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My Weekly Post

Memories of Scott

Larch's cove and his boats, at low tide, in Steuben
This past week, I traveled to Steuben, Maine, where I visited a rather extraordinary individual named Larch Hanson. For the past forty years, Larch has been harvesting and marketing seaweed from his hand-made house, across the road from a sweet, tranquil cove where he keeps his boats and dries his harvest. I had come to hear and record his story. For twenty-five years, he lived in a small cabin with few of the essentials most of us take for granted. He carried water from the stream for all those years and an outhouse was there for the necessities of life. Then, a few years ago, he replaced the cabin with a large, four-storey house, a plain-looking structure except for the lighthouse attached to the east side – the lighthouse conceals a fire escape required by code. From the outside, the house is like a large barn, probably 30 by 40, maybe bigger. His partner, Nina, had been showing me around while we waited for Larch to come home from town. My eye fell upon a neat border of blooming daffodils around the foundation, also adorned with an abundance of comfrey. “Pheasant’s Eyes!” I said, so surprised to see again this most distinctive narcissus, which has gone by down in my part of the world. “Is that what they are?” she replied and added that Larch had transplanted them there from his mother’s garden in Minnesota. We both looked more closely at these hauntingly beautiful faces nodding in the cool sea breezes. It gave me the odd feeling that they had followed me here, or I had followed them or been led by them, the same feeling I had had when I found them on the table of desserts at the talk I gave in Madbury and then, amazingly, once again when I gave a talk in Hollis. Both times, I was able to identify the bloom only because of Mary Liz’s quest (see my earlier post). It certainly was the year for the Pheasant’s Eye. At least for me.

The rest of that week reminded me of what I love about the work that I do. I spent intense hours listening to Larch who had come to Steuben in 1970, a disciple of Helen and Scott Nearing, who more or less established the back-to-the-land movement in New England by building their own house of stone and preaching the principles of simplifying your life and avoiding debt at all cost. “Pay as you go!” I remember Scott thundering at a room full of listeners at UMass in the early 1970s, pounding the podium as he said each word individually. I was in that room and heard his message so loudly that my husband and I endeavored to buy a piece of land and build our own house, all for cash, cash that we did not have before we heard those words. We bought their book, Living the Good Life, which had been written in 1954 but which seemed every bit if not more relevant then, in 1973, than it might have been in those bright-eyed days of the post-war years.

We were revolutionized by what we read and looked around at the potential of the rural land all around us. We turned off the main circuit to the electrical panel in the farmhouse we were renting at the time and brought out the oil lamps. Both of us were employed, doing modest jobs and we worked out a stringent budget. We bought woodstoves (everyone had discarded theirs by then and they were available for not much money) and cut cords of wood, by hand. We tilled up a huge plot of soil next to the house and planted rows of vegetables that I had calculated would provide us with a succession of food throughout the summer and fall and I learned to can. We converted the basement into a root cellar and learned the basics. Turnips and potatoes figured heavily into our plan. We were on a mission! Within a year, we had saved $15,000 – enough to buy 7 acres down the road and the lumber and materials to build the small but comfortable house we had spent the winter designing. The house had wood heat, a wood cookstove, solar hot water, a composting toilet, and a system of hand-pumped water clever enough that it appeared in Organic Gardening, my first published article. We installed each as we saved the money, wiring the house but not turning on the electricity until the very end of the project.

And so it began, just as it did for Larch Hanson and probably thousands of other like-minded young people throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine at that time. We tended our gardens in our relative isolation, in community with this huge band of Nearing worshippers. But by the early 1980s, we started to fade from the landscape as the societal demands that Scott Nearing had railed against gradually overtook those who had so hoped that this kind of conscious living could take hold and substantially influence a world increasingly obsessed with war and material goods. Everyone was at odds. Eventually my first husband and I divorced, which forced us to sell the house we built, a house I still long for in its simplicity and clever innovation.

