“honey from a weed”

Category : Books, Farm, Kitchen, Nature
Date : January 15, 2018

“As Carl Wilkens wrote when we make something with our hands, it changes the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes the way we act.” (1)

To make something whole. What does that mean exactly? Does that mean to construct an object from start to finish, as one would carve a bowl from a burl? Or perhaps, to take a discarded or broken item and make it anew, to renew it? To find food, an entire meal, from items deemed ‘weeds’?

As a way to transition into this new year, I set my mind to reading and listening to works by writers and makers. Terry Tempest Williams has been reading me her book on the sacred lands of our National Parks, The Hour of the Land. Many artists have been telling me their ‘making history’ via the Make/Time podcast series. And Adam Federman revealed the life of Patience Gray to me in his new biography, Fasting and Feasting.

Patience Gray, author of the legendary cookbook Honey from a Weed, lived what one could term a spare life, for she and her partner Norman Mommens chose to live “…for more than thirty years in a remote corner of southern Italy–without electricity, modern plumbing, or telephone.” (2) Yet, their lives were rich for the food she gathered and cooked, and for the sculptures he carved from marble, and for the landscape in which they situated themselves.

Gray was quite concerned with the dangers of “consumerland” and wrote about integrating life and art together in her columns for the Observer. In her 1960 article, “Crafts from Obscurity,” she noted, “Can you be touched by the delicate pinks, mauves, magentas, poppy tones in woven hangings without first having seen rock roses, wild mallows, oleander, or cornfields ablaze with poppy, in a landscape of scrub and stone?…Once the outside world has broken in with its promise of Lambrettas and refrigerators and hire-purchase, the self-sufficiency of a village culture is finished.”(3)

What would Gray say to our ‘interconnected world’? Would she relish in the internet and one’s ability to glean information in an instant? It seems rather unlikely, especially as she alludes to these types of modern burdens in an interview on the BBC:

“Life has become burdensome, in a way, in its demands on people. And I can lead them to a bit of daydreaming, which is rather out of fashion now, isn’t it? You could say that I have sort of responded against the present time where I feel that nothing is sacred. It’s a counterpoint to that. Because things are sacred. That’s what I feel.” (4)

Gray wanted her readers to not only daydream but to gather food and sustenance for the mind and soul. “Living in the wild, it has often seemed that we are living on the margins of literacy. This led to reading the landscape and learning from people, that is to first hand experience.” (5)

Each year, I attempt to delve deeper into the landscape directly outside of our front door, not only by observing the seasonal differences, but by also using what is directly at hand for food, healing and dyeing. Over the next months, chapter by chapter, Patience Gray will be my guide to not only the realm of daydreaming, but to the logistics of making whole through our environs.



Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of the Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, (New York, Sarah Crichton Books, 2016), pg. 140 (1)

Adam Federman, Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray, (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017), Introduction(2), pg. 89 (3), pg. 304 (4.).

Patience Gray, Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cycllades and Apulia, (New York: Harper and Row,1987), pg. 11. (5)

Note: Tune into the Make/Time podcast series.

mending circles

Category : Art, Books, Textiles
Date : December 7, 2017

This fall I joined a mending group. We meet once a month, dragging in our big bags, filled with coats needing buttons, sweaters lacking elbow patches, socks filled with holes, jeans ripped at the knees, and proceed to share mending advice. Needles are threaded and away we go. We leave with garments ready to wear, again, and a sense of pride and accomplishment.

The act of sewing a button on one hand seems so simple and on the other quite a challenge. Do you have the original button, or will you replace it with one that doesn’t quite match? Will you use bright red thread when the original was a somber black? I intentionally make the mending visible, reminding myself and others that this garment has more than one life.


my mended sock


Embellishment in mending by way of using decorative stitches seems to be the next logical step. Why not make that mended hole stand out with a flurry of feather stitches, circled by chain stitches, denoted by a bevy of French knots and finished off besprinkled with beads or sequins?

