Monday, July 26, 2010

A Sultry Summer Sunday

One of our two new Hereford bulls in with the ladies (and some of their new calves).
I don't know what it is about Sundays lately, but I do seem a bit obsessed with them. Yesterday it was hot and humid, probably the muggiest day of the summer so far. We spent much of the day in the air-conditioned house, the boys and my husband exhausted from wrangling calves on Saturday morning to tag and give shots. [One lesson learned: wait until it's cooler to do so as the calves get even more stressed in the heat.]

A palisade on a back road in Pulaski County.
Later in the day we thought it would be fun to take a little Sunday drive. This is something we've always enjoyed, usually with a destination, but this was on some back roads we wanted to explore to the south of us, down near Lake Cumberland. Here where you reside is defined by what ridge you live on or underneath: the geography defines your community. Our farm is on the southern edge of south-central Kentucky's knob region. What this affords is a rolling, hilly landscape with deeply etched hollers carved by creeks, and higher ridges or plateaus where most people prefer to build upon. It is not as jagged as parts of eastern Kentucky, more plateau-like with finger like-ridges, bumpy hills and secret valleys. Either ridge or holler have large pastures for hay or cattle, dotted by copses of trees or wooded hillsides. It is beautiful countryside and, while it can be rough and tumble on occasion, it has a particular kind of untamed, almost untapped, wildness that we appreciate.

On our little journey, we came upon this old country store, now closed. Of course I had to jump out and take a photograph but I did spare my husband my best Eva Gabor-as-Lisa Douglas imitation. And where is Sam Drucker when you need him, any way? We would have liked a cold drink, at least.

Our boys preferred to stay home and watch a movie and, with cell phone in hand, we set off solo. It is always a chance for us to talk, one on one, and we really hadn't had this opportunity for a while without some kind of interruption (it's summer vacation, after all!). Our favorite way to "off road" is to not take a map (OK, well on longer trips we do bring a Kentucky Gazetteer for backup). As I have a built-in understanding of maps and direction sense, and only usually need to look at a map once or twice to absorb its spatial relationships (yes, this is an idiot savant skill I seem to have been born with), my husband has learned to trust this about me. Doing this kind of "off-roading" (or off-mapping?) is not being afraid of making the wrong turn or the thrill of the wonderment of where we might come out. I rather live my life this way, too: taking many roads and exploring new ones around the constant fixture and presence of home and family. And, as long as I can catch a glimpse of our little "monadnock" here, Green River Knob, I always know where we are.

Green River Knob rises to the west of our own knob pasture on our ridge. It is not only the highest knob in the region but the highest point in Kentucky west of its eastern mountains. The Kentucky knobs, I've realized, are very much the last western gasp of the Appalachian mountain range that forms a long spine up to the northeast.

This same phenomena occurred when we lived back in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, too, as wherever you go, or soon nearby, you can see the great mass of Mount Monadnock as both a presence and beacon. These geographical fixtures define our places and provide an odd kind of security, too. When we are on top of our knob looking out and I see Green River Knob watching over us to the west, I always find it rather comforting. There is wisdom, truth and solace in the hills around us.

At dusk there was an odd, brilliant light from the east that cast itself on the lawn in an eerie glow. We soon realized this was created by the reflection of the setting sun on the edge of a large thunderstorm system which went around us to the south. A perfect night for a "Thunder Moon."

The chicken house at dusk, just after they'd gone into roost.
So we drove along seeing old homeplaces, new roads and different pastures and felt refreshed by the drive, the company and the air-conditioned car. To take a drive like this, whether for an hour or for the day, is always like a mini-vacation not too far from your own backyard. We came home to a build-up of thunderheads that didn't rain on us, unfortunately (it was the full "Thunder Moon" last night) and shucked some fresh corn a neighbor had given us. That, with some grilled chicken breast, was supper. Ah, a summer Sunday, to paraphrase Henry James, two of the most lovely words in the English language.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I Tremble With Gratitude

