Saturday, January 25, 2020

Two Hours with the Kate Furbish and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Collections at Bowdoin College

   Yesterday my father and I had an opportunity to go downstate to Brunswick and Portland, and to do something I've been wanting to do for a long time! When I first read about Kate Furbish, I felt as if I'd found a friend! She was quite a remarkable lady, who made it her mission to explore every region of Maine and document its flora. Often she traveled alone, through bogs and swamps and up steep mountainsides. She was also an artist, and her sketches and paintings are both botanically accurate and ascetically pleasing. Her work gained the respect of the eminent botanist Asa Gray. 
   Anyway, her botanical art collection is now in the archives of the Hawthorne Longfellow Library at Bowdoin College and we went there to see it!

This was only one volume! I can't remember how many the archivist said there were, but this book was huge!

I had only seen her completed paintings before, so I enjoyed seeing many of her pencil sketches and unfinished paintings as well.

They are amazingly detailed!

A sketch of Yellow Wood Sorrel...

And a more completed page showing the leaves in detail...

Northern Fox Grape...

I've seen this before too but didn't know what it was. Thoreau mentions Moosewood in The Maine Woods, and now I'll know what he was talking about!

Beautiful Flowering Wintergreen...

Wild Indigo...

I thought this one of Dyer's Greenwood was especially beautiful even though unfinished. You can barely make it out in the picture, but near the bottom is written, "To be finished".

I also loved her beautiful paintings of the most common wildflowers and weeds. Nothing escaped her eye!

Of course, her two trips to this area in 1880 and 1881 are of particular interest to me. This Milk Vetch was found along the banks of the Aroostook River in Fort Fairfield and Fort Kent.

The Aroostook River...

Another Vetch found on the banks of the St. John River...

This one was also found in Ft. Fairfield, on the shore of the Aroostook River.

Pale Touch-Me-Not or Jewelweed, found in St. Francis in 1881...

This one was very fascinating to me...a variation of the common Touch-Me-Not (Orange Jewelweed) with a whitish flower and red spots. Miss Furbish writes "I gathered this lovely plant at St. Francis, July '81. It was a small plant with spotted or banded stems."

It really interested me because I had seen a flower just like it last summer on one of our trips down to PA! My father and I were walking along a quiet dirt road when the unusual color of the flower caught my eye. I didn't have a camera with me so I picked it and brought it back to the van, where I photographed it and pressed it in a book. 

It made me so happy to know that Miss Furbish thought such a flower worthy of notice as well! 😊

Another interesting variation she recorded in the Touch-Me-Not was this one with spotless flowers, which she says were "growing quite abundantly at St. Francis in July 1881."  

Besides the Furbish Collection, I was also very interested to see Bowdoin's Longfellow Collection. They have over 1,850 volumes including first editions of his poetical works, translations, and books he used while teaching at Bowdoin, besides letters and literary manuscripts!


I didn't get to see nearly all I would have liked of course, due to lack of time and my mind going blank as to what to ask for! But I did spend a very happy hour looking through this beautifully illustrated 1870s edition of his poems. Maybe it was the silence of the reading room we were in, but so many of the poems were leaping out at me so vividly in all their truth and beauty. I've always loved the opening to Evangeline...

"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest."

Oh, and the beginning of The Song of Hiawatha is equally grand! 😊

"Should you ask me, whence these stories? 
Whence these legends and traditions, 
With the odors of the forest 
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?"

We also got to see a letter written by Mr. Longfellow to his sister, when he was 16 years old and a new student at Bowdoin. It is dated Oct. 12, 1823. 

And this manuscript of his poem, The Rainy Day, written about 1842. I believe this was the first of Longfellow's poems I read and I've loved it ever since. 

There were so many things to see, I think we could have easily spent at least a couple of days here, instead of just 2 hours! Besides wanting to see more of the Furbish and Longfellow collections, I would love to see their Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe collections. Hopefully, we will have another opportunity to visit soon! We did enjoy looking at some of the displays in the library as well, such as this from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin...  

The letter he wrote to his wife when he believed himself to be mortally wounded...

And finally, here is Mr. Hawthorne, who is another of my favorite authors. I haven't read all his works, but I love his Twice-Told Tales and many of his other short stories, especially when they break out with some gloriously beautiful meaning for me, such as that one sentence from The Ambitious Guest, about the family in the White Mountains who "had found the 'herb, heart's-ease,' in the bleakest spot of all New England". Hawthorne attended Bowdoin at the same time as Longfellow.

*Photos used by permission, courtesy of Bowdoin College Special Archives and Collections