Tribute To The
Noted French Botanist
Andre Michaux

By Charles Kuralt

Grandfather Mountain,
Linville, North Carolina,
August 28, 1994

   Two hundred years ago today, a man was climbing Grandfather Mountain. There was no road to the top then, of course, no trail of any kind; and this was his second day of clearing a way through the thick tangles of rhododendron - which the mountain people came to refer to as laurel hells - dodging around fallen trees, edging along rock faces, working his way higher. Two hundred years ago tonight, he slept on the ground somewhere up there behind us, and then spent another day climbing, and another night impatiently camped, waiting for the break of day. On the fourth day of his ascent, August 30th, 1794, he jubilantly recorded in his diary: “Reached the summit of the highest mountain in North America...I sang the Marseillaise and shouted, `Long live America and the Republic of France! Long live liberty!'”

   He can be forgiven for thinking this old mountain was the highest on the continent. It certainly looks like it might be the highest from down here below. Up on the top, it feels like it might be the highest (have you seen Hugh Morton's photograph of the skyline of Charlotte from up there?) and, moreover, in 1794, a higher mountain had not been recorded on this continent in all the annals of exploration.

   So here was a 48-year-old Frenchman, standing up there on top of the world, singing to the heavens the new national anthem of his country, and shouting to the wind his love for France, and for America, and for the great wave of liberty which had only recently washed across both lands.

we should all remember his name

   His name was Andre Michaux, and we should all remember his name, for he was one of the most remarkable human beings of the 18th Century, or of any century. In paying tribute to his memory here today, we are honoring the great impulses of the human spirit, all of which were in him: courage, vision, strength, generosity, persistence — and intellectual achievement which, in these intellectually lazy times, we can hardly comprehend or appreciate. Andre Michaux was a linguist...master of French, English, Latin, Greek and every other language he ever encountered within a few weeks of encountering it, including, in due course, the Cherokee language. He was an explorer, artist, naturalist, scholar. If you asked him what he was, he might have replied modestly, “botanist.” If you ask me I can only reply, Monsieur Michaux was a piece of work...a man for the ages.

   He was a young well-born farmer in France. His beautiful young wife died in childbirth, and in his grief, the farm came to feel like a prison to him. He resolved to escape it by becoming a footloose student of the world beyond his own village. His lively mind and fascination with everything green and growing led him to an association with the great gardeners of the royal gardens at Versailles and at Marie Antoinette's Trianon. Soon, he was making botanical expeditions of his own under the sponsorship of the brother of the king. There was never a horizon beyond which he feared to venture in search of plants and seeds. When it was suggested that he travel east, he traveled east to Bagdad, east to Afghanistan, it may be - and on to the borders of India. He was waylaid by bandits and left for dead, naked on a mountain trail in Persia, and while nursing himself back to health, thought he would pass the time by compiling a French-Persian dictionary, and so he did — just one of his incidental accomplishments, a model of linguistic scholarship. When he felt well enough, he returned to France, bringing with him from the east to Europe the camellia and the mimosa, and gingko, and pomegranate, and sweet olive and Grecian laurel.

   Well, “Thank you, Michaux,” said the director of the royal parks and gardens. “And now, will you please go to America and find some useful trees — large ones adaptable to the climate and soil of France for use as timbers for ships?” “Of course,” said Andre Michaux, and within days, he gathered up his 15-year-old son, Francois, and a trained gardener and a servant, and he sailed for New York. And on arriving in New York, as we say, he hit the ground running. Three weeks later, his first shipment of several boxes was already on its way to France — trees, seeds, cranberries, sweet potatoes. Three weeks after that, he had established a garden on the Hackensack River across the Hudson from New York to produce seedlings and serve as a way station for the plants he discovered in the north. Soon after that, he had established another garden near Charleston, South Carolina, to serve the same purpose for plants he discovered in the south. In between, he discovered plants — many dozens the world had not known before. He paid his respects to American scholars, he dined with Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and George Washington in Williamsburg. But ninety nights of every hundred found him dining sparsely and alone, writing his notes by campfire or under the light of the moon somewhere in the wilderness of the Carolinas or Florida or Georgia, and in those notes, you can read the suppressed excitement of his encounters with live oaks and cypresses, and bay trees and magnolias, and orchids and azaleas.

Daniel Boone occupies a place in our imagination that should belong to Michaux

   Andre Michaux traveled in America for eleven years and along many thousands of miles of Indian trails and animal tracks, often venturing, alone with his pack horses, into territory unknown to settlers. Before he was done, I say he knew this country better than anybody else, better than any Indian or woodsman or trapper or trader. Daniel Boone occupies the place in our imagination which really should belong to Andre Michaux, whose travels were infinitely more daring and more extensive. And unlike Boone and other trail-blazers of the period, Andre Michaux made no claim of land or timber or mineral wealth. The only wealth he sought was scientific knowledge. Seeking it, insatiably, he traveled south into the impassable marshes of southern Florida and north into the tundra of British Canada and west through the thick forests of Kentucky and Illinois and into the unmapped territory west of the Mississippi. He was repeatedly swamped and overturned in flatboats and canoes. His horses wandered away or were stolen. He suffered vile and life threatening fevers, and hunger and thirst, and bruises and broken bones. His journals hardly mention these hazards and discomforts. His journals say, “Gathered seed,” “Prepared seed for shipping.” “Shipped eleven hundred and sixty-eight seeds and plants.”

