In Emily Dickinson's Garden

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At The Homestead, where Dickinson spent nearly her entire life, you can walk the same flagstone path she followed across the east lawn, stand under the massive white oak tree that dates from her time, then pass peony and lilac bushes she may have passed.

This quiet retreat, which both sheltered and stimulated Dickinson, is only a four-hour drive from the Lehigh Valley. It opens the door to the world of a poet whose relationship to her garden is only now being deeply plumbed.

In summer, bright sun illuminates the Dickinson garden, a living canvas washed by a brilliance of rainbow colors. The scene and the lighting would delight Renoir and certainly please Emily herself. When I visited there were daisies, tiger, tawny and Asiatic lilies, summer phlox, hostas, bee balm and love-lies-bleeding, all in bloom. But the garden scene is active all through the growing season.

Beginning in spring, with the crocuses, tulips and daffodils, lily of the valley and lilacs that Dickinson loved so much, the blooms appear with a splash of brightness and then fade. Next come the summer selections including assorted lilies, spiderwort and mallow. Finally, chrysanthemums take over.

On the Sunday afternoon of my visit a solitary bee buzzed in the garden. As her work finished, another buzz arose. A garden party of sorts began on the lawn in this college town in central Massachusetts. A Dickinson scholar read Emily's poetry aloud to an audience clustered on chairs set out on a grassy median between two large flower beds. Hearing Dickinson's poetry read in her garden is an unforgettable experience for anyone interested in the poet and what flowers and gardening meant to her.

Although the garden certainly is only a fraction of the 2.5-acre cottage garden Emily and her sister, Vinnie, tended, it is planted with the right spirit. Many of the flowers that inspired the poet, or her descendents, help paint a more colorful picture of the woman who always wore white and remained a mysterious figure to all but the closest members of her family and a few suitors. There's even an Emily Dickinson hosta, developed by Amherst gardeners as a special tribute to the gardener-poet.

The role flowers played in Dickinson's poetry, as well as her horticultural skills, has only recently come to light again. Today's Dickinson fans know her for her poetry, but in her day Dickinson was better known as a talented gardener.

''The people who attended her funeral on May 19, 1886, thought of her as a gardener of great skill and not as a poet. Many didn't even know she wrote poetry,'' says Judith Farr, Ph.D., professor of English, emerita, from Georgetown University.

Farr has penned the preface to the new facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson's ''Herbarium,'' a just-released coffee-table book displaying the more than 400 flowers and plants Dickinson collected, pressed and arranged in a scrapbook (Harvard University Press, $125, 208 pp.). The original ''Herbarium'' is in Harvard's Houghton Library.

''Just imagine. This book is the precise record of the flowers and plants Emily started collecting as a 14-year-old from forests, hillsides and flower gardens,'' says Farr. ''Although it is not compiled scientifically, with details of the day, time and places where she found the flowers, it still is amazing to see what Emily has done. What you are seeing, for example, are ordinary plants like the 19th-century dandelion that Emily plucked herself as well as the delicate jasmine flower she chose and thoughtfully placed first in her book. Although Emily first appreciated jasmine as a teenager, it eventually became the flower she associates with romance and the man she loves.''

Richard Sewall, who wrote the book's introduction, says that the collection goes far beyond what one might expect for a botany student of her age. ''Take Emily's 'Herbarium' far enough, and you have her ,'' he writes.

Farr, whose appreciation for Dickinson began when she received a book of the Amherst author's poems as a present on her 12th birthday, adds, ''What I suddenly realized, after writing numerous articles, essays and three other critical books and one novel on Dickinson, was that her love of flowers had been overlooked.

''Fully one-third of her poems and half of her letters mention flowers. Her garden was her world and she talks about what happens in life in terms of what happens to her flowers.''

Two years ago, Farr shared her appreciation for the poet's skill in weaving flower-filled metaphors into her poetry in her book, ''The Gardens of Emily Dickinson'' (Harvard University Press, $18.95 for softcover or $26.95 hardcover, 350 pp.) Both her book and another, ''Emily Dickinson's Gardens, A Celebration of a Poet and Gardener'' by Marta McDowell (McGraw-Hill, $18.95, 218 pp.) also include a gardener's guide to cultivating the flowers the poet loved.

Once, friends asked Dickinson, if she could be a flower, which one would she be? She compared herself to the ordinary cow lily that grows everywhere along the roads and fields because of the auburn color of her hair, Farr says. She also liked and used the nickname ''Daisy,'' which was given to her by one of the few men she admired.

Dickinson admired garden-variety flowers such as roses but was especially attracted to the wildflowers that manage to grow and thrive under tough woodland conditions. Among her favorites were the ghostly white Indian pipes, forget-me-nots, butterfly weeds, venus looking glass and white sweet clover. ''She loved them because they were humble and grew along the wayside,'' Farr says.

