For Land's Sake

An exhibit on Brown’s campus reveals the history of a forgotten East Side wetland


No living person ever visited "Cat Swamp," the marshes that once occupied several blocks of the East Side. That swamp has long been drained, and rows of modern buildings have replaced it. But in the late 19th century, the artist Edward Peckham studied these soggy acres closely. He painted the local plant life and conferred with a group of amateur botanists.

Entwined: Botany, Art, and the Lost Cat Swamp Habitat gathers some of Peckham's watercolors, as well as artwork and floral specimens by the botanist William Bailey, who shared Peckham's interest. The exhibit is housed in the John Hay Library on Brown's campus, a collaboration between The Rhode Island Historical Society and the Brown University Herbarium.

Opened in January, the display takes up two small rooms, revealing original field notes and the pressings of century-old flowers. While many will delight at the knowledge that familiar streets like Everett Avenue were once an intractable bog, curators hope that Cat Swamp serves as a cautionary tale: a once-thriving natural habitat is gone forever, along with all the wildlife species it once supported.

The entire ecosystem that Peckham and Bailey admired, which continued to exist until about 1915, has been unrecognizably replaced with houses and sidewalks.

"This is by far the best locality for Menyanthes I have ever known," wrote Bailey, his words blown up to cover an entire wall. Menyanthes are often called "bog beans," and they look like fuzzy white stars. He turns wistful: "Cat Swamp is being drained and filled in so that Menyanthes trifoliata, L., must disappear, with the Typhas."

But all has not been lost. As the exhibit reminds its visitors, the Brown University Herbarium houses about 100,000 such specimens, many of them donated by Bailey himself. Entwined continues through the end of April.