Thursday, August 30, 2007
An old window in an abandoned home place
This week we've been in Kentucky where we've just bought a second piece of land within a mile of the first over on another ridge top. The 45 acre field is on the rise of a hill and currently in soybeans and just below on about thirty acres is a very decent modular home, about 7 years old. Miss Lillie bought 100 acres about ten years ago and put in her home on the end of a small driveway below the field. She parceled off a few small pieces to family members who have since sold and now she wants to move because her health is failing. In her day she was quite a gardener and I was delighted to find some evidence of one including a giant red hibiscus and some trumpet vine, a plant I hadn't seen since my mother used to grown it on our fence in Akron. [Here it seems to grow wild on the roadsides.]
I hinted to Miss Lillie that I am quite partial to gnomes and other fauna (I hope a few might stay on here)
Scattered around were also some gnomes--including Snow White and five dwarves--and other garden trappings and a trickle of a creek from a small pond, both of which have suffered in the summer drought. Despite the dry grass and dust-like effect of the landscape, I could see the grounds had once been quite park-like in recent years.
Butterflies were everywhere
A small allée of eight pair of Rose of Sharon line the driveway and along the circle by the house are ornamental trees, several arbors and an area for a vegetable patch (in full sun--it is great squash, tomato and watermelon-growing weather down here and they can plant as early as late March and harvest mostly in August so their gardens are largely done now).
A storm cellar would make a good root cellar
I also knew the place would be a good fit when I saw she had added a storm shelter on the east side of the house. Miss Lillie is Ohio born and raised and, like me, always has had a fear and fascination with twisters. Our part of Kentucky is not immune to tornadoes but it is hilly enough to not breed large ones, as does the flatter land in the western side of the state.
Ironically, right before our visit in April, this part of the county saw the first tornado since the super outbreak of April 3, 1974 (the 33rd anniversary, in fact). It did sporadic but significant damage. While Xenia, Ohio's tornado received the most publicity that night, Kentucky in fact had some equally significant tornadoes. [For weather freaks like myself check out: www.April31974.com]
I remember April 3, 1974 well because my mother had just bought a family tent that we'd pitched in our backyard in Akron. A neighbor called and said, "Don't you know we're having a tornado watch?" This was certainly not an uncommon occurrence but we didn't want to risk a night in the tent, so we camped in the basement instead. That was an exciting time with the dog, my brothers, my Mom and the transistor radio. The next morning we awoke to the news about Xenia's devastation.
Our neighbors' silo and barn was blown down by a tornado that hopped along the ridge, on the 33rd anniversary of the Super Outbreak
This is the first non-family related house that my husband and I will have together. There is a liberation in this and a giddy expectancy about homeownership as well as feathering my own nest without a history to it. We have both always lived in older, historic homes so the prospect of living in a 7-year old modular home is a bit, well, exciting. It is clean, has four bedrooms (five if I don't snag a smaller one for a home office), a large kitchen, dining area, two living areas, and three full bathrooms. There are many closets--large and small--and even a closet pantry. Two porches--one in front and one in back--and a mudroom with laundry area (something I've always wanted). Lots of ceiling fans and central air. Maytag appliances. A garden shed, a tool shop, and a large red barn for animals or storage. [I know, this is starting to sound like a real estate listing!]
Hazel's store is a popular stop a few miles up the road
This will be a place to come to when we can and eventually a transitional home when we decide where to build a farmhouse. My husband first wants to build up his cattle business and we need to sell our home in New Hampshire before we can completely make the transition. But this is the ideal solution and we can walk to our other fields and pasture within an easy mile down over the ridge and into the hollow. We won't be able to occupy the house until October, when we plan to make another trip with some stuff and then will be back and forth whenever we can get here.
We visited the local library today and got library cards and somehow that felt like the beginnings of a move. It is quite small and in a modern plaza, very different from our well-designed New England town libraries back in New Hampshire. But everything seems to be done by the county down here so the library card is good at any county library. Our boys enjoyed getting their own cards, too, and I was glad to see they had two computers for if I'll need to rely on internet access (I understand DSL has not reached our area yet and I'm not sure I could suffer through dial-up again!).
