To inspire your creative practice, soak up another’s

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“Those who have taken up homesteading – whether in the late nineteenth century, in midcentury, or in more recent periods – have all been acting out particular versions of larger experiments in American cultural dissent and spiritual creativity.”

 

I wake up early, not so usual for me, and when I raise the blinds it’s always sunny here on the dry side of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

I put on a thick woolen sweater with a Native American design in sepia and acorn hues, owned by the artist who lives and works here. I grab my cereal and juice, head outside, and eat my shredded wheat looking at Mt. Hood.

We just sold our home of 23 years, where we raised two sons. Wanting to get our minds off of what we left behind, we flew across the country to an artist’s studio and retreat in the Pacific Northwest. New terrain and evidence of an artist hard at work teaching, learning, sharing, and making are reviving my creative spirit.

These things inspire:

  • a weaver’s loom
  • artwork on all the walls, mostly nature based
  • marigolds drying in a basket
  • a display of cloth swatches dyed from goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, turmeric, eucalyptus, horsetail, walnut, and blackberries
  • a fragrant garden with mint, basil, tomatoes, squash and other goodies
  • a handmade bread oven
  • poppies everywhere in gold and fiery red
  • jars filled with mysterious things, such as dried flower petals and I don’t know what
  • thick, blush-pink pear slices put by in glass jars
  • a catalog of enticing classes like Wooden Spoon Carving, Flower Farm Dyes, Ikat Weaving, and Columbia Plateau Beadwork

 

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It’s chilly in the morning, often windy, always sunny.

 

Other people’s book collections take us down unforeseen paths, and sometimes the more off the beaten path, the better. There are many books to sample here. At the moment, I’m delving into At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, by Rebecca Kneale Gould, learning about John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Helen and Scott Nearing, and lesser known American homesteaders – an intriguing slice of American history. It’s perhaps more scholarly than I’d prefer, but I’m enjoying it.

Some other books that live here:

which “aesthetics” do you mean? ten definitions, by Leonard Koren

Coming to Stay: A Columbia River Journey, by Mary Dodds Schlick

A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers, by Rita Buchanan

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn

Art of the Northern Tlingit, by Aldona Jonaitis

The Textiles of Guatemala, by Regis Bertrand and Danielle Magne

Native Arts of the Columbia River Plateau: The Doris Swayze Bounds Collection, edited by Susan E. Harless

In Zanesville, a novel by Jo Ann Beard (I loved her memoir, The Boys of My Youth.)

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival, by Christopher Benfey

Recommended by my son, which I packed in my suitcase:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber

Other books I brought with me:

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (book club reading)

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, by Christine Valters Paintner

No Experience Required! Watercolor, by Carol Cooper

I’ll likely read just a couple of these but it’s nice to be able to choose.

 

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View from the backyard. (I zoomed in on Mt. Hood.)

 

 

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A homemade bread oven. At the moment, a burn ban prohibits its use.

 

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I think these sunflowers would be a relatively easy watercolor project for a beginner like me.

 

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Marigold blossoms drying

 

Climbing a small mountain is another way to get your mind off things. I have more stores of endurance than I thought and limbs that are plenty sore, but the climb gave me a sense of accomplishment.

 

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View of Mt. Hood from Little Huckleberry Mountain in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

 

We saw three of the Cascade mountains once we made it to the top…

 

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Mt. Adams

 

….which I could not have done without the encouragement of my husband.

 

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Mt. Rainier 

 

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Atop Little Huckleberry Mountain, on the ruins of an old fire lookout. Elevation: 4,781 feet.

 

An artist’s tools and artifacts. Books that belong to another. Climbing a small mountain. How do you feed your creative spirit? Can you recommend any books? Are you traveling this summer or working on a creative project?

This Life Is in Your Hands

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“Food for Mama was equal to love, and, though she might withhold it when fasting, she usually meted it out to Papa and me straight from her heart. The preparing, cooking, and storing of food made up the pulse of her days. I’d wake in the mornings to the sound of Mama grinding grain. Clamped to the kitchen counter, that steel mill from Hatch’s was her magic tool, transforming inedible whole grains into vital ingredients as she stood beside it, hair pulled back, working the crank. The groats went in a funnel in the top, to be ground by opposing metal wheels attached to the crank, and depending on the setting, meal or flour streamed or puffed from the spout into a bowl.” This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman’s parents were key figures in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, disciples and neighbors of Helen and Scott Nearing, who were activists and advocates of simple living. Scott Nearing wrote the classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World in 1954.

Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands, is about her childhood years with her two younger sisters on the Maine farmland her parents, Sue and Eliot Coleman, bought from the Nearings. It’s an ode to people in love with the land and a certain way of life; it’s also an elegy for a family and a time forever lost: when Melissa was seven, tragedy struck and her family splintered.

As I read the memoir, it dawned on me that I recognized the name Eliot Coleman, and that, in fact, I have one of his books, Four-Season Harvest, which I bought when I became interested in year-round gardening. From the standpoint of American history, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating look at the back-to-the-land movement. Regarded suspiciously as radical hippies by many in mainstream America, the Colemans and others like them pioneered an important movement flourishing on new fronts today.

Eliot Coleman criticized the ravages wrought by industrialized farming. He advocated small-scale, biological farming, which emphasizes high quality soil that eliminates the need for pesticides, and a return to ancient farming practices. When Melissa Coleman was a young child, Eliot went on research forays to Europe, where he observed French farmers cultivating gardens all year round. He began to import their age-old farming wisdom to America and has been influential in the organic farming movement ever since.

There is much to admire in This Life Is in Your Hands as a memoir, and there are limitations, too. Melissa Coleman’s writing is uneven, and her storytelling skills fall short in some readers eyes. But at her best she is exquisitely poetic about daily life on their plot of land.

“The cookstove was our most important possession, without which we would either starve or freeze to death. To my young imagination it looked like a black animal with four stout legs under a square body, a flat top with lids that opened to the fire, and one long tail of a chimney that curved through the wall to puff smoke outside. It had three mouths, a small one to make little fires for cooking, a bigger one for overnight fires, and the biggest of all for the oven, with white enamel around a temperature dial ranging from “cool” to “very hot” and the brand name, “Kalamazoo.” When the bread was done, Mama opened the oven door and the loaves came out golden brown and steaming, to be placed on the counter to cool.”

Of course, Melissa must also tell how this edenic existence fell apart. The lifestyle entailed constant, backbreaking work, and the Colemans did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The children were allowed to run free on the farm, and the constant work meant they weren’t attended to closely, which contributed to a tragedy: the accidental death of Melissa’s sister.

Coleman’s portrayal of her parents, Sue and Eliot, is mostly compassionate, but confusing, to me. From the beginning it’s drummed into us that Sue didn’t have the inner confidence and drive of her husband, Eliot. We’re told he was extraordinary, while Sue is depicted as lacking, and some of this judgement seems unfair to Sue. Understandably, Melissa suffered greatly when Sue fell apart and abandoned her role as a mother after the tragedy. But for a long time their farm and family flourished thanks to Sue’s efforts, not just Eliot’s. She gardened, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, hauled water, and gave birth to two of her children at home–one of those times she was home alone.

Sue suffered from bouts of depression and postpartum depression, but she was caring for three young children while adhering to superhuman lifestyle standards and married to an impossibly driven man. At one point, before the tragedy, Eliot procured a rental car and told Sue to leave with the children, that the marriage was over. It’s not clear to me why this was warranted–Sue’s worst sin seems to be what some might call neediness–unless Melissa left information out to protect her mother. I found Eliot’s actions harsh. The situation hints at sexism and unrecognized mental illness. Despite the sexual revolution and women’s lib, there were plenty of sexist marriages in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any young mother in her situation, Sue needed more support, although as readers, we may not know the whole story.

The Nearings apparently remained somewhat aloof after the tragedy. Helen Nearing, in fact, had not been pleased when Sue became pregnant the first time, telling her she should have waited because it was unrealistic to take on both motherhood and the farm.

The author’s conclusions about the meaning and fallout from her family’s grand experiment and tragedy struck me as pat. But telling the whole, accurate truth in these fraught family stories, from the point of view of the child and then as an adult with hindsight, is difficult. Memoir has pitfalls, but I think this one is an important and intriguing story on many levels.

Eliot and his third wife, Barbara Damrosch, currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, on the site of the original farm Melissa wrote about in her memoir. Today, many small organic farmers are flourishing in central Maine, some owned by apprentices who worked for the Nearings and the Colemans.

