Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday Morning Leaves: A Delayed Amherst Autumn and a Bouquet for Orra Hitchcock

Sept. 21
Neither when I crossed the Connecticut River at Hadley via the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Bridge nor when I paused at the "scenic" overlook above Holyoke on the way back from the auto glass shop in West Springfield did I see much fall foliage. However, here in the uplands, signs of the change were more common. I noticed them on the dog's morning walk (in fact: spotted the first ones, below, on Labor Day weekend, which is the symbolic if not astronomical end of summer).

Oct. 4
Last week, I would have written that we were still ahead of the game (and the season), but when I retraced that same route along I-91 today, there was still far more green than red and orange to be seen, even at the overlook.

Now people are starting to worry.  Just today, Springfield's Channel 22 quoted people in the hospitality trades expressing concern that the delayed leaf-peeping season was hurting tourism.  The foliage is supposed to reach peak color just after the Columbus Day weekend.

Coincidentally, the Library of Congress today posted its list of readings on "The Nature & Science of Autumn."

It's ironic that this year's season is causing worries because Yankee Magazine recently named Amherst one of the top 25 foliage towns in autumn New England:

(1.) Kent, Connecticut

(2.) Bethel, Maine

(3.) Manchester, Vermont

(4.) Williamstown, Massachusetts

(5.) Middlebury, Vermont

(6.) Camden, Maine (tie)

(6.) Waitsfield, Vermont (tie)

(7.) Conway/North Conway, New Hampshire

(8.) Sandwich, New Hampshire

(9.) Rangeley, Maine

(10.) Blue Hill, Maine (tie)

(10.) Woodstock, Vermont (tie)

(10.) Waterville Valley, New Hampshire (tie)

(11.) Grafton, Vermont (tie)

(11.) East Haddam, Connecticut (tie)

(11.) Walpole, New Hampshire (tie)

(12.) The Cornwalls, Connecticut (tie)

(12.) Litchfield, Connecticut (tie)

(12.) Jackson, New Hampshire (tie)

(13.) Jeffersonville, Vermont (tie)

(13.) Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts (tie)

(13.) Montgomery, Vermont (tie)

(13.) Stowe, Vermont (tie)

(13.) Hanover, New Hampshire (tie)
While we wait for the real thing, I thought I'd share some historical autumn imagery from one of our local nineteenth-century artists, Orra White Hitchcock (1798-1863).  The wife of famed Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), she produced images for some of his scientific and religious works (he was Professor of both Geology and Natural Theology) and was a distinguished cultural figure in her own right, in the words of the Amherst College archivists:  "one of the earliest female artists and illustrators in a the U.S."  When the Historical Subcommittee of the Amherst 250th Anniversary chose subjects for the re-enactors at the graves in West Cemetery, Orra rather than Edward was the Hitchcock whom they selected.

This lithograph, "Autumnal Scenery, View in Amherst" (from the volume of plates for Edward Hitchcock's Geology of Massachusetts, 1833), depicts Amherst as seen from the east, in the Pelham Hills. Amherst College (Johnson Chapel; South, North, and Williston Halls) is at far left.  What is perhaps most noteworthy about the scenery is the relative paucity of trees compared with the view that would greet the traveler today.  Hitchcock painted the scene at the height of deforestation, by which time, as the Fisher Museum of Harvard Forest explains, "60 to 80 percent of the land was cleared for pasture, tillage, orchards and buildings. Small remaining areas of woodland were subjected to frequent cuttings for lumber and fuel."

Here, in her husband's Religious Lectures on Peculiar Phenomena in the Four Seasons. . . (Amherst:  J. S. &. C. Adams, 1850), she depicted the "Autumnal Scenery" at the "Confluence of Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers," to the west.

For Edward Hitchcock, as the volume's title implies, nature was a book to be studied for its spiritual message. Opening his lecture on "The Euthanasia of Autumn" (probably not a title that we would choose today, though it just means:  good death) with Isaiah's  'We all do fade as a leaf" (64:6), he finds that the season instructs: our bodily powers, beauty, and glory are fleeting.  Accordingly, autumn ought to teach us piety, strength in adversity, and preparation for both a beautiful death and eternal life to come.The frost, far from killing the plant, causes its organs to "develope hues still more brilliant, and make creation smile, though about to descend into her wintry grave." (98) And
    The gay splendor of our forests, as autumn comes on, may seem to some inappropriate, when we consider that it is the precursor of decay and death.  But when we remember that the plant still lives, and after a season of inaction will awake to new and more vigorous life, and that the apparent decay is only laying aside a summer robe, because unfit for winter, is it not appropriate that nature should hang out signals of joy rather than of sorrow?  Why should she not descend exultingly, and in her richest dress, into the grave, in hope of so early and so glorious a resurrection? (100)
Thankfully, Orra White Hitchcock's legacy is being recovered.  Last winter, in the context of the Amherst 250th and the Darwin 200th, Mount Holyoke Professor of Art History Emeritus Robert Herbert made mention of her work in a lecture on "Edward Hitchcock: Science and Religion in the Embrace of Nature," sponsored by the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Robert Herbert lecture:  art by Orra Hitchcock, March 2009
 He had lectured on Orra herself the previous year, after publishing A Woman of Amherst: The Travel Diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, 1847 and 1850. Next semester, the Mead Museum at Amherst College will mount a major exhibition, Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863): An Amherst Woman of Art and Science, curated by Bob Herbert and former College Archivist Daria D'Arienzo.

Unfortunately, the historical landscape of the house of the Hitchcocks' scarcely less distinguished son, Edward, Jr., is under threat today as Amherst College proposes to remove an elegant 310-foot fence that frames the property.  The decision of the Amherst Historical Commission to impose a twelve-month demolition delay has sparked controversy in some circles but is also serving as a useful opportunity to inform and engage the public on the subject of historic preservation.

Mary Loeffelholz outruns the evidence when she (following Richard Sewall) postulates that the Hitchcock volume about flowers that Emily Dickinson recalled reading every autumn as a child was the Religious Lectures. A careful consideration of both the subject matter and the publication date precludes that.  Still, we do know that the book was in the Dickinson Homestead library, and in light of the poet's own views and works, as well as the connections between the two families, it is reasonable to assume that she had read and knew it. And certainly, like Hitchcock, she (though not without struggle) hoped for and believed in bodily resurrection.

I don't know about that, but like Dickinson, I do have faith that, even this year, as in others, autumn will arrive in its full glory and then:
The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry's cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.
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