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At the Foot of the Rainbow


Gene Stratton-Porter

"And the bow shall be set in the cloud; and I will look upon it,
that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and
every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth."
- GENESIS, ix-16.





For several years Doubleday, Page & Company have been receiving
repeated requests for information about the life and books of Gene
Stratton-Porter. Her fascinating nature work with bird, flower, and
moth, and the natural wonders of the Limberlost Swamp, made famous as
the scene of her nature romances, all have stirred much curiosity among
readers everywhere.

Mrs. Porter did not possess what has been called "an aptitude for
personal publicity." Indeed, up to the present, she has discouraged
quite successfully any attempt to stress the personal note. It is
practically impossible, however, to do the kind of work she has
done - to make genuine contributions to natural science by her wonderful
field work among birds, insects, and flowers, and then, through her
romances, to bring several hundred thousands of people to love and
understand nature in a way they never did before - without arousing a
legitimate interest in her own history, her ideals, her methods of
work, and all that underlies the structure of her unusual achievement.

Her publishers have felt the pressure of this growing interest and it
was at their request that she furnished the data for a biographical
sketch that was to be written of her. But when this actually came to
hand, the present compiler found that the author had told a story so
much more interesting than anything he could write of her, that it
became merely a question of how little need be added.

The following pages are therefore adapted from what might be styled the
personal record of Gene Stratton-Porter. This will account for the very
intimate picture of family life in the Middle West for some years
following the Civil War.

Mark Stratton, the father of Gene Stratton-Porter, described his wife,
at the time of their marriage, as a "ninety-pound bit of pink
porcelain, pink as a wild rose, plump as a partridge, having a big rope
of bright brown hair, never ill a day in her life, and bearing the
loveliest name ever given a woman - Mary." He further added that "God
fashioned her heart to be gracious, her body to be the mother of
children, and as her especial gift of Grace, he put Flower Magic into
her fingers." Mary Stratton was the mother of twelve lusty babies, all
of whom she reared past eight years of age, losing two a little over
that, through an attack of scarlet fever with whooping cough; too ugly
a combination for even such a wonderful mother as she. With this brood
on her hands she found time to keep an immaculate house, to set a table
renowned in her part of the state, to entertain with unfailing
hospitality all who came to her door, to beautify her home with such
means as she could command, to embroider and fashion clothing by hand
for her children; but her great gift was conceded by all to be the
making of things to grow. At that she was wonderful. She started dainty
little vines and climbing plants from tiny seeds she found in rice and
coffee. Rooted things she soaked in water, rolled in fine sand, planted
according to habit, and they almost never failed to justify her
expectations. She even grew trees and shrubs from slips and cuttings no
one else would have thought of trying to cultivate, her last resort
being to cut a slip diagonally, insert the lower end in a small potato,
and plant as if rooted. And it nearly always grew!

There is a shaft of white stone standing at her head in a cemetery that
belonged to her on a corner of her husband's land; but to Mrs. Porter's
mind her mother's real monument is a cedar of Lebanon which she set in
the manner described above. The cedar tops the brow of a little hill
crossing the grounds. She carried two slips from Ohio, where they were
given to her by a man who had brought the trees as tiny things from the
holy Land. She planted both in this way, one in her dooryard and one in
her cemetery. The tree on the hill stands thirty feet tall now, topping
all others, and has a trunk two feet in circumference.

Mrs. Porter's mother was of Dutch extraction, and like all Dutch women
she worked her special magic with bulbs, which she favoured above other
flowers. Tulips, daffodils, star flowers, lilies, dahlias, little
bright hyacinths, that she called "blue bells," she dearly loved. From
these she distilled exquisite perfume by putting clusters, & time of
perfect bloom, in bowls lined with freshly made, unsalted butter,
covering them closely, and cutting the few drops of extract thus
obtained with alcohol. "She could do more different things," says the
author, "and finish them all in a greater degree of perfection than any
other woman I have ever known. If I were limited to one adjective in
describing her, 'capable' would be the word."

