Lilacs are so ubiquitous in New England in May that you tend to overlook them, but over the past pleasant days I have been seeking them out in some of my favorite spots. I’m always so conflicted during this month, as my academic responsiblities conflict with my desire to immerse myself in all things horticultural. Over the last few weeks, I missed both Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum, as well as the peak spring blooming at the Stevens-Coolidge garden in North Andover. But I finished my grading over the weekend, and found myself going to and from my family’s house in York Harbor, Maine on my own wayward routes, chasing lilacs along the way. I saw lilacs by the sea, lilacs in town, lilacs in the country, lilacs by front doors, back doors, bulkheads, gates, and many many fences.
Starting out in York Harbor yesterday (where it seems to me that there were many more lilacs in the past; I guess childhood memories are always like that!), then on to Portsmouth, where lilacs peaking through garden gates and alongside foundations lured me into StrawberryBanke. I really loved the garden at the Nutter House, the boyhood home of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich–this last lilac bush is in the garden his wife designed for him later and it is at least a century old. More on this garden later in the summer!
From Portsmouth, I drove to North Andover, as I decided to visit the Stevens-Coolidge garden even though I knew the tulips would be a bit past their peak: it’s still a lovely garden! Not many lilacs though: just a couple of tall hedges, which were waving constantly on this very breezy day. North Andover is an old town, so I knew I’d find some lilacs peaking out from any number of places, and I was not disappointed: they enclose several venerable house lots, the Parson Barnard House included.
From North Andover I headed home on the old Salem Road that takes you through Middleton and Danvers: bound for the beautiful GlenMagna garden in the latter town. I ended the day in a purple haze, but also with lots of gratitude and appreciation for the North Andover, Topsfield and Danvers Historical Societies, which maintain all these properties in such beautiful condition. From my jaded Salem perspective, the absence of cash-cow commodification of heritage sites is so welcome and refreshing. I visit the Glen Magna garden all summer long, and view it much in the same way that its founder and his successors, the Salem merchant Joseph Peabody and several generations of the Endicott family, must have: as a retreat from bustling Salem. Of course I can’t set myself up in the house like they did, but I’m very grateful for the open garden! The last Endicott to summer at Glen Magna, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., brought the 1794 summer house designed by Samuel McIntire for the Derby farm on Lowell Street in Peabody to Glen Magna in 1901. This amazing structure is worth a visit at any time of the year—it looks just as strking in the midst of winter as it does in the midst of all this green, and purple.
Lilacs against the Parson Capen House’s barn, and the gardens at Glen Magna.
I imagine Salem must be like your town or city at this time: quiet and closed. As it is a compact and walkable city full of architectural treasures (still), the quiet more than compensates for the closure, but you are all too aware of the hardship that both are causing. It’s not a singular holiday that is allowing you to walk or bike freely with few cars in your path but rather a prolonged period of anxiety through stoppage for the freelancers and entrepreneurs among us, many in a city like Salem. I’m grateful for my security: there’s no stoppage for me, either of work or of income. I find that remote teaching takes more time than classes which actually meet in person: and while the latter invigorates you (or me) the former drains, so out in the streets of Salem I go to try to get some energy back. But again, I’m grateful for my security and have no complaints.
This week’s weather is so much better than that of last week, when the sun failed to appear for days. I am determined to: 1) put on real pants, with zippers; 2) observe proper meal times; 3) drink more tea; 4) turn off the computer for one full day; 5) avoid the daily presidential briefings; and 6) try to play board games with my husband (I am a terrible game-player but he loves them). This is not a very challenging list, obviously. In addition to all these tasks and working, I take my daily walks, noting new architectural details but also new orders of business around town: restaurants which are still open for take-out, or have transformed themselves into makeshift grocery stores which deliver, shops whose owners will meet you at the curb with your online purchases. The signs for canceled events are the other conspicuous markers of Corona time, like those for Salem Restaurant Weeks (March 15-26) and the annual Salem Film Fest (March 20-29) in the reflective windows of the Chamber of Commerce.
