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A Life: Lillian Marcotte, 1916 — 2012; ‘It Is Not Always Pleasant but I Feel Better for Going Out’

  • Lillian Marcotte in her Hartland Four Corners gardens about 10 years ago. (Margaret Edwards photograph)

    Lillian Marcotte in her Hartland Four Corners gardens about 10 years ago. (Margaret Edwards photograph)

  • Lillian Marcotte in an undated photograph from the 1970s or 80s. (Courtesy the family)

    Lillian Marcotte in an undated photograph from the 1970s or 80s. (Courtesy the family)

  • Lillian Marcotte works with her hollyhocks in her Hartland Four Corners garden about 10 years ago. (Margaret Edwards photograph)

    Lillian Marcotte works with her hollyhocks in her Hartland Four Corners garden about 10 years ago. (Margaret Edwards photograph)

  • Lillian Marcotte in her Hartland Four Corners gardens about 10 years ago. (Margaret Edwards photograph)
  • Lillian Marcotte in an undated photograph from the 1970s or 80s. (Courtesy the family)
  • Lillian Marcotte works with her hollyhocks in her Hartland Four Corners garden about 10 years ago. (Margaret Edwards photograph)

Hartland — When the temperatures plunged below zero in mid-February and the frozen trees creaked, Lillian Marcotte would go outside to hear the snow crunch beneath her feet.

“I have often wondered why folks seem to hate winter so much,” she wrote in her journal in 1960. “I prefer to go right out every day no matter what the weather, even if it is 20 below zero. True, it is not always pleasant but I feel better for going out.”

Going outside and facing a bristling wind gave her greater appreciation for sitting by a warm fire. She gathered buckets of sap for sugaring during a hail storm, motivated by the steamy aroma awaiting her inside. She would walk in her bare feet during the spring thaw so she could feel the mud between her toes. Marcotte used the daily work demands of farm life as opportunities to experience the natural world, to know it through close study.

“She knew her plants,” said Mary Holland, a friend of Marcotte’s who also writes the Naturally Curious column for the Valley News. “If you were with Lillian, you didn’t even need a field guide. She really was a natural.”

A child of the Great Depression, Marcotte lived a simple, but hard life on a farm and turned to nature for escape. She spent virtually her entire 96 years in Hartland until she died one Sunday morning in early December.

The hilltop home where she lived with her husband, Wendell, and raised their two children is within a mile of the farm where she grew up near Hartland Four-Corners. Over time, Marcotte came to know every slope, crag, stump and clearing on that land as she walked around noting bird songs, spring flowers, woodland animals and changing weather, which she documented in volumes of journals and several self-published books about her life.

The gentle, willowy woman who loved to sleep outside reveled in many things that might make other people retch.

“Baby skunks are as cute as kittens,” she wrote in a journal entry from 1952. “They do not scent until they have grown quite a lot. We once came upon a mother skunk moving her babies and they were adorable.”

Marcotte was not merely a casual observer. She wrote of how skunks move, “slow, bold, moderate creatures, never in a hurry” and the way they stamp their forefeet to demonstrate when they are feeling threatened. She watched the comings and goings of hummingbirds, noted the preferred diet of gray squirrels (sunflower seeds more than butternuts) and the details of the twisted yellow petals of the flowers on witch hazel.

“She had a very concentrated understanding of the place where she was from,” said Margaret Edwards, a Barnard resident who first met Marcotte in 1988. “She had a keen sense of observation of what was around her.”

This sense of observation Marcotte honed from an early age while wandering the land around her family’s dairy farm. The second-oldest of six children, she was expected to work hard and “earn her keep” during a time of vast poverty. Marcotte, a hard worker all her life, did not shy away from chores, but did take every opportunity afforded her to be outside and wandering among the flowers.

“I don’t think her family was always pleasant to be around,” said Marcotte’s daughter, Heidi Marcotte. “For her, there was a lot of pleasure in being out of the house.”