The author's father was descended from a long line of ancestors of
British blood. He was named for, and traced his origin to, that first
Mark Stratton who lived in New York, married the famous beauty, Anne
Hutchinson, and settled on Stratton Island, afterward corrupted to
Staten, according to family tradition. From that point back for
generations across the sea he followed his line to the family of
Strattons of which the Earl of Northbrooke is the present head. To his
British traditions and the customs of his family, Mark Stratton clung
with rigid tenacity, never swerving from his course a particle under
the influence of environment or association. All his ideas were
clear-cut; no man could influence him against his better judgment. He
believed in God, in courtesy, in honour, and cleanliness, in beauty,
and in education. He used to say that he would rather see a child of
his the author of a book of which he could be proud, than on the throne
of England, which was the strongest way he knew to express himself. His
very first earnings he spent for a book; when other men rested, he
read; all his life he was a student of extraordinarily tenacious
memory. He especially loved history: Rollands, Wilson's Outlines, Hume,
Macauley, Gibbon, Prescott, and Bancroft, he could quote from all of
them paragraphs at a time contrasting the views of different writers on
a given event, and remembering dates with unfailing accuracy. "He could
repeat the entire Bible," says Mrs. Stratton-Porter, "giving chapters
and verses, save the books of Generations; these he said 'were a waste
of gray matter to learn.' I never knew him to fail in telling where any
verse quoted to him was to be found in the Bible." And she adds: "I was
almost afraid to make these statements, although there are many living
who can corroborate them, until John Muir published the story of his
boyhood days, and in it I found the history of such rearing as was my
father's, told of as the customary thing among the children of Muir's
time; and I have referred many inquirers as to whether this feat were
possible, to the Muir book."

All his life, with no thought of fatigue or of inconvenience to
himself, Mark Stratton travelled miles uncounted to share what he had
learned with those less fortunately situated, by delivering sermons,
lectures, talks on civic improvement and politics. To him the love of
God could be shown so genuinely in no other way as in the love of his
fellowmen. He worshipped beauty: beautiful faces, souls, hearts,
beautiful landscapes, trees, animals, flowers. He loved colour: rich,
bright colour, and every variation down to the faintest shadings. He
was especially fond of red, and the author carefully keeps a cardinal
silk handkerchief that he was carrying when stricken with apoplexy at
the age of seventy-eight. "It was so like him," she comments, "to have
that scrap of vivid colour in his pocket. He never was too busy to
fertilize a flower bed or to dig holes for the setting of a tree or
bush. A word constantly on his lips was 'tidy.' It applied equally to a
woman, a house, a field, or a barn lot. He had a streak of genius in
his make-up: the genius of large appreciation. Over inspired Biblical
passages, over great books, over sunlit landscapes, over a white violet
abloom in deep shade, over a heroic deed of man, I have seen his brow
light up, his eyes shine."

Mrs. Porter tells us that her father was constantly reading aloud to
his children and to visitors descriptions of the great deeds of men.
Two "hair-raisers" she especially remembers with increased heart-beats
to this day were the story of John Maynard, who piloted a burning boat
to safety while he slowly roasted at the wheel. She says the old thrill
comes back when she recalls the inflection of her father's voice as he
would cry in imitation of the captain: "John Maynard!" and then give
the reply. "Aye, aye, sir!" His other until it sank to a mere gasp:
favourite was the story of Clemanthe, and her lover's immortal answer
to her question: "Shall we meet again?"

To this mother at forty-six, and this father at fifty, each at
intellectual top-notch, every faculty having been stirred for years by
the dire stress of Civil War, and the period immediately following, the
author was born. From childhood she recalls "thinking things which she
felt should be saved," and frequently tugging at her mother's skirts
and begging her to "set down" what the child considered stories and
poems. Most of these were some big fact in nature that thrilled her,
usually expressed in Biblical terms; for the Bible was read twice a day
before the family and helpers, and an average of three services were
attended on Sunday.

