“I Love My Park Day”: English PhDs Take Walt Whitman Birthplace by Storm

By guest-blogger Katharine Perko, Ph.D.

The Walt Whitman Birthplace (Image courtesy of parks.ny.gov)

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood

(“Song of Myself” 52.11-15).

On Saturday, May 6, Scott, Julia Clarke—a friend and colleague from the Stony Brook English graduate program—and I met up at the house where Walt Whitman was born to participate in the sixth annual statewide event called “I Love My Park Day.” Of all the 125 parks we could have chosen to help out at, this site seemed the most poetic option for a trio of English majors.

Julia weeding the Whitman Birthplace garden beds.

Throughout the day, we mainly worked on the grounds where the Whitman family’s detached kitchen used to stand. Over the course of a few hours we cleared numerous garbage bags’ worth of weeds and what felt like a small forest of dead branches from behind a small building called the Gathering House. As we moved from one overgrown patch to another, we also covered a lot of conversational ground, discussing such topics as: parallels between gardening and writing, models of service learning in the humanities, the politics of art, and what civic engagement means to each of us.

Julia using a nineteenth-century toy that teaches children how to milk a cow.

Midway through the morning, the park director invited us to take a break and learn more about the site with a tour of Whitman’s birthplace. A guide led us through the two-story house that Whitman’s father built in the early nineteenth century, teaching us about not only the family but also what life in general was like when Long Island was farm country and Huntington a small marketplace. Walking around the large, sunny house where Whitman spent the first years of his life gave me a new appreciation for the poet I most often associate with Brooklyn.

After learning about Whitman’s childhood that day and revisiting some of his less popularly-known verses once I returned home, I was especially glad that we had volunteered at his birthplace for the “I Love My Park” event. Like the humanities, state parks play an essential role in creating and sustaining a truly democratic society. And here in New York, despite years of systematic underfunding, humanities programs and state parks continue to thrive thanks only to the extraordinary efforts of regular individuals working together on their behalf. It seemed most fitting that as literary scholars and teachers we would devote some of our time to beautifying this particular state historic site, where the self-identified “American Poet of Democracy,” was born. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with my current favorite Whitman poem.

“To the States”

Why reclining, interrogating? why myself and all drowsing?

What deepening twilight—scum floating atop of the waters,

Who are they as bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol?

What a filthy Presidentiad! (O South, your torrid suns! O North, your arctic freezings!)

Are those really Congressmen? are those the great Judges? is that the President?

Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these States sleep, for reasons;

(With gathering murk, with muttering thunder and lambent shoots we all duly awake,

South, North, East, West, inland and seaboard, we will surely awake.)

This was a special guest-post by the one and only Katharine Perko, a former colleague and continued cherished friend of mine. Katharine is a writer in Brooklyn. She researched early twentieth-century gossip culture and British fiction for her Ph.D. in English. You can find her yelling about things on Twitter @Helen__Wills

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