A Very Special Garden
Ever since I could remember anything, flowers have been like dear friends to me, comforters, inspirers, powers to uplift and to cheer. A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old. From this, year after year, the larger one, which has given so much pleasure to so many people, has grown.
Celia Thaxter described the beginning of her love for flowers in her book, An Island Garden, illustrated by her friend, famed impressionist Childe Hassam. She was writing about her garden on Appledore Island, one of the nine Isles of Shoals that straddle the boundary between New Hampshire and Maine, six miles out in the Gulf of Maine. It’s not known exactly when Celia began her Appledore garden, but certainly by the last decades of the nineteenth century it was flourishing. She rose early each day and spent several hours caring for the plants and battling the pests that preyed upon her blossoms.
Often I hear people say, "How do you make your plants flourish like this?" as they admire the little flower patch I cultivate in summer, or the window gardens that bloom for me in the winter; "I can never make my plants blossom like this! What is your secret?" And I answer with one word, "Love." For that includes all,--the patience that endures continual trial, the constancy that makes perseverance possible, the power of foregoing ease of mind and body to minister to the necessities of the thing beloved, and the subtle bond of sympathy which is as important, if not more so, than all the rest.
Who Was Celia Thaxter
She was four years old in 1839 when her father, Thomas Laighton, moved his family to tiny White Island, one of the Isles of Shoals, where he was the lighthouse keeper. From these humble beginnings, basically home schooled by her parents, Thaxter acquired an appreciation for the natural environment, learned how to put her thoughts on paper, and became, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America’s best-known woman poet. Her ambitious father eventually purchased several of the other nine islands and in 1848 opened the Appledore House, which grew to be a popular New England summer resort, a favorite vacation getaway for writers, musicians, and artists. In time, many of these people came to Appledore to spend time with Celia Thaxter. Her transformation from inquisitive child to accomplished author did not come easy. Married at age sixteen to her former tutor, Levi Thaxter, ten years her senior, Celia was soon a mother of three sons, a housekeeper, and hostess to her husband’s visiting friends.
Harvard educated and son of a wealthy family, Levi Thaxter never really worked, but he was well connected with the literary society of Boston. These friends grew to appreciate Celia, but were surprised when her poem “Landlocked” was published in The Atlantic Monthly, the leading magazine of the day. Living on the mainland, far from the sea, and with an unhappy marriage, Celia wrote in part:
Neither am I ungrateful; but I dream
Deliciously how twilight falls to-night
Over the glimmering water, how the light
Dies blissfully away, until I seem
To feel the wind, sea-scented, on my cheek,
To catch the sound of dusky flapping sail
And dip of oars, and voices on the gale
Far off, calling low, -- my name they speak!
She became known and admired in Boston and her circle of friends came to include Emerson, Whittier, James and Annie Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, and musicians and artists as well. Eventually she began spending every summer on Appledore. Her cottage there became a salon with nightly readings and musical entertainment for invited guests. These friends entered her cottage by walking through her garden and eventually they began asking Celia to write about it. Thaxter described the garden in great detail in her book, which was published in June 1894, just two months before her death in August of that year.
She is buried near the garden. Family members cared for Celia’s garden until 1914 when the old hotel, declining in popularity, burned, the fire also destroying Celia’s cottage and the garden site as well. After the hotel burned, Appledore was mostly abandoned. A Coast Guard station and a few summer cottages occupied one end of the island, but the remaining acres became overgrown with lush shrubs and poison ivy vines, all presided over by hundreds of nesting gulls.
The Garden Grows Again
Appledore remained mostly a wild place for the next sixty years until Dr. John M. Kingsbury, a Cornell botany professor, carried out his idea to create an undergraduate marine education program on the island. To develop the Shoals Marine Laboratory, Dr. Kingsbury had to build roads, construct dormitories, lab facilities, and a dock, and provide running water, electricity, and sewage treatment. He solved academic issues and dealt with state and local regulations, while commuting back and forth to Cornell, and recruiting faculty and students, and fundraising. Somehow he had a little time left over after his other duties and, being a gardener as well, determined that recreating Celia Thaxter’s garden was a worthwhile challenge. After all, her book detailed exactly which flowers she planted and where they were located in her garden. Historical photographs indicated the exact site of the garden. Running the backhoe to prepare the site and using heritage seeds from the collections of Cornell Plantations, Kingsbury recreated the garden as it was when Celia herself maintained it. Forty years later, the garden blooms again each summer, watched over by volunteers and Shoals Marine Lab staff.
Why Make a Film?
The Shoals Marine Laboratory conducts tours of the garden seven times each summer, bringing out 24 people on each day trip from the dock at New Castle, New Hampshire. Some tours are canceled due to weather conditions. Although the garden is well known, it’s not easy to visit and many people are unable to make the trip. Although the garden has been described in newspaper and magazine articles, it has not been the subject of a film. While we can’t bring the salt air to you we can provide the sounds of the waves crashing on the rocky shore of Appledore, the squawking of the gulls and best of all the colorful flowers blowing gently in the ocean breeze. We can tell you the story of Celia Thaxter and her life on the island with her creative friends. And you can see John Kingsbury describe how he recreated the garden. Listen to well known New England landscape garden experts describe how this little plot compares with other famous gardens. The finished film will bring the garden and its story to all those people who are interested in Thaxter, Hassam, the Isles of Shoals, New England’s history and literary tradition, and of course gardening.
I’ve been photographing on the Isles of Shoals since 1974. I’ve issued two books of my Isles of Shoals photographs, and as a publisher, now retired, I have produced 20-25 different books about these islands, including several books by and about Celia Thaxter. I’ve been making still photographs of Celia’s Garden for more than 30 years. These nine islands are my favorite place to be and I go out each summer to conduct a photography workshop on Star Island. As much as I enjoy still photography, I’m now getting excited about video. Last year I photographed and produced my first film, Farming 101. Farming101film.com. This new film about Celia Thaxter and her garden is to me a logical progression in my 40-year fascination with photographing the Isles of Shoals.
Kickstarter provides a way for creative projects to be funded by the public. In exchange for making a pledge of support, the donor receives a reward commensurate with the amount pledged. The goal of this Kickstarter project is to provide funds to edit the film, provide music, and other post-production costs, including publishing DVDs of the finished work, and rewards for contributors to this project. Kickstarter and Amazon have a processing fee, that when combined is around 8%. Preparing and delivering the various rewards is another expense of this project. I am contributing my filming, which nearly is completed. To make your donation, just click on the green button under the appropriate pledge amount at right and it'll lead you to Amazon.com to process the pledge. Your credit card is only charged if and when we reach our goal of $5,000. If I do not reach my goal in time, you will not be charged.
Can the contributions exceed the goal?
Yes! I am aiming at the bare minimum that is needed. The amount, $5,000, may sound like a lot, but the costs add up quickly to complete a film. When the goal is reached, the editing will be finished so that I can send you your rewards as soon as possible.
Risks and challenges
This is a work in progress, but most of the filming required to finish is completed. We plan additional trips to Appledore. We have several interviews planned with well-known heritage gardeners and a Thaxter biographer. Local musicians will produce music appropriate to the sounds heard in Celia Thaxter's nineteenth century salon. The major task remaining is editing. We have scheduled enough time to complete.the remaining work needed to finish the film.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)