By EJ Conzola II
Preserved leaves from white mulberry trees cradled a gourd sculpture. Cocoons of the Bombyx mori silk moth hung from a second sculpture that included twigs and bark from the white mulberry trees on which the moths feed.
Tea made from white mulberries and local honey, along with snacks that included mulberries, were also available to some three-dozen people who turned out for the formal unveiling of the sculptures created by Whitehall artist Serena Kovalosky thanks to a Rural & Traditional Arts Fellowship grant she received earlier this year.
“The White Mulberry Project: A Silk Road Runs Through It” also included tours of the eco-garden Kovalosky created after allowing a portion of her Davis Street yard to “rewild” – a process that served as the initial inspiration for her artwork.
The presence of white mulberry trees on her property was “one of the most surprising discoveries” of her rewilding effort, Kovalosky told her audience. The trees are not native to the United States and Kovalosky said she wondered how they had ended up in a Whitehall yard.
Research told her that white mulberry trees had been brought to Whitehall in the 19th century by entrepreneurs who hoped to make Whitehall one of the centers of silk production in North America. The idea, she said, was for men to work in the mills that turned silk thread into cloth while their wives and children raised the silkworms that spun their cocoons out of silk thread.
Each cocoon can produce 3,000 feet of silk thread, she noted.
The local businessmen who sponsored both the mill and the silkworm project hoped to achieve “a huge economic boon … from this parallel entrepreneurial thing,” Kovalosky said.
However, raising the worms proved far more difficult than anticipated, so that aspect of the effort soon died out, she said. However, the mill itself helped create “a new economic peak” for Whitehall, providing jobs not only for area residents but for the influx of immigrants attracted to the community, she said.
“Whitehall really got a boon from it,” she said.
Discovering the history of her community was almost as exciting as the transformation taking place in her yard, Kovalosky said.
“The history was just as impressive as the plants I was finding,” Kovalosky said.
The mill – and Whitehall – prospered into the early 20th century, when competition from synthetic materials became “the final nail in the coffin of an industrial era,” Kovalosky said. The mill stood – often vacant – until the 1960s, when it was destroyed by fire, she added.
In addition to offering a glimpse into Whitehall’s history, the art project was intended to honor the little moths that helped spark the community’s economic boom, Kovalosky said. In order to harvest the silk, the cocoon had to be boiled to loosen the threads – a process that had to take place before the moths hatched, so that each thread harvest resulted in the deaths of the vast majority of the worms before the metamorphosis from worm to moth could be completed, she said.
The story of the silkworm is reflective of the story of humans – a short life span that can still have a huge impact on the world around them, Mary Holland of Sandgate, Vermont, one of those who attended the unveiling, observed during Kovalosky’s presentation.
Kovalosky also pointed out that her project was something of a community effort, as friends and neighbors helped her in many ways, from locating mulberry trees from which she could forage to tending to her yard as she worked on her art.
“It’s kind of like a stone soup – everybody puts in a little bit,” she said.