“Our staple was a yeast-free flatbread called a chapati, which Mama learned to make from David Hatch, who learned in India. Mama let me help mix the flour from the grain mill with water and salt to make a pliable dough, then kneaded it to bring out the gluten and let it set for an hour before making round gold balls of dough that she flattened with a rolling pin into thin, but not too thin, pancakes. She prepared the cookstove ahead so there was a bed of red hot coals in the firebox, and heated a greaseless twelve-by-sixteen-inch cast-iron skillet to sear both sides of the chapati and trap the steam inside. The chapati was then placed on a bent clothes hanger over hot coals inside the firebox, where it would blow up into a steamy balloon. Once it was removed from the flame, the air in the middle was released and the balloon flattened to form a perfect tortilla-like vehicle, warm or cold, for whatever you chose to put on or inside it.”

Here is a short video about Helen and Scott Nearing; Eliot Coleman appears in the opening:

http://external.bangordailynews.com/projects/2014/04/goodlife/?chapter=root&utm_source=bangordailynews&utm_campaign=refer

Have you read This Life Is in Your Hands or other books about sustainable living?

 

The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly

The Monarch

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”   Margaret Mead

 

“The tag on that little butterfly sent me off on a journey of my own – one that would over and over again astound me at the miracle of it, the wonder of nature, the tenacity of living things. Over the next ten years I would continue to add to my knowledge and experience about something that had been going on for centuries, with a part of it still taking place right in my own backyard.”  The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, by Kylee Baumle

 

I had no idea monarch butterflies were so fascinating. I didn’t know there are such things as Certified Monarch Waystations and that I could easily create one myself, or that I could monitor monarch butterflies as a citizen scientist. I didn’t know there was a Beautiful Monarch Facebook group with 11,000 members. (As of this writing, I’m one of their newest.)

My favorite nature and gardening publisher, St. Lynn’s Press, kindly sent me a review copy of their new book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, by Kylee Baumle. I thought this would be the perfect time to feature it on Books Can Save a Life in honor of the People’s Climate March this weekend in cities around the world.

Kylee Baumle – a citizen scientist, lifelong gardener, blogger (Our Little Acre), and columnist for Ohio Gardener magazine – has written a beautiful book about the monarch butterfly, its perils, and what we can do to help make sure this magnificent creature is still here generations from now.

The author begins by telling a personal story about a monarch encounter that involves miraculous detective work and speaks volumes about her passion for this threatened creature. She follows up with fascinating chapters about monarch biology that focus on the miracles of its five-stages of development and nearly unbelievable cross-country migration.

“The monarch’s migration is extraordinary; there is none like it in the butterfly world. Think of it: A butterfly born in Canada or the U.S. begins an epic journey of up to 2900 miles south to a place they’ve never been before – a very specific place, where their great-great-grandparents went the year before, but never the other generations between them.”

(Baumle tells us that the winter location of the migrating monarchs was unknown until 1975. Now we know they overwinter in the oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Belt mountains in central Mexico. This location was first shared with the world in the August 1976 issue of National Geographic. Read more about the discovery here.)

 

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“The final generation of monarchs in late summer and early fall are called the Methuselah generation. Why Methuselah? The name is borrowed from the Bible, in which Methuselah was said to have lived for 969 years, much longer than his contemporaries. Migrating monarchs live five to eight times as long as their parents and grandparents.”

 

You don’t have to be an expert gardener – or a gardener at all – to enjoy The Monarch and find inspiration to become involved in its preservation. Baumle has carefully and thoroughly presented the most up-to-date research about the monarch, and she’s included a range of easy, fun activities that will appeal to all ages. This is an excellent book for the lay person as well as for teachers and students, young and not-so-young.

 

 

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Here are some things you can do to honor and help save the monarch butterfly: 1. Become a Citizen Scientist (8 programs are listed in this book.) 2. Create a Monarch Waystation with milkweed and other plants to attract and nourish monarchs. 3. Make a butterfly watering station. 4. Raise a monarch in your home. 5. Tag a migrating monarch. 6. Get a grant to plant a school garden. Several grant sponsors are listed in this book.

 

I admire St. Lynn’s Press for publishing books that encourage us to savor and preserve the natural world. They have an impressive backlist of gardening and nature titles, and they’ve done it again with The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. Kylee Baumle’s love for the monarch and enthusiasm for spreading the word is contagious.

 

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” A group of butterflies goes by several names. ‘Kaleidoscope’ is my favorite, but others have used the terms ‘swarm’ and ‘rabble.’ Take your pick.”

