Chapter OneCollecting Nature
For more than a hundred years, curators, naturalists, and everyday citizens have deposited treasures from nature-rocks and sharks' teeth, albino squirrels and meteorites, palmetto wood and warbler eggs-in the collections of The North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences. Specimens come from well-documented field biology surveys and from people who study nature in their spare time-from explorers atop Mount Mitchell to fishermen off the continental shelf.
Ever since the first Englishmen surveyed the flora and fauna of Roanoke Island in 1584, natural history collections have helped people understand the complexity of nature in North Carolina. Over time, these collections reflect what we know and value about nature in each generation. Cultural attitudes and economic interests influence the growth of museum collections. In turn, collections provide the reference material scientists need to model the natural world in all its diversity.
Western science looks for order in this diversity. The array of specimens in a collection suggests patterns to the scientist, who searches for relationship among the parts of the whole. The quest for order is at root a cultural phenomenon; Europeans sought to understand the bewildering biological diversity and geology of the New World by collecting it. Naturalists were on the front lines of the European conquest of the Americas. Nature was a fount of potentially profitable resources, and naturalists were encouraged by their benefactors to bring home every specimen possible. Fame and fortune, along with delight in learning and sincere appreciation of nature, continue to influence the direction of research in the natural sciences, and affect our concepts of the natural world.
Scientific theory results from repeated, quantifiable observation that provides no-nonsense data. Constructed from these data, the collections-based model of nature provides the material for the sorts of comparisons that society holds dear. The model (as interpreted in contemporary exhibits at the State Museum) reveals that North Carolina has
the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River-Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet the greatest density of salamander species in the world-58 species the greatest diversity of carnivorous plants in the world (tied with Florida)-31 species in 4 families the oldest stand of living trees in the East-1,700-year-old bald cypress trees on the Black River the greatest diversity of fungi in the continental United States-more than 8,000 species.
European scientists of the sixteenth century also counted and sorted, verified observations, and shared their findings through the written word. Their method of research constructed a model of the New World, a model that was used to attract settlers. The birds of Roanoke Island were duly surveyed and documented by the Roanoke expedition's scientist, Thomas Hariot, in 1585. Unlike many European naturalists who were to follow, Hariot took the trouble to learn the Indian names of birds he observed. "Of all sorts of fowl, I have names in the country language, of fourscore and six ... of several strange sorts of water fowl eight, and seventeen kinds more of land fowl ... upon further discovery with their strange beasts, fish, trees, plants and herbs, they shall be published."
In contrast to Hariot and other naturalists, Native Americans possessed an intimate knowledge of the natural world passed from one generation to the next through oral tradition. Threads of this tradition remain among traditional Cherokee of the southern Appalachians, whose arts and religion are deeply connected to nature. Traditional Cherokee understood nature through a personal relationship with the natural world, in which knowledge was gained by revelation. In the 1990s a Cherokee elder, the Reverend Robert Bushyhead, recorded his relatives' teachings about plants and animals, forests and stars. His aunt taught him to find medicinal herbs by allowing the right plant to reveal itself. His father told him how the Cherokee learned the ways of animals: "A person was treated at a very early age by the medicine man to become a good hunter, [with] the ability to change himself into another figure spiritually. He could change himself into a form of a deer, spiritually ... and he could go out there among the deer and tell which way they were traveling and how fast they were traveling."
Hariot was confident that Native Americans would adopt a European approach to nature. "Upon due consideration [they] shall finde our manner of knowledges ... to exceede theirs in perfection." However, the English settlers at Roanoke soon failed in the new land, perhaps in part because they were oblivious to the ways of nature that native people had come to understand over centuries of successful habitation in the same area.
Vivid accounts of New World flora and fauna enticed wealthy European collectors to covet exotic specimens from the Americas. Over the course of centuries, intrepid naturalists shipped many boatloads of stuffed, pressed, pickled, and live plants and animals across the Atlantic to fill the "cabinets of curiosity" in noble homes and the collections of early museums. John Lawson, the eighteenth-century explorer, collected specimens in North Carolina for natural scientists and wealthy men in London, shipping everything from plants and flowers pressed between sheets of paper to snakes, lizards, and small birds bottled in a homebrew of "aloes, myrrh, allom & tobacco steept in rum."
