Brent Martin, “When the heart can no longer say home”

The day will arrive when those afflicted people will not only have full satisfaction for their oppressions, but dreadful irrevocable wrath, when they will be masters and either enslave or exterminate them, their masters and oppressors, unless ye speedily take measures to do them justice by giving them liberty, freedom, thus natural and political right equal to our own maxims and solemn acts and promises in the face of heaven. . . (William Bartram, Antislavery Treatise, published in Catalogue of American Trees, (Philadelphia, 1783)

The confident, digitized woman in the smart phone tells us to exit, so we follow her commands and leave Interstate 81 to run the gauntlet of southwest Philadelphia towards Bartram’s Garden, through one of the highest unemployment and crime ridden areas of the city, past the boarded up and burned out row houses, past the wandering homeless and drug addled adults, and onto Lexington Road.  Turning right at the public housing project called Bartram Village we follow the signs down to the entrance for one of the oldest and most significant gardens in America.  I’m questioning the artificial woman inside the smart phone for selecting this route, but I’m glad she did.  I needed to see the garden from this perspective, this oasis of sweetness lying within a post-industrial wasteland, beckoning.

In 1728, when farmer and botanist John Bartram purchased the original 102 acres that became his masterpiece, the area was pastoral but bustling.  The nearby Gray’s Ferry carried most of the western and southern traffic across the Schuylkill River into Philadelphia.  It would take a hundred and fifty years before the industrial revolution transformed the area into a manufacturing zone, and then another hundred until the current era of abandonment and neglect began.  Ironically, but not surprising, the majority population here is African American, The Bartrams were Quakers, though John Bartram was not opposed to slavery, even attempting to make a planter out of his abolitionist son, William, a failed and disastrous endeavor.  The Bartram’s early history included John’s father being killed by Indians in North Carolina.  He never held the sympathetic and unpopular views of his egalitarian son toward America’s native peoples because of this.  William Bartram’s famous 1791 publication Travels remains one of the most important cultural documents in existence for its attention to southeastern Indians’ customs and traditions.

From where we park, the hazy skyline of Philadelphia is to our east, and from the rise where we begin our walk we can see the river below us.  It’s a hot and humid late June day, and my wife is concerned about exertion because before we left our home in western North Carolina my heart became irregular in the middle of the night.   Similar episodes over the years have always been brief, and I have never been diagnosed with any heart damage or irregularity.  I ameliorate her by promising I will go to the doctor upon our return home, and to the emergency room if it really scares me.  But today I’m at Bartram’s Garden, a bucket list of American landmarks I have been determined to travel to before I die, oblivious that I am closer to death than I realize.

Uncertain, we proceed towards the cluster of stone buildings that form the centerpiece of the estate.  We find the entranceway, and follow it to a courtyard where we emerge among potted plants and where two young African-American men are working in some horticultural endeavor.  We wander a few minutes admiring the plants, some of which are Franklinia Alatamaha, one of the world’s rarest shrubs, long gone from the wild and existing today only due to William Bartram’s collection of its seeds from a population he and his father discovered in Georgia’s Altamaha river basin in 1765.   The young men see us milling about the Franklinia, and ask if we know about its significance.  I explain that we have been growing these for years at our small mountain farm in western North Carolina.  This is not something they hear often, I can tell, and they look at me incredulous, cracking wise with humorous doubt.   After a few minutes of attempting to convince them, they genially point us towards the gift shop and entrance, and we carry on, paying our entrance fee and purchasing a membership.

The week before our departure, nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were killed by a gunman during prayer service.   The suspect, identified as 21-year-old Dylan Roof, confessed to committing the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war.   This horror is swirling within me as I think about the garden here and the long dead man who led me to it – the lonely abolitionist, pacifist, cultural connoisseur of America’s native peoples – William Bartram, personal hero of my home place geography, and author of a soundly dashed dream of a just society.  After committing this heinous act, Dylan Roof proceeded towards the mountains of western North Carolina, to what he likely considered a safe haven.  And when the Confederate flags began coming down from the south’s courthouses following his capture, they began coming up in my bucolic mountain valley. This fact sickens me.

When William Bartram entered my home landscape of Cowee in May of 1775, he encountered the remains of the Cherokee culture.  Cowee had been devastated by a previous campaign of the French and Indian War over a decade earlier, and yet to fully recover.  Arriving on the eve of the American Revolution, only a little over a year later Rutherford would march his troops into Cowee and brutally destroy the town, insuring against a potential Cherokee alliance with the British.  It would be the end of this vibrant political and economic capitol of the Middle Town Cherokees.  Bartram’s account of his visit here is the only intimate portrayal of the Little Tennessee Valley at this time – plant species yet to be described by science, careful observations of Cherokee customs, and rapturous descriptions of a landscape profoundly changed in the two hundred plus years hence.

