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Calm Descends on Salem

It always takes me a few days to recover from Halloween here……two nights ago I had an all-too-vivid nightmare about a bacchanalian orgy in the Charter Street cemetery. But I woke up to a calm and beautiful day: Election Day, always a hopeful day for me. You’ve got to love off-year, local elections when the big issues are new trash barrels and cobblestones! Actually I am trivializing our election quite a bit: the large, looming development projects that I’ve been writing about all year are also big issues (but trash is big too). After I voted, I walked to work and checked the cemetery and Witch Trials Memorial along the way: all was calm and a few respectful people were walking around, really looking at the grave- and memorial stones rather than sitting on them! Salem has been returned to its residents, the dearly departed are not being trespassed, and I slept much better last night.

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Feeling fortunate that two great, smart people ran for councilor of the ward that I live in, and that I can walk by the beautiful PEM garden on a 70-degree day in November.

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Feeling fortunate that all those disrespectful people are GONE………

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and that someone left an appropriate memorial to their ACTUAL ancestor, and that I get to walk by my favorite Salem house, now artfully adorned with pumpkins, several times a week.

Turnip Ghosts

There is a great quote from the prolific and eminently quotable British writer G. K Chesterton about ghosts–or really belief– in general which references turnip ghosts in particular: I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. This is from a column in the Illustrated London News in 1936: the assumption is that his audience would immediately understand the phrase “turnip ghost”, and as they were British, they probably did. An American audience would and does require some translation. A turnip ghost refers literally to a Jack o’lantern made out of a turnip (but I would also include turnip-headed scarecrows)–something out there in the fields that was not a real ghost but that could create fear–a bugaboo (the best word ever). Old World turnips predated New World pumpkins as the material of choice for All Hallows Eve Jack o’lanterns, and remained predominate for some time, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. And you can easily see why: turnips are scary.


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Turnip Jack o’ lanterns from Work of Fiction (+directions); my own ghosted turnip seed packet.

The turnip-headed scarecrows are equally eerie: they turn up on Halloween postcards from the early twentieth century in both the United States and Europe, but are not exclusively tied to the holiday. Turnips just easily lend themselves towards anthropomorphic expressions.

Turnip Halloween Card

Turnip Head Howl's Moving Castle

Turnip Head Shakers

Vintage Halloween card, c. 1920; the Turnip-head scarecrow from  Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle; Vintage salt & pepper shakers available here.

I bought some turnips the other day–larger ones from a farm up north and smaller ones at our farmers market–with the intent to carve them into something scary, but I’m not sure I can do it–even with Martha Stewart’s assertive advice. They don’t have the soft insides of a pumpkin, and they are much more diminutive. I might chicken out and merely draw on them, because I’m not sure that I want to put in the time and effort: every single time I’ve carved out a pumpkin it has been stolen days before Halloween, and I’m sure my little turnip lanterns would be even more vulnerable!

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Martha Stewarts Turnips

My turnips and Martha’s creations: I might just settle for the turnips (and radishes) in a dish decoration, lower right. See a very scary traditional turnip Jack o’lantern here.

The Pumpkin Pouncer

Even though we have all lived together for several months, we are still adjusting to our newest cat, Trinity, and she to us. She’s either in constant motion or a state of complete collapse, like a youngster, which she is. She had a litter out in the wild before she was even a year old, and they were all rescued by our local shelter: the kittens were adopted first and then she came to us in late June, newly-fixed, and still very much a mother, in nesting mode. Not a scrap of fabric was safe in the house all summer–clothing, dishtowels, throws, even pillows—were carried up to my husband’s closet. If the door was closed, she would simply make a pile until it was open. Her beloved pink blanket, brought with her from the shelter, was always in close proximity. About a month ago, the fixation on fabric seemed to dissipate, but now she has a new focus:  pumpkins. Not real pumpkins, velvet ones, which I have been collecting for some time (before they became fashionable). Large or small, wherever they happen to be situated, she pounces on them, tears at them, carries them upstairs and then drops them from the second-floor landing to the entrance hall below, and scatters their insides (rice) on the floor, furniture, and even the dining-room table. At least she’s moved on from her fabric/kitten fixation (either that or she was a very bad mother).

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Broken Brooms?

