Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

The Drunken Saint

I am looking out on my garden this foggy morning thinking it is definitely going to rain–which would be momentous for it is Saint Swithun’s Day, and according to lore and legend: St Swithun’s Day if thou dost rain/for forty days it will remain/St. Swithun’s Day, if you be fair/for forty days ’twill raine nae mair. I wouldn’t mind a little rain every day for the next month and a half, typically a very dry time in our parts. Swithun was a ninth-century Bishop who became the Patron Saint of Winchester Cathedral in England after his remains were translated from outside the cathedral walls to a new shrine within it in 971–on this very day. He is sometimes fondly referred to as the “drunken saint” not for his propensity to imbibe but rather because of his stated preference for the exterior grave site, where his earthly remains would be exposed to the “drippings” of water–but he became too important to remain without. His Winchester shrine by smashed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (which I’m talking about in class today), but it has been (somewhat) reconstituted within the Cathedral–and there’s a very lovely rose named for him as well.

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Saint Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, c. 1930, Isabel Florrie Saul, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; the reconstituted shrine at Winchester Cathedral; David Austin St Swithun climbing rose (I have one; but it doesn’t look like this now!)


Hudson Picturesque

I drove into one of the most distressed small cities in America this past Monday, and was both assaulted and astonished by: rows and rows of brick townhouses from the nineteenth century and before, many gone to rot, manifest poverty, amazing elevated Hudson River views, a historic district of restored Gilded Age mansions saved from a sweeping program of urban renewal and by their courageous owners, and a fisher cat. Perhaps I would not have ventured into Newburgh if I had known that it was “The Murder Capital of New York“, but then I would not have seen the deterioration or the restoration (or the fisher cat, which is not a cat at all but a rare weasel-like creature–it fled into an abandoned wooded lot before I could turn on my camera, but I knew immediately that that’s what it was). I went to Newburgh to see Washington’s Headquarters, but came away seeing a whole lot more. I’m going to refrain from including images of Newburgh’s distress–but let me assure you that its surviving restored structures are all the more picturesque because of the contrast.

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Along Montgomery Street in Newburgh, New York; villas and a foundation garden. The influence of Calvert Vaux (1824-95) and Andrew Jackson Downing is very apparent. There is a park named after Downing in Newburgh, and this last house is clearly based on “Design no. 14″ in Vaux’s Villas and cottages. A series of designs prepared for execution in the United States.

The Hudson River Valley is, of course, picturesque in both natural and man-made ways: and when they come together they really grab hold of you! The whole region is dotted with romantic structures, large and small, alone and in assemblages like Montgomery Street. On the other side of the river, I captured a few more romantic structures, and, for contrast, the USS Slater (the last World War II destroyer afloat) on its way up the river to Albany.

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On the other side of the river: houses (actually I don’t think this first structure is a house–some sort of chapel?) in Cold Spring and Rhinecliff; the USS Slater on the Hudson.

 

 


All is Green

We had some very English weather for most of last week and rain at its end, so now everything is very, very green. And of course it is mid-June, not mid-July or -August, so that’s just the way it should be: lush. My garden is just about to move into its overgrown phase, so I’m going to spend the day trying to tame it, but first a few pictures. There is nothing I like better than an ivy-covered “feral house”: here is my favorite and on my way to the Post Office yesterday I discovered another one. This little brick building has been vacant (at least on its first floor) for quite a few years, and now its entire back–and chimney–are wearing green. It was a funny day–one minute it rained, and then the sun popped out for twenty minutes or so; it was humid and then almost chilly. I was running around town taking “now” pictures for several upcoming posts and an exhibit on the Great Salem Fire (fast approaching its centennial anniversary), but I stopped along the way to take some pictures of green wherever I found it: on this little building, in Forest River Park, just walking along the sidewalk, in a beautiful Federal Street garden, and in my own backyard.

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Say’s Anatomy

Of insects, or rather, American Entomology: or Descriptions of the Insects of North America by Thomas Say, published in 3 volumes in Philadelphia, 1824-28. That’s my pick of the books up for “adoption” at the Salem Athenaeum’s 3rd annual Conservation Night tonight, when antique books in need of serious restoration are funded by generous benefactor bibliophiles. I’ve been working on this committee for several years now, and the depth and breadth of the Athenaeum’s collection never fails to amaze: it’s tough to narrow down the list of needy books each year but the institution is committed to a long-term campaign. This year’s candidates, which you can see here, include: the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787–with an amazing pull-out map), 1714 and 1739 editions of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a first (1884) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (1860), and (of course) Caroline Upham’s Salem Witchcraft in Outline (1891—with a really cool cover), among other worthy volumes. I really don’t care much for bugs, but bug books are another thing altogether, so the Say volumes appeal to me if only for their beautiful plates, produced by Say himself and his fellow artists/naturalists Charles Alexander Lesueur, and Titian Ramsay Peale, the youngest son of the esteemed artist Charles Willson Peale.

