“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 http://www.masshumanities.org/history_conference_2014. 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.


Historic Deerfield’s Calendar arrived in my mailbox and I eagerly began to look at the course offerings. Of course, I wanted to participate in ‘The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” to learn how to write with a quill, but my attention was quickly drawn to two course offerings for “Girl Scout Badge Days”.

receiving my brownie pin

receiving my brownie pin

Indeed, I was both a ‘brownie’ and a ‘girl scout’ and was awarded a few badges—some of which are still pinned onto my treasured sash. Perhaps one can guess the name of each badge from the symbol – camping, arts & crafts, hospitality, letter writing, grilling. Would I have completed more badges, and in fact sewn them to my sash, if I had been at Historic Deerfield? Indeed, I would have proudly sported both the Textile Artist Badge and the Playing with Past Badge.

my treasured Girl Scout Sash

my treasured Girl Scout Sash

My curiosity got the better of me, and I searched a few of my personal favorite historic sites to see if they offered badges, and alas, scouts can receive badges at Mount Vernon, National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), Orchard House (home of Louisa May Alcott), Strawberry Banke Museum, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder house.

What badges are on my list to complete this summer? Looking through the 1930 Girl Scout Handbook, I am going to work on the Wildflower Finder, to become “acquainted with a least fifty wild flowers”; the Canner, thinking ahead to apple and pickle season; the Dressmaker (‘…must have both the Needlewoman Badge and the Laundress Badge in order to complete’); and finally, the Handy-Woman Badge with the first requirement, “Know how to mend, temporarily with soap, a small leak in a water or gas pipe.” By far my favorite Badge is the Pioneer, and I nod to the women that lived in this house and others that ventured to further western frontiers and award them well earned Badges.

Girl Scout Handbook, (The Girl Scouts, 1920), pgs. 418, 425, 429, 442, 449.


First day of spring.  First spring snow showers.  First flock of red-winged black birds.  First shoots of skunk cabbage.

First American poet Anne Bradstreet’s thoughts on spring:

Sweet Spring like man in his Minority,
At present claim’d, and had priority.
With smiling face and garments somewhat green,
She trim’d her locks, which late had frosted been,
Nor hot nor cold, she spake, but with a breath,
Fit to revive, the nummed earth from death.
Three months (quoth she) are ‘lotted to my share
March, April, May, of all the rest most fair.
Tenth of the first, Sol into Aries enters,
And bids defiance to all tedious winters,
Crosseth the Line, and equals night and day,
 (Stil adds to th’last til after pleasant May)
And now makes glad the darkened northern wights
Who for some months have seen but starry lights.
Now goes the Plow-man to his merry toyle,
He might unloose his winter locked soyl:
The Seeds-man too, doth lavish out his grain,
In hope the more he casts, the more to gain:
The Gardener now superfluous branches lops
And poles erects for his young clambering hops.
Now digs then sowes his herbs, his flowers and roots
And carefully manures his trees of fruits.
The Pleides their influence now give,
And all that seem’d as dead afresh doth live.
The croaking frogs, whom nipping winter kil’d
Like birds now chirp, and hop about the field.
The Nightingale, the black-bird and the Thrush
The wanton frisking Kid, and soft-fleec’d Lambs
Do jump and play before their feeding Dams,
The tender tops of budding grass they crop,
They joy in what they have, but more in hope:
Yet many a fleece of snow and stormy shower
Doth darken Sol’s bright eye, makes us remember
The pinching North-west wind of cold December.

Bradstreet (1612-1672), along with her husband Simon and her parents Thomas and Dorothy Dudley, arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650 after surviving the three-month voyage from England aboard the Arabella.

Bradstreet wrote over 6000 lines of poetry during her lifetime. Her poems are political, historical, lyrical, and seasonal.

Poems of Anne Bradstreet, edited with an introduction by Robert Hutchinson, (Dover Publications, 1969), pgs 167-8, from her poem entitled,  The four Seasons of the Year.

mrs. beeton

Yesterday was Mrs. Beeton’s birthday.  Isabella Mary Beeton (née Mayson) was born in London on March 12, 1836 and died 28 years later on 6 February 1865.  She left thousands of sheets of paper filled with recipes and practical knowledge in her book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861.

Beeton’s husband Samuel was a publisher; Mrs. Beaton began writing advice columns for his publication, “The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine”.  She commuted from their suburban home on the train to London.  Imagine a woman clad in a large hooped crinoline of the day, seated and reading proofs, in a carriage filled with men—a trailblazer, indeed.  At first her work appeared in serial format and was later compiled into a tome of 1,112 pages.  Beeton’s work served as a practical guide for middle-class women running households during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and quickly became a bestseller, selling more than 60,000 copies during the first year.

Mrs. Beeton's Grave. Collaboration Brece Honeycutt (sculpture) & Vit Hopley (photography), Polaroid, 1994

Mrs. Beeton’s Grave. Collaboration of Brece Honeycutt (sculpture) & Vit Hopley (photography), Polaroid, 1994

I initially imagined Mrs Beeton to have been a formidable character, resembling Queen Victoria, and to have written her book after many decades of domestic service.  It was only after stumbling across her humble grave in a Lambeth cemetery in 1994 that I learned otherwise (actually, I walked right past it and my husband called it to my attention, saying, “Brece, you just walked past Mrs. Beeton’s grave.”).  The sighting of her grave, and learning of her short life, marked the beginning of my research into Mrs. Beeton and, thus, my greater understanding of her accomplishments.  There are numerous books written about her and Sam, but the most recent biography by Kathryn Hughes, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, gives one a good window into her accomplishments.

How many women have not been written about, and their stories just waiting to be written or corrected?  During Women’s History Month, one can participate in the third WikiWomen’s History Month:

WikiWomen’s History Month is a wiki-coordinated program of international events and edit-a-thons focused on WikiProject Women’s History and related projects such as WikiProject Women artists, WikiProject Feminism, and WikiProject Women scientists, to be held throughout in celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in March 2014. These events can also be held ON Wiki – as themes and translation projects!”

Wouldn’t this effort please Isabella Beeton?  I think it would.


Kathryn Hughes, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, (Knopf, 2006).