 

 

 

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“Where have all the butterflies gone? It’s a question I hear being asked quite a bit these days.”

 

For more about Danaus Plexippus (the monarch butterfly) and how you can get involved, here are excellent websites listed in The Monarch:

Make Way for Monarchs

Journey North: A Global Study of Wildlife Migration and Seasonal Change

Monarch Joint Venture

Monarch Watch

Monarch Butterfly Garden

Monarch Lab

Xerces Society

 

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“There aren’t many such widespread issues whose directions can be changed by ordinary people like you and me, or in which people truly believe that anything they do will have any measurable effect. But reversing the decline in the number of monarchs is one where we really can make a difference.”

 

Flight BehaviorIf you would like to read a great work of eco-fiction about the migration of butterflies, follow up your reading of The Monarch with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I wrote about it on my blog a few years ago.

“No one is an environmentalist by birth. It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you.”  Yann Arthur Bertrand, photographer and creator of the book Earth from Above and the film Home.

If you plan to participate in one of the climate marches this weekend, happy marching!

 

2016 Favorite Books & Posts

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Under the tree this year

 

Several of my favorite books read this year were published in 2016. My top read, a memoir, was first published in Germany in 1938.

You’ll see plenty of memoirs on my list. Almost all the fiction is historical. Two are set in the northern Arctic regions.

Why I Write Memoir was by far my most popular post in 2016.

My Most Unusual & Memorable Read in 2016

A Woman in the Polar Nightby Christiane Ritter (memoir)

Favorite Fiction Read in 2016

To the Bright Edge#1 To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

#2 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

#3 Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (not yet reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

#4 My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout 

Favorite Memoirs Read in 2016

#1 Lab Girlby Hope Jahren

#2 Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston

#3 The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

#4 H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2016

67 Shots#1 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard Means

#2 The Road to Character, by David Brooks (not reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

Favorite Author New to Me

Sonja Livingston (Ladies Night at the Dreamland; Queen of the Fall; Ghostbread)

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS, 2016

#1 Why I Write Memoir

#2 A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold (memoir)

Also popular

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (memoir)

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS OF ALL TIME

Daughters of Madness book cover#1 Meeting the Dark Matter of Mental Illness

#2 Reading Junot Diaz

#3 Do Genes Shape Our Mental Health?

#4 Children of Mental Illness, Part I

What were your favorite books read in 2016, and what is on your list for 2017?

My Favorite Things

….on the Olympic Peninsula….

We’re on vacation exploring the magnificent beauty of the Olympic Peninsula and getting to know Port Townsend, Sequim, Port Angeles, and Olympic National Park.

The airbnb  where we’re staying is on a cliff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The octagonal structure in the photo below is where I’m writing this blog post.

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Our temporary home is a former barn that has been beautifully converted into a comfortable dwelling filled with Native American, Mexican, and Americana art, quilts, and rugs. I spent more than a few hours on airbnb looking for a place to stay, and my research paid off.

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There are lush gardens on the property and a tree farm across the road along with a view of the magnificent snow-covered Olympic Mountains. Sea in the backyard, mountains in the front yard.

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I love the weathered colors and textures of this old structure. It is a workshop/studio filled with fabrics – I believe one of the owners is a textile artist, and several of her quilts grace the walls where we’re staying.

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Below is the interior of the little octagonal retreat, which comes equipped with a heater and bookshelves. All you need is a mug of hot coffee or tea to feel right at home. You can see a reflection of the view in the top half of the photo.

Early this morning my husband saw two bald eagles perched on a tall, dead tree nearby. It had rained in the night, and the pond visible in the first photo was filled to overflowing.

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I’d started reading Braiding Sweetgrass back home, and I’m continuing to read it slowly, a chapter at a time. A good companion is Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle, who writes of the extensive logging that has stripped the Willapa Hills of southwestern Washington, where he has lived for thirty years.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at the Wild Arts festival in Portland last fall. Note that there is an introduction by David Guterson in this edition. Robert Michael Pyle is a generous Santa Claus of a man who teaches every year at Fishtrap, a retreat for writers who are passionate about the West.

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More later. I’ll tell you about a wonderful indie bookshop I visited, its dynamic owner, the person I happened to run into there in a moment of serendipity, and the books I bought.

Have you been to the Olympic Peninsula? If so, what are your favorite spots? Can you recommend books or authors connected with this part of the world?

