‘The Curious Mr. Catesby’

The curious Mister Catesby. Leroy Burnell/Staff 6/15/2015

THE CURIOUS MISTER CATESBY: A “Truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Edited for the Catesby Commemorative Trust by E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott. The University of Georgia Press. 456 pages. $49.95.

This richly illustrated and thoughtfully edited volume is an excellent tribute to the influential work of English naturalist Mark Catesby (1683-1749). It is also an important book, excellently put together and representative of a broad range of scholarship.

Catesby made two voyages of discovery to America, the first in 1712 to Virginia, where he remained seven years, and the second in 1722, beginning in South Carolina where, using Charleston as a base, he pursued his explorations for three more years into Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas.

During those years, he explored and recorded the geography, flora and fauna of the uncharted hinterlands of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida and the islands of Jamaica, Bermuda and the Bahamas. Catesby collected and preserved plant and animal specimens and made detailed drawings and paintings of them, which he shipped to his patrons in England.

Mark Catesby had a natural gift for capturing details and for accurately recording them in his drawings and paintings. The collection of preserved specimens and images he sent home to England created quite a stir back in the scientific societies of London, which were eager to hear of recent discoveries and see evidence of exotic life in the “New World.”

Notable as those scientific efforts were, it was his 25-year-long production of the monumental 10-part, serially published, “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” an original and fundamental work, completed in 1743, with an appendix added four years later, which today remains his most tangible legacy.

“The Curious Mr. Catesby,” not only chronicles his travels and his seminal contributions to natural science, but it also documents the influence of his contemporary naturalists on his own work and how he, in turn, became a profound influence on many naturalists who followed. His influence not only included the method of his observations, but how he recorded and published them for a literate public’s edification.

This remarkable commemorative publication represents the perspectives of two dozen learned contributors representative of a broad spectrum of disciplines, including historians, botanists, zoologists, ornithologists, anthropologists, landscape architects, fine arts authorities, museum specialists and associated fields. Each of the 22 chapters is an essay revealing another of the many layers of Catesby’s genius.

Catesby was remarkably prescient, deducting from his observations the yet-undocumented fact that some birds migrate. He also posited an early ecological view that habitat degradation and species over-harvesting could lead to extinction. These are biological concepts we take for granted today, but in Catesby’s time, they were a pioneering “discovery.” Not bad for a self-taught field naturalist.

Several chapters, including ones by editor E. Charles Nelson and Harvard history professor Janet Browne place Catesby in the context of his time and sphere of influence in the England around the turn of the 18th century. It was an era often called the Age of Enlightenment, where scientific societies and academies encouraged and underwrote the advancements in scientific knowledge.

Other chapters are devoted to the social and natural world Catesby faced in Virginia when he arrived in 1712, during his four-year sojourn in the Carolinas, 1722-25, and over the course of his 1725 Bahamian experience.

Backcountry travels then were very definitely not just a simple walk in the woods. Malaria, yellow fever, water-borne parasites, stinging insects, poisonous snakes, large predators and unfriendly Native Americans added to the menace of exploring in areas of few roads and dense forests. Catesby also had to carry and protect his botanical specimens and drawing supplies, paints and papers in addition to the usual impedimenta of prolonged wilderness travel. What he was able to record and publish from those forays is truly astonishing, even today in the age of information overload.

Several illuminating chapters are devoted to discussions of Catesby’s art and its contribution to Linnaean taxonomy. It is remarkable to find that Catesby was self-taught the engraving process and produced the 220 folio-sized colored plates of his North American zoological and botanical subjects in his home. He serially published them in 10 parts over 14 years and bound them into two volumes.

Catesby, in his day, was a rock star. The releases of the 10 parts were greeted like the television newscasts of the landing on the moon. In the context of his age, Catesby’s was a remarkable contribution to science and his work a tribute to the incredible curiosity of a gifted man.

It is obvious on so many perspectives that this quality book is a labor of love and one that should have a broad reader appeal. It is a worthy literary monument to a man who passage through Colonial South Carolina reminds us of an almost intuitive sense of continuity, which speaks to our roots and to our connection with the land.

Reviewer Ben Moise is an author and essayist who lives in Charleston.