Of course, one needs instruction and inspiration, both found in the work of Natalie Chanin and May Morris. Fortunately, two newly published books bring their endeavors onto one’s work table. The Geometry of Hand-Sewing: A Romance in Stitches and Embroidery from Alabama Chanin and The School of Making, gives practical methods of stitching based on geometry, with diagrams and images to guide one through 100+ stitches. The possibilities of adornment seem limitless. The catalogue accompanying the current exhibition May Morris: Art & Life allows one to linger over her exquisite and elaborate stitched tapestries, book covers, bags, and garments, as well as her wallpaper designs and jewelry.   Pull out your magnifying glass and examine her embroidery. Morris has been rightly called the “pioneer of art embroidery.”

Morris published her own embroidery guide Decorative Needlework in 1893. Anna Mason notes and quotes in a catalogue entry, “Through her writing as well as her practice, she sought to raise the status of embroidery: ‘in spite of the discouraging trifling and dabbling in silks, which is often all that stands for embroidery, I am inclined to take needle-art seriously, and regard its simply priceless decorative qualities worth as careful study or appreciation as any other form of art.’ ”

Chanin and Morris are birds of a feather. They both honor the hand-made and the hands that make. In my dreams, both of them will attend next month’s mending circle.

May Morris: Art & Crafts Designer with essays by Anna Mason, Jan Marsh, Jenny Lister, Rowan Bain and Hanne Faurby and with contributions by Alice McEwan and Catherine White, forward by Lynn Hulse (London: Thames and Hudson, 2017), pg. 122.

 Natalie Chanin, The Geometry of Hand-Sewing: A Romance in Stitches and Embroidery from Alabama Chanin and The School of Making, (Abrams, New York), 2017.


where have all the flowers gone?

Category : Art, Nature, Plants
Date : September 11, 2017

Incredible floral arrangements graced the Westbeth Art Gallery at the opening of Strange Flowers last Saturday night. Flowers and their strange beauty unite the artists assembled by the show’s organizer Elisabeth Condon, but their approaches vary widely. From backyard weeds and blooms gone awry; hyper-realized blossoms gleaned out of the corner of one’s eye; roses stained on ancient cloth literally marking the passing of a dear friend; perfectly rendered arrangements drawn in colored ink; ancient botanical images on wallpaper newly arranged to form an architectural temple pattern; plants gathered and dipped in wax laid against a perfect blue sky; larger than life-sized blooms and blossoms that one can escape into; butterflies and birds residing amongst leaves and streams of paint in an urban landscape; to a set of vintage wildflower identification cards placed on a shelf set against plant-dyed paper on the wall.

On the night of the opening, some visitors presumed that the wildflower cards were there for the taking. Was there a sign posted that said, “Please take a card, courtesy of the artist”? Absolutely not! Slowly the deck of 49 cards became 19. Unlike the stacks of candy found in the participatory work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example, these cards are irreplaceable parts of the artist’s work, not meant to be taken from the piece.

What led some viewers to literally pick these flowers without seeking permission? What did they think would happen when the 49 wildflower cards were gone? Did they think that they would just be replaced? Is this any different from one visiting a museum and simply taking a painting off the wall to put in one’s home?

If you take all the goldenrod from a particular spot, what will the foraging fall pollinators have to fuel them for the long cold winter?  If the forest is cleared to make way for a pipeline, where do all the insects, birds, and animals go when their habitat is removed?

Are art & nature for the taking?


Strange Flowers on view at  Westbeth Art Gallery until September 30, 2017.  Gallery open Wednesday to Sunday, 1-6pm. 55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

in common

Category : Farm, Kitchen, Nature, Textiles
Date : July 31, 2017

Sometimes the most wildly different can be the most similar. What do the minimally elegant garments worn by Georgia O’Keeffe and the wildly exuberant clothes of the Counter Culture have in common? The clue may be found in the subtitle, “Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture.” Yes, the handmade. Both O’Keeffe and members of the Counter Culture movement used their hands to make their garments.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s hand sewn silk garments.


Recently I had the fortune of seeing Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum and Counter-Couture at the Museum of Art and Design. When one enters the first room of the O’Keeffe show, there are four white silk dresses, and upon examination, one may see the perfectly tiny, couture quality stitching. All made by O’Keeffe. Throughout her life, she continued to sew her own clothing. There is not much pattern found in the O’Keeffe clothing, mainly black and white and the occasional rainbow of color in her wrap dresses, yet the opposite rules for the counter-culture: pattern upon pattern, jubilant tie-dye, proliferating embroidered floral motifs, wildly textured crochet – vividly, abundantly they exploit the hand-sewn in their garments.

