Issue 44 — Unswerving Vitality
Studies of Trees in Winter, by Annie Oakes Huntington
If you are a regular reader, you know that my family has a history in Russian studies. At this moment our hearts are with the people of Ukraine, and with all who are suffering in this terrifying conflict. Everyone in my family is asking, “What would Aunt Priscilla have thought?” While working in Russia as a journalist during the 1950s and 60s, Priscilla had numerous run-ins with Soviet officials, including being denounced publicly by Kruschev’s son-in-law, and 14 ‘interviews’ to get her visas renewed. Her expertise in Russian language and Russian area studies was prodigious. Were she with us now, she would surely be seeking out the voices of today’s courageous intellectuals in the region. Here are two of them.
If you don’t know German, you can use Google Translate to read this piece by Ben Moser (a Sontag biographer) about Ukrainian literary publisher Anetta Antonenko, who is currently sheltering in her Kyiv apartment with her two cats and her gun.
This past week, Alex Marshall of the New York Times interviewed Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, whose work I am beginning to explore. Kurkov recommends the 2004 novel Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages by Maria Matios (translated by Michael Naydan).
Thanks to friends in D.C., we’ve been informed about the charity Razom for Ukraine, which is now expediting urgently needed humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In the U.K., publisher Little Toller has launched an initiative called Packed with Hope, whose goal is to deliver backpacks filled with books and supplies to children who have been displaced from Ukraine.
Next week we’ll mark the first birthday of Frugal Chariot, and I am cooking up plans to celebrate. I’d like to convey my sincere thanks to all of you who read, comment, and share. This little contraption is part of a much broader movement to tell stories about our radiant imperiled world. I love being a part of the eco-literary ecosystem, and am committed to do all that I can to encourage it. Your support fuels this work.
Toward the end of this month, Frugal Chariot will be hosting a Vernal Equinox “Thoreau-Down,” featuring a dynamite panel on Zoom. This occasion will be open to all readers who delight in legacy of Henry David Thoreau, and are also interested in querying its relevance to our time. Details coming soon in a separate invite! In April, I will begin a monthly series of Zoom conversations with journalists who report on climate and biodiversity, and paid subscribers will be invited to join live and participate in these sessions. For subscribers at the Founding Member level, donkey-cart logo totes are in the works.
Thanks to your support, I’ve been able to participate in a writing retreat this weekend with Kerri Arsenault, author of the award-winning book Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. I am also enrolled in a semester-long class on the art of book reviewing with Maggie Doherty, author of The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. THANK YOU!!
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From the Library
Studies of Trees in Winter
Annie Oakes Huntington
Knight & Millet, 1901
Free to read online
It was love at first sight with his bookshelves. On our first date, while Jay sautéed soft shell crabs, I checked out his books. I grew up in a political family with an Anglo vibe, and our bookshelves featured heavy concentrations of Trollope, Boswell and Johnson, The Bloomsbury Set, Churchill, Robert Caro, Seymour Hersh, and Solzhenitsyn. A running joke was my grandfather’s complete (and completely unread) set of the novels of Charles Lever, which ran to something like 37 volumes.
Jay’s bookshelves were something else entirely. Next to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, I found Mack: Bulldog of American Highways and By Way of Cape Horn by Alan Villiers. Draggerman’s Haul was snuggled up with Rivers and Streams of England. There were books about trains, and books about ferns. A book about tobacco barns filled out a shelf full of Nabokov. Having lived with this collection now for over thirty years, I am never not delighted by its absolute preoccupation with particularity, place, and the relationship of language to things. These books make obsession with some aspect of the physical world a virtue and a common cause. I made common cause with Jay in short order.
There was one title I clearly remembered, in a gray cloth binding with a Japonisme-inflected design: Studies of Trees in Winter. I remember saying the words in my head: Studies. Of Trees. In Winter. This week, after all these years, I finally took the book down from the shelf. Jay is fairly certain that he found the volume in the extensive second-hand department of Johnson’s Book Store in Springfield, back in the 1970s. Written in cursive on the flyleaf is the price that he paid: $2.25. Like Nature’s Diary (see FC Issue 36), this is a nature guide from that period at the turn of the twentieth century when the biological sciences were developing rapidly in Darwin’s wake. Author Annie Oakes Huntington was born in 1875 to a wealthy Boston family. As in England, a tradition of elite woman naturalists had long been established in Yankee circles. Huntington developed a particular interest in trees, and she enrolled in courses at the Arnold Arboretum near her home in Jamaica Plain, under its founder Charles Sargent.
Huntington makes the argument that trees are just as beautiful in winter as in the other three seasons. “The massive moulding of their trunks, the graceful curves of their branches, the fine tracery of their little bare twigs, now clear against the sky and again lost in a tangled network of interlocking branches, — the whole beauty of their symmetry, their poise, strength, and delicacy is revealed as it is never revealed in summer.” She goes on to make the case for closer inspection, for cutting open twigs and buds to see the living structures within. Delicate paintings by artist Mary S. Morse suggest the delights in store for the amateur dendrologist.
With chapters organized by families of trees (she excludes conifers), Huntington provides consistent and straightforward information about each species: its key identifying features, its range, and its uses (tool handles, yokes for oxen, and much more). Colorful details do creep in. The red maple is “closely associated with Thoreau, for we read that he spent much time in extracting sugar from its sap, against the wishes of his more practical-minded father.” Poets from Ovid to William Cullen Bryant make frequent cameos. While the American Chestnut and the American Elm are no longer ubiquitous, as they were in Huntington’s time, most of the trees she describes are still extant in the northern and eastern parts of the U.S. — and you can access this book in the field from your smartphone. Another possibility is the pocket guide Winter Tree Finder by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts, which is still in print and is very handy.
