EMILY DICKINSON was a great poet, yes, but she was also an accomplished gardener and a devoted student of the natural world. An all new edition of a book on Emily as a gardener titled “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life” is just out, and from it, we get not just her history, but a slice of horticultural history, plus a charming palette of plants for a poet’s garden.
Author Marta McDowell (below), a gardener and landscape designer in contemporary New Jersey, has a particular passion for digging into noted authors and their gardens and has written books on Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and now a fully revised version of her popular one on Emily Dickinson.
Read along as you listen to the October 21, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Enter to win a copy of the book “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants & Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet” (Amazon affiliate link) in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
emily dickinson’s garden, with marta mcdowell
Margaret: The book is beautiful. I’ve been enjoying it. Are you happy with it?
Marta: I am. I think it really came out nicely.
Margaret: Yes. It did. I was actually showing it to a friend today, and she was fascinated. She didn’t know anything about Emily as a gardener. I think this was a topic that you had covered in 2005 in your book called “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens,” and the publisher asked you to do it again—or what was the reason that it is coming out now in a new version?
Marta: Well, that is the way it happened. The original book’s been out of print for a really long time, and so Timber Press said, “Would you like to bring it out again?” and I thought, “Wow, I get a second chance. I get a redo.” How often does that happen?
Margaret: [Laughter.] In life or in books?
Marta: Especially in life.
Margaret: Yes. Exactly.
Marta: This was kind of my … It was the way I came into writing. So, for me to be able to fix it, change it, and especially add color, and add a lot in terms of illustrations to support it was really a gift.
Margaret: So, for people who maybe don’t know the time period of Emily’s life, she was born and lived in Amherst, Massachusetts—born in 1830 and, I think, she lived till 1886. But notebooks of her poems were published till after her death. Is that correct?
Marta: It’s true. So, only about a dozen of her poems came out during her lifetime, and they were sort of here and there, newspapers … One of them appeared in a book anonymously, and it’s not known whether she ever really approved of those, but she did save all of her poems. She wrote something like 1,800 of them, and bound a lot of them in these hand-sewn books that were all in her cherry chest when she died. So, that’s when … After her death, when these were discovered, that’s when people got interested in editing them and putting them out.
Margaret: So, in the intro of the new book, you say that most of us will, when we think of Emily Dickinson, we’ll think of that famous daguerreotype image. It’s a 16-year-old Emily sort of staring out at us [above]. We may have heard stories of her as kind of hermit-like, almost reclusive … I don’t know. But who is she really most of all, do you think, having done all this research and written this book?
Marta: She’s certainly a gifted writer. For me, the entree was the fact that she was … In fact, when I studied Emily Dickinson in school, I kind of … a lot of the poems, I would go, “Huh?” you know? Like, “What?” [Laughter.] Then, I just, by chance, visited the museum one day. It was in the ’90s … and found out she was a gardener, and I was a gardener, and it was like a little light bulb went off. Everything was illuminated.
That’s where this started, to say, “Let me find out what she knew, and what she grew, and how that informed some of her poems,” and that was really a way in to her poetry for me.
Margaret: Yes. There’s a quote in the book, I think it’s from a letter she wrote to someone, and she says, “I’m from the fields, you know, and while quite at home with the dandelion make but sorry figure in a drawing room.” [Laughter.] More at home in nature the girl was. Yes.
Marta: She was, although she was also kind of a … She would adopt these poses, right? So, one person met Emily Dickinson. He eventually edited her poems. His name was Thomas Wentworth Higginson—there’s a New England name for you. They had corresponded, and he finally went and met her in Amherst. So, he’s in the drawing room at their house and she comes in and presents him with two daylilies and says, “These are my introduction.” He later wrote his wife that night and said, “I’ve never been so exhausted by a conversation with anyone.” [Above, the cover of the first edition of Emily’s poems, published after her death.]
Margaret: Right. So, she wasn’t really totally retiring. [Laughter.] She had presence, for sure.
Marta: Yes. She was connected with a lot of people through correspondence as well. So, sometimes I think, “Wow. She was, like, the Lady Gaga of the 19th century.”
Margaret: [Laughter.] So, back in the Victorian era, women’s areas of study and vocation were more limited, but botany was kind of considered O.K. Right?
Marta: Yes. It was considered something just very fitting for females, right? It was something beautiful, the flowers were something that could be enjoyed out in nature, so it was healthful, and you kind of couldn’t get in trouble with flowers, even if you dissected them.
Margaret: Right. She made, besides the hand-sewn-together books of poems that were found after her death, she pressed flowers and made herbarium, herbaria, herbariums, whatever—she made books of pressed flowers as well, labeled and identified as well, didn’t she?
Marta: Yes. So, herbariums, it’s not something that most of us nowadays think about creating. But in her day, it was a really popular hobby. I don’t know exactly what to compare it to. You know like how all of a sudden now everybody’s making pickles?
Marta: Right? In her day, everybody was making their herbarium. She writes to her friends with little leaves and flowers and, “Have you made a herbarium yet?” She was very enthusiastic about it. It’s not clear for how long. We know that she continued to keep specimens well into adulthood, but she certainly had this 60-plus page album that is just jammed with plants. Some of the pages … I’ve included some of them … they’re really quite beautiful. They’re artistic in their own way.
