12 July 2010

Plum Island

Dear Readers - Originally, I intended this website to be a place to try out ideas that I might use in my freelance writing. I was surprised when the site began to attract attention - quite the opposite sequence of events that most of us who sell our work encounter. As some of you may have noticed, I am a relentless reviser/editor and  the Internet gives free rein to these tendencies. So, to mark this anniversary, I revisit the first post, Plum Island, a magical place from my childhood. And thanks to you who have shared your thoughts here. - JAL.

“Eastward, the ocean spreads inimitably. At a small distance from the shore, Plumb-island, a wild and fantastical sand-beach, reaching quite to Ipswich, ten or twelve miles, is thrown up by the joint power of winds and waves into the thousand wanton figures of a snowdrift.” - Timothy Dwight
Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was a Congregationalist theologian and the President of Yale from 1795 until the year of his death. His most famous, however, accomplishment was literary; his Travels in New England and New York were published posthumously in four volumes and Dwight is credited as the first first to use the term Cape Cod.

I do not know of any country which is wild and so diverse within so small a compass. This little piece of land, small when you measure it in square miles, is unlike any other place; nor have I found anyone who has seen anything like it.” – Arthur Wesley Dow

"The sea was meant to be looked at from the shore as the mountains from the plain." - James Russell Lowell, c. 1850.
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a Harvard man,  both a graduate and then a professor, although his boss, Charles Eliot Norton, noted that the fine poet and critic showed little interest in teaching.  Lowell was interested in Spanish literature and happily accepted an appointment from U.S. Presiudent Rutherford b> Hayes as Minister (as ambassadors were then called) to the Court of Spain in 1877.

"The impression made by this landscape cannot be realized without the experience. It was a compound of wildness, gloom and solitude. I feel myself transported to the borders of Nubia." - Timothy Dwight, President of Yale and inveterate traveler of New England back roads, in 1802.

"Salt marshes set about with round-topped hills, barberry hedges along old shore walls that climb over the upland pastures, grassy spaces patterned with salvia and bayberry, wild apple trees in the thickets, wide fields of daisies and frost flowers, shore lines of goldenrod and scarlet lilies, dark marsh islands, far and near, reflected in the creek and salt pond, haystacks crowding into the horizon's perspective, a blue line of sea beyond the distant sand hills, such is the familiar (Ipswich) landscape, varied by season and sky and tide." - Arthur Wesley Dow, introduction to a book of poems that he illustrated, By Salt Marshes, written by Everett Stanley Hubbard, 1908.

Arthur Wesley Dow was a native of Ipswich, where  his summer art school (1891-1906) attracted dozens of students each year; many  undoubtedly found their way to Plum Island, a place of recreation  and inspiration. B. J. O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955) was one such student, a Swedish-born printer/painter who joined Dow for summers at the shore. Nordfeldt's woodcut The Long Wave (c.1903-1907) may seem an idealized image of morning on the island, but it conveys accurately the unceasing energy of the ocean, just as surely as the works Dow, Heade, and others convey the quiet, meandering atmosphere of the nearby marshes.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) an inlander from Pennsylvania visited Newburyport for the first time in 1862, thereupon becoming a marsh convert for life. Heade arrived just as salt water farming, as practiced by thrifty Yankees, was on the wane. Heade's paintings capture the passing, never to be forgotten, chartreuse of spartina grass in spring as it nods in time with the breeze as clouds scud overhead, casting their own waves of shadow. 
"In spring they lie one broad expanse of green,/ O'er which the light winds run with glimmering feet./Here, yellower stripes track out the creek unseen,/ There, darker growths o'er hidden ditches meet." - James Russell Lowell
In Indian-Summer Reverie, Lowell wrote pityingly “who sees in them but levels brown and bare” is “Vain to him the gift of sight/ Who cannot in their various incomes share.” New Englanders reserve the word creek for the meandering waters of the salt marshes; all other small bodies of moving water are brooks. Every April, just as the townspeople had to repair the highways, they had to set out beach grass, planted in rows three feet apart.

Agawam, as the Indians called the lowland marshes, formed the back-story of the daily Atlantic tides. For a child, Agawam issues a siren call to enter its hidden byways, yet it is rather safe as wild nature goes.

The aerial photograph of Plum Island (at top) looks north toward the mouth of the Merrimack River. Out of range of this picture just southeast is the Plum Island Airfield, one of the oldest in continuous operation in the United States, the location of the first experimental flights in the northeastern states in 1910. On the north side of the river is Salisbury Beach, one of many in Essex County.

Functionally, Plum Island is a barrier island on the Atlantic coast in northern Massachusetts; it stretches eleven miles south from Newburyport to the mouth of the Parker River, and is bounded on the west by a tidal estuary, Plum Island Sound.
Newburyport, where I lived for a few years as a child, was incorporated in 1634, Ipswich at about the same time. The northern part of Plum Island has been a popular vacation spot since the 19th century; one of the first summer hotels in the country opened there in 1807. Numerous small cottages with salt-scored clapboards sit in rows along the beach. In this summer place where the rules of decorum are relaxed, sand is casually tracked inside on the feet of children and adults alike and even the admonition to eat all vegetables before anything else can be waived here. In my photo, you can see a line of birds perched on the roof-peak, sentinels on the flyway. To their east is the long shore; to their west the dunes and bogs sloping to the inland marsh.

