page turner

In my current reading, I am deep into an engaging mystery, but there is another book that has me glued to it: Nelson Coon’s Using Plants for Healing. In my continuing search for finding value in and uses for ‘weeds’ that we tread upon, yank out, openly discard and cannot even identify, I stumbled upon his book and feel lucky for it.

Methodically, he takes us on “a detour into history” tracking the use of herbs in medicine from the Pharaohs of Egypt; Hellenic Greece, where Theophrastus wrote An Enquiry into Plants in 370 B.C; Renaissance Venice where De Agricultura was printed in 1471; then the new world where the medicine of the Aztecs was “discovered”; and finally, to ‘New Netherlands’, where “…a reporter found some thirty plants which he said were valuable to the Indians, including polypody, sweetflag, sasafrass, mallow, violet, wild indigo, Solomon’s-seal, milfoil, ferns, agrimony, wild leek, snakeroot and prickly pear.” The colonists, indeed, relied upon their European knowledge, folk-remedies and Indian practices well into the nineteenth century by gathering plant material and making medicines from them. As cities and towns began to expand, access to the woods and fields for gathering became more difficult. The Shakers of New Lebanon, NY, however, planted a ‘physic garden” and “…in one season 75 tons of medicinal plants were grown, dried, pressed, and packed, and shipped to every state.”

Coon devotes a page to each medicinal herb, with an illustration, its botanical name, family name and common names, and then a lengthy description of the plant, its history and uses, and some basic recipes.



Charged with my new knowledge, I took a walk outdoors and discovered a huge crop of mugwort (Artemisis Absinthium) and gazed again upon bountiful spreads of plantain, mint, yarrow, nettle, sorrel, burdock and golden rod. Other plants, I noticed, were past their prime and would have to be gathered next year. Maybe it is time for me to make a ‘gathering calendar’, so as not miss out on any of the beneficial plants. Fortunately, though, I am member of an herbal CSA, Wild Wind Herbal. Marybeth and Ashley seasonally gather and dry herbs and so-called ‘weeds’ and make tinctures, salves, teas and balms, and then distribute to their shareholders for four months (July-October).

Nelson Coon, Using Plants for Healing:Featuring a Guide to over 250 Medicinal Plants, (Rodale Press, 1979), pgs. 11-23 for history.

Note for further reading: Dina Falconi, Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair: Natural and Healthy Personal Care for Every Body, (Ceres Press, 1998); many recipes for the mugwort I am harvesting today to make both a tincture and a vinegar for future uses).

revolutionary actions

Revolutionary actions take on many forms. The colonists started by tossing casks of tea into Boston Harbor; in turn, this action spiraled outward to spinning bees on town greens and the production of “homespun.”

On January 1, 2014, a ‘revolutionary act’ took place in another Massachusetts’ town—The Tailor Project. Can you imagine not buying an item of clothing, a pair of shoes or any jewelry for a year? Amy DuFault, fed up with the ‘fast fashion’ industry, decided to take on the challenge. Armed with clothing already in her closet, she teamed up with her local tailor, Kathryn Hilderbrand, of Stitched. Over the past months, Kathryn has been giving new life to garments–nipping, tucking, revamping, redesigning and tailoring them to fit Amy.

Does your town have a tailor and if so, have you ever taken a garment there? In previous decades, tailors or mantua makers were an essential part of the community.

“The early dress-makers were known as mantua-makers. Their work was supplemented by the seamstress and the tailoress. In “Recollections of Old Boston” a woman born in 1848 states, “All dresses were made in the household; the stuffs were bought in the shops…” “Sewing-women came to the house, and worked as seamstresses do today, but these women not only made the dresses for the women and girls of the household, but a tailoress came also who made the coats and trousers for the boys.” “One good dress of silk or satin or damask for best (which usually lasted for many years) and a very meagre wardrobe of gowns for daily use.”

Marla Miller describes the ‘interconnectedness’ of communities in her book, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution:

“In the give and take of rural exchange, New England needleworkers, as much as cabinetmakers, housewrights, and headstone carvers, created and sustained communities of commerce imperative to the continued health of that equilibrium, to systems as important to continuity and change in the social, economic, and cultural order as that which existed in the larger commercial world.”

The Tailor Project is both a small town and global project. DuFault seeks to bring attention to the way our clothing is made (“…garment workers rights, fast fashion, toxic effluents in the waterways, textile waste, pesticides…”) and by whom. She invokes “…a call to arms for old friends, new friends and colleagues to join in supporting their local tailor, a profession being pushed out for cheaply made and priced clothing that are much easier to throw away than to mend.”

