by W.H. Demick
At this point not one of us remains unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a fact of life in June 2020. While I am not the kind of person that takes optimism without a grain of salt, I can say that in March of this year I imagined life would be back to somewhat normal by the summer. Friends would be gathered, birthdays celebrated in person, food shared over a friendly table. As it happens, this is not the case.
In the early months I, like I imagine most of you, looked at this time of furlough or unemployment as a time to better myself. Perhaps I will finally learn a new language, organize my book collection, or start an herb garden. As of now, the only success I have had in these endeavors has been a small yellow bell pepper plant that sits cheerily in my window, narrowly avoiding nibbles from my attention-spoiled cat and soaking in the summer sun.
While this little success in no way makes me a gardener, in a world of social distancing and isolation an appreciation for gardening has resurfaced among many of us who in previous years rarely had the time for it. Strolls through the greener spots in Salem have occupied our days more so than in years past, and the gardens in our city have enjoyed much-needed public attention. One such garden, meticulously maintained and manicured over the past century, can be found encircled by the dark 17th century dwellings at The House of the Seven Gables.
There the lilacs continue to bloom as they had in decades past. The wisteria arbor sits heavy with its blossoms, under which the steady hum of bees can still be heard going about their business. In May the tulips shown bright as ever, and the honeysuckle continued to yield its flavorful pollen – all to say that, despite the grim realities we are currently living through, nature carries on in her gardens.
Now that we’ve entered Phase 2 of reopening here in Massachusetts, the gardens of The House of the Seven Gables are yours to wander through. Our landscapers and staff have pruned the yews and readied the paths for visitors to enjoy a bit of respite. Provided that you wear a mask, you can enjoy the seaside flower beds or sit in the shade cast by our ancient elm outside of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth home.
To our regular visitors who come expecting to plumb the depths of Hawthorne’s dark imagination, the flashes of color in our gardens may seem contrarian. This could not be farther from the truth. Despite Hawthorne’s gothic spin on the Romantic genre, his deep appreciation for nature, both maintained and wild, is evident from his novels to his personal journals. And it is this appreciation that runs through the foundations of The House of the Seven Gables.
Hawthorne’s love of nature stems from his childhood. After losing his father, the Hawthornes lived with the maternal side of the family, the Mannings. In 1818, Nathaniel, his sisters, and his mother removed themselves from Salem to the wilderness of Raymond, Maine, where uncle Richard Manning had recently built a new home. Hawthorne reveled in the freedom of Maine, though it was short lived. By 1819 the Mannings sent young Hawthorne back to Salem for schooling.
Feeling pangs of nostalgia so familiar with us today, Hawthorne writes of this brief period “I shall never again run wild in Raymond, and I shall never be so happy as when I did”. Later, chaffing at his duties during his time in the Custom House in Boston, Hawthorne again brings up this idyllic past:
When I shall be again free, I will enjoy all things with the fresh simplicity of a child five years old. I shall grow young again…and all the worldly dust that has collected on me shall be washed away at once, and my heart will be like a bank of fresh flowers for the weary to rest upon.
His stay with the Mannings in Salem may have continued, rather than damped, his appreciation of nature. Robert Manning, whom he lived with, was one of the preeminent horticulturists in America. Over the course of his life Robert would pursue orchards with a high degree of success. He was a founding member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and, according to biographer Brenda Wineapple, was “one of America’s leading pomologists, a veritable prince among them”. While Nathaniel’s relationship with Robert was never glowing (he would come to balk at Robert’s stern demeanor), Robert’s connection with the cultivation of the natural world indelibly left a mark on the young man.
These early relationships with nature established a dichotomy in Hawthorne: the happy freedom and wildness of Raymond contradicted by the industry and steady urbanization of Salem. This theme is not unique to Hawthorne as it would become a hallmark of Romantic writers, however Hawthorne would put his own gothic spin on the theme. We see this as a primary theme in his short story “Rappacinni’s Daughter”, where a luxuriant garden is found to be the creation of “man’s ingenuity and thwarted nature”, resulting in the death of a young woman all for the sake of man’s experimentation.
