Here continues part 2 of my essay entitled “Blunt is engrained in me.” Part 1 was posted on Oct. 9, 2014. I was discussing lilacs and their presence at the Mentor Graham Historic Site in Blunt, SD.
Sophie Anderson 1823 –1903, The Time Of The Lilac
If you want to completely refresh your lilac shrubs and get them to perform as newly planted shrubs with smaller more flexible branches and a fuller canopy, you may cut all of the stems back to about 12 inches above the earth. It will take the shrubs a few years to recover, but when they do they will completely refreshed.
I didn’t learn that technique from my Master Gardener training, but rather from living in an historic house built in 1795 in Milton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I was privileged to live in that saltbox house for three years in the late 1980s and to be good friends with its owner, Polly Wakefield, whose ancestors came to North America on the Mayflower. Polly was my very own Yankee, a breed apart. I love the photograph below of Polly in her great outdoors on her estate.
Polly was the last in a long line of “gentlemen farmers”, or, as in her case, a “gentlewoman farmer”, and all the property she inherited was maintained as a land preserve just outside Boston. She was a important member of the very prestigious Massachusetts Horticultural Society and I met her through my research and writing of an article on her ancestor’s tomb in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. I was working as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and when Polly and I met and came to know one another, we were instantly fast friends. She was old enough to be my mother or grandmother and I was her honorary daughter and my husband was her honorary son-in-law. Polly taught me a lot about horticulture, especially trees and shrubs.
But, looking back in time, lilacs figure into one of my favorite memories as a girl in South Dakota. A girlfriend taught me how to make a doll’s pocketbook from a pliable lilac leaf: make a vertical cut along the central vein toward the end of the leaf with your thumbnail, roll the leaf starting at the end opposite the stem, and insert the stem in the slot you made. Other leaves can also be used, but none so well as the humble lilac leaf. These little purses were so sweet and my dolls loved having them. Well, I loved for my dolls to have them, is what I mean!
Lilacs symbolized love in the erudite 19th-century language of flowers (which you can Google for more information). But this next fact is going to blow your mind: Walt Whitman, one of the most influential poets in the canon of American literature, wrote a poem entitled “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which is actually an elegy about the assassination of President Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Whitman worked in Washington D.C., where he saw up close and personal many of the wounded veterans returning from battle for care. That experience and the unimaginable horror of the assassination of Lincoln on April 14, 1865 led Whitman to write a collection of poems, Drum-Taps (published 1865), in which “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” was first published. In the poem, Whitman mourns Lincoln’s death and uses lilacs as a reference to the president. So, we must wonder, did Mentor Graham himself have lilacs planted around his Blunt home in memory of his illustrious student, or is it just a coincidence? I’ve read that Graham and Whitman were both on the podium when Lincoln was inaugurated, so there may indeed be a tie in. These are the kinds of facts that ignite my mind and imagination. It is also possible, of course, that someone planted the lilacs in the Graham yard simply because they provide privacy and are a hardy shrub. Either explanation is logical. One is more evocative, however.
Here is a segment from Whitman’s poem
If you would like to read the poem in its entirety, you may find it on the web here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174748
Whitman’s recollections of Lincoln were obviously prized during his lifetime.
The authoritative book, Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (R.W. French, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., New York: Garland Publishing, 1998) opines about Whitman’s poem and how, in his mind, the lilac symbolized Lincoln :
While the assassination of President Lincoln is the occasion of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the subject, in the manner of elegy, is both other and broader than its occasion. “Lilacs” turns out to be not just about the death of Abraham Lincoln, but about death itself; in section 7, just after the poet has placed a sprig of lilac on the coffin, the poem makes a pointed transition: “Nor for you, for one alone,” the poet chants, “Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring.” Significantly, Lincoln is never mentioned by name in “Lilacs,” nor does the poem relate the circumstances of his death; indeed, the absence of the historical Lincoln in the poem is one of its more striking features. Historical considerations give way to universal significance. The fact of assassination, for example, is not mentioned, for, while all people die, assassination is the fate of only a few. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_67.html