Washington’s New “It” Girl: Eliza Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore

Ah, if only I’d stumbled on Eliza Scidmore‘s story sooner I might have a book coming off the presses in time for the centennial of Washington’s first Japanese cherry trees next spring. Talk about the perfect book-signing opportunity!

When I began research on Scidmore not long ago, it didn’t hit me at first that the major anniversary was imminent. The first trees from Japan were planted in Washington’s Potomac Park on March 27, 1912. A lot had already been written about the cherry trees, and I was focused mainly on Scidmore.

Once I realized the significance of the historic date, I sent queries late last year to several publications — Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, The Washingtonian — proposing an article on Eliza and the cherry trees, targeted to the anniversary. There were no takers.

Now, with the centennial just a few months away and a huge festival planned, Eliza Scidmore, overlooked for a century, is emerging as the new “it” girl in town.

I learned today a Washington Post reporter is writing about Scidmore for a special section on the cherry tree centennial. The Post‘s Michael Ruane found me through my website on Scidmore and has asked to interview me for the article.

The National Geographic Society is including Eliza in an upcoming exhibit in its Explorers Hall, since she was a writer, editor and photographer for the magazine in its early years. The Society is also publishing a picture book on cherry trees, by Ann McClellan. It will mention Eliza Scidmore.

And Andrea Zimmerman may be in town again in the spring promoting her children’s book, Eliza’s Cherry Trees.

I’m grateful to David Braun, news editor of National Geographic’s website, for requesting a piece from me on Eliza Scidmore and the anniversary of  the cherry trees in Washington.

The timing of that piece happened to overlap with another major event: the Japanese tsunami on March 11. In an eerie coincidence, Eliza reported on the aftermath of a devastating 1896 tsunami in Japan for National Geographic. (National Geographic has posted a copy of her article in the September 1896 issue of the magazine.)

I’m guessing that most biographers and writers of other long works experience, at some point, the frustration of knowing your project just isn’t ready in time for great marketing and promotion opportunities. When I’m beating up on myself for blowing the timing, I have to stop and remind myself there’s no formula for how long a complex project might take.

As the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn once told John McPhee: “It takes as long as it takes.” (Read Peter Hessler’s interview with McPhee in The Paris Review.)

So I’ll keep slogging away, and work at trying to write the best book I can.

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