La•Hwi•Ne•Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist

All the histories of America are mere fragments or dreams.
—Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is shaped like an alligator’s head. It is also shaped like the Commonwealth of Virginia, as if the latter were advancing westward by generation of mature clones. In a way this is so. The southern borders of these states are keyed to the same horizontal projection, one surveyed by the frontier planter William Byrd in 1728, while the rivers forming their northern extents fall back just opposite each other from the flanks of the Appalachian massif. There’s a mirroring there.


In 1818 one of the few people able to give even a semi-coherent accounting of the ancient processes responsible for it neared Louisville, Kentucky, aboard a long covered flatboat, which, following local custom, he called an ark. It was summer. He traveled down the Ohio, along the alligator’s eye. For a full ten years he’d gone by his mother’s name, Schmaltz—he’d spent them in British-ruled Sicily; one didn’t need to sound overly French—but by the time he reached Kentucky, on a botanical trip financed with a hundred dollars he’d wrung from some Pittsburgh bookmongers as advance on a “New and More Accurate Map of the Ohio’s Tributaries” (a map he actually drew, but which they never published), he had resumed the name of Rafinesque.

“Who is Rafinesque, and what is his character?” once asked John Jacob Astor. Rafinesque himself grew dizzy before the complexity of the answer. “Versatility of talents,” he wrote,

is not uncommon in America, but those which I have exhibited . . . may appear to exceed belief: and yet it is a positive fact that in knowledge I have been a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist . . .

The river arks only moved downstream. The owners broke them and sold the lumber once they’d made their destinations. They were more like floating islands, often lashed together (as during Rafinesque’s trip) into caravans. An 1810 document says they were shaped like “parallelograms.” Some were as long as seventy feet. You lived in a cabin or out on deck, other times in a tent, with an open cooking fire. There were animals. To go ashore and come back, which you did whenever you wanted, you took your own, smaller boat, kept tied to the gunwale. Arks went slow when the water was slow, fast when it was fast, and crashed when it was very fast. Typically there were only three rowers. This distinctly American mode of travel sufficed throughout the interior for over a century and is now so gone we struggle to reconstitute its crudest features. It had no Twain. Rafinesque liked the arks because he could botanize as they drifted. He felt the vegetable pulse of the continent shuddering down its veins. The green world whispered to him. He tells us—in his short, hectic, wounded memoir, written near the end—precisely what it said: “You are a conqueror.”

The New World had a way of never being new. Ever notice this? I don’t mean the Native Americans—that part’s obvious. In European terms, somebody was always already there. The first person De Soto met in Florida spoke Spanish. Was in fact a Spaniard! Is it the Plymouth voyage that had aboard a group of Indians coming back from a visit to London? Just so, Rafinesque, that first, famous time he crossed the mountains, had a whole prior American career, a kind of prologue. From 1802 to 1805 he was all through New England, in the fields, at the high tables, driven in jolting carriages by Revolutionary veterans desperate to talk plants. Most places they received him as a boy genius—nineteen when he arrived and recognized internationally for the bold precocity of his juvenile publications. One or two better-known naturalists squinted at his “mania” for discovery. It was said he attempted to rename and reclassify the first common weed he spotted on American soil. (True.)

Benjamin Rush, a Declaration signer and the first great American physician, offered Rafinesque an apprenticeship in his practice, medicine and botany being closer together then. Rafinesque refused. His destiny had been revealed to him and did not lie in the city. Think about when he was here. From 1803 to 1805 was Lewis and Clark; Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery had reached the Far West. Later expeditions might look to the South, at Louisiana and Arkansas, or toward “the Apalachian mountains, the least known of all our mountains, and which,” wrote Rafinesque, “I pant to explore.” He was taken to meet Jefferson, and they started to correspond. The earth, which Rafinesque believed was an “organized animal rolling in space,” had arranged for him to be present and correctly positioned at that moment, as a continent of taxonomically pristine vastnesses offered itself to science. He would gladly, messer. le president, serve as official corps naturalist, being supremely and, though it gave him small pleasure to say so, uniquely qualified for the role. The New World, which Rafinesque called the Fourth World, had long ago been found; now it would be known. He alone possessed a mind of like measure.

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