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On a typical sunday near the end of September in the year 1712, William Byrd, the greatest Virginia landowner, went to church as usual, ate roast beef for his Sunday dinner as usual and in the evening, as usual, settled down in his library to record in his diary the events of the day.
Also as usual, he had nothing to say. He had carefully worked out a cipher—it was so good that more than 200 years passed before it was decoded—so he could write down the most private matters, and when the plantation slept he was free to relate the deepest secrets of its life. But secrets were few and far between, and Byrd, for the most part, found himself recording in code such facts as that he had eaten mutton, beef or veal for dinner or that he had a cold in his head.
On this pleasant Sunday evening, however, Byrd was interrupted in his library by a guest shouting that he had seen a bear. The guest was a newcomer to Virginia, a 30-year-old Englishman named Mark Catesby, of whom little was known except that he was an artist with an unparalleled interest in all sorts of everyday matters—buffaloes, wild flowers, weeds, plants, anything and everything that was native to the American continent. To William Byrd a bear was about as commonplace as a woodchuck, but he was a courteous host, so he got a gun, and in company with a man named Tom Something (the diary could not be decoded at this point) went out to hunt bear. Byrd's estate, Westover, lay near the James River, 20-odd miles from Williamsburg. It had a vast lawn, trimmed gardens, exotic fruit trees on the grounds, and ornamental ironwork, imported the year before from England, that is still regarded as a world masterpiece of its kind. Beyond these expensive gates the cleared ground ended suddenly in dark swamps and woodlands. There, indeed, was the bear, just where Catesby had seen it. Byrd gave the visitor his gun, Catesby fired, the bear fell dead and the party went back to the house. And Byrd recorded in his diary (in cipher): "It was only a cub, and he sat in a tree and ate grapes."
Presently it dawned on William Byrd that whenever Mark Catesby came to the plantation he always had something of interest to write down in his diary. Like all the great planters of his time, Byrd was trying to import the old English architecture, traditions, customs and social habits intact into the New World, but Catesby insisted it should be the other way around—the products of the New World ought to be transplanted to the Old. He was constantly stuffing his pockets with feathers, roots, seeds, berries, acorns and cuttings, packing barrels with common American weeds and wasting his time painting commonplace subjects like the delicate purple flowers that bloomed on sweet potato vines.
On one occasion Catesby insisted on showing Byrd a hummingbird nest at the edge of the plantation. Preoccupied with his effort to live like a dignified English nobleman on a country estate, Byrd was uncertain as to why he should pay attention to such matters—hummingbirds in Virginia were as common as wrens in Europe. But when he examined the nest through Catesby's eyes, he found it to be quite extraordinary, the most remarkable creation of the architecture of birds, made of a kind of lichen pressed to the softness of felt and bound together with cobwebs. On another occasion, "We walked about the garden all the evening," Byrd wrote, "and Mr. Catesby directed how I should mend my garden and put it into better shape than it is at present." Byrd was a wealthy and powerful man; he was converting his plantation home into the finest mansion in the colonies, modeled strictly on an English manor house; and he must have felt that it was presumptuous of his unknown English visitor to tell him what to do.
But Mark Catesby had seen a vision that carried him away, and he was haunted by the thought of converting American wild flowers and shrubs and trees into garden plants—great avenues of live oaks and banks of begonias and azaleas that would make the gardens of the New World the most beautiful in existence. Byrd was a bewigged, stiff and pompous gentleman, but Catesby's enthusiasm was such that Byrd began planting tulip poplar trees and other wild growths on his lawns. Almost 250 years have passed since the night Catesby popped into the library with word that a bear was outside, but the trees Catesby persuaded Byrd to plant at Westover are still growing there.
As a matter of fact, the catalpa trees that Catesby planted in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London are still growing there, too. Precisely who first introduced what plant into another country is invariably a matter of dispute, but Mark Catesby either first raised in England or played a part in introducing dogwood, sassafras, locust and other trees, as well as laurels, acacias, lady's-slippers, lilies, skunk cabbage, and other flowers, weeds and shrubs. If others imported the American products it was largely because they had been inspired to do so by reading Mark Catesby's books.
Part of William Byrd's trouble in dealing with Catesby was that he did not really know who he was. Catesby was present at Westover only because he was the brother-in-law of the Secretary of State of Virginia, not because he possessed any standing of his own. In this respect, Byrd shares a contemporary puzzlement—people today do not know who Catesby was, either. In a few reference works on natural history, or in a biographical dictionary of painters if it is unusually exhaustive, there may be 10 lines:
Catesby, Mark (1679?-1749?), author The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, 1731-1743; and Hortus Britanno-Americanus, or A Collection of 85 Curious Trees and Shrubs, the Production of North America, adapted to the Climate and Soil of Great Britain...
and so on, hardly the sort of thing likely to send readers running to find out more about Mark Catesby, or to buy his books (they cost quite a bit now—about $2,500). Even authorities on natural history who say that Catesby's work was of epochal importance admit they know little about him. There has never been a biography of Mark Catesby. No portrait is known to exist. There has never before been an extended magazine article. The most complete is a 10-page study by Elsa Guerdrum Allen of Cornell, published in 1951 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, a remarkable work of scholarly pioneering, but one that deals only with Catesby's work as an ornithologist.