10/17/2012 07:57 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

William Bartram's Bible, Early American Environmentalism and Animal Advocacy

The American naturalist William Bartram published his account of travels in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and East and West Florida in 1791. His book Travels is a remarkable text combining scientific reporting, complete with Linnaean taxonomies of excruciating detail, and surprising poetic flourishes. One quickly grows accustomed to reading of palm trees said to be pompous, or the plumage of Spanish curlews that are "white as the immaculate robe of innocence," gleaming in the cerulean skies.

Bartram's observations encompass "Men and manners" as well as whatever "may contribute to [their] existence." What interests me here is one curious way he brings these two subjects together, namely his habit of aligning human characters with the natural world. Reading about an insect, bird or animal on one page frequently recalls a human character mentioned on another, and conversely, his scientific reporting on natural wonders is often vaguely familiar because similar phrasing, value judgments, even narrative settings repeat. Bartram liberally recycles words and ideas. Said differently, Bartram populates his writing with anthropomorphic animals and zoomorphic people.

To illustrate, immediately after a description of the great land tortoise that "issues forth in the night, in search of prey," Bartram reports an encounter with a lone Seminole occurring, he says specifically, at "the close of day." He fears this man intends to kill him but Bartram manages to assuage his violent intent. As it turns out, Bartram's initial suspicions were accurate. A chief informs him later that this warrior was one of the greatest villains on earth, an outlaw who recently escaped justice from his own people, stole a rifle and vowed, "'he would kill the first white man he met.'" Note the parallels between these two episodes. A hunting tortoise leaves his home, at night, in search of prey. A human hunter also leaves his home (his people), at night, in search of prey (a white man). Both stories appear in close proximity.

Or consider his vivid account of the exploits of a spider attacking a bee. He refers to the arachnid as a "cunning intrepid hunter," adding that it "conducted his subtil [sic] approaches with the circumspection and perseverance of a Siminole [sic] when hunting a deer." Here too commentary on the natural world aligns artistically with proximate human characters, even beyond the comparison of the spider to a Seminole warrior. At this point in the narrative, Bartram is in the company of a hunter said to be "an excellent marksman." They come across two bears and this hunter shoots one of them but to Bartram's surprise, the other does not run off. As he puts it, the second bear "approached the dead body, smelled, and pawed it, and appearing in agony, fell to weeping and looking upwards, then towards us, and cried out like a child." As Bartram's hunter companion prepared to shoot the young cub, the writer is conflicted:

I was moved with compassion, and charging myself as if accessary to what now appeared to be a cruel murder, endeavoured to prevail on the hunter to save its life, but to no effect! for by habit he had become insensible to compassion towards the brute creation.

We move quickly from the bear story, which highlights the hunter's skill as an expert shooter, his violence and his lack of compassion, to the spider story. Both use the terms "hunter" and "prey," both emphasize the predators' prowess, and comment on the victims' distress. Whereas the bear cub cries like a child, the bee (Bartram refers to it as "he") endeavours to extricate itself from the web, becomes fatigued then exhausted by his struggles, and suffers "the repeated wounds of the butcher." It is difficult not to read these stories in light of the other, with the result that Bartram most resembles the bear cub in its tender childlike grief for the fallen dam, and the murderous hunter the butchering spider. We hear echoes of one story in the other. The same occurs with Bartram's use of the Bible. Though not often referred to explicitly, its influence is pervasive. Bartram's scientific writing is simultaneously a religious statement.

For the Quaker William Bartram, the world is "a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator." He rhapsodizes over the "amplitude and magnificence" of Charleston, which presents to his imagination "an idea of the first appearance of the earth to man at the creation." With these words, Bartram grounds his real-life adventures in the mythological landscape of the Book of Genesis. He even arrives at this American Eden after sailing through a "furious gale," recalling perhaps the opening verses of the Bible that progress from watery chaos to order, as God separates water and land.

If the pristine lands of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are Eden, Bartram is Adam, exercising his God-given "dominion" over "the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" (Genesis 1:26). He comments on each category in Travels -- fish, birds, domestic and wild animals -- and even gives names to particular species in true Adamic fashion (cf. Genesis 2:19).

