Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections on Storytelling: A Visit to the Wilder Homestead

"On a day when she was particularly blue and unhappy, the neighbor to the west, a bachelor living alone, stopped as he was driving by and brought a partly filled grain sack to the house. When Laura opened the door, Mr. Sheldon stepped inside, and taking the sack by the bottom, poured the content out on the floor. It was a paper-backed set of Waverly novels.
"Thought they might amuse you," he said. "Don't be in a hurry! Take your time reading them!" And as Laura exclaimed in delight, Mr. Sheldon opened the door, closed it behind him quickly and was gone. And now the four walls of the close, overheated house opened wide, and Laura wandered with brave knights and ladies fair beside the lakes and streams of Scotland or in castles and towers, in noble halls or lady's bower, all through the enchanting pages of Sir Walter Scott's novels.

She forget to feel ill at the sight or smell of food, in her hurry to be done with the cooking and follow her thoughts back into the book. When the books were all read and Laura came back to reality, she found herself feeling much better.

It was a long way from the scenes of Scott's old tales to the little house on the bleak, wintry prairie, but Laura brought back from them some of their magic and music and the rest of the winter passed comfortably." - From the chapter, "A Year of Grace" from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The First Four Years."

While Laura was trying to escape the isolated prairie with the outlet of a book, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and other storytellers to escape what feels like suffocating crowds as I rush about New York City's Port Authority bus terminal, the maddening pace as I make my way to and from work, and the congestion of the area I live in. In this season of gratitude, I'm giving thanks to storytellers. I need storytellers in my life for my mental soundness as much as a doctor for my physical well-being. They walk with me in my life, their words become part of my spirit.

Remembering Laura's words as I reflect on my visit in September to the Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York. This is the boyhood home of husband Almanzo Wilder and is the setting for her book, Farmer Boy, based on his childhood spent there.

"In the corner between the window to the east and the window to the south was a small stand-table with an easy armchair at one side and a small rocker at the other. Above it suspended from the ceiling was a glass lamp with glittering pendants. That was the parlor part of the room, and when copies of Scott's and Tennyson's poems were on the stand it would be complete. She would have some geraniums growing in cans on the windows and then it would simply be beautiful." - The First Four Years.

Geraniums outside the boyhood home. I will always have geraniums. Maybe love of flowers gets passed on. My grandmother in Switzerland kept geraniums, as did my mother, and I do too.

I couldn't take pictures in the home, but so admired the Willow ware. Here, Willow ware from the Pioneer Farm Museum in Eatonville, Washington, and also thinking of the red-checked tablecloths Laura referred to. We'll visit here at a later time.

We hear about the loss of the American dinnertime when families ate together, but I think too of the storytime. It was a constant thread in Laura's life and books, whether it was reading favorite novels or poetry, serials in the paper or latest news events. Even in commercials today, Americans are portrayed as sitting on their couches glued to their devices without interaction. Is dinnertime and storytime part of your family and was it part of your childhood?

In the parlor, recalling this scene from "Winter Night" in Farmer Boy,

"Mother knitted and rocked in her high-backed rocking chair. Father carefully scraped a new ax-handle with a bit of broken glass. Royal carved a chain of tiny links from a smooth stick of pine, and Alice sat on her hassock, doing her woolwork embroidery. And they all ate popcorn and apples and drank sweet cider, except Eliza Jane. Eliza Jane read aloud the news in the New York weekly paper.

Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. He bit the juicy apple, then ate some popcorn, then he took a drink of his cider."

Flash forward to Almanzo and Laura as a young married couple with daughter Rose,

"While Manly ate his evening bowl of popcorn and Rose worked her arithmetic sums by the light of the kerosene lamp, Laura read to them all. During those evenings they read The Leatherstocking Tales, Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, Pride and Prejudice, Ben Hur, The House of Seven Gables and Martin Chuzzlewit." - from William Anderson's Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography"

Charles Ingalls made sonic stories with his fiddle. Laura said,

"How it made merry with us when we were glad and sympathized with us when we were sad. It gave us songs of praise when we had been good or successful and acted as confessor when we had been bad. Whatever religion, romance and patriotism I have I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight." - Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography

Some 127 songs are included in the Little House books, and musicologist Dale Cockrell was the force behind "Pa's Fiddle"  a PBS special that is available on DVD and CD and three other CDs. I love the seed was planted simply by Dale reading the books to his young son at night. This is not just a series for girls. His goal is admirable, trying to "change the music consciousness of the nation with the legacy of the music that has been left behind." He says he has been pushing this rock up the mountain for several years, and I think many of us who hope for richer American culture than what is in the mass media now feel like they are pushing a rock up too. Let's push together.