Garments on view in Counter-Couture


The Counter-Couture wall text states:

“The works on display reflect the ethos of a generation of makers and wearers who-against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement–rejected ideals of the American Dream, which they identified as rooted in consumerism and waste, social conformity in personal appearance and behavior, and a political establishment invested in maintaining the status quo. They embraced a vision of a new, homegrown civilization rooted in self-reliance, resistance to mass-market consumerism, an affirmative connection to nature, and forms of communal engagement to forge new relationships between self and Other.”

Step back. Look. Examine. And now ponder self-reliance.   In one of the exhibition videos, O’Keeffe talks about growing her own food and working hard to make a garden, so she would not have to undertake the long drive down the mountain to purchase food. We see her kneeling amidst the rows of food and picking lettuce, carefully placing it into a folded newspaper. Similarly, the Counter Culture was rooted in the Back-to-Land movement, growing their own food and living off the land, often residing in communes practicing “sustainable agriculture and permaculture, bartering, self-reliance and pacifism.”

Georgia O’Keeffe’s sewing kit


How did we go so wrongly awry from these self-reliant times in the 1960s and 1970s? Furthermore, how did we get so far from making and growing to boxes of sugar-laden cereals on the store shelves and cheap t-shirts bearing company logos made in sweat shops in other countries? More importantly, where can we go now for inspiration and guidance?

The newly formed Food and Fibers Project asks us to question where our food comes from, who makes our clothes, and how we can better connect both fiber and food to the land. Their mission states, “There are so many intersections of food and fashion, from the soil that grows our food and fiber, to the plants we can both eat and dye textiles with, to the political acts of cooking our own food and mending our own clothes.”

Garments on view in Counter-Couture


Summer seems the ideal time to start on a new path, making ‘re-connections’ as Food and Fibers states. Shop at your local farmer’s market, filling your basket with greens and fruit for your next meal. Make a garment from organic cotton grown in the USA with a pattern from Alabama Chanin. Visit a sheep farm and purchase yarn to make a hat or pair of socks for cooler days to come. Fire up a dye pot from plants grown on the land and re-dye faded, stained clothes from your closet, rendering anew. Mend those blue jeans with the holes in the knees instead of purchasing a new pair.

Each and every time one contemplates a purchase, ask who made this, or where was it grown? The time to ponder and choose is now.

Quoted text from exhibition wall text of Counter-Couture Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, Museum of Art and Design. On view until August 20, 2017.


Ideas and Influences on Two Coats of Paint

Date : April 16, 2017

Recently, Sharon Butler of award wining blog, Two Coats of Paint, asked me to compile a list of ten current “ideas and influences.”  The text of the blog is below. Please visit Two Coats for the full post with images.

page from my grandfather’s herbarium


“Artist and citizen naturalist Brece Honeycutt lives in Massachusetts, on a colonial farmhouse in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains. Fascinated with the history of her home and the surrounding land, she reads handwritten antique diaries at the local library, gathers old textiles, and creates natural dyes from the plants she collects on her morning walks. During her walks, she closely observes changes to the landscape, making notes that become the basis for new projects. On the occasion of her solo show at Norte Maar, Honeycutt has compiled the following list of ideas and influences that inform her work.”

1. Henry David Thoreau. “It will take half a lifetime to find out where to look for the earliest flower,” noted Henry David Thoreau in his journal. [1] For seven years (1851-1858), Thoreau walked his environs around Concord, MA and recorded his observations noting when plants sprouted, trees leafed out, and birds returned.  An inspiration for us all to be become Citizen Naturalists.

2. Citizen Naturalist. Recently I started participating in the USA National Phenology Network as a Citizen Naturalist, using Nature’s Notebook app. Phenology, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (as in bird migration or plant flowering).” In fact, Thoreau’s findings have become the basis for comparative studies being conducted by the scientist Dr. Richard B. Primack that demonstrate climate change and how the warming of the planet is affecting the cycles of our environs.  Daily I note the returning ducks and birds, the flowering coltsfoot and the occasional spotting of a bobcat.