Aren’t our closets filled to the brim? Take on Amy’s challenge, ‘shop’ in your closet, visit your tailor and sport a garment, perhaps “used” and then fitted for you. Moreover, when purchasing any new item, take note of where and who made it, and only buy from designers that support fair trade and wages. Changes in the industry and our habits start with us, one garment at time.


b(RE)ce for The Tailor Project

b(RE)ce for The Tailor Project

NOTE:  Recently, I participated in two Tailor Projects. First, Kathryn shortened a dress purchased in a thrift store years ago, but I had only worn once or twice due to its length. Now, it is one of my summer go-to dresses. Secondly, I eco-dyed a silk shirt for Amy, dyeing it with natural dyes.  This shirt falls into a project that I have been working on for the past two years–b(RE)ce:  the revamping of thrift store garments through the act of eco-dyeing (using homemade natural dyes with hand gathered leaves and flowers).

Elsa Shannon Bowles, Homespun Handicrafts, (Benjamin Bloom, Inc, 1972), pgs. 108-9.

Marla Miller,  The Needles Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), pgs. 228-9.  Miller thoroughly examines the global trade world in the last chapter, The Romance of Old Clothes.

Amy DuFault,, Read on 8/8/2104.

tea at Tasha’s

One often finds the useful in unexpected places. We go each week to the town “transfer station”, aka, the dump. Placed near the bins for garbage and recycling are a set of rambling metal shelves where useful items are deposited for the taking. Most of the time, there is nothing to bring home, but one day I found not only a pair of wellingtons that fit perfectly, but a copy of Tasha Tudor’s Garden.

As a child, I repeatedly read Tudor’s books with avid interest, but it was not until I thumbed through the pages of my new find that I realized her life and work were one in the same. The illustrations that so fascinated me as a child were in fact drawn from her real life. And, the real life gardens around her house that were photographed in my recent find captivated me, not only for their seasonal offerings, but for the absolute stunning painterly landscape they made for the eye—clumps of lupines, irises, poppies. Even though we live in a 1753 house, over the last fifty or sixty years its landscape had been transformed to something more like a suburban lawn. Shortly after we moved here, we began to transform our plot of land into something more natural, seasonal, and beneficial to the birds, bees and other insects; that is, into something now referred to as permaculture.

Wouldn’t it be a rich experience to go and see Tasha Tudor’s home? Upon further investigation, I learned that there are tours of Corgi Cottage, but these coveted tickets are quickly snapped up by her most ardent fans. One can, however, visit the Tasha Tudor Museum located in West Brattleboro, VT, and we found ourselves somewhat unexpectedly walking through the door there a few weeks ago after a pleasant visit with close friends.


We were greeted by a woman dressed in Tudor’s style, with long dress and apron. She invited us to watch a video about Tudor’s life (1915-2008) whilst sipping steaming cups of properly brewed tea served in china cups. The video allows one to be present with Tudor as she talks candidly about her life while she walks through the landscape, tends her chickens and goats, or sits by the wood stove sketching by candlelight. Before leaving, we marveled at the objects on view in the summer exhibition, “From Scratch: Tasha’s Handmade Life.”

On our drive home, we discussed how we might live a bit more closer to the land and continue to further transform our farm for the mutual benefit of nature and ourselves. Ultimately, we gleaned that Tudor’s life was whole, meaning that her art and life were one, and perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.




“tag sale time”

It is summer, and so tag sales abound. In our favorite weekly, The Shopper’s Guide, we scour the tag sale listings, circling ones that seem to have potential. We search for older items, not necessarily antiques, but objects that might fill a purpose for the farm chores, or something that can be useful in the studio–old linens ripe to be invigorated by natural dyes, old pots for their immersion and wooden drying racks for curing. Occasionally, we get fooled by the descriptions and find ourselves amidst puffy pink and purple plastic; from such, we leave posthaste.

A few weeks ago, this advertisement caught my eye:

BARN SALE:  100 years of stuff must go.  Antique farm implements, spinning wheel and looms, old tools, old sewing machine table, single bed frame and new futons, books, wooden chairs, textiles, knick-knacks and crazy stuff.”

