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Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: New ‘poetry box’ on the Emily Dickinson Trail in Amherst honors poetry lover, inspires hikers

  • Roxy Schneider has installed a “poetry box” on the Emily Dickinson Trail in Amherst in memory of her late husband, Charlie Parham. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. The box, built by Amherst woodworker Tom Murphy, is near a bench overlooking the Fort River where Parham would stop on walks with their dog. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The poetry box is near a bench overlooking the Fort River where Parham would stop on walks with their dog. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Roxy Schneider has installed a “poetry box,” built by Amherst woodworker Tom Murphy, right, on the Emily Dickinson Trail in Amherst in memory of her late husband, Charlie Parham. The box is near a bench, pictured below, overlooking the Fort River where Parham would stop on walks with their dog. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • In September, Roxy Schneider invited a group to a poetry box “warming” at the site on the Emily Dickinson Trail, inviting people who had known her husband. CONTRIBUTED

  • John Sheldon inspects the newly installed poetry box at the Emily Dickinson Trail, just a few hundred feet from the parking area on Mill Lane. The poetry box was put in place by Roxy Schneider in memory of her husband, Charlie Parham, who died in March 2019 after a brief illness. Like many people in Amherst, Sheldon had known Parham. MICKEY RATHBUN


Monday, November 29, 2021

On a recent morning dog walk through the sunlit autumn leaves, I ran into my neighbor John Sheldon on the Emily Dickinson Trail, which runs along the Fort River in South Amherst. He had stopped to inspect the newly installed poetry box on the trail’s edge just a few hundred feet from the parking area on Mill Lane. The poetry box was put in place by Roxy Schneider, another denizen of South Amherst, in memory of her husband, Charlie Parham, who died in March 2019 after a brief illness.

Like many people in Amherst, Sheldon had known Parham. The two had enjoyed playing tennis together, and Charlie and Sheldon’s wife, Susan, were both members of the Garden Club of Amherst.

Sheldon, a well-known musician and songwriter, was curious about the contents of the box. “It’s a Christmas stocking moment,” he said, reaching into the box and pulling out several printed poems, including Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” He also pulled out the hardbound blank notebook that Schneider had placed in the box along with pens and pencils. There were many entries written in poetry and prose, including a lengthy journal entry. “I like this idea,” he said. “It lets people express themselves.”

As Schneider explained to me when we visited the poetry box together, the Emily Dickinson Trail was a special place for her and her husband. They would bring their beloved dog, a duck toller named Schooner (known as “Spoons”), to walk on the trail, and at that spot they would stop and throw sticks down to the water for the dog to fetch.

Schneider came up with the idea of the poetry box because her husband was a devoted reader and writer of poetry. “I wanted to do something, and this felt like Charlie,” she said. “It was a way to honor him and to work through my grief.”

A lifelong educator, Parham taught writing and poetry to children at several schools, including Academy Hill in Wilbraham. He also served as curriculum coordinator at the Smith Campus School and ran a program in South Hadley for gifted and talented children. “He loved teaching,” said Schneider. “He got so many letters from former students telling him how much he meant to them.”

The cedar box was built by Tom Murphy, a close friend of Schneider and Parham’s. Murphy and Schneider chose the wood together, and she made the “Poetry” sign on top of the box. Murphy has built similar public boxes for book exchanges and also builds toys and indoor playground equipment for children. “He gives everything away,” explained Schneider. He calls his work “Charlie’s Toys” in honor of his deceased friend.

On the front of the box is a brass plaque on which the words “Share Your Light” is engraved, along with excerpts from a poem by Emily Dickinson and another by Amanda Gorman, the young African American poet who read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden.

The Dickinson quote reads: “The poet lights the light/and fades away./But the light goes on and on.”

The excerpt from Gorman reads: “For there is always light./ If only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Schneider said that her choice of poems “reflects the old and the new and also honors people of color.” She had printed copies of Gorman’s poem made and placed them in the box for people to take with them. She was gratified to see that most of them have been taken.

Schneider said she wasn’t sure exactly how the box would be used. “Who knew that anyone was going to do anything with this?”

But in the two months since the box’s installation, many people have left poems and notes. “People are reading and responding to each other,” she said. “I think it’s inspired people to think about community and sharing their work.” Several people have written remembrances of deceased loved ones, which she finds especially moving.

Parham had a passion not only for poetry but for gardening. He came from a family of gardeners and enjoyed being a member of the Garden Club of Amherst. “He loved the whole community piece of it,” said Schneider. “He loved growing flowers and exchanging plants with people. He was always digging things up and replanting them.” He also took classes at the Smith College greenhouse. He liked to grow unusual trees, such as Stewartia and a Japanese umbrella pine.

“We even have a pineapple tree,” said Schneider.

In September, Schneider held a poetry box “warming” at the site, inviting people who had known her husband. Meredith Michaels, former head of the GCA, came with a flower arrangement that included lovely purple asters that Charlie had given her for her garden.

“People brought poems and read them and we walked the trail,” Schneider recalled. “It was so amazing. I mean, when do you just go into the woods to read poems?” She brought a bottle of champagne to toast the day. “Charlie was into good wine,” she said. “He would always be the one to open a bottle of champagne to celebrate something. He would have liked the whole event. It just felt like the right way of honoring him.”

There is something special, almost magical, about such modest installations in public places. Schneider is pleased that just down the trail from the poetry box is a former birdhouse that is now a cozy furnished doll house inhabited by three adorable stuffed rabbits. “The bunny box was already here when we started walking our dog here,” she said. That was more than 12 years ago.

Periodically the miniature house undergoes small but meaningful adjustments: A tiny Black Lives Matter sign appeared on the wall after the George Floyd murder. More recently, another printed sign appeared: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” The COVID-19 scourge brought little masks for the bunnies made from extra-small band-aids. At some point over the summer, the masks came off.

Like the bunny box, the Charlie Parham Poetry Box is a simple yet powerful act of generosity that brings joy and reflection to everyone who walks on the trail. Both installations remind us that we live in a community and experience things as a community. Schneider said the bunny box was in part what inspired her to do something like it. “Charlie was so inspiring for writers. The box keeps his inspiration alive.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.