Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Jack in the Pulpit preaches today

Jack in the Pulpits and mushroom hunters have emerged in woodlands this week, a sure sign that spring is nearing the tipping point from early to late.

I visited with a few of the hunters late yesterday afternoon, thrashing around with sticks and carrying plastic bags, but didn't photograph any --- they're a mildly suspicious and somewhat territorial species, fearful that strangers will discover their most productive hunting grounds, or that others have found spots more productive than theirs.

I had the hilltops where the Jacks grow all to myself, however, so felt free to sing along with the soundtrack in my head --- the old songbook version of Carrie Smith's 1856 poem:

Jack in the pulpit
Preaches today,
Under the green trees
Just over the way.
Squirrel and song-sparrow,
High on their perch,
Hear the sweet lily-bells
Ringing to church.
Come, hear what his reverence
Rises to say,
In his low painted pulpit
This calm Sabbath-day.
Fair is the canopy
Over him seen,
Penciled by Nature’s hand,
Black, brown, and green.
Green is his surplice,
Green are his bands;
In his queer little pulpit
The little priest stands.

It's easy to see where Jack (Arisaema triphyllum) got his nickname. The plant's spathe, looking like an old-fashioned elevated pulpit with sounding board atop it, wraps around the spadix (Jack, the preacher), which is covered by tiny flowers. Come fall, you'll be able to recognize Jack by the cluster of bright red berries he'll produce (it's not a good idea to eat them).


I wrote about Jack in the Pulpits several years ago, and got into a mild argument then about the authorship of Carrie's poem --- familiar to me and perhaps a few others mostly because an abbreviated version of it, set to a familiar melody, was published a song book used widely by country school teachers early in the 20th century, including my mother and my aunts. So I learned the song at my mother's knee, more or less. If you were here, I'd hum a few bars.

The disagreement came about because the poem --- which actually is very, very long --- sometimes is attributed to Quaker poet and noted abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. But here's what really happened, according to an article in a 1916 edition of the Medford (Massachusetts) Historical Register.

Caroline "Carrie" Smith, born 1840 in Medford, wrote the original version of the poem at age 16. She showed it to the wife of Medford's Congregational preacher, E.P. Marvin, who in turn shared it with her husband. It was he who submitted the work to the Boston Recorder, where it was published anonymously in 1856 --- it would have been unseemly for a genteel young lady of that time to have her name associated in print with such a thing.

The poem then was republished in Gleason's Monthly Companion and a variety of other periodicals popular at the time in New England, but always anonymously.

About 1870, an acquaintance sent a hand-written transcript of the poem to Whittier --- then editing for publication an anthology of poetry called Child Life. Whittier, assuming his acquaintance had written it himself, edited the poem, rewriting it substantially. He then published it in Child Life in 1871, attributing it to an anonymous author.

Friends of Carrie, however, recognized the work as hers upon buying what became a very popular little book, and wrote to Whittier.

He explained how the poem had come to hand and acknowledged that he had corrected "defective" lines by rewriting and amplifying them, then published it.

When the poem was republished in the second edition of Child Life, Whittier attempted to give Carrie credit for the poem --- but misspelled her name as "Clara" Smith.

Finally, in 1884, Whittier issued the poem alone in illustrated booklet form --- and this time he got the attribution correct. Carrie Smith died five years later.


Although the earliest spring ephemerals have vanished by now, including most of the Dutchman's Breeches, there's still plenty to see in the woods.

The first of the Sweet Williams (Phlox divaricata, also known as blue phlox and woodland phlox) are blooming now.

Slender Toothwort shows up along the woodland trails.

And yellow violets, as well as the more common blue and white, are blooming in the grass.

No comments: