Sunday, August 1, 2010

Gardens, Murder, Sea and Secrets

The skies are dark and threatening, much like the skies one often sees of the shore of  Hampton Village, New Hampshire where I was living four years ago.  The Atlantic Ocean there, a three minute walk away from my mother's tiny cottage to Rocky Beach or North Hampton Beach, is dotted with a string of islands from the brief 19 miles of NH to Maine, The Isles of Shoals, were settled in the 1600's and named by John Smith of Pocahontas fame.
From the shale and wet sand cove littered with massive rocks, you can see beyond the vigorous waves to the ragged humps of rock, reaching out like an animal stretching it's spine, as if it they would claim the space occupied by a restless sea.  The thigh high waves tug at my ankles, threaten to tumble me backwards or pull me out on rip tides. The peninsula, Great Boars Head hulks and broods to the right, inviting only because of the Victorian cottages hanging on it's cliff edges or nestled in the center. To the left of the small beach, Plaice Cove sweeps away to Rye Beach displaying the few ancient fishing shacks not washed out to sea in a nor'easter several years back.  Whalers were launched from this beach. A number of three masted schooners ran aground here, some with their masts and timbers slowly rotting over decades.
The islands incliude:  Star, Malaga, White, Appeldore and Smuttynose, the site of Blackbeard's honeymoon, the shipwreck of the Sagunto, and double murders, ... so it's not surprising that in the northeast, these names conjure stories not only of literature, art and gardens but also of  tragedy and  death.
Appledore was the home to the late Victorian poet, lighthouse keeper, gardener and botanist, Ceila Thaxter, who helped run her father's hotel where she played hostess to many literary and artistic figures of her time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett.  Artist Childe Hassam painted many aspects of her garden and a few with her tending her plants. She found the body of her painter friend, William Morris Hunt    drowned off the coast of her island.
As the most popular female poet of the 19th century, Ceila gained respect for her poetry in a highly competitive literary realm, slightly less so for her paintings. But this New England writer attracted the most international interest with her account of the rescue of  Maren, a friend who survived the brutal attack of an axe murderer after he killed her sister and sister-in-law. Celia tells the tale of how the terrified woman was rescued aboard a tiny boat from the bloodied Smuttynose to the safety of Appledore.  Two years afterwards,  The Atlantic Monthly printed Celia's first hand accounts of the aftermath of the murders in their May 1875 issue.
But even beforehand, Ceila's poems were not the innocent, pretty pieces one would expect of a Victorian female writer who spent her entire life in New England.  Instead she is a writer of paradox from the spirited flight of sparrows to the sinking of ships, from descriptions of her riotous bank of poppies to men mouldering in dank jails.  Celia's work is dark and foreboding, observant of both the natural world and human nature in both it's beauty and dark extremes.
So to honor her, I worked in the rain in my own garden today, accompanied by a writing spider nestled in his zig-zag trap, mummy-wrapping a Japanese Beetle in shiny silk.
Despite the off-kilter lifestyle at those northern beaches, I miss the place with a longing which is never sated. This morning's downpour washes my tears into southern soil, but failed to rinse away the memories, a sad absolution, cleaning and polishing my own experiences and secrets of the strange string of events I experienced along that shoreline. Smatterings have turned up in my 2nd magical realism novel, nearly finished, Shaman in Exile; others are wrapped in poems and letters, elaborated in art journals and painted on canvas.  Perhaps the brooding atmosphere instills a macabre creative streak or breeds a nature which looks beyond the sun and pleasures often associated with the coastline, to view or write the tales of tangled human lives and nature's capricious offerings: gifts or trickery, one never knows.

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