A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 322


Orchids good, slavery bad

By John Nolan

FARMINGTON ­– Before we all wish U.S. Vice President Henry Wilson a very happy 200th birthday – he was born in Farmington on Feb. 16, 1812 for any snoozers out there ­– I have an important matter to clear up; that of the extremely rare orchid, the Small Whorled Pogonia. It is in dire peril worldwide, and one of the last remaining outposts of this charming orchid is here in northern Strafford County. Moose Mountain Regional Greenways Save-the-Planet-wallahs were just prattling on about it earlier in the month.

Anyway, 20 years ago in this very column, I divulged the exact locations of several clumps of the stuff, right in Farmington. Inexplicably, though, I seem to have got the facts wrong because over the past two decades, nary a Small Whorled Pogonia has poked its head up out of the once infamous pothole, Hackett’s Crevasse, on River Road, nor out of the much maligned flower box that stood outside Dumontski’s Bar, right downtown, nor yet out of the sheltered arc formed by Royce’s Used Stoves and Freezers. My deep apologies go to anyone who has hung around any of these spots since 1991, hoping to pick one.

But, back to Henry! And Jeremiah, too, for that was the name Henry was christened in Farmington, and managed to switch later without any political fallout. Could you imagine the huffing and puffing nowadays if researchers suddenly discovered that an elected leader of the country had quietly changed his name, years before, from, say Barack Obama, to something more establishment like Clint Hudson? But all that’s by-the-by, and I only mention name-changing to prevent readership bewilderment in the song appended below.

This is the sixth and final revelation of a work for my June performance of Henry Wilson: The Musical, and this one’s called Slavery in New Hampshire. It briefly describes the early days of Jeremiah/Henry. I have set it, ironically, to the old Scottish farming song The Band of Shearers, should anyone know it. The original, although in a minor key, is fairly happy as Scottish songs go (nobody gets slain, and love is even mentioned), while the new version is intended to convey why Henry Wilson abhorred slavery his entire life. To help get the message over, the audience will be implored to join in the chorus with all the gusto and venom they can muster. Anyway, here’s the song:


Slavery in New Hampshire

(Tune: The Band of Shearers)


1. Jeremiah Colbath, ‘til he was twenty-one,

Toiled from early dawn to the setting of the sun,

Six days a week, but no wages won –

There’s slavery in New Hampshire.


Chorus  (chanted v. aggressively after each verse)


Hey you, Colbath! Fill this pail,

Stack yon wood and tote that bale!


2. Jeremiah’s parents they were desperately poor,

Hardship and hunger aye lingered at their door,

So they packed their son off to indenture,

That’s slavery in New Hampshire.


3. While boys his age were all in school,

Jeremiah worked like a poor pack mule,

Twelve hour days were the general rule,

With slavery in New Hampshire.


4. Time served, he got two oxen and half a dozen sheep,

But Jeremiah knew that his labor had come cheap,

Sixteen cents a week, in addition to his keep,

Cruel slavery in New Hampshire.


5. Name changed, he walked to Natick, left Farmington behind,

To learn the cobbler’s trade, Henry Wilson was inclined,

And though he was a free man it never left his mind,

His slavery in New Hampshire.


6. A few years on, down in Washington, D.C.,

Henry saw the slave pens, and human misery,

And vowed that he would fight to set all in bondage free,

End slavery in this country!


Now, let us return to where we started…rare orchids.

Remember in Farmington Corner a few weeks back, I wrote of an old friend from Glasgow and more recently of Morocco, Mad Danny, and mentioned his daughter, the renowned artist Siobhan Healy, who currently has work on display in the Glass Flower Gallery of the Harvard Museum of Natural History?

Siobhan has been described as someone who “explores the interface between the natural world and abstract images of plant biology…”

Some tweeting-blogging culture guru called Stuart Hepburn wrote that and more, just in case you think I’ve overdosed on esoteric pills. In this case, the natural world consists of the Ghost Orchid, which was thought to be extinct for over 20 years in Britain, but lo and behold, popped up a flowering stem in 2009 at a secret location in Wales, and got the whole botanical community in a paroxysm of excitement.

Inspired by this marvelous news, Siobhan created a work in clear glass called Ghost Orchids, which has now drawn international acclaim.

I’ll let her describe it, partly because it is nice to scoop Harvard (this isn’t on their wall poster) and partly to give you the sense that she will call actually a spade a spade, rather than some Hepburnesque phase like “a dynamic metallic interface between raw earth and a noble toiler’s pedal extremity.”

“As you can see,” says Siobhan, “the work is depicted in clear glass to give a feeling of the Ghost Orchid’s fragile and transient qualities.  The piece at Harvard Museum of Natural History depicts the Ghost Orchids in three settings; one is on a mossy knoll, to give a sense of how you might find them in the wild; there are three orchids contained in a glass dome to evoke the idea of the need for protection; and in the third setting they are depicted growing out of a herbarium, to reflect the fact that I have only ever see the Ghost Orchids as pressed specimens and am unlikely to ever see them growing in the wild, due to their extreme rarity.”



My wife, Stephanie, and I drove to Cambridge, Mass., and paid the Ghost Orchids homage, recently.

I was moved to think that the next time a real Ghost Orchid is spotted in a beech wood in Wales, or along the Chiltern Hills, Siobhan Healy should be allowed to gaze upon it, albeit that she is whisked to the location in great secrecy - for she has set us all a-thinking.

Meanwhile, back in northern Strafford County, I would love to glimpse a Small Whorled Pogonia in the wild, and perhaps some naturalist, acknowledging the gulf between satire and irresponsible blabbing, will give my phone a tinkle.

Small Whorled Pogonia orchids nudge up their rare stems in June. Siobhan Healy’s Ghost Orchids will depart from Harvard on March 4.



Feb. 12, 2012


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