But there are other signs too: of support for health-care workers and grocery clerks, teddy bears and other animals for children’s scavenger hunts. And signs of Spring, of course.
So now I am on my “spring break” with the reality of no return to my classrooms: everything is converted to digital/remote in this new corona community. This is ominous for me; I prefer to teach in person. I can rise to the occasion—I know how to access all the digital tools and resources—but I see them as appendices rather than the story. Nevertheless I will rise to the occasion. With no prospects of long-distance travel or local entertainment and the task before me, my spring break will therefore have to consist of a few road trips, and on Sunday I drove west for a couple of hours into north central Massachusetts in search of a a real destination and a few ghost towns. New Salem was founded in the mid-18th century by investors from Salem, who enticed farmers from “old” Salem to settle in the Swift River Valley. With settlement and incorporation the town was well-established as the most northern of a chain of towns in the valley, and the sole survivor after adjoining Dana, Prescott, Greenwich, and Enfield were all flooded to form the Quabbin Resevoir, the water source for Metropolitan Boston, from 1936-40. New Salem is the touchstone for all of these lost towns, and for old Salem as well: as I wandered through its oldest cemetery, I saw so many familiar names on the old stones: Southwick, Putnam, Pierce, Cook.
As you can see from the photographs, it was a beautiful day, which made my visit all the more poignant, as no one was about. New Salem seemed like a beautiful ghost town—the perfect place for social distancing! It was almost eerie, but of course I was distracted by the architecture—and there were cars in the driveways.
In North New Salem is the Swift River Valley Historical Society, a regional historical society devoted to preserving the memory of both the living and lost towns. It was closed, of course, but just outside was this amazing sign post (I don’t think that’s the right word???) with all the historical place names intact. I love this more than I can say. I love that it is preserved. I love the manicules. I love that the names of its maker and restorers are preserved. I have no idea why “Indianapolis” is on the sign!
This sign made me want to search for more signs, as ways and links to the past, so I drove down every single road with any of the above place names—those with the “lost” place names led to water, and that was that: the point was driven home.
An abandoned farmhouse on Old Dana Road, and the Quabbin Reservoir.
This past weekend I spent an hour or so browsing (digitally) through Eugène Grasset’s La plante et ses applications ornementales (1896) and then stepped outside to see that my lady’s slippers were in full bloom: no competition, they win hands down. There are nineteen this year: every year I seem to gain one slipper. Other spring plants are enhanced in Grasset’s “applications”, but for the most part I think I prefer nature at this time of year. Yet has things that I don’t have so I think I’ll showcase both, as this was a man that could even make a dandelion look beautiful!
My trillium are finally in bloom about two weeks behind everyone else’s; the lady slippers!
The PEM’s Peirce-Nichols garden has a veritable sea of bleeding hearts, but I was too late for the Solomon’s Seal and Columbine so I give you Grasset.
Irises and Roses from the PEM’s Ropes Garden, and Grasset’s versions.
There are no trees in La plante et ses applicationes ornementales but Salem has one of the most beautiful trees/shrubs in bloom right now: the Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), a southern native that can be found in many cemeteries up here, but also notably in front of the grand Wheatland-Phillips house at 30 Chestnut Street. I’ve always thought that this tree suited the exterior embellishment of this house perfectly, but it looks lovely in the Harmony Grove cemetery as well. Even its shadow is beautiful.
Salem’s Fringe trees and Grasset’s dandelion design.
Spring has finally arrived in Massachusetts, transforming gardens, grass, and trees in the space of a week. Woodland plants are my favorite ephemeral heralds, so yesterday I drove to the New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods to check them out. In a sea of bluebells and creeping phlox there were all sorts of varieties of trillium, which is what I was really after. It was a hunt of sorts, but not really that difficult, as my prey stood out.
First up are the varieties of the trillium cuneatum: whip-poor-will flower, large toadshade, and sweet little Betsy.