 

 

Happy Spring! Duck Eggs Daily

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“As the sun peeks up over the tops of the trees, I finish the last of my coffee and get dressed in my ‘barn attire.’ My schedule (and the ducks’) isn’t dictated by the time on the clock on the kitchen wall, but entirely on the sun. They want to be let out at sunup, whether that comes at 5:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m….It’s cold outside, so I’ve heated up some water in the teakettle and have a special treat for the ducks to go with their breakfast. They’re getting a pan of oats, cracked corn, dried cranberries and mealworms, moistened with warm water.”  Duck Eggs Daily by Lisa Steele

I know it’s spring when, every April, a pair of wood ducks appear in our backyard. They like to swim in our two small ponds and they nest somewhere in the miniature forest of beech, maple, and hemlock behind our house that gets a bit swampy in the spring.

Our ducks haven’t shown up yet, but I’m expecting them any day now.

A pair of ducksWe never see any ducklings, though, and we worry because this is also the territory of a neighborhood fox, as well as hawks and owls. By midsummer our visiting ducks have disappeared – maybe they’re busy tending their nest – and I always miss them once they’ve gone.

So I was delighted when my favorite gardening and sustainable living publisher, St. Lynn’s Press, sent me a review copy of Duck Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Ducks…Naturally by Lisa Steele. (Lisa is also the author of Fresh Eggs Daily.)

My husband and I have been learning (very) small-scale vegetable gardening, and I’ve been thinking about branching out into eggs. I’d read in one of my gardening books that ducks are great for pest control and fertilizer, and they’re easier to raise than chickens.

DucksIn Duck Eggs Daily, Maine hobby farmer Lisa Steele proves this is so, and I found her enthusiasm and love for ducks (and flocks of all kinds) to be contagious and inspiring.

An expert in small-flock poultry keeping, Lisa has been a long-time owner of chickens, too. She says that ducks are more cold hardy, heat tolerant, and disease resistant than chickens – so I’m thinking ducks might be the way for a beginner like me to get started. They have a longer and more productive laying life too, and duck eggs are especially rich in protein.

Duck Eggs Daily is a beautifully designed little how-to reference book that also reads like a daybook or nature journal, particularly the day-in-a-life-with-ducks chapter.  Lisa’s eleven ducks clearly bring her a great deal of joy, and these duck tending activities are lovingly rendered:

  • hatching ducklings in an incubator
  • collecting eggs at sunrise
  • making ducks happy with special treats (such as watermelon, dandelion greens, fresh peas, leftover squash and pumpkins from the garden, and delicious mealworms)
  • giving ducks swim time in the kiddie pool
  • watching typical duck antics like walking in a row, mud dabbling, tail wagging, and happy quacks.

Each duck topic covered is packed with useful details:

  • the characteristics and advantages of various duck breeds
  • hatching, brooding and raising ducks
  • one complete day in a life with ducks, from sunrise to sunset
  • duck behavior and duck treats
  • duck houses and duck pools
  • duck health
  • cooking with duck eggs, with tempting recipes like crème brûlée, lemony egg rice soup, herbed deviled eggs, and homemade pasta.

Ducks 2Lisa says that now is the perfect time to invest in a pair or trio of ducks, because many ducks adopted as pets are abandoned after Easter. She encourages interested readers to adopt two or three from one of the duck rescue organizations listed in the book’s appendix.

After reading Duck Eggs Daily, I concluded that currently we don’t have a lifestyle conducive to raising ducks and doing it well. However, we’re looking forward to ducks in our future when the time is right. It’s a daily commitment, and we’d need to find someone to take over when we travel. I have a hard time picturing myself filling water tubs twice a day, especially during freezing, snowy western New York winters. And, in theory, I like the romance of getting up with the sun to let the ducks out and give them breakfast, but rising early isn’t my favorite thing to do. I’d have to make a commitment to make that happen on cold, dark winter mornings. Still, I like the discipline this entails. I think it would be a great way to start to my day and get me at my writing desk earlier.

But those ducks, they sure are cute, so maybe it will happen sooner rather than later. I’ve never tasted a duck egg, and wouldn’t it be fun to make homemade mint chip ice cream with fresh duck eggs?

My St. Lynn’s Press Library

I’ve had a small herb garden as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved flowers, having grown up in a floral shop. Over the past year or two, since we began our vegetable garden and I discovered St. Lynn’s Press, I’ve assembled a great little library that’s still growing.