But Dickinson also took the time to fuss over and propagate particularly tricky exotic flowers in the conservatory her father built for her as an addition to The Homestead.

Although she chose to remain at home, Dickinson dispatched her flowers to many people. She enclosed pressed flowers in letters to friends and tucked poems into bouquets she sent to the sick and shut-ins in the Amherst community.

She sounds like an ordinary gardener, mentioning the sprinkling can her sister bought for her and cleaning up after the hollyhocks. Amherst residents who could see through the Dickinsons' hemlock hedge observed that she always knelt on an old red blanket when she was gardening. And like all of us who garden, she was troubled by her share of pests and saddened by frost's arrival.

In one of Dickinson's letters cited by Farr, the poet writes, ''I found a family of rosebugs taking an early breakfast on my most precious bud, with a smart little worm for Landlady.''

Just how skilled and devoted a gardener was she? Farr says, ''One young man who recalled seeing Dickinson gardening outdoors in all kinds of weather as well as seeing her at work through the windows of her conservatory commented, 'It was said in Amherst of Miss Emily, that if she couldn't make a flower grow, no one could.'''

Farr offers still more examples of her dedication.

Dickinson was an experimental gardener, working on projects such as trying to create a double nasturtium. She forced bulbs and kept tropical plants blooming all year in the conservatory, even when it meant staying up all night on very cold nights to tend the fires so flowers wouldn't freeze.

When an eye affliction made her extremely sensitive to bright light, she resorted to doing her outdoor gardening in the evening and even at night, when she gardened by lantern-light.

In addition to enjoying Dickinson's garden, visitors also can tour the interior of The Homestead, and the neighboring home, The Evergreens, which was owned by Dickinson's brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan. Both homes and their grounds are owned and operated as historic house museums by Amherst College.

The Evergreens provides a more detailed, time-capsule-like picture of the life the family lived. The Homestead, though more sparsely furnished, gives visitors a feeling for Emily's life.

In one bedroom, set up like a mini classroom, visitors engage in a short discussion of the poet's themes with the tour guide. At last, they enter Emily's bedroom.

At a simple writing table angled between the room's south and west-facing windows, Dickinson often worked late into the night and early into the morning hours penning her poetry at a feverish rate that reached one poem a day in 1865. The bed is Emily's. The basket sitting on the dresser is thought to be just like the one she would fill with gingerbread and lower by rope from her window to children waiting below.

As the perfume of daffodils blooming on the windowsill fills the air — daffodils just like those Emily forced to bloom all year to fight winter's gloom — this woman comes to life, this woman whose poems baffle and mystify as well as speak to and delight and speak to readers nearly 150 years after they were written.

Farr writes, ''The garden's flowers constituted company, friends, other selves, health, rapture, subject matter and a link with those she loved who also gardened.''

Farr also shares a letter Emily wrote to a friend as a young adult. ''Did you ever know that a flower, once withered and freshened again, became an immortal flower, that is, that it rises again? I think resurrections here are sweeter, it may be, than the longer and lasting one — for you expect the one and only hope for the other.''

Although her poems have ensured Dickinson's literary immortality, Farr writes, ''Since her tulips and hyacinths 'rose' each spring, the Resurrection itself began to appear to the skeptical Dickinson more likely.''

SPECIAL: DICKINSON EVENTS

Celebrate the ''Herbarium''!: This special event at The Homestead commemorates this month's release and publication of the facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson's

''Herbarium.'' 1:30-3:30 p.m. Sept. 30. Visitors to the museum will be invited to create a botanically inspired greeting card or bookmark. Children and adults are invited to join in. A $2 donation is suggested to cover materials.

Evening Poetry Readings: At The Evergreens, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 5. There will be short readings of Dickinson's poetry at The Evergreens during the Amherst Art Walk. The Evergreens will be open from 5 to 7 p.m. The Homestead will not be open.

Repast as Ritual, Dining: At The Homestead and The Evergreens, 2-4 p.m. Oct. 15. Susan Dickinson, wife of Emily Dickinson's brother Austin, dreamed of entertaining Emily with an ''oyster supper,'' even before moving into her new home. The supper was one of countless meals Susan oversaw during her 60 years of residence at the Evergreens. From assembling breakfast to planning elaborate meals for notable guests like Ralph Waldo Emerson, dining at The Evergreens was no small affair. The program that examines dining customs at both

The Evergreens and The Homestead also will give participants an up-close look at some of the dining treasures in the museum collection.

Silence as Company, Quiet Time at the Dickinson Homestead: 10 a.m.-noon Oct. 26. The Homestead will be open to visitors for two hours as ''quiet time.'' Not intended as a time for touring the house, visitors can read silently, write or sketch. Portable chairs and copies of Dickinson's poetry will be available for use in the house. Staff will circulate throughout the house during this time to provide assistance. A $5 donation is requested.

