By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
After reading “Rural Hours,” Charles Darwin, of all people, mentioned Susan Fenimore Cooper in a letter to Asa Gray, perhaps the most important American botanist of the 19th Century.
Struck by her understanding of the “battle” between Old and New World weeds, he asked, “Who is she?”
Nowadays, we know the “weeds” she was writing about were “invasive species,” a burning environ-mental issue in Glimmerglass’ environs even today, 125 years after James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter’s death, as we worry about the zebra mussel, the water chestnut and, heavens, the European frog bit.
If Charles Darwin knew her, “How do I know about Henry David Thoreau and not about this woman?” Professor Johnson asked herself when she first happened on “Rural Hours.” It was in the 1990s. She was a graduate student immersed in the Transcendentalists while seeking her masters and doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in California.
With a planned focus on Shakespeare or the British Modernists, “I was taken by surprise when I got scooped up in environmental writing, about the human relationship to the natural world,” she said.
But the subject was compelling. As an English and Environmental Studies professor at the College of Idaho outside of Boise for the past quarter-century, Johnson has reached beyond Susan
Cooper – she’s currently Henry David Thoreau Society president – but the Cooperstown writer has always drawn her back.
“We are living in the dire consequences of the changes she was discussing,” Johnson said in an interview at a picnic table in Lake Front Park, adding, “She was mourning. It’s really important for us to know we’re not the first generation to feel grief about environmental damage.”
In Susan Cooper’s descriptions of deforestation, Johnson realized “our climate crisis is the result of rapid industrialization in the 19th Century.”
Raised in Boston in a family that enjoyed camping in New Hampshire, Johnson has visited Cooperstown several times over the years, researching her prime subject in the former NYSHA Library, reviewing Cooper family records, and finding intriguing material in the Christ Episcopal Church archives.
She’s lectured often on Susan Cooper, including to a packed house at The Fenimore a month ago. And she’s written many articles over the years, co-edited Cooper’s “Essays On Nature And The Landscape” (2002) and an edition of “Rural Hours” (1998), and included her in “Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America’s Aesthetics of Alienation” (2009).
But with her sabbatical year beginning last summer, Johnson took the plunge. With past support from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and further support from the Idaho Humanities Council and Yale’s Beinecke Library, she moved to Cooperstown for a year to write a biography.
The book is aimed at introducing the local naturalist to a larger audience. “She’s well known, and that’s great. But she’s not well known among the general public,” the professor said.
In previous visits, Johnson spent most of her time in archives. The past year, “I have spent so much time outside, enjoying the landscape that Susan Fenimore knew,” including Fenimore Farm – The Fenimore Museum site, “the first place she remembers living.”
“For a small child,” Johnson continued, “Three Mile Point was a pretty wild place. She remembers it covered in old growth trees, the racing stream, blankets of wildflowers.”
Today, it’s still “a lovely spot,” she said, but much changed. “Almost all the wildflowers are gone. The forest is new growth. That roaring stream is now covered up and channelized. You don’t even know it’s there.”
Growing up, Susan Cooper lived in Europe with her family for years, and Johnson has also visited some of the sites that made an impression on her subject.
While a nature writer, Susan Cooper was also a philanthropist. Grand-daughter of William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown (and The Freeman’s Journal), she helped found the Thanksgiving Hospital in 1868, and in 1873, an orphanage, that at its peak tended almost 100 children.
She also ran a sewing school for young women, and taught Sunday School, penning “Letters for the Young” to inspire the youngsters.
To Johnson, it was part of a piece. “You can’t have a healthy world without having justice in your human population,” she said of Cooper’s attitude. “Her social commitments and her nature commitments, I think they are linked.”
In her book, Johnson also aims to correct the record.
For one thing, that Cooper’s father, the nation’s first best-selling author, “controlled her life. It’s something we have no evidence for,” she said. “They had a supportive, loving relationship.”
Also, she settles a misunderstanding that Susan Cooper drew the illustrations for “Rural Hours.” “They’re lithographs reused from other books,” the author said.
Or that “Rural Hours” was “not well known in its time.” Written simply “By A Lady,” the author herself may not have been well known, but the book went through nine editions, and a citation – about loons – can be found in Thoreau’s journals.
As she works on her manuscript and prepares to seek a publisher, Johnson reflects on her quarter-century journey with Susan Fenimore Cooper as “a burden and a gift. I realized there was a story to be told, and I needed to tell it, because we ignore too many women’s stories.”
“When the book is published, I will feel a sense of closure,” she said.