tea at Tasha’s

Category : Books
Date : July 28, 2014

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

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

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


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

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


Category : Books
Date : June 23, 2014

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.

jane franklin mecom

Category : Books
Date : May 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


Category : Books
Date : March 20, 2014

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

First American poet Anne Bradstreet’s thoughts on spring:

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

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

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

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

history month

Category : Books
Date : March 8, 2014

Growing up I had two heroines—Laura Ingalls Wilder and Harriet the Spy.  I read the books over and over again, for they were my city and country mice.

Harriet lived in New York City, a dream of mine as a young girl, but more importantly, she carried around her notebook and was an observer.  Rereading the book, one realizes that Harriet told the truth, and this was not always well received.  She suffered for it, and perhaps that was part of Fitzhugh’s plan.  Harriet the Spy turned 50 this year and Random House just issued an anniversary issue.

Laura grew up on the prairie and the day-to-day mechanics of the homestead was of utmost fascination to me, and still is.  I just began to listen to the series via books on CD, and these are reminding me that Laura provided so much practical knowledge.  Laura benefited from wise parents, for both Ma and Pa knew the workings of the seasons and how it related to the world around them.

my treasured copies

my treasured copies

Books were my road into different worlds and their inhabitants, and I searched out books by, for and about women.  Women’s history week had not been proclaimed yet, and women in history and art history books were scarce, if at all.

March is Women’s History Month, and at the Library this week, I set up the related display.  I piled the cart full of books—all types: fiction, non-fiction, biographies, autobiographies, both for the adults and children.  Where would we be without the suffragettes and their hard won victories; without the historians and their invaluable writings; and without the many women that are leaders in their fields?

Many new heroines are to be found on the shelves of your local library.

Note:  Here in Berkshire County, Women’s History Month is celebrated with the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.  Here is a link to the website with listings for events on every day of the month.

take heart

Category : Books
Date : February 27, 2014

Outside, the landscape is white, covered by snow and ice, with more snow forecast accompanied by bitter winds.  As I look around, the white is punctuated with dark—bits of stone walls showing through the drifts, coupled with the upright stark beauty of tree trunks against the gray, gloaming sky.  This is the point in winter when the soul longs for spring, or at least for a significant snow melt.  It is time to take solace and scholarship from poets.

Emily Dickinson thoughtfully provided needed respite from the winter’s cold through plants.  Judith Farr reports,

“Martha Dickinson Bianchi recalled her Aunt Emily sitting near the Franklin stove in her bedroom every winter, hyacinth bulbs surrounding her, her eye quick to mark the slightest green they put forth.  Emily’s conservatory contained the vanilla-scented heliotrope, sweet alyssum, buttercups, and daffodils, even in February.  “Forcing bulbs” was, in fact, one of Dickinson’s stratagems against winter gloom.”


geraniums blooming by my desk

Farr references Emily Dickinson’s poem:

“Winter is good—
his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield—
To Intellects
With Summer
or the World–

Generic as a
And hearty – as
a Rose
Invited with
But welcome
When he goes”

            F 1374

We know that underneath the snow, snowdrops & crocuses await their time, and will punctuate the lawn with color in the coming months.

Take heart also from John Keats: 

“Shed no tear—O shed no tear!
The flower will bloom another year.
Weep no more—O weep no more!
Young bulbs sleep in the root’s white core”

Note:  The Emily Dickinson House reopens on March 1, 2014.

Judith Farr, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, (Harvard University Press, 2004), pgs. 24, 272-3.


Category : Books
Date : January 31, 2014

When I was a child, my mother and I had a few ‘mother/daughter’ outfits—dresses that were similar and/or the same, but sized accordingly.  While it was fun to have these matching clothes, wouldn’t it be more illuminating to have ‘mother/daughter’ books, so they could be read simultaneously?  Perhaps Cokie Roberts had this in mind when she wrote the newly published children’s book, Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies.

In 2004, Roberts published the ‘adult’ version, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.  Her book masterfully documents the women behind the men. She traces the forming of America, chronologically from British colonies to the newly established democracy, through the roles of women, both known and unknown —Deborah Reade Franklin, Mary Otis Warren, Abigail Smith Adams, Sarah Franklin Bache, Sarah Livingston Jay, Mary White Morris, Phyllis Wheatley, and Martha Washington—to name just a few.

Why, one wonders, is it still necessary to write a ‘children’s’ version in today’s world?  Roberts states in her NPR interview with Steve Inskeep:

“The National Archives are the closest thing we have to a cathedral of the country. There are these fabulous murals up on the walls above the Constitution, the Declaration and the Bill of Rights.  And they’re all white men in white wigs with tights, and I don’t think they’re recognizable to a lot of Americans.  But they weren’t the only people who did it.  They were incredibly important — I’m not taking anything away from our Founding Fathers — but they didn’t do it alone.”

