The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius (1982) is a picture book sure to charm gardeners and artists who enjoy reading to children or grandchildren. There is a vicarious pleasure in lingering over Cooney’s illustrations of an eccentric, middle-aged heroine, Miss Rumphius, hiking with her cat along fields brimming with spires of the pink, purple and blue lupine flowers whose seeds she has sown. A childhood admonition from her grandfather, which Miss Rumphius remembers throughout her life, holds wisdom that a gardener may readily affirm: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
Casting lupine seeds here and there throughout her seaside town is Miss Rumphius’ gift of beauty. As the years pass by, the “lupine lady,” as she becomes known in old age, lives in a cabin overlooking the ocean and tells her story to the next generation of self-aware and environmentally conscious children. They learn that she was the grandchild of an immigrant artist who charged her with aesthetic responsibility. They learn, too, that her grandfather supported her education and accepted her desire to see the world at a time when women’s options were often limited to the domestic sphere.
Readers may sense that the unconventional biography of Miss Rumphius is too idiosyncratic not to be based in real life. The fictional character is, in fact, modeled on a woman named Hilda Edwards Hamlin, who in 1904 immigrated to coastal Maine from England. Unlike Miss Rumphius, Hilda married and had children, but separated from her husband in 1926. Like Miss Rumphius, Hamlin pursued a scholarly career and traveled widely. She eventually settled into long walks and gardening near her cabin in Christmas Cove, on Maine’s Damariscotta River, not far from where the author Barbara Cooney lived. Both women were Smith College alumna, although Cooney was a generation younger than Hamlin. One of Hamlin’s sons, Wilfred Hamlin, inherited his mother’s artistic and scholarly interests and came to study at Black Mountain College in the early 1940s.
Hilda Hamlin at first imported her lupine seeds (Lupinus polyphyllus, the “garden lupine”) from her native England. As the plant is native to North America, she likely purchased the seeds bred by George Russell, a British horticulturist whose tireless cultivation of Lupinus polyphyllus over the first half of the twentieth century gave him international fame and made his lupines a sought-after plant. Hamlin probably started out with later versions of Russell’s original hybrids—sensational plants with densely packed clusters of red, yellow and orange blossoms. As she preserved seeds from the mature plants and scattered them throughout the countryside, the showy hybrids must eventually have reverted to the loosely clustered flowers of subtle blues and purples that have naturalized along the Atlantic coast.
Lupines were originally introduced into various locales not for their beauty, but because their nitrogen-fixing properties strengthen soil. (In some areas today, they are considered invasive.) The summer lupine display to which Hilda Hamlin contributed began in the 1950s, when she was in her sixties. As she lived well into her nineties and was known to have scattered seeds in old age, it is fair to say that the real “lupine lady” fulfilled her promise to make the world a more beautiful place.
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College.