Small churches seem to be on every ridge or country crossroads
We also spent some time getting to better know the geography (this must be our sixth visit in 18 months and each time it seems clearer), meeting other neighbors here and there, and a lot of time at the neighboring farm. Our boys helped Frankie round up the cows at milking time, fed the calves, watched as he took a corn chopper apart and repaired it. Last night as we sat on our neighbor's porch in the hot late August sun, we watched as a large thunderstorm cell drifted northwesterly (an odd occurrence) and settle over the ridge. The rain dropped slowly at first and then came down in buckets. As we ran to the car, enjoying the cool soaking, I hollered back to Margaret, "You see, I told you we'd bring the rain!"
On our drive back to the hotel it hardly rained a bit but the sky remained black and flashing to the north over our ridge. And we heard today that it rained there most of the night. Margaret said it was their first rain in 44 days. It had been so hot and dry that even the locals were complaining about the heat--I found it surprisingly tolerable and was glad I experienced what they felt had been the worst heat in decades.
There is an awareness of weather here unlike we have at home where the skies are hemmed in by trees and the only way to experience a wide open space is to be on a mountain top or in a river valley. Here in the knobs most people seem to build on the more open pastured ridges but there are still pockets in the hollows where people farm and live, too. It seems that our neighbors take their environment for granted only because it is such a part of their fabric. The land is a backdrop as much as it is a main character in a resonant history of this special place which we're starting to, tentatively, feel might be a good home.
"Let us live here."
Saturday, August 25, 2007
On my first day of college in September 1980, there in my post office box was a typed letter from my Grandpa Seiberling (James Penfield). I was used to his long, single-spaced correspondence, dictated to and typed by his social secretary, Mrs. Rodway. I still have every one of the forty odd letters (sometimes handwritten) that he wrote to me from 1974 when we moved from Ohio until his death in 1982. His first-day-of-college letter is one of my favorites.
I had just spent the summer with him in Akron and before I left for college he made sure that my Aunt Mary brought me down to O’Neil’s Department store in Summit Mall to pick out an appropriate suit for meeting the president of Wheaton College on my first day. We picked out a charcoal gray wool flannel Evan Picone kick-pleat skirt and matching blazer, black suede pumps from DeLiso and a black suede clutch bag. [I never wore the suit upon coming to Wheaton because, like today, it was 95 degrees and humid! It was only later that I wore the suit while working in Boston.] In Grandpa’s charming way, he was recreating a ritual for me that had happened when his daughter and son had gone off to college. Little did he know that we arrived in shorts and shirts and whatever was comfortable! Of course, I still have the entire ensemble because I am such a sentimentalist.
Like myself, Grandpa was a big one for ceremony and ritual. Despite his business acumen and many successes, he also was an uncanny judge of character. It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from—he seemed to accept people as they were and what he saw in their potential. Grandpa always encouraged my writing but also cautioned me about my weakness of “wearing my heart on my sleeve” (eg. too emotional at times or willing to share too much with people I don’t know well--I don't know what he might have thought of my blogging!). In his letter he spoke of the four close lifetime friends he had made at Princeton and how his college years helped shape his entire adult life experience. I savored his words even though our college days--and the eras they occurred--were worlds apart.
In recent weeks I have seen and relived flickers from the past 19 years of my daughter's life so far and I am stunned that they have passed so quickly. Today I sent my daughter off into the world in this symbolic way with a feeling that I have not quite done my job--that there is unfinished business. But I also realize that we are never finished people—so how can my “job” be done as a parent when I don’t even feel “done” myself? There is never a clear dividing line in our lives. So my role now, I feel, while perhaps the nitty-gritty of parenting my daughter is over, is now as a member of the sidelines: cheering her on but not refereeing. I have learned a lot about expectations and will: that my goals and desires for my children might not be what they also envision for themselves. I still want to shelter and protect her from the storms but I am learning to let go.
In the great tradition of my Grandpa Sei, I also sent my daughter a letter to honor this occasion. I could have e-mailed her but I don't believe it would have had the same resonance or permanence. Perhaps one day she might do the same for her children or grandchildren--and that could happen in a mere flicker of years.
Here are some highlights:
• All I want for you is to realize your fullest potential whatever and wherever that is.
• Be true to yourself and to your friends (and know who they are).
• Focus on your own agenda and not that of a larger crowd (unless it is for the greater good).
• Treat others as you would like to be treated.
• Honor your commitments and finish what you start.
• Don’t be afraid to ask for help: it is never a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.
• At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and also to listen to it.
• Stretch your might and your muscles but don’t overextend yourself too much.
