Category Archives: Nature

The Great New England Eclipse of 1932

In my ongoing preoccupation with turning the universal into the parochial, it wasn’t difficult to determine which historical eclipse had the biggest impact on Salem, which was just on the southwest border of the total blackout zone of the eclipse of August 31, 1932. This eclipse cut a diagonal swath through New England from Montreal to Provincetown, and people converged in the White Mountains, Cape Ann and Cape Cod for viewing: there were special eclipse “packages” and special eclipse trains, and more than one observer pointed out that the frenzy was serving as a distraction from the Depression. In Salem, the shops closed at 1:00 in the afternoon on the 31st (which was a Wednesday), as everyone departed for Gloucester–apparently not content to be in the 99% zone! The headlines leading up to the 1932 eclipse were not too different than those today: watch out for your eyes, watch out for your chickens (perhaps there was more emphasis on chickens then), the best viewing places, why the scientists are so excited. I do think there was more “eclipse ephemera” produced then, but it was a period of paper.

Eclipse 1932 NE Map

eclipse collage

Eclipse 1932 Williams

Eclipse 1932 Williams 2

Eclipse glasses 1932

August 1932 headlines from the Boston Daily Globe: eclipse ephemera from the Cole Collection at the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.

The viewing experience seems to have been uneven across New England on August 31, 1932: clouds and rain prevailed in some places, inspiring my favorite September 1 headlines: Long Awaited Eclipse is Partially Eclipsed (or some variation thereof). I have no doubt that people had fun on the New Haven Railroad’s special Eclipse Train, however, on which they could see night-time when it’s day in New England as you play. Strange things were reported for days afterwards: chickens (very sensitive to eclipses, apparently) laid eggs that bore an imprint of the corona, which appeared on several glass windows around the region as well. In my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, the artist Henry Russell Butler, who had traveled across the country in order to capture the previous three eclipses on canvas, was thrilled to see one appear in his backyard. Photography had long been able to capture eclipses, but paint still worked too.

Eclipse 1932 eclipsed

Eclipse NYT

M25823-28 001

Eclipse 1932 Henry Russell Butler

North Adams Transcript and New York Times headlines, September 1, 1932; New Haven Railroad Eclipse Train poster by John Held Jr., Swann’s Auctions; Henry Russell Butler, Solar Eclipse, 1932Princeton University Art Museum, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.


Salem Garden Tour 2017

My takeaway from the weekend’s garden tour in Salem is a renewed appreciation of structure in the garden: fences, pergolas, pillars and garden sheds were everywhere in evidence, and both the small and large gardens were oriented towards the architecture of their adjacent houses. I’ve always been a bit more botanical-based, but now I find myself desperately wanting a little garden house! It was a very eclectic tour, ranging from very small gardens on River Street to a palatial garden on Chestnut, with a beautifully structured classical garden on Federal Street in between. We toured in the morning, well before a torrential downpour in the later afternoon–which must have stranded lots of people under available porches, or some other convenient structure. As for plant material, there was mildew-free bee balm, very well-kept roses, lots of vines, and lavender that is much more lush than mine. As always, I feel grateful to the gardeners/homeowners who put themselves out there and allowed us all to trespass for a while.

Garden Tour River 2

Garden Tour First

Garden Tour River 3

Garden Tour Santolina

Garden Tour River

Garden Tour Sheds

Garden Tour Shed

Garden Tour Federal 8

Garden Tour Federal 7

Garden Tour Federal 6

Garden Tour Federal 5

Garden Tour Federal 4

Garden Tour Federal 3

Garden Tour Beale 2

Garden Tour Beale 3

Garden Tour Chestnut

Garden Tour Beebalm

Garden Tour Apples

Garden Tour Chestnut lastSalem Gardens (+sheds) on River, Federal and Chestnut Streets.


