earning and learning

Category : Farm
Date : March 21, 2016
Comments : (1)

Growing up, a jar of sourwood honey was a permanent fixture on our kitchen table. Maple syrup and sugar was exotic to us, and a rare, relished treat.

Since moving to the colonial farm, we observe maple sap lines that snake through woods, and galvanized buckets that gleam in the sun. This year, the maple harvest began earlier than usual, as reported by Paul Post in The New York Times. Maple farmers are hoping that the required conditions – warm days and cold nights – will continue, enabling them to harvest prior to the trees budding out. If the weather becomes consistently warm, the sap will stop running.

IMG_6544Each year, I ponder harvesting from our sugar bush and wonder if we are wasting nature’s sweet sap. So, when I saw Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Maple Sugar Book on the second-hand shelf, I snapped it up. The Nearings moved to the Green Mountains in Vermont and sought to make “an honest living”, and found that sugaring was the answer. Their wisely written book walks one through practical advice: how and when to harvest; methods of making syrup; and a business and marketing plan, right down to packaging and the dollars and cents of the enterprise.

In the final chapters, they elucidate a plan for living off the land in a mindful manner, and conclude with the following:

We have earned from maple and found a means of livelihood. We have also learned from maple. The occupation of sugaring has been a thorough-going education and broadened our contacts with life in its many aspects. The young Thoreau in his Journal wrote, “Had a dispute with father about the use of my making this sugar…He said it took me from my studies. I said I made it my study and felt as if I had been to a university.” A complete syrup and sugar maker comprises in himself a woodcutter, a forester, a botanist, an ecologist, a meteorologist, an agronomist, a chemist, a cook, an economist, and a merchant. Sugaring is an art, an education, and a maintenance. “May it long be the mission of the maple thus to sweeten the cup of life.”

Last year when maple buckets were advertised for sale in our local “Shopper’s Guide,” I did not call about them. Now, I am on the look out, knowing that there are many lessons to be learned.

Paul Post, “Maple Syrup Makers in New York Savor Aftertaste of a Mild Winter”, The New York Times, published on February 21, 2016 and accessed on March 2, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/nyregion/maple-syrup-makers-in-new-york-savor-aftertaste-of-a-mild-winter.html

Helen and Scott Nearing, The Maple Sugar Book, Together with Remarks on Pioneering as a Way of Living in the Twentieth Century, (Schocken Books, New York, 1971), pgs. Xii, 246.

Note: for more information on Helen and Scott Nearing visit their Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, http://goodlife.org

harnessing & harvesting

Category : Farm
Date : February 15, 2016
Comments :

A few year’s back, M built us a hoop house for winter greens, using Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest as a general guide. With luck, this cold snap will not harm the lettuces, kales and other greens happily growing under the winter sun. Every time I open the hoop house door and step inside, the accumulated heat amazes me. Harnessing and harvesting seem to be two homesteader goals.


Harvesting has already begun in West Yorkshire, UK for their annual Rhubarb Triangle Festival. Yes, I did say harvesting, dear reader. Rhubarb is grown in large darkened sheds, with

“…the only light [coming] from a couple of candles on sticks stuck casually between row upon row of vibrant red stalks fanning around us like a silent, motionless army. Despite appearances, it is actually growing so fast—an inch a day or more—that it’s apparently possible to hear the buds burst open with an audible pop.”

reports Julia Horton in the Financial Times.


For two years the crops grow outside soaking up the glories of the sun in the form of carbohydrates. Then, the rhubarb is moved to the large heated sheds for winter harvest (this is done by candlelight to avoid any further photosynthesis). Farmers found that ‘forced’ rhubarb was much sweeter. According to Horton, at one point there were as many as 200 farmers sending out the sweet fruit to London via train on the “Rhubarb Express.”

Wouldn’t a pie made from one’s freshly harvested rhubarb taste divine on this winter’s day? I can only imagine and pine after a darkened shed for its growth. I’ll put that on M’s to-do list…


Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb in Wakefield, Yorkshire from February 19-21, 2016.

Martin Parr exhibition, “The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stores: Photographs” is currently on view at The Hepworth Wakefield until 12 June 2016.

