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Looking: A Good Way to See

bee balm seed head
ckavassalis | Pixabay
By Susan Hand Shetterly

 I am sitting at my kitchen table with a fine-tipped Sharpie in hand, trying to conjure onto a sheet of paper the stalk and dry seed head of a bee-balm flower that I’ve set in a canning jar. It’s not easy. My first try looked somewhat like Oscar the Grouch from behind. The more I look at the seed head, the more I notice its detail, and the more complicated and astonishing this ordinary summer leftover becomes.

It’s likely I wouldn’t be doing this if the coronavirus hadn’t turned me into a full-time hermit and if I hadn’t recently come across two books highlighting Kate Furbish’s exquisite watercolors of Maine wildflowers. She saw detail that my eyes have always blurred. Now, I want to see if I can see as she does. 

I have been taken by Furbish’s grit and passion as well. Although in photographs she looks like a strait-laced, sober woman of her Victorian times, the time she spent with her books and wildflowers among Maine’s woods, lakes, and riverbanks seems to have kept her in a constant state of exhilaration. “Called ‘crazy,’ a ‘fool’ . . . this is the way that my work has been done,” she wrote, “the flowers being my only society and the manuals the only literature for months together. Happy, happy hours!”

On these winter days, missing my children and friends, I spend time with a part of the wild world up close.

I’m on to the seed head of a swamp milkweed I grew last summer. I find that shadow and light and the differences in surfaces have everything to do with the illusion of making it seem real on paper. The job is to get a two-dimensional leaf to look as if it’s turning at the tip, so that you can see its underside, and to make a stalk look like more than two parallel lines down the page. The chaotic fluff of the milkweed, the closely packed arrangement of the seeds is especially difficult, and so is the way the seeds tuck so neatly into the belly of the dry pod.

Kate Furbish had been, to paraphrase Jane Austen, a young woman of few prospects. Like Austen, she never married, but was sustained by the attentions and finances of her middle-class family. In the 18th and 19th centuries, so many women like Furbish and Austen kept to the edges of family life, dim shadows at the hearth. But some didn’t. Some were brave, talented, and fierce. 

Furbish’s watercolors shine with precision in both structure and color. My favorites are her rendering of red maple flowers and her delicate portrait of bloodroot. I’m struggling now with a small branch I snipped from my crab-apple tree, with its torqued shape, its tight shields of leaf and flower buds that will burst open come spring. On these winter days, missing my children and friends, I spend time with a part of the wild world up close, full of chiaroscuro edges and rough textures.

Thomas Gray, in his great elegy, wrote, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” My guess is that Furbish would take issue with this. I think she’d say that flowers aren’t wasted because their value is not certified by the human gaze. A bee’s attention is enough. Whether we notice or not, we’re surrounded by gorgeous, valiant adaptations to living. Austen and Furbish knew how to see: one into the hearts and follies of her neighbors, the other into the stems and leaves, roots and blooms of Maine wildflowers. They wasted nothing. I bet they rarely blushed. Instead, they took by the throat the time that was given them and made it sing.