Scott Nearing died in 1983. He was 100 years old and his face was weathered like a dried apple. After a life of conscious decisions, he made the conscious decision to stop eating. His life work was done and he felt the need to leave the good life. Helen cared for him to the end and lived on. She wrote their last book, Loving and Leaving the Good Life, and it was then that I first met her. She was coming to Peterborough to give a talk on a Sunday morning, a talk sponsored by our local hospice. My husband, Paul, had benefited greatly from their services, which was a new movement at the time. They knew of my affection for the Nearings and asked me to drive to Harborside, Maine, to pick up Helen and drive her down here to Peterborough. I did so with distinct pleasure. I arrived in her driveway, a place much imagined over the many years of my allegiance. She was sitting on a stump next to the front door to their handbuilt house, waiting for me. She showed me the storied house and its stone-walled gardens. The Nearing house was across the road from the cove, so they could be near but not on the water – always thinking about the taxes they did not want to pay, undoubtedly where Larch got his inspiration. We set forth onto the highway, talking most of the way, an extreme privilege for me to have such a lot of one-on-one time with this Queen of self-sufficiency. She was in her late eighties at the time and as hearty as a forty-year-old. She died one year after that, in a strange automobile accident, colliding with a tree just across from their house in Harborside. No one ever knew if she had fallen asleep or steered her car into the big tree on purpose. Life without Scott must not have been the good life. That she should die in a car, something that she and Scott eschewed for many years, seemed like a supreme irony to me.

I had journeyed to meet Larch, expecting an interesting encounter with a man who indulged in a unique industry but had not expected to re-encounter the Pheasant’s Eye as well as the spirit of my old friend Scott Nearing, which revitalized my interest in Scott and his philosophy about life. I read his biography on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Nearing), itself an innovation of our time, and learned more than I had ever known about him. What I had always known was that he was a pacifist and a man of principle and nothing in the reading dissuaded me from that notion. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, the Wall Street crimes, the proliferation of wars and unrest throughout the world, and the manipulations of information, disguised as “news.” Even his quiet, provide-for-yourself life in Harborside could not have shielded him from the tragedy of this.

I still heat with wood and that very same cookstove of all those years ago remains the center of my kitchen. Locally raised eggs, meat and a CSA, all down the road from me, provide for what I don’t grow myself. I’m investigating the possibility of solar, though it is still fiercely expensive. The problem is that this iPad life is now ridiculously expensive. One of the Nearings' early hand-made houses in Stratton, Vermont, where they had started out in the 1940s, is now for rent for $1200 a week and the house boasts a gas fireplace, microwave and satellite TV, a fact that makes my point better than any words I can conjure. It would be a very tall order to exist now as the Nearings did from the 1940s to the 1980s. At least from what I know about this world, that is my conclusion.

(I will be writing about Larch and his seaweed in a future issue of Yankee. Stay tuned!)
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In the Eye of Spring

I love a long spring and we have had that this year. So often, it goes by in the blink of an eye but this year, daffodils, abundant here, have been in bloom at least a month. Among the many blessings I have here at Mary’s farm are the varieties of daffodils she planted – who knows how long ago. I have planted some since I’ve been here but mostly, these harbingers of spring are from Mary. I had company last week and went out to pick a bunch for the table. There are several clumps to the east of the red barn, a scattering along the lower stone wall, some in front of the sunporch and in a collar around the hydrangea tree, some on the slope above the house. The early ones have gone by but new blooms have taken their place. While I was mowing the lawn yesterday, I found two rogues, beside the place where the big barn used to be. I can’t imagine they ever really bloomed in the tight shadow of the barn. But now that there's sun where the barn used to be, there they were, pure white, double-headed, with finely pointed petals, rising up out of rubble.

A friend of mine, Mary Liz, who lives nearby in a retirement community, was a great gardener, probably like Mary. She knows the names and the characteristics of many of the daffodils, or narcissus, as she prefers to call them. I was visiting with her a couple of weeks ago and she mentioned how much she missed her Pheasant’s Eyes. Before moving to her cozy apartment, she and her husband lived on a steep hill near Mt. Monadnock where she cultivated extensive perennial gardens. She sometimes won awards from the local garden club. She knew her stuff and has felt a little deprived now living without a garden of her own. I was pretty sure I knew what the Pheasant’s Eye looked like – a smallish white daffodil with a bright yellow center edged in red, which is the “eye” – and I had a feeling that I had some among my profusion of spring blooms. I told her I would look to see if I could find some for her.

On my return home, I searched all the clumps of daffodils around the house and barns. There were big, bright yellow blooms, the iconic yellow trumpets, some off-white with egg-yolk yellow centers, some big trumpets of white petals with faint yellow centers – the combinations seemed endless variations on the them of yellow, but, sadly, I could not find a Pheasant’s Eye for Mary Liz. Instead, I gathered a bouquet of some of each and dropped them off at her residence as a surprise. She in turn identified some of them for me: Mount Hood, Double Down, First Blush.