Julia Horton, “Postcard from…Yorkshire,” FT Weekend, February 13-14, 2016, Life and Arts Section, pg. 6.

books, books & more books

Category : Books
Date : January 19, 2016
Comments : (2)

Imagine if there were only four or five books on your shelf? Doesn’t that seem unfathomable in today’s world, where for the fortunate, books and digital media abound? At times, choosing what to read, and in what format, is difficult.  It is also hard to envision our world without public libraries.

Whilst concurrently reading two books about the Puritans, I was stopped in my tracks by the description that both authors, Eve LaPlante and Stacy Schiff, paint of the early colonial bookshelf, or lack there of.


LaPlante reports that the Geneva Bible (the first translation of the Bible into English in 1560) was known to accompany the Puritans aboard the Mayflower in 1620. But she further explains:

“On a more practical level, the Holy Bible was one of the few texts available to the colonists of New England, who prior to 1660 had no active printing presses and imported little reading matter from London or Holland. A few of the best-educated men here, including the ministers, had libraries of biblical commentaries and works of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and some even wrote poetry, but dramatists and composers did not exist on this continent. The novel, of course, had yet to be invented. Most homes contained fewer than four books, at least one was the Bible. According to early Massachusetts probate records, the Bible was present in more than half of the households, and some houses had two or three. In addition, there was often a book of psalms, a primer, an almanac, a catechism or a chapbook—a small book of stories, songs or rhymes.”

Furthermore, Schiff states, “While all of Shakespeare’s plays existed [in 1690], no copy had turned up in North America…”. Imagine, no Shakespeare or theater? But then again, the early settlers were Puritans. [Theater companies worldwide are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year through multitudinous productions of his plays.]


Both the Schiff and LaPlante books are borrowed from our local library using the “Inter-Library Loan” program. In Massachusetts, if one’s library does not have a copy, the book may be requested from the state-wide library system through this program. Thus, the books available are practically limitless.

Have you ever used the “Library Value Calculator” designed by the Massachusetts Library Association? One inputs the number of resources used/borrowed and the software calculates the associated dollar value of these borrowings. Have a whirl and be amazed at the value provided by one’s public library. I am a card-carrying member (of our library) and proud of it.

Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel: the uncommon life of Anne Hutchinson, the woman who defied the Puritans, (Harper Collins, 2005), pgs. 42-43.

Stacy Schiff, The Witches Salem, 1692, (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), pg. 48.

[Hart House, circa 1680, Ipswich, MA formerly Agawam, Metropolitan Museum of Art Period Room]

winter metabolism

Category : Nature
Date : January 7, 2016
Comments : (1)

Greetings & Best wishes for 2016, dear Reader. We very much appreciate you following along with our musings and workings through the seasons on our colonial farm.

All across the northeast, temperatures dropped dramatically this past week and each morning dawned brisk and crystal clear. Heavy frost clung to the grasses and reeds in the field, and a thin glaze of ice formed on the ponds.


As I walked out the back door this morning, a group of startled chickadees burst from the nearby cedar shrub. I wondered if and why they had rested in the shrub, rather than in some seemingly more snug nests in tree cavities, during the preceding evening. Thankfully, Bernd Heinrich explains this behavior in his eloquently written book, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Apparently, black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus) do not use their nests in the winter for shelter and warmth, but instead “…may sleep in almost any tight cranny or cavity (as can sometimes be deduced from their bent tail feathers in the morning); in dense vegetation such as vines; in conifers; and possibly in snow.”

Heinrich further explains that chickadees, as do other small birds and mammals, activate torpor in the winter, setting down the body temperature to conserve energy. Chickadees stoke up their body fat during the day by foraging for food and, as evening comes on, lower their body temperature by two degrees, thus allowing for winter survival. By visiting our bird feeder, these active birds hopefully eat enough on a daily basis to make it through each night.   And, Heinrich further notes, that in addition to their dense plumage, they tuck their heads under their shoulder feathers to maintain warmth during the night.


So, during cold winter months, eat well during the day and plump up your feathers in the evening.

