Category Archives: Nature

Winter and Spring

Looking out the window on the last day of winter 2017, a grey snow-threatening day, it seemed as if the seasons were in battle, with Winter struggling to muster up the energy for one last blast before Spring inevitably prevailed. By the end of the day the sun came out, and I interpreted this as the triumph of Spring! The seasons have been personified from the classical Horae and their Renaissance revival on, but my wistful weather musings were influenced more by materialism than any intellectual curiosity or poetic sensibility on my part: I was engaging in a favorite Sunday pastime of browsing upcoming auction lots, and came across Louis Rhead’s watercolor Lady Spring banishing Father Winter, circa 1890, in an upcoming Swann auction of  illustration art.

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Louis Rhead, Lady Spring banishing Father Winter, c. 1890

Of all the seasonal personifications, only Winter is portrayed as masculine, but not exclusively: perhaps this is because Winter wasn’t really recognized as a season in the classical era so he/she is more gender-flexible. Rhead portrays “Father” or “Old Man” Winter in the European folklore tradition, but other artists of  his era preferred the all-feminine “four seasons”. Walter Crane’s Masque of the Four Seasons (c. 1903) seems to mirror Botticelli’s Primavera (c. 1482) except for the feminization of the brooding, blue Winter, which the latter depicted as Zephyrus, who effects the transformation of Flora into Spring, with her ever-present basket of flowers.

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Walter Crane, Masque of the Four Seasons & Sandro Botticelli, Allegory of Spring, or Primavera (c. 1482), Uffizi Gallery Museum

Winter and spring are feminine companions/opponents in Alphonse Mucha’s seasonal series from 1896, women are in season in Henri Meunier’s Four Seasons series from 1900, and sullen Winter looks on the more cheerful and cherubic seasons in Henry Wallis’s drawing from the same year. The seasons become more strident in the twentieth century: charging rather than prancing about the garden in William Walsh’s series of covers for Women’s Home Companion, 1931. Riding in on her unicorn, Spring definitely looks triumphant.

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Alphonse Mucha, Winter and Spring from The Seasons series (1896); Henri Meunier, Winter and Spring from the Four Seasons series (1900); Henry Wallis, The Four Seasons (1900); William P. Walsh, May (Spring) and February (Winter) 1931 covers of Women’s Home Companion.

 


Trudging Along

Yesterday was a beautiful winter day with everyone out and about cleaning up after the Saturday snowstorm, which was not as bad north of Boston as it was to the south.The streets of Salem were clear by mid-morning, if not before (I was sleeping in), and people were engaged in their regular Sunday activities. There were Sunday street-hockey players out my front windows, and hungry birds out back.

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I suddenly became curious about snow removal in the past–mostly because I didn’t want to go out and engage in my own snow removal in the present. I have–and have seen–quite a few historic photographs of winter scenes in Salem in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but none of them feature snow carts, snow plows, or snow removal. Salem has always been quite urban, and people needed to get around, how did they manage? What was the system then that so preoccupies us now? Both the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library have quite a few photographs of various methods of snow removal in their collections, from simple shovel brigades to “snow rollers”–I’ve never seen anything like that for Salem: anyone out there have anything?

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Chestnut and Lafayette Streets in the 1870s in stereoviews by Charles G. Fogg. Carriages on the snow—not even sleighs! But it’s not too deep here.

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Chestnut Street in the 1890s, deeper snow, no signs of plowing–but these carriages do look like they are on blades. I’ve shown these before; they are from a family archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

My problem is that I don’t have any winter scenes of Washington or Essex Streets with tracks that needed to be cleared: Chestnut was and remains strictly residential. I still think people trudged around a lot more than we do now, however. Look at these two wonderful photographs of students from the Horace Mann “Training School” associated with the Salem State Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and their teacher, visiting historic sites downtown in the snow.Look at her skirt: she’s not troubled by a little snow.

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E.G. Merrill photographs of Horace Mann students, 1904, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

Like everything else, our toleration for snow in the streets changed with the automobile: we won’t settle for anything less than black the day after a snowstorm now. The wonderful book by Marblehead artist, photographer, and author Samuel ChamberlainSalem in Four Seasons (1938) shows winter streets cleared for cars and pedestrians. And he agrees with me: some of Salem’s most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it (though a lot more now, fortunately).

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Plowing Chestnut Street in the 1930s, from Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem in Four Seasons (1938).


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

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An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

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Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


Bittersweet November

I don’t really have a theme or subject for today’s post: it is primarily comprised of photos I took here in Salem and up in York Harbor where I spent most of the weekend. But as I was walking along the Harbor cliff walk–a childhood path of mine that was allowed to be taken over by new home owners/builders along the way in past years but now seems to be in the process of being reclaimed by the public–I thought of how appropriate the bittersweet “decoration” that lined the walk was: contrasting and colorful, a last blast of bright before things get darker, so somehow all the more sweet. I’ve always thought November is one of our most beautiful months: the light is so clear, the earth not yet muddy brown or white. Of course since I’ve lived in Salem November has become particularly cherished as it marks Salem’s liberation from its Witch City identity, but I think everywhere that I have lived I have enjoyed November: in Vermont, and Maine, and Maryland, and Britain. I think it must be my second-favorite month, just behind May.