Off we set on a spectacular morning–vivid blue skies, a gentle breeze and no humidity. We arrived shortly after 8 am, the start of the sale. The aged barn was filled with boxes and bins, looms, tools, indeed everything as described, but one thing was not listed: a feeling, an aura. By going to a tag sale, one receives a glimpse, an image, an impression of the person through the items that person kept. Being in this particular barn, surrounded by a collection of used tools, implements, and collections, was not time traveling but essence-gathering. What a pleasure it would have been to share with the former resident a cup of tea, wind some yarn, and learn about some of the natural cures and remedies, and solutions to particular challenges, that some of these objects signified. I found myself just stopping and soaking it all in. Being in her barn was a gift, and one could tell that she lived by her principles, of and off the land. She had not been swept up in the never-ending morass of consumerism, but instead sought ways to live a simple and direct life.

From talking with the organizers, I learned who this extraordinary woman was and recalled having met her. Whenever she came into the Library, I noted her, especially for her beautifully woven, textured and layered garments. And so it was that the looms in the barn were used to weave the fabric she wore, and the sewing patterns that I perused at the sale had formed the basis for her clothes. Indeed, it seems that she made her life, through a true, homemade, thoughtful existence.

Ever since this tag sale morning, I find myself periodically taking a deep breath, closing my eyes and walking back into that barn, trying to squeeze one more drop out of the memory. Not only that, but I am attempting to start walking a bit differently, shedding and paring, and looking a bit more closely, and questioning how one chooses to live one’s life.

In his book, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of the Shelter, Howard Mansfield walks one through centuries of houses, exploring the nooks and crannies and the whys and wherefores of dwelling, both in the physical and in the metaphorical.

“All houses are houses of dreams, said Gaston Bachelard, the philosopher-poet of dwelling.  We live in houses and so we dream houses.  We daydream there and daydream about them.  They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves.  They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe.  A good house is a good daydreaming space.  It is the universe, he says.”

Howard Mansfield , Dwelling in Possibility Searching for the Soul of the Shelter, (Bauhan Publishing, 2013), pg. 17.


Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of Cherry Jones reading to me. She beautifully narrates Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of Little House books, giving each character a distinct voice. The Ingalls family moved across the United States territories from Kansas to Minnesota and finally to the Dakota territory, experiencing extraordinary hardships but seemingly always making the best. At times, I wonder if Wilder made events more joyful, perhaps even sugar-coating some of her recollections; but then the locusts eat the carefully tended crops, or the blizzard encases their house for days, and I know better. These books are fiction, biography and a how-to manual all at once. If one wants to live ruggedly off the land, settle a homestead, build a cabin, establish a garden, plant crops, break horses, harvest hay, put up food, sew and alter garments and much more, listen or read the Little House books, making notes as you go.

Perhaps you might prefer instead a more traditional manual, with interviews, diagrams and recipes, and for this I recommend the Foxfire series. When these books appeared in the ‘70s, I gobbled them up, just as I had done with Wilder’s books. In 1966, Eliot Wigginton, a young high school teacher on his first job at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School (in Rabun Gap, GA), pitched an idea for starting “Foxfire Magazine” out of desperation when his traditional classroom teaching efforts failed. He sent his students to interview their relatives, hoping not only to capture methods and memories, but also to rekindle relationships. Their project was wildly successful and one can subscribe to “Foxfire Magazine today (now at Issue 47).

Wigginton writes about his students in the introduction:

“Suddenly they discover their families—previously people to be ignored in the face of the seventies—as pre-television, pre-automobile, pre-flight individuals who endured and survived the incredible task of total self-sufficiency, and came out of it all with a perspective on ourselves as a country that we are not likely to see again. They have something to tell us about self-reliance, human interdependence, and the human spirit that we would do well to listen to.”

The time seems ripe again to glean techniques and methods from these books and magazines, and put them to use wherever we live.

The Little House series read by Cherry Jones on Harper Collins Audio.

The Foxfire Book hog dressing, log cabin building, mountain crafts and foods, planting by the signs, snake lore, hunting tales, faith healing, moonshining and other affairs of plain living, edited with an Introduction by Eliot Wigginton, (Anchor Books, 1972), pgs. 13, 11.

NOTE:  If one would like to see Cherry Jones on stage, she is currently appearing in “When We Were Young and Unafraid” at City Center, NY, NY running until August 10. Recent New York Times review

SECOND NOTE:  Abigail Doan recently interviewed me for her blog about the project Lost in Fiber.

make hay

‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is apt for many reasons and on many levels. Last week, it felt like summer here with temperatures approaching 90 degrees during the afternoons. And, indeed, hay was being made in the fields. Timely, for this week finds the temperatures lower and the days laced with rain and fog. If farmers cut their hay this week, it would either rot in the field or in the bales over time.


