Una Hawthorne In Brown's Woods
Thomas St. John
Brattleboro, Vt., May 19th, '68.
I am fresh from the beautiful damp woods, with all their wealth of budding green and tender flowers, and, absurd as it seems to try and tell you about them, I really can't help it. When did it ever seem as if there had been another springtime, or as if a violet or a windflower had been seen before? The glory of it all makes me almost afraid, and it seems such a pity ever to come home from such an exquisite fairy-land.
Aunt Anna and I had planned a walk when I first came, but it has rained constantly; however, to-day we bid defiance to the rain, so it respected our bravery and our umbrellas, which we were punished by having to carry under our arms.
Such a depth and richness of green was brought out by the dampness that I would not have had it a dry day for the world, and indeed I must have been born with a spring in my mouth instead of a silver spoon, for I always feel twice myself in a showery ramble.
I wanted to go straight up the perpendicular bank behind Mrs. Brown's house, and Aunt Anna's enterprise at least equaled mine, and delicate mosses and lichens, in which were planted violets, housotonia and anemones, and new ferns undoubling their green fists, with polygalas, saxifrage, and, to my great joy, columbines. The last has always had a magical fascination for me, and makes me feel as no other flower can. It represents the aristocracy among wild flowers, with its haughty and airy grace and proud crimson and gold. It not only "the likeness of a kingly crown had on," but it is itself a crown.
There was a peculiar half moss, half lichen on the rocks, looking like large green ears, and with this I lined the bottom of my basket, intending to cover the earth in Aunt Anna's flower-pots with it. Then the flowers showered in, mixed with long trails of partridge-vine with its bright red berry. I pulled up a royal plant with all its nodding columbines by the roots to put down by that huge stump in the garden, where the simple thing doesn't know but it is at home. Then we penetrated into the delicious woods, wishing for you....at every step. Oh, why aren't you here? I can't bear to enjoy it all without you, when you want it so much; and should we not find beautiful secrets together in these deep recesses?
The trees were mostly tall, slender pines, many of them thrusting their twisted roots out of the ground, and others fallen all their length, making bridges and arches, and holding up a huge shield of roots at the end. The busy moss had wrapped them all in its soft green, and had lined and draped a thousand green recesses, making me wish I was a fairy to live in them. Surely, man has never built a mansion that is arrayed like one of these!
It was a most Gothic wood, with its pointed trees and arches, and long vistas inviting us onward. How impossible it seems that a wood path can ever have an end!
At last we saw water gleaming at a distance, and came to a clear tarn, lined with brown leaves and holding a fair picture in its bosom. A short distance from this was a cavernous spring that delighted me extremely. The opening was oblong, lined with the natural rock and stones for a depth of some five feet, and then it was excavated under the earth, or rather the rock, and there we saw the water bubbling, clear and cold. What a place for summer, and how one envies the frogs! But these seemingly endless woods had an end, and we came out on some open rising ground, whence we had a glorious view of the valley, where the trees were already dreaming of summer, and sketching an outline of their greenness.
Luminous mists, "slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn," took the place of the sunshine, making a pearly radiance in the air, and the far blue mountains made an exquisite horizon.
And here the world came upon us, in the shape of two small children a girl with some columbines in her hand, and a boy with some plebeian dandelions. "I say, you give me some of yours," said the boy, "and you shall have all of mine!" "No, I don't want yours," said the girl, airily skipping down the bank. "Oh, you're stingy!" said the boy, as he followed her, with an accent of the most supreme contempt.
Then we came home, and I think you might wish yourself either one of your pictures if you want to have a good time. Before one (picture) is a little basket, lined with moss and filled with tiny ferns, violets, anemones, housotonias, and polygalas, with many more. Under the other is a tall vase with a long partridge-vine twisted round it, and filled with columbines, uvularias, and slender branches of delicately tinted maple leaves mixed with white flowers and ferns. I enjoyed arranging them very much, but oh how dead and colorless my letter seems. How I wish I had a little bit of the secret of nature to put into it! But that secret hovers near me in the air, it vanishes among the leaves and whispers in the flower bells, and though I cannot grasp or utter it, I feel as if in time it might make me beautiful with its peace.
The portrait of Una Hawthorne above is taken from the tintype owned by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who described "her superb Titianesque coloring. . .the abundant hair of reddish auburn and the large gray eyes".
"She was very peculiar; you were sure she had genius, though I do not think I ever saw any writing of hers that seemed remarkable. Her qualities were very inconsistent; she would tell you every particular of circumstances that had occurred to herself, and yet you did not feel you understood how she felt; she was not transparent, though very confiding; wanting in judgment and perception of character and easily influenced, though she seemed self-reliant."
"She was excessively fascinating; her father's description of her looks is perfectly appropriate; sometimes she seemed beautiful then entirely the reverse. . . . She was ardent and generous always, as I knew her; the religious phase came to her afterwards - that is, in a technical way; she was ever high minded, but did not seem as spiritual as her mother. It was impossible she should ever be happy."
Una Hawthorne, the eldest child of Nathaniel, was engaged in 1867 to Storrow Higginson, a nephew to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Samuel Storrow Higginson was born on March 22, 1841 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Stephen. He studied with Henry David Thoreau and wrote Thoreau's funeral tribute, which was printed in the Harvard Magazine. Storrow also assembled Charles C. Frost's herbarium for the natural science room of the Brattleboro Free Library in 1891.
On Tuesday, May 19, 1868, Una records following in Henry David Thoreau's footsteps during his botanizing visit to Addison Brown's woods in 1856, possibly at Storrow Higginson's request. This is the frog pond which both Thoreau and Una described---
Footbridge By Frog Pond In Brown's Woods
Una also probably walked up Prospect Hill for the view, and to see the graves of Royall Tyler, Mary Palmer Tyler, and the unfortunate Edward in the Prospect Hill Cemetery. Judge Royall Tyler was the model for the criminal Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon in her father's romance "The House of the Seven Gables"---but it is not known if Una ever learned about Nathaniel's stratagem.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Una Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau Were Here
Thomas St. John graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and lived in Boston and Cambridge. He has published in the University of Utah's Western Humanities Review, the Ball State UniversityForum, and Counterpunch.