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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive life at her family's home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She rarely went into society, though she did spend a lot of time outdoors. She loved nature and gardening.

NPR's Lynn Neary toured an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden to discover a side of the poet that's little known.

LYNN NEARY: I was always attached to mud, Emily Dickinson once wrote. Dickinson had a sophisticated understanding of plants and flowers, which is reflected in her poetry.

Gregory Long, the president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden, says she used to tuck little poems into bouquets of flowers which she gave to her neighbors.

Mr. GREGORY LONG (President, New York Botanical Garden): The people of Amherst who were the friends of Emily Dickinson and her family often received these poems, these short poems with presents of flowers or food. And they knew her as a poet because of these, because nothing was really published in her life, or very, very little was published. So they found these poems, of course, very eccentric. But they loved having the flowers.

NEARY: Well, I was surprised to read that she was better known as a gardener, actually, in her lifetime than as a poet.

Mr. LONG: She was very respected by her neighbors and the people of Amherst as a good gardener. And she knew a great deal about plants, and she grew them very well. And what we found is that her poems are not sentimental valentines to flowers. They're much - they're serious poems, but they're tied to her great passion for plants and nature. So we decided, well, we should introduce everybody to Emily Dickinson not only as a poet, but as a gardener.

NEARY: Maybe we can take a little walk...

Mr. LONG: Sure.

NEARY: ...along this poetry walk here and you can explain to me why some of the poems are placed where they are.

On the path, more than 30 poems are displayed on boards near some of the plants and trees and flowers that inspired them. The walk begins near a delicate rosebush.

Jennifer Rothman, who helped design the poetry walk, reads the first poem, which Dickinson wrote in memory of a young child.

Ms. JENNIFER ROTHMAN (Curator, New York Botanical Gardens): (Reading) She sped as petals of a rose offended by the wind, a frail aristocrat of time indemnity to find, Leaving on nature a default as cricket or as bee, but Andes in the bosoms where she had begun to lie.

NEARY: So this is a poem about a child who died.

Ms. ROTHMAN: When she was just two years old. And this poem talks about a rose being so fragile. And that this little girl was a frail aristocrat of her time, she left on nature this huge void.

NEARY: How hard was it to decide where to the place the poems in the garden and...

Ms. ROTHMAN: Well, it started by going through all of her poems and finding first the ones that had to do with flowers or plants and narrowing it down to that group. And so then we chose poems that would reflect the flowers that would be in bloom or the landscape.

And so there's a poem not too far from here called "Four Trees on a solitary Acre," and you'll see there's four beautiful trees in front of a large lawn of grass. And it's a perfect poem for that setting.

NEARY: Inside the glass-domed conservatory is a recreation of Dickinson's own garden. Todd Forrest, who designed the garden, says it is filled with the types of flowers Dickinson might have planted around her family's home. Foxgloves, daffodils, zinnias and hydrangeas, all blooming at the same time in this hothouse atmosphere, overflow the garden beds. There is even a small orchard.

Mr. TODD FORREST (Vice President, Horticulture and Living Collections, New York Botanical Garden): So within the orchard, we have sort of a meadowy feeling design that has some of the flowers that might have been growing either naturally or through planting in the fields and meadows around her home - including dandelions.

Now this, I know for a fact, is the first time we ever have grown dandelions for a flower show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORREST: But dandelions were very important to her. In fact, she referred to herself more as a dandelion. She felt more comfortable and more natural in the fields with the dandelions, than she would in the drawing rooms with the fancy folks around Amherst.

NEARY: Did it hurt you just a little bit to plant a dandelion?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORREST: You raise an eyebrow.

Mr. LONG: We had to prevent the gardeners from pulling it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LONG: You see this lovely stanza about the orchard?

NEARY: Yes, uh-huh.

Mr. LONG: (Reading) Some keep the Sabbath going to church. I keep it staying at home with a bobolink for a chorister and an orchard for a dome.

NEARY: That's great. Gardening was her religion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORREST: Oh, yeah.

Mr. LONG: In addition to everything else.

NEARY: Do you think she really did the digging and the weeding herself?

Mr. FORREST: Absolutely. Absolutely. She tramped through the woods her entire life. I have no doubt that she was out there, you know, deadheading, dividing. Any gardener is only happy when you're out in the garden pulling a weed or two, including dandelions.

NEARY: A path through the garden leads to a facade that represents Dickinson's family home. And just inside, there's a small replica of her bedroom.

Mr. FORREST: She wrote most of her poetry sitting at a small desk, a very small and simple desk, in her bedroom. As you walk over here, you would look out the window across a woodland to her brother's Austin's house - that Italianate house off in the distance. And she would go out to visit her brother and sister-in-law next door, come back, and then light a lamp in the window to let them know she had returned. And we have found that our visitors like to stop and look out the window. And it makes them slow down and look at the garden very much as Emily might have.

Ms. ROTHMAN: The path between the two homes - the wooded path - she used to say, was just wide enough for two who love.

NEARY: And this is - was sort of like her whole world between these two houses and the gardening.

Ms. ROTHMAN: That's right, exactly.

Mr. FORREST: Yeah.

NEARY: That was really her world.

Ms. ROTHMAN: The world.

Mr. FORREST: Yeah.

Ms. ROTHMAN: She used to bring her niece, Maddy, to her room and she would close the door and lock it, and say: this is freedom. And so she really felt that when she was in her room and she was looking out along the wooded path between her family homes, that she was free.

NEARY: The exhibition concludes in the Botanical Garden's library, where objects from Emily Dickinson's life are on display, including the white cotton dress she wore, even while gardening. She always kept a poem she was working on in the pocket of the dress.

Lynn Neary, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see photos of the flower show at the New York Botanical Garden and that white cotton dress at NPR.org.

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