Christmas with the Dickinsons: Bedpost Stockings and Laurel Wreaths: 4 p.m. Dec. 7. From the stocking that hung on Emily Dickinson's bedpost when she was a girl to the ''scandalous'' hanging of laurel wreaths on The Evergreens' front door, Christmas in the Dickinson family did not go unnoticed. Historian Stephan Nissenbaum, author of ''The Battle for Christmas,'' will discuss the changing meaning of Christmas in 19th-century America through the practices of two generations of the Dickinson family. No charge.

Open House: In honor of Emily Dickinson's birthday, 1-4 p.m. Dec. 9. Emily was born on Dec. 10, 1830. During this 11th annual ''At Home'' celebration of Emily Dickinson's birthday, visitors can take self-guided tours of The Homestead and The Evergreens, enjoy Dickinsonian refreshments and visit the museum's shop for gift ideas. The first 176 visitors will receive a rose, courtesy of an anonymous donor. No charge. The conclusion of the open house marks the end of the museum's 2006 season. It reopens to the public March 1, 2007.

THE DETAILS: VISITING EMILY DICKINSON'S HOME AND GARDENS

What: The Emily Dickinson Museum consists of The Homestead and The Evergreens, historic house museums and grounds, located along Main Street in Amherst, Mass.

Where: 280 Main St. in the heart of Amherst, Mass., is a 255-mile drive, or about 41/2 hours from Allentown.

When: Hours are 1-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, for September and October; 1-5 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday for November and through Dec. 8. The house is closed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It closes for the year with an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 9 that celebrates the poet's birthday, Dec. 10, 1830.

Info: emilydickinsonmuseum.org or 413-542-8429.

Tours: Admission is for guided tours only, with the last tour at 4 p.m. Groups of six or more should register at least two weeks in advance of the preferred visit date by calling Nan Fischlein, 413-542-2034.

The Emily Dickinson's World tour includes both the Homestead where the poet lived, and The Evergreens which was the home of her brother and sister-in-law and their three children. It focuses on Emily Dickinson's life and work and shares insights into her private and public worlds. Tour is not recommended for children younger than 6

GETTING STARTED ON YOUR HEIRLOOM GARDEN

The interest in heritage gardens is growing as surely as the flowers in them, according to Marta McDowell, author of ''Emily Dickinson's Gardens, A Celebration of a Poet and a Gardener'' (McGraw-Hill, $18.95, 218 pp.) and a lecturer at the Horticultural Society of New York and the Chautauqua Institution.

''I've heard from teachers at several schools who've told me that they want their students to plant an Emily Dickinson Garden. Of course, that generally means they want to plant some flowers that she grew. It's really a wonderful way to give children another hook they might not otherwise have into understanding Dickinson and her poems.''

She notes, however, that there's also an increased interest in restoring the landscapes and gardens around historic homes as well as an interest from gardeners who own 19th-century homes and want to landscape them with plants that were popular during that time. Some people just want to grow the simple flowers they remember their grandmothers growing.

The availability of heirloom plants, too, has grown as more and more people become interested in heritage gardens. McDowell says, ''Often, heirloom flowers need to be grown from seed. It's not always possible to buy flats from the local garden center. There are specialty nurseries, however, that offer heirloom plants.''

The reasons for starting an heirloom garden like the one Emily Dickinson loved? ''Just think about it. All of us have a nostalgic interest in a simpler life that few of us have any more. I'm sitting here at Chautauqua with my laptop and my cell phone. But gardening is consoling as we find out that life is anything but simple. It also gives you a reward for the effort you put into it,'' says McDowell.

RESOURCES

There are many resources for anyone interested in planting an Emily Dickinson-style heirloom garden.

BOOKS on Dickinson and plants:

''Emily Dickinson's Herbarium, A Facsimile Edition,'' (Harvard University Press, $125, 208 pp.)

''The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,'' by Judith Farr with Louise Carter, (Harvard University Press, $18.95, 350 pp.)

''Emily Dickinson's Gardens, A Celebration of a Poet and a Gardener,'' by Marta McDowell (McGraw-Hill, $18.95, 218 pp.)

SOURCES for heirloom plants:

Fairweather Gardens (woody plants), P.O. Box 330, Greenwich, NJ 08323, http://www.fairweathergardens.com , 856-451-6261

Old House Gardens (heirloom bulbs), 536 Third St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103, http://www.oldhousegardens.com , 734-995-1486

Perennial Pleasures Nursery, P.O. Box 147, East Hardwick, VT 05836, http://www.perennialpleasures.net, 802-472-5104

diane.stoneback@mcall.com

610-820-6526

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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