And he [King Solomon] spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. 1 Kings 4:33 JKV
The 1 Kings passage above makes it clear—humankind’s fascination with the intricacies of nature long predates the 18th century, yet the 1700s were undoubtedly a prolific era for the advancement of the natural sciences, including the science of botany; most notably the establishing of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’s system for classifying plants and animals, Systema Naturae.
England and Europe abounded with botanists, but it wasn’t until he crossed the ocean to Philadelphia that Scotsman Neil MacGregor, one of the main characters in my novel, Burning Sky, began to study the science of botany in earnest. In Philadelphia he rubbed shoulders with members of the American Philosophical Society (founded in 1743 to promote knowledge in the sciences and humanities). These members included botany enthusiasts and artists John and William Bartram. Inspired by the Bartrams’ travels and detailed depictions of plant and animal life, Neil MacGregor would have learned of other botanists who contributed to this growing branch of science in the American colonies, men and women who had explored the mountain, piedmont and coastal wilds of the New World before the Bartrams’ time.
Englishman Mark Catesby (1682—1749), a student of natural history in London, first came to Virginia in 1712. There he collected botanical specimens and seeds of New World flora, which he sent back to England, earning a reputation among the scientific community. On behalf of the Royal Society, he undertook a plant-collecting expedition to Carolina in 1722. His wonder for the natural world and a spirit of discovery combined to lead him to other parts of eastern North America and the West Indies, until Catesby returned again to England in 1726.
For the next seventeen years, Catesby prepared his illustrated guide to the flora and fauna of North
America, Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, 1731-1743. Catesby was the first to use colored plates in a natural history book, and his beautifully rendered illustrations stood as the definitive resource for North American plant and animal life until the 1800s. Catesby is recognized as one of the first scientists to describe bird migration, and in his 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (1758), Carl Linnaeus included much of the information in Catesby’s Natural History.
Surrounded by such flourishing knowledge in Philadelphia, with John Bartram’s famous botanical garden at hand—and with considerable artistic skill of his own—it was easy to imagine how Neil MacGregor would have followed the siren call of the frontier and the botanical treasures it promised. The adventurous spirit of men like the Bartrams and Catesby was a strong inspiration for me in defining Neil’s vision of contributing to the ever increasing knowledge of our natural world.
Though Willa’s fingers proved long of memory, an hour’s writing had cramped her hand. On this second evening of taking up a goose quill—unlike the first practice turn—Neil MacGregor had spread his drawings across the table. One by one she’d added the notations he had long carried in his memory. It was start-and-stop work. Often he began speaking, only to halt her so he could rephrase his words.
“Aye,” he said after such a pause. “Begin with this: ‘The petal’s shadings impart a liveliness to the whole, being of a luminous pink.’” He waited for her to write that much, then went on. “When an insect alights upon the blossom cups, the stamens, which are fit into pockets in the petals, rise and powder it with pollen.”
Beautiful as were his drawings, it was the glimpse into Neil MacGregor’s mind Willa found most absorbing. She dipped the quill and penned his words below the colorful likeness of bog laurel.
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