Housekeeping Is For The Birds: Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours

Kerry Neville Bakken (University of Houston)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 14-17).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

{14} Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours (1850) chronicles the seasonal metamorphoses of the woods, meadows, waters, vegetation, and animal life around her home in Otsego County, New York. Rural Hours, though, is not an example of the typical housekeeping diary kept by the nineteenth century woman to record the daily spiritual and domestic progress of her Christian household. Such diaries, as those described by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in their 1869 housekeeping how-to book, The American Woman’s Home or, Principle of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes , focus on the internal workings of the human family and the human home since the diarist’s eye is intently concentrated on recording the hourly minutiae of family life: waking, praying, mending, cooking, planting, harvesting, schooling, sleeping. The individual family unit, safeguarded from the threatening exterior world under the watchful eye of the diarist in a domestic cloister, remains detached from the larger living world beyond its doors. Thus, the narrative point-of-view, the “I,” as well as the diarist’s “eye” is absorbed in an anthropocentric world view.

Cooper’s book of “rural hours,” however, turns its attention outside the home, upon spring thaw, bird migration, budding growth, and away from the domestic duties that have driven humans indoors, preventing us from participating in the larger web of community. Rural Hours aims at opening doors, raising windows, and drawing curtains to allow dust, birds and moonlight inside, while shooing, not flies, but the family outside.

Many nineteenth-century women were encouraged, by the leading authorities of domestic science (the Beecher sisters) to keep a diary or book of hours. Such diaries could be used to record the daily housekeeping chores, maintenance expenses, food production and stores, weather conditions, as well as the diarist’s spiritual progress. Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe advocate a careful partitioning of the hours of the day, the week, the month, and the year so that no task is left undone, no hour remains idle. Their chief concern is the creation of an efficient, housekeeping machine, a woman who is able to assign the appropriate and sensible shares of time to a variety of duties that have claims on her attention.

How, then, do we understand Cooper’s own book of “rural” hours? One difference between Cooper’s journaling and the kind advocated by our above domestic scientists is that Cooper’s diarist seems to have no obvious purpose or gainful employment in the record-keeping and is certainly not overtly concerned with the efficient use of time. The diary is not divided according to the hours and tasks of the day, the ticking, ticking, ticking hands of that clock in the front parlor. Rather, the narrator follows the natural rhythms of the rising and setting sun and the gradual progression of seasons. The daily entries are not limited to certain page lengths or lined, bisected, apportioned space ahead of time, since this is, of course, out of natural time; instead, the lengths and space of her entries follow the vicissitudes of her days and nights. Sometimes she devotes five pages to a description of a family of birds, other times, one line. The only agenda Cooper seems to follow is that of the unfolding environment around her.

Finally, Cooper’s voice is not consumed by anxiety over the incompletion of domestic duties. Yet, this voice traipses over the land, parasol in hand; therefore, she must be a lady, and hence domestic responsibilities await her at home. This “I,” though, is cleverly written as “we,” thus the reader shares in the responsibility of “wasted” time, of time unwisely employed. “We” meander here and there on walks, always observing natural fauna and wildlife; “we” are never, it seems, in a hurry home to tend to cooking, sewing, cleaning, or any of the other numerous tasks that must await a dutiful, spinster daughter of James Fenimore Cooper.

Cooper’s journal opens with a typically modest Prefatory disclaimer:

The following notes contain, in a journal form, the simple record of those little events which make up the course of the seasons in rural life ... trifling observations on rustic matters ... therefore, offered to the reader more from the interest of the subject, than from any merit of their own.

{15} She effectively deflects our attention away from the body of the female writer onto the body of the earth; yet, the earth’s body is not modest, nor does it retire into the background of sentimental, religious typological description. Instead, the reader of this body of work, a body reproduced by Cooper, is meant to “give pleasure” to those who “love the country.” We are not meant to use her figure in the landscape as our domestic model for virtuous womanhood confined within the house, but are urged to open our eyes to “God’s blessings” which “spring out of the earth,” and can give us all pleasure.

Cooper, coincidentally begins her journal at the advent of Spring, the season of rebirth and resurrection for the natural world around her home, as well as the season associated with the purification of the home. However, from the very first sentence, she thwarts the reader’s expectations of this genre’s focus. This personal journal does not open with the solitary and egocentric experience of her “I,” but immediately locates her narrative “eye” within a world outside herself, outside her home, within a company of walkers. On March 4, she begins, “Everything about us looks thoroughly wintry still, and fresh snow lies on the ground to the depth of one foot” (4). Cooper’s “everything” does not limit itself to items of consequence to the human community, but encompasses all that is in the world “about” her body, outside the human body, beyond the boundaries of human community.