• Know your strengths and your weaknesses and work them to your advantage.
• If you show up when you’re expected and do the work to the best of your ability, the rest will follow.
• It might not always be easy but that’s not what life is about.
• Embrace the challenges and savor the delights, whether large or small.
• Take joy in the little things.
• Remember, you are a child of the Universe.
Yesterday my eldest son Henry and I were driving home at dusk on the back way from my friend Judy's house. A woman in her car had slowed by the swampy, more open part of the river. She motioned to us. There was a young moose taking a long drink by the river's edge nearest the road. We quietly stopped the car and watched him and as he didn't seem bothered by our presence, we got out of the car, being mindful not to make too much noise. After watching him for several minutes I got my cell phone (handy at times!) and realized I could call Judy without having to drive back for her. "Bring your camera!" I said, regretting that I did not have mine.
After Judy pulled up, just behind her was Bill Gnade, a professional photographer from the area who I have known for many years, since Barrett House days (and he photographed my brother Bob and sister-in-law Becky's wedding several years ago). Perfect timing! He soon had assembled his long zoom lens and camera with ease. We waved hello and I asked later if he could e-mail me a photograph. As it happens, Bill had noticed some young moose tracks throughout the week along the roadside and decided to come back to see if he could spot him. He was able to trek down nearer to the moose, by the water, and Judy and Henry followed. More cars arrived to stop and see what was going on.
The warm toned late summer light filtered through the swamp from the west and illuminated the scene with vibrant color. Bill's photograph captures the color and light that I experienced (with apologies for the clip of the ear on his photo--I need to figure out how to get my wide border back in the blog template for photos!).
I have had two prior moose sightings but nothing this exciting: one brief glimpse of a large bull with a rack in the Canadian Rockies on a trip with my dad in 1984 and one in our town a few years ago when a moose cow stayed in a pasture for three days, undisturbed by the throngs of cars and sheep around her. [A moose sighting is still rare enough around here for cars to stop. But they are certainly more common than they used to be.]
We must have watched the moose for twenty minutes. When he lept up into the taller grass, Bill said, "he's a young male" (I couldn't tell without a zoom) and "he's probably just left the nest or his mother has pushed him out." [A poignant moment as my daughter left today to begin her college odyssey.]
We are about to put our house on the market and will be going to Kentucky to set up a house there for part of the year while we transition our lives here and there. In many ways I don't want to think of ever leaving this house, but, like my daughter, I will never really leave home. I'll just plan to bring it with me and to come back occasionally, too. In whatever capacity that is, I will come back: whether by blog, or visit, or dreams, or smaller house, or rental. “Home” is a place you can carry in your heart, wherever you may be. I admired the moose in his river home--young and solitary and ambling, stopping to drink and graze now and then, moving along when he was ready.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
There is nothing like a good old-fashioned library book sale: piles of books in no particular order, treasures and "must reads" from a few years ago that are now so greatly discounted you know you have to buy them and read them, and other "must haves" to tuck away for friends. This weekend is our town's big annual get-together (also known as "Old Home Day") and the highlight for me is the annual Friends of the Library booksale. I would never miss the annual August book sale--for the books as much for the encounters with people I hardly see the rest of the year.
I was quickly rewarded with several cookbooks and even a green wooden recipe box from the 1930s stocked with vintage recipes (for $1). The next morning I went back when it was less crowded and found even more things I had missed--one of our sons and our daughter came along, too, and found some treasures. Then, before the sale's afternoon closing, I returned again for the $1 a bag sale and walked out with two brimming bags of paperbacks and other overlooked "must reads". All told, I spent about $40 on books (an average of about $1 per item!) and for an excellent cause. Instead of incinerating the remainders, a bookdealer couple comes and takes them all, selling some and donating others to hospitals and nursing homes. [Literacy is on my mind now especially as I realize how small the library is in the town where our home will be in Kentucky--in a retail plaza, no less. Perhaps I can donate a lot of our own books there or help in the library. Here ours is so well-cared for that I'm best off in the sidelines writing and reading.]
I really didn't NEED any more books but I found special joy in finding some special favorites for my daughter who is about to venture off to college (including James Joyce's PORTRAIT of the ARTIST as a YOUNG MAN, a decent copy of THE SILVER PALATE GOODTIMES COOKBOOK and THE CAKE BIBLE, which she loves to make recipes from--as I'm not ready to give her my own copies!) and other books that I know I will read and pass along or that were selected with friends in mind. A few are definitely keepers like a hardback edition of THE COUNTRY of the POINTED FIRS by Sarah Orne Jewett (with an introduction by another Maine writer, Mary Ellen Chase), and a first edition of THE PILGRIM at TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard, which I am embarrassed to say I've never read.
