summer reading list

Category : Art, Books, Farm, Nature, Plants
Date : July 5, 2018

Summer promises the great outdoors: time to explore new terrains or become more familiar with the world found on your doorstep.  As a primer to our summer exploration, we have been delving into ‘nature based’ reading.

on a colonial farm’s recommended summer reading list:

Carlos MagdalenaThe Plant Messiah:  Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species(New York:  Doubleday, 2017), pg. 6.

“I want to make the world aware of what plants do for us.  I want us to give plants a value and appreciate what they do. I want us to understand their importance for our survival and the survival of our families—our babies, grandparents, and future generations.  I want us to realize that without them we would die, and most living things on land in the air would die with us.  I want us to be enthused by the importance of conservation, to be fired with determination that we should never give up, even if there is only one plant left in the world.  I want us to understand the importance of plants so much that we are moved to do something about it.”

 

Diana Beresford-Kroeger, The Global Forest 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, (New York:  Penguin Group, 2010), pg. 69.

“But art has a sister.  The sibling is science.  Art and science are of the same house, of the same family.  Art in all its forms opens the way for science, because art is the precursor to science in all things.  Art sounds the bell of change that leads to discovery, and science runs in to listen, to test, and to learn.  Art sometimes molds and other times reflects the thoughts of culture and then defines the tides of fashion.  Science follows in the wake of those tides and looks back at the great fetch of “why” to derive the question “how.”

“There is some time left. There is time for a different way of thinking in which man can rethread the needle and sew a life for the future. For if nature is destroyed, art will stand still and the creativity of science will follow suit. “

 

Tristan Gooley, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, (New York:  The Experiment, 2010),  pg 3.

“Picking up one simple scent can take the mind on an extraordinary journey.  Sense and thought, observation and deduction, this two-step process is the key to transforming a walk from mind-numbing to synapse-tingling.  One cannot work without the other; the brain can build wondrous edifices in our mind but it requires the scaffold that our senses provide.”

 

 

Richard Powers, The Overstory, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018), pgs.  454-455.

‘ “Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven…..If we could see green, we’d see a thing that keeps getting more interesting the closer we get.  If we could see what green was doing, we’d never be lonely or bored.  If we could understand green, we’d learn how to grow all the food we need in layers three deep, on a third of the ground we need right now, with plants that protected one another from pests and stress. If we knew what green wanted, we wouldn’t have to chose between the Earth’s interests and ours.  They’d be the same.” ‘

 

Andrea Barnet,  Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall and Alice Waters Changed Our World(New York: Ecco, 2018), pg. 330.

“People ask how can I as one person can make a difference……But if we can start making considered choices in our everyday actions, the little things – what we buy, what we wear, if we think carefully about the consequences of these choices – how it was made, where did it come from, was it child slave labor, was it cruelty to animals, etc., then we can start making different choices. Small choices. But multiply these small choices by a hundred, a thousand, a million and then a billion and then you start to see a different kind of world.”  Jane Goodall.

 

I will be tucking wildflower, bird and trees guides into my bag this summer, along with newly handmade books to start mapping what I see, hear and smell around the farm.  Delving deeper into where I live and what lives around me, guided by the thought that all is connected, and that by our choices we can make a difference.

 

[Note:  Click on Author’s name for their website, including Carson, Jacobs, Goodall and Waters.]

 


in bloom

Category : Books, Nature, Plants
Date : April 18, 2018

We eagerly await the arrival of spring, more so this morning as snow flakes floated down to outline branches, leaves and stone walls as only newly fallen snow can do. We’ve had a few warm days sprinkled here and there in the past few weeks, but not enough to truly turn the corner and bring on full spring.

Saturday marks the start of the Spring Wildflower Festival at Bartholomew’s Cobble, as well as my third year as a wildflower guide there. On bitterly cold Saturdays in March, we guides gathered to discuss the geology of the site, the area’s ecology and the associated plant botany. We trudged through ice and snow over the trails, imagining the emergence of the green shoots and later lacy spring flowers. Bartholomew’s Cobble is a National Natural Landmark and we owe the rare diversity of the plant life to geological action that occurred 420 million years ago that results in both quartzite (acid) and marble (base) existing side by side–not a normal occurrence.

The “What’s In Bloom’ board at Bartholomew’s Cobble from May 2017

 

In preparation for my walks, I delve deeply into each plant’s characteristics, but I also search for the writings of others that found fleeting ephemerals.