3. Emily Dickinson. Like Thoreau, Emily Dickinson was a keen observer of plants and a magnificent gardener. I wondered what plants were found in her area of Massachusetts in the 1800s and might we have them here?  Dickinson wrote to her friend, Mrs. A. P. Strong, in 1848, “The older I grow, the more I do love spring flowers. Is it so with you? While at home there were several pleasure parties of which I was a member, and in our rambles we found many and many beautiful children of Spring, which I will mention and see if you have found them–the trailing arbutus, adder’s tongue, yellow violets, liver leaf, bloodroot and many other small flowers.” [2]

4. Spring Ephemerals. Indeed, all but the trailing arbutus are found on the grounds of Bartholomew’s Cobble (Ashley Falls, MA). In a few weeks, the Spring Wildflower Festival will begin at the Cobble and for the second year, I will be leading tours. I am busily reviewing my notecards, guidebooks and poems that I will read to the guests. The most important “tool” is to go and walk the trail, slowly, ever so slowly. Stopping, and really looking around. As Thoreau noted, the earliest flowers are the hardest to find.  Spring ephemerals–plants that grow for a short time span due to the intense sunlight and the particular soil found at the Cobble–are fleeting and glorious.  This year I want to embark on a project, “To know you is to draw you.”

5. Herbariums. Plants & Place, Deerfield. What did that particular plant look like when it first sprouted? Gardeners, Citizen Naturalists like Dickinson and Thoreau made Herbariums to both identify and document their native flora and fauna. Each year, I vow to start my own Herbarium and to jump start this year’s process, I look forward to the upcoming symposium at Historic Deerfield–Plants and Place:  Native Flora of Western Massachusetts. We will review various herbaria, including the early collected plant pages of Stephen West Williams.

6. Susan Howe. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at The Morgan Library with Susan Howe and Marta Werner regarding the current exhibition I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. The exhibition catalog is a treasure trove of essays and images including a conversation between Werner and Howe, “Transcription and Transgression.”

Werner asks Howe about seeking “small, out-of the way archives.”

Howe responds:  “Yes, I also enjoy small local libraries. Usually they have local historical collections where you will find things that historicists have neglected, or you find an old book with the odd spelling from seventeenth century. I don’t know. It’s the peace found in the landscape of place.” [3]

7. Webster’s Dictionary. Howe discussed also that Dickinson used a particular dictionary, Noah Webster’s 1844 An American Dictionary of the English Language. In a post-lecture conversation, Howe said that not only were Dickinson’s words defined by this exact dictionary, but that her gaze across the pages of the dictionary influenced her writings. I procured a facsimile 1828 Webster (also found in the Dickinson home) and have been looking up words found in her poetry, Thoreau’s writings and even to see if a spring ephemeral can be found on the pages of this book, evidencing that a plant was very much in residence. What a treat to read Jennifer Schuessler’s article “A Journey into the Merriam-Webster Word Factory” in the March 22 edition of the New York Times.

8. Mending. Sewing. Georgia O’Keeffe. Alabama Chanin. The current exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum charts her life through drawings, paintings, photographs and clothing. Her friend Anita Pollitzer noted that O’Keeffe was “extremely industrious, her hands are seldom idle. She loves to sew—not fancy things, but Chinese silk blouses and loose clothes that become her.” One wall label noted her to be a “conscientious mender” of clothes.

Inspired by Alabama Chanin a few years ago, I found the determination to make some of my own clothes. Stitch by stitch.

9. Clean Air. Clean Water. Rachel Carson. Where will we be without clean air and clean water?  After watching PBS’s documentary American Experience:  Rachel Carson, I sought the pages of Silent Spring, first published in 1962.  Carson’s intensely factual, yet lyrically written, scientific book exposed the devastation occurring from the use of synthetic chemicals on all living beings.