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Thomas Say (1787-1834) accomplished a lot in his relatively short life: he was a self-taught naturalist, entomologist, and conchologist ( word I had never heard before now–one who studies shells, mollusc shells in particular) and great explorer–of nature and territory. He was a co-founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812, Professor of Natural History at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of two pioneering works, American Entomology and American Conchology (1830-36). He was also a Utopian scientist (not incompatible at that time), settling in the Owenite community at New Harmony, Indiana in 1826, where he died eight years later.


Three Jacks and Fifteen Ladies

They’re back, thank goodness: the two most precious plants in my garden, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and yellow Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum). I had feared their demise because of our cold winter and their relatively late arrival, but the Jacks look as exotic as ever (though a bit shorter than usual) and the Lady Slippers are back with a vengeance: fifteen whereas last year there were only twelve. The garden is booming right now, despite some chilly nights–the night before last I think it was around 40 degrees. There are fewer bleeding hearts and Solomon’s seals, but those that survived are lovely, and the other ladies (mantle) are as vigorous as ever. I’ve had these slippers for over a decade now, and I’ve never seen any predators around them, but when I went out into the garden late last afternoon to take some more pictures (not quite satisfied with the first batch) there was a squirrel hovering dangerously close to them: he was up to something, I know it! I had the funny feeling that I had seen this scenario before, and I had, in a lovely illustration by the eighteenth-century British naturalist and illustrator Mark Catesby, who paired his yellow lady’s slipper with a black squirrel. My squirrel was the plain old garden variety gray kind, but just for a second, he appeared to be striking a similar pose.

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Catesby Lady Slipper and Squirrel

Jacks-in-the-Pulpit, Lady’s Slippers, Sweet Cicely, and Bleeding Hearts in my late May garden; page from Mark Catesby’s Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants. Second Edition, Vol II. (1754), University of Wisconsin Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

These late spring plants are so magical I actually develop a temporary tolerance for late Victorian “flower literature”, which I generally find a bit too sweet (and simple). Inspired by their sisters who celebrated “Shakespeare’s flowers” across the pond, a generation of American lady poets wrote odes to American wildflowers, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Lady’s Slippers prominently among them. When you’re surrounded by these almost-anthropomorphic plants, you do feel like you’re amidst a kingdom of sorts! Here’s Sarah J. Day on the elfin origins of Lady’s Slippers, from her 1900 collection Mayflowers to Mistletoe: a Year with the Flower Folk: When the fairy Cinderellas/Tripping it before their Queen/Startled by the stroke of Midnight/Fled in haste the moonlit scene/They their gold and broidered slippers/Left behind them on the green/Straightaway then the elfin pages/Sent to clear with care away/Gathering all the scattered slippers/Hang them up in neat array/Just within the shadowed woodland/”Where they grow”, dull mortals say.

 


Worts and All

When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still:  they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well.  I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.

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Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.


Bright white May Days

Beautiful weather here, at long last. Yesterday, Mother’s Day, was nothing short of spectacular. Everyone was in a blissful mood. I’ve been running, literally, around town, trying to ramp up my endurance but I always take my camera with me so I suppose I’m not really that serious about it. I don’t want to miss anything: blooming bleeding hearts, turtles in Greenlawn cemetery (they always seem to line up on the same fallen branch in order of weight and size), unusual houses (the two white ones are hard to pin down in terms of style and period: would be grateful for more informed opinions), groundhogs (couldn’t get the picture, sorry), bubbles. My garden came to life almost overnight: last week I was in despair, but now it looks like the jacks-in-the-pulpit and lady’s slippers are about to bust out of the ground along with most (not all, but most) of my perennials. I’m going to fill in some of the holes that I do have in the shade garden with brunnera macrophylla (with purple flowers below), which has proved itself to be both pretty and hardy.

Salem (and bubbles in Concord):

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Yesterday afternoon we went up to New Castle, New Hampshire to have brunch with my family at Wentworth by the Sea, built as the Hotel Wentworth in 1872, abandoned a century and a decade later, and “restored” (rebuilt?) ten years ago. It was a big part of my early life and even though it’s not the most sensitive of restorations it was nice to see it full of smiling happy people yesterday. I’ve included a photograph of its dark days in the 1990s for contrast. We drove home past long lines at each and every ice cream stand along the way–although in New England, you see that in February.

New Castle, New Hampshire:

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