Scorched Earth/A Lost Salem Garden

Since I went in deep for the centennial anniversary of Great Salem Fire of 1914 a few years ago I have this date imprinted in my mind: I woke up this morning and my first thought was oh no. So much was lost that day—houses, factories, civic buildings, churches–as the fire devoured several wards of Salem. The recovery effort, which seems remarkably swift and efficient to me, focused primarily and rightfully on rebuilding, but there was an implicit concern for the loss of landscape as well, and so parks were planned and trees replanted. There was one notable Lafayette Street landscape that was lost on forever on that day, however: the garden of George B. Chase. There was no effort to reconstitute this creation; instead the large lot became the site of the new Saltonstall School, which rose from the ashes of the fire pretty quickly. The Chase Garden was indeed fleeting, but fortunately we have two great sources to remember it by: the wonderful 1947 guide book Old Salem Gardens, published by the Salem Garden Club, and several photographs in the American Garden Club’s Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian.

Chase Old Salem Gardens

Chase Old Salem Gardens 2

Chase Garden collageJust one of my many copies of the invaluable Old Salem Gardens (1947) with the Chase garden entry; the location of the Chase garden on the 1874 and 1891 Salem Atlases.

The Salem Garden Club ladies who produced Old Salem Gardens, chief among them Club President Mable Pollock, took great care to include historical information and personal reminiscences whenever possible, greatly enhancing the research value of their compilation:  this is no little pamphlet! We hear all about the Chase Garden from the “discussive and chatty” Miss Chase, who grew up on the property, as her memories are transcribed onto the page. She tells us about the beds of ostrich ferns and rhododendrons in the immediate proximity of her family house, above which swayed purple beech and weeping birch trees, and a “large bed containing 72 plants of Azalea mollis bought from Lewis Van Houtte of Belgium”. In the spring there was white narcissus poeticus, followed by red salvia. Laburnum and althaea screened the large vegetable garden, which included salsify, rhubarb, asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, summer squash, tomatoes, onions and corn: the seed of the latter [came from] a cousin, Benjamin Fabens, and was called “Darling’s Early”. It was most satisfactory in every way, for the ears were not too long, and they had deep kernels and a small cob; the husk was quite red, as were the blades….it was the sweetest corn ever eaten at that time. Continuing along towards Salem Harbor along a box-bordered path, we “see” fruit trees and more exotic trees and shrubs, including a very notable varieties of magnolia and viburnum which particularly impressed repeat visitors from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Near the back of the garden were beds of roses, and a cutting garden of annuals and perennials, encircled by yet another row of shrubs and trees, including the oldest growth on the property, a locust grove, which nature had planted. All swept away on one day: June 25, 1914.

Chase Garden

Chase Garden AAG 1904 Smithsonian

Chase Garden After

Chase Garden After 2Views of the front and back of the Chase Garden (including Mr. Chase himself on the bench), 1904, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution; Ten years later on Lafayette Street: postcard views of the Fire’s immediate aftermath from the (commemorative???) Views of Salem after the Great Fire of June 25, 1914 brochure issued by the New England Stationery Company.


Salem Roses

You can have your showy, ant-filled peonies: at this time of year it is all about roses for me. This is rose week in Salem–everywhere you go (except perhaps for the Ropes Mansion Garden, which peaks in late summer), there are beautiful roses in bloom. I’ve got some relatively new bushes in my garden as last year there was a roofer-induced massacre. When I first put in roses, I chose only hard-to-find old garden varieties of the rosa gallica type: I was a purist who prioritized history over flowering (similar to the pink and white varieties below in the Derby House garden, which look much better than mine ever did—I also had an herb garden full of straggly herbs used as medieval plague cures). These heirloom roses were a bit too shrubby for me, and so I replaced them one by one with more modern varieties, mostly from David Austin. And after the decimation last year, I went all David Austin: pale pinks and yellow, almost-orange, no red. They all popped yesterday (see collage), and I went for a walk to see some more: so here you have it, my rose-tour of downtown Salem.Rose Collage

June Roses 1

June Roses 3

June Roses 4

June Roses 5

June Roses 6

June Roses 7

June Roses 9

June Roses 8

My roses, a cascade on Cambridge Street, in front of the John Ward house, off Orange Street, the Brookhouse Home side garden, and Derby House garden.