In recent years our table has been a "groaning board" of good friends, our immediate family and beloved kin who "enter and pass among us in living love and in memory." As one of my friends likes to say, "as we get older, we make our own family."
Yesterday, a quote I posted by Wendell Berry on "pacifist chickens" led to all sorts of other great quotes over on Facebook. One of my favorite readers of this blog (and a local friend on Facebook and in person, even though we have met only a handful of times) shared a favorite quote with me. It turns out it is an entire poem from Berry's Leavings collection. If you have never read Wendell Berry in any genre, you can't go wrong with anything he writes: he is one of our finest environmental essayists, poets and novelists and he happens to live and farm here in Kentucky where he was born and raised. His essays have always been ahead of their time and they speak of sustainability, the dangers of living outside of our means, of the beauty and power of simplicity and honoring our land. He is like a humble sage of our time, quite unknown by those who should know of him, beloved by those who do.

Wendell Berry–a man of letters and the land.
The owner of an independent bookstore group, Willard Williams of The Toadstool back in New Hampshire, said he always judges a bookstore by its inclusion of Wendell Berry in the poetry, novel, philosophy, environment and essay sections. When I read this poem today it reminded me of my "Sunday Dinners" blog post, below, and the poem that inspired it, the other day. It is also of note that Berry composed the poems in Leavings on a series of Sabbaths over the course of several years. The Sabbath is something we are trying to better honor in our family, returning it to what it should be: a completely suspended day of only essential work but more importantly, to have fellowship with our family, friends and our spiritual selves. To find the quiet within the center of who we are or the place around us and then to carry that into the rest of our week. There is just too much pace and not enough pause in our world any more.

Not having read Leavings, I can only assume that the poems are, as this one is, the best kind of prayer or spiritual moment, perhaps Berry's own benedictions:


I tremble with gratitude
for my children and their children
who take pleasure in one another.

At our dinners together, the dead
enter and pass among us
in living love and in memory.

And so the young are taught.

~ Wendell Berry [From Leavings, Counterpoint Press: 2009]

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Dinner

Ham awaits preparation at a Sunday dinner we had with our Shaker friends in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

"Sunday Dinner" by Dan Masterson, is a pleasant conjurer of so many things for me: family gatherings, good food, communion, fellowship. [I highly recommend the daily poem in your email via Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac."] We used to entertain a lot more in New Hampshire, sometimes to the level that the poem describes (remember that my pantries had stuff in them that needed to be used once in a while!). But what it reminds me of most is the family dinners we used to have at my grandparents' Ohio house where we gathered together with my grandparents at the helm (who were raised during the last gasps of Victorian formality), their two children (my dad and his sister), their two spouses (my uncle and mother) and we six grandchildren (all cousins and siblings). We didn't get together on Sundays in any formal way but about once a month we would gather for either a birthday or a holiday dinner, or some combination of the two. My grandmother, if anything, was a great matriarch that way. Now we are deceased or scattered across the lower-48, as so many families are today, rather helm-less at times.

In New Hampshire, on my grandparents' farm (on my mother's side of the family), my grandmother would frequently roast one of their chickens for Sunday dinner after church–or just because–and serve it with vegetables and new potatoes from the garden. We would drive over to Silver Ranch (now Kimball Farms) for homemade ice cream for dessert. While the farm was a less formal environment, it was just as filled with that family sense of gathering and purpose, of old and repeated stories, of new thoughts and ideas, or laughter and foot nudges under the table. The last family gathering we had there was at Thanksgiving in 2003 when my mother brought us altogether for the last time. Now it seems like a pleasant dream from another lifetime.

Thanksgiving dinner in New Hampshire.
The poem "Sunday Dinner," which really seems like more of a winter or autumn poem to me, is about the formal trappings of gathering and ritual, even though it does not mention a person in it. Family and fellowship is only implied. A reminder of the Victorian age when the sideboard was a kind of gastronomic altar of abundance and plenty, the poem also evokes a simple Sunday dinner, too. You could say that this poem is just about food, inanimate objects and their presentation. When I read it, I also think about who might have cooked the food, how it was presented, what was the feeling behind it, who may have served it, and who were those who gathered to eat it. I think of the communal nourishment that is the essential part of so many gatherings of family or friends.