Herb Lovers Spa BookSlow Flowers, by Debra Prinzing

The 50 Mile Bouquet, by Debra Prinzing

Windowsill Art, by Nancy Ross Hugo

The Herb Lover’s Spa Book, by Sue Goetz

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

Yards, by Billy Goodnick

 

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The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion

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The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

 

“‘Don’t let cancer define you, Jenny.’ So how did I not let cancer define me? Not knowing anything better, I simply kept doing what I knew to do. And one of those things was gardening….I’m not going to lie –  I had many days when I did not feel like gardening. But I decided to change my approach and focus on small, doable tasks….little by little, my relationship with plants and my garden became the thing that turned me around – body, mind and spirit. No, it wasn’t easy. Nothing about cancer and cancer treatment is easy. But it was my reality, and I was determined to find some place where I could thrive and experience joy again.”

From time to time, I like to take a break from literary fiction and literary nonfiction at Books Can Save a Life to feature a slow living book that gets me out of my head and inspires me to enjoy the moment. I especially love the unique gardening books published by St. Lynn’s Press, so I was thrilled when they sent me a review copy of The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion.

This book is especially meaningful to me because over a year ago my brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Sadly, my brother passed away in the fall.  As I thumbed through the pages of  The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, I wished Jenny Peterson‘s book had been available earlier. It would have been a wonderful gift for my brother and his family. From now on, The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion will be part of any care package I might give to friends and loved ones with health challenges.

Jenny’s book is filled with simple and enjoyable gardening activities to restore body, mind, and spirit, especially during treatment. I thought about my brother’s small backyard garden, which was a bit neglected after his diagnosis, and how this book might have inspired him to continue enjoying manageable tasks on his tiny plot of tomatoes and eggplants.

One of my fondest memories of that difficult time was the afternoon we decided to make jam from the two old crab apple trees and the grapevines in my brother’s backyard. Joe and my sister-in-law had never picked or eaten the tiny crab apples, and we had no idea how the jam would turn out. We had fun all afternoon picking, cooking, and then tasting the deep purple and ruby colored jams, which turned out delicious.

Four jars of homemade jam

Jam made from the crab apple trees in my brother’s backyard.

 

 

Jenny Peterson is so right about the restorative powers of gardens and nature, because that afternoon my brother really enjoyed sorting and de-stemming the crab apples, the aroma of fruit cooking over the stove, and tasting the still-warm jam. I think he appreciated the little miracle of new and unexpected late-summer bounty from his backyard.

Wellness + Mindfulness + Gardening

Jenny Peterson, a writer and landscape designer with degrees in psychology and theology, is also a survivor of breast cancer and skin cancer. She wrote The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion not as a how-to gardening book, but “to encourage people who are diagnosed with cancer, going through cancer treatment, healing from cancer or living with cancer to view their gardens, plants and outdoor spaces as resources in creating the healthiest and most balanced life possible. Life can be difficult, but it can also be profoundly beautiful, and our gardens are the best teachers of this.”

So, you don’t have to be an experienced gardener, or even a gardener at all, to enjoy and benefit immensely from The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion. The activities, each centered around body, mind, or spirit, can be scaled up or scaled down, depending on needs and energy levels.

“Survivor Spotlights” feature gardening tips from individuals who have had a cancer diagnosis.

Jenny Peterson talks about her own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges during radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments, and how she turned to her garden as both a haven and good medicine. She genuinely understands the rigors of cancer treatment and is deeply empathetic, warm, and encouraging.

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The Garden That Heals: Body + Mind + Spirit

Her suggestions for restorative and healing garden activities include:

  • Gardening for cardio exercise, strength and flexibility, strong bones, circulation & boosting the immune system
  • Ideas for building a yoga deck garden
  • Beneficial fruits, vegetables and herbs for nourishment and strength during treatment, including aromatherapy and herbal remedies
  • Garden design, problem solving, and nature photography to relax the mind and keep it sharp
  • Sharing the garden with friends and family by hosting seed and plant sharing parties, social hours, and other events
  • Garden-themed music to enjoy
  • Prayer, meditation, and mindful movement, including labyrinths, suggested mantras, garden altars, and tea ceremonies

There is an appendix with suggested books (fiction and nonfiction), excellent health information sites, and sources for garden tools and clothing.

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I love the Japanese words wabi sabi and have read other books on this fascinating topic, including Wabi Sabi for Writers  by Richard R. Powell.

