It probably started the day my husband put the fourth bird feeder in the back yard. Or maybe it was the day we purchased Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America. Our twenty-something daughter politely informed us that we had crossed the threshold into our golden years. Undaunted, my husband faithfully started filling the feeders, and I was determined to identify and document every species of bird that graced our garden perches. We contentedly enjoyed our newfound pastime of watching our feathered friends while sharing a cup of coffee in our breakfast nook.
Fast forward to last October when the two of us participated in our first Indiana Humanities Next Indiana Campfire. We signed up for a late afternoon hike in the Loblolly Marsh, former haunt of Gene Stratton-Porter and her beloved character, Elnora of Limberlost fame. I was eager to join the group tour of Limberlost Cabin before the main event. Prior to the Campfire, I had never known much about Gene Stratton-Porter. In preparation for the outing, I devoured A Girl of the Limberlost. Elnora’s world came alive as I stood in the actual dining room of the autobiographical Bird Woman.
As I began to learn more about this Hoosier icon, I marveled as I realized she was an early “power woman.” What was there that this turn-of-the-century maverick could not do? Who else would think to develop photographs in the bathtub of a makeshift dark room? This painter, musician, photographer, author and naturalist was the ultimate Hoosier Renaissance woman, who independently accrued a wealth seemingly unheard of nowadays. Here was a woman adventurous enough to tackle the world of the swamps and marshes alone, and yet vulnerable enough to admit that she needed to tote a firearm in case she encountered a snake due to her intense fear of reptiles.
My favorite story about her was the one our guide shared about a time that Gene was entertaining guests on her expansive front porch. She jumped up and yelled for her husband to grab the butterfly nets because she’d spied a species of moth that she did not have in her collection. Guests were momentarily forgotten, as she charged away in pursuit of her greatest love – an encounter with nature firsthand.
My husband and I were fascinated with Gene’s propensity to blur the lines of her living space by welcoming nature into her world. Her uniquely crafted stone fence had openings to welcome squirrels, rabbits and other small animals into her yard. We were especially enamored with her conservatory. Golden sunlight streamed through a myriad of tiny windowpanes, illuminating a variety of potted greenery. The docent regaled us with tales of how Ms. Stratton-Porter would sometimes open tiny windows near the top to welcome birds into her home. She simply closed specially designed glass pocket doors, and once again tiny forest creatures were welcomed into her domain, this time of the feathered variety.
After our tour of Limberlost Cabin, we headed out to the world of Ms. Stratton-Porter’s conquest and the setting to so many of her literary works – Loblolly Marsh. We drank in the sights and sounds of nature alive all around us. We listened to “A Limberlost Invitation” and shared her joy in her “swamp in its glory.” We marveled at the thought that this land, once overtaken and drained in the name of “progress,” was now being reclaimed and restored to its natural state.
In the following weeks after the return home to our own suburban Limberlost, my husband and I couldn’t forget how Gene had invited nature into her human world. We were already welcoming birds to our yard, but we couldn’t get over the inviting cheeriness of her sun-filled conservatory. We began to think about how we could convert our own morning coffee sanctuary into a twenty-first-century version of the same.
What began as a tiny idea that hatched from being a participant in an Indiana Humanities Next Indiana Campfire has come to fruition. Over the last six months, we have been transforming a formerly austere breakfast nook into a vibrant room full of oxygen-producing greenery and cheer. When it’s warm, we open the windows and can hear the echoes of another Stratton-Porter work, The Song of the Cardinal. Thank you, Gene, for crossing the divide of history to make our day-to-day, mundane postmodern existence a little brighter.
So, excuse me if you stop in to share your day with me over a cup of tea, and a new species I’ve never seen appears at the feeders. I might jump out of my seat like a kangaroo on caffeine to grab the bird book. I’ll join you as soon as I’ve documented the date and time that my latest encounter with nature was once again welcomed into our little suburban sanctuary. I know Ms. Stratton-Porter would be right on my heels.
“To my way of thinking and working, the greatest service a piece of fiction can do any reader is to leave him with a higher ideal of life than he had when he began. If in one small degree it shows him where he can be…gentler, saner, cleaner, kindlier…it is a wonder-working book. If it opens his eyes to one beauty in nature he never saw for himself and leads him one step toward the God of the Universe, it is a beneficial book…”
― Gene Stratton-Porter
Next Indiana Campfires pairs nature and literature to ignite conversations about Indiana’s future. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities.
This post was written by Audrey Fetters, a classroom teacher from Huntington, Ind., who attended our Next Indiana Campfire at Limberlost State Historic Site and Loblolly Marsh last October. Join us for one of our upcoming outdoor adventures in 2017. We’ll be trekking through Fall Creek Woods in July, paddling the Eagle Creek Reservoir in August and hiking the Tom and Jane Dustin Nature Preserve in October.