‘Nature’s Messenger’: Mining the Confluence of Coincidence

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Patrick Dean’s new book, “Nature’s Messenger: Mark Catesby and His Adventures in a New World,” recounts the life and work of Mark Catesby who found himself on a career path as a celebrated 18th century artist and naturalist largely by virtue of coincidence and serendipity. Equally enchanting are the circumstances which led Dean to find Catesby. In 1712, Catesby traveled from England to Virginia with his family. “He didn’t have in mind he wanted to be a naturalist. He didn’t have a career plan. It was just something he was interested in,” said Dean. In the mid-1990s, Dean stumbled on a thumbnail sketch about Catesby in the magazine Garden Design accompanied by one of Catesby’s illustrations. Following up on his interest in early southern naturalists, Dean tried to learn more. “There was nothing. It was the day before the internet,” Dean joked. He gave up the pursuit. But Catesby was in Dean’s future, just as being a naturalist was Catesby’s destiny.

Catesby’s sister married a prominent Virginia physician. Catesby visited, spending from 1712-1719 in the colonies, and while there sent back illustrations and descriptions of animals and plants, as well as seeds and seedlings. The Enlightenment and aura of intellectual firmament offered up an era ripe for Catesby’s gifts. “By the time Catesby returned to England in 1719, he’d earned a reputation as a brilliant artist and respected naturalist,” Dean said. Coffee houses where intellectual discussion flourished welcomed Catesby, especially groups devoted to botanical studies. Colonization of the British empire prompted the well-heeled to finance exploration. “They sent people like Catesby to find out what was there,” Dean explained. Funded by nobles enmeshed in international trade and other influential men, Catesby returned to the American colonies in 1722, landing in what was then known as Charles Town, South Carolina.

“Catesby wasn’t an agent of empire,” Dean said. “For him it was about his own curiosity and his own scientific passion.” His pursuit took him to Augusta, Georgia, then the frontier. Constantly shifting alliances between Native American tribes and between the Native Americans and settlers fomented strife and danger of attacks. “Catesby was one of the first ethnographers in the new world to talk about the Native Americans and enslaved Africans who were here,” Dean stressed. Catesby not only hired Native Americans as guides and helpmates to build bark shelters to shield his equipment; he drew on Native Americans’ rich knowledge of local flora and fauna and credited them in his research. Likewise, Catesby relied on enslaved Africans as a rich source, in one account citing “an esteemed negro doctor” for his knowledge of medicinal plants.

Dean’s first book, “A Window to Heaven,” the story of the first successful summit of mount Denali, consumed nearly a decade of Dean’s life.” The book came out in 2021. I hadn’t even had the discussion with myself about whether I was going to write another book, much less what the topic might be,” Dean said. “Then one day out of nowhere Mark Catesby came into my brain.” Dean revisited his abandoned search. Since the mid-1990s, a wealth of research and academic studies had focused on Catesby and the University of South Carolina hosted a Mark Catesby Center. Yet, curiously, no one had written a book about the man and his life.

Dean could find no physical image of Catesby, but Catesby’s letters back to England offered much insight into his person and travels. In one, Catesby, recently ill, asks for money to purchase a slave for a helpmate. Catesby’s masterpiece and lifework, likewise, provide a rich resource. During his stay in the Americas from 1722-1726, Catesby also ventured into Florida and the Caribbean. “A Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands,” published in 1731, features over 200 illustrations, each accompanied by a description and anecdote, often crediting and referencing the nonwhite sources who were Catesby’s teachers. Heralded as “curious and magnificent” and praised by the Royal Society, the book is dedicated to King George II’s wife. Linnaeus would use over 100 hundred of Catesby’s species in his taxonomy, renaming them by the genus-species classification system he devised. A second edition of Catesby’s Natural History recently sold for $240,000.

“Catesby is now better known now as an artist than a naturalist,” Dean said. Dean’s “Nature’s Messenger” includes 16 of Catesby’s color illustrations and the cover is a montage of Catesby’s art. Within the covers lives the story of a man and era ripe for coincidence to leave its mark. Gratitude to coincidence and Patrick Dean for bringing that fascinating tale to life. Look for “Nature’s Messenger” at the University Bookstore, Amazon, and book outlets nationwide. For those who prefer to listen, an audio book is available, read by Dean.

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