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The Science of the Historic Appledore Island Garden

Detail of Celia's garden by Childe HassemHISTORY MATTERS

Gardeners, history buffs, and art lovers are ecstatic. The much anticipated exhibit on Celia Thaxter’s island garden opened last weekend at the prestigious Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Massachusetts. American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals features more than 40 works by the Boston painter who spent decades summering on Appledore Island, just off the Maine and New Hampshire coastline. (continued below) 

Hassem illustrated Thaxter’s beloved book, An Island Garden (1894). The rare  exhibit of his Appledore paintings, according to PEM, represents nothing less than “the pinnacle of American Impressionism.” Thaxter’s island garden is so well known that volunteers have been reconstructing it, petal by petal, for nearly 50 years.

But Dr. Jennifer Seavey sees something else here. For the executive director of the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore, Celia’s historic garden is one big science project.

“I think the garden serves a few important roles at SML,” Seavey says.

For one, it reminds summer students in the marine biology program that the seemingly wild and pristine island has been heavily influenced by human habitation. As many as 500 Victorian tourists and staff once occupied the hotel and cottages that dominated Appledore. These visitors had a huge impact on the island ecology.

celia thaxter's garden by J Dennis Robinson

The garden is also a great teaching and learning tool for engineers, horticulturists, marine scientists, botanists, and archaeologists. Keeping the garden going, Seavey says, provides an ideal opportunity for students in various fields to work together to solve complex problems. The ability for scientists to communicate across disciplines, the director says, is critical in today’s world.

“Celia Thaxter was a fantastic naturalist and her son Roland was a successful scientist,” Seavey points out. Celia was not just a static symbol of the hotel era at the Shoals and a literary icon, but “a living breathing woman,” Seavey says. The island poet was an early member of  the Audubon Society and an activist in the protection of endangered birds.

Today the Shoals Marine Lab, a collaboration of UNH and Cornell University, has turned Appledore Island into an outdoor and underwater classroom featuring prominent instructors and hands-on field research. Thaxter, who preferred birds and flowers to her family’s summer tourists, would be pleased.

Celia Thaxter in her garden on Appledore Island


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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