The Emily Dickinson of San Juan Island

Eleanor Harper - Journal photo / Steve Wehrly
Eleanor Harper
— image credit: Journal photo / Steve Wehrly

If San Juan Island were looking for a poet laureate, Eleanor Harper would be a top candidate.

Harper was recently honored with a display of her poems and sketches in the big glass display case just inside the front door of the San Juan Island library. "I'm so pleased that people can read my poems and enjoy my simple sketches," says Harper in her soft Surrey accent.

She was born and grew up south of London, in the bucolic Surrey countryside, birthplace or home to scores of famous English poets (John Donne, Tennyson, Robert Browning) and writers (H.G. Wells, Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley).

Educated in private schools which encouraged her artistic and poetic sensibilities, she gained local recognition while still a schoolgirl when her school project of poems and pressed wildflowers won a local prize. Then, her watercolor of the Surrey countryside was "one of only a few selected" for a traveling exhibition, which included showings at the National Gallery in London and galleries across the country. "I've never found out what happened to that painting," she said wistfully.

From September 1981 to September in 1982, she came to America, driving a shiny red Pontiac Firebird back and forth across America four times, visiting and photographing 49 states. (Alaska didn't happen for her until 1987.) The result: "America" - one poem for each state, and one fine-line sketch of a photograph she took in that state.

Harper moved to San Juan Island in 2000, bringing with her the big red Firebird sometimes seen on San Juan Island roads. "I came to the island to write," she said, so she had a small house built for her and finished her "America" poems and a book of poems in the voice of her beloved Siamese Seal Point, Singha.

Over the past year, she has finished "Seasons," which has 22 pencil sketches of local plants and a poem for each season. "The poem and the sketches are all inspired by this most beautiful island," she said.

The exhibit will be on display at the library through the end of November.



Excerpt from "Autumn" by Eleanor Harper


Drenching the leaf-strewn grasseswith early morning dewsAnd draping the dampening twigs with droplets like falling tearsThe ghostly mist shrouds the hillsand in its treadleaves drifts of crystal beadson each and every spider-web


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