two finds

Category : Books, Correspondence
Date : December 24, 2016
Comments : (7)

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.

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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
Comments :

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”.

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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
Comments : (1)

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!

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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.


naturalists

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

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

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/naturalist

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.

 


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.

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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.]

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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]

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.

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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.


foraging

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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

 


objects

Category : Books
Date : February 19, 2015
Comments : (1)

I stand at my worktable, pierce holes in paper, thread a needle with waxed linen and bind the pages together forming a hand bound book. My actions are not revolutionary, but they are meditative, and ones that fellow bookbinders have done for centuries.

As I line up the pages within the eco-dyed covers, and rhythmically slip the needle through the holes, my mind wanders to images of leaves of books, of books within books. Often books are about just that – other books – and with more regularity now, images of archival manuscripts are reproduced therein. Thankfully so, for these manuscripts are hidden from view, tucked away in special (often secure) rooms in libraries for safe-keeping.

eco-dyed covers ready for binding


Scholars, poets, artists and authors search out these handmade objects, for the energy and information that they hold within. A tactile experience described by Jill Lepore:

“…sitting in that archive, holding those sheets of foolscap stitched together with the coarsest of threads, I began to think that Benjamin Franklin’s sister had something to say after all, something true, something new. Very delicately, I once more turned the brittle pages of the Book of Ages, and in them I saw an unwritten story: a history of books and papers, a history of reading and writing, a history from reformation to revolution, a history of history. This, then, is Jane Franklin’s story: a book of ages about ages of books.”

Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s sister) revolves around this manuscript housed in the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Franklin “…stitched four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make sixteen pages. On its first page, she wrote, “Jane Franklin Born on Monday March 27 1712″. She called it her Book of Ages.” Lepore charts the course of her biography using Franklin’s book as the route; the strokes of Franklin’s quill pen in her handmade book provide the coordinates.

Step back. Examine the pen strokes, their placement on the page, the materiality of the paper, as Susan Howe wisely advises in her recent book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, when examining Jonathan Edwards’ papers at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

“Three of Edwards’ manuscript books I particularly love are titled Efficacious Grace. Two of them he constructed from discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans. If you open these small oval volumes and just look—without trying to decipher the minister’s spidery script, pen strokes begin to resemble textile thread-text. Surface and meaning co-operate to keep alive in one process mastery in service, service in mastery.”

“Spidery,” and “lavish, calligraphic…slender, artful”, are adjectives used to describe the styles of Edwards and Franklin, respectively. Paper made from rags (Franklin) and silk (Edwards) bound by their hands and holding the words written in their hands. These manuscripts are more than books; they are also a portal into an historic figure and a corresponding era.

bound copies of Tobacco Hour

Objects. A few weeks ago, the poet Susan Howe delivered her lecture (from which the above referenced book is based) at The Hotchkiss School in conjunction with the exhibition, “Hotchkiss in 50 Objects” at the Tremaine Art Gallery. The exhibition traced, defined and referenced Hotchkiss’ history by way of fifty items from the school’s archives. Before she began her lecture, Howe told us that while giving her talk, a series of images would be shown, but she would not stop to tell us what each was, rather they would roll forward as a “collage”. Images of documents, book pages and fragments floated by on the screen, and we connected the dots by way of her multi-faceted details. Howe states:

“In research libraries and collections, we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles. In material details. In twill fabrics, bead-work pieces, pricked patterns, four-ringed knots, tiny spangles, sharp-toothed stencil wheels; in quotations, thought-fragments, rhymes, syllables, anagrams, graphemes, endangered phonemes, in soils and cross-outs.”

Find some paper and thread, make a book, and begin writing down details.

Objects.

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, (Alfred Knopf, 2013), pgs. XIII-XIV, XII, 49.

Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, ( Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2014), pgs. 46, 21.

Note: Tobacco Hour a collaboration between poet/Dara Mandle, artist/Brece Honeycutt, and publisher/Jason Andrew/Norte Maar will be published in April 2015. Special thanks to Barbara Mauriello for her encouragement and consultation on the project.

sneak peak of Tobacco Hour cover

 


tea at Tasha’s

Category : Books
Date : July 28, 2014
Comments : (1)

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.

IMG_1454

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.


how-to-manuals

Category : Books
Date : June 23, 2014
Comments :

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.


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