Several other great finds were some FARM JOURNAL cookbooks from the 1960s and a decent hardback edition of Helen Witty's FANCY PANTRY (my paperback copy is not going to last forever, after all, or I can pass it along) and some metaphysical books I wanted to read ten years ago but didn't want to buy. And then, just when I thought I had every Louis Bromfield book ever written--one of my favorite back-to-the-land authors-- there was ANIMALS and OTHER PEOPLE, a memoir about his extended family of Boxer dogs who lived on his Ohio farm and followed him everywhere in the house and grounds (much to his wive's displeasure, according to the guide--and obvious carpet stains--on the tour we had of Malabar Farm several years ago). So not only is it a back-to-the-land book, one of my favorite genres, but it is a memoir about boxers, who are very similar to our dear bull mastiff Lucy who will be 11 in another week.
I figured out yesterday that the reason I like to stockpile cupboards and pantries and freezers is as much the same reason that I like to have good books all around me. It is a sense of comfort and assurance that I will be well-fed and nourished by literature and knowledge as much as good food. Both are different kinds of sustenance for the spirit, mind and body.
I have books that I have bought but not read and others that I return to again and others that I read and give away. My books have been an accumulation, like so many other things, and are as much old friends as are the people who have given them to me (of course I still have all of my books from childhood--and all of the kids' books from their ongoing childhoods--can't we ALL just have ongoing childhoods?). However, I may finally let go of some of my college and grad school textbooks, especially as most haven't been cracked in 20+ years.
Other books are just delights to find, to see and hold, or to organize on the shelves by category (yes, there is that perpetual impulse). Perhaps that is why I frequent used book stores--for the books I love or think I need--more than any other book place. I want to bring them home as much as I wonder where they've been. A book, like a person, has a past.
And just like a full pantry for a blizzard or other disaster, a ready home library provides the kind of sustained pleasure and joy of not having to go anywhere but here, cozied up with a good book.
"On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally's cellar."
Today I made SOUR DILL PICKLES from a great cookbook I picked up over the weekend at the Old Home Day annual Friends of the Library book sale. It's called THE BALL BLUE RIBBON COOKBOOK [Ball Corporation: Muncie, Indiana, 1992]. I almost overlooked it but late in the afternoon I went back to the sale (for the third time as we live within walking distance from the town library) and couldn't resist adding some more items in the $1 a bag clearance. I have many canning-related books and pamphlets and enough cookbooks to never have to make the same recipe twice for several lifetimes (not that I would), but something about this book lured me to throw it into my dollar bag. I'm glad that I did as each recipe is from a state fair winner from across America. [I was also assured and my cookbook madness confirmed when I spoke with a woman at the cookbook table who said "if you get 2 or 3 good recipes out of any cookbook, you're doing well and it's a keeper." Just what I needed to hear. Thank you, whomever you are!]
All week I had been looking at various books for different pickle recipes. Having never made them before, I wanted to compare notes and ingredients. Our cucumbers are now coming in fast and furious--five hills (2 of the longer European style and 3 of pickling cukes) and two large pots (one of each: the problem I've found with pots is they have to be uniformly and regularly watered, otherwise the cukes get deformed and bulbous on one end). This particular recipe also required dill heads, also in my garden this year, and fresh garlic cloves, which I happened to get at Dimond Hill Farm the other day (Edie, next year I will use yours! My friend is starting a small organic gourmet garlic operation at Bee's Wing Farm in nearby Dublin, New Hampshire and I'll link to her blog when she's got it up and running.)
My husband likes the old-style pickle barrel pickles and rarely eats a "boughten pickle". We're all fans of dill pickles so that was the first recipe I started with today. I also intend to try a sweeter variety for the sake of it, or perhaps just a bread & butter variety will suffice, and pickle relish, too. My grandfather used to pickle in a large stoneware crock with a lid but somehow that seems a bit more tedious and less portable (and not so good for holiday gift-giving).