Additionally, the reader becomes part of her “everything,” part of the natural community of all living things. With her use of the plural “us,” she reveals that it is not “she,” but “we” who will explore the woods, meadows, valleys, lakes, and streams of Otsego; “we” who will be concerned with the decimation of native plants and animals, the rapidly disappearing wilderness caused by our felling of trees, shooting of animals, careless caretaking of the environment. Cooper’s narrator is not Thoreau’s solitary, ego-centric “I” walking into the unpopulated wilderness, nor Emerson’s disembodied eyeball skimming the earth’s transcendental surface. Her diarist is a “we,” a company of walkers whose eyes, ears, noses, mouths, hands, and feet are participating in the human and non-human community and protecting and merging both communities.

Cooper often establishes kinship through personification in order to locate the human community within an environmental community, alongside non-human residents; such personification, though, does not serve to reflect our own desires, our own human (therefore preferable) experiences. Rather, in an ironic turn that sets the stage for her eco- centric use of personification, Cooper ends this day’s entry disparaging the limitations of the Christian household; home and hearth are not the ideal places for our species to congregate and cultivate virtue. A “virtuous glow” can only be gained by “bravely” entering the exterior world, hurling ourselves into the valley, into the cold. Virtue is not achieved by our “cowering over the fireside” (4).

In fact, for all of March and well into April we do not cross the threshold of a house, spend time around a dining table, or gather within a family circle before a fire until we are forced to, on April 19ᵗʰ, the day of spring house-cleaning. Nor do we view the end of Winter and coming of Spring from inside a warm house; instead, we perch on the top of a hill, look down “beneath an archway of green branches, and between noble living columns of pine and hemlock, upon the blue waters below, as though we were gazing at them through the elaborate mouldings of a great Gothic window” (21). Nature’s architecture is already classical, spiritual, and transcendental without the meddling hands and axes of the humans.

Our eyes are not drawn to the valuable lessons of Christian housekeeping inside the home, but turn to the homemaking and homecoming of other notable inhabitants of these woods and valleys: the birds. The first birds to arrive in large numbers are the robins whose return is “proclaimed to the whole community”; like war brides waiting for the return of husbands from war, the villagers have been “on watch for them these ten days, as they generally come between the fifteenth and twenty-first of the month.” Cooper’s bird watchers are not relegated to an eccentric bunch of enthusiasts, but all people in this village, “old and young, great and small, have something to say about them”; in fact, the robins are greeted as family by Cooper’s language which seems to draw no distinctions between species. Robins and humans are members of the same family, reuniting after a long separation. Cooper exuberantly writes:

No sooner is one of these first-comers seen by some member of a family, than the fact is proclaimed through the house; children run in to tell their parents, “The robins have come!” Grandfathers and grandmothers put on their spectacles and step to the windows to look at the robins; and you hear neighbors gravely inquiring of each other: “Have you seen the robins” — “Have you heard the robins?” (8)

These robins have returned from abroad, to their native lands, bringing with them news of Spring. However, such interest in another species, this curiosity, this good-natured voyeurism, is not ours alone; while we are certainly engaged in bird-watching, the birds, too, perch in the trees people-watching.

{16} In a similar instance, the white-breasted nut-hatch, while a native “resident of the State,” is “not a very common bird,” though it is possible for us to catch a glimpse of it “in the woods” if we “look for it through the year” (20). Cooper notes our “amusement” as we sit “watching our little visitor,” intrigued by his “peculiar habits”; however, this bird is also a curious rogue” and seems “desirous of observing your own odd ways, while you are watching his.” Again, this mutual watching emphasizes that we are not the only observant, sentient, world-aware species, nor the only families residing in the village, the only married couples devoted to each other. As we observe the nut-hatch, we see that “he is a remarkably good husband, taking a vast deal of pains to feed and amuse his wife, and listening to all her remarks and observations in the most meritorious manner” (20). Admittedly, Cooper has fallen in to the trap of pathetic fallacy in ascribing sentimental human characteristics to the non-human; yet, her purpose has not been to reveal some aspect of the animal world as it reflects back on the human world. Unlike Adam, she does not gain dominion over this bird by naming it, cataloguing it by her gaze and her language into its proper inferior taxonomy; the nut-hatch retains equal footing with our species by matching our gaze, perhaps defining and cataloguing our own curious habits. This blending or merging of human and non-human community is dramatized by Cooper with the only available means — a personification of nature.

With Spring assuredly underway, we exhibit our own bizarre behavior: the annual house-cleaning. Possibly to the even greater confusion of the birds observing our ritual, such horrific Spring rites are unnatural. Cooper wishes to know “from what ancestral nation the good people of this country” have inherited the “periodical cleaning propensity.” By turning our attention to our “instinctual” behaviors, narrative perspective shifts to that of the birds: we perch above these strange creatures, watch bemusedly, as they lock themselves away inside the home, against their nature. Human history is redefined and held accountable to natural history; we view the human species from the woods, from the position of the non-human spectator.