In some way, every family has had a Sunday dinner on occasion. I want to strive to make it more of a routine again in our household and not just for holidays. I hope that I am a matriarch-in-training for my children, and perhaps grandchildren, one day. I do believe, from both observation and experience, that every family needs a loving but declarative, no-nonsense but objective, matriarch or patriarch (or both) at its helm to be successful as a unit. Otherwise we can feel rather adrift and rudderless. And because there is nothing like a mother ship in a weary world.

Sunday Dinner
Linen napkins, spotless from the wash starched
And ironed, smelling like altar cloths. Olives
And radishes wet in cut glass, a steaming gravy bowl
Attached to its platter, an iridescent pitcher cold
With milk, the cream stirred in moments before.

The serving fork, black bones at the handle, capped
In steel, tines sharp as hatpins. Stuffed celery,
Cut in bite-sized bits, tomato juice flecked
With pepper, the vinegar cruet full to the stopper
Catching light from the chandelier.

Once-a-week corduroyed plates with yellow trim,
A huge mound of potatoes mashed and swirled.
Buttered corn, side salads topped with sliced tomatoes,
A tall stack of bread, a quarter-pound of butter
Warmed by its side. And chicken, falling off the bone:
Crisp skin baked sweet with ten-minute bastings.

Homemade pies, chocolate mints and puddings,
Coffee and graceful glasses of water, chipped ice
Clinking the rims.

Cashews in a silver scoop, the centerpiece a milkglass
Compote with caved-in sides, laced and hung
With grapes, apples, and oranges for the taking.
~ Dan Masterson
[from All Things, Seen and Unseen. © University of Arkansas Press, 1997]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Writers' Houses

The kitchen in the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, in Asheville, NC, where I visited last year and was able to take photographs. Preserved as the boarding house where Wolfe lived with his mother, it also inspired his novel, You Can't Go Home Again.
I am a consummate voyeur. I have enjoyed a too significant amount of reality programming since its inception and, yes, I have watched every season of Flipping Out and The Real Housewives of New York City on BravoTV. As well as some superior blogs, I even read a few inane ones, too––gossip sites and others––where I really shouldn't lurk at times [People of Walmart comes to mind], and where I even occasionally post, just because. I like a good bit of celebrity gossip. In more erudite moments, I read a lot of memoir and biography. Perhaps it is the architectural historian and writer in me, but whenever I travel I like to visit the literary homes of authors. I have on occasion, blogged about or have published articles about them. For a time, I even lived in a museum that belonged to a self-ascribed poet and his Boston Brahmin family.

Writer A.N. Devers shares this same passion as she has recently started a blog called Writers' Houses. It promises to be a wonderful journey into the homes of writers around the world [the criteria is that they be open to the public]. I learned about Devers' new blog today in my daily The Daily Beast email and just had to sit down and tell you all about it.

Writers and their homes are intricately fused. Where a writer lives can be as important as what they write about as it helps shape their outlook on the world. It is also a treat for a fan to be able to visit where a writer lived and sometimes wrote. My first such pilgrimage was to Haworth, England as a sixteen-year old exchange student. There the Brontë sisters lived and wrote at the Brontë Parsonage at the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Let me tell you that seeing the bleak landscape that inspired the wanderings of Heathcliff and Cathy made Wuthering Heights that more real for me.

As one who has worked in numerous house museums, I understand why these places are of interest to people. When you add a famous person or a writer to the equation, it can make the experience even more powerful. Tromps to writers' homes become more of a pilgrimage. There are also writers whose homes we wonder about––J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee come to mind (I have driven past Salinger's former home many times in Cornish, NH and have seen his mailbox and barn, at least!)––and others that are as open as, well, a book. Others are as secretive as their former occupants: the rather starkly furnished Emily Dickinson Museum comes to mind (where the pantry is now a storage closet for the museum shop, but where Emily was said to have written many poems in it while tending to her domestic chores in the kitchen). It helps when these places are left with their original contents, too.

The former chicken house at 'Shieling' was the location of early children's Story Hour times led by author Elizabeth Yates McGreal in the 1950s after she moved to Peterborough, New Hampshire. I was glad to see, a few years ago, that it was still as I remembered it on the property.