 

I love these other books published by St. Lynn’s Press, too:

Slow Flowers, by Debra Prinzing

Windowsill Art, by Nancy Ross Hugo

The Herb Lover’s Spa Book, by Sue Goetz

If you have a personal story of gardening, illness and health, please share. I’d love to hear about your own gardening book favorites, too.

Shop local for Christmas

Corner Bookstore

shelf-sacrifice n: to selflessly give away a book from one’s personal library for another person’s benefit – Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms

In our village on the Erie Canal, we have a number of small nonprofit businesses run by volunteers, including a craft shop, a second-hand tool thrift store, and The Corner Bookstore with used and collectible books. All donate their profits to good causes. The bookstore proceeds support programs at our public library.

I love shopping at these small businesses. (The tool shop not as much, but we did buy an old-fashioned push lawn mower there. When my brother-in-law visited us a few years back, we lost him for a couple of hours, only to find him browsing in the tool shop.)

A number of clothing consignment shops are scattered around our village as well. I’ve been thinking about challenging myself this year to buy exclusively (or almost) from stores I can walk or bike to. Our farmer’s market runs from May to November, so it wouldn’t be difficult to purchase a good portion of our fruits and vegetables there, supplemented by our small backyard garden. (Our town has a community garden, too.)

Shelf-sacrifice is what The Corner Bookstore is all about. It’s an elfin wonderland of used and vintage books lovingly displayed in diminutive groupings: children’s books, poetry, graphic novels, history, fiction, local authors, and more.

Vintage Children's Books

The cookbook section has used cookbooks nestled in gift baskets along with vintage ice cream sundae glasses, martini glasses, and miniature ceramic casserole dishes. I found a blank recipe album with Bible verses and beautiful cover art in pristine condition. For my son, I found a Vietnamese cookbook – he loves Asian food.

Cookbooks

In the local authors bookcase, I spotted Reunion in Sicily by Jerre Mangione, a scholar of the Sicilian-American experience, according to Wikipedia. Jerre is the uncle of jazz musicians Chuck and Gap Mangione, who are from Rochester. Flipping through the pages of the book, which was published in 1950, I saw that the author visited Sicily in 1936 when Mussolini and the Fascists were in power. Mangione was watched closely by the police and interrogated more than once as to the purpose of his visit.

Reunion in Sicily

Mangione was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship after WWII so he could return to Sicily to learn more about Italian politics and culture of the times. Reunion in Sicily is not listed in his Wikipedia entry; I’m interested to see what I can learn from the book. My father was Sicilian-American and a WWII veteran with extended family in the Old Country. The war, of course, essentially split Italian and Italian-American families in two, at least for a time.

Another great find was The Fragrant Garden, a beautifully slipcased anthology of garden writing and art, the kind of book you can display open on a small easel. When I noticed the subtitle, Penhaligon’s Scented Treasury of Verse and Prose, I realized that a faint floral scent emanated from its pages. Upon reading the prologue I discovered that, indeed, the endpapers are scented with Penhaligon’s Gardenia perfume. Gardenia is one of my all-time favorite floral scents; I had a gardenia in my bridal bouquet.

Fragrant Garden.jpg

The volume was edited by Sheila Pickles (check out her Goodreads Page) and published in 1992. Never having heard of Penhaligon’s, I had to look that up, too. It was established in London in the late 1800s. There are shops in the US, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the London shop? They have a blog, and here is an enticingly sensuous excerpt from it about the men’s perfume Endymion:

“….a complex blend of sophisticated scents, it opens with the orangy warmth of bergamot and mandarin wrapped in delicate lavender and sage. The dark coffee heart is rich and powerful giving way to the spicy velvet base of creamy nutmeg, vetiver, cardamom and a hint of leather. It is strong and romantic and very masculine.”

I’ve never heard of vetiver, have you? I had to look that up, too.

Wasn’t that fun? All this from a Christmas shopping trip to The Corner Bookstore.

Christmas lights.jpg

Don’t overlook the independent bookstores and shops near you as you go about your holiday shopping. It’s a good way to support your local economy, and you’re much more likely to find unique gifts and treasures.

Do you have any independent bookstores that you like in your town?

Library window with Erie Canal mural

Our public library on the Erie Canal was recently renovated. Since 1938, it has boasted this mural by Carl W. Peters, created as part of Rochester’s WPA Murals project.

