Vegetable Love Vaster Than Empires (William Bartram’s Botanical and Culinary Adventures)

Bartram's Travels Bird Illustration
Image from the Georgia Historical Society

 

“Nature, thou ever budding one,
Thou formats each for life’s enjoyments,
And, like a mother, all thy children dear,
Blessed with that sweet heritage, — a home!”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Wanderer”

There are sometimes born into this world people of singular goodness. American naturalist William Bartram was one such person. (Kaspar Hauser, I would argue, is another.) I came across Bartram while researching staghorn sumac. From the tree’s crimson seed clusters — or drupes, more accurately — comes the lemony seasoning often used in Mediterranean cuisine. Sumac grows just as readily along the Eastern seaboard, as well, and it was one of the many plants Bartram painstakingly classified. He had a great love for plants and animals, a love which he worked tirelessly to impart to the wider world.

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Life Aquatic (A Brief History of Ponds and the Foods Found in Them)

Pond landscape painting ivan shiskin
Ivan Shiskin, Pond (1881)

Old pond,
leap-splash—
a frog.
—Bashō

On summer weekends I swim in a nearby pond. Its water is as dark as Darjeeling tea, the hue owing to the pond’s bed of decayed leaves and organic matter cast off from the masses of trees and plants ringing its banks. The resulting sludge teems with microbes, insects, and all the other minute creatures that feed the snakes, snapping turtles, and bluegills I see as I do my lonely laps. Plants likewise feast on the nitrogen and phosphorus present, and as they grow, flower, and die, they themselves become part of the ooze. Its this virtuous cycle of rot and rebirth that makes ponds and other bodies of water throngingly alive.

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Fish Pudding for Fearless Flyers

Some time before 1879 the peasants of the remote and mountainous district of Telemarken, Norway, grew tired of using their skies solely for traveling along snow-clogged highways. They set out to transform this dull wintertime routine into a competitive and pleasurable sport by devising wild races and stunts that tested participants’ powers of vaulting. News of these hyperboreal capers reached nearby towns and districts, creating such a stir that soon annual competitions came to be held outside Christiania (present-day Oslo). In his 1905 book, Ski-running, D.M.M. Crichton Somerville describes these meets as “very ludicrious, the hill being neither steep nor long, the competitors riding astride their poles down the track, and only jumping, if jumping it could be called, a few yards.” The decidedly unspectacular nature of these feats spelled the competition’s early demise.

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