Studies of Trees in Winter was a solid success, enjoying at least three printings, and it was adopted into the curriculum of the Yale School of Forestry. Thus it is a bit of a puzzle as to why this accomplished young woman went on to publish only one further book: Poison Ivy & Swamp Sumach (1908, privately printed by the author). Hints emerge from a collection of her letters, Testament of Happiness, edited by the poet Nancy Byrd Turner and published in 1947; Huntington died in 1940. The first possible issue is health. According to Turner, Huntington suffered from depression, at least in her younger years, and from various other illnesses throughout her life. Yet there is another reason that might explain why her work did not find broader acceptance: she made her life with a woman, namely Jeannette Warren Payson. Huntington jointly dedicated Studies of Trees in Winter to her mother and Payson. As Turner puts it, Payson was:
the devoted friend with whom, at little Lane's End [in Waterford, Maine], her finest years were to be spent. Life at Lane's End began in 1909. In her element at last: in the deep country, with a lake at the back door and woods and hills everywhere! She settled down to gardening, bee-keeping, and making herself one with the neighborhood.
Was Huntington shunted aside from the field of dendrology not only because she was a woman, but also because she was gay? This seems quite possible. Her letters reveal a difficult relationship with one of Sargent’s key deputies, John George Jack, whom she may have rebuffed as a suitor in 1894. In 1898, she wrote to a friend that Jack did not approve of her teaching on the topic of trees to a group of young women, including Annie Ames from the prosperous and prominent Ames family.
Speaking of that course, I had a severe snub from Mr. Jack, last evening, about attempting to go on with them into new branches. Up to this point I think he has not disapproved . . . but that I should go on along new lines evidently irritates him, and last night the heat and the mosquitos drove him to express himself pretty freely. For a wonder I answered him back with spirit, as good as told him he didn't know what he was talking about, and suggested that he should learn first what I was driving at before making such remarks.
With that a lively discussion ensued. I quoted books which he hadn't read to back me up on landscape gardening, and by acknowledging my own ignorance disarmed him of his most telling weapon.
Sargent later asked Annie Ames to serve as the first woman on Harvard’s visiting committee for the Arboretum.
In a 1900 letter, as Studies of Trees in Winter was nearing publication, Annie confided to friends that Jack’s harsh criticism of the draft had caused her considerable self-doubt and anguish.
. . . tonight I feel so badly, and I know what he says is true, that in four years I should have written a better book, that the descriptions are slight, and the work amateurish. He went over it very carefully, but I know he doesn't think it worth criticising and the worst is he thinks the book will sell! . . . He threw cold water on my classes, and he has never once praised me in his life so I ought to be used to it, and I am tomorrow. I'm not tonight, because I know it is true. But if you can't be an electric light and shed a great light, you can be a taper, and if people are in the dark they may be glad of even a little light.
It seems clear she was diminished and undermined by Jack at a time when she should have been supported and her success celebrated. He may have essentially shot down her career at the Arboretum.
Whatever the exact causes for her withdrawal from professional life, Huntington moved with Payson to Waterford, Maine, where by multiple accounts they lived joyfully on their gentlewomen’s farm, with its beautiful garden and views across Keoka Lake. The two continued to mentor young women, including Nancy Turner as well as Jeannette’s niece Ellen Louise Payson, who became one of the foremost landscape architects of her generation. Huntington’s description of the oak chimes with the sense of her spirit that emerges overall from this book, and also from her generous and lively letters:
The extraordinary strength in the great, horizontal branches, their breadth and lateral sweep, and the rugged boldness of the trunk have long associated the oak with all that stands for strength, duration and unswerving vitality.
Other Voices, Other Forms
Iranian artist Ali Shokri is drawn to making photographic studies of trees in winter. His work is especially concerned with ecological decline in the Arasbaran lands, which include sections of Iran, Azerbajian, and Armenia—a region where devastating wildfires are becoming more and more frequent.
Poem of the Week
Winter Trees by William Carlos Williams All the complicated details of the attiring and the disattiring are completed! A liquid moon moves gently among the long branches. Thus having prepared their buds against a sure winter the wise trees stand sleeping in the cold.
For Your Reading Radar
This year is the 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth. Two major Olmsted experts, Ethan Carr and Rolf Diamant, have teamed up to write the just-published Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea. The book tells the story of Olmsted’s involvement in the imagining of the national park within the context of Reconstruction, and it provides essential background regarding the dispossession of indigenous peoples that made our national parks possible—including Yosemite.
For Your Calendar
More birthdays! The Arnold Arboretum, where Annie Oakes Huntington studied and worked, will be celebrating its 150th anniversary on Tuesday, March 29th at 2 P.M. Eastern. A special lecture about the Arboretum’s founding and early years will be offered by Lisa Pearson, director of the Arboretum Library and Archives. There are options for both in-person and online attendance. Details here.
Bookshop of the Week
When visiting the Arnold Arboretum, it’s convenient to pop into Papercuts, a neighborhood institution founded in 2014 by Kate Layte. If you’re lucky, a band might be playing on the roof.
Finally, ‘tis but a small thing in a chaotic and scary world. But thanks in part to all your well wishes and good vibes, I can report that Whitman is doing FAR better at the moment. He’s not even limping all that much, and I’m riding him at the walk under saddle. This is a joy I that didn’t think I would ever have again. Hold fast to hope. xo Nicie