The Lowcountry’s ‘lost’ explorer

David Elliot, executive director of Catesby Commemorative Trust, talks about the Mark Catesby exhibit at the Wells Gallery on Meeting Street.

Nearly 300 years ago, an older man ventured into the jungle-like Lowcountry to find and paint new animals and plants.

He traveled the state.

He became maybe the first “birder” in the Americas, the first to recognize that birds migrate, the first to paint the iconic and now-extinct ivory billed woodpecker, the first artist to depict animals with the plants they frequented.

Mark Catesby is too important to ignore, as Catesby Commemorative Trust Executive Director David Elliott said.

Yet, you very likely didn’t know who he was. The name draws shrugs, even in a region where naturalist names like Noisette and Michaux are revered.

A coterie of devotees that includes prominent Charleston names is out to change that.

The international scholar Mark Catesby Tercentennial Symposium takes place here in November, after launching in Richmond, Va., where the Englishman Catesby first landed. Conference passes and daily tickets are available through the trust.

The symposium will celebrate a man so obscure that no picture is known to exist.

Catesby arrived in the Lowcountry in 1722, after specimens he shipped during his Virginia trip caught the eye of wealthy English plant collectors.

The collectors had been relying on naturalist John Lawson to send specimens from “Carolina,” today’s North and South Carolina, until Lawson was tortured and killed by the Tuscarora tribe. The eager Catesby likely didn’t have much competition for the job.

“He was 39 years old when he arrived in the Lowcountry, in a time when the average lifespan was 43. He was already an old man when he came over here to wander in the woods,” Elliott said.

For four years, Catesby combed the coast, worked his way inland along the Ashley River to today’s Summerville, traveled as far as today’s Augusta and into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

His goal was to produce the “Natural History of Carolina, Florida (think Georgia) and the Bahama Islands,” which he spent much of the rest of his life completing.

“He was always fighting with his sponsors, who wanted (plant) samples. He wanted to paint and draw,” Elliott said.

The trip — through a realm of “wild” natives, huge trees and exotic growth roamed by creatures such as panthers, bears and bison — had to have been an odyssey.

But little is known about it. No journal survives, if there was one. Little snippets of what Catesby encountered are all that is left, mostly in notes accompanying the drawings or letters to his specimen-collecting sponsors.

One tale told is that he woke during a stay at an upstream Ashley River plantation, went down to breakfast and heard a woman scream. She discovered he had been sleeping with a rattlesnake.

“How long I shared the bed with this charming bedfellow, I do not know,” Catesby writes.

About wax myrtles, he said, “In November and December, at which time the Berries are mature, a Man and his Family will remove from his home to some island or Sandbank near the Sea, where these Trees most abound, taking with him Kettles to boil the Berries in. He builds a Hut with Palmetto-Leaves.”

The note goes on to describe the process of making green-hued candles from the berry wax that “burn a long Time, and yield a graceful Smell.”

But the tales are just fragments. Other early explorers, like Lawson, were documented in journals. After Catesby published the natural history, the field’s focus moved to cataloging.

Later botanists credited Catesby but overshadowed him. Names like Andre Michaux and Louis Claude Noisette became identified with the Lowcountry.

Then John James Audubon’s iconic work eclipsed Catesby’s century older paintings.

Catesby became so obscure that when Elliott, an inveterate birder, came across his painting of a scarlet ibis at Middleton Plantation in 1994, Elliott had no idea who the man was.

“It’s taken a lot of work to dig him out,” Elliott said.

The trust includes local figures such as Charles Duell of the Middleton Place Foundation and Hugh Lane Jr., Charleston banker and environmental champion.

The mission is to help conserve the Catesby works, and the plants and animals that were his studies, Elliott said.

Not to mention restore recognition for the man who portrayed Lowcountry worlds both lost and loved.

“This actual bird, if you want to find it, we can find it. This is the history of the area itself,” said Lauren Guzniczak, of the Wells Gallery, where Catesby prints are hung.

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