What Would Emily Dickinson Do?


I’ve been rereading My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, Alfred Habegger’s biography of Emily Dickinson, and I’ve come to a startling and delightful conclusion: if she were alive today, Emily Dickinson would be a blogger. 

Since Emily and I share a preference for DSC_0186wild flowers over many hothouse offerings (though she did have a conservatory in which she could indulge her love for growing things all through the New England winters), it’s only fitting that I illustrate this post with wild flowers found on recent walks, whose names I hardly know at all. (Exception: the first photo is bachelor buttons and lavender from my herb garden.)

It’s been an excellent spring for wildflowers around here. Inspired by reading about Dickinson’s herbarium, this morning I was sorely tempted to take up the occupation of gathering, pressing, and preserving some of them in an album. But I have no patience and can put photos to use straightaway without even a trip to Michael’s for whatever equipment flower preservation requires.  

I do like to think, however, that someone out there somewhere is taking that much time and care to create a paper-bound archive of small beauties discovered on their walks. Somehow, even though long-pressed flowers have naturally lost most of their original color, they remain exquisitely beautiful. Perhaps this is because they inevitably invoke the person who gathered them and took the time to press and preserve them. 

I’d been aware that DickinsonDSC_0011 kept up a lively mail correspondence with friends and relatives; that doesn’t seem unusual for any literate person who lived before the days of electronic communication. Think of the excitement with which letters are read, re-read, shared and passed around in Jane Austen. Imagine sending out a note by the morning post and anticipating a reply the same day. Oh. That’s what we do now, isn’t it? Odd how some things manage to come full-circle.

But it wasn’t until I paid attention to the description of Dickinson’s herbarium that I finally put two and two together: if she were alive today, Emily Dickinson would have a blog. At the very least, she and her friends would be avid Facebook correspondents, posting photos of their studious mornings, their bread-baking, their walks through the countryside, their interminable Sunday afternoons of enforced peace and quiet (aka “deadly boredom”). 

Habegger’s book describes how DSC_0094Dickinson and her friends took long purposeful walks to specific locations to collect flower specimens – many of them Emily’s favorite wild flowers, some  quite rare even for that time – and carefully classified each according to the numbers of pistils and stamens. Who knew that “According to the Linnaean or ‘artificial’ system, the number of stamens in a flower determined its ‘class,’ and the number of pistils its ‘order’?” (p.155). 

It gets better, though. According to DSC_0063Habegger, in Dickinson’s herbarium, “One finds a few related species grouped together – buttercups, geraniums, anemones, violets, pipsissewa, and spotted wintergreen – but by and large her order of arrangement had nothing to do with the Linnaean system,” (pp. 155-6). In other words, she took to placing her plant specimens wherever they fit, as their pressing was complete and they were ready for the pages of her album.

Habegger employs one of her verses to demonstrate Dickinson’s attitude toward the Linnaean system of flower classification:

I pull a flower from the woods –
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath –
And has her in a “class”!

Emily Dickinson was an unruly gardener. My life is complete.

It was quite common for girls of her time DSC_0036to keep such collections, and to compare their acquisitions with all the fervor of modern kids collecting Pokemon cards. It is difficult for me to articulate the degree of superiority with which I judge the former over the latter, but I am a senior citizen after all. 

I spent some time last night looking at internet representations of photographs of her pressed flower album. Run a Google: it doesn’t look like the link I wanted to provide will actually work.

You should know that if you have a spare thousand bucks under the sofa cushions, you could buy me a used copy of a printed version of the facsimile edition of her herbarium, the real thing being kept under highly controlled conditions in Harvard’s Houghton Library (http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/houghton/collections/modern/dickinson.cfm).

Like Emily Dickinson, I spent a fair amountDSC_0013 of my childhood exploring New England woods. Apart from holding fevered contests as to which of us could gather the biggest bouquet of violets, we were always on the lookout for exotic specimens like lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule). It occurs to me that in the past year I have returned to the same activity, only now with a border collie and a camera.

I think if Emily were alive today, she might be doing the same. 

The woods I walk through nowadays areDSC_0105 different from the ones I knew in childhood; Connecticut is far from central Texas to be sure. It seems to me that those long-ago traipses were far less dangerous than wandering out among cactus and venomous reptiles; but that perception is not entirely supported by data. The Connecticut woods of my youth may not have harbored the quadrillion zillion deer ticks that currently render casual hikes a life-threatening proposal, but rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins lived there in plentiful numbers. We just never gave them a thought.

I’ve read Emily Dickinson’s poems many times over the years, what with having been an English major and all. I remember one paper I wrote as an undergrad that took on the topic of the Muse in the poetry of 19th century women poets. I find that in the past few days lines run through my head in very Dickinsonian rhythm! 

I’ve seen the sun light
on the leaves –
at certain times of day –

I’ll spare you my mental calisthenics, but it is rather fun to go out there and try to view the natural world through an artist’s eyes. I like Annie Dillard’s idea that the Muse doesn’t sit beside you telling you what to write, but rather tugs at your sleeve imploring you to Come over here! Look at this!

My kind of Muse.

Alfred Habbeger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. (New York: The Modern Library, 2001) pp.155-156.


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