Bernd Heinrich, Winter World The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, (Ecco Paper Back, 2004), pgs., 9-11, 135-139.

end of the year appeal

Category : Farm
Date : December 16, 2015
Comments : (2)

On the farm, we are busy pouring over catalogs of trees, seeds and weeds. Yes, that is correct: we are looking at weeds, on the advice of our beloved Fedco Seeds. In their 2016 Tree catalog, they are highlighting weeds and invite us to regard them through a different lens. After all, what is wrong with a yard dotted with dandelions for foraging honeybees? Or a meadow transformed by the tall spears of milkweed awaiting the monarch butterfly?  Perhaps you will want to enjoy some steamed nettles, rich in minerals, early in the spring?


Of course, there are invasive weeds that we all contend with and seek to obliterate. On page 32 of the catalog, these ten plants (Asiatic Bittersweet, Autumn Olive, Bindweed, Galinsoga, Goutweed, Japanese Knotweed, Mulitflora Rose, Poison Ivy, Purple Loosestrife and Tartarian Honeysuckle) are identified with possible solutions to contain them.  “Mow and cut 3-6 times per season for 3-5 years to help slow down” is their recommendation for eliminating Multiflora Rose.

We intend to try out their “Orchard Companion” concept this spring, outlined on page 33. At the moment, our fruit trees are surrounded by grass, which necessitates mowing on a regular (though certainly not weekly) basis. Companion plants are not only beautiful to gaze upon, but beneficial to the trees and the environment, and they reduce our mowing requirements.

In their ‘Welcome Essay”,  John Bunker & Susan Kiralis make this appeal:

“We invite you to join us in seeing the world of weeds a little bit differently. The landscape need not be treated as a blank canvas for us to fill. Rather it can be a rich diverse weedy world we plunge into and join forces with. Collaboration and compromise are words we don’t hear so much anymore. The orchard and yard are great places to experiment with both.”

We link our arms with Fedco Seeds and appeal to homeowners, park officials, city planners, farmers, urban gardeners and anyone that digs in the dirt: let your beneficial weeds prosper in 2016.

For further reading, two newly published books are perfect for your wish list:

Hidden Natural Histories, Herbs The Secret Properties of 150 Plants by Kim Hurst (The University of Chicago Press, 2015). Information on many so-called weeds are within the covers of this book.

Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, Third Edition by Steven Foster and James A. Duke (Houghton Miffilin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014). A nice sized paper back to easily slip into your pocket as you forage.

course of study

Category : Books
Date : October 15, 2015
Comments : (4)

The sun sets over the mountain earlier each day, and we seem to be crossing autumn chores off our list at a decent pace. Shorter days and winter chill provide opportunities. My sights are set on a new course of action–a self-directed ‘course of study’ concentrating on the natural world around me. Over the next months, I plan to read, or have them read to me, the following books, giving me information to delve deeper and understand the wildlife, farm-life and natural world around me more fully.

  • Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in our Midst (Catherine Reid). During day light hours a few weeks ago, I spotted a lone coyote walking past my studio, marking territory, and moving off quickly into the woods. Although we hear the haunting nighttime chorus on a regular basis, seeing one led me to the first book on my list.
  • Malabar Farm (Louis Bromfield). In 1939, Bromfield and family moved to a run down farm and sought to rejuvenate the land. The book recounts his successful methods of land management and conservation—a true forerunner of the ‘back to the land movement’.
  • Our Life in Gardens (Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd). Over the course of 40 years, renowned gardeners, Eck and Winterrowd transformed a blank landscape into a functional and ornamental Vermont garden. Perusing this ‘how-to’ book provides a constant source of information to us as we seek to improve our land.
  • A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist (Boris Friedewald). A biography of a seventeenth century woman who “collected, observed, and sketched caterpillars and butterflies and their forage plants at a time when such interests might well have led to her being suspected of witchcraft rather than admired for her intelligence.” Women that broke through the imposed educational strictures are a rarity and their stories need to be read.
  • The Maple Sugar Book Together with Remarks on Pioneering as a Way of Living in the Twentieth Century (Helen and Scott Nearing). When I happened upon this book at our local library’s book sale, it seemed a must for a winter read. We watch the local maple trees being harvested, and I’m contemplating the steps and tools needed to make use of this natural resource.
  • The Witches Salem: 1692 (Stacy Schiff). On October 27, Schiff’s newest book, a thorough examination of the Salem Witch trials, is released. Indeed, this is not related to the ‘natural world’, however, it clearly relates to the colonial era and my continued exploration of women and culture of those times that produced such terror of witches.