Emily Dickinson, gardener and poet, reports of an 1848 spring walk to her friend Abiah Root:

“There were several pleasure parties of which I was a member, and in our rambles we found many and many beautiful children of Spring, which I will mention and see if you have found them — the trailing arbutus, adder’s tongue, yellow violets, liver leaf, bloodroot and many other small flowers.” 1

Mary Oliver recounts slipping away from school one spring day:

“I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s-breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs upon their bodies…The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. “2

On April 3, 1853 , Henry David Thoreau notices one of spring’s smallest flowers:

“To my great surprise the early saxifrage is in bloom. It was, as it were, by mere accident that I found it. I had not observed any particular forward news in it, when happening to look under a projecting rock in a little nook on the south side of a stump I spied one little plant which had opened three or four blossoms high up the cliff. Evidently you must look very sharp and faithfully to find the first flower. Such is the advantage of position.”

Bartholomew’s Cobble rightly boasts about its spring ephemerals and many noted and seen by Dickinson, Oliver and Thoreau—adder’s tongue, bloodroot, blue cohosh, Dutchman’s-breeches, fringed polygala, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, liver leaf, spring beauty, rue anemone, trillium, saxifrage, wild columbine, and violets are there, for example. Stop by on Saturdays and Sundays for guided tours, or ramble on the Ledges trail on your own with eyes wide open. As Oliver notes, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”4

1, Judith Farr, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), pg.97.

2. Mary Oliver, Upstream, (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), pgs 4-5.

3. Geoff Wisner, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pg. 16.

4.Oliver, pg. 8

Note:  I will be leading tours on April 21 at 12pm, April 22 at 10pm and May 13th at 3pm.  There are guided tours on Saturday and Sunday, 10am, 12pm, 2pm & 3pm. Bartholomew’s Cobble, 105 Weatougue Road, Ashley Falls, Sheffield, MA.

Second Note:  A documentary about Emily Dickinson, Seeing New Englandly will be shown at the Roelieff Jansen Community Library on April 28 at 4pm, 9019 Route 22, Hillsdale, NY.


written words

Category : Books, Correspondence
Date : March 27, 2018

Letters are relics and treasure troves of information, transporting one right back to exact moments in time.

A few years ago, my husband, busy insulating and putting on new clapboards, found a cache of letters in the walls of our old house. These letters were written during 1868-69 from a young man, Joseph, living in our home, to a young woman, Kittie, residing five miles down the road, quite a distance at that time. The bundle only included his letters, which recounted his daily life on this farm, expressed his love for her and told of their eventual break in friendship. Did he ask for the return of the letters or did she bundle them up, delivering them before she headed west? From the inside of the house, there wasn’t a hole in the wall or any other indication what lurked behind.  Perhaps, Joseph couldn’t bear to throw them out and sealed them in the wall for safekeeping. Over the past months, I have talked with his relatives, but none knew of his early love for Kittie. Despite my researching at the local historical society, I cannot locate any information about her. Time for more sleuthing.

Possibly, reading his correspondence primed me for delving into more volumes of letters. Lately, M.F.K Fisher’s letters (1929-1991) have absorbed me, allowing me to journey along as she struggled with her writing, penned many books, traveled across the country and abroad, and lived a very full life raising two daughters. Even though we only have Fisher’s letters, over time one begins to know her sisters, husbands, family and friends, and follow the path of her life. After listening to the novel The Indigo Girl recounting a distinct chapter of the life of Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793), I had to read Pinckney’s letters (on which the book is based). Seventeen year old, Eliza was left in charge of her father’s farm in South Carolina. Saddled with debt, she initiated many farming endeavors, including the farming of indigo. Due to its success, many other farms began to grow and harvest indigo. And this morning found me deep into Letters To A Young Farmer, a series of letters written to inspire, bolster and advise new farmers. Each one is penned with passion for the land and the love of farming. All three books are quite different as to time and place and trades, but all offer a glimpse into a how a life was lived and the paths chosen.

“You are so young, so much before all beginning…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves as if they were in locked rooms or in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet, 1929. (1)

 

1-Letters to a Young Farmer On Food Farming and Our Future, Princeton Architectural Press, 2017, pg. 1.

Natasha Boyd, The Indigo Girl, Blackstone Publishing, 2017.

M.F.K Fisher, A life in Letters Correspondence 1929-1990 selected and compiled by Norah K Barr, Marsha Moran, Patrick Moran, Counterpoint, 1997.

Eliza Lucas Pinckney, The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, The University of North Carolina Press, 1972.


“honey from a weed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Note: Tune into the Make/Time podcast series.


mending circles

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

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

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

 

my mended sock

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


two finds

Category : Books, Correspondence
Date : December 24, 2016

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

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

unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, dear Reader.

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

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

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


bake a cake & vote

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

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

img_0584

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


write me a letter

Category : Books, Correspondence
Date : September 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

ah_catlin1

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

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

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

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

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.


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