After her visit to San Francisco in 1915 to visit Rose and attend the world's fair, Laura's love of her country home life was reinforced. My soul is so tired of working life in New York City, and can appreciate her words, "We who live in quiet places," Laura wrote in the Ruralist, "have the opportunity to become acquainted with ourselves, to think our own thoughts and live our own lives. " - Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography. I want to live in a quieter place, and seek a less harried life.

Laura's mother, Caroline Ingalls wrote in a composition as a schoolgirl, "Who would wish to leave home and wander forth, in the world, to meet its tempests and its storms? Give me a place at home, with a seat at the fireside, where all is happy and free."

There's a whole home industry that tries to convince people their home isn't modern enough. When I watch the HGTV channel, I think how did we come from a nation of this hardy stock who made everything to complaining about walking all the way to their basement to do laundry (imagine), not having a double sink vanity or granite countertops? Oh the suffering. I even saw a commercial suggesting one updates their kitchen for the holidays! Steve and I have been in every house imaginable during our estate sale visits and I've concluded home is about the people in them, not the finishings. Besides, there is always a certainty about anything "modern." Given enough time it will be outdated.

All I want is a place that's snug and cozy.

The New York Public Library issued a list of the 100 Great Children's Books of the past 100 years, and I couldn't believe that none of the Little House books made the list. She has so much wisdom to share. Her words to schoolchildren in 1947 are as relevant as ever,
"The Little House books are stories of long ago. The way we live and your schools are much different now, so many changes have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong." - From Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography.

Those timeless simple pleasures are recalled in Laura's stories. Pioneer families delighted in blueberry season just as I look forward to New Jersey blueberries each summer.
"Before dawn next day they were all riding away in the lumber-wagon, wearing their oldest clothes and taking pails and bushel baskets and a big picnic lunch. They drove far into the mountains near Lake Chateaugay, where the wild huckleberries grew.
The woods were full of other wagons, and other families berrying. They laughed and sang, and all among the tress you could hear their talking. Every year they all met friends here, that they didn't see any other time. But all of them were busily picking berries; they talked while they worked." - from the chapter, "Summer-time" - Farmer Boy.

Laura: "What's that sweet smell, Pa?"
Charles: "It's the smell of the prairie, mixed with the smell of cut wood."
Laura: I'll never forget this smell as long as I live." - Little House on the Prairie - the television miniseries.
So much of the Little House books and films to me are about nudging the memory. Of scents, sounds, places and faces. We live in such materialistic times so focused on excess and the next new shiny toy, we get away from what's most essential. Leaving you with Laura's memories of childhood, none of which involves any "thing".
"The early memories of home were images that Laura always loved to recall. Later in life she began calling them "the pictures that hang in my memory." The snug, cozy feeling of warm evenings, the voices of Ma and Pa and the soft firelight on the log walls made pictures that never faded for her."
"The first remembrance is of my Father always," she wrote. "My first memory is of his eyes, so clear and sharp and blue. Those eyes could look so unerringly along a rifle barrel in the face of a bear or a pack of wolves and yet were so tender as they rested on his Caroline, my mother, or me when I was sick....His arms were so strong...and they carried me many a night when I was sick and restless. I can hear his measured steps yet, back and forth across the floor, feel the comfort of those strong arms and hear his soothing, 'There, there.' And also his kind voice saying, 'Now Caroline, you lie down and sleep'." Of Ma she writes, "lessons learned at Mother's knee last all through life. But dearer than Mother's teachings are little personal memories: Mother's face, Mother's touch, Mother's voice." Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography.
The Sweet By and By, the song Charles Ingalls requested be played at his funeral.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Grateful for the Bountiful Harvest: A Season of Thanksgiving

As Not Seen on TV: I live in New Jersey, which is the "Garden State."

I paid a visit to Abma's Farm in Wyckoff in September, one of the many wonderful farms in our state. My soul feels much more content when I visit farms on a regular basis. This past weekend, I feasted at Demarest Farm in Hillsdale on some specials - butternut squash ravioli in alfredo sauce, string beans, and a pumpkin scone with apple cider before it soon closes for the winter season. The apple and pumpkin picking masses are now gone, and business seems so quiet compared to the packed supermarket parking lots.