Lift Bridge

Our one-of-a-kind lift bridge spans the Erie Canal. It is an irregular decagon (10 sides), no two angles in the bridge are the same and no corners on the bridge are square. It is lifted by a 40 hp electric motor. When the kids were little they loved watching the bridge being lifted so boats could pass through.

 

Summer book giveaway

Guess book & flower

Guess the book (hint: gothic romance) and/or the flower for a chance to win a book or a package of seeds. You don’t have to get the correct answer to win. Ends Wednesday, June 24, midnight EST.

Here are a few of the books I’ll be reading and writing about this summer:

How to Be Both, by Ali Smith

Laudato Si: Praise Be to You, On Care for Our Common Home, by Pope Francis

H Is for Hawk book coverH Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gray

Smile of a Midsummer Night: A Picture of Sweden, by Lars Gustafsson & Agneta Blomqvist

Rhythm of the Wild, by Kim Heacox

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes & Eric M. Conway

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Laudato Si books

Spring flowers and Colette, in Paris

Floral shop window

“As noisy as Paris was in those days, it always had its unexpected moments of stillness. At Cours-la-Reine, between one and one-thirty in the afternoon, when the last trucks had reached their canteens, those who loved flowers and silence could savor a strange respite, a solitude in which the flowers seemed to recover from human curiosity.”

******************

We’ve been in Paris, where our son has been studying and working in industrial design. I had so much fun walking around this enchanting city which, among other treasures, has secret gardens galore, flower vendors and flower markets, and floral shops offering spring flowers, herbs, and foliage, all beautifully arranged and presented.

Flowers and Fruit book coverA few years ago I was browsing in a local used book shop when I discovered a volume of essays by Colette, Flowers and Fruit, first printed in the US in 1986.

Some of the essays were inspired by a Swiss publisher, who for a time sent Colette a bouquet of flowers once or twice a week so she could write sketches of those that inspired her.

Colette wrote one of the longer essays in this collection, “Flora and Pomona,” during the Nazi occupation. According to the collection’s editor, Colette conceived of the writing project to “keep the coal bin at 9, rue de Beaujolais well filled and pay the black-market prices for rabbit and cheese and chicken and other comestibles otherwise unavailable, even to much-loved novelists living in the Palais-Royal.”

At the time of its publication, some critics said factual errors, weak editing, and a less than adequate translation detracted from Flowers and Fruit. I find Colette’s writing challenging, so this isn’t the kind of book I’d read straight through. It’s a little treasure for floral enthusiasts that’s fun to browse when I want Colette’s unusual take on flowers.

We were lucky to be in Paris on May Day. This holiday’s signature flower is lily of the valley, one of my favorites. They were everywhere.

Here are some of my Paris floral photos paired with Colette’s thoughts on flowers and gardens:

Peonies

“Garnet red, bright pink, sentimental pink, and three or four other carmine reds, they are the colors of good health and will delight me throughout the coming week.” (These peonies have not yet opened, which is when you should buy them.)

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley is the May Day flower in Paris. “In spring, nearly an entire nation demands lily of the valley like bread.”

Pots of lily of the valley

“More than a flirtation, better than a superstition, almost a religion, the lily of the valley is celebrated on the first of May. Its cult stirs the Paris population to fever pitch…”

Chocolate & lily of the valley

You’ll find lily of the valley everywhere on May Day, even at the chocolatier. I saw these lovely desserts at Sylvain Mussy on Rue Bourg Tibourg.

 

Lily of the valley bouquet

My May Day bouquet. Lily of the valley, gloriosa lily (also known as fire lily or flame lily), and angel hair fern. “The true lily’s favorite soil is the kitchen garden’s, with tarragon, sorrel edgings, and purple garlic for neighbors.”

Flowers

Campanula and Persian violets. “…the sleeve of blue-violet campanula that grows immoderately, framing the windows in a single rush and decking them with flowers all season long.”

Pink and white roses

“Below my window, among the puddles of water, the bathing pigeons….we have old-fashioned, floriferous rosebushes that have survived both war and frost. Never have they failed to flower, and to flower again, and yet again before November.”

Stone figures on garden wall

There are many secret gardens hidden on the side streets of Paris, where the public is welcome.

Garden flowers

This one is Square Georges-Caïn on Rue Payenne. “Creating a garden takes us back to childhood imaginings.”

Paris street with plants, flowers

Some streets, like Rue du Trésor, are gardens, too.

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