Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

Ephemeral Elms Lancaster EW AA

Elm Holliston EW AA

Elm Hingham Wilson AA

Elm Hingham sign AA

Elm Framingham EW AA

Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

Elm Palmer GW EW AA

Elm Cambridge Wilson AA

Elm Cambridge destruction 1938 Leslie Jones

“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

Elm Boston Common DC card 1876

Elm Salem Bertram postcard

Chestnut Street Elm


Window Boxes & Wooden Boats

This past weekend was very busy in Salem, with the monthly Derby Square FSA market and the annual Jazz and Soul Festival, the Antique and Classic Boat Festival, and the New England Kayak Fishing Tournament all happening. My husband participates in the latter so I seldom saw him–kayak fishing is serious business! I wandered around on my own not really wanting to commit to a crowd, but as we missed the antique car meet last week I knew I had to see the boats. This summer’s very hot and humid weather seems to have finally lifted, so I took the long way there and back and snapped some photographs of window boxes, which are overflowing just about now. I love this first one, it’s a basement window box on Botts Court: a perfect adornment for an urban old house! Great shutters too.

Windowbox

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On to the boats. Usually I go for the Chris Craft, but there wasn’t one this year. A Wagemaker runabout came closest to that standard, but my favorite boat of the festival was something a bit more exotic: a Norwegian sailboat, or “Bindel Faering Nordland” built in the 1960s and named Kanin, after the Norse god of cute and fluffy rabbits. With its carved bow and stern, it reminded me of a Viking ship, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The biggest boat was a 62′ foot “Commuter” built in 1923: it was rather difficult Miss Asia in one photograph. Boats such as these were utilized by their wealthy owners to commute from New York or Boston to their summer cottages in Newport or some other “gold coast”, and then down to Florida for the winter. An amazing display of craftsmanship, restoration effort, and wood on the water by Miss Asia and all of her fellow festival boats.

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Kanin, Miss Asia, and their dockside neighbors at the 34th annual Antique & Classic Boat Festival.


Perroquet Plates

At this time of year I’m in back-to-school mode and absolutely exhausted by keeping up with the garden, so my focus shifts to the inside. I think I’ll get back outside when it gets cooler in September, as I want to rearrange some things and prolong life and time in my garden as long as I can, but right now I’m focused on interior adornment and projects (this is one way to ignore all of the academic duties that are piling on about now). Leafing through a bunch of magazines this past weekend, I found some objects of adoration in, of all places, WSJthe magazine of the Wall Street Journal: plates adorned with colorful parrots, infused with old-world elegance through a hand-painted process involving sixteen layers. The 12-piece collection is the collaboration of Gucci Creative Director Alexandro Michele and porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. I want them all, but at $295 a plate, it will be difficult to justify just one, I’m afraid! The article identifies Michele’s inspiration as “one rare French volume from 1801 on specimen birds”, which was all the cue I needed to identify Jacques Barraband (1767-1809), a French zoological and botanical illustrator whose work inspired imitators even in his own day. While Barraband’s work must have struck his contemporaries as “new” in their colorful realism, Michele was inspired by their antiquated aesthetic, as am I.

Perroquet red

Parrot Barraband 2

Perroquet Plate Design Boom

Perroquet Plates WSJ

Perroquet Plates WSJ 2

Perroquet Plates WSJ4

Derian Parrots

Original Jacques Barraband parrot prints from Levaillant’s “Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets” , Ursus Books & Prints, and Shapero Rare Books. The Michele/Ginori plates from designboom (image ©designboom) and the WSJ magazine (photographs by Martyn Thompson). John Derian has ample antique-inspired parrots among his offerings too, including a 12-piece set of wall trays (works and photographs © John Derian).


Midsummer Mallows

I like several varieties of plants in the large mallow (malvaceae) family, most particularly the older common varieties rather than the showy hollyhocks and hibiscus which are really too big for my garden. There are musk mallows and malva sylvestris at the front of one border, but in the back is my very favorite: marsh mallow, or althaea officinalis. This is an old, fabled plant which is tall and velvety, with soft pink flowers, appearing just about now. Like all plants which officinalis status, marsh mallow was an important medicinal plant in the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras, the basis of soothing syrups and balms for throats, stomachs, skin–even teeth. The marsh mallow plant had edible uses in the past too: its sap was extracted and mixed with nuts and honey (and later sugar and corn syrup) to make a confection, and its root was boiled for use in both sweets and “sallets”. Modern marshmallows have no marsh mallow in them, but several “organic” skin creams do. I looked in vain through my sixteenth-sources for a sweet marsh mallow recipe, but found it as a principal ingredient in one of the recipes to cure lovesickness in Jacques Ferrand’s classic seventeenth-century treatise. So there you are: a plant that is both utilitarian and beautiful.

Mallow 3

Mallow 9

Mallow 1

Above: my marsh mallows. Below, hollyhocks in the Ropes Mansion Garden–I’m showing you close-ups rather than the entire plants because they seem to be stricken with some sort of rusty disease. My other mallows have this too–not very attractive–but the marsh mallows seem immune! 