May Flowers

I’m sorry that my posts are short and spare these days, with more space between them: this is the busiest time of the year for me. The spring semester is technically “over”, but it dies a lingering death: with reports to write, two commencements and many meetings to attend. I want to spend as much time in my garden, which is overrun with violets, but can only snatch an hour or two each day. The weather has been very erratic here: rainy and raw last weekend, followed by lots of sun and very hot days, then a big cool-down. It ranged from 90-something degrees to 60 degrees at the end of the week: on Thursday night I sweated through our graduate commencement wearing my polyester and velvet academic regalia in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium, but yesterday I was pretty comfortable, even a bit chilly. Fortunately, it’s a beautiful time of year, so even though I don’t have much to say to you at the moment I have lots to show you: some shots of the most beautiful May flowers in my garden and around my neighborhood. We have shifted from the pink period of spring into a mostly-white-with-purple-accents phase, with many more colors to come.

May FLowers T

May Flowers TBW

May FLowers LW

May Flowers A

May Flowers LV Trillium, lungworts, anemones and lillies of the valley in my garden above; viburnam, wisteria and irises at the Ropes Garden below, along with the best viburnam hedge in Salem along Federal Court and Solomon’s Seal in the Peirce-Nichols garden.

May Flowers BW

May Flowers Ropes

May Flowers I

May Flowers V

May Flowers SS2

May Flowers SS

P.S. I did see some real mayflowers in the Salem Woods a few weeks ago but unfortunately did not take a picture!


Pink Portfolio

Certain times of the year are just defined by colors: early May reads pink to me, with touches of white (and green of course) for contrast. It’s all the flowering trees and shrubs and the pink version of one of my very favorite plants, Bleeding Hearts. Spring has been rather chilly here in Salem so far, and this is a really busy time on the academic calendar, but the quest for pink gets me out there on the streets, and in some cases, in (public!) backyards. The sloping garden behind the Peirce-Nichols house, for example, is Bleeding Heart heaven, and while I found no pink (though sometimes lilac can pass) behind another PEM house, the Gardner-Pingree, I did find a rabbit, so I’m including him/her too–along with a photograph of some absolutely beautiful pink borscht from a new bedside book which I bought more for its colors than its recipes: Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art & Landscape (Assouline, 2017).

Pink and White 8

Pink and White 7

Pink and White 5

Pink and White 6

Pink Bleading Heart

“Papplerose” (which looks like Bleeding Hearts to me) drawing by Dagobert Peche (Austrian, 1887-1923); watercolor on paper, Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Pink and White 4

Pink and White2

Pink and White 3

Pink and White

Pink and White 3

Pink Tulips

Pink and White georgia-o-keeffe-cookbook

Drawing of pink and white tulips by Tommi Parzinger, ca. 1930; graphite on paper, Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt Collection; borscht from Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art & Landscape by Robyn Lea.


Fiddleheads in the Forest

We walked through the Salem Woods on this past Saturday and saw fiddleheads along the trail, the prelude to a carpet of ferns. I am embarrassed to admit that I reached this relatively advanced age without realizing that fiddleheads are in fact only a stage of a plant’s development rather than a completely independent full-grown plant. I know of course that nascent ferns (principally Ostrich and Cinnamon in our region) look like fiddleheads, but I thought that fiddleheads were another plant altogether! This was the weekend’s big revelation. I seem to have false childhood memories about fiddleheads too: my mother loved them and loved to cook them, and I have a hazy memory of bowls of buttered fiddleheads all summer long, but that can’t be true, as there are only a few months (chiefly April and May) when they are available. I’ve never been a big fan of fiddleheads on the table, but I like the motif, and I currently have a subtle fiddlehead pattern on my back-parlor couch—I found several artists who were inspired its signature curved form. For this May Day, fiddleheads seem like a very appropriate plant—or frond—to spotlight.

Fiddleheads SW2

Fiddleheads SW

Fiddleheads SW3

Fiddleheads SW4

Fiddleheads SW5

Fiddleheads Forest

Fiddleheads in flesh in the Salem Woods above, and on fabric below, on my couch and on screen-printed silk fabric by Georgina von Etzdorf, 1991, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Fiddlehead fabric 

Fiddlehead 1991


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