I wanted to start with something basic using a whole pickle in a recipe. This seemed to be a good starter pickle recipe. I can't tell you how it comes out for another few months as they're supposed to stay put a few months to season. This is also a good use of those dill heads in your garden that are just as prolific at this time of year as the cukes.
Sour Dill Pickles
from Marguerite W. Barford, Augusta, West Virginia
[Hampshire County Fair, Augusta, WV]
• Enough cucumbers to put 3-4 in each jar, depending on size (pint or quart)
• Ice cubes
• 1/2 cup canning salt
• 1 quart vinegar, 5% acidity
• 1 quart water
• 3 tablespoons mixed pickling spices
• 7 heads of dill (or one per jar)
• 7 cloves of garlic (one per jar)
Scrub freshly picked cucumbers and rinse. Combine cukes and ice in a large pan (I used the scoured out sink). Spread ice over the top. (I put cukes in sink with cold water and piles of ice, but not too much, for about an hour. It crisped them up nicely.)
Meanwhile, prepare home canning jars and lids according to manufacturer's instructions.
Drain cucumbers; dry each cucumber. Combine salt, vinegar, and water in saucepan. Tie pickling spice in a cheesecloth bag and add to vinegar mixture; simmer 15 minutes. Discard spice bag. Place one head of dill and one clove of garlic in each jar. Pack cucumbers into hot, sterilized jars, packing closely and leaving 1/4 inch head space. Pour hot liquid over cucumbers, again leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Adjust caps.
Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath canner. Yield: about 7 pints [see NOTE]
NOTE: It is easy to make more brine solution if you run out (I did). Because of various sized pickles, I used a combination of quarts and pints so needed to make more brine solution.
PS Here is an interesting "Pickle History Timeline" from the New York Food Museum
Saturday, August 18, 2007
PANTRY FINDS at DIMOND HILL FARM
There is so much largesse in the summer, especially in August when the days start to wane a bit and the shadows grow longer and the gardens have born almost all that they can. Right now we have summer squash, zukes, and cucumbers coming in like gangbusters. Despite our own garden offerings, which vary each year, I really should get a bumper sticker that says "Warning~I Break for Farmstands"
HEIRLOOM TOMATOES at DIMOND HILL
Today I made a marinara sauce with perfectly vine-ripened Kentucky tomatoes grown by some Mennonite neighbors (as well as basil from my garden and fresh garlic from Dimond Hill Farm). My husband brought home several bushels from a recent trip--a great gift as our tomatoes have only just started along now. I plan to try my hand at several kinds of pickles this weekend from our vast bumper crop of cucumbers [a longer European kind and an heirloom pickle variety, my particular favorite: both from RENEE's GARDEN. I've been impressed by the plant stock, flowers and fruits, and bounty from these seeds. I will definitely get her seeds again next year!] Our squash got a slow start from a cold and wet June (and new manure topsoil that hadn't yet composted but will be like rich cocoa next year) but much of it is catching up.
On our way home yesterday from my interview for several programs of "A Chef's Table", taped remotely at our New Hampshire public radio station in Concord, we stopped at Dimond Hill Farm in Hopkinton. I have always admired their large yellow barn with its cupola on a high hill, and surrounding fields all still in agriculture. Last year, my husband took measurements of the barn with an Amish builder from northern New York. He hopes to replicate it someday in Kentucky.
THE DIMOND HILL BARN SMELLED OF NEW MOWN HAY
The timber-framed mid-nineteenth century barn is built in the classic New England barn standard: center aisled drive-in floor for hay and deliveries; cow tie ups and other sections; large lofts on several levels for hay storage. A true cathedral to agriculture and the land. My kind of church. There is a line in THE BEANS of EGYPT, MAINE by Carolyn Chute describing one of the main characters who "was happy to see the barn, happy to enter it," like a workhorse I suppose. That would also best describe my husband: happy to see a barn, happy to enter one.
CORN at TENNEY FARM in ANTRIM, NH
The blueberries are like large cobalt marbles this year and so very sweet and we hope to go picking this weekend with the kids: a fall-like cold front has come through today and the weather will be perfect. The corn, too, is the best it has been in several years. Soon we will have apples and pumpkins and winter squash but I'm not ready to think about fall just yet. Soon enough...and I'll know when I'm ready.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Yesterday I was interviewed at WEVO, 89.1FM, our New Hampshire Public Radio station, for several upcoming programs of "A Chef's Table" out of public radio station, WHYY, 91FM, in Philadelphia. Several years ago I e-mailed a cookbook author named Lari Robling who wrote the excellent and informative ENDANGERED RECIPES, which I highly recommend. It turns out, she is also Akron born and bred and we exchanged several e-mails and she asked that I send her a copy of THE PANTRY when it was out (and so we did).