One of my favorite methods of learning is from books-on-tape now in CD format, as I accomplish rote work or drive around doing errands.

  • Winter World The ingenuity of animal survival (Bernd Heinrich). Heinrich, a biologist as well as illustrator, examines the Maine woods and its winter inhabitants.  Currently, I am listenting to the chapter on bird nests and have been venturing out in search.
  • The House of Owls (Tony Angell). Nightly, we hear the hooting of the owls, and like the coyotes, our ‘neighbors’, I must know more, especially since one rarely sees an owl. I’d be particularly pleased to spot a saw-whet owl.
  • The Paper Garden: An Artist (Begins her Life’s Work) at 72 (Molly Peacock). Having read and re-read this astonishing account of Mary Delany’s life as told in the most poetic way by Peacock, I was delighted to find that it is also a book on CD.
  • Silent Spring (Rachel Carson). Over the summer, I listened to the biography of Carson [On a farther shore: The life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder]. I read her factual and poetic book, The Sea Around Us and now must read the groundbreaking Silent Spring.

The die is cast. My course is set and off I go.


Category : Farm
Date : September 22, 2015
Comments : (1)

If you stop by the farm, most likely you will find us at the stove stirring big vats of plums or apples for jam and sauce. Our fruit trees are laden this year, and like all good homesteaders, we cannot let this bounty go to waste.


Both my grandmother and mother preserved food both by canning and freezing. Eating the summer crops in the deep mid-winter was not only a pleasure but a necessity. When we moved from the suburbs to the tiny town of Delaplane in 1972, the back to the land movement was well under way. Ironically, as an adult, I never thought to ask my Dad if he was a follower of the Nearings or a reader of the Whole Earth Catalog. He did want us to learn how to work and to know the effort of labor related to the land.

Before we actually took possession of the house that June, he negotiated with the owner for us to re-claim the garden during the spring months. On Saturdays, as my suburb friends played, we loaded up the station wagon with tools and lunch and drove the hour and a half drive from Alexandria out to the farm nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Eventually, seeds were planted and by the time we moved there in June, the garden was well underway.

During the summer months, we learned new chores—watering, weeding and finally harvesting. If I thought weeding was tedious in the hot southern sun, I certainly was not prepared for the hours spent picking produce and preparing it for canning jars. Standing over the work sink in the windowless basement seemed interminable. Then and there I swore never to have a garden. Ironically, one of the first items on our to-do list when we moved here was to establish a garden. Walking to the garden to gather sun-ripened tomatoes along with fistfuls of basil is one of life’s true pleasures. Preserving these crops is the next logical step; if not, we would squander the delicious food and waste the human effort put into growing them.

On the colonial farm, food preservation meant survival. Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Experience at Accokeek Foundation, states that Americans living in the colonial era wouldn’t have wasted their food. “The Boltons would have valued every morsel of food, because it’s survival,” said Jones, who has seen food waste in this country increase by 50 percent in her lifetime. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how recent a problem it is.” ’

The Boltons, as historical interpreters, live on The Colonial Farm situated on the banks of the Potomac River on the grounds of the Accokeek Foundation. Visiting the Farm and Foundation is a perfect example of looking back to look forward, for one experiences the hardscrabble life of the farm family as well as the forward thinking of their Ecosystem Farm. This Saturday is a great day to visit The Colonial Farm and attend the Food for Thought Festival from noon to 5pm. The afternoon is filled with panels, demonstrations and information. Here is the link: http://accokeekfoundation.org/event/food-for-thought/

Andrea Jones comments from the article by Whitney Pipkin, “How will you make it through the winter?,” Bay Journal. Accessed on 9/22/15, http://www.bayjournal.com/article/how_will_you_make_it_through_the_winter.


by the week

Category : Farm
Date : July 31, 2015
Comments :

Last week, we harvested the bulbous bulbs of garlic in our garden, and now they are laid out on old window screens to dry before cleaning and storing. Planting garlic in the fall is one of the easiest chores—each clove is put into its own 6-inch hole and, covered, and there they sit all winter long. The shoot emerges in the spring, the scape is harvested and made into pesto, and the bulb continues to grow. Finally, around the last week of July, (give or take a week), each bulb is coaxed gently from the earth.

