Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst Mass, 1887


By Benjamin Goluboff

And it wouldn't do, he reminded himself,
to neglect the understory species:
Hop-hornbeam for its russet bark in winter,
Ironwood for its feel under the hand.

He could hear her making
childish music of the Latin names,
and even in his grief he felt
the old irritation at the childish voice:

Laevis laevis
ruber alba
Sassafras,
tripteris
Quercus macrocarpa
Caroliniana
All fall down
All fall down


Poor fool girl, dead since May.

In the time before Mabel,
1870-something,
Austin had served on the committee
to re-plant the Campus and the Common.
They'd brought in that Olmsted,
the fellow with the ghastly Connecticut vowels,
to install a design Austin was
pleased to think he had a corner in.
The hemlocks, he told a very few,
were a bug he'd put in the architect's ear.
And now in his grief,
he sought a comfort he had known then
in dreaming a design for trees.

Planting elms, he told a very few,
was merely trite in these late days.
The vogue for the Lombardy poplar
he considered depressingly middle-class.
Austin favored native trees of western affinity,
felt the Swamp white oak
had unguessed potential,
especially on soils poorly drained.

And so in milky winter light,
the first of the new year,
Austin made his list:
binomials grew on the page:
a column with a crack in it.

Mabel, along with others best nameless,
were making representations
about the poor girl’s papers.
They used alarming expressions
like “for the ages.” Austin smiled:
there was nothing in those papers
that would be more for the ages
than these trees. 


Benjamin Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College. Aside from a modest list of scholarly publications, he has placed imaginative work—poetry, fiction, and essays—in numerous small-press journals, most recently Literary Orphans, Kentucky Review, and War Literature and the Arts. Some of his work can be read at www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/