6. The Homestead: Oak Tree

A photograph depicts a lawn and two-story yellow house on a sunny, autumn day. Fallen leaves are scattered over the lawn, and a woman carries a bag of downed leaves and branches. In the mid-ground is giant, spreading oak with dark orange leaves.

The majestic tree in front of you, planted by the Dickinsons, is a white oak. Look at the way the branches reach out horizontally. This is an identifying growth habit of white oaks. The bark of this mature white oak has characteristic silvery patches, like a man's graying beard.    


White oaks are native across Massachusetts. Austin Dickinson brought trees from local woods to the grounds, so it is possible that this is one of his “wild-collected” trees. An 1878 catalog for the nursery at the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts) also shows white oak saplings for sale.


In 1938, a huge hurricane tore up the Connecticut River Valley from the Atlantic. More than 100 trees came down on the Homestead and The Evergreens properties. This white oak is one of the few trees to have survived the storm.


This tree intrigues us for several reasons. Its widespread branches suggest Emily Dickinson’s fame, grown quite far-reaching since her death in 1886 and the posthumous publication of her poems. The tree’s shadows during the day remind us that certain points of Dickinson’s life were difficult for her, especially after the loss of her father in 1874 and her mother’s debilitating stroke one year later.   


Emily sometimes seemed to be a shadow herself, becoming increasingly reclusive as she grew older.  Although she kept close to home, Dickinson’s emotional and intellectual world was not small at all. 


I do not go away, but the Grounds are ample - almost travel - to me. (L735)


Through her poetry she expressed an exceptional understanding of the world’s complexity. Her poetic clarity gives depth to everyday things, like the long shadow that a tree casts in winter.  

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[Following are two poems about light and shadow]


Presentiment - is that long shadow - on the Lawn -

Indicative that Suns go down -


The notice to the startled Grass

That Darkness - is about to pass -


(F487)


There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons -

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes -


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us -

We can find no scar,

But internal difference -

Where the Meanings, are -


None may teach it - Any -

'Tis the Seal Despair -

An imperial afflication

Sent us of the Air -


When it comes, the Landscape listens -

Shadows - hold their breath -

When it goes, 'tis like the Distance

On the look of Death -


(F320)

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