Week by week the garden yields new treasures from the first peas, to asparagus and then to strawberries, and ramps up as the summer proceeds. Just as one harvests, one must tend the garden as well. Leaving the ground alone for too long provides an opportunity for weeds to settle in, thus depleting the soil, and causing extra work for the gardener. As you know, dear reader, I adore weeds, but not so much in the vegetable patch.

Around the Year in the Garden by Frederick Frye Rockwell (1884-1976) provides one with weekly guidance. “July: Fifth Week” is right on target with sage advice:

“As fast as a strip of ground is cleared, even if it is a but a single row, it should be sown to a cover crop to be spaded under next spring. Besides adding humus and making conditions favorable to the development of bacteria, there are several advantages in having a growing crop on the ground throughout the winter. Such a crop forages the lower layers of the soil for food that most of the vegetable plants cannot reach, and brings it to the surface; it captures remnants of plant food that would leach away during the winter, and holds them in storage until they are required again next summer.”


He recommends both rye and vetch as green manures, as well as Essex rape and buckwheat.

“If bees are kept, or there are chickens to be fed, a small patch of buckwheat should be put in. For the honey bees, a few rows through the garden will answer. For mature grain it should be sown at once; for a winter mulch, sown with crimson clover, or for spading under this fall, it may be sown at any time during the next two or three weeks.”

Indeed, the rye seeds are in the ground along with a few rows of buckwheat for any foraging bees. Added to the chore list for the first week of August–order fall bulbs, both garlic and flowers, from Fedco.

Frederick Frye Rockwell, Around the Year in the Garden, (MacMillan Company, 1917), pgs. 189, 191.


Category : Books
Date : June 2, 2015
Comments :

One of my favorite pastimes is foraging, for books as well as for weeds and plants. I never pass up a library’s used book sale and when in NYC, The Strand’s outdoor bins, especially the 48-cent one, never lets me down. A favorite herb book was gathered there and more recently a copy of Weeds (A Golden Guide) by Alexander C. Martin.

Imagine my shock when I opened the book and looked at the Table of Contents, including, “The Harm Weeds Cause, Cost to farmers; additional losses in control of lawn and garden pests, respiratory ailments; interference with waterways and outdoor recreation.” Published in 1972, I wonder if this mindset laid the ground work for the pervasive use of harmful neonicotinoids, now in use on many fields and farms, engineered to kill weeds and terribly harmful to insects, pollinators and wildlife. To be fair, Martin does include a mention of the benefits of weeds—“Many kinds of weeds are sources of drugs, medicines and dyes. Songbirds, gamebirds, and other kinds of wildlife depend to a very large extent on weed seeds for their existence.” However, the overall emphasis of the book remains on identification and subsequent elimination of these so-called pesky plants.

blog photo

As you are aware, dear reader, weeds are some of my favorite things, to be encouraged and relished, in the kitchen, the dye pot and the remedy jar. Thankfully, many moons ago, Euell Gibbons’ groundbreaking foraging book, published in 1962, Stalking the Wild Asparagus found its way into my hands from my library’s yearly sale. Gibbons (1911-1975) began his foraging as a child.

Gibbons recounts, to the writer John McPhee:

“Wild food was our calendar—a signal of the time of year. In the spring, we had wild asparagus and poke and all the early greens. Lamb’s-quarters came in the late spring and strawberries in the early summer, then mulberries and blackberries. In the late summer, we had purslane, wild plums, maypops—that’s a kind of hard-shell passion fruit—and in the fall there were plenty of muscadines, wild pecans, hickory nuts, black walnuts. As it got a little colder, there were persimmons, hackberries and black haws. Wherever we went, I asked what the Indians ate. We considered all these things delicacies, and we would not have not gathered them, anymore than we would have let things in the garden go to waste.”

Sometimes one has to take the good with the bad, or filter it. While I won’t eliminate the weeds, all ‘good’ to me, I will use the pocket sized Weeds book, as I walk the fields, for positive plant identification. Gibbons’ books, filled with ‘good’ writing—descriptions, stories and uses– will continue to inspire me. Perhaps, it is time to make that ‘weed’ calendar/chart, reminding me when to look for and harvest them.