What do we see? An army of foot soldiers following the ticking of the clock, beating carpets, hoisting sideboards, conquering dust, wasting valuable time. The “great spring house-cleaning,” has transformed May-day, once associated with “rhymes, sweet blossoms, gayety, and kindly feeling,” into the “most anti-poetical, dirty, dusty, unfragrant, scolding day in the year.” Similarly, American Homo sapiens display an unusually cheerful attitude toward domestic duties, possessed by the spirit of “go-aheadism!” And finally, this cyclical behavior transforms the female members of this species into “tyrant[s] that few have the courage to face” (26). It is evident, in this passage, that Cooper as both a devoted daughter and proper woman of the nineteenth-century, is most unusual in her estimation that home and hearth, and women’s “unnatural” attention to domestic duties, are corrupting influences. In contrast, we are reminded that our co-residents, the birds, always enjoy their days in the outdoors since they listen to natural instinct, and as a matter of course, have “more zest during this their honeymoon” season, since they are, as she terms it, “in an ecstasy” (38). This is in stark contrast to the unhappy house-cleaners locked away indoors on such a day, quashing natural desires.

Yet, as determined as we are to sweep out all traces of the exterior world, shake the bedbugs from mattresses, pluck spider webs from high corners, trap mice with bait, we will never fully succeed in keeping nature outside in her “proper” place and under our control. Chimney swallows gain entrance to homes by way of “our” fireplaces, build nests with collected twigs, what we mistakenly term “rubbish,” inside “our” flues. Cooper does not let such “natural” homemaking pass unnoticed and is quick to point out, it is only the “neat housekeepers” — tyrannical, unnatural, and misguided humans-who find such migrations, such “home invasions” troublesome. Cooper’s directive, then, is that we are not world-owners, but tenants, temporary caretakers whose duty is to “keep house, keep world” in the interests of the greater ecological family.

Indeed, Cooper takes a particular delight in questioning the supposed superiority of “civilized” human communities, revealing the failings of our “refined” manners, Christian ideals, and neighborly love. In her story of two remarkable cat-birds, she relates that while cat-birds are usually “partial to the society of man,” these two have for successive years, nested in the same tree in her neighbor’s yard, becoming “quite fearless and familiar.” Further, these birds “always seemed pleased when the owner of the garden appeared to work there ... giving him a song by way of greeting, and fluttering close at hand as long as he remained.” The birds have become friendly with him, singling him out, announcing his arrival into their garden, singing a specific greeting; they know who he is. However, humans are neither so careful nor observant, and Cooper magnifies our shortcomings: the gardener moves away and the cat-birds still return, “quite at home,” but the villagers are unable to tell “whether they are the same pair or not” (50).

{17} While Cooper certainly describes these birds, and indeed, most all of the animals and insects in the journal, in anthropocentric terms, she is not interpreting nature, naming it, describing it, by its usefulness and value for humans. Unlike Emerson who believes that “nature wears the colors of the human spirit,” Cooper attests that humans wear the colors of nature’s spirit. We are part of our environment, not separate from or superior to our surrounding, thereby creating an eco-centric perspective. Our homes and our families are not limited to human members, but naturally include, though we have unnaturally chosen to exclude, other living beings. She writes:

Our summer company have now all arrived, or rather, our runaways have come back; for it is pleasant to remember that these are really at home here, born and raised, as the Kentuckians say, in these groves, and now have come back to build nests of their own among their native branches. ... Many birds like a village life; they seem to think man is a very good-natured animal, building chimneys and roofs, planting groves, and digging gardens for their especial benefit. (38)

Throughout her journal, Cooper carefully distinguishes between the native and the non-native, the natural and the invasive. What is European and imported, cannot be native. In this recognition, we are presented with a critique of our supposed possession of this wilderness: we, as pioneer settlers, are not native but invasive intruders; we have disrupted the natural order of things, have cast the native residents from their homes by clearing land, cutting trees, destroying habitats; we have barged in, unannounced and uninvited. Narrative perspective shifts: suddenly the “I” and “eye” gazing upon the world, cataloguing objects, is not us, not ours, but the birds. We are “company” for them. Just as the birds provide us with their beautiful chirrups and frogs with their evening sonatas, we, as an immigrant “species” must learn to share space in an already established village, open our homes, our eyes to them.

Works Cited

  • Beecher, Catherine and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home [1869]. New York: Arno Press, 1971.
  • Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Rural Hours [1850]. Ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Green, Harvey, The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
  • Leslie, Eliza, Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book [1859]. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
  • Norwood, Vera, Made From This Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
  • Plante, Ellen M., Women at Home in Victorian America. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997.