Carson states:

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

“I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.” [4]

10. Wendell Berry. Now. Wendell Berry asks us to remain in the present with our actions in regards to climate change and land abuse. He posits that if we are only thinking of what can be accomplished in the future, we are missing the opportunity for what we can do right now. He invites us to “save energy now for the future” by beginning with small acts today. Berry states,

“….so few as just one of us can save energy right now by self-control, careful thought, and remembering the lost virtue of frugality. Spending less, burning less, traveling less may be relief. A cooler, slower life may make us happier, more present to ourselves, and to others who need us to be present.” [5]


[1] Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pg. 16.
[2] Emily Dickinson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1845-1886, Google Docs, page 38.
[3] Susan Howe and Marta Werner, “Transcription and Transgression,” The Networked Recluse:  The Connected World of Emily Dickinson, (Amherst: Amherst College Press, 2017), pg. 135.
[4] Rachel Carson Silent Spring, (Greenwich: Fawcett Books, 1962), pg. 22.
[5] Wendell Berry, Our Only World Ten Essays, (Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2015), pgs. 174, 175.

“bewilderNew Work by Brece Honeycutt,” Norte Maar, Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, NY. Through  April 23, 2017.

citizen naturalist

Category : Nature, Plants
Date : February 14, 2017

Do you keep a weather journal? Make notes when the hummingbirds arrive in the spring? Sketch and date the unfurling of the bloodroot along the forest trail?

For the past seven years, I flip open my “Record Book” and note the morning temperature as well as other memorable natural occurrences of the day. On February 10th, my husband noted that ten red-winged blackbirds appeared at our birdfeeder and asked if I thought this was unusual. My notes indicate that on February 22, 2016, red-winged blackbirds were at the feeder, and in 2014, on March 4th, we spotted them as well. These observations give us context for our slice of land.

the tips of skunk cabbage poking up on January 13, 2017


It seems of utmost importance now more than ever to participate in the natural world around us. Perhaps it is time to become part of Nature’s Notebook, sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN). Webster’s Dictionary defines phenology as “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant life.” The USA-NPN notes:

“Phenology is a key component of life on earth.  Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings.  In turn, insect emergence is often synchronized with leafing out in their host plants. For many people, allergy season starts when particular flowers bloom—earlier flowering means earlier allergies.  Farmers and gardeners need to know when to plant to avoid frosts, and they need to know the schedule of plant and insect development to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Many interactions in nature depend on timing.  In fact, phenology affects nearly all aspects of the environment, including the abundance, distribution, and diversity of organisms, ecosystem services, food webs, and the global cycles of water and carbon.”

One might wonder how notes scribbled down in one era might have any impact or advice for later generations. Look no further than the early citizen naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) residing in Concord, MA. From his daily walks, he kept detailed records of his observations of wildflowers, leaf-out for trees and spring bird sightings during the years 1851-1858. After making his observations, he charted the findings in tables. Fast forward to spring 2003, when the scientist Dr. Richard. Primack and his team begin walking the environs of Concord, following in Thoreau’s footsteps and taking their own observations. Primack’s findings and ongoing conclusions have been published in his book, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreaus’s Woods. By using Thoreau’s and other proximate naturalists’ records, Primack demonstrates that climate change and the warming of the planet is affecting the cycles of plants and wildlife.

Primack notes:

“One thing that made Thoreau so effective as a thinker and writer was his ability to gain insights from observation in the natural world. If our goal is to protect the environment and deal with the problem of climate change, then part of our strategy should be for each of us to immerse himself or herself in nature in order to understand what we are trying to protect. At the most basic level, this means walking through natural landscapes and observing what is there; we should learn the names and characteristics of birds, mammals, plants and other species. We should observe their behavior, their migrations, and their seasonal changes, to better understand their and our place in nature. As we develop this understanding, we will become better advocates for their protection.”

The time is now. Start making notes about your natural world. Chose a method of keeping track. Perhaps, your approach will be similar to the poet Mary Oliver, and you’ll have a notebook always in your back pocket for jotting down fleeting thoughts and observations. If you are more comfortable in the digital realm, then download Nature’s Notebook app and log in. Birds are returning. Skunk cabbage will soon be showing its fronds. Don’t leave any natural arrival unnoticed.

Phenology as described by the USANPN website: https://usanpn.org/about/why-phenology. Accessed on 2/13/2017.

