Journal of a Sabbatical

February 4, 2001

actual fireplace of snowbound
plus a short-eared owl

Today's Bird Sightings:
Whittier Birthplace
dark-eyed juncos
Joppa Flats
snow goose
Canada goose
herring gull
great black back gull
Plum Island
short-eared owl

Today's Reading: Snowbound by John Greenleaf Whittier, The Island of Penguins by Cherry Kearton, Poems of Whittier edited by Markham (The Norsemen, The Wreck of Rivermouth, School-Days)

2001 Book List
Plum Island Bird List


Here it is, the actual "actual fireplace of Snowbound".

Over breakfast this morning Nancy suggested that we drive by the Whittier birthplace on the way to Plum Island. It must have been that picture on the coffee cup! I figured we could at least see the house even if the place wasn't open. Well it was open and the tour was excellent.

Whittier birthplace - houseThe house is pretty small. We entered through the kitchen. You can see the little entrance porch on the right between the two trees in this picture. The light was not great for photography neither was the snow. I'll have to plan a return trip on a brighter day. The path up to the door was pretty slippery and Nancy had to hang onto my arm. We rang the doorbell. One of the caretakers let us in. The caretakers live on the premises and are immersed in Whittier lore. The woman - I didn't get her name - gave us the tour and we peppered her with questions. [Names of caretakers are Betty and Scott Pike - provided by Roy at the cat shelter. They go to his church.]

Whittier's deskJust inside the door on the left is the desk on which Whittier wrote his first poem and his last poem (but not Snowbound - that desk is in the Amesbury house). That book lying open on the desk is the guest book. When we signed in I noticed that the last visitors were on January 27. That's over a week ago. I guess this isn't exactly the tourist season. Anyway, the desk. The desk originally belonged to the poet's great-grandfather so it was already about a hundred years old when Whittier started writing his first schoolboy poems at it. The poet gave it to his niece when she got married. She had it shipped back to his cousins' place in Newburyport near the end of his life and that's how it came about that he wrote his last poem (and most of the poems of his last year) on that same desk. In one of his letters to his niece he mentions that he wrote his first antislavery pamphlet, "Justice and Expediency", on it. That's the pamphlet that got him his early fame.

another view of the fireplaceOn entering the kitchen my eyes went immediately to the fireplace. The kitchen is the biggest room in the house and the fireplace dominates the kitchen. It looks exactly as described in Snowbound complete with the basket of "nuts from brown October's wood" and the cider mug. The basket really is full of nuts gathered by the caretaker couple - although some of them have been stolen by invading squirrels. The mug is not full of cider. It's on a shelf to the left of the fireplace. I don't think I ever realized how big it was. This mug must hold ten times what one of my regular coffee mugs holds. They would simmer the cider on the hearth in the mug and pass it around to everybody to drink from.

At the end of the kitchen is the master bedroom, which is higher than the kitchen because it's built over a rock they couldn't move. The bedroom contains a bed, dresser, and mirror, and a small table in pretty close quarters. Whittier's boots stand on the floor next to the dresser and two of his coats are hung on the door.

To the left off the kitchen is a parlor with a spare bed that flips up and hangs off the wall when not in use. A bedspread or whatever you call it - a big woven cloth - with scenes of Whittier, California, the town that was named for him, was given to the trustees of the birthplace by some visitors from there. Our guide/docent bristled a bit at the mention of Whittier, CA's most famous son, Richard Nixon. I said something about his being in the sanguinary Quaker tradition of the Nantucket whalers and Nancy completely missed the Moby Dick reference (not like her, and it did dawn on her later).

From that parlor we went upstairs. The stairs are really steep. Only one room is open up there, a bedroom. There's a loom there like the one that Whittier's mother used, but not her actual loom. It looked to me a lot like the one Vince's wife has in Budapest. I think it's about the same vintage. It's one of these upstairs bedrooms where the snow drifts in through the chinks in the wall in Snowbound, and our guide says that's happened at least once since she's been there.

Back downstairs, the other room off the kitchen is the birthing room. The whale oil lamps in the birthing room got us into a discussion of beeswax and tallow candles (which smell terrible), which reminded me of the butter lamps so I had to say I just got back from Tibet and they light the temples with yak butter, which smells rancid and made me sick. I was less graphic in my description of the butter lamp sickness than in my account of the Jokhang Temple. The whale oil lamps also reminded me that New Bedford was once the center of the universe but I won't get onto the New Bedford track right now. Anyway, other cool things in the birthing room were a small red blanket chest, samples of his mother's weaving, and some of the books that were in the house when he was growing up. Best of all was a small book of Robert Burns poems given to him by his schoolmaster Joshua Coffin and carried with him all his life. He had it with him when he died. And out the window of the birthing room, I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos hopping around on the snow.

Whittier birthplace - barnThe barn is one of the same period that was moved here to replace the original barn, which burned down in the 1970's. It's across the street from the house. Of course the street wasn't paved then, but otherwise the layout is pretty much the same as described in Snowbound and shown in the photos in Samuel Pickard's guide book Whittier-Land.

The visit to the Whittier birthplace was extremely cool. I was hyped up afterwards.

The trip up to Plum Island might have been an anticlimax to such a day but there were highs yet to be had. The resident snow goose flock was browsing close to shore at Joppa Flats so Nancy finally got to see them up close. Snow geese are favorites of hers. Then, on the refuge near parking lot one, a short-eared owl was putting on a spectacular show. It flew back and forth across the road, swooped low over the dunes then low over the marsh, perched on a sign, then perched on a tree... I got great views.

Nancy was having trouble seeing it. A guy in the parking lot offered her a look through his scope but she couldn't pick it up through that either. I got a tiny bit frustrated because I really really wanted to share the short-eared owl experience with her. Finally we got back in the nice warm car and drove a tiny bit south sort of following the owl. If flew very low right in front of us and perched on a tree close enough for Nancy to get a good look with the binoculars. We watched it survey the marsh from the tree, turning its head all around with incredible flexibility. (If I can't have a neck like a goldeneye that bends all the way backward, I want one like an owl that swivels.) I was happy.

Nice day. Whittier birthplace. Short-eared owl. Snow geese. What's not to like?


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Copyright © 2001, Janet I. Egan