Alexander C. Martin illustrations by Jean Zallinger A Golden Guide Weeds, (Golden Press, 1972), 6-7, 8-9.

John McPhee, The New Yorker April 6, 1968 (pgs. 45-104), accessed on line June 2, 2015, pgs. 50. If you are a subscriber to The New Yorker (access to their archives is free), this article by McPhee recounts a camping trip that he and Gibbons took and the 16 foraged meals they ate together.

poetry month

Category : Textiles
Date : April 15, 2015
Comments : (1)

Textile terms are often linked to writing, and in particular, works of women’s words.

Theodore Roethke sets the stage for his glowing review of the poet Louise Bogan (1897-1970) by starting with a contrast, stating that women poets are often accused of ‘lack of range” exhibited by “the spinning out; the embroidering of trivial themes.” He concludes his review by noting: “Her poems create their own reality, and demand not just attention, but the emotional and spiritual response to the whole man. Such a poet will never be popular, but can and should be a true model for the young. And the best work will stay in the language as long as the language survives.”

Perhaps Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the first poet of the Colonies, set the standard and bar for women poets in her poem, The Prologue:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

Who says my hand a needle better fits.

A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong;

For such despite they cast on female wits,

If what I do prove well, it won’t advance—–

They’ll say it stolen, or else by chance.

Indeed, needle and thread did function as a stylus for many a young girl on the canvas of her sampler as evidenced in the recent exhibition, Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlwork 1726-1860 held at the Morven Museum and Garden. Over 150 samplers lined the galleries, almost overwhelming to the eye, but reassuring and fortifying for both the scholar and stitcher alike.

Young Anne Rickey (1783-1846) stitched/wrote on her sampler:

Hail specimen of female art

The needle’s magic power to show

To canvas various hues impart

And make a mimic world to grow

A sampler then with care peruse

An emblem sage you there may find

The canvas takes what forms you choose

So education forms the mind.



The poet Dara Mandle links weaving, writing , technology and preservation in her poem, Looking at Burden Baskets in the Smithsonian:

Was the weaver’s art so different

from my picking apart?


She peeled cedar shoots for her daily tools,

I recorded the music of bracken fern


and sumac. On the page, I threaded

wild rye with river cane, she used


a loom to coil deer grass around yucca

Why did I stare? I didn’t imagine her


in a museum inspecting my laptop,

its plastic mouse holy as a scarab.


April is poetry month, and seems only fitting for one to venture forth and hear words read from pages of books by their writers. Dara Mandle will be reading from her newly published chapbook, Tobacco Hour (art by Brece Honeycutt), along with writer John Talbird (art by Lesley Kerby) on Sunday April 19 at Luhring Augustine Bushwick from 4-6pm. This event marks the 10th & 11th writer/artist/poet collaborations initiated and produced by Norte Maar.

Psyche The Feminine Poetic Consciousness An Anthology of Modern American Women Poets, edited by Barbara Segnitz and Carol Rainey (Dell Publishing, 1973), pgs. 11, 12 (Both Roethke and Bradstreet from the introduction).

Theodore Roetheke, “A Memorable American Poet, The Poetry of Louise Bogan,” reprinted from the Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review, December 3, 1960, Vol. LXVII, No. 10, accessed online April 15, 2015, http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/hopwood/Home/Lecturers%20&%20Readers/Hopwood%20Lectures%20PDF/HopwoodLecture-1960%20Theodore%20Roethke.pdf

Linda Arntzenius, “Hail Morven’s Latest (Landmark) Exhibition”, Princeton Magazine, February 2015, accessed on line April 14, 2015, http://www.princetonmagazine.com/hail-morvens-latest-landmark-exhibition/

Elaine Showalter, A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, (Virago Press, 2009), pgs. 99-100.

Dara Mandle, Tobacco Hour, (Norte Maar, 2015).

one year

Category : Books
Date : March 23, 2015
Comments : (2)

Imagine my delight at happening upon Fiona J. Houston’s book, The Cottage Diaries My Year in the Eighteenth Century. Why would someone choose to live for a year in a small house without running water, electricity, heat or any of the comforts that we are accustomed to? Ironically, the present led her back to the past. While investigating the history of Scottish food for an exhibition, she read Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate, and was shocked by the lack of nutrients found in industrialized food. She posited that people ate better in late eighteenth century Scotland and decided to take on the challenge of living and eating for a year as a dominie’s wife (a dominie is a Scottish schoolmaster).