Mrs. Porter says that her first all-alone effort was printed in wabbly
letters on the fly-leaf of an old grammar. It was entitled: "Ode to the
Moon." "Not," she comments, "that I had an idea what an 'ode' was,
other than that I had heard it discussed in the family together with
different forms of poetic expression. The spelling must have been by
proxy: but I did know the words I used, what they meant, and the idea I
was trying to convey.

"No other farm was ever quite so lovely as the one on which I was born
after this father and mother had spent twenty-five years beautifying
it," says the author. It was called "Hopewell" after the home of some
of her father's British ancestors. The natural location was perfect,
the land rolling and hilly, with several flowing springs and little
streams crossing it in three directions, while plenty of forest still
remained. The days of pioneer struggles were past. The roads were
smooth and level as floors, the house and barn commodious; the family
rode abroad in a double carriage trimmed in patent leather, drawn by a
matched team of gray horses, and sometimes the father "speeded a
little" for the delight of the children. "We had comfortable clothing,"
says Mrs. Porter, "and were getting our joy from life without that
pinch of anxiety which must have existed in the beginning, although I
know that father and mother always held steady, and took a large
measure of joy from life in passing."

Her mother's health, which always had been perfect, broke about the
time of the author's first remembrance due to typhoid fever contracted
after nursing three of her children through it. She lived for several
years, but with continual suffering, amounting at times to positive

So it happened, that led by impulse and aided by an escape from the
training given her sisters, instead of "sitting on a cushion and sewing
a fine seam" - the threads of the fabric had to be counted and just so
many allowed to each stitch! - this youngest child of a numerous
household spent her waking hours with the wild. She followed her father
and the boys afield, and when tired out slept on their coats in fence
corners, often awaking with shy creatures peering into her face. She
wandered where she pleased, amusing herself with birds, flowers,
insects, and plays she invented. "By the day," writes the author, "I
trotted from one object which attracted me to another, singing a little
song of made-up phrases about everything I saw while I waded catching
fish, chasing butterflies over clover fields, or following a bird with
a hair in its beak; much of the time I carried the inevitable baby for
a woman-child, frequently improvised from an ear of corn in the silk,
wrapped in catalpa leaf blankets."

She had a corner of the garden under a big Bartlett pear tree for her
very own, and each spring she began by planting radishes and lettuce
when the gardening was done; and before these had time to sprout she
set the same beds full of spring flowers, and so followed out the
season. She made special pets of the birds, locating nest after nest,
and immediately projecting herself into the daily life of the
occupants. "No one," she says, "ever taught me more than that the birds
were useful, a gift of God for our protection from insect pests on
fruit and crops; and a gift of Grace in their beauty and music, things
to be rigidly protected. From this cue I evolved the idea myself that I
must be extremely careful, for had not my father tied a 'kerchief over
my mouth when he lifted me for a peep into the nest of the
humming-bird, and did he not walk softly and whisper when he approached
the spot? So I stepped lightly, made no noise, and watched until I knew
what a mother bird fed her young before I began dropping bugs, worms,
crumbs, and fruit into little red mouths that opened at my tap on the
nest quite as readily as at the touch of the feet of the mother bird."

In the nature of this child of the out-of-doors there ran a fibre of
care for wild things. It was instinct with her to go slowly, to touch
lightly, to deal lovingly with every living thing: flower, moth, bird,
or animal. She never gathered great handfuls of frail wild flowers,
carried them an hour and threw them away. If she picked any, she took
only a few, mostly to lay on her mother's pillow - for she had a habit
of drawing comfort from a cinnamon pink or a trillium laid where its
delicate fragrance reached her with every breath. "I am quite sure,"
Mrs. Porter writes, "that I never in my life, in picking flowers,
dragged up the plant by the roots, as I frequently saw other people do.
I was taught from infancy to CUT a bloom I wanted. My regular habit was
to lift one plant of each kind, especially if it were a species new to
me, and set it in my wild-flower garden."