We exit the gift shop, maps in hand, to find a small group of young adults gathered about a man who is obviously an employee and a guide.   Determined to horn in on their walkabout, he eventually welcomes us, and we introduce ourselves following his introduction of all those present.  They are instructors for the Mighty Writers, an inner city summer program for kids planning to meet here for daily instruction and connection to nature.   I learn later that the mission of Mighty Writers is to combat a forty percent inner city high school dropout rate, and teach Philadelphia kids “to think and write with clarity so they can achieve success at school,  work, and in life.”

Together, we wander on into the remains of William Bartram’s vision, into its capacity to heal and transform us.   At the point in the tour where we stop to look at the site where the old Eastwick mansion stood, we can see down the hill below us onto rows of vegetables that form the community garden for the surrounding neighborhood.  The guide tells us that the garden was created to provide affordable organic food for people who have no access to it otherwise.  A garden within a garden, a dream within a dream.   The executive director of Bartram’s Garden, Maitreyi Roy, refers to the garden as “the outdoor living room of southwest Philadelphia.”  Yoga and art classes, writing, gardening, nature study, and access to the outdoors – all with a focus on serving an underserved community, and improving their quality of life.  If William Bartram is somewhere out there in the afterlife looking down, I can imagine he is pleased.

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During my continuance here, about half an hour, I experienced the most perfect and agreeable hospitality conferred on me by these happy people; I mean happy in their dispositions, in their apprehensions of rectitude with regard to our social or moral conduct: O divine simplicity and truth, friendship without fallacy or guile, hospitality disinterested, native, undefiled, unmodified by artificial refinements.  (William Bartram’s impressions of the Cherokees at Watauga town, 1775, p.222, Harpers)

Watauga Town, long vanquished, the ceremonial mound Bartram described now a slight rise in a pasture behind the abandoned hull of Big D’s convenience store.  It would have been something to behold from horseback, riding north out of Nikwasee towards Cowee in 1775, miles of Cherokee corn and bean plantations spreading across the land, and views of the high Nantahala and Cowee Mountains flanking his sides.  This particular scene in Travels is intriguing, as it is one in which Bartram takes liberty to invite his readers to remove themselves from his unfolding narrative of the natural landscape, and to turn to the inner landscape that he also traverses and explores.   Today it is beheld through windshield, punctuated by cold grey powerline pylons, flanked with odd billboards, real estate signs, and advertisements for a diversity of nearby protestant churches – both inner and outer landscapes under assault.

This significant Cherokee village was only a few miles up the road from where I live, but outside of the meager remains of the ceremonial mound and the aptly titled Watauga Creek nothing is left to indicate its past-presence.  Sanderstown Road, Lyle Knob, Gibson Bottoms, and Mason Mine are among the place names that link Anglo family histories and form the contents of the local geographic lexicon.  Now the past rises up again in unforgettable and dramatic ways – rebel flags flying from the back of trucks as we arrive home, dotting the porches of Cowee and Watauga Towns, where those with no connection to the horror of the flag’s meaning fly it with naïve rebellion.  Land of my birth, land of my ancestors, land of the flag wavers whose kinfolk never owned slaves, who displaced a native people and did so in the name of The Lord.

My heart is still not right. I call my family doctor when we return and make an appointment.  My EKG results in hand, he says calmly, There is really nothing I can do for you.  You should go to the ER.  I can take you if your wife is not here.  She is grocery shopping at the nearby Ingles, so he offers to go and find her with me, offering to take me if she isn’t there.

After ICU and a procedure to correct the atrial fibrillation I have endured for eight days, my heart returns to normal, and I’m soon back to jogging and exercise.  But my heart is no longer in this landscape as it once was.  It’s grown hardened against many of its human inhabitants who’ve had a good go at it, and there are many days I think could leave.  But this is my home, and I refuse.  I stare into the giant red oak that has dominated this homeplace for unknown years.  I’ve found remnants of Cherokee pottery beneath its heavy branches and Bartram’s path across the Cowee Mountains was nearby. Perhaps he passed by this tree when it was just a sprout.   Rooted deeply to this place, its ancient presence anchors me, filling my heart with humility and respect.

Barry Lopez writes that the effort to know a place deeply is an expression of the human desire to belong, and that the determination to know a place is consistently rewarded.   What I appreciate is his insistence that every place is open to being known.  And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known, so that when they are absent from that place they know that place misses them.  And this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.  This idea carries me through the days when my wife and I feel so incredibly alone, where the only connection we feel is loyalty to the land and its non-upright inhabitants.  It’s then that I can feel the land’s loyalty to us.

 

 

 

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