Category Archives: Nature

Change in the Weather

The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.

Weather Historic Storms of NE

I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.

Perley2

Perley 3

Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.

Perley 5

Perley 6

Perley 4

Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel 1875 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.


Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

Flood 1607 Anon-1607_Lamentable_newes_out_of_Monmouthshire-STC-18021-722_05-p1

Flood 1607 Anon-More_strange_nevves_of_wonderfull-STC-22916-723_27-p2

Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

Flood 1655 Anon-The_Sad_and_dismal_year_Or_Englands-Wing-S231-129_E_853_1_-p1

Flood 1674 L_W-A_true_relation_of_the_great_flood-Wing-W83-2123_2_236-p1

Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 


Busy Bees

I know that bees are experiencing some serious challenges at the moment, but it seems to me that there are much more of them out there than in previous summers—at least in our region. I’ve encountered mini-swarms on rural walks in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts over the past month, it seems like individual bees have been buzzing around my garden constantly since July, and just the other day I saw hundreds of bees affixed to the sunflowers in the large patch at Colby Farm up in Newbury: neither bees nor people can resist this flagrant perennial display!

Bee Sunflowers Best

Bee Sunflowers Closeup

I went into my clip file—comprised of very random digital images which I find interesting or attractive and store away for whenever or whatever (other people seem to use Pinterest this way but I just don’t)–and found several bee images there that I had clipped or snipped over the last few months: books, ephemera, creations. So clearly I’ve had bees on the brain: maybe because I decided to forego sugar over the summer and thus became more intensely focused on honey. In any case, this seems like a good time to get these images out there–Thomas Tusser suggests that the ongoing process of “preserving” bees demands a bit more human attention in September in his classic agricultural manual Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573):  Place hive in good air, set southly and warm, and take in due season wax, honey, and swarm. Set hive on a plank (not too low by the ground) where herbs and flowers may compass it round: and boards to defend it from north and northeast, from showers and rubbish, from vermin and beast. Tusser is one of many British and continental authors writing about bees and beekeeping in the sixteenth century, and over the succeeding centuries this sub-genre continued to flourish, right up to the wildly-popular Beekeeper’s Bible. I’ve written about bee books before, but my favorite recent discovery is Samuel Bagster’s Management of Bees, with a description of the Ladies’ Safety Hive (1834). Bagster has a very entrepreneurial attitude towards bees, and is striving to transform their keeping into a feminine avocation with his promotion of the “Ladies Safety Hive”: they can be built at home or delivered by Bagster, fully-equipped.

bee collage

Bees Bagster

My apian ephemera is focused less on the bees than their hives: which of course serve as an accessible symbol of industry and by extension, achievement. The most prominent uses of beehive symbolism on Salem ephemera that I have found were issued by the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association (which it clearly borrowed from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, or vice-versa) and Frank Cousins’ many trade cards advertising his Bee-Hive store but there is also an early trade card for the Salem goldsmith and jeweler Robert Brookhouse which features the very Salemesque combination of hive and ship. I discovered a completely new type of ephemera this summer–watch papers–of which there is an interesting collection at the American Antiquarian Society, including several embellished with beehives.

Bee Certificate

Bee Hive MA Charitable HNE

Trade Card beehive

Bee Brookhouse

Bee Hive Watch Paper AAS

Ephemeral beehives: Phillips Library (printed in EIHC Volume 113); Historic New England; and courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Another discovery of this fading summer are the amazing textile creations of Mister Finch, which you must see for yourself. His bee is among the more realistic of his species–check out his website for more surrealistic creatures. And then there is Tamworth Distilling, to which I returned several times, which manufactures several varieties of botanical gins, including the Apiary Gin pictured below. To be honest, this was a bit too honey-based for me: gin is my favorite spirit and I tend to be a London Dry traditionalist. But I love the bottle, of course (and their cordials).

bee

Bee Gin

Mister Finch Bee and Tamworth Distilling Apiary Gin.


White Album NH

While the storm was churning down south, and politicking-before-the-primary was happening in Salem, we escaped north to New Hampshire for the weekend, where I “shopped” for a vacation house and my husband decidedly did not. He humored me, however, and let me stop at every single house that caught my eye to take a photograph, probably because none of these houses was actually for sale. When I scrolled through these photographs last night I realized that each and every one of these houses was white, including the Quaker meetinghouse we found after crossing a covered bridge (about the only image that’s going to break up the non-palette below) and the Shaker meetinghouse we stopped at on our way home. We spent Saturday night at the Highland House in Tamworth, which was built in the 1790s by a Salem mariner, merchant and tanner named George Dodge (1750-1821), who was clearly trying to escape busy Salem too! He was lured back to the city by his father’s will in 1808: the elder Captain George Dodge left his son a considerable fortune of $282,000 plus the responsibility of running his various businesses in Salem. I’m not sure George Jr. made it back to New Hampshire for any extended length of time, and when he died in 1821 he left his “considerable” Tamworth properties to the First Congregational Society.

White NH

White Interior

White Latch

Highland House on a misty (frosty?) Sunday morning, and a few interior details…..below: its neighbors, and a bit further afield in the foothills of the White Mountains.

White NH 3

White NH flowers

White NH2

White NH Hill House

White NH Chartreuse

White NH mountain

White NH Bridge

White NH hill house 2

White NH perfection 2

Charming Wonalancet Union Chapel below…Friends’ Meeting House in Sandwich and Shaker Meeting House at Canterbury Shaker Village, where we stopped on the way home. I do believe that I’ll be dreaming of this last hilltop house, with its eyebrow windows, until my dying day!

White NH Church

White Collage

White NH perfection


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.


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