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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Lunch on the Grass (A Bite-Sized History of the Picnic)

picnic historical photo
From Michigan’s Copper Country in Early Photos (1977)

And night wears on; the village murmurs cease;
The earth seems dozing in the lap of peace;
The loiterers stroll home; with fond adieus
The lovers part as lovers fondly use;
And they that in the morning’s laughing eye
Went trooping forth, now tranced in slumber lie,
Or, gone with Mab and all her goblin band,
Partake a picnic in the faery land.
—Thomas Durfee, “The Village Picnic” (1915)

Much of what made life pleasurable is now gone. We must seek out what remains. The study of history and the arts, the cultivation of friendship and love (to the extent that the current situation permits it) — such solaces can keep despair at bay, or at least pass the hours until more normal conditions return. So too can prosaic solitary activities, like collecting wildflowers, swimming in ponds or the sea, and marking the shapes of scudding clouds. “Who do you love best,” Charles Baudelaire’s enigmatic man is asked. “I love the clouds, the clouds that pass, eternally, the marvelous clouds,” he answers. Even small pleasures fortify us against hardship ahead.

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Forest Trump: Hansel and Gretel’s Sweet Trick

South of Stuttgart and north of Basel spreads the Black Forest, so named by ancient Romans for the conifers populating it, which grow thickly enough to block the sun. Copses of white pine jut from rolling hills, and ancient oaks crowd deep valleys, sheltering strange fauna not found elsewhere. The Lumbricus badensis, an earthworm of record-setting girth and length, dwells there, as do rare Hinterwälderberg cattle and the tawny Sperlingskauz, an owl that nightly takes to the sky in search of mice and voles to eat.

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