This new Writers' Houses blog is timely for me this week. The other day a woman contacted me who is now a caretaker in the former home of Newbery Award-winning children's author Elizabeth Yates McGreal. She wanted information on the original stencils in the house so that they could be restored. [I assumed they had been painted over by a former caretaker and it bothered me to think about it.] When Elizabeth left her 18th century Cape and its property in Peterborough, New Hampshire, known as "Shieling," to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, she likely hadn't included provisions for the preservation of her house. One of her books, Patterns on the Wall, was inspired by the restored stencils in the front room that were presumably painted by itinerant artist Moses Eaton. They are gone but her house, and barn––where her writer friends Elizabeth Gray Vining and Dorothy Canfield Fisher used to come and write at different times in the small apartment every summer––and beautiful property is still preserved, at least. I spent many Tuesdays in her home as a teenager, and later as a young adult home from college, reading aloud and having Lapsang Souchong tea and English biscuits. She was one of my early mentors and I am grateful for the friendship that we had.

It is always a great thing when a writer's home is as preserved as their literary legacy. I look forward to seeing what the blog Writers' Houses has to share in the coming years.

Monday, July 12, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Collins has just reprinted the classic novel with its original jacket rendition.
I couldn't let the recent 50th anniversary of a great novel pass without tipping my hat to Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was the first adult novel I ever read, in Mrs. Ann Royce's class, in 7th grade English class at St. Patrick's School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. I was drawn into the dreamy and sultry, yet divided, Southern world of manners and injustice that Lee's heroine, Scout Finch, so beautifully describes and narrates throughout the novel: 
"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flied in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."
The story was not only compelling but timely. It remains one of my favorite novels. With Mrs. Royce, one of many memorable teachers but one of my best English teaches along the way, we wrote short essays about the book, had vocabulary tests from it, discussed it in class and even had to write our first term papers on it. I felt so grown up delving into class discussions and thinking about what I was reading in a new way. Somewhere in a box from our move I still have that term paper, typed on onion skin, and the cover collage that I made from magazine bits and words. I haven't read the book since 1975 and think it's time for a reread, just as it is time for our oldest son to read it. In the same class we also read Carson McCuller's novel, A Member of the Wedding, and I remember being struck as a 12-year old girl by the power of the young female voices of Lee's Scout and McCuller's Frankie. They were what I needed to hear at the time. I had just moved to a new state and school, even though I had loved coming there in the summers to see my grandparents, at a very inward and insecure time for me. Reading this kind of fiction was empowering.

As was J.D. Salinger in his lifetime, Lee has been largely silent for many years in the public eye and never published anything after her only novel's release. Her sister was quoted as saying that Lee told her that she she couldn't possibly live up to her own, or everyone's, expectations with a second novel so why even try? The work has no doubt sustained her financially all of these years but you have to wonder if she just stopped writing or, as Salinger was witnessed doing after he stopped publishing, if she has kept writing for herself.

Harper Lee, c. 1962, during movie filming.
A few years ago, two movies were done about Truman Capote's writing of In Cold Blood, with which Harper Lee assisted him, at least in the fact-finding. They were childhood friends and Capote was the inspiration for Scout and Jem's friend, Dill, in To Kill A Mockingbird. My favorite of the two movies was Capote, with its Oscar-winning performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener portraying Lee (who also should have won: one of these years the Academy will recognize this fine actress. I recall reading that Harper Lee was struck by Keener's performance at the time). It was a bleaker, drier film whereas the other less memorable one, whose title I can't even recall, was campier and silly, with a really dull performance by Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee (ok, so she had the hair right). Of course, the movie version of Lee's book was its own masterpiece and hopefully it will not follow the trend of Hollywood remakes. It would never have the same power or effect as the black and white original, narrated version starring Gregory Peck (its courthouse copied from the one in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama).

Among the powers of To Kill a Mockingbird is that it was written in a period in our history before the Civil Rights Act was even passed and when a person of color was still legally, and always immorally, discriminated against. That it was written by a white woman who seemed to understand racial injustice from a child's voice, that was no doubt the author's own, is even more extraordinary. When the book caused a great stir and was banned in many school districts, Lee wrote this response in a rare public letter to the editor: "Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners." ["Harper Lee Twits School Board In Virginia for Ban on Her Novel". The New York Times: p. 82. 1966-01-16.]