At Abma's, my farm to table lunch feast of pumpkin soup, a pretzel roll and hot cider with cinnamon.

Fresh donuts from their bakery.

Fresh herbs to delight the nose and tongue. These are nature's best perfume and really are a gift. I have a little wooden pumpkin I got at a garage sale in our kitchen that says "Give Thanks" on it and a little thrifted book beside it, "A Gift of Herbs: An Illustrated Garden in Miniature" by Peg Streep.

It's hard not to feel cheered here.

It is a very cold, rainy day as I write from the comfort of my home in New Jersey. I'm thinking of minor complaints, like the temporary discomfort I'll feel in the cold while walking the dogs. But the farmers read the weather for their livelihood. As Daisy so wisely said on Downton Abbey, "No farmer's his own boss. He takes his orders from the sun and the snow and the wind and the rain."

I do not want to silently be a witness to the transformation of Thanksgiving into yet another shopping holiday. This is the season of gratitude following the harvest time. I am remembering and have a grateful heart for our local farmers who march on against the tides of big agribusiness, and all the farmers who produce food for our plates. Thank you farmers.  I loved how Laura Ingalls Wilder in The First Four Years put it despite struggling with multiple crop failures and hardships,

"It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle.

The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that "it is better farther on" and only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west....

Manly was coming from the barn and he was singing:
You talk of the mines of Australia,
They've wealth in red gold, without doubt;
But, ah! there is gold in the farm, boy -
If only you'll shovel it out."

How much better it is now versus then is an age-old subject for debate, but I don't think it's better how disconnected we are from our food supply since few of us produce much (or any of it). How much are the retail shoppers thinking of where their items are produced? Is all this materialism better?

"Give us this day our daily bread." One of the few possessions salvaged from a fire during the early years of Laura and Almanzo Wilder's marriage was a plate they purchased for their first Christmas with this prayer. I don't think of it as much in the religious sense but as gratitude for the food we receive.

Let us also remember the forgotten farm animals. I don't consume meat (chicken, beef or pork), but animal by-products are in my diet and once in a very blue moon, fish. Pigs living as they should, basking in the sunshine. I'm so saddened by factory farms conditions most animals have to live in. In a passage in her 1913 novel, O Pioneers! (Part 1, The Free Land) Will Cather seemed to be giving modern generations a warning. Alexandra consults old Ivar, seen as eccentric by some but with so much wisdom, for the elders often have so much of just that to share, if we only listen.

"We have a bunch of hogs, Ivar. I wouldn't sell in the spring, when everybody advised me to, and now so many people are losing their hogs that I am frightened. What can be done?"

Ivar's little eyes began to shine. They lost their vagueness.

"You feed them swill and such stuff? Of course! And sour milk? Oh yes! And keep them in a stinking pen? I tell you, sister, the hogs of this country are put upon! They become unclean, like the hogs in the Bible. If you kept your chickens like that, what would happen? You have a little sorghum patch, maybe? Put a fence around it, and turn the hogs in. Build a shed to give them shade, a thatch on poles. Let the boys haul water to them in barrels, clean water, and plenty. Get them off the old stinking ground, and do not let them go back there until winter. Give them only grain and clean feed, such as you would give horses or cattle. Hogs do not like to be filthy...

That evening, after she had washed the supper dishes, Alexandra sat down on the kitchen doorstep, while her mother was mixing the bread. It was still a deep-breathing summer night, full of the smell of the hay fields. Sounds of laughter and splashing came up from the pasture, and when the moon rose rapidly above the bare rim of the prairie, the pond glittered like polished metal, and she could see the flash of white bodies as the boys ran about the edge or jumped into the water. Alexandra watching the shimmering pool dreamily, but eventually her eyes went to the sorghum patch south of the barn, where she was planning to make her new pig corral."

Friday, November 22, 2013

Western Time Diary: Berkeley, California

One of my favorite scenes in the 1967 film The Graduate is when Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair comes on as Benjamin drives to see Elaine at school in Berkeley. I can almost smell the greenery of the forest he is driving through. Tori Amos gave a feminine voice to Scarborough Fair, another favorite.

Berkeley was a date of serendipity. We were there the last day of the semester's clothing swap.

I have co-organized clothing swaps at my workplace for several years, and the secondhand market is near and dear to my heart to help keep items out of landfills, not support low wage labor, and empower ourselves financially. I would rather give my money to neighbors in my community at a garage or estate sale, a charity thrift shop or a main street consignment store.

