Can William Bartram—Quaker, adventurer, and naturalist—help us save the St. Johns River? In the late 1700s, William Bartram (1739-1832) sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and recorded north Florida’s cultural and natural history in his Travels of William Bartram. Bartram’s words have drawn adventurers, naturalists, and historians to the river and cultivated in them a deep appreciation for local history, flora, and fauna. I came to love the St. Johns River after paddling in William Bartram’s Wake on a Paddle Florida trip on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County. Most recently, Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created the Bartram Adventure Tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and others can trace Bartram’s route on foot, bike, and boat. On this trip, I realized that William Bartram also forged paths to conservation.
I was excited when Linda invited me to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. I knew that several days with fellow Bartram enthusiasts would help me better understand why William Bartram’s words remain powerful. In 2016, I met Sam Carr and Dean Campbell on a Bartram-inspired Paddle Florida trip on the St. Johns River. While paddling downstream in a blustery December wind, I learned that Sam, Dean and others designed Bartram Trail in Putnam County so that people could visit sites that Bartram described. The printed guide, trailside QR codes, and website provide locations, journal entries and commentaries so that visitors can follow Bartram’s footsteps and see (or imagine seeing) what he saw. The Bartram Adventure Tour combines guided cycling, paddling, and hiking tours on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County with a stay in the Bartram Inn.
The pre-dawn light woke me early on my first morning of the trip. I could see the St Johns from my room on the second floor of the Inn, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked outside to watch the sunrise. Mist shrouded the anchored boats and blurred my view of Memorial Bridge that divides east and west Palatka. It struck me that I had never spent the night in Palatka. I had driven over the bridge innumerable times on my way to Crescent Beach, but rarely stopped in Palatka except for gas or snacks. I recalled Linda’s observation from the previous evening, that only when people stop, get out of their cars, and get on the water do they begin to care for the river. Perhaps here was a clue to Bartram’s power, the power of place—his words guide us to magical places on the St. Johns where we can see, touch, and sometimes feel the river’s beauty.
We had two short hikes that day. First, we walked along the Puc Puggy Trail at the Palataka Waterworks Environmental Education Center. Then, we hiked down a newly cut trail in the Welaka State Forest that brought us to Orange Point and John’s Landing. The trail between these points followed the river and provided the best views of the river. Our trip included a number of ‘Bartram moments.’ Sam read from Bartram’s Travels and explained the significance of a particular place. Hearing Bartram’s description helped me imagine the landscape he encountered so many years ago.
On our final stop before lunch, we climbed Mount Royal, a site now confined within the gated Mount Royal Airpark Community. From atop this (excavated) Indian mound, Sam read aloud the ‘Bartram Prayer’ which offers insight into Bartram’s—and his own—feeling of stewardship towards the river and the surrounding land. The prayer resonates with him because it shows that preserving creation reflects the will of God and adds purpose to living on the St. Johns.
Sam claims that Bartram was the “original hippie”—embracing peace, love, and care for all beings, including other people. In Bartram’s description of nearby Six Mile Run (a.k.a. Salt Springs Run), he writes
At the same instant innumerable fish are seen, some clothed in the most brilliant colors . . . all in intercourse performing their evolutions: there are no signs of enmity, no attempt to devour each other; the different bands seem peaceably and complaisantly to move a little aside, as it were to make room for the others to pass by.
Shouldn’t humans emulate the peaceable bands of fish, Bartram seems to say, where all coexist peacefully? Bartram’s care extended to the many Native Americans he met whom, unlike his contemporaries, he viewed as equals. His egalitarian approach to people and nature reflected a Quaker sensibility that would motivate others centuries later.
On our final day, we met another Putnam County resident who has taken William Bartram to heart. Biologist Mike Adams has been restoring the region’s native plants, including longleaf pine, for over 20 years. He and his family bought and preserved a tract of land on the St. Johns River.
A passing cold front thwarted our plans to pedal the 13 miles from Palatka to Saturiwa, so we grabbed our raincoats and piled into our cars. Under the eaves of his broad porch, Mike explained how he had come to love Florida’s diverse landscape and William Bartram.
In his William Bartram persona, Adams outlined his conservation program and described the design and construction of his house and surrounding buildings. As he pointed out the details of the house, including this inlaid compass, I thought of yet another Bartram lesson: the mix of science and beauty. The sciences, arts, and humanities were not always considered as separate endeavors.
I recalled a discussion with University of Florida historian Steve Noll during the Center for Humanities in the Public Sphere summer program for high school students. William Bartram, Noll pointed out, embraced both the humanities and the sciences, and he communicated his scientific findings in artful, if not flowery, language. The blend of science and story, along with ethics, history, and beauty, can help us save our Florida waters. Artist Margaret Tolbert’s Aquiferious is one example, using a holistic approach to showcase and, hopefully, save our springs.
William Bartram’s writings have motivated these Putnam County residents to conserve land, create the Bartram Trail, and follow Bartram’s path on land and sea. We only protect what we know and love. Getting people on the water and into Putnam County helps the river and the people who live there. William Bartram has become an environmental ambassador for the St. Johns River in Putnam County. He still has much to teach us.