A few weeks ago, while reading the New York Times food section, the following caught my eye, “In Colonial days, New England farmhands pitched hay in the summer sun and slaked their thirst with a concoction called switchel, a mixture of vinegar, water and a sweetener, often molasses.”

I recalled hearing about “ales, beers, wines, ciders and spirits” on the May 1 edition of Fieldstone Common. Marian Pierre-Louis interviewed Corin Hirsch about her book The Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel & Spruce Beer. Hirsch masterfully traces the Colonies’ history through beverages of time, intertwining political events, tavern keeping, customs and recipes. Drinks were seasonal and regional, as with the switchel, which was consumed mainly in Vermont on hot summer days. Vinegar was used in this drink to give it a refreshing, tangy twist, for it was hard to acquire citrus fruits. Recipes may be found in Hirsch’s book, including one for the ‘Flip’, reminiscent of eggnog with a smokey taste and made with “beer, rum, spices and eggs served warmed by plunging a poker from the fire” into the mug. Perhaps on a cold winter’s day, we will try a flip, but this summer, pitchers of switchel will grace our table.

dooryard weed

“dooryard weed, great plantain, Englishman’s foot, devil’s shoestring, hen plant, birdseed, waybread & rabbit plantain“ are a few of the names given to the ubiquitous Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major).

Our ‘lawn’ is a combo-platter, and yesterday, as I looked around, the plantain was everywhere. In the back of my mind, I recalled reading about the many benefits of this so-called weed, and turned to the herbal books on the shelf. Indeed, the omnipresent dooryard weed seems to be a miracle worker, for its leaves staunch bleeding skin, relieve the itch of stings from mosquitoes and bees, and soothe certain bronchial and intestinal conditions. One can also enjoy the young leaves in a salad or sautéed, and know that these contain calcium and vitamins A, C & K.

By all accounts, plantain was not native to the English Colonies, but brought here, and quickly became known as Englishman’s food by the Native Americans. Midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) knew the worthy uses of plantain and other herbs:

“Herbs, wild as well as cultivated, were the true foundation of her practice. She wilted fresh burdock leaves in alcohol to apply to sore muscles, crushed comfrey for a poultice, added melilot (a kind of sweet clover) to hog’s grease for an ointment, boiled agrimony, plantain, and Solomon’s-seal into a syrup, perhaps following an old method that called for reducing the liquid by half, straining this decoction through a woolen cloth, then adding sugar to simmer to the thickness of new honey.”


By dusk, I gathered a jar full of plantain and filled it with apple cider vinegar, and in three weeks time, the liquid will be a perfect antidote to the mighty mosquito.

Isn’t it time we rejoiced in what is in our backyards, used the ‘weeds’ for their advantageous aspects for humans and insects, and stopped putting tons of chemicals on the grass?

Note:  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will give the Keynote Address at the upcoming MassHumanities 2014 Conference, ‘Never Done:  Interpreting the History of Women and Work in Massachusetts’ on Monday, June 2, 2014.  For information, go to Registration closes on May 30th  at high noon.


Firefox 2, Eliot Wigginton, editor, (Anchor Books, 1973), pg. 85.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich , A Midwife’s Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, (Vintage Books, 1990), 52, 354.

For more history and uses of plantain, consult:


Recently, M has been asking me a series of “when” questions:

–when did the hummingbirds return last year?
–when did we move the chickens to the summer coop?
–when did the cat birds come back?
–when did we plant the peas and other spring crops?

When indeed? In order to answer each question, I pull out my ‘Record’ book. For the past four years, at dawn, I record the daily temperature as well as notable natural occurrences. Gathered over time, these become invaluable, for we know when to put out the hummingbird feeders (May 17, 2013 & May 4, 2012) and when to look at dusk for the first lightning bugs (May 21, 2013 & May 9, 2012). This past winter was particularly harsh, and we seem to be experiencing a consistent two-week delay this Spring in many of Nature’s “events”.

Seasonal notes and marks may take on many different forms by using the actual ‘windfall’ leaves and flowers on an observer’s paper and cloth. India Flint describes this process in her article in Surface Design Journal, “Marking the Way Home” through the art works of Roz Hawker, Isobel McGarry, Judy Keylock and myself. Silversmith Roz Hawker lives in Australia and gathers both plants and weeds from her garden, dyes both paper and textile, and binds these into delicate books with silver covers. Similarly, flora finds it way onto my pages. Flint states:

“These exquisite pieces are as much a record of Honeycutt’s environment as they are lyric odes to the plants whose memory is ingrained in the surface.  They echo her daily journal entries, in which she notes the minutiae of the weather along with the plants and animals that make appearances on her property.  In the tradition of a hortus siccus, her reflections, together with the work of the day, literally become arrangements of dried botanical delights.”

