One clover and a bee: Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell

Last month, feeling a little down and missing my lunchtime walks in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I started searching for poems about summer landscapes and came across this verse by Emily Dickinson…

Would you like Summer? Taste of our’s –
Spices? Buy – here!
Ill! We have Berries, for the parching!
Weary! Furloughs of Down!
Perplexed! Estates of Violet – Trouble ne’er looked on!
Captive! We bring Reprieve of Roses!
Fainting! Flasks of Air!
Even for Death – a Fairy Medicine –
But, which is it – Sir?

(F272, 1862)

I’d landed on the Emily Dickinson Museum’s website, where this poem was included in a blog post by landscape historian and horticultural expert Marta McDowell. I’ve already read and enjoyed McDowell’s book Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books (Timber Press, 2017), so I was thrilled to learn that she published a book about Emily Dickinson’s gardens last year and, serendipitously, was scheduled to give an online talk about it—organized by my local bookstore, Little City Books—just a few days later.

I registered for the talk and watched it while I was home using up a vacation day (where is anyone going this summer, after all?). For an hour I forgot about everything except Emily Dickinson and her deep love of the local landscapes she knew so intimately.

Marta McDowell on Zoom!

I’ve read Dickinson’s poetry on and off for several decades now, but I never stopped to learn much about the “plants and places” that gave her such direct inspiration for her writing in Amherst, Massachusetts. In Marta McDowell’s illustrated lecture I heard about Dickinson’s longtime cultivation of her family’s gardens and the small glass conservatory attached to the Dickinson Homestead on Amherst’s Main Street. I learned that Dickinson studied botany as part of her coursework at Amherst Academy, collected and pressed botanical specimens in an album called a herbarium, and often surprised her friends with gifts of small floral bouquets.

I’m normally more of a “lurker” at online events, but I surprised myself by asking McDowell two related questions after the lecture. First: had she included Dickinson’s poem “Essential Oils – are wrung – / The Attar from the Rose” in this book? (I posted about this poem a long time ago…see here.) And second, did she know whether Dickinson was familiar with the processes of perfumery, as this poem suggests?

Illustration by Orra White Hitchcock, reproduced in Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life

That poem does not make an appearance in Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, she replied, but she had an anecdote to share. When she and other gardeners were planting a rose bush at the restored garden outside the Emily Dickinson Museum, they recited this poem for this occasion; every time something new is put into the earth there, it receives a relevant reading from Dickinson’s verse. (I love that.)

The entire Dickinson family was knowledgable about pressing cider and making homemade wine from the fruits of their orchard, so Emily would have had a sense of the methods for obtaining essential oils from fruits, spices, and woods. She didn’t refer otherwise to perfumery in her collected writings, but McDowell shared another wonderful note that was new to me. In a letter (from early February 1863) to her cousins Frances and Louise Norcross, Dickinson described the current  blooms in her conservatory: “. . . heliotropes by the aprons full, and mountain colored one – and a Jessamine bud, you know the little odor like Lubin, – and gilliflowers, magenta, and few mignonette and sweet alyssum bountiful, and carnation buds.”

The Hartford Courant, July 15, 1853

As you may already know if you’re a fragophile: Lubin was a Paris-based perfume house founded in 1798. (It was shuttered for a while in the 1990s and was revived under new ownership in the early 2000s.) Rubin did indeed sell a Jessamine fragrance during Dickinson’s lifetime, as well as a Jessamine extract to scent handkerchiefs. The name “jessamine” is a variant of “jasmine.” Apparently someone in, or close to, the Dickinson household used Lubin products and Emily was familiar enough with their Jessamine scent to mention it here. I’m fascinated by the way she compares the flower to the Lubin fragrance, rather than the other way around!

(She held up an actual Clematis flower but I missed the moment!)

I’ve attended my share of online events over the past few months—some for business, some for pleasure—but this was one of my favorites, one of the few I wished I could “replay” and experience a second time. Like a flower, it was a fleeting pleasure. As Dickinson wrote:

I held a Jewel in my fingers –
And went to sleep –
The day was warm, and winds were prosy – 
I said “Twill keep” –

I woke – and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone –
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own –

(F261, 1861)

Clarissa Munger Badger, reproduced in Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life

But then my husband bought me a copy of Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life on one of his regular visits to Little City, so there’s another way for me to prolong that enjoyment.

I’m deep into the book right now. It’s a richly detailed yet accessible volume (I know next to nothing about gardening), organized by the seasons of the year. It’s beautifully designed and illustrated with Dickinson family portraits, reproductions of pages from Emily’s herbarium, archival and present-day photos of Amherst and the Dickinson home and gardens, and botanical illustrations from books that the Dickinson family owned.

I have a special interest in books that combine disciplines, so this mix of literature, horticulture, biography, and cultural history is an aesthetic and intellectual treat for me. I hope you’ll give it a look too!

Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants & Places That Inspired the Poet is published by Timber Press. It’s an expanded and redesigned edition of McDowell’s Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet and Gardener (McGraw-Hill, 2005).

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