Richard B. Primack, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreaus’s Woods, (The University of Chicago Press, 2014), pgs. 54-55, 226

Two Thoreau Notes:

New biography of Thoreau by Kevin Dann, Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau (Tarcher and Perigree, 2017).

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal exhibition will be on view at The Morgan Library (6/2-9/10/2017) and Concord Museum (9/29/2017-1/21/2018).


two finds

Category : Books, Correspondence
Date : December 24, 2016

Waking early on these dark mornings to read about a writer’s life is a fine way to start one’s day. Currently, two biographies are on my bedside table: Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet and Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman.

Both Brontë (1816-1855) and White (1899-1985) started writing when young, filling their hand-made books with imaginative stories and poetry. And both became famous authors, penning what we now know as classics in order to bring money into their respective households.


I found Sweet’s recent biography in the juvenile section at my local library and gobbled up her smartly presented book, relishing in the facts and life of White. The pages dance with her captivating collages and illustrations, and as with thoroughly researched references, footnotes and a bibliography. She has included a timeline that puts his life into perspective. Reproductions of early drafts of Charlotte’s Web, from his penciled pages to the typewritten, clearly depict his writing process. There is a full page of instructions on how to use a typewriter, for as she notes, “E.B. White used a manual typewriter.” This book would make a fine present for any young reader, or an adult, for that matter.

After seeing the masterful exhibition “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” curated by Christine Nelson at The Morgan Library and Museum, I began to reread Jane Eyre and subsequently found the Harman biography in the ‘new section’ at my local library. Harman’s book, filled with facts, quotes and a generous quantity of letters, gallops along at a most readable pace, delving deep not only into the life of Charlotte, but also the relationship between the creative Brontë siblings (Anne, Emily and Branwell are published writers, too).

From these two books, one may glean how to live a ‘creative life,’ its ups and downs, as well as the forged path of each author. For me, there is comfort in reading how others construct their lives, especially revealed through primary sources.

As the New Year approaches, I found the following two passages relevant, reaffirming and uplifting.

Charlotte Brontë received this advice from her tutor, Monsieur Constantin Heger:

“Without study, no art. Without art, no effect on humanity, because art epitomizes that which all the centuries bequeath to us, all that man has found beautiful, that which has had an effect on man, all that he has found worth saving from oblivion…Poet or not, then, study form. If a poet you will be more powerful & your works will live. If not, you will not create poetry, but you will savour its merits and its charms.“

E. B. White’s advice seems so pertinent and hopeful as we navigate the ever-changing landscape:

      “Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

     Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Happy New Year, dear Reader.

Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë A Fiery Heart, (Alfred A Knopf, 2016), pg. 179.

Melissa Sweet, Some Writer The Story of E. B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), pg. 132.

Note: “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” at The Morgan Library and Museum is on view until January 2, 2017. Brontë’s letters, drawings, writing desk, dress and shoes are on view, as well as handmade books and drafts of many books.

bake a cake & vote

Category : Books, Colonial, Kitchen
Date : November 1, 2016

Long before women were granted the right to vote (the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920), they were helping bring men out to cast their vote. One might ask how this was accomplished? Meet the “Election Day Cake”.


The City of Hartford, CT notes expenses for “sundries” including “cake” in 1771 and paid a Mrs Ledlie for making it. In the colonies, this cake would have been served for mustering, a time for men to assemble and practice militia skills. However, after the American Revolution, the cake was served on election days. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, from 1796, provides a written recipe for the cake:

“Thirty quarts of flour, ten pound butter, fourteen pounds sugar, twelve pounds raisins, three dozen eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, four ounces cinnamon, four ounces fine colander seed, three ounces ground alspice; wet the flour with milk to the consistency of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has risen light, work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going in the oven.”

Men journeyed to towns to cast their vote and waited there for the results to be announced. Women provided these cakes, baking them in large community ovens and vying for the right to be deemed the best cake maker. One can only imagine that women also counseled their husbands on how to vote. Abigail Adams, in her letter dated March 31, 1776, wisely advised John Adams “…to remember the ladies,” when the Continental Congress was writing their new Code of Laws.

