The Lost Gardens of Emily Dickinson

Fritillaria meleagris, left, a perennial, in bloom at the Homestead, the property that belonged to the family of Emily Dickinson, right. Credit Michael Medeiros/Emily Dickinson Museum

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome
Emily Dickinson

That orchard was real: a medley of apple, pear, plum and cherry trees tended by the Dickinson family during their lifetimes. Over the decades, subsequent owners of the Dickinson house, known as the Homestead, removed the orchard, replaced extensive flower and vegetable gardens with lawn, and even installed a tennis court; and a devastating hurricane in 1938 damaged the grounds.

This spring, however, the Emily Dickinson Museum has brought the poet’s beloved orchard back to life, planting a small grove of heirloom apples and pears grown by the Dickinsons — Baldwins, Westfield Seek-No-Furthers, Winter Nelis — on a sunny corner of the property near Triangle Street in Amherst, Mass.

The resurrected orchard is the latest development in a longstanding effort to return the Dickinson estate to its 19th-century splendor. Excavations of the grounds surrounding the house have been conducted for several years and will resume this summer.

Last summer, as the purple-tipped spears of irises unsheathed themselves and nasturtiums flaunted trumpets of fire, a team of archaeologists excavated another one of Dickinson’s gardens near the southeastern corner of the house. They used neon pink string to mark out squares and rectangles the size of coffee tables. Then, shovels and trowels in hand, they began to remove layers of grass and dirt within the outlined spaces.

Slide Show

Click on the photo for a slideshow from the Harvard Library

Over the past two years, the team has uncovered and analyzed the foundation of what was once a small conservatory. As the researchers dug, they encountered a narrow trench that had been filled with large flat, fieldstones, said the team leader, Kerry Lynch of Archaeological Services at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Beside the trench were a few patches of rubble and fragments of granite. The granite crumbs matched larger slabs stored in a nearby garage, the purpose of which had long been a mystery: It turns out the stored granite once formed a handsome pedestal that kept the conservatory level with the main house. Granite was also likely to have been used to make a series of steps leading to the lawn and an adjacent patio for airing plants in warm weather.

Records show that Edward Dickinson built the greenhouse in 1855 for his daughters Emily and Lavinia. Emily transformed the long-windowed room into a year-round garden where ferns unfurled their feathers, the perfumes of gardenias and jasmine sweetened the air, and fuchsia, carnations and “inland buttercups” bloomed alongside “heliotropes by the aprons full.”

Later homeowners tore it down in 1916 — 30 years after the poet died. (Sunday will mark the 130th anniversary of her death.) Now, the Emily Dickinson Museum, which consists primarily of the Homestead and the Evergreens, the neighboring home of Emily’s brother and sister-in-law, is preparing to completely restore the conservatory, plants and all. If all goes as planned, the museum will finish rebuilding the greenhouse, using as many of the original materials as possible, by the end of the year.

Dan Zoto, an archaeologist, at an excavation at the former home of Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Mass. Credit F. Timothy Barker/Archeological Services at University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“It’s about trying to understand what her personal, physical world was like, juxtaposed to her immense universe of thought and imagination,” said Jane Wald, executive director of the museum. “All that creativity and keen observation happened right here. Her home and gardens — these places were her poetic laboratory.”

Dickinson adored the plant kingdom from a young age. She recalled going on “rambles” through the woods in her teenage years and finding many “beautiful children of spring,” her epithet for wildflowers like trailing arbutus, adder’s tongue and yellow violets. In her youth, she began composing a book — not of poems, but of plants. She meticulously dried and flattened a wide range of species — chestnut, dogwood, poppies, lilac, nasturtiums, even a couple of algae — and artfully fixed them to paper, christening many with the appropriate Latin names.

“Have you made an herbarium yet?” she wrote to her friend Abiah Root. “I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.” Eventually, her collection contained more than 400 plants. Around the same time, while at Amherst Academy, Dickinson studied botany.

From her 30s on, Dickinson spent most of her time in and around her family’s sizable property, where she could wander over several acres of meadow, admire pines, oaks and elms, and help tend the orchard. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece, recalled grape trellises, honeysuckle arbors, a summer house thatched with roses, and long flower beds with “a mass of meandering blooms” — daffodils, hyacinths, chrysanthemums, marigolds, peonies, bleeding heart and lilies, depending on the season. The Dickinsons also grew Greville roses, which open with a shout of purple and fade to a whisper of pink, and cinnamon or love-for-a-day roses, which “flare and fall between sunrise and sunset,” according to Bianchi. When autumn’s final flowers and showers of spicy foliage disappeared beneath a cloak of snow, Dickinson continued gardening in her glass bubble of perpetual summer.

Dickinson’s expertise in botany and gardening profoundly shaped her poetry. As Farr wrote, her gardens “often provided her with the narratives, tropes, and imagery she required.” In her 1,789 poems, Dickinson refers to plants nearly 600 times and names more than 80 varieties, sometimes by genus or species. In her more than 350 references to flowers, the rose is most frequent, but Dickinson was also fond of humble plants like dandelions, clover and daisies. She used the latter two as symbols for herself in letters and poems. “The career of flowers differs from ours only in inaudibleness,” she wrote. “I feel more reverence as I grow for these mute creatures whose suspense or transport may surpass our own.”

Many of Dickinson’s poems refer directly to the idiosyncrasies of her gardens. She wrote of struggling to raise grapes and maize “on the Bleakness of my Lot.” These are not just metaphors; the Dickinsons grew grapes and corn in sometimes unyielding New England soil. In other poems and letters, she refers to “my little damask maid” and “Sweet Sultans,” which were not servants and royalty, but the intoxicatingly pungent Damask rose and a pomponlike relative of the sunflower. Scholars who do not share Dickinson’s intimacy with plants and garden phenomena have occasionally misinterpreted her poems, conflating her lyrical depictions of frost and dew, or mistaking a butterfly for snow.

By age 38, Dickinson stopped attending church, in part because she had already found her personal Eden in her gardens. The resurgence of her garden each spring seemed to have buoyed her belief in the possibility of eternal life. “Those not live yet / Who doubt to live again—” she wrote seven years before her death.

In the following decades, the Homestead’s flower and vegetable gardens were reduced to about a third of their original size. Last year, however, Dr. Lynch and her fellow archaeologists used long, spiked metal rods to locate buried sections of a pathway that once connected the east side of the Homestead to the rose-entwined summer house and larger 19th-century flower and vegetable beds.

“If we can follow out the historic path to its end, then theoretically we would find the location of past gardens,” Dr. Lynch said. She and her colleagues plan to excavate nearby regions of the lawn, searching for indications of old planting beds, like soil that is markedly darker and looser than its surroundings.

“There may even be leftover seeds or other botanical evidence,” Dr. Lynch said. Studies have shown that some seeds are highly resilient; researchers have been able to coax sprouts from seeds buried for tens of thousands of years.

And that raises an exciting possibility: that, much like the fascicles of poetry Dickinson secreted away in her room, organic fragments of the poet’s gardens have survived this whole time, just waiting for someone to find them and give them new life.

Original Post

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