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The Garden Gate: Human, botanical histories intersect to our benefit

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Plants are living things and they are responsive to their environment or, to whatever care they receive.

So, they may appear different under different conditions.

Horticulturists familiar with the writing of the botanists of other times can create an authentic colonial garden or just appreciate the way plants appear in their natural environment.

Such a person was James Bradford Probert of Harriman, who died on Dec. 6 at his home.

Always interested in forestry and the animal life it contained, he would occasionally go into the wilderness forest of northern Michigan for a week at a time, equipped only with a short fishing line and a hatchet, observing the woods and all it contained, fishing in the nearest lake, and living on the wild fruits and other foods of the deep woods. He would always emerge from this interval refreshed and with added knowledge of, and love for, the magnificence of nature, and return to city life and his profession as a master chef.

His friends were legion. They said that Jim never met a stranger. He loved people and bonded with them wherever he went. For a time, he was employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and lived with them where he learned to speak several Indian dialects and became fluent in Ottawa and several other Indian languages. He was proud of the fact that part of his ancestry included Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony and in early America, some members of two Indian tribes.

At this time he was married to Shiela Rucker, and they became the parents of three children, Justin, Cara and Jesse. Several years later, this marriage ended in divorce.

Then he suffered a very serious accident and was hospitalized for many months with severe spinal cord injuries and broken bones in which he lost 4 inches of height and was paralyzed from the neck down. During the months of his hospital stay, his father had died and after a time, his mother remarried and came to Tennessee. After James was released from the hospital he was placed in a special nursing home and began an extensive rehabilitation program and very gradually he began to recover.

Then his mother and stepfather brought him to Tennessee and he continued extensive rehabilitation programs and very gradually he began to recover. Slowly the wheelchair gave way to a walker, the walker to crutches and the crutches to a cane.

During this time, he made many new friends, as he always did, and among them was Wilda McKinney who later became his devoted wife.

He renewed his connections with the Indians and attended powwows again, at last fulfilling his wish to dance and perform. He always said, “They said I would never walk again, but they didn’t say anything about dancing.”

Jim and Wilda had happy years at their home in Harriman. His sudden death was a shock to friends and family who loved him and attended his funeral services at Morrison Hill Christian Church.

In 1811, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me a choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest, a continual one throughout the year. Under a total want of demand for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Jefferson greatly admired the beautiful gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and the interest in gardens that he developed there was later to be expressed in the gardens at Monticello.

His love of growing things never waned, and he kept a garden diary for many years.

Just as the colonists who first settled these shores brought their household belongings, kitchen utensils, tools and books, so too many packed seeds, bulbs and cuttings of their favorite plants.

One of the earliest horticulturists here was John Clayton, who went to Virginia in 1705. He spent a great deal of time collecting, documenting and growing plants.

Not much is known about his personal life, although his writings are important.

Williamsburg surgeon Dr. William John Galt  found Clayton “witty in conversation.”

The Indians liked him because he listened and learned from them, and Jefferson respected him for his enlarging of the botanical catalogue of known plants.

He had wide correspondence with botanists all over the world, and he wrote one of the first complete botanical manuals of the “new world.”

It would seem that human histories and botanical histories are often intertwined and greatly influence each other, to the great benefit of everyone.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.