Spies, activists, poets, writers, postmasters, printers, cannon operators, farmers shopkeepers, cooks—these are a few of the jobs held by women during colonial times, and without their work, Roberts rightly asserts, the revolution would not have been successful.   Stories need to be told and re-told, and women’s history especially, and thus one finds Roberts’ distillation of these revolutionary women an act of beneficent wisdom.  Of course, a book for young girls needs to be accompanied by illustrations, and the pages are graced by the masterful pen and watercolors of Diane Goode.  For an insight into her working methods—translating both facts and images into illustrations–please refer to a photographic documentation on her website.

Venture forth to your local book store, purchase a copy of  Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies, then pull your copy of  Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation off your bookshelf and invite your daughter or granddaughter to sit on the couch for a read-along.  You don’t have to be wearing similar clothes, but it may help.

Remember the Ladies, indeed.

looking back, looking forward

Category : Books
Date : January 1, 2014

As the New Year dawns, it seems appropriate to look back as well as forward.

Martha Ballard, midwife, January 1, 1796, living in Hallowell, ME:

“Clear and Pleasant.  I washt and washt my kitchen.  Was Calld at 9 hour Evening to see the wife of Capt Moses Springer who is not so well as Shee Could wish.  Her husband is gone a trip to Boston.  I tarried there all night. Slept some after 1 o Clock.”

Abigail May Alcott, mother of Louisa May Alcott, January 1, 1877, Concord, MA:

“……..Brilliant, beautiful day.  The year comes in festively; its gorgeous drapery of clouds of many colors.  Not cold. I sew a little for Louisa.  Freddy played the piano last night, the last tune, “America,” ushers in the New Year with his favorite waltz (Star).  We rake a sleigh-ride, call at Mrs. Pratt’s.”

Margaret Dow Gebby, farmwife, January 1, 1891, Bellefontaine, OH:

“A very wet day.  Orra and George made each a key for the P.O. but Georges did not open the lock.  Jerry was at the farm this morning, everything all right, went to town this P.M. paid the taxes $240.22, got bank div $140.  I swept and dusted the house all over to day.”

[Note: Virginia McCormick, editor of Gebby’s diary, points out that a century ago New Year’s Day was not always a holiday, and that it was business as usual for merchants, bankers and government workers.]


At our home today, it dawns crisp, 12 degrees with ribbons of mauve clouds in the sky.  A snowstorm is predicted for the Berkshire hills in the next few days, accompanied by howling winds and frigid temperatures.

The weather is a constant.  A grounding for each woman–Martha, Abigail and Margaret–began by noting the climatic conditions.  Likewise, for the past six years, I have opened my ledger, every morning, and recorded the temperature.  Often, I will note events of the day—the coming of mud season, the planting  of onions, the harvesting of the garlick crop, the starting of the wood furnace, and, happily, the day the first puce points of the skunk cabbage open in the bogs: the harbingers of spring.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,  A Midwife’s Tale:  the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812, (Vintage Books, 1990), p .205.

My Heart is Boundless Writing os Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, edited by Eve LaPlante, (Free Press, 2012), p. 216.

Farm Wife A Self-Portrait, 1886-1896, edited by Virginia E. McCormick (Iowa State University Press, 1990), pgs. 147.


Category : Books
Date : December 10, 2013

Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830-May 15, 1886)

Dickinson’s works are now more accessible—on the web, in a new book and on exhibit.

In late October, the Emily Dickinson Archive was launched on the web.  For the first time all of her known hand written manuscript pages—poems, notes, letters–are in one place and available to poet, scholar or gardener.  Pick from one of the eight archive locations housing her works and begin to turn the pages of their holdings.  Zoom in on her handwriting, her dashes, and carefully read her letters and poems.

If you want to hold a book in your hands, then you are fortunate for Emily Dickinson The Gorgeous Nothings by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin (with a preface by Susan Howe) is hot off the press and packed with images and essays.  The book is an artwork in itself—scanned images of ‘fifty-two envelope writings’ float on white pages—each page holds one image in full color.  Turn the page and see the other side, or hold the page in your hand, and see both sides at once.  The book concludes with an essay by Werner and visual indexes of the envelopes compiled by Bervin.

If you still want more, and by more, I mean to see the real envelope fragments, then you are in luck.  Tucked into an intimate room at The Drawing Center in New York, one can view her handwriting close up in the exhibition ‘Dickinson/Walser Envelope Sketches’ curated by Claire Gilman (on view until January 14, 2014).  Linger, as I did, over each fragment and examine the relationship between the shape of the envelope and the placement of the text.  Then, zero in on poem and relish in her words.

"When they come back--if Blossoms do"--Brece Honeycutt collaborative piece at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY, 2007

“When they come back–if Blossoms do”–Brece Honeycutt collaborative piece at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY, 2007.                   Photograph Benjamin Swett

Dickinson, in her lifetime was known for her gardens and baking, rather than her words.  Her flowers are long gone and the ovens are cold, but her words, placed on the page as she intended, can inspire us forevermore.