Keep in mind this New York Times article, "Shopping, Before the Turkey Gets Cold,"
"Teenagers and college students can spend only so much time cooped up with their families on a holiday like Thanksgiving.

This year, some retailers are betting that this target spending group dashes out the door after dinner, perhaps dodging dishwashing or other duties, and in all likelihood ditching their parents.      

Destination: the mall.       

Teagan Marshall, 20, of New York City, said shopping on Thanksgiving definitely had appeal. As she stood in a Forever 21 in Manhattan, she added, “That seems like a good way to celebrate to me.”

Also consider an op-ed piece in The New York Times this month about the minimum wage by clothing factory workers in Bangladesh, $38 a month, with proposals to raise it to $68 a month. It is estimated that it costs $67 to feed a family of three. These factories supply stores like the ones that shoppers like Teagan will be patronizing.

Giving my money to the clothing swap instead: my Charlotte Russe peace sign shoes (how appropriate for Berkeley!), $2. You can read more about the peace sign history which I knew little about myself here.

Voting as often as possible with my dollars and actions for a reuse market. Good news to celebrate: you can support the America you want to live in today.

A peppermint tea at The Musical Offering, a classical music cafe just across from the college. I sat by Bach, and pondered classical storytellers from hundreds of years ago. I wish I had been taught about classical music in the course of my grade school or higher education. This is something I hope to learn about. What do you want to learn about?

We were lucky enough to get same-day reservations at the cafe of Chez Panisse on a Thursday at 1:30. Their $30 prix-fixe was vegetarian, so I went with that. Chez Panisse founded by Alice Waters and a group of friends, was, according to the website, named "in honor of Honoré Panisse, a character in Marcel Pagnol's 1930s movie trilogy about waterfront life in Marseille (Marius, Fanny, and César)."

A garden lettuce salad with Navarro grape juice. I loved all of the interesting non-alcoholic beverage options I kept finding in California if you didn't feel like imbibing. Usually it's just soft drinks or iced tea.

House made bucatini with chanterelle mushrooms, garlic, thyme and breadcrumbs, so simple but so comforting.

Cannard Farms grape sherbet with moscato d'Asti with raspberries, and elderflower nectar tea, all a garden delight for the senses.

Let's go to the farmers market. We're here on the right day, and Alice would want us to.

It's all organic!

There is nothing like in-season, local strawberries. Organic, even better.

Even apples have their stories.

A rainbow of flowers. I was proud to hold a bouquet of flowers on my wedding day from a local farm, Old Hook Farm in Emerson, New Jersey.

We stumbled on a Goodwill, and I found the perfect souvenir from the San Francisco Music Box Company for just $2.99. A touch of California, French living, fruits and vegetables, and the reuse market - all very me.

Key words to describe my California honeymoon I'd use: garden, zen, vegetarian feasts, national parks, trees, books, tea, history lessons and good living. All my most favorite words to start my married life.  Let the adventure continue...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Western Time Diary: Yosemite National Park

When the government shutdown was in the news, I couldn't help but feel for all the little businesses that depend on travelers visiting the national parks. We like to patronize these smaller establishments as often as possible when we vacation. For our Yosemite trip, we stayed at the charming Meadow Creek Ranch Bed and Breakfast Inn in Mariposa.

The adorable chicken coop. I felt like I was in a little Irish cottage.

A clawfoot tub invites a soak. There was brandy, tea, fresh coffee and dark chocolates in the room.

Two of my favorite words to describe a home (or in this case, a home away from home), invoked so often by Laura Ingalls Wilder, are "snug" and "cozy" (or cosy).

All the little details make a place homey to me.

A cozy and snug home for fine feathered friends to seek shelter from the elements.

Homemade blueberry and black walnut pancakes (black walnuts grow on the property), with fresh fruit (including figs, which we found so much more abundant in California), orange juice and vanilla chai tea.

The Meadow Creek Ranch served Mariposa Coffee, and we stopped by to take a pound home.

When driving to the bed and breakfast at night, we  pulled the car over and turned off the lights to take in the stars. Recalling when Laura and Charles, her Pa, on the premiere of Little House on the Prairie viewed the majestic starry filled night sky,

Charles, "Hear that?"

Laura, "Hear what, Pa?"

Charles, "Stars. They're singing Hallelujah."