Besides dodging the crowds (and zombies) here in Salem on this past (absolutely beautiful) Columbus Day weekend, we went up north for a bit. Just off the highway in my hometown of York, Maine, I became fixated on an installation of witches on bicycles at the entrance to Stonewall Kitchen: as if I didn’t have enough witches in Salem! Of course, they resonated with me not just because they were witches (on bicycles) but because of the Wizard of Oz visual reference: few things were scarier in my childhood than the transformation of Miss Almira Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West during the terrifying tornado. The fact that I have this very vivid image seared into my brain is one of the reasons that I’m glad I was born in the ’60s (although I think the ’70s would work too): every year when the Wizard of Oz came on we were glued to the screen and each scene made at impression because we would have to wait the entire year until we could see it again: we couldn’t just rewind a DVD or access a YouTube clip. So we remember.

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The Last of Summer & September

We’ve got a deluge of rain on the way, which we desperately need, but I imagine that the garden will be beaten down after it subsides so I thought I’d take some of the last pictures of the season. I also had a rare afternoon in the Back Bay of Boston so I took some window-box pictures as well: some in the full flourish of summer, others harbingers of fall. I’m always melancholy in late September, more because Salem’s witching season begins assertively on October 1 than because it marks the onset of autumn and colder weather. Prepare for that prolonged rant over the next few weeks–or stay away! I am working on a few interesting (at least to me) Witch City posts for October, but no doubt I’ll also retreat and focus on the more distant past as well. Or leave town.

Still-flowering Boston, September 28:

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And then Home: lots of lavender and catmint and a very fluffy rose, anemones, perennial agertum (a great fall plant, and much more blue than it appears in this photograph); Trinity in the garden, like a ghost of our dearly-departed Moneypenny.

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Scholarship and Shopping

Few moments are more exciting for me than when my intellectual and material endeavors merge, and believe me, they are fleeting! One happened this past Saturday. I had been struggling with two pieces that I am writing for publication on Frank Cousins, Salem’s turn-of-the last century architectural photographer, and a passionate advocate for all thing Colonial. I know a lot about Cousins, and I have a lot to say about him (because no one else has said anything), but I am not a trained 1) American Historian; 2) Architectural Historian; or 3) Art Historian, so that is why I was struggling: could I place him in his proper context? It’s one thing to refer to his “imaginary walks through Salem” and lectures on “Old Architectural Salem” and quite another to assess his contributions to American architectural history and the Preservation movement. I had finished one piece and was thoroughly blocked on the other, when I decided to go over to the first ever (and hopefully not last) “Vintage Market” on Derby Square. I just love the idea of an antiques market in Salem, which has such a long tradition in this trade, and even though I appreciate our farmers’ market, I would rather buy things than vegetables in Derby Square! So off I went, and there was some great stuff: baskets, bottles, buttons, snowshoes, pottery, tins, bottles, and prints, lots and lots of prints, including an old box full of Frank Cousins prints. These were not the original albumen images, mind you, but large reprints made for resale at a mid-century Salem gift shop according to the man who sold them to me, who happens to run his own Salem tours. I bought quite a few, took them home, spread them out on the floor of my study, and waited for inspiration to strike. It took a while (more than a moment to tell the truth), but eventually I finished my article. I think there are two lessons here: 1) if you’re writing about someone who expresses himself visually, you must consider these expressions and 2) shopping always helps.

Close-up: offerings at the First Annual (?) Vintage Market on Derby Square in Salem, and my catch of Cousins photographs.

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Spider Web Windows

Sitting on the huge back porch of my parents’ house in York Harbor the other day, I became fixated on the spider web design of the windows of the house next door. This house (unfortunately) blocks quite a bit of our view of the ocean, but is (fortunately) a magnificent creation: large and white and gleaming, with lots of architectural details. It has the appearance of a Colonial Revival house and I know it was built after our Shingle “cottage”, so the dates fit–but the spider web windows do not: they look a little whimsical for this classically-constrained house. I’ve been looking at these web windows my whole life but never really considered them before. Years ago my mother transformed a small window in the front of our house into a stained-glass mosaic in the design of a web; I doubt she was inspired by the web windows in front as a veritable forest existed between that house and ours at that time.

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Apparently the spider web was a prominent design motif of the Arts and Crafts movement, along with the dragonfly, the firefly and the crane, all indicating the influence of Japanese visual culture in the later Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic. Just a few minutes of web research brought me to the spider web windows in the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and more interestingly (to me) to the work of Chicago-era architect R. Harold Zook (1889-1949), who incorporated spider webs motifs in all of his houses and even as his trademark. I had never heard of Zook before: wow!  And just to illustrate how ageless and universal the spider web window can be I’ve included a charming little pane from the Zouche Chapel at York Minster, dating from the late medieval era and encased in a chapel panel in the sixteenth century.

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Spider Web Zouche Chapel York Minster 16th century

A great site for R. Harold Zooks Houses, both lost and surviving.


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