The Ghostly Love Story That Haunted the Father of U.S. Forest Conservation

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Laura Houghteling was terminally ill with tuberculosis when she met Gifford Pinchot, the man who would marry her after she died. The bright and beautiful daughter of a rich Chicago merchant passed away before the age of 30, but Pinchot remained faithful to her for decades, relying on the support of her love from the afterlife as he crusaded for the conservation of America's natural resources.

The only thing Gifford loved as much as Laura was nature itself. Born in 1865, he was the oldest son of wallpaper merchant James Pinchot and Mary Pinchot née Eno, the daughter of Manhattan real estate baron Amos Eno and sister to traffic safety innovator William Phelps Eno. Gifford—6-foot-2 with a robust mustache—was voted the handsomest man in his graduating class at Yale. In 1891, he was hired to manage the forests surrounding the construction of George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, America's largest privately owned home.

Asheville's hot springs and lush scenery were attractive to wealthy families across America, and the Houghteling family bought Strawberry Hill, a property adjacent to the Biltmore, in 1890. Laura was 26 in 1891, the year they moved in—several years past the age when she would have been expected to wed. Her single status wasn't because of her personality, which was, as her Asheville Daily Citizen obituary would put it, "lovely in every trait of character." Her beauty equaled Gifford's; she had long blonde hair and a soft, kind face with large light eyes. She was unwed because of her health.

As members of the upper-class social circuit, the pair had known each other casually for years. Yet their first meeting in North Carolina, at a luncheon, was very formal; they called each other Miss Houghteling and Mister Pinchot. In his diary years later, Gifford remembered blushing when he first called her Laura. The relationship became intense, conducted over picnics, horseback rides along the French Broad River, and a few stolen passionate embraces.

Both remained hopeful that she would recover and thrive, but they also took solace in religion and their shared interpretation of the afterlife. Their faith posited the physical body as a sort of clothing for the spirit, unnecessary to life itself. The couple read metaphysical works together, including the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who also wed a woman dying of tuberculosis), Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and the Spiritualist novels of early feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. Both believed that to be dead was to be one with God, and that their lover could share in that communion from Earth.

On New Year’s Day 1894, the reluctant families finally gave their blessing for the couple to be married. Laura had just moved from her beloved Strawberry Hill home to Washington, D.C. for new medical care, but the treatments were in vain. She died on February 7, 1894—before the pair could be married in any kind of official way. Gifford accompanied the Houghtelings to her burial in Chicago, and then went straight back to work.

Thirty-eight days after her death, Gifford recorded in his diary: "My lady is very near." Soon his entries were a chronicle of "my darling" and the "presence and peace" she brought him. He came to think of her last dwelling in D.C. as "our house," and took to standing outside of the building, even after it was sold to someone else. He wore black for two years, but sometime in 1896, he stopped wearing mourning clothes and began to consider himself married.

He usually wrote about Laura in his diaries in the present tense. Some days he wrote in code, using the language of weather to describe his visions of love; a "bright" or "clear" day when he felt her with him, a "cloudy" or "blind" day when he did not. Other days he just said, "To our house with my Laura." He talked to Laura, reading books with her, traveling with her—at least, with her spirit. Gifford was not just unloading his problems to her and dreaming of her, but felt he was taking advice from her on his speeches, ideas, and political plans. Occasionally she even rebuked him, as when he read a book "My Lady did not approve of" and he felt filled with regret. When he sensed her presence grow distant, he discreetly consulted a medium.

The convenience of a spirit who was with him always—rather than a woman with actual needs—was something of an asset as Gifford climbed the ladder in his career. When he faced professional challenges, he sometimes relied on Laura's support. Reflecting on an 1896 speech in Philadelphia, he wrote, "I spoke as My Lady's servant." As the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (and before that, chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry), he shaped the institution into a force to be reckoned with, training the foresters who would eventually be called "Little GPs" after his initials.

Teddy Roosevelt entered Gifford's life in 1899, when the then-governor of New York invited the forester to his house. There, Gifford bested him in a pre-dinner boxing match. The pair shared a number of qualities: a love of the outdoors, a belief in conservation, and a knowledge of tragedy; Roosevelt had lost his wife and his mother on the same day in 1884, a pain he still carried into the new century. Teddy and Gifford fought a hostile Congress and powerful industrialists to preserve and protect hundreds of millions of acres of land from the corporate entities that had already ravaged Eastern forests. Because of Roosevelt and Pinchot, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Petrified Forest are preserved for the enjoyment of citizens today.

Pinchot's single status was a hot topic among D.C. social circles, where he was once called the town's "most eligible bachelor." He had stayed in top physical condition and was a regular churchgoer, but it was all for Laura. Self-restraint was key to both of their upbringings, and while you can't prove a negative, he was probably completely celibate until well after Roosevelt left office. And Laura was still with him, in their way. After testifying before a Senate committee as Chief Forester in 1906, he wrote, "I felt today my Lady's help."

After Roosevelt left office, Laura was less and less clear to him, and the ailing Mary Pinchot sensed an opportunity to see her favorite son married to a living woman. After several persistent proposals, he married Cornelia Bryce on August 15, 1914, just nine days before Mary's death. The marriage was a match on many levels: their political values and ambitions (Cornelia was nationally known for her feminism, and Pinchot became the vice-president of a Men for Suffrage organization); their wealthy families; and their status as older newlyweds, Pinchot being 49 and Cornelia being 33. They had one child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, and the marriage lasted 32 years, during which Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania.

Swedenborg wrote that true spouses spend eternity together, but that temporary human marriages are sometimes necessary when one's time on Earth lasts longer than their true spouse's. After his human marriage, Gifford kept all of Laura's letters and his diaries in a blue Tiffany box ordered a month after her death. But he never wrote of her again. His last reference to her was 14 days before his wedding; it was "not a clear day."

Additional Sources: On Strawberry Hill: The Transcendent Love of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling; The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America; Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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