A SOMEWHAT BELATED WEDDING PRESENT
When we were first married many, many, many years ago, my husband Courtney and I were driving back to our teaching jobs in Connecticut, and as we drove through Indiana, I saw on the map that we were only a few miles from the Limberlost Swamp, the location of one of my favorite books, A Girl of the Limberlost.
It’s the story of a young girl, Elnora, and her awful mother who live in the Limberlost, a swamp full of old-growth hardwood trees, birds, butterflies, rattlesnakes, and quicksand. Elnora wants to go to school, but her mother refuses to pay for the necessary books and clothes, so Elnora earns her way by collecting butterflies and moths for a naturalist, and then she meets this guy who’s been sent there for his health (in spite of the rattlers and the quicksand, I guess), and they…anyway, I loved this book when I was a teenager, and what I remembered most about it was the beauty of the Limberlost. So when I saw it on the map on that wedding trip, I desperately wanted to go see it.
But we didn’t have time then to take even a short detour. I’d always regretted our not going, and when I realized that by being in Chicago for the Nebulas, we were only four hours away from it, my husband offered to take me there. “Consider it a belated wedding present,” he said.
It was quite an impressive wedding present, especially considering he had to deal with Chicago rush hour both ways and the Limberlost no longer exists. “You drove eight hours to see a swamp that isn’t there?” Nancy Kress said when we told her about it.
Yes, but Gene Stratton Porter’s house is still there, and her moth-and-butterfly collection and the conservatory Freckles stood in the night he came to deliver the message to the Swamp Angel and the actual photos the Bird Woman took of the baby vulture and her books, including a copy of the same edition of A Girl of the Limberlost that I read when I was fifteen (the one with the irises on the cover.)
A Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles were both international bestsellers, A Girl of the Limberlost was the first book to be translated into Arabic, and Teddy Roosevelt wrote Porter a letter to tell her the book was so realistic that “I’m sitting here by the fire, and I got my feet wet.”
But Gene Stratton Porter was even more of a naturalist than she was a novelist. The reason she wrote A Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles and Laddie: A True Blue Story in the first place was to offset the expense of her nature books like Moths and Butterflies of the Limberlost and Homing with the Birds, which were full of photographic plates and therefore very expensive to publish, and was one of the foremost female naturalists of the early twentieth century.
She took all her own photos, sometimes lying in the swamp for hours while things crawled over her and wasps stung her, trying to capture a bird or butterfly on the primitive film equipment of the time, which took forever to take a picture. At one point, a representative from Kodak came to her front door to ask her how she was able to get such good pictures out of their cameras. She was ashamed to tell them she developed them in her bathtub and rinsed them on turkey platters.
The Limberlost, a wetlands filled with old-growth hardwood trees worth a fortune to loggers and thousands of rare bird, butterfly, and moth species, was in the process of being destroyed even as she documented it–first by loggers (which is what her novel Freckles is about) and then by companies drilling for oil and gas, and now it’s all cornfields, although thanks to her, parts of the wetlands are in the process of being restored.
For now, though, you can tour the visitors’ center, the garden, and the house which Gene Stratton Porter designed herself. It’s done in a style somewhere between late Victorian and early Arts-and-Crafts, and it’s open and airy, with big windows everywhere. You can see the writing desk with its typewriter, where she worked, and the aforementioned conservatory, where she kept the oriole she’d raised from a baby and dozens of other birds. Her moth and butterfly collection is there, including the beautiful pale-green Luna moth and the rare yellow Empress moths she immortalized in A Girl of the Limberlost, and you can see the sitting room porch she stood on one magic night.
She had been sleeping in the sitting room–it was a very hot night–and she woke up and went out on the little porch in her white nightgown, stopping first to move a moth from the inside of the screen door so it wouldn’t get out when she opened the door. As she did, holding it on her finger to transfer it gently to the window screen, it sprayed her with pheromones.
She put the moth down and went outside. The moon was full, the two apple trees beyond the porch were in bloom, and there was a carnival uptown, its bright lights attracting every moth for miles, and as she stood there in the moonlight, all dressed in white, hundreds of them converged on her, landing on the porch railings, her hair, her shoulders, her arms, her nightdress.
Most people would have frantically swiped at their hair and bodies, trying to get them off, but not Porter. For her, it was a magical moment of transcendent beauty she remembered for the rest of her life.
That incident is in A Girl of the Limberlost, and so is Porter’s first disastrous attempt to collect moths, only to have them eaten by the insects in the moss she used for mounting, the effort to take the vulture chick photos is in Freckles, and all her novels are full of actual events of her life, including more horrific events.
When she was six, her beloved brother Leander, the only person in her large, overburdened family who paid any attention to her, drowned in the Wabash River–right in front of her. He had dived in to save a friend who couldn’t swim, and Gene Stratton Porter was holding his boots, clutching them to her chest, when he died, and the loss (and all its accompanying complicated emotions) echo through all her work, from Laddie to A Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles.
As a writer, I was entranced by all this–her life and her house and her problems with juggling family and writing and dealing with publishers (they made her change the ending to Freckles, to her everlasting regret.)
But Courtney loved it, too, and fell in love with the big old house, with its naturally stained woodworking and doors that could be slid back to open up the entire house, and the surrounding towns, especially as we drove through them in the late summer evening, looking at the turn-of-the-century houses. He also loved the fact that he was finally seeing the Wabash River, and spent a lot of the trip singing, “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash. From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay.”
There was a breath of new-mown hay from the fields around Geneva (it’s a Mennonite community), and the scent of roses and irises and peonies, and the countryside was lovely. The only disappointment of the entire trip was that we were too early in the year for fireflies. According to the locals, they don’t appear until around the Fourth of July.
Otherwise, it was a perfect wedding present, late or soon. Thank you, Courtney!
NOTE: I adored A Girl of the Limberlost when I read it as a teenager. When I read it again a few years ago, it seemed overly-sentimental and given to the linguistic flourishes and sometimes impenetrable prose of girls’ books of the time, so it may not appeal to modern readers like it did to me. But it still told an exciting story, and Porter’s heroines are courageous, determined, plain-spoken, and very likeable. And the descriptions of the swamp are indelibly vivid.
I’d never read Freckles, so I read it specifically for the trip, and it was great, too. I think she was probably right about her original ending being better (especially since the new one seems tacked-on and wildly improbable), but on the other hand, it would probably have been too much for the readers to take. (It broke my cardinal “Don’t kill the dog” rule. Even if the dog is a human being.) But I’d definitely recommend both books to modern readers, even though it might be a bit of a slog. But then again, it is a swamp!
NOTE: We didn’t sing “On the Banks of the Wabash” the entire time. On our way there, we passed Gary, Indiana, which led to lots of “Gary Indiana, that’s the town that knew me when” and other songs from The Music Man.
We also passed LaPorte, Indiana, where we’d spent a memorable (not in a good way) night on that long-ago wedding trip. We’d been unable to find a place to stay in Chicago (this was in the days before Holiday Inn Express and making reservations online), and we ended up at midnight passing motel after motel whose “No Vacancy” signs were lit up.
A toll booth guy finally suggested we try the hotel in downtown LaPorte, and we did. It was…interesting. The lobby was full of sleeping-it-off drunks, Hemingway was typing his novel somewhere down the hall, the transom wouldn’t shut, the door from the bathroom to the room next to ours wouldn’t lock, and the bed was constructed in such a way that you could choose between sleeping on the very edge and falling off or, rolling to the middle and being smothered by the very old mattress and probably bedbug-filled mattress.
On the other hand, we got a great story out of it, which we’ve been telling for the last forty-seven years!
Some Limberlost Links: