In Emily’s garden

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As summer waned, my mother and my toddler son and I drove up from Washington, DC, to Amherst, Massachusetts. We were there to attend the annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society, a meeting that I admit I mostly wanted to attend so that I would have an excuse to visit Emilyland. And Emilyland, for the most part, lived up to expectations. As the warm days gave way to a brightness tinged with cool, we got to know Amherst; took in its rolling hills; appreciated the contrast of blue skies and green woods; ate ice cream with the cows that had so generously provided their milk lowing right beside us, staring us down.

The epicenter of Emilyland is two homes just off the edge of the Amherst College campus (which Emily’s grandfather helped to found), as you near the railroad tracks (which Emily’s father brought to town). They are the Evergreens (built for and lived in by Emily’s older brother Austin) and the Homestead, Dickinson’s home for much of her life, and the place where she died. I am far from the first to note the stark differences between the homes in both outward appearance and interior décor: the Evergreens is an Italianate extravaganza that remains, to this day, stuffed to the gills with Austin and his family’s personal effects. The Homestead, meanwhile, is a stoic and unassuming (though still quite large) New England house with very little of the Dickinsons left inside. What you learn about the Dickinsons there must be assumed from the architecture, the placement of the walls and windows: Emily’s face the street, where she would have had a grand view back into town and toward all the visitors coming and going from the railroad station. So much for the recluse of Amherst.

Like so many historic sites, the Evergreens and the Homestead are under constant reappraisal in terms of what they present to world about one of its most elusive poets, and how they can most authentically represent her life. At the meeting, we got a taste of these reappraisals in a presentation by the director of the site. She described the decision-making behind trees being removed from the Evergreens yard and colors of paint on the houses, among other minute but vital details that many visitors may never notice but that nonetheless inflect their experiences.

My own visit to the museum took place on a sunny Saturday afternoon after the bulk of the meeting had taken place. My mom kindly offered to look after my son for a few hours while I went on the deluxe tour of both houses. As the sprightly and knowledgeable docent led a group of five or six of us through the rooms sparse (in the Homestead) and cluttered (in the Evergreens), I tried to catch glimpses of the poet. I saw her, fleetingly, in the diminutive white dress on display outside her room, a replica of a decaying original—though I prefer picturing her wearing with it the “blue net worsted shawl” with which she greeted Thomas Wentworth Higginson. (My Emily is nothing if not colorful.) Her bedroom was being renovated when I visited, but I saw her at the window, admiring the trees, admonishing the wind, writing a missive to a friend.

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She was nearly impossible to find at the Evergreens, that ornate Victorian pile, though there was plenty on display of Sue and Austin and their children and even Mabel Loomis Todd. (And when our tour guide failed to mention the affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson, I was one of several tour participants who urged her to share the lurid details. We knew our Dickinson family lore.)

The place I really found Emily Dickinson, though, was in her celebrated garden. It’s little wonder, of course. Her skills as a botanist have been lauded; her herbarium strikes us now as having the same sparse crystallized beauty and attention to detail as her poems; she sent flowers like plucked ambassadors to friends. Emily’s garden today is not as extensive as it was in her day, but it’s still beautiful, and sloping, and wild in the right places.

My son loved it, too. He played and played among the colors of late summer. He even insisted on bringing a pinecone from Dickinson’s garden with us when we left, which he promptly started gnawing on in his stroller. I have a feeling Emily, who sent baskets of her famous baked goods out her window and down to the neighborhood children, wouldn’t have minded.

***

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 11.21.00 AMBefore we left town, we walked from downtown Amherst a short way to Emily Dickinson’s grave. The poet left famously particular instructions for her own funeral. She wanted to be carried out of the back of the Homestead through the garden and the barn and the meadows to her resting place in West Cemetery. Those meadows are now unassuming neighborhoods, but the pilgrimage is moving nonetheless.

I’ve known Dickinson’s poetry for as long as I can remember. How does visiting her lifelong home inflect that knowledge? Finding Dickinson in Amherst grounds her in an actual geographical space, a house and a town and a region, that defy scholars’ and biographers’ longtime emphasis on her immateriality, her presence as a “fugitive in time and space,” as Jane Donohue Eberwein puts it. More recent scholarship has returned Emily to her world, showing that she was informed by and a participant in the culture that she was so long thought to be apart from. My own scholarship, on Dickinson’s Civil War poetry, participates in this movement to read Dickinson’s poetry (and, as always seems to be the case with her, Dickinson herself) as grounded in the circumstances of her time, even as she found utterly new ways of attaching certain words and syntaxes to those circumstances.

Dickinson’s geographical imagination is vast, and her poetry’s ability to traverse scales of distance is unparalleled. At the same time, Amherst is her Milliarium Aureum, the point from which all her distances were measured. (“If I could bribe them by a Rose / I’d bring them every flower that grows / From Amherst to Cashmere!” she wrote (Fr176)). And elsewhere, this:

What is –  “Paradise” –

Who live there –

Are they “Farmers” –

Do they “hoe” –

Do they know that this is “Amherst” –

And that I –  am coming –  too – (Fr241)

But a word that appears far more often in her poems than “Amherst” is “home.” Dickinson, of course, was always uneasy about the idea of home. She asked Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when he visited her at the Homestead, “Could you tell me what home is?” At the Homestead today, you find Emily and lose her; you see her white dress and confront the impossibility that a small, chestnut-haired woman named Emily Dickinson ever wore it. In the garden, among the flowers and the trees, there is more of her: something in the wind, gentle and menacing, something we know to be true and cannot grasp.

Further Reading: The website of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst; Emily Dickinson and Gardening; Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “Dickinson’s Local, Global, and Cosmic Perspectives.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: UMass Press, 1998.

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