William Bartram Contemplates Ephemera

Portrait of William Bartram by Charles Willson PealeWilliam Bartram—the naturalist who effectively missed the American Revolution because from 1774-1777 he left his home in Pennsylvania and traveled through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida—had a vast knowledge of ecology, including plants, animals, soil, landforms, and weather, which he demonstrates in his book on that expedition, commonly known simply as his Travels. If the glossary in the Library of America edition may serve as a guide, Bartram names nearly a thousand species. Moreover, he communicates a deep understanding of the relationships between the elements of a natural environment—how soil affects plants, how animals eat animals, how weather shapes landforms—and a boundless curiosity, continually researching, traveling, inspecting, recording, speculating, and lounging about to observe.

More than two hundred years later, Bartram’s Travels presents readers with an opportunity to reflect on some of the most important ethical questions of the twenty-first century, most critically those environmental questions, simultaneously political and spiritual, that involve the human and the nonhuman. In particular: How can we live on earth in such a way as to both live fully and allow other life to live fully? 

1. Bartram in His Time and Ours

Though bound like everyone else by the limits of his time, Bartram nonetheless has much to offer readers seeking to answer that question today.

While it is true that Bartram subscribes to the notion that God has given “man” “dominion” over “all creatures,” his idea of what that looks like is very different from the domination and destruction of the earth that some have perpetuated and defended in the name of anthropocentric religion. Rather than praying for profit and technological advance, Bartram prays that “our understanding may be so illuminated with wisdom and our hearts warmed and animated, with a due sense of charity, that we may . . . perform our duty towards those submitted to our service, and protection, and be merciful to them even as we hope for mercy” (DocSouth Ed., 101).

While it is true that Bartram kills plenty of animals, he does so only when he believes it necessary, and he often urges that certain animals be protected when others would like to kill them unnecessarily, including snakes, birds, deer, bears, and alligators.

While it is true that he supports advancing human industry into the wild parts of Florida, he also celebrates untouched wilderness, he holds a vision of humans living peaceably side-by-side with nonhumans, and he has simply no way to conceive of how drastic and severe human impact on Florida would be.

Panoramic photo of Paynes Prairie by Ebyabe.

For instance, when he favors the notion that what is now Paynes Prairie could someday become “one of the most populous and delightful seats on earth,” he not could foresee how extreme that would be more than 200 years later. He has in mind a situation where, “without crouding or incommoding families, . . . above one hundred thousand human inhabitants, besides millions of domestic animals” could live together (251). If the circumference of the prairie is about fifty miles, as he says, then the space in question is about two hundred square miles, and the average population density he has in mind breaks down to about 500 people per square mile. Today, however, most of the almost 19 million people in Florida live in areas with greater than 5000 people per square mile, and a few urban places in the world, such as Hong Kong, reach above 75,000 people per square mile.

Florida Population Map (2010 US Census)

If Bartram has, in his own words, “often been affected with extreme regret, at beholding the destruction and devastation which has been committed, or indiscreetly exercised on those extensive, fruitful Orange groves” (253), then he would surely weep over what has become of Florida’s old-growth pine forests: “Of the estimated 60 million acres of virgin pine forest that blanketed the Southeast when the first European settlers arrived, as little as 12,000 acres remain,” Tim Lockette explains. What little remains of these old-growth forests, which can be home to tress as old as 500 years and which promote biodiversity better than new-growth forests, “still provides habitat for dozens of threatened species.”

We can take from Bartram’s Travels an example—timely, urgent—of how to relate to the earth. This is not to say that all his actions and beliefs are necessarily right for us but that he demonstrates a contemplative way of knowing that will suit well those who seek to know deeply the places in which they dwell. It is clear from his writing that Bartram seeks to know the earth not to master it but to enter into deeper relationship with it.