The first week of November in Salem: a blazing tree on Essex Street, the new Little Free Library on the Ropes Mansion Grounds, a house coming back to life, white shows the light, old tracks, a strange seating area at Harmony Grove cemetery (I think it is the pillows that I find somewhat odd), THE WITCH IS DEAD, one last fall photograph of my cat Trinity for a while, I promise!

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In York Harbor, the first weekend of November:  along the Cliff Walk: fortifications (several estates along the walk have castle-esque architectural attributes and CANNONS–who are they guarding against, the New York Yacht Club?), bittersweet, and a secret gate; fall back.

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Antique Apples

I was listening to the TED talk of biodiversity warrior Cory Fowler the other day when I suddenly became panicked about the dwindling variety of apples in our world. It must be the season, but immediately this issue resonated with me: we have apparently lost 86% of the varieties of apples we had a century ago: 86%! Of course I am very, very late to the party: Thoreau was wandering around the woods and fields of Massachusetts 150 years ago reveling in the sheer variety of pomological splendor before him while at that same time observing that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple-tree is with that of man” and “the era of the wild apple will soon be over”. He complains about the preponderance of Baldwins, now relatively rare, but it seems like all we have are boring McIntosh, Delicious, Gala, and Granny Smith apples in the grocery stores today. I looked through some agricultural books, journals, and catalogs from the middle of the nineteenth century, beginning with the several editions of Robert Manning’s Book of Fruits and proceeding through The Apple Culturist (1871), and came up with a list of about 150 apple varieties which were cultivated just in Massachusetts at that time, including the aforementioned Baldwin, along with Bellflower, Blue Permain, Canada Reinette, Duchess of Oldenberg, Early Joe, Fall Pippin, Fenouillet Jaune, Grimes’ Golden Pippin, Hawthorndean, Hubbardston’s Nonsuch (to which there is a monument dedicated in Wilmington, Massachusetts), Myers’s Nonpareil, Newtown Spitzenberg, Northern Spy, Pickman Pippin, Pick’s Pleasant, Pound Royal, Red Astrakhan, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet (very famous as “New England’s first pomological experiment”), and my very favorite, Westfield Seek-no-further. There are a few local growers still cultivating some of these varieties, but most of them are no more.

We can’t taste all of these antiquated apples (though some, it seems, we can!), be we can see them, thanks to a great visual source: the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains over 7000 images of fruit from 1886 to 1942.We used to have over 7000 apples, and now we have pictures.

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roxbury-russetA Baldwin apple, 1915, by Mary Daisy Arnold; Early Joe, 1898, by Deborah Griscom Passmore; Hubbardston, 1928, Mary Daisy Arnold; Northern Spy, 1905, by Elsie Lower; Roxbury Russet, 1905, by  Amanda Almira Newton:  all U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705. A real Roxbury Russet from Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts.


Blaze of Glory

I know, Summer doesn’t really end until September 20, but I’ve lived and worked on an academic schedule for my entire life, so believe me when I say that Summer ends on Labor Day. This year I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I worked all summer teaching and doing various administrative tasks (not, unfortunately, writing, except for here), so it seems like there never was a summer in academic terms. So who cares, bring Fall on. On the other hand, because I didn’t really have a summer (again–in academic terms: I know how privileged I am), these last few days are even more poignant. Whatever–it’s over–as I write this I am sitting in an empty classroom awaiting transfer registration. September is one of my favorite months (October would be too if I didn’t happen to live in WITCH CITY), and because the month is so beautiful, I always have this idea that I’m going to make my garden last through it rather than just giving up and ceasing all garden activities.My garden actually looks pretty good, as we are not under a water ban here unlike many towns in Essex County. I water sparingly, because I feel kind of guilty doing it, but it’s pretty green back there if lacking in color.Unfortunately I am not crazy about late summer/early fall flowers: dahlias are too showy, and sedum too………fibrous (succulents creep me out, for some reason). I found a few other plants to replenish my garden up at Pettingill Farm the other day, but it’s never going to look like the ultimate late-summer garden at the Ropes Mansion.

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Late Summer flowers at Pettengill Farm in Salisbury and the Ropes Mansion, Salem. I had planned to go to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston on Friday to see the amazing floral/architectural paper creations of Tiffanie Turner but now I see that they are not there! So disappointed. I might just start to like dahlias: hers look like floral armor for the challenges of Fall.

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A dahlia by Tiffanie Turner: more here.


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