It is also a book about children and the loss of innocence––and the validation and the respect that we should have for children––as much as it is about race and Southern culture. A nation, and its readers, and hopefully generations of young readers in the years to come, will be forever grateful to Miss Harper Lee and her Pulitizer-prize winning magnum opus.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Patchy Feets

Patch was named for my husband's New Hampshire farmer friend, Norris Patch.

Momma Fox, I presumed.
A year ago today, Patch, the original alpha male of the Pond puppy trio, went off into the woods or the sunset and never returned. The worst thing is not knowing what happened. We suspect he got in a tussle with a fox that was sited lurking around on the property a few days before he left us, or maybe even a raccoon or a poisonous snake. Of the three puppies, Patch was the most aggressive in terms of hunting: off they'd go at all hours, running into the woods after something or other: rabbits, squirrels, anything that moved. No hole was too scary for Patch and it's likely he encountered one mad mother, like this worried-looking fox.

As for the chickens, we'll just say that Patch's attentiveness (and John's) when I was feeding the young chicks was not meant to be helpful: they were just eying potential future chicken dinners. As for the ducklings in the pond who lasted about four days, I'll spare you the details. Only a mother can forgive her dogs of being true to their nature and these were the first mutts we'd ever had. It has been a lesson in mixed breed traits, triumphs and tribulations. You get what you get and you love them all the same.

This is my favorite picture of John, Tom and Patch, taken when they were c. four months old in spring 2009. Who could refuse this barnyard trio?

Patch had my heart at hello. After only six weeks after losing Lucy in early December 2008, we got three farmyard specials, brothers from the same mother (but we question if they share the same father), at a Mennonite farm. The females of the litter had already been euthanized and we couldn't stand to know that two of the remaining three would suffer the same fate if not found a home (yes, birth control is not practiced much here as few owners get their pets spade or neutered and then think nothing of tossing them out or doing them in if no one wants them). So, we took home all three. Not my initial idea but when I met them, I soon agreed with my husband and boys. Besides, I'm a sucker for cute puppies living in a hay mow.

Patch tackles Tom in a typical puppy moment. I nicknamed him "Patchy Feets" because he, like the other two, always liked to jump up and gently press his feet on my torso for a friendly chat. Tom and John still do.

But Patchy had that distinct puppy personality: all presence, a bit of an observer, and cute as all get-out. His quiet demeanor belied a true alpha male, however. He was the one who led the trio over hill and dale on our farm: John would scream a high-pitched yapping bark of excitement, following close behind Patch, also barking. Ambling along at the rear was Type-B Tom, who really wouldn't hurt a flea but didn't hesitate to haul out dead carrion when he ran with the boys. Patch and John, especially, had the Jack Russell traits in them but it was Patch who also had, what I can only term, an Irish street scrapper persona. He wasn't fierce or scary but he'd get right in the thick of things and then back off, on his terms. When I first saw him I sensed an old dog soul, someone who had been here and back before, perhaps, a quiet observer of things but not afraid to speak his mind when necessary.

Patch had the most lovely blue-green eyes and red coloring. He had a lot of Irish in him, I'm certain, mixed in there with the Jack Russell-ish traits he seemed to exhibit.

We often speak of Patch and imagine him emerging from the woods one day, in full Rambo gear, his floppy red ears framed by a bright red bandanna and brandishing weapons and knives like some kind of pumped up dude in survivor mode. You could also imagine him in a little tweed vest and pants, tucking in by the fire with a glass of bourbon and a good pipe. I think, in the end, Patch's enthusiasm for everything that moved was his downfall. I hope he died on a happy mission. We still miss him.

John and Patch on my favorite old-style chair.
See what I mean?
The last two photos I took of Patch: late June 2009, age 7 months.

John and Tom, late June 2010: remarkably, Tom's coloring has gotten more blonde and his fur more shaggy.

"The puppies," as I will forever call them, follow us all over the farm and wouldn't miss a thing.
John is one lucky fellow, having been given a lifetime stay of execution for numerous poultry offenses. Like everyone else, he just wants to be loved and accepted for who he is and his positive traits outweigh his fierce need to kill small things.