To the birds and flowers the child added moths and butterflies, because
she saw them so frequently, the brilliance of colour in yard and garden
attracting more than could be found elsewhere. So she grew with the
wild, loving, studying, giving all her time. "I fed butterflies
sweetened water and rose leaves inside the screen of a cellar window,"
Mrs. Porter tells us; "doctored all the sick and wounded birds and
animals the men brought me from afield; made pets of the baby squirrels
and rabbits they carried in for my amusement; collected wild flowers;
and as I grew older, gathered arrow points and goose quills for sale in
Fort Wayne. So I had the first money I ever earned."

Her father and mother had strong artistic tendencies, although they
would have scoffed at the idea themselves, yet the manner in which they
laid off their fields, the home they built, the growing things they
preserved, the way they planted, the life they led, all go to prove
exactly that thing. Their bush - and vine-covered fences crept around
the acres they owned in a strip of gaudy colour; their orchard lay in a
valley, a square of apple trees in the centre widely bordered by peach,
so that it appeared at bloom time like a great pink-bordered white
blanket on the face of earth. Swale they might have drained, and would
not, made sheets of blue flag, marigold and buttercups. From the home
you could not look in any direction without seeing a picture of beauty.

"Last spring," the author writes in a recent letter, "I went back with
my mind fully made up to buy that land at any reasonable price, restore
it to the exact condition in which I knew it as a child, and finish my
life there. I found that the house had been burned, killing all the big
trees set by my mother's hands immediately surrounding it. The hills
were shorn and ploughed down, filling and obliterating the creeks and
springs. Most of the forest had been cut, and stood in corn. My old
catalpa in the fence corner beside the road and the Bartlett pear under
which I had my wild-flower garden were all that was left of the
dooryard, while a few gnarled apple trees remained of the orchard,
which had been reset in another place. The garden had been moved, also
the lanes; the one creek remaining out of three crossed the meadow at
the foot of the orchard. It flowed a sickly current over a dredged bed
between bare, straight banks. The whole place seemed worse than a
dilapidated graveyard to me. All my love and ten times the money I had
at command never could have put back the face of nature as I knew it on
that land."

As a child the author had very few books, only three of her own outside
of school books. "The markets did not afford the miracles common with
the children of today," she adds. "Books are now so numerous, so cheap,
and so bewildering in colour and make-up, that I sometimes think our
children are losing their perspective and caring for none of them as I
loved my few plain little ones filled with short story and poem, almost
no illustration. I had a treasure house in the school books of my
elders, especially the McGuffey series of Readers from One to Six. For
pictures I was driven to the Bible, dictionary, historical works read
by my father, agricultural papers, and medical books about cattle and

"Near the time of my mother's passing we moved from Hopewell to the
city of Wabash in order that she might have constant medical attention,
and the younger children better opportunities for schooling. Here we
had magazines and more books in which I was interested. The one volume
in which my heart was enwrapt was a collection of masterpieces of
fiction belonging to my eldest sister. It contained 'Paul and
Virginia,' 'Undine,' 'Picciola,' 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' 'Pilgrim's
Progress,' and several others I soon learned by heart, and the reading
and rereading of those exquisitely expressed and conceived stories may
have done much in forming high conceptions of what really constitutes
literature and in furthering the lofty ideals instilled by my parents.
One of these stories formed the basis of my first publicly recognized
literary effort."

Reared by people who constantly pointed out every natural beauty, using
it wherever possible to drive home a precept, the child lived
out-of-doors with the wild almost entirely. If she reported promptly
three times a day when the bell rang at meal time, with enough clothing
to constitute a decent covering, nothing more was asked until the
Sabbath. To be taken from such freedom, her feet shod, her body
restricted by as much clothing as ever had been worn on Sunday, shut up
in a schoolroom, and set to droning over books, most of which she
detested, was the worst punishment ever inflicted upon her she
declares. She hated mathematics in any form and spent all her time on
natural science, language, and literature. "Friday afternoon," writes
Mrs. Porter, "was always taken up with an exercise called
'rhetoricals,' a misnomer as a rule, but let that pass. Each week
pupils of one of the four years furnished entertainment for the
assembled high school and faculty. Our subjects were always assigned,
and we cordially disliked them. This particular day I was to have a
paper on 'Mathematical Law.'

