After years of saying, “We should tour the Gene Stratton-Porter homes,” we finally visited two historic sites in the northeast corner of our state last week. We went to Rome City and Geneva to tour homes inhabited by Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th century author/conservationist/nature photographer.
You can be forgiven for not knowing her name, though she was beloved by our grandparents’ generation for her romance novels set against the backdrop of a disappearing wilderness. Even most Indiana residents are unfamiliar with the work of our state’s most widely read female author of all time. But in her day, she was embraced by enthusiastic fans all over the world.
Stratton-Porter married a well-to-do businessman who must have been a brave man to wed such an independent-minded woman. She “shed social conventions like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon,” to quote a book I’m reading about something completely different.
Hubby didn’t want her to explore the vast Limberlost Swamp, though they lived right on the edge of this intriguing wilderness. At that time the marshland (later to be drained for farming and drilled for oil) was dangerous uncharted territory—teeming with Massasauga rattlesnakes, boggy muck, swarms of insects, and the occasional unsavory character.
But Stratton-Porter’s love of the natural world compelled her, and in the end her husband relented, accompanying her on expeditions to photograph wildlife and collect specimens.
Her best-known book A Girl of the Limberlost, among others both fiction and nonfiction, brought this place to life for people worldwide. One of our guides told us that she’d worked out a deal with her publisher: I will write you a crowd-pleasing story as you require (heavy on nature details), and then I will write a nature book of my own choosing. Rinse. Repeat.
We learned that she wore what was considered mannish clothing, that she served her husband dandelion and horseradish stew with hambone (he dubbed it “fodder”), that she organized a bucket brigade the night her husband’s businesses were threatened by fire while he was away. This woman was, in modern parlance, fierce.
I went on this trip mildly interested in her as a part of Indiana’s literary history, having read A Girl of the Limberlost sometime back. But I came away as full-on fangirl. I jokingly told a friend that my new philosophy should be “What would GSP do?” (except for the ironic not-driving thing—apparently she was afraid to drive, and in fact was killed in a car wreck at age 61).
So, what would she do?
- She’d hyphenate her name as her nom de plume, well before the time when women commonly retained their family names.
- She’d drop out of high school, but attend Chautauqua meetings for her own edification.
- She’d monitor all the bird nests on her family’s farm as a child, honing her powers of observation and her connection to wild creatures.
- She’d teach herself photography, developing early box-camera pictures in a bathroom that she converted into a darkroom.
- She’d purchase a piece of land on a mile of lakefront, and design her own home, and supervise its construction, rowing across the lake every morning to check on the workmen. (Husband came on weekends.)
- She’d collect stones from her friends’ travels, from all then-48 states, and build a fireplace using them, creating images in the stonework’s artful placement.
- She’d sleep with cocoons, so as to be ready when the butterfly emerged. She’d live in a houseful of winged creatures. (Later, she would write of her realization that the only ethical way to interact with these creatures was in their native habitat, so presumably she no longer kept them indoors.)
- She’d be exacting in the execution of her creative vision. If a photograph didn’t come out right, she’d return as many times as it took to get the one she wanted. No matter how treacherous or buggy the territory might be.
- She’d carry on with her work even as literary critics and scientists alike dismissed her; she’d see herself as a defender of the places and animals she loved.
From What I Have Done with Birds:
“This is the basis of all my field work—a mute contract between woman and bird. In spirit I say to the birds, ‘Trust me and I will do by you as I would be done by … I shall not tear down your home and break your eggs or take your naked little ones from the nest before they are ready to go … I shall come in colors to which you are accustomed, and move slowly and softly about, not approaching you too near until your confidence in me is established. I shall be most careful to feed your young what you feed them; drive away snakes and squirrels, and protect you in every way possible to me. Trust me, and go on with your daily life. For what small disturbance is unavoidable among you, forgive me, and through it I shall try to win thousands to love and shield you.’”
I found loads more information on this fascinating figure in an Indiana Historian article. And of course we bought several books that I’m looking forward to diving into.