A PLEA FOR FRONT YARDS
Sarah Orne Jewett
I have said more than once what I thought about the disappearance of front yards in our country villages, for as I drive along the familiar roads I find every summer fewer and fewer of the old-fashioned gardens. What has become of the lovely white roses, and blush roses, and the great red conserve roses with their golden hearts, and how few honey-suckles grow beside the door-ways and along the fences! Where have all the snowberry bushes gone and the tall blue larkspurs and white mallows? Where are even the persistent cinnamon roses with their thorny thicket? In many a front-door garden where these used to grow there is nothing left now but a much-browsed lilac-bush and a maple or two.
Nobody can tell exactly how it all began, but somebody who liked town life better than country life must have come to his old home some summer and said, "It is the fashion, where I live now, to have stone copings about the house-lots. There are no cattle about the streets there, and we can leave our bits of ground open. My neighbor and I have taken down the high fence that used to shut in the side windows of both our houses and it is a great deal pleasanter. You must pull down the old front fence here and make the place look like other people's."
Perhaps the grandmother, who loved the front garden better than anybody, was away that day and was treated to the sight of a fancied improvement when she came home at night. To be sure, the old fence had been leaning, and some of the pickets were off or loose, but they only needed an hour's work or a new post to make them strong again. The gate and the front fence beside it were of a pretty criss-cross pattern of wood-work, and the gate-posts were topped by wooden balls: somehow they were the only decorative thing about the square old house, and gave the front door, plain and square built as it was, a touch of elegance and reserve.
"It looks all wrong to me," said the grandmother, ruefully, when the young folks confronted her with their improvement. "How can you keep the cows, and what's worse, the hens and chickens, out? And while the young folks said, "why, everybody is taking away their front fences, and they're all out of fashion now!" the old lady went off to her own room with a grim, disapproving face. "You may tend to the garden, then; I'm done with it," she said with unusual spirit for her gentle nature.
The wise old soul knew how it would be. Some of the delicate plants missed the shelter of the fence that winter; the winds swept over and the snow drifted deep and the ice lingered late on the polyanthus and daffy roots. The first green shoots that made their appearance in border or climbing vine were nipped off by a tame calf which was allowed to run about the yard where she pleased. When the first weeks of June came and the garden was apt to look its best with the early summer flowers, there was somehow less of it than usual. Everybody had taken turns at driving away the calf, and the hens, and the cows, and even old Major, the horse, but, while nobody watched, every one of the innocent beasts had taken as many nibbles as they could get. Grandmother said nothing; she was very feeble and could not have taken much care of her posies at any rate; yet she looked very sad when she asked one of the children for a sprig of flowering currant and was told that the cow had eaten off the whole top of the bush. "'T was your grandpa's bush," she said. "He always said nothing ever smelt so sweet. He would put a sprig of it in his button-hole when we was goin' to be married. 'T is the first year I''ve ever known since that I couldn't pick me some of the little blossoms." But the flowering currant dwindled and died away that summer.
People who drove by thought that the farm-house looked straggling and neglected. What new flowers were planted did not grow so well, and the family concluded that it was an unrewarding trouble to have a garden at all, and they would let it go another year. A few tangles of thorny rose-stems battled with the tough grass, and some of the bushes grew irregularly after a year or two, but the charming old garden went to ruin for the lack of its protection from the outer world.
Certain things belong together, and a pretty wooden fence finishes and frames our village and country road-side houses better than anything. It is no use to say that it is the fashion to go without, and so excuse ourselves for pulling down a fence which we are too lazy to mend or too stingy to replace. Let us keep our old-time country flowers blooming as long as we can, and in the same old places.
I have known great short-sightedness in the villages where people come to spend the summers, simply because they looked so quaint and pretty, and unlike the new, uninteresting neighborhoods built up in later years. Instead of being quick to understand the reason for so many strangers coming, and then preserving carefully all the pleasant and alluring features of the town, what happens? Trees are cut down, road-side thickets are grubbed up and left to wither; the old buildings which have interesting associations are left to decay or are spoiled by ignorant remodelling. Then people begin to say, "Oh yes, it used to be a charming place when we went there first, but now it is like any other. It has been spoiled year by year, and the money we have paid for going there has been used in doing away with the very things that pleased us most."
We who live in the beloved old New England towns here by the sea must remember very often that we are custodians of something that is every year more valuable and interesting to the rest of this great growing country. The elder towns are mothers of the younger, and every year more descendants of the old townsfolk will come straying back to find what they may of the early houses, and the old trees, and churches, and burying-grounds.
Let us try to preserve the character of these old homes and old neighborhoods as best we can, and not try to make them look like newer places not half nor quarter so beautiful as they. Let us keep the pleasant old houses standing, and our grandmothers' front yards blooming, and teach the old associations and legends to all newcomers just as long as we can.
"A Plea for Front Yards" first appeared in The Fête (v. 1, no. 1) of August 21-22, 1888, published by the Eliot Library Association of Eliot, Maine. It was reprinted in The Cornhill Booklet (3:4-7) in Autumn 1902. The text here is from Cornhill. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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conserve roses ... honey-suckles ... snowberry bushes ... larkspurs ... white mallows ... cinnamon roses: Conserve roses would be preserved with sugar as confections or as medicine. "Honeysuckle" is a name given to a variety of flowering bushes and vines, often with strong sweet perfumes. Snowberry is related to honeysuckle, with white berries. Larkspur is "any plant of the genus Delphinium; so called from the spur-shaped calyx. The common larkspur is D. Consolida." (Source: Oxford English Dictionary). White mallows (also known as mallows, clustering mallows, and marshmallows) are flowering plants, parts of which are used herbally to relieve coughs and bronchitis, to soothe skin inflammations, to relieve sore throat; represent `sweet disposition' in the nineteenth-century language of flowers. (Research: Ted Eden). Cinnamon roses are a species of rose (R. cinnamonea). Biographer Francis Matthiessen reports that as a child, Jewett would make a coddle of cinnamon rose petals with cinnamon and brown sugar. See Chapter 1.
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polyanthus and daffy roots: Polyanthus could be the narcissus or a variety of primrose, both of which bloom in early spring. Daffies are daffodils.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.