Beautiful creamy trillium grandiflorum white wakerobin, “bent trillium” or trillium flexipes, and “nodding” trillium, which was hard to photograph, because it was indeed nodding.
Trillium recurvatum, prairie wakerobin, and yellow trillium, trillium luteum.
And the more striking pink and red varieties: I’m not sure what the formal name of this pink variety is, but the reds are trillium sulcatum, “southern red”, and trillium erectum, red wakerobin.
I definitely missed several varieties, but all in all, not a bad afternoon catch. And now I want a garden shed with a mossy roof!
I promise: this is the last Phillips Library post for quite some time. It’s been six months since the Peabody Essex Museum admitted, under duress and only because they needed approvals from the Salem Historical Commission, that the Library was moving to a former toy factory off Route One in Rowley, Massachusetts. Since then there has been a public forum, lots of meetings, a succession of newspaper articles in the Salem News and the Boston Globe, a stern letter to the PEM from the President of the American Historical Association, and countless posts by me appealing, edifying, and scolding the Museum’s leadership. All to no avail: the Library–constituting a great part of Salem’s documentary history–is now in Rowley, and from what I hear (from a friend who is desperately trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation–they didn’t tell her the Phillips was going to close last September either), is set to open sometime in June. Even the Google address (sort of) has changed, so that must be that, right?
The address of the Phillips has changed but everything else remains the same: photographs of the interior and exterior, and its description: in the Essex Institute Historic District of Salem. If past practices are any indication, this half-correct entry will be up for quite some time: when the Phillips was moved to a temporary location in 2011 for the restoration of the building you see above, the address was never changed. And so I must say that the two men who are referenced in this entry—one visually and the other by name—are likely rolling in their graves after all that has happened. The photograph on the left is of Dr. Henry Wheatland (1812-1893) in one of the Phillips’ smaller reading rooms, around 1885. Dr. Wheatland dedicated his life to the Essex Institute, helping to found it through a merger of the Essex County Natural History Society and the Essex Historical Society in 1848, and serving later as the Institute’s Secretary, Treasurer, and President. As the finding aid to his papers in the Phillips Library asserts, Dr. Wheatland “devoted much of his life to ensuring that the Institute became a ‘permanent centre of influence for the enlightenment and instruction of the community'” and even continued to serve as its President after he was struck with paralysis at age 80, until his death. Wheatland was born in Salem and he died in Salem, and his will, like the wills of many donors to the Essex Institute and its library, left bequests to a Salem institution. I know he was referencing his desire that the Essex Institute’s library should be reference only in his 1893 will, but still: no books [should/to] be taken from the building except in extraordinary circumstances.
New York Times, 1893.
The prominent and prolific Boston architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant (1816-1899), is another grave-roller, as he was the architect of the Italianate Daland house which has served as part of the Phillips Library in Salem for over a century and would certainly not want to be associated with the suburban industrial building that now constitutes the Phillips Library in Rowley. His name should be removed at once.
One of Bryant’s more notable commissions: the Bigelow Chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Library of Congress.
I can’t speak for all the people that put their trust in the predecessors of PEM, but fortunately it is a registered non-profit in Massachusetts and so its actions are subject to review by our Attorney General, Maura Healey. Several weeks ago a meticulous brief was delivered to her office formally requesting that the Public Charities Division review the actions of the PEM relative to the Phillips Library under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 12, Section 8H, regarding breaches of trust. The many “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library” who have emerged over these past six months are sending letters in support of this brief and its request for review, and you can too if you like: Office of the Attorney General/Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division/One Ashburton Place/ Boston, MA 02108.
Some other updates:
Contrary to what I reported here last week, the Working Group organized by Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe is still working: they will have more meetings. Their agenda still seems to be exclusively PEM-driven and they have a very odd understanding of what “collections” constitute, but they are still at work.