This idea of the natural world being disturbed by man to a fatal degree seemed to have been on Hawthorne’s mind for some time, as can be seen in his American journals. The journals are filled with incomplete seeds of stories, such as this entry from October, 1837: “A person to spend all his life and splendid talents in trying to achieve something naturally impossible,–as to make a conquest over Nature.” The natural world will always win out over man’s creations in Hawthorne’s mythos. The inverse is “something naturally impossible.”
Yet to Hawthorne and the Romantics Nature with a capital N was also a reflection of the human condition. There is perhaps no better example of this than in The House of the Seven Gables. Though quite literally overshadowed by the “rusty wooden house” of the novel’s title, the gardens of the Pyncheon family serve to foreshadow the events of the story, reflecting both the inner taint of the mansion’s inhabitants and the promise of restitution.
In chapter 5, Phoebe Pyncheon discovers roses propped up next to the house that though outwardly beautiful “had blight or mildew at their hearts;” an allusion to the once majestic mansion and its sordid past. Later, Phoebe notes that the soil in the garden is rich with dead growth yet void of weeds, in a passage where Hawthorne leaves no room for misinterpretation:
The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up again, in such rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of society) as are always prone to root themselves about human dwellings. Phoebe saw, however, that their growth must have been checked by a degree of careful labor, bestowed daily and systematically on the garden.
Phoebe discovers that the garden is being tended to by Holgrave, descendent of the Maule family that cursed the Pyncheons and their mansion in centuries passed. Being of a rural background, Phoebe later joins in this work, creating an oasis where “The eye of Heaven seemed to look down into it, pleasantly, and with a peculiar smile, as if glad to perceive that Nature, elsewhere overwhelmed, and driven out of the dusty town, had here been able to retain a breathing-place.” By tending to the garden together and preventing the spread of the evil “weeds” of the past, their work in the garden foreshadows the novel’s ending, where a union between the Maules and the Pyncheons breaks the ancient Pyncheon curse. The garden scenes in the novel then become a microcosm for the entire piece and can be rightly held up among the novels most important passages.
The gardens presently at The House of the Seven Gables are in like manner tended to with dedication and care. They remain a “breathing-place”, a concept that roots itself not only in Hawthorne’s work but in the beginnings of the museum with our founder Caroline Emmerton. Emmerton echoed Hawthorne’s sentiment in the book by using the gardens as means to combat the encroaching triple-decker houses of the early 20th century. They served as a place where people could reconnect with the natural beauty of the area.
Since their creation in 1909 at the hands of Joseph Chandler, their original design has changed little. Many of the plantings are still in keeping with Chandler’s colonial revival vision, using plant species that existed in the area in the 1600’s. In the 1950’s and 60’s landscape architect Daniel Foley expanded upon Chandler’s original design, adding the brick pathways and boxwoods in an effort to create an enclosed yet navigable space. Our current landscaper, Robyn Kanter, trained under Foley and continues his work, yielding the incredible beds and trellises that we see today.
The gardens at the Gables establish a direct line through the museum’s history and to the literary work of Hawthorne. They remain, as Emmerton wanted, a place to escape the urban environment and find oneself surrounded by beauty. The opportunity presented by the gardens is greater than ever now that we have been cooped up all spring, and gives us a chance, perhaps, to understand Hawthorne’s urban vs. natural dichotomy more acutely. As we stroll beneath the wisteria we can feel a sense of Hawthorne’s legacy – a legacy that, though it casts shadows upon the nature of humanity, cannot do so without the light of the sun and the bloom of the lilac.Tags: nathaniel hawthorne, Salem, support preservation, the house of the seven gables
This post was written by Sarah Garriepy