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marsh-mallow Fidelia Bridges Prang

Salem-born Fidelia Bridges’ Marsh Mallows, produced for Prang in the 1880s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Color Full Days

A very full weekend in more ways than one: eating, drinking, shopping, gardening, sailing, events all around me. The weather has been nothing short of perfect: sunny in the low to mid-80s without a trace of humidity. We will pay later if we don’t get some rain, but at this point green still reigns, with lots of other colors competing–a veritable rainbow for Pride parade weekend, which was also Cancer Walk weekend and the occasion of countless outdoor activities. I spent much of Saturday at a large outdoor market up in Salisbury and Sunday afternoon sailing with friends, and in between I managed to do tons of yard and deck work (still cleaning up after chimney, roof, and carpentry projects–I think I’ll be picking up shavings of shingles all summer long, maybe for years) effortlessly just because it was so beautiful outside. This Monday morning, I’m sunburned and sore, which are always signs of a good Summer weekend.

The Last Weekend in June, 2016: at the Vintage Bazaar at Pettengill Farm, Salisbury, Massachusetts:

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Color Collage

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Pettengill Door

Back in Salem, more colorful than usual:

Salem Door Essex Street

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One color to avoid while in Salem is RED: the newly-painted red line does NOT take you to historical sites but rather to sites like the Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street, which occupies neither the structure or the location of the original Salem Gaol. Do you think the Red Line is there for the (also newly-painted and looking great) Rufus Choate and Mary Harrod Northend Houses next door? It is not.

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Back to more pleasant sites and colors: a beautiful Sunday afternoon sail (with another sailboat passing by VERY closely!), and sunset at the Willows.

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Color 25 Cocktail Cove

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Green and White

Summer has come to Salem over the last few days and everything is very green–and white, the perfect colors of renewal. The viburnum is so dominant this time of year, but so are spirea and white dogwoods, along with azaleas, deutzias and lilacs. And those are just the shrubs and trees: you can look up, down, and over and see a trail of white just about everywhere at this time of year. The Peirce-Nichols garden has a field of pink bleeding-hearts, but just a few steps away at the Ropes Mansion are my favorite white ones (my own, sadly, did not come back this year), along with beautiful border of white irises. I’m off to replace my bleeding hearts (if I can find the white ones–pink are far more plentiful) and look for some new shrubs for the perimeter of my garden, as I am very tired of my boring forsythias as well as a sad espaliered crab-apple tree. I am open to suggestions: not just for white-flowering shrubs, but no pink please!

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Green, (black) and white around Salem, late May 2016.


Elizabethan Caterpillars

Oddly enough, I was thinking about caterpillars before the big Tudor revelation of last week: the confirmation that a lavishly embroidered cloth-of-silver altar cloth in a small church in Herefordshire was fashioned from a dress which might have belonged to Elizabeth I. The cloth was discovered by Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman, who has included it in her newly-released book, The Private Lives of the Tudors. Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty. Apparently Elizabeth had a reputation for casting-off her clothing to favorites, and her faithful servant Blanche Parry hailed from Bracton, the small village where this luxurious cloth has been hanging for over 400 years. The photographs of the cloth, particularly close-ups, show familiar Elizabethan flora and fauna (in a pattern that does indeed look very familiar to that of the dress which Elizabeth wears in the famous “Rainbow” portrait), including a rather conspicuous caterpillar hovering over a bear.

Caterpillar Cloth HRP

Jacobean Jacket METThe Herefordshire altar cloth (@Historic Royal Palaces) and a fitted jacked from a bit later (c. 1616) featuring a caterpillar among a world of flora and fauna, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So why was I thinking about caterpillars in general and Elizabethan caterpillars in particular? For the usual mix of scholarly/materialistic reasons. I am prepping for my summer graduate course on Elizabethan England, while at the same time spring cleaning the house and indulging in a bit of seasonal decoration, which for me means swapping out Spring rabbits for Summer bugs and snails: I had just replaced a John Derian glass tray featuring a card-dealing rabbit with one bearing a colorful caterpillar when I read the news about the Herefordshire discovery. And I’m rereading one of my favorite books, Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution which captures perfectly the dynamic world of fledgling naturalists and “scientists” in later-sixteenth century London. Harkness is probably better known for her fictional bestsellers of the past few years but for me, this is her jewel. I really had a hard time conveying to my students just how focused Elizabethans were on the natural world before it was published; certainly you can see–they can see– this preoccupation in Tudor decorative arts, and most particularly textiles, but I’m hoping that Harkness will really bring it home to them.

Caterpillar Tray John Derian

Jewel House Cover HarknessJohn Derian’s caterpillar tray & Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House.

So back to the caterpillar, which is such a distinctive creature in terms of both appearance and activity: it transforms and consumes, dramatically. Which quality determined their metaphorical characterization in Elizabethan England? Definitely the latter: when Shakespeare writes of a commonwealth of caterpillars in Richard II, he is referring to devouring parasites whom Bolingbroke has sworn “to weed and pluck away”. Another Shakespearian reference is to false caterpillars in Henry IV, Part 2: a rebellious group of “scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentleman” who (once again) are preying on the people: prey, “pill”, pillage: the caterpillar is hardly the wondrous creature of the first British entomologists Thomas Penny and Thomas Moffett, who maintained a more empirical perspective. The latter’s great work (which is largely based on the former!), Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrum (posthumously published in 1634), is more focused on metamorphosis than munching.

Moffett collage

Thomas Moffett’s Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrium (1634–but largely based on Thomas Penny’s 500-page manuscript from the 1590s).


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