In his 1709 account, A New Voyage to Carolina, Lawson gave Europeans a tantalizing glimpse of the region's natural treasures. A keen observer, Lawson explored the uncharted Piedmont north to the Yadkin River valley and then trekked eastward to the English settlements on the "Pampticough River" near present-day Washington. North Carolina's great diversity of unspoiled habitats impressed the young naturalist, who found lands "here barren of Pine, but affording Pitch, Tar, and Masts; there vastly rich, especially on the Freshes of the Rivers, one part bearing great Timbers, others being Savanna's or natural Meads, where no Trees grow for several Miles, adorn'd by Nature with a pleasant Verdure, and beautiful Flowers, frequent in no other Places."
The number of species known to Western science skyrocketed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Europeans sought an all-encompassing classification system, or taxonomy, that would place the world's animals and plants in logical relation to each other. They devised schemes that ordered specimens by size or shape, or grouped them according to habitat or behavior.
Most classifications collapsed when the diversity of nature failed to fit into neat categories. In one early system, all limbless creatures were grouped together, including snakes, worms, and slugs. Lawson placed turtles and snakes, alligators and lizards "among the Insects, because they lay eggs, and I did not know well where to put them." Like others of his day, Lawson listed whales and dolphins among the fishes, and grouped as shellfish "crabs ... craw-fish ... tortois and terebin [turtles] ... Finger-Fish [starfish] ... and Oysters great and small."
In Sweden, Carl Linnaeus amassed a collection of 40,000 plant and animal specimens from Europe and abroad. He sorted plants by their sexual characteristics into 24 classes, which he subdivided into orders, genera, and species. To each species he assigned two names, a convention that continues today unchanged from 1758, when the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae was published. A comprehensive classification of 12,000 species, Linnaeus's taxonomy ordered the world's plants and animals then known to science.
Linnaeus's basic system, still in use, is typically used to organize specimens in a collection by taxa: species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom. The closest relatives are in the same species, closely related species are in the same genus, and so on up the organizational ladder. Linnaeus divided living creatures into two kingdoms-plant and animal. Still a matter of debate among taxonomists, the number of kingdoms now varies from five to thirty or more, including kingdoms of fungi, slime molds, viruses, and bacteria. In the animal kingdom, invertebrates, or animals without backbones-a huge group that includes insects, clams, corals, and jellyfish-account for all but one of the thirty or so phyla now recognized. The phylum Chordata includes all vertebrates: fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals.
Linnaeus gained his knowledge of the world's species through a voluminous correspondence with international naturalists. American botanist John Bartram dazzled the Swedish taxonomist with a description of the amazing Venus' flytrap, found only in coastal Carolina savannas. A botanizing colonial governor of North Carolina, Arthur Dobbs, was probably the first to document the carnivorous species, in a letter to English collector Peter Collinson: "We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon anything that touches it. It grows in this latitude 34 but not in 35 degrees."
Bartram's naturalist son William, supported by Collinson and a network of naturalist-collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, described "those sportive vegetables" of North Carolina in his 1791 Travels: "Astonishing production! See the incarnate lobes expanding, how gay and ludicrous they appear! Ready on the spring to intrap incautious deluded insects, what artifice! There behold one of the leaves just closed upon a struggling fly, another has got a worm, its hold is sure, its prey can never escape-carnivorous vegetable!" William Bartram documented much of the flora of the Southeast, using Linnaeus's works as reference. The late publication of his Travels deprived him of credit for many of the new species he named.
Like many naturalists who were to follow, Bartram was awestruck by the extraordinary geology of the southern Appalachians and the diversity of the natural communities he encountered. His description of mountain cove habitat is still inviting: "We ... mounted their steep ascents, rising gradually by ridges or steps one above another, frequently crossing narrow, fertile dales as we ascended; the air feels cool and animating, being charged with the fragrant breath of the mountain beauties, the blooming mountain cluster Rose, blushing Rhododendron and fair Lilly of the valley."
Bartram recognized that many species of plants with "northern affinities" grow in the mountains of North Carolina, and noted the effect of high-elevation climate on the plants of the region: "I began again to ascend the Jore [Nantahala] mountains, which I at length accomplished, and rested on the most elevated peak; from whence I beheld with rapture and astonishment, a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains ... at a distance surrounded with high forests, I was on this elevated region sensible of an alteration in the air, from warm to cold, and found that vegetation was here greatly behind, in plants of the same kind in the country below."