At least on the surface, the language of Genesis emphasizes the relationship of animals to the first man as a functional one. Adam needs companionship in Eden so God makes animals from the very dust from which he made the first man (Genesis 2:18-19; cf. 2:7). There is an interconnectedness of the species implied in this story -- a common origin in dust and the creative acts of God -- and an emphasis on the proximity and mutual dependence of all living things. Adam depends on animals for companionship; animals depend on Adam for their names. Similarly, Bartram's American Eden reveals an interconnectedness of plants, animals and humans, and not infrequently, he offers accounts of their various functions in the broader ecosystem. "In every order of nature," he writes, "we perceive a variety of qualities distributed amongst individuals, designed for different purposes and uses," which ultimately "manifest the divine and inimitable workmanship."

Animals might serve human needs but remarkably, Bartram advocates for them as well, urging others against unnecessary killing. He even writes of human obligations to other living things, writing about "our duties to each other, and all creatures and concerns that are submitted to our care and controul [sic]." Soon after this acknowledgment of human obligation to animals, he writes of "horned cattle, horses, sheep, and deer," a list that distinguishes domestic from wild animals just as we find in the Book of Genesis (1:26; cf. 2:20: "The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field").

We find another way Bartram aligns animals and humans in his reflections on the ethical behaviors of non-human species. He describes himself as an "advocate or vindicator of the benevolent and peaceable disposition of animal creation in general, not only towards mankind, whom they seem to venerate, but always towards one another, except where hunger or the rational and necessary provocations of the sensual appetite interfere."

Animals kill only as necessity dictates. Perhaps the most memorable illustration of his point is a story concerning a rattlesnake discovered near a campsite, along the path to a nearby spring. Bartram only discovered the "hideous serpent" in the morning, noting he and his companions passed close to it several times through the night oblivious to the danger lying "within six inches of the narrow path." Bartram credits their safety in face of such danger to both God and the morality of the natural world, referring to the snake's dignity and generosity. Bartram is so moved by the incident that he takes steps to "protect the life of the generous serpent," adding, "I am proud to assert, that all of us, except one person, agreed to let him lie undisturbed, and that person was at length prevailed upon to suffer him to escape."

This assessment of the restraint displayed by the natural world, which refrains from unnecessary violence against other living things, stands in sharp contrast with various incidents involving the unnecessary killing of animals by humans. As noted earlier, the unnecessary killing of two bears disturbed him and later he reports pleading with a hunter to preserve a herd of deer. Bartram censures those who kill without cause. The killing of a bear -- not for food or self-defense -- is no less than a "cruel murder" by one "insensible to compassion."

More times than not Bartram's alignment of people and animals concerns those he meets but occasionally we find him comparing his own circumstances to the plight of animals. One interesting example of this follows his account of a species of wild pigeon that migrates south. He introduces these birds immediately after remarking, "Having now completed my collections in Georgia, I took leave of these Southern regions." Like these birds, Bartram's migration was for a season; these birds fly south to feed their bodies, he tells us, while presumably the author's journey south feeds his intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure. This description of migratory birds provides a perfect segue for Bartram as he begins narrating his journey back north. There is further reason to read his comments about these pigeons in relation to Bartram's experiences at this point. He tells us these particular birds are easy prey for hunters that blind the pigeons with light at night, knock them off branches with sticks when they are startled, and throw them into sacks. The hunters Bartram describes are black slaves, a relevant detail because Bartram imagines himself hunted by, in his words, "a predatory band of Negroes" in the paragraphs following.

The sequencing of these two stories is interesting because Bartram appears to identify with the "entirely helpless" birds hunted by black hunters, when he is "situated every way in [the] power" of other black ("predatory") hunters. He finds in the vulnerability of animals a way of articulating his own plight (even though the danger in this case is imagined, not actual). The parallel stories imply empathy. He understands the plight of those "affright[ed]" birds.

Animals lurk in the background as Bartram describes human characters, and the reverse is equally true. These overlapping narratives about humans and animals allows the reader to see the interrelatedness of the natural world. The drifting of imagery across the species defies the rigidity of Linnaean taxonomy, suggesting animals are quite human and humans quite bestial. For Bartram, his poetic blurring of the species is a by-product of a key theological assumption, namely his repeated insistence that all living things originate in the creative acts of God. All living things populate the "glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator," as he puts it. Almost 70 years before The Origin of Species, Bartram wrote eloquently of the interrelatedness of the natural world, and out of this flowed concern to limit the suffering of non-human species.