Residents and settlers found the shore offered an abundant harvest. The littoral, that now-you-see-it, now-you-don't area between high and low tides, is home to bogs where cvranberries root in the peat layer below the water, their deep red berries visible to  alert berry pickers. Hay grows in salt marshes,  harvested by the plucky in low-riding boats, called gundalows, made for towing the harvest to the nearest solid ground. (Notice how the haystack in the picture at right sits on stilts. These are staddles, used to elevate the hay for drying.)

Marsh-haying has a long history in the area, beginning at Plymouth Settlement. Hay fed the livestock and made a good roofing material, so collecting it was vital work for the community.  Even today, if you look carefully, you can still see traces on the ground of long-abandoned farm fields, visible at low tide. Around 1900, saltwater farming became a casualty of real estate speculation  but images of the muffin-shaped haystacks live on in the works of artists and early photographers.
Beach cottages sprouted on the north end of Plum Island, close to Newburyport. Even though it was only a couple of miles from home, I remember the excitement of packing up to go stay in this foreign place.   Contained there, the larger part of the island remains as nature remakes it, year by year, refuge for wildlife and a welcome rest stop for birds on the Great Atlantic Flyway. 

The island is named for the sturdy blue beach plum (Prunus maritima) that roots in the rills incised in the sand by the wind. Those who have tasted beach plum jam may have savored the sweetest plums in the world. Visitors still bear away jars of homemade beach plum jam in triumph.  While cranberry production has been largely commercialized, Cornell University is currently working with beach plum growers through its sustainable agriculture program.
Larger than the rills are guzzles, low spots on the beach where the sea flows into the marshes when the tide is high or during a storm. These shallow channels that cut through the sandbar are only visible at low tide.

Most of Plum Island's 4,600 acres remain undisturbed, preserved as the Parker National Wildlife Refuge. A resting place for sea and shore birds on the Great Atlantic Flyway that stretches from the Canadian Maritime to the eastern Caribbean, more than 270 species stop here and 25,000 ducks have been counted here at one time at the height of the migration season. What they make of human beach-goers, with their paraphernalia of chairs, umbrellas, and coolers, has yet to be revealed.

I have tried to convey through words, my own and those of others, and through images the magic of the natural world of Plum Island. It was there that  Rachel Carson fell in love with the sea. It was in its presence that she found her great purpose.

1. Daniel Reinhardt - aerial photograph of Plum Island, 2006.

2. Arthur Wesley Dow - Moonrise , c. 1895-1898, Terra Museum of Art.
3. B. J. O. Nordfeldt - The Long Wave, 19096, New York Public Library.4. Arthur Wesley Dow - In The Salt Marshes, woodcut, c.1895-1898, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.
5. Arthur Wesley Dow - The Dragon, cyanotope, c. 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

6. Martin Johnson Heade - Newbury Marshes At Sunset, 1862, Memorial Gallery of Art, Rochester, NY.
7. Early 20th century postcard of Plum Island Lighthouse. c. 1911.
8. Jane Librizzi - photograph of cottage on Plum Island, July, 1980.
9. Circa 1910 postcard - General Store Of Geo. S. Houghton & Bird's Eye View of Plum Island.

10. Early 20th century postcard - Staddles of Hay, Newburyport Marshes.
11. Early 20th century postcard - Ye Olden Times, Salisbury, Mass.


bessfones said...

Congratulations Jane on this fourth anniversary. Heade's paintings are so satisfying.

Gerrie said...

I used to live fulltime on an Island in the North Sea once. The catching of the very special seaside light and atmosphere by such "simple" means is in all pictures fantastic and amazing. You only are able to create this if you've been deeply immersed in it. As goes for the island-story telling.
Thank you Jane.

Jane said...

Thank you Bessfones. Love your ceramic.

Jane Librizzi said...

Gerrie, the best thing about barrier islands is that they are so close by. Of course, that same attribute makes protecting them from marauding real estate speculators that much more difficult. Dow's cyanotopes (of which there are hundreds at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts) capture the atmosphere of the marshes well. The peculiar green of spartina grass resists the best efforts of photographers.

Neil said...

Happy 3rd birthday, or 4th anniversary, or whatever we collectively decide it to be (once we have worked out whether we say twenty-ten or two thousand and ten, I am for the former). You started out as you meant to go on, and have provided many of us with beautiful previously unknown images and generous insights.

bessfones said...

Jane, the ceramic was made by Anne Dangar (Australian)who studied with the cubist painter Albert Gleizes at moly-sabata in France.

consciousnesswalk said...

Congratulations to Jane Librizzi, whose work we love.

Jane said...

Neil, the desire to get it right, to do justice the works, is the fun of it. And in another reversal of my original expectations, I'm about to post here a longer article that I've tried to interest several publications in, but because there is no exhibition or musuem where the work is viewable, they were not interested.

Jane said...

Bessfones, thank you for sharing Anne Dangar with us.

Jane said...

CW, thank you so much. If this article encourages one person to visit Plum Island, that will be a job well done, for me.

zippychik said...

My husband's grandfather was an aviation pioneer who lived near Boston. I think it's very likely that he ran flights in and out of the Plum Island Airfield. Congratulations on your anniversary. Your blog is an inspiration to me as I've just started writing my own architecture and design history blog.

Jane said...

Thanks, ZC. Please send along your website info, so we can all visit you. And good luck.

Rouchswalwe said...

The Blue Lantern adds spice to my week, Jane. I pour an ale and am able to explore the beauty out there in the world. Prost to you on your anniversary!

Jane said...

Thank you, Rouchswalwe. And in an ale-related note, I remember that my parents liked to have a beer at the shore. It was easily portable and that left all the lemonade in the thermos for me!