It looks like the votes are there for the Salem Historical Commission to approve the demolition of the 1966 “Stacks” building at the rear of Gridley Bryant’s Daland House. Everyone agrees that this space was insufficient to store the vast collections of the Phillips, and it is rather inelegant, as you can see below. When the library was moved in 2011 to a temporary location to accommodate the renovation and expansion of all of the Phillips buildings, it became apparent that this addition was essentially unworkable, given the integrated structure of its construction. The PEM leadership implied that they just learned this in 2017, and so were “forced” to abandon all of the Phillips buildings (and Salem) altogether, but we have learned of several mitigating plans from the intervening years, including those which specified the construction of a brand new “stacks” building. In any case, the present Phillips buildings are not ready to accept all the collections at this time, primarily due to the poor planning of PEM. Rowley can be yet another temporary facility for these materials, but we are continuing to work to bring them back to Salem.
The windowless “stacks” addition may soon be coming down. Salem News photograph.
And what about digitization? The fact that the PEM is at least a decade behind comparable institutions in the digitization of its holdings has become common knowledge: the institution itself has acknowledged its deficiency by including “digitization priorities” on the limited Working Group agenda. There is some progress: I noticed just the other day that several records of the Salem Witch Trials have been added to the limited digital collections of the Library. The bulk of Witch Trial records were digitized a decade ago by a team of scholars and have been available at a (much more contextual) site sponsored by the University of Virginia since that time, but there are hopes that the well-endowed PEM will someday provide a global scholarly community with more materials which will elucidate this often-told story, and so many more lesser-known ones.
I’m certainly moving on to other stories. After all, spring has finally arrived, the trillium are out, and there are places to go and more diverse and distant pasts to explore. If there are any new developments, I’ll post them here, but only if they are course-changing.
P.S. And thanks for your patience—especially those of you who are perhaps not quite so interested (obsessed) with this issue!
We were a small party for Easter this year so we went to the St. Botolph Club in Boston for a buffet of oysters, salmon, eggs benedict, coq au vin, and lamb (no ham). This is the artsy old Boston club, and I always enjoy going there because the walls are lined with the work of its members past and present. In the crimson library, there is a portrait of an artist who I became acquainted with through his connections to several Salem artists at the end of the nineteenth century: John Leslie Breck. I’ve come to admire his work over the past few years, and I always “check in” with him whenever I go to St. Botolph’s. Though known as one of the young artists who brought Impressionism to the United States (in successive exhibitions at St. Botolph’s), Breck’s portrait is one of earnest realism: he looks handsome and troubled, or maybe I am just imposing that state on him as I know he ended his own life at the age of 39 in 1899.
I don’t mean to be so maudlin, but that portrait always makes an impression on me. But it was a lovely Easter afternoon with great food and company and a walk down Commonwealth Avenue searching for signs of spring. We found some, mostly man- made, but there were a few flowering buds—we are on the brink! Walking back to the car from the Public Garden, I looked for my favorite version of the three Lutheran solas: I was just lecturing on them in my Reformation class last week, and I took a photograph for some extra validation for/from my students.
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.
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.
P.S. I did see some real mayflowers in the Salem Woods a few weeks ago but unfortunately did not take a picture!
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 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.
I had a dream the night before last about William Huntingdon Sanders, shivering with his Malaria-induced fever on a hospital piazza in Cuba, unattended and very much alone. When I woke up, I walked up to Harmony Grove Cemetery to see his grave, and on the way home, looked for signs of spring in Salem. We’re not quite there yet: you can tell that next week will see the big burst that always seems so sudden to me. But there was some color, highlighted by the emergence of the sun in the course of the day. Nothing much in my yard–which is very much dominated by later-blooming herbs and perennials–except for these amazing variegated plants whose name I have forgotten (last photograph below): I saw them in a small courtyard garden at Hampton Court Palace last year and had to have them, and a colleague’s husband graciously supplied me with three. I lost one, but look at the two remaining: they’ve been blooming for a month and now I’m wondering how big they are going to get. I want more!