Updated: Feb 22, 2020
I moved to Philadelphia twenty years ago. It was a hot, dry summer day and I felt far away from the cool shade of my yard in Massachusetts. I knew nothing about the gardens that once lined the banks of the Schuylkill river or that John Bartram’s house still stands just downriver from my house. My book, Vanished Gardens, is the story of my journey through the gardens of the past. Along the way I discovered that William Bartram was part of a large family. The Bartrams’ lives intertwined with the other naturalists and gardeners that I came to know.
I spent weeks in archives and libraries reading letters and looking at maps. One day I went to Bartram’s Garden and tried to find out all I could about Ann Bartram, William’s mother. When John was collecting plants for his gardens and for subscribers in Britain and Europe, she took care of his correspondence and shipped plants and seeds to Thomas Jefferson or Peter Collinson in England or gardeners in Charleston, South Carolina.
The outline of John Bartram’s botanic garden still survives in a slope down to the river, the original line of trees marching to the bank of the wide shallow tidal rush. A drawing of the garden that William Bartram made in 1758 and his father sent to Collinson shows the garden and the house from the river.
There’s a pond in the middle of the drawing and three lines of trees to the left. Near the house in a neat fence is a “new flower garden” under the windows of a structure marked “my study.” The common flower garden is directly in front of the house and to its right is the upper kitchen garden and below that, covering the large space above the pond, is the lower kitchen garden. Beyond these enclosed gardens near the house were fields where crops were grown, a barn, a dairy, a cider mill. Somewhere there was an orchard. Smoke curls in puffs above the two chimneys on the house.
I like the fact that when William Bartram returned from his years of travel in the wild parts of Florida and Georgia all the way to the banks of the Mississippi he rode his horse home. He was alone and traveled north in the winter on the sandy hard beaches of the Carolinas, a solitary man on a horse trotting across the yellow sands on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
He came home to his father’s farm and garden at Kingsessing and lived there for almost forty more years. In 1805 he turned down an offer from Jefferson to lead an expedition up the Red River. He was too old, he said. He was a gardener from the time he rode up to his father’s house in the winter of 1777 to his death in July in 1823. He had just taken his morning stroll in the garden.
Bartram kept careful records of the migration of birds. His notations on the pages of small bound notebooks, now fallen apart, welcomed flocks of birds as friends from the fall returned in the spring.
I know the weather for twenty years, a list of familiar birds, the opening petals of winter aconite, swelling of peach buds, the misty sky, the mild sun, the shiny moon, sultry days and the fields drying up or wet Julys where the hay rotted. I know that some summer nights were so dark with thunder that William Bartram noted that the candles were lit to dine. I know there was a little owl who came back year after year.
Now and then Bartram’s notations look different, smaller script, less detail. In the last year he kept the diary his writing scrawls across one page as if his hand slipped.
There were northern lights in April in 1820 and on September 12th he wrote: “Last night & this morning we were favoured, I may say blessed with copius showers of rain.” By November he was having a hard time writing. A snowy winter followed and in May he noted that the “wood robbin” had arrived and the plum, cherry, apple, pear, goose-berry were in flower. The sun was “red smoky” the day the Blue linnet arrived.
Each day, like a prayer, William Bartram recorded the small life of the garden in a book no bigger than his palm.
By the time I finished writing my book, I felt surrounded by the voices and landscape of the past.