Program host chef Jim Coleman called in and interviewed me via a live feed at WEVO, which was taped for future editing. He asked some great questions and I was at ease in this sound-proof control room despite all of the wires, microphone and headphones (I actually prefered it to talking on the phone!). Andrew, the engineer, made everything go smoothly on our end and it was a wrap, as promised, within a half hour.
I felt a comfortable dialogue with Chef Coleman. However, when he asked me what I had in my own food pantry, rather than rave about all of the great baking products and jars of jams and preserves and applesauce that we spent a lot of time putting up last fall, all I could think of was Skippy peanut butter, cocoa crispies and polenta! A real brain freeze on that one. He taped me for three segments: one on the pantry as a room in the American home, one on the pantry in literature, and another on the wartime pantry. These will be edited into three programs of "A Chef's Table"-possibly in September.
I will be providing links--and audio feeds--on my website when I have more information. In the meantime, check the A Chef's Table website and stay tuned!
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I am writing today about a place I never knew but long ago I found the small spiral-bound WOODBINE COTTAGE-OUR FAVORITE RECIPES cookbook in a used bookstore and was intrigued by its handwritten (and copied), old-fashioned style, and New England recipes. I have always been partial to woodbine, too, as it was a common wood plant in Ohio (where we called it "Virginia Creeper") and Woodbine Farm was the name of the Jaffrey farm where my friend Di grew up (and where Willa Cather wrote THE LOST LADY in a tent she pitched in their fields). The woodbine plant seems to conjure up all sorts of romantic associations, of a trailing and meandering vine on old porches and homesteads.
Woodbine Cottage in Sunapee Harbor, New Hampshire was a successful tea room and restaurant for decades. It closed about 15 years ago after Eleanor Hill died, its creator and longtime proprietor.
On Sunday my husband and I were heading up to Sunapee Harbor with our friends Linda and Eric who go up that way frequently. It is a lovely part of New Hampshire but only an area with which I've become more familiar in recent years. We were going to ride the Mt. Kearsarge dinner cruise on Lake Sunapee, a beautiful 9-mile lake surrounded by old camps and cottages (and a few newer ones here and there).
On the way I asked Linda about Woodbine Cottage as I knew she had mentioned it before. She had many meals there--and afternoon teas--in their hey-day and said "they made the lightest, highest pancakes" she'd ever had. She, too, had bought the cookbook which, while it doesn't have the pancake recipe, has other things like waffles, breads, desserts and a few main dishes and soups. I was anxious to at least see the building. [Linda also said that they sold "shelves full of Country Fare," one of my favorite potteries that I've been collecting, made originally by Zanesville Pottery in Ohio from the 1940s-1960s, in an attractive brown and aqua glazing that I have noticed is once again making a comeback in newer lines of dinnerware now sold in stores. Oh the pain of never having gone there for Country Fare, too...]
So before our cruise we walked over to the former Woodbine Cottage. It looks a bit forlorn now and has not been in use since its past ownership. The gardens are overgrown and the woodbine that crawled up the front of the house and over its roof on special trellices is long gone. The property is apparently for sale for $399,000 after a developer attempted to reopen the restaurant and build condos behind it. [A tight location, parking issues, and neighbors, likely nixed that idea.] It was a thrill to see it after imagining it from the cookbook. While it was a bit tumble-bumble, it didn't disappoint. From the outside I felt wafts of tea rooms past when they were dotted all across New England and run by sweet old ladies like Eleanor Hill. May it rest in peace.
Monday, August 13, 2007
This weekend was Medal Day at MacDowell Colony, an artist's retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was also their centennial celebration so there was lots of extra fanfare. Even though I drive by the colony almost daily in some form, as it is just fifteen minutes from our house on a lovely back road to Peterborough, I have never been on its grounds. Growing up, my grandmother always spoke of it in hallowed tones: of how Thornton Wilder was a friend of her older brother and wrote OUR TOWN there, of how this incredible woman named Marian MacDowell, who died in 1956, had been the driving force in fostering this arts colony in the New Hampshire hills. I think, like myself, my grandmother secretly longed for such a place to go and write or create.