A few days later, I went to the town of Madbury to give a presentation at the historical society. Oftentimes these presentations are accompanied by a lavish table of sweets and treats and the evening in Madbury was no exception. Beautiful cakes, some dusted with confectioner’s sugar, were set on charming plates on a table adorned with an old-fashioned tablecloth and a large vase filled with daffodils. I was surprised and delighted to see that some blooms in the arrangement were Pheasant’s Eyes. I commented on these rare gems, which are sometimes called “Poet’s Eye,” a name I like even more, and as I was leaving the hall, one of my hosts lifted the entire bundle up out of the vase and gave them to me to carry home.

When I got home, I put them in a Mason jar on the kitchen table, the Eyes facing into the room. They were going by fast in my wood-heated kitchen. Next day, I separated the Eyes, put them into an old blue Milk of Magnesia bottle, and took them outside to photograph for Mary Liz. Better than nothing. In the meantime, her former neighbors had taken the time to cut twenty-five stems from the slope in front of her old house (with permission of the new owners) and took them to her in her apartment. And that day she had ordered bulbs for Pheasant’s Eyes to plant in a place outside her window for next year. In want, comes abundance.

During all this Pheasant’s Eye mania, I looked up the genus and found that the reason it is sometimes, or perhaps originally, called “Poet’s Eye” was because it is thought to be one of the oldest garden flowers. Legend has it that it was the narcissus of the Greek poets. Probably not true but lots of the red-eyed beauty can be found in France and Germany and up into the Pyrenees. They must last a long time up there, as the daffodils have here in this extended spring. Cold rain is forecast for the coming week so it’s likely we’ll hold onto the daffodils a bit longer.

My daffodil lexicon has been expanded. Pheasant’s Eye. The tiny but vivid bright red ring around the edge of the center cup is the kind of delicate detail in nature that makes one believe that, aside from being a poet, God was also an artist. I’m going to order some Pheasant’s Eye bulbs and plant them in the fall. Then I’ll hope for a long, cool spring next year.
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A Mother of a Day

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon (I was first accused of being that when I was about 25 years old, at which time I didn’t know the meaning of the word) and that sometimes comes out on Mother’s Day. Understand, I am not a mother and my mother is long gone. So the day basically has no meaning to me, personally.

My own mother told me to ignore the day as she felt it was a fabrication of Hallmark and related industries and she was probably right so I was raised to disdain it. She practically begged us not to celebrate Mother’s Day. And yet, now that I'm grown and not a mother, I have to say, it's a painful day. It seems like they make a bigger deal of it than ever. I won't go to church today because in our church they always ask all the women who are mothers to stand up -- so virtually every woman in the church stands up while I remain seated -- and then everyone claps. There are so many women who are not mothers or mothers who have lost their children or even those of us who have lost mothers and miss them or, turned upside down, those who have unpleasant memories about their mothers or even those whose children have gone astray in one way or another. Mother’s Day, as the greeting card industry would have it, only seems to strike one note and there never seems to be any compassion for these possible variations on the word ‘mother.’ In my world, the word ‘mother’ can evoke a whole spectrum of emotion and set me offkey for a week.

I don't really know if it could or should be otherwise celebrated, or, as my mother would have had it, not at all but it seems out of scale at this point, especially with all the men being blown away in Afghanistan or wherever, leaving so many heartsick mothers. We just continue on with hearts and flowers and making sure every man feels great shame for not celebrating his wife or mother on this day. I had a man over yesterday who was helping me with various necessary chores around the farm. We were washing my kitchen windows, me on the inside and he on the outside, and chatting as we worked. He was relating to me the pressure he is under every time this day rolls around. Last year, he told me, he bought his wife a staple gun which he thought she could use for her projects but it didn’t go over very well. Not sweet enough. This seems so needless. As my mother used to say, if you feel it, it will be there all year long.

