Sarah Orne Jewett and the First Salt Wind from the East

The hurry of life in a large town, the constant putting aside of preference to yield to a most unsatisfactory activity, began to vex me, and one day I took the train, and only left it for the eastward-bound boat. Carlyle says somewhere that the only happiness a man ought to ask for is happiness enough to get his work done; and against this the complexity and futile ingenuity of social life seems a conspiracy. But the first salt wind from the east, the first sight of a lighthouse set boldly on its outer rock, the flash of a gull, the waiting procession of seaward-bound firs on an island, made me feel solid and definite again, instead of a poor, incoherent being. Life was resumed, and anxious living blew away as if it had not been. I could not breathe deep enough or long enough. It was a return to happiness.

This passage is from Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella that gently conjures a vision of the women and men living along late-19th-century coastal Maine. The story’s narrator is a young woman writer who has come on summer leave to the village of Dunnet Landing, among the pointed firs hemming in Maine’s rocky shore. She takes us on a friendly saunter through the summer months of Dunnet and its nearby regions, hurrying at no moment past the simple joys of good-hearted companions and rugged beauty. The narrator’s host and the main character of the book, Mrs. Todd, is an aging widow—an uncomplicated, no-nonsense, but ebullient and caring woman who was as passionate about growing and collecting medicinal herbs as she was about the family and neighbors with whom she shared her cures.

Sometimes I saw a pale young creature like a white windflower left over into midsummer, upon whose face consumption had set its bright and wistful mark; but oftener two stout, hard-worked women from the farms came together, and detailed their symptoms to Mrs. Todd in loud and cheerful voices, combining the satisfactions of a friendly gossip with the medical opportunity. They seemed to give much from their own store of therapeutic learning. I became aware of the school in which my landlady had strengthened her natural gift; but hers was always the governing mind, and the final command, “Take of hy’sop one handful” (or whatever herb it was), was received in respectful silence. One afternoon, when I had listened,—it was impossible not to listen, with cottonless ears,—and then laughed and listened again, with an idle pen in my hand, during a particularly spirited and personal conversation, I reached for my hat, and, taking blotting-book and all under my arm, I resolutely fled further temptation, and walked out past the fragrant green garden and up the dusty road.

Some of the best passages in the book are descriptions of landscapes and people. Although presented with the detachment of an outsider’s gaze, they are suffused with delight and tenderness so genuine and deep as to pass with force to the reader. The passages quoted here can offer only a hint.

Among the fascinating details of 19th-century country life woven into the narrative is the herbalist profession of Mrs. Todd. Several scenes in the book take us around her herb lush, extensive herb garden, on hunts in nearby fields for her favorite pennyroyal, and into view of the collegial overlap between her practice and that of the local medical doctor. The passages have inspired several visits to the University of Washington’s venerable and extensive medicinal herb garden, which was established only a few years after Pointed Fir was written. Many of the herbs mentioned in the book are grown there, including pennyroyal—which has enchanted me as well with the delicious aroma of its leaves, a pungent and sweet menthol scent wedding the best of mint and catnip. At about the same time, I discovered Maud Grieve‘s wonderful A Modern Herbal, a beefy tome published in 1931 combining rich historical anecdote, modest medical information, and helpful tips for cultivation and use for a vast number of herbs.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is available as a free free ebook from Project Gutenberg.

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