A passion for natural history collecting reached new heights in the nineteenth century, fueled by discoveries in geology and paleontology, and by the burst of newly described species of modern plants and animals. Influenced by a British movement called natural theology, many collectors believed that such diversity was evidence of a grand design. America's leading scientist, Louis Agassiz, wrote, "All these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God ... Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe." Observations of the natural world were clues to the nature of God; a path led "from Nature, to Nature's God." Clergymen often doubled as naturalists, including prominent North Carolina botanist the Reverend Moses Ashley Curtis and geologist Elisha Mitchell. Mitchell captured the intellectual excitement of this era of changing paradigms, writing in 1842, "Geology and the different Branches of Natural History change the whole face of nature."
If theology inspired collecting, economics funded it. Both botany and geology held commercial potential for North Carolina's mining and forestry enterprises. A gold rush followed the discovery of a 17-pound gold specimen in Cabarrus County in 1799. Convinced of the benefit of exploring the untapped mineral wealth of the state, the North Carolina General Assembly funded one of the first state geological surveys in the nation. Denison Olmsted, a divinity student and later geology professor at the University of North Carolina, rode horseback from Cape Lookout to the Smoky Mountains, gathering specimens and data for the initial survey. His mineral specimens, along with those of his successor at the university, Elisha Mitchell, may have been part of an informal museum in the old state capitol as early as the 1820s.
North Carolina hired its first state geologist, Ebenezer Emmons, in 1851. To keep an eye on his progress with the North Carolina Geological, Mineralogical, Botanical and Agricultural Survey, the legislature required Emmons to maintain a collection called the Cabinet of Minerals in the state capitol. At the close of the Civil War, his rocks, minerals, and fossils were pilfered by General Sherman's Union troops, despite Governor Zebulon Vance's request that the capitol with its "library and museum ... be spared."
For help in surveying the state's natural history, Emmons turned to Curtis, an Episcopal minister who studied the animals and plants of the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and mountains while pursuing his clerical assignments. He knew the flora and fauna of North Carolina as well as anyone, and was the leading authority in the nation on mushrooms and other fungi.
Curtis's devotion to taxonomy was unrivaled in the state. In an 1834 letter to his fiancee, he tried to explain the appeal of his unpaid labors:
At one time you might find me in the midst of 20,000 or 30,000 volumes, poring over tomes ancient and modern, folios and octodecimos, collating from Linneus (sic) down to Eaton to settle the obscurity that involves some of your common weeds. At another time you would see me, and make wry faces too, in the midst of a cabinet of minerals, monkeys, birds, fishes, bugs, shells, skeletons and snakes, surrounded by the beautiful and frightful of nature, the attractive and repulsive in life, but all interesting and instructive, in their economy, habits and complicated mechanism. It is a wonder to me that Nature in all its features is not admired, from that which is 'awfully great' to that which is 'elegantly little.'
The state survey published Curtis's The Woody Plants of the State in 1860, and later issued a companion botanical catalog that recorded more than 4,800 species of North Carolina plants. Woody Plants was a practical guide intended to assist the layman in knowing and using the state's trees. Curtis set the direction for many State Museum publications that were to follow-collections-based works that helped ordinary people to enjoy nature. He intended to "make this essay of popular service, and as intelligible as possible to those who know nothing of systems and would not ... master a scientific treatise." Nevertheless, a later edition claimed that Woody Plants raised North Carolina's stature in the scientific community, disseminating "knowledge of her singular botanical wealth, which had engaged the interest ... of the most famous European and American Botanists for nearly one hundred years."
Curtis and Emmons realized that the unusually high diversity of the state's plants and animals was tied to its unique geographical position. About midway on the continental shoreline, North Carolina is a biological border state where the ranges of many southern and northern species of plants and animals overlap. Emmons pushed for legislative support of natural history research based on the state's biological significance: "The position of this state is such that it forms the north and south limits of many interesting products of Natural History, belonging both to the vegetable and animal kingdoms; and it has been regarded an important work to fix definitely the true north and south boundaries of species belonging to these kingdoms."