Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Who Was Emma Cummings?

From Dave Brigham:

Tucked into a small planting group next to an incredibly busy and occasionally dangerous rotary -- there was an accident there just before I arrived to shoot this photo -- is this tasteful monument. When I'd spotted the stone a few days prior, I assumed it marked the former locale of a historic home or battle scene (did the Revolutionary War spill blood in Brookline, Mass.?).

Directly, the marker tells anyone who happens to walk by -- unfortunately that's a small number on this bustling roadway -- that Emma G. Cummings was a member of Brookline's tree planting committee from 1902 to 1939. Indirectly, the stone announces to the world that Ms. Cummings was so well-regarded that her fellow horticultural enthusiasts decided to hew their admiration for her into the living rock, as Spinal Tap would say.

So who was Emma Cummings?

Well, she was a world traveler, public speaker and technology enthusiast, for starters.

"March 30, Miss Emma Cummings, one of our members, gave a very interesting talk on the Hawaiian Islands, which she had recently visited. A novel experiment at the Devotion Bouse (sic -- should be "Devotion House") was made with the stereopticon, which was a great success. A number of beautiful pictures were shown and a most interesting talk was given by Miss Cummings. The room was filled and it was a most entertaining evening. " -- PROCEEDINGS OF THE BROOKLINE HISTORICAL SOCIETY AT THE ANNUAL MEETING, JANUARY 30, 1923 BROOKLINE, MASS.

Emma Cummings was also an author.

In 1901, she published The Trees of Our Neighborhood, a lecture she delivered before the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Her talk focused on, as you probably guessed, the trees of Brookline. "As I have long been interested in the study of trees," Ms. Cummings starts her lecture/book, "I determined a few years ago to make a more intimate acquaintance with them, especially with the trees growing in this vicinity."

Sounds like my kind of lady. Want to know about something in the natural world around you? Take a walk and find out.

She tells a funny story about wandering through the woods with a friend and coming across a police officer keeping lookie-loos (my word, but I suspect Ms. Cummings may have enjoyed that epithet) from ogling folks at the horse races at the Brookline Country Club. They convince the officer they simply want to catalog trees in the area, and so he escorts them through the grounds. Rather than being impressed with the society types arriving for the "May Meetings," Ms. Cummings is more interested in reporting that "we saw a Cut-Leaved Beech, the first that we had noticed in Brookline."

She also mentions traveling in Spain in the course of her dissertation on the many trees in Brookline that are native to the eastern United States (Maples, Oaks, Black Walnuts), as well as others that originate in other regions of the country (Magnolias, Locusts, Red Mulberries), and brought over from Europe (willows), Japan, China and Persia (now Iran).

Ms. Cummings also co-authored a book called Baby bird finder with Harriet E. Richards.

She was evidently quite the researcher. In The Trees of Our Neighborhood, she waxes poetic about "the Kentucky Coffee tree, the American Crabapple (Pyrus coronaria), interesting for its beautiful fragrant flowers, and the fact that it comes into blossom ten or twelve days after all the other apples have shed their petals, yet it is less frequently planted than the Japanese varieties, the Ash-leaved maple, Osage-orange, which is used in the West and South quite extensively for hedges, and some of the Oaks."

The lady knew her stuff.

But what else do we know about Emma Cummings?

Not much, unfortunately, beyond a confusing reference to photography and a private girls' school in Brookline. According to the 2001 Annual Report of the Town Officers of Brookline, Emma Cummings was the founder and first headmistress of the Brimmer School. Founded in 1887, the school merged with the May School in 1939, and has since been known as Brimmer & May. The town report also cited our horticulturist and author as the photographer and one-time owner of 250 lantern slides.

Given that lantern slides were another cool photo technology like the stereopticon, I'm guessing that Emma Cummings did indeed once own them and may even have produced them. The report states that the slides came from the Brimmer & May School. Here's the problem, though: Wikipedia, in its entry about the private school, states that while a woman named Cummings was at one time the Brimmer headmistress, her name was Mabel Homer Cummings. So either Emma had multiple personalities, or she was related to Mabel in some way, and a mix-up occurred in the writing of the report.

Regardless, Emma Cummings was a woman of curiosity and tenacity (she walked the entirety of Brookline documenting trees, after all); prodigious talents for researching and retaining information, as well as writing about it; and obviously someone with the means to travel to different countries and spend a lot of time on walkabout.

Above all, perhaps, Emma Cummings was a poet, although I have no idea if she wrote poetry. She had a mind for beauty, a thirst for knowledge, a curiosity for the natural world in her midst. I will finish this post with the words she uses to begin the final paragraph of The Trees of Our Neighborhood:

"Who that has seen in the Spring the scarlet flowers and fruit of the red maple, the delicate drooping clusters of the sugar maple, the snowy whiteness of the fruit trees, set off by the delicacy and richness of the tints of young leaves of the birches, beeches, oaks, and others—who, I ask, that has seen them, can willingly spend these days in a city?"

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