Houston writes:

“One of my reasons for trying to go back in time was my anger at our throw-away society. It’s not just the wastefulness of buying goods, using them for a short time and then chucking them out that upsets me. It is the whole swathe of human activity and endeavour that is negated by this cycle. In the past, people had fewer resources. They had to use their skills and ingenuity to obtain the things that they needed for daily life. They had to make, mend, improvise and invent. I like all of that. I may not have all of the skills, but I have the inclination. In deciding to live simply for a year, I was setting myself a challenge to let the practical side of my nature come to the fore.”

Houston sets herself up in a small house and kits it to an eighteenth century standard with a simple table and chair, bed, a few candlesticks, pots and pans, and a range dating from 1860 (women of the prior century would have cooked on an open hearth, but the structure of Houston’s cottage did not allow for this). She wears clothing of the time (skirts and cloaks, both become soaked in the rain, for not waterproof), gardens and forages in order to cook seasonally, writes with a quill pen using homemade ink, and walks to the local village when necessary.


Her diary begins in January 2005 and chronicles her monthly chores and activities. She provides recipes, and I have yet to make her oatcakes, but soon nettle soup will be on our table. She kept a careful accounting of the her food categorized by season, purchased or foraged, as well as “What it all Cost.” She works incredibly hard at daily living, keeping warm or cool, gathering firewood, making candles and other chores. At the end of her day, she tries to sit down and read books of the time, but finds that it is difficult to read by the rushlights. Houston confirms my suspicion that working by candlelight was extremely difficult, for I often wonder how much was accomplished by such dim lights.

I have the utmost admiration for Fiona Houston, for mastering the skills needed to survive an eighteenth century year. Her book provides one with both the expertise to follow in her footsteps and the ability to see what one can do in the twenty-first century to live a more considered, ‘greener’ life.

NOTE: It seems only fitting to mark the completion of a second year of ‘on a colonial farm’ after reading of Houston’s eighteenth century life. Thank you, dear readers for joining me.

Fiona J. Houston, The Cottage Diaries My Year in the Eighteenth Century, illustrations by Claire Melinsky, (Saraband, 2009), pgs. 9-10, 44, 71, 214

past & present

Category : Books
Date : March 1, 2015
Comments :

Yet another snowstorm looms in our local future, as it does for many on the east coast. The weather continues to be a topic of much talk and, in some cases, despair, as it ever was.

Noah Webster (1748-1853) kept a “diary of weather” and thus was able to put both past and present into perspective. He wrote:

“The snow in January of 1805 was about 3 feet deep. This was the severest winter since 1780. But the snow left the earth in March in good season & spring was early. I cut asparagus on the 14th of April, 9 days earlier than last year.”

His article ‘Meteorological’ in The Connecticut Herald seeks to make sense of the reported severest winters of 1780 and 1805. Webster was eagerly tracking the climatic changes through his strenuous data gathering, and thereby challenged the attestations of Thomas Jefferson and others that the “American winters were becoming milder.” Intriguingly, biographer Joshua Kendall links this controversy between scholarly gentlemen to what we now call climate change. Jefferson claimed that the deforestation in some states was the cause of this warming trend; Webster noted that variability in weather patterns was increasing, and he kept data and analyzed the statistics to prove it. Both of these wise individuals pointed to the plight that we are dealing with, or need to tackle, today.

Looking back at these winters and writers gives one a bit of perspective on the recent bout of record setting weather, which must needs give one pause about what we humans are doing each day as we shape the future of our globe.


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,

“We are always ready to set aside our present life, even our present happiness, to peruse the menu of future exterminations. If the future is threatened by the present, which it undoubtedly is, then the present is more threatened, and often is annihilated, by the future.”

He continues:

“….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.”

Time, right now, to start a list of small actions for today.



Joshua Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, (Berkley Books, 2012), pgs. 273-274.

Wendell Berry, Our Only World Ten Essays, (Counterpoint, 2015), pgs. 174, 175.


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