Just the Facts

Prestigious Bartram Conference held at Cowee School

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Anna Waskey

The name William Bartram is so well known in Macon County, it appears in trivia questions, as an occasional label on small-batch Lazy Hiker Brewing beers, in signage designating a 112-mile north Georgia to Cheoah Bald, N.C. hiking trail, and as the designation of a locally based organization: Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy. It is the latter that hosted last weekend an annual regional conference at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center that drew around 75 attendees from North Carolina and other Southeastern states. 

Besides a schedule of informative lectures, art and photography exhibitions, and nature-related field trips, the 2024 Bartram Trail Conference spotlighted Executive Director Brent Martin’s new book as well as keynote speaker and best-selling author Charles Frazier. 

Who is Bartram?

For individuals new to the area, or not up on their Bartram knowledge, 18th-century American naturalist William Bartram traveled throughout the Southeast between the years 1773 and 1777 documenting and illustrating species of plants and animals. Plus, as an ethnographer, he provided important and eloquently descriptive prose detailing Cherokee villages and customs. His journal entries culminated into a 1791-published best-selling and still available book called Travels.

THE KINSHIP Photography Collective and Community Art Gallery was unveiled at the Bartram Trail Conference and will remain at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center until July 6.

And, Martin, an author and avid naturalist in his own right, first began serving on the Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy board and then became a full-time employee in 2021. 

“Their volunteer base, like a lot of trail clubs, ages out [because] they don’t recruit enough young people,” said Martin. “One thing I really wanted to do was build a younger organization, so the first thing I did was develop a Youth’s Conservation Corps. I’ve just been trying to make it more sustainable.” 

From a permanent office at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, Martin also oversees many organizational aspects of the conservancy, including the logistics of last weekend’s conference. “I organize volunteer days on the trail, write grants, build educational programs on the trail, do membership development work, [and more].” 

In addition, Martin has published several works – most recently his first trail guide, A Hiker’s Guide to the Bartram National Trail in Georgia and North Carolina, which was available at the conference and is offered regularly at the conservancy’s Cowee School office, along with Bartram’s book, Travels, and books related to Bartram as well as maps and other local and regional nature books. Martin’s guide provides hikers with detailed and historical information about the Bartram National Trail.

FRANKLIN CELEBRATED the annual Bartram Trail Conference held this year in Macon County, at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center.

Martin feels that many Bartram Trail hikers today overlook the cultural and historical significance Bartram shared in Travels. “A lot of people don’t think that a section of trail is part of a 112-mile-long trail; they’re just thinking about the waterfall at the end. But there is a lot of work and history that goes into these trails, so I tried to include that in the book. It’s an opportunity for people to know what was happening on the ground on which they stand. You don’t really see a whole lot of trail guides like that, and I wanted to write something different.” 

Conference impetus and highlights

Conveying the significance of what Bartram achieved centuries ago and what is still available in this region is what motivates the planning of a Bartram Trail Conference, which is held in different states annually. For the first time since 2013, Blue Ridge Bartram Conservancy board members and regular members secured speakers and volunteered time to see that this year’s two-day conference presentations and activities ran smoothly. 

Friday’s focus was on a felting workshop directed by artist Kim Keelor (see article https://maconsense.org/2024/03/28/artist-kim-keelor-paints-with-wool/) as well as the unveiling of the Kinship Photography Collective and Community Art Gallery at Cowee School. The photography exhibit features work by various photographers and artists inspired by Bartram’s Travels, the Bartram Trail, Bartram’s life, and nature in general. The free exhibit will be available for public viewing at Cowee School through July 6.

INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN best-selling author, Charles Frazier (center), a 1969 Franklin High School graduate, was the keynote speaker at the Bartram Trail Conference. He was joined on stage by Cherokee author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle (left) and Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy Executive Director Brent Martin.

Saturday morning featured speakers Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, author of Even As We Breathe and the first member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to publish a novel; Jordan Smith, executive director of Mainspring Conservation TrustSusan Patrice, documentary photographer and co-founder of the Kinship Photography Collective; and, Tyler Hayes, a geographic information system professional who works with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Afternoon outdoor activities involved walks and hikes focusing on the botanical observations of specific areas as well as the cultural and ecological aspects of the Little Tennessee River. 

Rounding out the conference was keynote speaker Charles Frazier, a 1969 graduate of Franklin High School and a long-time acquaintance of Martin’s. His 1997 debut novel Cold Mountain made publishing history when it sailed to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for 61 weeks, won the National Book Award, and sold millions of copies. Plus, the book was made into a 2003 feature film with an all-star cast. Frazier has since written four other novels. 

About Bartram, Frazier told attendees: “You can’t grow up here without knowing something about him, so I wanted the main character in Cold Mountain, Inman, to be carrying Bartram’s Travels when he walks away from the [Civil] war. While Inman is trying to get back to Cold Mountain, he is reading what Bartram wrote – and sometimes he understands it and sometimes he doesn’t, but it brings him comfort.”

Frazier explained that presenting the vernacular of Appalachian words, phrases, pronunciations, and culture throughout his books, especially Cold Mountain, is important. “When I was writing, I was remembering the rhythm of my grandmother’s voice.” 

FELT ARTIST Kim Keelor’s work is on display at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, and Keelor led Bartram Trail Conference attendees in a workshop.

Plus, his nature-oriented sense-of-place writing style requires that he spend much time out of doors. “That’s part of the process, to see the light through the leaves, to re-engage yourself every day in nature – in order to write about it.”

Brent Martin said he was pleased with the success of the conference due to it being less weighty and academic and more art focused. “Plus, it really brought attention to Cowee School … putting it on the map as a true art complex. And, people told me that the speakers were inspirational, bringing attention to and helping people really understand the [Bartram] trail and [William] Bartram.” For more information about upcoming events and activities offered by the Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy – or to become involved as a member and/or volunteer – visit https://blueridgebartram.org/. Next year’s regional Bartram Trail Conference is planned for Charleston, S.C., where William Bartram spent much time supplying and resupplying each time he planned to head to the Appalachian wilderness. 

Contributing Writer: Deena C. Bouknight

Anna Waskey is an honors student at Franklin High School.