   Andre Michaux went far. He wanted to go farther. In 1793, he proposed to Thomas Jefferson the secret mission that resulted in the journey of Lewis and Clark across the continent to the Pacific northwest. Loyalty to an undertaking for France is the only thing that prevented Michaux from making that expedition of discovery himself — and 12 years earlier. He wanted to do so, and Jefferson wanted him to do so. Michaux dreamed dreams of waves washing the Pacific coast, but he never saw them.

   He contented himself with returning the next year to the North Carolina mountains, which he now recognized as the great botanical laboratory and paradise of North America. After a few weeks in Charleston that spring, slowly and agonizingly recovering from yet another bout with malaria, he felt strong enough to set out again...up the valleys of Santee and Wateree and Catawba...toward the blue ridges in the distance. It was his first late-summer trip to these mountains, and he found plants new even to him...a new stewartia between Charlotte and Lincolnton...a lily of the valley on the mountianside above Linville...a flame azalea...white alder and mountain cranberry...the green and growing things that always made his heart beat faster. And in that spirit of excitement, we find Andre Michaux climbing toward the peak of Grandfather Mountain two hundred years ago today. He had been sent to America by the royal establishment of France. But he had lived for nine years now among the formidable democrats of the young American republic...the ones we call the Founding Fathers...and even though he did not know what would become of his own land holdings and possessions at home in the chaos that followed the French Revolution, he had embraced the birth of liberty in France with all his heart...even, while nearly starving on one of his wilderness expeditions, refusing a meal from a frontier settler with royalist sympathies who insulted the new French Republic...Michaux preferred, as he wrote in his diary, to go hungry another night and sleep on his deerskin rather than in the bed of a fanatical partisan of royalty.

this mountain is botanically extraordinary almost beyond expressing it

   So now, here he is, a proud citizen of the new France, a warm friend of the new United States of America, here he is, two hundred years ago this afternoon, climbing Grandfather Mountain. He was alive with the thrill of discovery. He knew something then that most of us do not appreciate even today...that this place where he climbed, where we are gathered, is botanically extraordinary almost beyond expressing it. When Andre Michaux reached the summit of Grandfather Mountain, he knew that within his sight on this mountain and in this valley, in a circle of a few miles, exists a greater variety of plant life that can be found in all of Europe from the arctic capes of Scandinavia to the shores of southern Greece. Here he found plants and roots which exist — amazingly — only in the southern Appalachians, or only here and in Tibet, or only here and in China. This place was his Eden. No wonder he sang that day up there at the top of Grandfather, and shouted in exultation! He would have sung “The Star Spangled Banner” but for the inconvenient fact that it had not been written, and would not be for another 20 years.

   We should all know more of Andre Michaux. He was a genuine hero of science and of exploration. His name lives on, affixed after the Latin names of plants he discovered...among these were the 60-thousand plants and trees he sent from the New World to the old. His great books are there to be read and learned from, his comprehensive work on American oaks, and his illustrated two-volume description of growing things on this continent, Flora Boreali-Americana. His journals are in the care of the American Philosophical Society. I have drawn this brief sketch of his life from the book, Lost Heritage by Henry Savage, Jr. And there are other monographs and biographies. To read about his life is to be impressed at every turning of the page.

Wild Flowers of North Carolina, just counting the times that Michaux's name appears. Among his discoveries are some of our best-loved plants. The purple rhododendron that sets our mountains ablaze in the spring. Malus angustifolia Michaux - the crab apple. Ranuculus hispidus Michaux - the buttercup. You can find two dozen such examples in Ritchie Bell's Wild Flowers of North Carolina.

   Two years after his ascent of Grandfather Mountain, having sent his son ahead before him, Andre Michaux finally sailed from Charleston to return to France. His ship was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Holland...he was rescued, unconscious on the beach, by some villagers...and when he came to, immediately — of course, since we know him now, we know what he did...he set about recovering his boxes which had washed ashore, his notebooks, and his precious plants and seeds. He was able to salvage most of them, and spent six weeks in Holland drying them out, and, laboriously, but with no complaint, make his way finally to Paris.

   He never returned to America. He died of a tropical fever in Madagascar in November, 1802, of course while collecting plants and seeds.

   Andre Michaux was a disciplined scholar, but his soul had wings. He was a free spirit, as we all should aspire to be. No words can honor him more than the words he himself declared to the wind from the top of this mountain over here two hundred years ago:

   “Long live America and the Republic of France!”

   “Long live liberty!”


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