Extreme Haircut, Home Edition

The Homestead in mid-summer, after the new hemlocks had been planted and much of the fencing installed. The new hemlock hedge, now only 3 feet high, will eventually stand about 2 feet taller than the fence.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

In at least one respect, Emily Dickinson was like any other resident of a well-traveled street in a pretty college town: she craved both privacy and a view. In the 1860s, her family planted a hemlock hedge at her house on Main Street in Amherst and maintained it at a height of 6 to 10 feet, allowing for a clear view to and from the upper stories while shielding the gardens from passersby.
By the mid-20th century, however, the hemlocks stood as high as 30 to 50 feet, obscuring the Homestead, which, along with the neighboring Evergreens, is now the Emily Dickinson Museum, owned by Amherst College.

This year, the museum cut down the overgrown shrubbery—200 hemlocks—and replaced it with new, shorter hedges. This, along with new fences, gates and gateposts, returned the property edge to its 19th-century appearance. (The $275,000 project was paid for with private donations.) The haircut—a hair transplant, really—was practical as well as historically accurate: in 2008, an arborist confirmed the presence of woolly adelgid and hemlock scale infestations.

Some lamented the loss of shade-providing trees, leading the Boston Globe to ask last fall, “What would Emily want?” Theories abound, but Jane Wald, the museum director, suggests that one of Dickinson’s late poems might excuse re­storation of the poet’s home: “Fame is a bee./ It has a song—/ It has a sting—/ Ah, too, it has a wing.”

Sept. 26, 2009: The museum’s annual marathon reading of all 1,789 poems by Emily Dickinson
Dec. 12, 2009: An open house at the museum in honor of Dickinson’s birthday

Poem reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the president and fellows of Harvard College.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04