This was part of her material culture, right? So, she’s taking these flowers, she’s looking at them clearly with a magnifying glass because she’s counting the number of flower parts, the number of pistils and stamens, she’s writing out the botanical Latin, which she kind of abandoned in later life. She doesn’t really use the scientific names, but she was doing it then. She was doing it with both wildflowers and with garden plants. So, that also gives lots of clues as to what was growing then.
Margaret: Right. The family place in Amherst, it was kind of a homestead—I think it was called the Homestead. There was more going on than just what she was gardening or interested in. Her passion was the flower garden, was it? I mean, was that a particular passion of hers?
Marta: Yes. The flower garden. She also writes a lot about the orchard, but the Dickinson place was big. It was 3 acres on one side of the street and almost a 10-acre meadow on the other. So, it included kind of mini-farm, lots of vegetables, there was livestock and then this big meadow, which would have been used for some grazing and haying, but also neighbors talked about it just being full of bees and butterflies, and she talks so much about pollinators and birds and things.
Margaret: Yes. I mean, we mentioned that she was a real nature person, and you have quotes in the book. She says, “I was always attached to mud.” [Laughter.] She was always in it, right?
Margaret: Yes. So many of her poems start with a line, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” the famous one, and, “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” and then there’s that one that … You just said, “bird,” and it reminds me of the one, “A bird came down the walk … ‘A bird came down the walk. He did not know I saw. He bit an angleworm in halves and ate the fellow raw.’” [Laughter.] She’s observing these little things that are so fantastic, and yet nobody stands still long enough to notice them, let alone set them to poetry, you know? That’s what I loved about her.
Marta: Absolutely. She’ll take something very kind of common to all of us. O.K., it’s a rose. And she talks about them as “pigmy seraphs gone astray,” like some angel has fallen to earth.
It’s like her language really clutches your heart.
Margaret: Right. So, in that flower garden … Well, first of all, what were the sort of “it” plants that a gardener of her day would have craved or sought after? I mean, were there things that you’re aware of that were the … we have them now of our own, but what were some of the ones that she would’ve wanted that would have been triumphs to acquire or to grow?
Marta: Well, certainly lilies. She loved lilies. She got, from a friend, sent her lilies. This would be as if you sent me a package of lilies, and what she writes back to this friend is, “I’ve long been a lunatic on bulbs.” Lunacy on any theme is better undivulged, right? It would have been so interesting to be a correspondent with her. So, lilies, definitely roses, lots and lots of roses. She called herself Daisy sometimes. She kind of used that as a stand-in for herself. Lot of things, lots of annuals, lots of perennials, too.
Margaret: I was startled to see some of the summer annuals that you include in one section of the book, for instance. Some of them are things that, I think, were in for a while when I began gardening decades ago and then have had a resurgence again. So, things that … But here they were. For instance, Gomphrena. What do they … I can’t remember [what the common name is]. [Gomphrena in the Homestead garden with feverfew, above, from the book.]
Margaret: Globeflower. Right.
Marta: So, she grew globeflower or globe amaranth.
Margaret: Globe amaranth. Right. Right.
Marta: Right? It’s that round, bouncy thing and you can dry them and they’ll retain their color. I think, in those days, because I found several examples of dried flowers in the herbarium, I think you couldn’t as easily go to … I don’t know … the grocery store or the florist and get fresh flowers, so for the winter, you’d want to have dried arrangements. So, things like this globe amaranth, you could dry from the summer and then it could adorn your house in the winter. So, some of the things were very practical.
Some of the things are kind of unusual. Annuals that are grown for fragrance, like mignonette [Reseda odorata], it’s really hard to find it. You can buy the seed, but it was really … It’s a very sort of inconspicuous little flower, although butterflies like it, because the fragrance is very intense, so it must have a lot of nectar in it. Again, things that you wouldn’t necessarily find nowadays.
Margaret: Right. Was there symbolism in some of these for her? You’re saying these everlastings, like the gomphrena, I mean, was the-
Marta: She certainly writes about eternity, right?
Margaret: Immortality, right? Yes, eternity.
Marta: Absolutely. I think there were also these Garden of Eden kind of connections. She was very well-read, certainly a lot of contemporary literature—contemporary for her. She loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She absolutely loved George Eliot. She talked about reading Jane Austen. So, she was getting a lot of influences from different places, but she also really knew her Shakespeare and the Bible, and so she often talks about her garden as Eden or her place as Eden or her place as paradise. So I think some things also had that twist to them as well.
Margaret: Was she a daring gardener, because I think at one point in the book, you talk about her figs? She grew figs. I mean, she was in Amherst, Massachusetts. That surprised me. Was she daring? Tell us about her figs, first of all. How in the world did she do that? [Laughter.]
Marta: Well, the figs were actually her mother’s.
Margaret: Oh, O.K.
Marta: I don’t know if we can really give Emily Dickinson … Her mother’s name was also Emily.
Marta: So it wasn’t Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, it was Emily Norcross Dickinson. But the figs were certainly around and she certainly uses the terms in terms of, “I don’t give a fig for Jennie Lind,” who was a singer. But her mother cultivated them. They were in a position near this big barn, so it must’ve been a sheltered place, but whether they covered them, which you certainly do down here in New Jersey, or buried them, which was also a fairly common practice for the winter, I don’t know. But I know that her mother would have baskets of ripe figs and even bring them down to the newspaper office because local newspapers would report on this.
Margaret: Wow. It’s kind of wonderful because here we are, this many years later, and one of the popular topics that people like to ask each other about who live in a northern location is, “Can you grow a fig?” So, we’re all still wrestling with the same things.
Marta: Yes. I have to confess that I am basically a fig failure. [How to grow figs, with Lee Reich.]
Margaret: Yes. It’s tough. It’s tough.
Marta: I keep trying, but if I get a couple of figs, I feel that I’ve had a great success.
Margaret: Yes. So, if we wanted to make a garden, if we wanted to be inspired by her … We mentioned the gomphrenas; you mentioned mignonette … I remember there was, I think now we call it Centaurea or whatever, but Amberboa, was that what it was called then?
Marta: Yes, or Centaurea.
Margaret: Yes. What were some of the … What do you imagine would be some of the, in homage to her, inspired by her, what would be some of the other … lilies and roses you said … but what are some of the other things that would be in a garden today?
Marta: Well, at the Dickinson Museum, we plant a lot of things … Well, we try to plant only things, actually, that she mentioned. So, in the spring, it’s various kinds of violets and lots of primroses. Bulbs and bulbs: snowdrops, daffodils, crocus, tulips—if you don’t have deer—hyacinth.
Again, daisies, fox gloves. She wrote about lilacs. If you just want to try some shrubs, do some lilacs, do, again, roses—hope you don’t have deer [laughter]—dahlias, chrysanthemum, zinnias, marigolds. She loved the color purple, anything purple.
Margaret: Oh, purple was her thing? Oh, interesting.
Marta: Purple was her thing. Nasturtiums, sweet peas. There’s a huge list. That was part of my fun was compiling a list.
Margaret: Right. In the back of the book, it’s almost like a chart, and it tells the characteristics of each plant, its common and Latin name and where the plant shows up in her writing as well as a description of the plant and whether it’s native or not native, right? That goes on for pages and pages.
Marta: This is what I do in my spare time.
Margaret: [Laughter.] But she certainly tried a lot of plants. She certainly was into it, that’s for sure.
Marta: The amazing thing to me is also how many wild plants she was aware of that appear in her poems, letters and herbarium. If you think about the normal person nowadays and how many wildflowers they’ve actually encountered and could name, it’s a much smaller number, I think.
Margaret: Well, I think people are currently oblivious, really, and the study of botany that was encouraged even for young women of the day is not only not encouraged for young women of today, but it’s pretty much not encouraged for anybody [laughter]. I mean, it’s not really something that you hear about people saying, “Oh, yes, I’m taking botany.” Do you know what I mean? In the course of a normal high school curriculum, for instance, or around that age or a little older, you don’t hear about it.
Marta: Yes. It’s much more unusual. Again, it was just the common thing then that everybody would have been walking around looking for flowers as opposed to walking around looking at their phones.
Margaret: Exactly. Now, in doing this new version of a book that you first did as a similar book in 2005 … There was new scholarship available probably to pore over and so forth, but were there any, like, “Oh, my goodness,” discoveries that you were so excited to make? Do any come to mind from then to now?
Marta: I think the most fun for me was really getting to go through the local newspapers. Unfortunately, the Amherst newspapers are not available in any of the Newspapers.com or any of those things online. You have to still go to the Amherst Public Library and sit on a microfilm machine.
Margaret: I was going to say, “Let’s go to the microfilm.” Oh, boy. [Laughter.]
Marta: Right. So, it wasn’t easy, but it was fun because you could see the nurseries that she had access to. We know that they bought plants from different places, but I was able to find local advertisements for these businesses and what were they selling and to see, well, when did the agricultural college open and when were the glasshouses put in what’s now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, originally the the ag school, and what were the local fairs like. Right in Amherst, they had the equivalent of a county fair, where people would bring their plants and flower arrangements and baking. She was a baker and you could see how were things judged, who was judging, who in her family were on the judging panels. So, that was just so much fun.
Margaret: So to, in a way create, recreate, a context for the sort of bigger picture of the world that she was living in. Sounds like fun. That does sound like fun, kind of, doing that forensic investigating, albeit on microfilm. [Laughter.]
Marta: Yes. Yes. Not the easy way. It’s much better to have full text search. Don’t get me wrong.
Margaret: Sure, sure. No, no. I know. I know. Well, the book is Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell. Marta, congratulations and thank you so much and I’m glad you dug into her history again because it is fascinating. And I loved, especially as I said, seeing some of the plants that I thought were old, but new again, but I didn’t realize how old they were, that they’d even been in her gardens that long ago. So, very, very interesting. Thank you.
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(Photo credit: Emily Dickinson daguerreotype. ca. 1847 licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, original with Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.)
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