copy of her zebra-patterned autobiography, I Married Adventure.

Every kill was used in its entirety. Regarding her penchant for wearing animal products, Johnson maintained that she was not promoting the wasteful and exploitative fur industry. When asked by a reporter if she liked to shoot animals for attire, she replied: “Whenever we kill a bustard (African wild turkey) we always save the wings for a hat. And whenever we kill a guinea foul, we say ‘The pompon for a turban, the breast for a roast, the legs for soup and the other feathers for a pillow. Perhaps this is a survival of my western pioneer ancestral thrift.”

Adapted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).

Resources & References

Archives of the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas.

Osa Johnson, Last Adventure (1966).

___I Married Adventure (1940).

Categories: Culture, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

William Beebe’s “Fascinating Game”

Beebe colorfully-illustrated article in the New York World reflects his beliefs about birds and artistry.

William Beebe believed zoos had the potential to inspire. Visitors must be, he insisted, “pleased, entertained and instructed.” Artists, he continued, should observe grace and color. Ornithologists should find answers to their scientific inquiries. Foreigners should view reminders of their homeland with pride, and the “child of the slums” should stand “speechless with delight.” Beauty, knowledge, nostalgia, and enlightenment were all pieces of Beebe’s ideal exhibit, and his ambitions for the zoo were as political as they were aesthetic. The zoo provided an escape from urban life, enlightenment of the masses, and a space for conservation education. The latter intention was a goal with concrete objectives. Ladies, wrote Beebe, should swear to never wear feathers again after “seeing them adorning the living form of their rightful owner!” It was this conservation message that truly defined the New York Zoological Park as something other than animal amusement. Beebe envisioned his bird exhibition as a place in which minds were changed about personal interactions with nature and wildlife.

When the New York Zoological Park opened in 1899, its exhibits had included the Reptile House, buffalo range, alligator pool, sea lion enclosures, beaver dam, and bear dens. One of the most praised exhibits was the Aquatic Bird House. Cages lining the exterior of the building contained birds of prey–owls, eagles, hawks, and vultures. But the inside, wrote one journalist, “was a revelation.” A photograph from the time showed ducks, flamingos, egrets, penguins, geese, storks, pelicans, and “other water fowl from many climes” standing around a small concrete pool. There was a door at the far end, and two palm trees framed either side of the enclosure. Upon his arrival, Beebe took charge of this collection of birds. In addition to those in and around the Aquatic Bird House, Beebe was responsible for the Duck Aviary, the Winter Shelter House, and the half-completed Flying Cage. Altogether there were 36 avian species and 175 individual birds.

Beebe was unimpressed with these exhibits and collections. When he assumed responsibility in 1899, he joked that he had become the curator of a handful of ducks and geese. He was more pleased when the Flying Cage was completed. In June 1900, Beebe released one hundred birds into the enclosure, which was 150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 50 feet tall. In contrast to the concrete surroundings of the Aquatic Bird House, the Flying Cage was wide open, contained rooted trees, and was bisected by a naturalistic stream. New enclosures featured numerous pheasant cages, facilities for ostrich, a wildfowl pond, wild turkey range, macaw tree, crane paddock, and the House for Perching Birds.

By 1902, the Bronx Zoo’s initial success had secured funding for additional buildings, including the Antelope House and the Lion House. These exhibits impressed the English writer and sportsman F. G. Aflalo, who visited the zoo in 1906. “The visitor finds at once the expression of American ideals and the reproach of European Zoos,” he wrote. “Perspective, immensity, a middle distance that would measure the furthest limit of Old World menageries, to which it is as New York’s flatiron buildings to mud hovels in Connemara.” Aflalo suggested that the Bronx Zoo embodied ideas specific to American culture regarding the abundance of the natural world. It was an expression, he said, of the nation’s “freedom from the trammels of tradition and immunity from the handicap of obsolete ideals of architecture, as well as to that liberal policy of progress which is the comfortable equation of public subsidy and private generosity.”

Inside Beebe’s bird house visitors participated in a game of identification.

Beebe’s contribution to this mass “expression of American ideals” opened, fortuitously, on July 4, 1905. The House for Perching Birds stood grandly on Baird (now Astor) Court at the center of the zoo. “From an aesthetic and utilitarian point of view,” boasted Beebe in the NYZS’s Bulletin, “there is no doubt that it excels most other buildings of its kind in the world.” The enclosures lived up to the zoo’s overall goals of providing ample and aesthetically pleasing space for its animals. Its ceiling was equipped with movable glass panels to allow ventilation and light. The openness of the space and its high ceilings exemplified Aflalo’s idea of an American obsession with “immensity.” The specimens were abundant and diverse. Inside was Beebe’s pride and joy–a small flying cage (36 x 15 x 20 feet) including potted trees and flowering vines, an environment he described as “happily combining a profusion of flowers with brightly-colored song birds.”

Within the flying cage of the House for Perching Birds, a variety of species lived together. This break in traditional bird display was criticized by European aviculturalists. Generally, each enclosure housed just one species, which prevented conflict between birds and provided neat and orderly labeling of enclosures so visitors could be told exactly what they were seeing. In Beebe’s cage, however, all attempts to direct the viewer’s gaze were given over to randomness. Beebe provided visitors with picture-coded identification cards, which encouraged visitors to make a game of watching and naming various bird species as they flew around freely within the enclosure. Beebe believed that this exhibition technique allowed visitors to engage actively in their own experience with, and observation of, his bird collection.

The critical European aviculturalists were skeptical about Beebe’s endeavor. They complained that the glass roof would create climate trouble; the potted plants would attract mice and rats; and the mixing of species and introduction of new birds to already stable enclosures would lead to the intimidation and death of some birds. Additionally, they claimed Beebe’s exhibit would confuse the public. Visitors would be flustered by the picture labels and desire the straightforward labeling of one species in one cage with a single label. Beebe’s cage, said one, “can only have been conceived by someone entirely unacquainted with birds.”

While Beebe conceded that climate and rodents presented difficulties, he stuck by his other methods of display. He insisted the public was curious and interested in the active observation encouraged by his identification cards. He saw encounters between visitors and bird identification as “a fascinating game” that resulted in the acquisition of “considerable knowledge of several species of birds.” Mixing species encouraged a realistic picture of birds as they existed in the wild.

Excerpted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).

Resources & References

Beebe, C. William. “History of the Bird Department of the Zoological Park,” Bulletin of the Zoological Society (June 1910).

Bridges, Gathering of Animals: An unconventional history of the New York Zoological Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Hornaday, William T. “Zoological Garden Nearly Completed,” New York Times, May 17, 1908.


Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.