‘The Curious Mr. Catesby’

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

The white-crowned pigeon was a streak across the sky, flying faster than a motorboat runs today. Today the extinct Lowcountry bird is as obscure as the man who watched it from below three centuries ago.

Mark Catesby was 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. He arrived in the Lowcountry in 1722, and for four years combed the coast, worked his way inland up the Ashley River as far as today’s Augusta and into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

His work was groundbreaking but overshadowed by later naturalists like Andre Michaux and John James Audubon. Now he might be making a comeback — in the classroom — as a key to a "project-based" learning program where students take the lead.

In one lesson using the pilot program, a second-grade class from Minnie Hughes Elementary School near Hollywood took a field trip to Dixie Plantation in the spring, with copies of Catesby's own illustrations in hand, getting hands-on experience observing and drawing first as an artist would, and then in more detail as a scientist would. In other words, the way Catesby did.

"Some of these children had never been in 'real' nature before. They were amazed," said Tracey Hunter-Doniger, College of Charleston creative arts in education professor. "They like thinking of themselves as artists and scientists at the same time."

The program is a collaborative initiative launched by the Catesby Commemorative Trust with the college, Charleston County Schools and SCETV, using the trust's publication, "The Curious Mr. Catesby."

The trust, a coterie of devotees that includes prominent Charleston names, worked with Fran Welch, College of Charleston School of Education dean, to develop the unusual approach. Their goal: to help conserve the Catesby works and restore recognition for the early portrayer of the Lowcountry natural world, before parts of it began to vanish.

"We see it as a key part to inspiring respect for the early naturalists including Catesby. It's something that looks very exciting," said David Elliott, of Kiawah Island, the trust executive director.

"It changes the focus from the teacher 'on stage' in front of the class to being the guide for the students to investigate," Welch said.

Catesby's early colonial travels took him into a realm of “wild” natives, huge trees and exotic growth roamed by creatures such as panthers, bears and bison. Little has been chronicled about it, except snippets included in “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” which he spent much of the rest of his life completing.

Just one tale he 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.

That'll get a student's attention.

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Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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