The Cost of Spring Beauty

Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.  ~ Ernest Hemingway

For several weeks, we’ve experienced temperatures 35-40 degrees above normal, and it looks like this will continue for another week or so. Such sustained warmth, this early, has thawed the earth and considerably accelerated the growth of plants. Trees are leafing out, as are the wild roses. Two wildflowers I’m always happy to see in late April or early May are already sprinkled profusely along the trail: Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) and the tiny pink Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia Caroliniana).

Everything about this magical spring activates my curiosity and listening. 15 years of walking a five-mile route on the trail have not diminished the stories all around me, and a slower pace enforced by recent back injuries also allows me to ponder and be with these stories.

I’ve always noted the wildflowers’ succession on my calendars; Bloodroot and Spring Beauty usually come at the end of April or in early May. That they’ve arrived so early this year has made them all the more startling in announcing spring is here: ready or not.

As I was entering this week’s data regarding the birds’ migrations, my own gardens, and the evolving trail flora, I researched more about each of these early wildflowers.

Little did I know where that would lead: you know how it is with stories.

Bloodroot (Genus Poppy) has long been used as a source of vivid dye, extracted from its roots’ juices; hence, its nicknames of Red Indian Paint and Red Puccoon. Because it’s both toxic and escharotic (tissue-killing), I admire it and leave it alone. I’m not trained in handling such plants and grow plenty of herbs and plants with which I’m more familiar regarding teas and tinctures. I enjoy it as a herald of spring and its sweet white and yellow blossoms.

Spring Beauty is connected to an entirely different story. It is of the Genus Purslane, and abundant throughout North America. A delicate pink with darker red veins striping its petals, it’s scattered in colorful patches along the trail like stars across the night sky.

I understand the designation “Spring Beauty” (though I give it low marks for creativity); it was the “Claytonia” half of its name that intrigued me and led me into hours of searching, reading, learning, and reflection.

Because the story takes place in the years preceding the American Revolution, many of the records that would flesh it out more thoroughly were later destroyed by fires set by the British Army. What remains, however, offers rich themes and imagery to a vivid imagination.

John Clayton (1695-1773), arrived in America from England around 1715, either with his father or soon after John Sr.’s appointment as Attorney General for the colony of Virginia. By 1720, the younger Clayton, because of his probable training at Cambridge University and certainly because of his privileged connections, was employed as the (then) Gloucester County, Virginia, clerk. He was to hold this position for the next 53 years. It wasn’t a strenuous job; he was responsible for recording documents like deeds, land surveys, wills, etc., and was expected to attend the county court sessions. Apparently, the position of county clerk adequately supplemented his family wealth and provided a surprising amount of the leisure time necessary for John to pursue his one true passion: botany.

John married Elizabeth Whiting, the daughter of another prominent and wealthy colonist, and they eventually raised eight children (three girls; five boys) on their 450-acre plantation (tobacco and livestock) in the colony’s wealthiest county, near the Chesapeake Bay.

Clayton’s work in botany soon led to associations with other passionate naturalists and botanists throughout the colony and drew the attention of Dutch naturalist John Frederick Gronovius, who corresponded frequently with Carolus Linnaeus, the famed Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who created our modern format of binomial nomenclature for classification. (He’s known as the Father of Taxonomy and has also been called the Father of Ecology.) It was Linnaeus who named the genus Claytonia, wildflowers of the Portulacaceae family, in Clayton’s honor.

John Clayton seems to have been driven to seek, discover, describe and share all he could about the flora of this new world. (New to Europeans, anyway.) He may have traveled north to Canada and as far west as the Mississippi River, collecting plant specimens and seeds, and writing highly-respected and detailed descriptions of these. Initially, he sent dried plants to Gronovius, who would identify and name them, but eventually, Clayton grew confident enough to name some himself: he was the first to name the genus Agastache, perhaps better known as hyssop. His own plantation featured an extensive garden of native plants John grew and tended, at least in part.

During the 1730’s, Clayton collected, classified (using Linnaeus’s new system), and documented about 600 different plant species in a work called Catalogue of Herbs, Fruits, and Trees Native to Virginiawhich he shared with Gronovius.

Here the history becomes confused, depending upon the source, but apparently, in 1739, the Dutch Gronovius translated Clayton’s work into Latin, re-titled it Flora Virginica, and published it without Clayton’s permission. Clayton’s reaction is not clear; it seems he continued to work with Gronovius, but also to work on his own version of a new and more thorough catalogue of native plants.

In time, Clayton became famous for his knowledge and naturalist work in the colonies, and became a member of both the Swedish Royal Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, along with several Virginia learned societies. His friendships and correspondences with others in this field kept him engrossed and, it seems, enthusiastically occupied.

It seems his own Flora Virginica was again trumped by Gronovius, whose son published an updated second edition before Clayton’s—which was to have been illustrated by a famous botany artist of the time (Georg Dionysius Ehret). John Clayton’s own copy of his manuscript was likely destroyed in a clerk office fire in 1787.

Failing eyesight and health didn’t deter his avid passion, it seems, as he joined specimen-collecting expeditions the year before his death, which occurred at home, on December 15, 1773. He was buried at his plantation beside Elizabeth, and two of their children, who had preceded him in death.

After locating a lot of these details from various places, I paused to reflect upon John Clayton’s life and energetic pursuit of his passion. How exciting it must have been for an Englishman to explore and discover so many marvels and to share them with the wider world. What a rich and full life he led and what great recognition he received in the field he loved.

And then it hit me.

A 450-acre plantation in Virginia, owned by a wealthy Englishman in the 18th century? The main resource I’d located hadn’t explored this; had, indeed, glossed right over it: http://www.floraofvirginia.org/flclayton.shtml

Eventually, I found another that supplied, in part, greater detail: http://encyclopediavirginia.org/Clayton_John_1695-1773  

Here, I learned that (at least) 30 slaves, uprooted from their own homes and families, purchased as merchandise and deprived of their humanity, had labored and tended John Clayton’s land and family while being denied their own right to freely pursue innate passions, gifts, and enthusiasms. They likely nurtured his garden of natural specimens, so much more highly valued than their own lives.

What was gained and lost in this malformed relationship?

Do we benefit more for the love of nature that fueled John Clayton’s life than we suffer because he was a slaveholder?

I wonder if John Clayton was considered a “nice” man, if he was a loving husband and father, if people were pleased with his work as county clerk. His death was reported three weeks after it had occurred, without additional comment, in a Williamsburg newspaper. He wanted no “ceremony or sermon,” and received none. Was this due to shyness, humility, a rejection of religious beliefs, pride, or a mixture of these?

Was he mourned by his children?

Or slaves?

All of our gains and pursuits, our passions and glories come at a cost. Whenever I see the Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia Caroliniana), I’ll wonder about John Clayton’s life and the price he paid to pursue his dreams, at the expense of all those other broken and disregarded lives.

What does this sweet pink messenger of spring represent regarding the price our country continues to pay for being built upon the backs and lives of people in chains, viewed solely as a commodity?

“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story,” writes Linda Hogan. And often, our own stories of love and misery become tangled up in those of the land. Some of these end in death, and others go on forever.

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