If you have driven down Hawthorne Boulevard in Salem over the past couple of weeks, you might have noticed five unusual structures seemingly straight out of a fairy tale leaning to and fro on the lawn of the historic Crowninshield-Bentley house situated at the corner of Hawthorne and Essex Streets. This installation, aptly named “What Birds Know,” resembles the nests of several forest-dwelling sprites, a family of very large land birds. Constructed by world-renowned artist Patrick Dougherty and 50 local volunteers over the course of three weeks, the work is part of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Present Tense Initiative, which “seeks to expand the museum’s engagement with the most vibrant creators and critical minds of our time.”
The structures are made of local varieties of linden, Norwegian maple, and beech trees that were responsibly harvested from around the North Shore. Dougherty has been creating these woven stick structures for the past 30 years, beginning with small statues displayed on pedestals, then moving to monumental structures, which require saplings by the truckload to complete. The over 250 structures he has created over time have enchanted onlookers from Japan to Brussels to Scotland and now Salem.
According to Dougherty’s website, these structures were modeled after the gable of a historic shoemaker’s house located on Peabody Essex Museum grounds. When viewed from the sidewalk of Essex Street, they resemble the gables typical of Colonial Period houses. Walk around the back, however, and they look more like the stone turrets of European architecture. This effect is intended to show observers the contrast between the wooden houses the colonists built upon arrival in America and the Old World stone masonry they were accustomed to in England.
Admission to wander around the structures is free and you can get to the lawn through a small gate off the sidewalk across from the Hawthorne Hotel. Each structure has a large circular “window” in front that allows the visitor to look from inside the structure at the street beyond while they are surrounded by the interwoven branches, causing an interesting juxtaposition of Colonial Salem’s natural world and a contemporary fast-paced life.