I suppose if I were a mother, I might feel differently but I always thanked my mother for having such a mature attitude about Mother’s Day. Admittedly, and she would agree if she were alive to read this, she was not a mother who felt any need to trumpet herself as a Mother. It was just one part of her. I recall that my first mother-in-law was pretty harsh on the subject -- if we sent her a card, she wanted a gift, and if we sent her a gift, it wasn’t the right one, and so on, never enough and God forbid we should forget the day altogether. We heard about that for the rest of the year (she was a bona fide tour guide for guilt trips). To make matters worse, her son was an only child. The pressure was intense. Such treatment made me feel grateful to my mother who sat the day out on the sidelines.

So that is my curmudgeonly contribution to this day. God bless all mothers, as they truly are the start of it all and yet, feelings of gratitude should come when they rise up and not on designated days. And certainly not as yet another day to rack one's brain for another gift to buy. As a result, and aside from all of the other reasons I listed, you just might not feel grateful on this day. And that’s a shame.
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Fire and Ice

I went Sunday to see the blown glass art of Dale Chihuly on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I have been an enthusiastic fan of Chihuly’s for quite a while, having first encountered his work back in the early 1990’s on a trip to visit my sister who lives in Leavenworth, Washington. One of his amazing blown glass sculptures had been installed at a lovely retreat center called Sleeping Lady, which is just down the road from where she lives. She couldn’t wait to take me to see this mammoth creation, an enormous fusion of white glass which burst and drizzled around and unto itself like an icy wonder. What you notice first about Chihuly's work is the energy, the motion and emotion that pops from these glistening sculptures, so alive they all but move. His “Icicle Creek Chandelier” was his first ever installation outdoors, there in the midst of the Cascade Mountains. It was winter and the sculpture, which resembled an icy explosion, frozen in mid-air, hung outside with light playing through it in a magical transformation of glass as ice. My sister lives on Icicle Road as it winds its way up past Icicle Creek. This enormous fountain of curling glass was so appropriate, so organic to its place there at Sleeping Lady, I didn’t know which came first, Icicle Creek or Chihuly.

Now on exhibit in Boston are some of the most dramatic blown glass sculptures in Chihuly’s repertoire. A shimmering green, tree-like sculpture rising forty feet into the air, almost reaching the ceiling, is not in the Gallery where the exhibit is laid out but rather in the cafeteria. According to its label, the glass tower consists of 2,342 pieces of blown glass, weighs 10,000 pounds and took a full week to assemble in its place there at the MFA. Given the enormity and apparent fragility of these many, similarly mammoth creations, one of the unanswered questions of the exhibit was how they might have transported it all to Boston – from wherever these pieces might have been. Very carefully, to be sure.

One of the earmarks of Chihuly’s work is that he exhibits worldwide, notably in Venice, where the water seems to lend itself to his vision. One of the most fanciful sculptures is in the form of “the glass boat” which is a full-sized dory, loaded full to overflowing with blown glass figures, some resembling cranes or birds, others enormous balls, and then some mushrooms or orb-like umbrellas, suggesting cover or protection. All are in brilliant, blazing party-like colors as well as stripes unimagined in the world of blown glass. The explanation of this particular installation came as a quote from Chihuly who said that while in Finland, he became interested in knowing how many of his blown glass orbs would break if he threw them into the water. So he began to throw these large, beautiful objects into the harbor and to his surprise, maybe one out of a hundred broke. They were stronger than he thought. He called on some young boys then to retrieve the ones that had survived and they rowed out in a boat and loaded up the boat. This inspired him to create “the glass boat,” filling an empty boat with masses of colorful glass objects and setting it on a sheer “sea” of reflective glass. Every installation of the boat is different, according to where it is displayed, and sometimes, like in Venice, the boat is in actual, rather than virtual, water.

By hurling these works of art into the water, by setting them to the test under bold circumstances such as the frigid elements of the Cascade Mountains, Chihuly is testing his work, testing the myth of the fragility of glass, which is born out of intense heat, out of fire, if you will. And testing the strength of his own mind, blowing, pushing, pulling, curling, twisting. The glass is blown with stout iron rods, cut with tools that look better suited to steel or ironwork, maybe even horses’ hooves. Due to injury and age, Chihuly himself no longer does much of the work but instead choreographs a crew of able glass blowers, directing them against the backdrop of fiery furnaces. It’s hot, demanding work, needing incredible strength as well as a gentle touch. We see only the cool, bright remains of these efforts, these delicate fronds, these icicles, these medusa heads, these magical mushrooms, and open umbrellas of color and passion. You really ought to go in to see this exhibit. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
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