Readers of Walking The Berkshires know that the landscape of the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills is often the inspiration but just as frequently a point of departure for what I write here. I have long been interested in the connections between land and people, and what the history of a place and its inhabitants can tell us about our place in the world today. While these are recurring themes in my writing, my interests are varied and the associations I draw may come from unexpected quarters.
Hence, this post: inspired by family history, personal observation of the natural world, thoughts of the Divine, and only connected by the thinnest of threads to these time-worn hills. My ancestors the Olmsteds were original settlers of the Connecticut Colony, and our branch of the family later removed to Norwalk and were original proprietors of Ridgefield at the foot of the highlands that rise to join the Litchfield Hills. The Olmsteds of interest here, however, left Connecticut after the Revolution and took to the sea, where as merchant captains and supercargos they plied the waves and for many decades were engaged in the China Trade.
These were not those wealthy merchants who filled such places as Salem, Massachusetts and Middletown, Connecticut with their fortunes and estates. The Olmsteds sailed from Philadelphia and New York in the service of some of the great merchants and counting houses of their time but were never independently wealthy. When two of them were lost at sea, their widows and orphans lived together with relatives and shared a single purse.
When my beloved great Aunt and family historian Margaret Ogden died at the age of 98, I accepted responsibility for a vast family archive. Ours is a family that finds it hard to part with anything, and this collection preserves the ephemera of more than two hundred years of Ogden and Olmsted history. Included with the treasures in these papers is, among other things, a letter written on 36th Congress stationary, purloined by my Gr-gr-grandfather William Nisbet Olmsted, shown here in a photograph from 1863, when he and the 7th New York Regiment were quartered in the House of Representatives at the outset of the Civil War. The photograph was taken in Hong Kong, when he was working in China in the service of American merchant and missionary D W Olyphant. He also appears seated at right in the photograph that accompanies the preceding paragraph.
What brought my nautical, merchant forebears to mind was not the romance of the Orient or the perusal of historic documents, but rather the experience of reading some of Rachael Carson's writings with the good folks over at Whorled Leaves where I am an occasional contributor. Carson was an extraordinary writer with a gift for making the natural world come vividly to life with marvelously descriptive prose. She saw no need to segregate science from literature and her observations of the marine world in particular are evocative and moving. If all you know of Carson is Silent Spring, then I commend to you her other three books and especially the collection of her writing called Lost Woods.
Carson described a night in Maine when the spring tides of the new moon brought luminous phosphorescence crashing to shore:
The surf was full of diamonds and emeralds, and was throwing them on the wet sand by the dozen...The individual sparks were so large - we'd see them glowing in the sand, or sometimes, caught in the in-and-out play of the water, just riding back and forth.
The image brought to mind night swimming in Buzzards Bay, where sometimes in August the act of plunging below the water creates such agitation among the algae that their bioluminescence is enough to see by. Sailors often remarked at the incredible trail of milky light creaming in their wake, as one of my Olmsted ancestors did on a voyage to Canton, China in 1843. 29 days out from Philadelphia on the brig Childe Harold, my Gr-gr-gr-great uncle Henry Morse Olmsted noted in his log:
'Those who go down to the sea in ships and do business upon the great waters, see the wonderful works of the Lord.' And truly we saw last night one of his wonderful works. It was a grand view of the phosphorescence of the Ocean. It surpassed anything of the kind I have ever seen. We all noticed when we went on deck after tea that the water was more luminous than we had yet seen it, but at 9 o'clock it suddenly became brilliant beyond the power of my pen to describe. The vessel was going thro' the water at abt 4 knots and as she broke thru' the sea, one blaze of silver light lit up her forward sails so much that one could almost see to read. The wake was a straight path of light in the midst of the dark waves. As far as the eye could reach, around for miles, every crest of a ware gave forth that same, clear, lovely light. All were on deck admiring it. Little Fanny was awakened from her sleep to see the Ocean on fire.
...About 2 o'clock in the morning I was called...to see a school of porpoises along side. The phosphorescence still continued. The motion of the fish thru' the water was shown by streaks of fire, their forms as distinct as at mid-day. I thot of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner -'About, about, in reel and rout / The death fires dance at night/ The water like a witch's oils/ Burnt green and blue and white.'
It is a remarkable description by a literate observer who was witness to fantastic events, for all he was prone to seasickness and far from home. I myself have sailed a dogwatch under the Perseids, watching them plunge in colored trails of glory, and saw the Aurora dip South one spring to cloak the sky in Eldrich light. I have heard my tenor note reverberate from apse to nave in Canterbury Cathedral in seamless harmony with a dozen voices. Rachael Carson dipped her hands to scoop liquid fire from the foaming shore, and Henry Olmsted saw the wonderful works of the Lord in the bioluminescence dancing on the face of the Ocean.