I will also note that, while this contemplative orientation is rooted in his Quaker spirituality, it is just as relevant to those who are not religious. After all, it turns out that Charles Darwin, the most famous naturalist of all and born in Bartram’s own lifetime, was himself something of a contemplative. “Charles Darwin,” writes Douglas E. Christie, “has for so long been seen as supporting a view of the world as bereft of Spirit, but [his work] can now be seen, thanks to Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s sensitive reading of his ornithological notebooks, as being rooted in a profound contemplative awareness of the world’s intricate beauty.”

2. Bartram Contemplates Ephemera

One of the most significant contemplative scenes in Bartram’s Travels can be found in those several pages where he observes and reflects on what he calls ephemera—most likely Mayflies, insects whose adult life spans are very short, in some species less than an hour. I propose a contemplative reading of the entire passage. I propose we read slowly, paying attention to how carefully Bartram observes, how much he notices, how thoughtfully he reflects, and, as a result, what insights and mysteries he discovers:

LEAVING Picolata, I continued to ascend the river. I observed this day, during my progress up the river, incredible numbers of small flying insects, of the genus, termed by naturalists, Ephemera, continually emerging from the shallow water, near shore, some of them immediately taking their flight to the land, whilst myriads, crept up the grass and herbage, where remaining, for a short time, as they acquired sufficient strength, they took their flight also, following their kindred, to the main land. This resurrection from the deep, if I may so express it, commences early in the morning, and ceases after the sun is up. At evening they are seen in clouds of innumerable millions, swarming and wantoning in the still air, gradually drawing near the river, descend upon its surface, and there quickly end their day, after committing their eggs to the deep; which being for a little while tossed about, enveloped in a viscid scum, are hatched, and the little Larva descend into their secure and dark habitation, in the oozy bed beneath, where they remain, gradually increasing in size, until the returning spring; they then change to a Nymph, when the genial heat brings them, as it were, into existence, and they again arise into the world. This fly seems to be delicious food for birds, frogs and fish. In the morning, when they arise, and in the evening, when they return, the tumult is great indeed, and the surface of the water along shore broken into bubbles, or spirted into the air, by the contending aquatic tribes, and such is the avidity of the fish and frogs, that they spring into the air, after this delicious prey. 

EARLY in the evening, after a pleasant days voyage, I made a convenient and safe harbour, in a little lagoon, under an elevated bank, on the West shore of the river, where I shall intreat the reader’s patience, whilst we behold the closing scene of the short-lived Ephemera, and communicate to each other the reflections which so singular an exhibition might rationally suggest to an inquisitive mind. Our place of observation is happily situated, under the protecting shade of majestic Live Oaks, glorious Magnolias and the fragrant Orange, open to the view of the great river, and still waters of the lagoon just before us. 

AT the cool eves approach, the sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters gradually ceases, and they betake themselves to their leafy coverts for security and repose. 

SOLEMNLY and slowly move onward, to the river’s shore, the rustling clouds of the Ephemera. How awful the procession! innumerable millions of winged beings, voluntarily verging on to destruction, to the brink of the grave, where they behold bands of their enemies with wide open jaws, ready to receive them. But as if insensible of their danger, gay and tranquil each meets his beloved mate, in the still air, inimitably bedecked in their new nuptial robes. What eye can trace them, in their varied wanton amorous chaces, bounding and fluttering on the odoriferous air? with what peace, love and joy, do they end the last moments of their existence?

I THINK we may assert, without any fear of exaggeration, that there are annually of these beautiful winged beings, which rise into existence, and for a few moments take a transient view of the glory of the Creator’s works, a number greater than the whole race of mankind that have ever existed since the creation; and that only, from the shore of this river. How many then must have been produced since the creation, when we consider the number of large rivers in America, in comparison with which, this river is but a brook or rivulet. 

THE importance of the existence of these beautiful and delicately formed little creatures, in the creation, whose frame and organization is equally wonderful, more delicate, and perhaps as complicated as that of the most perfect human being, is well worth a few moments contemplation; I mean particularly when they appear in the fly state. And if we consider the very short period, of that stage of existence, which we may reasonably suppose, to be the only space of their life that admits of pleasure and enjoyment, what a lesson doth it not afford us of the vanity of our own pursuits. 

THEIR whole existence in this world, is but one compleat year, and at least three hundred and sixty days of that time, they are in the form of an ugly grub, buried in mud, eighteen inches under water, and in this condition scarcely locomotive, as each Larva or grub, has but its own narrow solitary cell, from which it never travels, or moves, but in a perpendicular progression, of a few inches, up and down, from the bottom to the surface of the mud, in order to intercept the passing atoms for its food, and get a momentary respiration of fresh air; and even here it must be perpetually on its guard, in order to escape the troops of fish and shrimps Watching to catch it, and from whom it has no escape, but by instantly retreating back into its cell. One would be apt almost to imagine them created merely for the food of fish and other animals. (80-83)

Watercolor of "Ephemera vulgate" by Katherine Plymley (1805)

3. Bartram and the Practice of “Home”

It is often proposed that the answer to the question of our time—How can we live on earth in such a way as to both live fully and allow other life to live fully?—is for people to develop a deep attachment to a particular place by living in it and learning about it over time. As the seasons, decades, and even generations pass, such a place becomes “home” in the deepest sense of that word. To the degree that people can truly call a place home, they will be all the more likely to treat that place as a home, with attention, knowledge, and care.

The question of home comes up in reading Bartram in several ways. On a practical note, we might note that to write the book Bartram left his home in Pennsylvania and visited Florida. On a historical note, we might consider how, though unbeknownst to him, Bartram served as the vanguard for the mass migration of European Americans into Florida, which has led to the decimation of home for countless people and animals. With guns and other weapons, these European American migrants wiped out Native Americans en masse; some had been at home in Florida for more than 12,000 years, while others had more recently fled to Florida as refugees from attacks on their homes further north. With golf courses, swimming pools, shopping malls, hotels, resorts, and other comforts, these European American migrants also wiped out marches, beaches, sand hills, and great pine forests, homes to human and nonhumans alike. Bartram’s Travels need to be read in the historical context of this subsequent destruction. By considering the contrast between the vibrant ecosystems that Bartram describes in Florida in his time and the dying ecosystems in Florida in our time, we can remind ourselves how urgent it is to develop an ethical and ecological practice of home.

Finally, reading Bartram should bring “home” to mind for another reason, a much more positive one. Bartram did not cause the destruction that followed him into Florida. On the contrary, he enacted an alternative a way of imagining and practicing home that could and should have been practiced by all who came to Florida after him—one that still can and should be practiced by everyone who comes to any place where they do not have deep roots: the contemplative practice of being at home in any place.

Drawing of Franklinia alatamaha by William Bartram (1782)

4. Home and the Problem of Transience

The Oxford English Dictionary defines home in part as “the dwelling in which one habitually lives, or which one regards as one’s proper abode.” In this definition, which mirrors the commonsense understanding of home that many people have, two elements stand out: stability (“habitually”) and identity (“one’s proper” place). We may reasonably paraphrase this definition by saying that home is a place of stability to which one’s identity is attached. But if this is what home is, then many of us will indeed be without a home perpetually. Those who have no place in which to live “habitually” may also feel that they have no place to consider their “proper” place. If healthy relationships among humans and between humans and nonhumans depend on people developing a deep sense of home, of attachment and belonging, then the mass transience and rootlessness of our time constitute an enormous obstacle for mass sustainability.

But I propose that stability is not a very good way to define home, since nothing ever stays nailed down. Even the most stable of places or identities are only relatively stable. Of course, Heraclitus noted long ago that the universe is always in flux. So it is. Even the original “60 million acres of virgin pine forest that blanketed the Southeast” before the colonization of America were only relatively original. They had not grown there eternally. At some point, the trees moved into all those places. So it is with all species, landforms, weather patterns. Places are always, if ever so subtly, changing. All place have pasts and futures that differ from the present. The same place is never exactly the same.