If you would like to visit Dickinson’s house in Amherst, MA, hurry over there before it closes for the season on December 29th (also closed for Christmas & Boxing Day). It will re-open in March 2014 : http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org

reading list

Category : Books
Date : December 3, 2013

Is the printed book in danger of dying?  David Streitfeld examines the controversy in his recent article in the New York Times.  I cannot imagine life without books—stacks of them are everywhere in our house and bookshelves are nearly over-flowing, but M and I make frequent reference to so many of them.  Bookmarks can be seen in many of our books, marking a place to return to, or an idea or image to re-examine.  Perhaps it is in the turning of the tangible page, and then stopping to look and dwelling upon a paragraph, a word, or a photograph.  Some days, I take the liberty of leaving books open on the studio table, making a tableau.  It is the constancy, the presence, the sheer physicality of the book that draws me back and propels me to open them up, to travel over their pages once more.

Not only do our bookshelves hold inspiration, but with the modern world wide web, there are also blogs to read and podcasts to listen to, portals to many worlds.  I regularly turn to a few for gathering of information and for further stimulus.  Here are a few from my virtual reading list:

Colonial Cooking:  Historic Cookery, Adventures in late 18th & 19th Century foodways:  http://historiccookery.com

Fieldstone Common interviews with authors and historians who bring history alive: http://www.fieldstonecommon.com

SilkDamask–a scholar writes about historical costumes with a modern perspective:  http://silkdamask.blogspot.com

18th-century American Women.  Portraits and paintings of women:  http://b-womeninamericanhistory18.blogspot.com

A modern broadside with a historical emphasis. Sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society: http://www.common-place.org

As long as books are printed, I will be a reader, but it only seems right to take advantage of both worlds.

David Streitfeld’s article in the New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/technology/e-books-hold-tight-to-features-of-their-print-predecessors.html?hpw&rref=business

ye olde tyme revival

Category : Books
Date : August 14, 2013

It is the time of church fairs, jumble, estate & yard sales here in the Northeast hills. Tables under tents are laden with cast-off objects ripe for the picking.  At the moment, I am searching for old pots to use for dye vats, old linens to serve as modern canvases, and the occasional object to brighten up the home.

When did the obsession with ‘ye olde tyme’ begin?  Coincidentally, I am reading a fascinating new biography of Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911), one of the first material culture historians.  Susan Reynolds Williams examines the life of Earle from her childhood in Worcester, MA through her adult life in Brooklyn, NY.  During the course of her life, Earle published 17 books, and lucky for me, I found her Home Life in Colonial Days on a library book sale table a few years ago and have returned to it to refresh my memory.

Apparently the ‘colonial revival’ began with the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and with this, the International Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876.  Williams describes the fair in detail and it would have been a pleasure to walk through the exhibitions including “U.S. Patent Office’s presentation of George Washington’s life as a collection of relics” and especially the “recreation of the New England Farmer’s Home and Modern Kitchen.”  Even though  ‘antiquing’ began as a passion in 1850, it was the Centennial, according to Williams, that spawned “…a full blown colonial revival, fed by the establishment of historical societies, museum exhibitions, historic preservation societies.” Earle’s numerous well-researched books, including China Collecting in America, armed the collector with the knowledge to look for authentic artifacts.

I look forward to finishing Williams’ book, as well as reading more of Earle’s works. The first on the list is her edited version of Diary of Anna Green Winslow A Boston School Girl of 1771.  If one so desires, many of Earle’s books may be downloaded to your kindle, but why not look for them at your local jumble sale instead?

Diary of a Boston School Girl

Diary of a Boston School Girl

Thanks to Karen Fisk from University of Massachusetts Press for alerting me to the Williams’ biography of Alice Morse Earle, Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America.

[Susan Reynolds Williams, Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), pgs.  88-92]

jill & jane

Category : Books
Date : July 6, 2013

We can look forward to learning a great deal more about Jane Franklin  (1712-1794) when Jill Lepore’s book The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin is published this October. In the meantime, one can savor the recent article by Lepore in the July 8 & 15 edition of The New Yorker.

Jane was the sister of Benjamin Franklin and the person that he wrote the most letters to during his lifetime.  Lepore stitches together Jane’s life – it’s “ordinariness” in spite of Jane being an obviously exceptional woman – from their lively correspondence as well as Jane’s unpublished “book”, described in the passage below:

“But she did once stitch four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make a little book of sixteen pages. In an archive in Boston, I held it in my hands.  I pictured her making it.  Her paper was made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried. Her thread was made from flax, combed and spun and dyed and twisted.  She dipped the nib of a pen slit from the feather of a bird into a pot of ink boiled of oil mixed with soot and, on the first page she wrote three words:  “Book of Ages”—-a lavish, calligraphic letter “B”, a graceful, slender, artful “A”.”

The New Yorker’s digital edition gives one the chance to view pages from Jane’s Book of Ages and see her ‘calligraphic’ letters as she documents the arrivals, departures and marriages of her family.

"Book of Ages", Jill Lepore

“Book of Ages,” Jill Lepore

Lepore’s decision to write about Jane Franklin is quite personal, not only as revealed in her written article but also in the podcast:  ‘Out Loud:  Jane Franklin’s Untold American Story’.

If I could time travel, I would go back to the colonial days to talk with Jane and then move forward to October 2013, when I can hold Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin in my hands.

The New Yorker, July 8 &15, Jill Lepore, “The Prodigal Daughter, Writing History, Mourning,“ The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013, pgs. 34-40.

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