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.

 

MtStHelens

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?

Happy Spring! Duck Eggs Daily

duck eggs daily

“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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Digging Deep

Narcissus, bookshelf

Taking this pic, I re-visited my long-ago college lit books on the bottom shelf: The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, The Norton Anthology of English Literature I and II, Victorian Poetry and Poetics, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Critical Theory Since Plato (oh, dear.) With many notes in the margins. Odd one out, a scriptwriting handbook. The “soil” of my literary leanings.

 

“I do believe that there’s something exquisitely powerful about taking something in nature and molding it with your own two hands. From the moment you dig up that first clump, you’re empowered because you immediately enter into collaboration with nature, and who better to be in collaboration with than the greatest force on earth?” Fran Sorin, Digging Deep

 

I have a delightful pairing to begin the new year: Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, the 10th anniversary edition by Fran Sorin; and Gardens of Use and Delight: Uniting the Practical and Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, by Jigs and Jo Ann Gardnerpublished in 2002.

Digging Deep book coverYou don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy Fran’s book, though if you are, all the better. Fran says, “My  mission is to show new and experienced gardeners alike how they can use their gardens – be they rolling, manicured lawns or tiny, blank plots of land – as tools for their creative awakening. I believe from the depths of my heart that gardening can be one of the most profound ways to unearth the creative spirit buried within every one of us. Once you unleash this creative energy, you’ll be amazed at what happens in all areas of your life. You’ll begin to see how living creatively opens up new vistas in your imagination and new windows of opportunity in your life.”

I’m a new gardener, and gardening has become for me a pleasurable, relaxing complement to writing, perfect for getting my body moving outdoors in nature. As I write about growing up in a family flower shop, sowing and tending and reaping resurrect the fragrance of fresh blooms and damp soil, and many other sensory pleasures, from my childhood.

When I ran across Fran’s book online, I was intrigued with her melding of gardening and creativity. The first edition of Digging Deep was immensely popular, hence the 10th anniversary edition in 2014. I’m glad to have discovered it this time around. In addition to being a garden expert and deep ecologist, Fran is an ordained interfaith minister and a soul tending coach. I point this out because the deceptively simple Digging Deep is a profound and spiritual book that is part memoir, as Fran draws upon her own rich life experiences to tell the story of how she arrived at the wisdom she shares here.

I’ve found that to nurture a creative practice (mine is writing), it is good to have other creative outlets just for pleasure, quite different from your primary practice. These “low-stakes” pastimes give your mind and body a break from routine and stimulate your imagination by allowing you to play and experiment. This spirit of play permeates Fran’s book. Her chapters take you sequentially through the cyclical nature of gardening, and creativity: Imagining: The Spark of Creativity. Envisioning: Giving Shape to Your Dreams. Planning: Laying Down the Bones. Planting: Taking Action. Tending: The Act of Nurturing. Enjoying: Reaping What You Have Sown. Completing: Cycling Through the Season.

Here is a favorite passage from a section called “Appreciating”: “Savoring your garden brings more than just sensory pleasure, though – it fills your creative well. In the moments that you experience the reverie of simply being there without working or planning or doing anything other than just drinking it in, you can experience a heightened awareness that elevates your consciousness. Any expression of art, be it a Rembrandt or your own garden, reflects the best of humankind, and tapping into this wonder expands your creative capacity so you may in turn create even more art – more awareness, more inspiration, more aliveness. The cycle feeds itself, but only if you stop to smell those literal and proverbial roses.” (boldface is mine)

Fran includes some excellent gardening guidance and tips, but her book is not a gardening manual. Rather, her aim is impart a deeper wisdom, a kind of spiritual instruction about connection to soil and nature, to foster creative awakening.

Gardens of Use and Delight book coverJigs and Jo Ann Gardner’s Gardens of Use and Delight is about a remarkable couple who for thirty years taught themselves how to live off the land on a farm on remote, hardscrabble Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. (They now live on a smaller farm in upstate New York.) I wanted to pair it with Digging Deep because, although Jigs and Jo Ann are immensely practical people, they are deeply connected to their land and passionate about homesteading, which they portray as at once the functional task of reawakening fertility and abundance in the landscape and making it beautiful as well. The subtitle is Uniting the Practical and the Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, and that is exactly what Jigs and Jo Ann did on their isolated farm, while also raising four children (and a few foster children for good measure.)

Gardens of Use and Delight, like Digging Deep, is part memoir. More of a how-to book than Fran’s, Gardens, for me, stands out because of Jigs and Jo Ann’s instinctively creative approach to seamlessly blending beauty and fertility as they rejuvenate and work their land. I will never rehabilitate an entire farm as they did, but in Jigs and Jo Ann’s book I find an approach to making my much smaller landscape both productive and beautiful. Jigs and Jo Ann remind me of Helen and Scott Nearing and their classic and influential The Good Life, although Helen and Scott were not concerned with aesthetics as are Jigs and Jo Ann. The Gardners view their land as an artist does a blank canvas, to be molded and planted with flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, shrubs, and trees.

You’ll find some recipes and homemade craft instructions, too, such as pressed flower cards, candied petals, herb salt, rose petal jelly, and skin freshener. Elayne Sears’ watercolor illustrations of the landscape, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and Jo Ann’s rustic farm kitchen and pantry are delightful – I’d love to have prints of them to hang in my kitchen.

I have read other titles by Jo Ann Gardner and hope to collect everything written by this talented, tenacious homesteading and gardening virtuoso.

A very vintage photo of Cape Breton Island, from my honeymoon. Although I don't believe they were on the coast, Jigs and Jo Ann Snyder must have encountered land much like this when began to reclaim an old Nova Scotia farm.

A very vintage photo of Cape Breton Island, from my honeymoon. Although I don’t believe they were on the coast, Jigs and Jo Ann Gardner must have encountered land much like this when they began to reclaim an old Nova Scotia farm.

 

Slow Flowers Challenge

I wanted to also tell you about Debra Prinzing’s Slow Flower Challenge for 2015, which you can join at any time. Every day, once a week, once a month, or once a season, you can design and make a floral arrangement using slow flowers. If you don’t know what slow flowers are, click on the above link, or read my post about Debra’s book, Slow Flowers. (St. Lynn’s Press)

Raised beds covered with snow

Our blank slate

 

 Next up

More WW II fiction, a travel-to-the-ends-of-the-earth memoir, a wolf, Scandinavian literature, Little Golden Books, a favorite author visits Rome. Etc. Etc.

 

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