“I had no idea what I was getting into,” explains Charlie, about tracking down the Bigleaf Magnolia.
Charlie and Lydia Williams were a little taken aback when Assistant Director of Philanthropy Ralph Phillips showed up on their doorstep this fall to thank them for more than 30 years of support for The Nature Conservancy. The couple, who are both retired from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library System, say their support for the Conservancy is part of their overall commitment to the natural world, particularly a shared love of wildflowers and botany.
Charlie has spent much of the last two decades focused on André Michaux, the French botanist who was dispatched by Louis XVI in 1785 to look for new tree species in the United States. It is a passion that has taken him many places, including France. Lydia has been a strong supporter of her husband’s work, even learning French to help him in his venture.
The two have always loved the outdoors. “Wildflowers were our courtship,” says Charlie. Lydia fondly remembers those early hikes. On one Charlie brought along a new camera. “He kept stopping to take pictures,” she says with a laugh. “But, the real reason was that he was out of breath.”
Eventually, Charlie realized that he needed to take classes in botany so that he could pursue his hobby. He rearranged his schedule to take a two week field botany class at UNC-Charlotte, where he learned how to identify plants, which fulfills the couple’s shared love of order. “We’re librarians, we like things organized,” he explains.
People began to take note of his botanical ardor, prompting a friend to pose a botanical mystery to him in 1994: Where did Michaux find and identify Magnolia macrophylla, commonly known as the Bigleaf Magnolia? “I had no idea what I was getting into,” explains Charlie. “I had been a librarian and a reader of history since the second grade and I was interested in old maps. But, I didn’t realize how difficult this was going to be.”
His mission took him across the Piedmont and eventually to France. At one point he found himself at the French national herbarium. He didn’t speak French, but that didn’t matter so much in the botanical world. “Plants have Latin names. We communicated through the Latin names of plants,” he explains.
In the process he discovered “that the world is so small when you are into 18th century history.” For instance, 10 years before Lewis and Clark’s westward exploration, Thomas Jefferson had actually asked Michaux to go west to on a discovery journey, but for various political reasons that trip never happened. “Michaux has been my window on the 18th century,” Charlie says. “Everyone knew everyone else – Jefferson, Michaux, Lewis and Clark.”
Charlie retraced Michaux’ route. Along the way, he met a number of people who helped him hone in on the location of Michaux’ Bigleaf magnolia discovery – eventually proving that the specimen was collected on a Lincoln County farm (the property is now in Gaston County) owned by Bennet Smith in a place that is a few miles away from the town of Stanley. He published his work in CASTANEA, the Journal of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.
But, his Michaux work had only begun. In 2002, he organized an International Symposium on Michaux at Belmont Abbey College. During the planning for that event, someone suggested that Michaux should make a personal appearance at the symposium. At a preliminary event, Charlie appeared as the botanist in a rented outfit that made him look like a “pudgy Benjamin Franklin.”
Later, wearing a more appropriate costume, Charlie unveiled his one-man play about Michaux as a way to raise money to publish the symposium papers.
In 2007, he helped put together a celebration of Michaux’ favorite plant, the Oconee Bell (Shortia galacifolia). Today he and several others are translating and annotating Michaux’ journey diaries. “We’re in the fifth year of a three-year program,” he explains.
As for Lydia, she has been with her husband on most of his Michaux journey. She says that she has traveled to a lot of great places where Michaux once trod. “But, I sure wish we could find some mention of him visiting Italy,” she jokes.
Although Charlie has spent much of his time centered on particular species such as Bigleaf Magnolia or the Oconee Bell, he appreciates The Nature Conservancy’s whole ecosystem approach to conservation. “While the E.O. Wilsons of the world knew that was important, The Nature Conservancy made that approach a part of the public conversation.” More than 200 years after Michaux trekked through North Carolina, Charlie is pretty certain that the French botanist would approve of that kind of conservation.
Debbie Crane is Director of Communications for The North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.