Likewise humans move, have been moving long before us, and will still be moving after us. While some individual people may not seem like transients because they have lived in one place for a very long time, the deeper reality is that collectively everyone is a transient by virtue of being one of our species. Whether we ourselves move or stay in the place where we were born, we nonetheless exist at some point along a path of movement. We may figure out where we are and make a home of it for the time being. But home can only ever be for the time being, whether that time be six months, sixty years, or six hundred years.

To say this is not to undermine the important and rightful claims certain groups make to “their” land, such as the claims made by Native Americans driven from their ancestral homes. Legally and otherwise, we should respect that places are understood and experienced differently by those who have lived in them long enough to be considered “native” than by those who have not. I am just pointing out that all “native” species were once “invasive” and that “native” and “invasive” are ultimately relative terms. If home depends on permanence—if home precludes transience—then no one can ever really be home.

Thankfully, there is another way of thinking about home and place. In his writings, Bartram practices home on the move, modeling how to live on the earth and how to move through the earth in a contemplative manner, slowing down, paying attention, reflecting, caring. These practices are antithetical to the greed, rage, fear, mindlessness, and insatiability that destroy the earth. Though Bartram knew Florida only as a guest, he knew it as deeply as and probably even more deeply than most people know the places that they call home. In other words, even during his travels through Florida, we can find Bartram at home in Florida. Like Bartram, we can find ways of making places home even if only for a relatively short time. Since there is no real hope of mass and deep rootedness in this century, Bartram’s contemplative practice of home may hold the key for many to an ethical and ecological life in this age of endemic transience.

5. Home as Contemplative Practice

Bartram practiced home first and foremost by slowing down and paying attention. These are the purposes of most contemplative practices. When one learns to meditate, one may be encouraged to attend to one’s breath with these words: “Your breath is always with you.” The practice of attending to one’s breath and can play an important role in the practice of being at home in any place. One’s breath is not a thing so much as it is a process. And it not really “one’s” so much as it is a process mutually shared between a person and an environment.

When we breath, we take into our body part of the environment so that it becomes part of our body. When we inhale, our lungs gather oxygen for our heart. At the heart, oxygen enters the blood and is pumped through the rest of our body. When we exhale, we breathe out carbon dioxide, which then becomes part of the environment. In the slightest of ways, we’ve changed our self and the place we are simply by breathing while we are there. (To say “I am here,” rather than “I am at here,” becomes correct in a rather literal way.) If we breathe consciously, the physical process of breathing can become a metonym for a contemplative way of being and knowing. Home can be whatever place we breathe deeply and consciously. And breathing would be just one part of the overall practice. Others aspects could include those of Bartram, including taking notes, drawing sketches, observing, pondering, learning about the place, and entering into a relationship with it. Home can be wherever we really are while we are there, even if we are there while en route to somewhere else. While we cannot own any place, we can belong to any place. In practicing home in this way, we can better know, care about, and care for the earth.

Bartram writes that the ephemera have a “lesson” for us. This is it. We are all ephemera. We are all just in any place for a certain number of days. The best we can do is to make what we can of where we are while we’re there. The best we can do is to make wherever we are home for that moment, that month, or that half century. The inevitable temporariness of any home is nothing to be resigned about. It is one of the joyful paradoxes of living, a paradox that points all the more strongly to our need for contemplative ways of being and seeing. The place of ephemera is right where we are while we are there.


Portrait of William Bartram, Charles Willson Peale, c. 1800.

Photo of Paynes Prairie, Ebyabe, 2008.

Map of Florida Population Data from 2010 US Census , Jim Irwin, 2011.

Watercolor of Ephemera Vulgate, Katherine Plymley, 1805.

Drawing of Franklinia Alatamaha, William Bartram, 1782.


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