A modern challenge has been set by the bakers Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam of OWL Bakery in Asheville, NC in their campaign, “Make America Cake Again.” Participating bakeries will be selling and serving a modern version to patrons during the election season and donating a percentage of the proceeds to The League of Women Voters. In the autumn issue of the journal Comestible, Sarah Owens of BK17 Bakery, a participating baker, provides a recipe for the cake, noting that this cake is made with a sourdough starter.

Do you have a sourdough starter in your refrigerator? If not, see recipe below. If so, now is the time to muster, bake that Election Day cake, cast your ballot and invite your friends around to await the results.

Note:  A basic sourdough starter: combine 1 tablespoon dry yeast, 2 ½ cups warm water, 2 teaspoons of sugar, honey or molasses, and 2 ½ cups of flour. Mix well and pour contents into a sealable glass jar and cover accordingly. Let it ferment for five days, either on your counter or in the refrigerator, stirring daily, and then keep refrigerated, using a cup or so of the starter regularly for your breads. You can feed this starter simply by adding flour, water and a bit of sugar from time to time.

https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/ElectionCake.htm Accessed on 11/1/2016 and used for the chronology of “Election Cake.”

Abigail Adams letter transcript. Accessed on 11/1/2016, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa

Sarah Owens, “Election Cake: A Call to Bake,” Comestible Journal, Issue 3, Autumn 2016, pgs. 56-58.  Please note, one can purchase the beautiful Comestible  here for Owens’ recipe as well as others.

Second Note:  OWL is hosting an Election Day Community Event tonight, November 1.  Also their website provides recipes for the home baker. http://www.owlbakery.com/electioncake/


write me a letter

Category : Books, Correspondence
Date : September 20, 2016

One of my great pleasures is walking to the mailbox at the end of our driveway and finding inside a personal letter. Handwritten letters are few and far between these days, almost extinct. Otherwise, news, messages and letters arrive instantaneously, delivered electronically, in a consistent typed format. The unique marks of the writer’s hand are gone, no slanting type, no almost indistinguishable smudged words, and no creased paper to unfold and re-fold, rereading as the spirit moves. We don’t think twice about not having access to information, unless we are ‘out of range’ from a cell tower. Remember when the fax machine, the telephone and the telegraph served as the new comers on the block, and their relative speed of transmission then could be termed ‘lightning’?

Let’s go further back in time and situate ourselves in the New England Colonies in the 1630s. Colonists settled along the coast of modern day Long Island (NY), Connecticut and Massachusetts, and eventually further inland, inhabiting Hartford (CT), Windsor (CT) and Springfield (MA).  How were letters ‘transmitted’ between these and other settlements? No real roads, nor maps existed, and certainly no postal system. Katherine Grandjean thoroughly examines the ways and means in her book, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England. She points to the materials needed for a letter: paper, ink quill, and wax. Ink and quills could be made from various found materials.   She notes “most colonists brewed their own” ink from a variety of materials: oak galls, charcoal and soot, mixed with various mediums, including water, vinegar, wine and gum arabic. Quills were made from turkey feathers. There were no paper mills in the colonies until 1690, when the first mill opened in Germantown, PA; prior to that, all paper was imported (and thus a scarce and treasured commodity). “Their letters were more irregularly shaped, more congested with script, and more likely to show evidence of ripping and cutting, to make use of excess.” Once written, the missive was folded and sealed with imported European wax for secure passage.

Grandjean tracks the disbursement of the Winthrop family correspondence (John Winthrop arrived in 1630), consisting of 2,856 letters, which have been miraculously saved and archived. She notes that in many instances, the writer and/or recipient would name the courier, a neighbor or a vessel, perhaps. “But the letters also contain glimpses of something else: a marked reliance on Indians. They reflect a hidden geography of Native travelers, weaving across the northeast with English news in hand”. Indeed, the Native Indians knew the paths that laced together the various new communities, making hand carrying more efficient and reliable. Letters contained reports of births and deaths, requests for payment, medical advice, accounts of skirmishes and possible wars. Colonists relied on letters as ‘news’ since no newspapers existed. “But colonial communications were part of the appropriations that accompanied English settlement. Just as their livestock, those famous bovine invaders, overran Native fields and villages, the English themselves–the human wanderers of the northeast–also pulsed through Native Space.”