Lillian wrote of her parents, Dean and May Hatch, affectionately, at times, but there was friction and even distrust in their relationship. She was emotionally scarred from a beating administered by her father when she was just 4 years old.

Marcotte and her father were tossing a ball back and forth when she accidentally tossed it and broke a window. For this infraction, her father beat her with a horse harness.

In recalling the incident more than 70 years after it happened, Marcotte remained angry and bewildered. “Why didn’t he suffer any consequences?” she told the Valley News for an article about her memoir, We Dared to Live Different, in 1995. “It was partially his fault.”

Marcotte did, indeed, live differently from her parents. She married a man whom her parents did not like, but with whom she shared an uncommonly deep love. The home where she was raised had no yard in which to play, nor gardens or ornamental flowers of any kind. The home she created for her children included scented geraniums, sweet peas and rose bushes, the petals from which she used to make a delicate sweetener for tea. Where the land, to her parents, was a resource for living, to Marcotte it was also something to be celebrated aesthetically.

Although somewhat private, Marcotte became a public figure when she got involved with an effort to save Eshqua Bog in Hartland. It was a place she considered the most beautiful of anything she’d seen. During the hot summer months, the bog blooms into a sea of pink lady-slipper orchids, attracting even casual nature lovers. In the late 1980s, however, the bog was under threat from development and Marcotte was among the members of the Hartland Nature Club who fought to save it.

Marcotte and fellow club members appealed to groups such as The Nature Conservancy to see if money could be raised to purchase the land for preservation. They were successful and, today, the bog remains intact with a boardwalk trail so that visitors can enjoy the sights without disturbing the delicate ecosystem.

In fighting to save the bog, the role Marcotte played was one of educator. She helped the Nature Club identify all the plant species there to support their arguments for why it should be preserved.

“She wasn’t an activist,” said her son, Lewis Marcotte. “She wouldn’t stand on a corner and holler at people.”

“Mostly, she led by example,” added Tom Wetmore, Lillian’s son-in-law.

In a Valley News story about the efforts to preserve the bog, a reporter tagged along beside Marcotte and hurried to take notes as Marcotte pointed every 3 feet to a new plant. First there was goldthread, then marsh marigold, pixie cups and a red lichen called British soldiers. Marcotte found 142 species when she did the original survey of plants in Eshqua Bog in 1969, said Susan Greenberg, president of the Hartland Nature Club. Marcotte’s work stood as the official record of the plants at Eshqua bog for nearly 40 years, until another survey was done in 2008. At last count, the bog was known to have more than 300 species, Greenberg said.

Marcotte’s talents for observation perhaps were innate, but she lived the kind of slow life that allowed her to see details that others might overlook. She did not drive and walked everywhere in doing errands, even if it meant hauling heavy cargo up steep hills.

Edwards, who lived in Hartland before moving to Barnard, recalled seeing Marcotte hiking up a hill with a large pail of milk. She walked upright without spilling a drop.

“She looked like such a country girl,” Edwards said. “She had done that many times.”

In her journal, Marcotte remarked that she was glad to have her mailbox set far away from the house. She enjoyed the walk.

Although Marcotte’s curiosity extended far beyond Hartland (she had a particular fascination with Alaska), it was the land surrounding her home that she found endlessly entertaining. Every season brought new bird songs, uncurling flowers and trespassing creatures. When viewed from her home, New Hampshire’s mountains had never appeared to her the same twice.

Perhaps that’s why she was hurt when, after telling a man who “was on the board of one of our leading colleges” that she planned to write her memoirs, he scoffed and told her “you have nothing to write about,” she said in the preface of Here Above the Valley, a collection of her nature writing.

Marcotte had plenty to write about. She filled several books recounting a life spent outside and living in the moment.

“I think it is the little, unusual events in life that keep us from being bored and make life interesting,” she wrote in Here Above the Valley. “It is very important to learn to appreciate the small, simple things of life and not let them pass by unnoticed.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at cfleisher@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.