"I put off the work until my paper had been called for several times,
and so came to Thursday night with excuses and not a line. I was told
to bring my work the next morning without fail. I went home in hot
anger. Why in all this beautiful world, would they not allow me to do
something I could do, and let any one of four members of my class who
revelled in mathematics do my subject? That evening I was distracted.
'I can't do a paper on mathematics, and I won't!' I said stoutly; 'but
I'll do such a paper on a subject I can write about as will open their
foolish eyes and make them see how wrong they are.'"

Before me on the table lay the book I loved, the most wonderful story
in which was 'Picciola' by Saintine. Instantly I began to write.
Breathlessly I wrote for hours. I exceeded our limit ten times over.
The poor Italian Count, the victim of political offences, shut by
Napoleon from the wonderful grounds, mansion, and life that were his,
restricted to the bare prison walls of Fenestrella, deprived of books
and writing material, his one interest in life became a sprout of
green, sprung, no doubt, from a seed dropped by a passing bird, between
the stone flagging of the prison yard before his window. With him I had
watched over it through all the years since I first had access to the
book; with him I had prayed for it. I had broken into a cold sweat of
fear when the jailer first menaced it; I had hated the wind that bent
it roughly, and implored the sun. I had sung a paean of joy at its
budding, and worshipped in awe before its thirty perfect blossoms. The
Count had named it 'Picciola' - the little one - to me also it was a
personal possession. That night we lived the life of our 'little one'
over again, the Count and I, and never were our anxieties and our joys
more poignant.

"Next morning," says Mrs. Porter, "I dared my crowd to see how long
they could remain on the grounds, and yet reach the assembly room
before the last toll of the bell. This scheme worked. Coming in so late
the principal opened exercises without remembering my paper. Again, at
noon, I was as late as I dared be, and I escaped until near the close
of the exercises, through which I sat in cold fear. When my name was
reached at last the principal looked at me inquiringly and then
announced my inspiring mathematical subject. I arose, walked to the
front, and made my best bow. Then I said: 'I waited until yesterday
because I knew absolutely nothing about my subject' - the audience
laughed - 'and I could find nothing either here or in the library at
home, so last night I reviewed Saintine's masterpiece, "Picciola."'

"Then instantly I began to read. I was almost paralyzed at my audacity,
and with each word I expected to hear a terse little interruption.
Imagine my amazement when I heard at the end of the first page: 'Wait a
minute!' Of course I waited, and the principal left the room. A moment
later she reappeared accompanied by the superintendent of the city
schools. 'Begin again,' she said. 'Take your time.'

"I was too amazed to speak. Then thought came in a rush. My paper was
good. It was as good as I had believed it. It was better than I had
known. I did go on! We took that assembly room and the corps of
teachers into our confidence, the Count and I, and told them all that
was in our hearts about a little flower that sprang between the paving
stones of a prison yard. The Count and I were free spirits. From the
book I had learned that. He got into political trouble through it, and
I had got into mathematical trouble, and we told our troubles. One
instant the room was in laughter, the next the boys bowed their heads,
and the girls who had forgotten their handkerchiefs cried in their
aprons. For almost sixteen big foolscap pages I held them, and I was
eager to go on and tell them more about it when I reached the last
line. Never again was a subject forced upon me."

After this incident of her schooldays, what had been inclination before
was aroused to determination and the child neglected her lessons to
write. A volume of crude verse fashioned after the metre of Meredith's
"Lucile," a romantic book in rhyme, and two novels were the fruits of
this youthful ardour. Through the sickness and death of a sister, the
author missed the last three months of school, but, she remarks,
"unlike my schoolmates, I studied harder after leaving school than ever

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