Imagine being in your cabin preparing a meager meal or working in the woods clearing land for a field or road, and you look up, as a known Indian approaches you with a letter in hand. No regular time or route, and certainly not anticipated. A small conversation would ensue and an exchange of some type as payment. Now, in your hand, held within a very small packet of paper, information, sentiments, observations from another outpost!


George Catlin letter to D. S. Gregory, July 19-August 21, 1834 Image courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution and Princeton Architectural Press


So, dear reader, take the time over the next few weeks to put pen to paper and write a letter or postcard. Enlist a friend or two to start a pen pal group. If you are seeking inspiration, pick up a copy of the book, Pen to Paper: artists’ handwritten letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art edited by Mary Savig. Examine the writing styles, the placement of the text on the pages, the inclusion of a drawn image or collaged element, and take up your pen and paper. Dash off some thoughts and mail them off a friend.

Katherine Grandjean, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England, (Harvard University Press, 2015), 240, 48, 49, 53, 64, 215.

Pen to Paper: artists’ handwritten letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, edited by Mary Savig, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), pas 42-43.

NOTE: Pen to Paper may also be viewed online in this exhibit on Handwritten: a space for pen + paper.

Thanks to the Bidwell House Museum for sponsoring Katherine Grandjean’s enlightening lecture, “Paper Pilgrims:  Letter writing and Communications in Early America this summer.


Category : Books, Nature, Plants
Date : August 22, 2016

What is a naturalist? Must a naturalist be a scientist? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of a naturalist is “…a person who studies plants and animals as they live in nature.” By this definition, then, anyone of us could be a naturalist if we paid close attention to the world outside. And by extension, if one took notes, made charts and kept detailed accounts of these observations over space and time, might this person be termed a “Naturalist extraordinaire”?

At the moment, I am reading two books by Naturalist extraordinaires: Thoreau’s Wildflowers (masterfully edited and introduced by Geoff Wisner) and Natural Color. Each author, Henry David Thoreau and Sasha Duerr, respectively, defines their location by the surrounding indigenous plants. Duerr’s environs are the hills of Berkeley, CA, whilst Thoreau lived across the continent in Concord, MA. Separated by land and centuries, they are anchored together in their respect for the natural world and the desire to caretake.

We accompany each author on a year-long journey, progressing from Spring to Winter. Duerr forages plants from Oakland sidewalks and farmer’s markets to make splendid colors, guiding us through the year with seasonal ”palettes”. Thoreau’s observations of wildflowers – through scent, leaf and flowers – provide clear images of his peregrinitions in and around Concord throughout the four seasons.  Both books are graced with sumptuous visuals (photographs by Aya Brackett in Natural Color, and detailed drawings by Barry Moser in Thoreau’s Wildflowers), better allowing us to ‘participate’ with the authors in their explorations, but more importantly helping us to refine our natural vision and to prepare us for our own observations.

Sasha Duerr, The Seasonal Color Wheel

Sasha Duerr, The Seasonal Color Wheel

As both a dyer and wildflower guide, these books are wonderful practical tools for me. Duerr, an expert natural dyer, provides not only the nuts and bolts – from gathering to extraction to finished project – but also writes a manifesto to counteract and contend with the today’s fast-paced fashion and food world.  Thoreau’s minute observations – when a plant’s leaves first emerge from the earth, how long it blooms, and when it puts out seeds – is instructive and invaluable to the naturalist in each of us.

Thoreau states:

“If a man is rich and strong anywhere it must be in his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them.”

Duerr posits:

“Mapping and getting to know your own neighborhood and botanical region is another way of cultivating your natural dye practice, caring for the landscape, and working in harmony with ecological systems. Working with natural color can inspire you to make an authentic stewardship of the land itself.”

It would be among my greatest pleasures to accompany Duerr and Thoreau on a nature walk, listening to their conversation as they delight in the depth and breadth of Nature’s flora.

Note: Natural Color is released on August 23, 2016. For full information on where to purchase the book and a listing of Sasha’s upcoming book signings, http://www.sashaduerr.com


Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Goeff Wisner and illustrated by Barry Moser (Yale University Press, 2016), pg. 256.

Sasha Duerr, Natural Color, (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2016), pgs. 125, 203.


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