It's hard not to want to sing Hallelujah when seeing Yosemite.

Even in the busiest national parks, one can find moments of solitude. Hiking up to Sentinel Dome, we were the last two left to enjoy the views.
Ansel Adams capturing Yosemite's beauty so memorably.
Annie, at age 14, wrote here, "Yosemite is a place of timeless beauty that will never be affected by the greed and woes of humans. Here we can rediscover ourselves, others, and the bonds that connect us with everything. Here is where we realize the incomparable essence of nature."
 The author Willa Cather so missed the abundant trees of lush Virginia when she moved as a child to the Nebraska plains. Trees were so rare in the plains, she wrote, people would feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were people.

We should treat them with sacred awe, for they are a life force.

I feel anxious we are not concerned enough about protecting our lands. For instance, there are so many ads on television from gas companies trying to convince Americans how good natural gas is. I said to my husband, if natural gas is so wonderful, why are these corporations spending so much time and money to convince people in feel-good commercials? Whenever I see warm and fuzzy advertisements from oil companies, I immediately question.

The film Promised Land portrays how natural gas companies get landowners to sign over their land to extract natural gas through fracking. Frances McDormand plays Sue and Matt Damon is Steve, who are trying to do just that. Sue tells an anxious mother about the better school her daughter can go to. "Everything to me starts with an education." An education is correct, but who is doing the educating? Those that seek to benefit?

When Sue and Matt arrive, a store clerk is so happy to see them. He says, "We can't sell the scenery, can we?"

I think we can (the parks experience is about scenery, but then the greater lesson is of stewardship), and it's time to introduce a word that has gone missing: conservation. Steve says, "Unless we talk about cutting consumption and so far that's a conversation none of want to have." We simply must conserve as much as we can. The land cannot give more. In J.J. Brown's  Brindle 24, a cautionary novel about fracking, it was wisely stated, "We had paradise. We threw it away." Let us not throw our paradise away.

The naming of Yosemite has a dark story with roots in the gold rush, according to Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea. In 1851, a group of white men calling themselves the Mariposa Battalion were armed and looking for Indians to drive out of their homelands from the western Sierra Nevadas. Lafayette Bunnell, so awed by the landscape here, thought they name the place they came upon, and suggested Yosemite, which he thought was the name of the tribe they were displacing. In fact, Yosemite refers to people who should be feared. It means, "They should be killers." Watch the clip here.

"We signed a paper that said they could take the trees, signed a paper that said they could take the copper from the earth," said the old chief Bizhiki, disturbed, "We didn't say they could take the earth.

Who can take the earth?" - The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich penned a series of books, beginning with the Birchbark House, about a tribe whose main focus is Omakayas, a young girl living not long before Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you read the Little House books, they are a wonderful comparison, especially for children, as these are tribes the pioneers would displace. Disney adapted a film version of Little House on the Prairie, and there's a moving scene when Charles Ingalls passes the Osages. Their chief tells him,

"This land knows our stories. The wind knows the names of the children before they're born. But this should all be yours. Why do you think so? Do our memories matter less? Does our laughter not lift its way to heaven as yours does?"

In an interview, the mother of Tori Amos, who has Eastern Cherokee roots, was asked if she felt different growing up because of her background. She recalled not knowing a difference until she went to college and observed of her classmates, "They didn't have the same respect I suppose or love for the nature I was taught and for the animals and spirits."

Tori Amos recalls,

"As I was researching for this record [Scarlet’s Walk], a Native American woman came back to see me on the last tour and she said to me, “The people that hold the land and the white brother that owns the land must come together for the sake of her survival.

And I said to her,

"But so much has been taken from you and your people already."
There were tears rolling down her face, and she said “Sadly enough my dear the white brother only took the land. Now he needs to take more.”
This woman, older, no fanfare, but her commitment to building bridges to a people that has not integrated her stories, her people’s culture. She still is compassionate and holds a space by the fire. When you stop holding a space by the fire, then there’s no chance for the people that own the land to know what they really don't have access to. It isn't taught in our schools. Their culture is segregated. They are marginalized. Yet, they are still willing to share, even though they've lost so much. Yet still not pretend that agreements weren’t broken, that there wasn’t betrayal.

So I learned a lot in this woman's activism that she carried a torch and she carried a tomahawk but she carried compassion in her other hand."


I wish we had a modern day John Muir to advocate for the land. We need a space at the fire to talk about these issues. I hope to see you there.