My daughter and I had the opportunity to participate in a unique public art installation project called "Landlines". Conceived by artist Anna Schuleit, the project placed 100 telephones of all eras and styles throughout the forests and edges of fields in the 450 acres of the colony. At certain times throughout the weekend, former colony fellows and others were asked to call in from anywhere in the world on a toll-free number and were routed through two old-fashioned switchboards (where switches were used to link calls). Visitors wandering the grounds could call from tree phones to talk with anyone on another tree and incoming callers could talk with tree phones (or hear a recording of something written or composed by a MacDowell fellow). The wiring and orchestration that went into this was boggling.
Chris Ricciotti, the partner of an old colleague of mine, John Burrows (who is a Victorian design merchant), organized the mechanics of the installation with the use of his expertise and collected switchboards. A large team of volunteers coordinated the phone placement and the vast wiring that was needed around the grounds. My friends Rosemary and Edie also participated in the switchboard project: Rosemary was a cook at MacDowell a few years ago and was delighted to tour their renovated kitchen and Edie was also employed there in the 1980s. [Edie's husband Jeff also helped with the wiring and their son Ko, almost 12, was a whiz at the switchboard.]
CONNECTING NEAR A TREE PHONE
The MacDowell Colony, even in this modern age, does not allow telephones (and I believe politely requests that residents do not bring cell phones but I am not certain of this--my guess is that they don't come in well there any way as coverage here in the Monadnock foot hills is sporadic). The idea is for the artist or writer to compose freely without distraction in small private studios. The only existing landlines on the property are the ones in the administrative buildings (and all electric powerlines have been buried between studios). The thirty or so studios are connected by footpaths as in an idyllic woodland camp.
Breakfast and dinner are provided in the main building--but a lunch basket is packed and quietly left on studio porch doors--and days can be planned and carved freely around the creative impulse. No one is there to tell you what to do, but like college or the parental embrace, your every need is met while you are there. Your time is your own.
TANGLES OF PHONE LINES REPRESENT HOURS OF WORK BY VOLUNTEERS
So to have this immense network of phones throughout the forest and connected with the world--in a non-computer driven or cellular way--seemed a fitting tribute to a place that has done so much for the arts and culture of the world, that is connected and yet apart from it.
I have come to loathe talking on the phone since the invention of e-mail. I don't like to spend a lot of time conversing on it and find it a constant intrusion. So this project intrigued me on a variety of levels. When we had our switchboard training, I was overwhelmed by left and right, different wires, procedural order, etc. So I gladly allowed my daughter to fill in for my 15 minute shift while I observed. I wanted to talk but was leary of the mechanisms which I seemed unable to understand (John told me that it normally takes several months to train a switchboard operator in the old method). I was amazed how the younger volunteers, especially, handled themselves with the mechanics of it so effortlessly.
We had a bit of time to visit one studio before we were at the switchboard. I was drawn to a contemporary looking studio, Calderwood, at the edge of the field where we parked. Designed especially for writers, apparently by I.M. Pei or with his blessing, it was the size of a small and comfortable house complete with a large light-filled workspace, kitchenette, bedroom (with bathtub under a window seat that my daughter noticed through the window), a reading loft and even an inglenook with a fireplace and more cozy spaces for reading or visiting.
I could have moved right in. [Most studios just have work and napping spaces with dormitory space provided near the dining hall but this one had a complete bedroom.]
But inside was Ruth Reichl, writer and editor of GOURMET magazine. I enjoyed her first two memoirs: TENDER AT THE BONE and COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. She was surrounded by well-wishers and I was too shy to say hello (even though I'd kicked myself for not bringing her books to have signed). I would think such a situation would be so awkward: all of these people in your private writer's space. I felt permissably intrusive as if seeing the space and her in it was enough. So I smiled and snapped her photo--perhaps an invasion in itself, also.
Even though the grounds were bustling with people from all over New England and New York, even the world, it seemed, and many locals whom I knew, I did feel somewhat transported by my brief time there. My daughter Addie felt it, too. It reminded me of a hushed outdoor library with much creative energy infused in the forests and fields and footpaths.
And the "Landlines" installation furthered that creative buzz. The forest is quiet again. The place can withdraw from the world as it does on every other day of the year except for Medal Day. Ruth Reichl said she was leaving today to go back to work in Manhattan. I wonder if she was ready.