If one is seeking advice on starting a weather journal, pick up a copy of This Book Was a Tree:  Ideas, Adventures, and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World by Marcie Chambers Cuff.  In chapter 6, she walks one through the steps to make an “Ecological Calendar,” not only how to construct one from recycled materials, but how to hone one’s observational skills.  Cuff notes that one does not have to live in the country to do so, but one can adopt a nearby tree in a park and watch as the leaves unfurl, noting the monthly changes.  Branch out, and note when the nearby flowers bloom, when the honeybees are active and when the butterflies appear.

Note:  For further inspiration, visit the Yale Center for British Arts for their current exhibition, “Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower”: Artist’s Books and the Natural World, on view from May 15-August 10, 2014.

India Flint, “Marking the Way Home,” Surface Design Journal, Nature Bound/Spring 2014, Vol. 38 No. 3, pgs. 28-33.

Marcie Chambers Cuff , This Book Was a Tree:  Ideas, Adventures, and Inspriation for Rediscovering the Natural World, (Perigree Book, 2014), pgs. 79-93.

And, thank you to Resurrection Fern for alerting me to Cuff’s book.

jane franklin mecom

Wednesday May 7, 1794–Two hundred and twenty years ago today, Jane Franklin Mecom passed away in Boston, MA.  Jane was the beloved sister of Benjamin Franklin and was an avid reader and a lively correspondent.

As is customary, Jane left belongings to members of her family, but to her granddaughter Jenny Mecom she left the majority of her household effects:

“In consideration of the extraordinary attention paid me by my Grand Daughter Jane Mecom exclusive of her common and necessary concerns in domestic affairs & the ordinary business of the Family, I think proper to give and bequeath unto her several articles of household furniture, particularly as follows The Bed, Bedstead, and Curtains which I commonly use, the three pair of homespun sheets lately made and the Bedding of every kind used with this Bed both in Summer and Winter, consisting of two Blankets, a White Counterpane and two Calico Bedquilts, one of which is new; The Chest of Drawers and Table which usually stand in my Chamber, and six Black Walnut Chairs with green bottoms also two black Chairs, my looking Glass which I bought of Samuel Taylor and which commonly hangs in my Chamber, a large Brass Kettle, a small Bell mettle skillet, a small iron Pot, a large Trammel, a pair of large Iron hand irons, a shovel and a pair of Tongs, a Black Walnut stand and tea board, two brass Candle sticks, a small Copper Tea Kettle and one half  of my Wearing Apparel of every kind.”

My mind conjures up Jane’s room, her humble bed with homespun sheets, and her skillets, irons and pots clustered around the fireplace.  Possessions.  Things left behind.  When a loved one passes, it seems that if one can hold something that was once theirs, one can thereby embrace that loved one for a bit longer.  When Jenny crawled into bed after a hard day’s work, did the calico bedquilt remind her of her dear grandmother, and thus provide a bit of comfort?

We can thank historian Jill Lepore for tracing down Jane Franklin’s writings and piecing together, as one would a quilt, the facts of Franklin’s life as retold in Lepore’s latest book, Book of Ages: the life and opinions of Jane Franklin.  Lepore’s book presents as one both poetry and history, for her exquisite use of language and knowledge of facts provides one with a captivating biography to be gobbled up and savored, simultaneously.

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: the life and opinions of Jane Franklin, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), pgs. 247,  245-246

a plea for dandelions from the honeybee

On a bright spring day, we can see our bees out foraging for needed food. And one wonders what they can find now, for the fruit trees have not yet budded out and most flowering plants do not show their beauty until summer. The humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the Spring flower of choice for honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees.

Dandelions provide one of the first sources of pollen (protein) and nectar (future honey) for honeybees in early Spring. We adore seeing the brilliant yellow dots on the greening-up lawn. But we are in the minority, for most homeowners want their lawn to be not only a flat plane of green, but also demand that it be weed free, and the dandelion stands at the top of their hit list.


We ask you to please refrain from pulling up (or worse, using herbicides on) the dandelions, and instead offer them up to foraging honeybees. And by the way, once the yellow dandelion flowers start to wither away, there remain delectable and nutritious dandelion greens that make for a great salad.

PS—If you need more evidence, browse the world wide web in a search for bees + dandelions, and be prepared for a good long read.