Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Birch Bark
            Most afternoons, after a wonderful lunch of soup and biscuits, Tasha and her corgis would retire for a short nap. Each time I visited, she would remind me that when she was a young mother, her doctor had advised her to cultivate the habit of resting. Tasha had learned that even a thirty-minute nap would refresh her creativity, her patience to be a good mother, and restore the energy she would need to manage her homestead. Even after her children left the nest to carve out their adult lives, Tasha continued to nap.
            Left to entertain myself, once I made the mistake of playing my recorder in the greenhouse, and later learned that the English Country Dance tunes had floated up to Tasha’s bedroom! After that incident, I either read or knitted by the hearth, or bundled up and headed outside for a walk. Because I usually spent time with Tasha in either January or February when my own farm was dormant, Vermont offered zero temperatures with brilliant blue skies or snow clouds. Coming from Michigan, I knew to add a few more layers of clothing, wrap a scarf around my nose and accept whatever the weather offered.
            While birch trees grew throughout the woods near Tasha’s home, their white-bark brightened the thicket of trees that lined the driveway. Even when snowflakes fell, like torches the birch trees shimmered midst the gray trunks and feathery evergreens. My boots crunched against the snow, and my breath floated in clouds as I strolled towards the dirt road that lead to the greater world beyond Tasha’s home. Chick-a-dees called as they flitted through the woods, along with an occasional flash of a blue-jay’s wings. Wood smoke scented the air. Sometimes, instead stopping at the mailbox, I walked on to view a pond only a short ways from Tasha’s mailbox. More birches stood sentry along that road, declaring that the land claimed a northern character. After the invigorating constitutional, I picked up Tasha’s mail and headed back to her home and the warm fire.
            Once while discussing her birch bark canoe, Tasha talked about how drawing or writing on birch bark was great fun. I confessed that because so few birches grew on my farm, that I had never stripped one of them and tried writing on the bark.
            “In the spring, when the sap is running, I will send you some,” Tasha said. “Your children will especially enjoy drawing on it.”
            I thanked her, grateful once again for Tasha’s encouragement to broaden my experiences and creativity. Later that week, I flew back to Michigan, and forgot about her promise. But sometime in June, a large box arrived in the mail addressed with Tasha’s familiar handwriting. I cut it open and removed a heavy roll of birch bark. With black streaks slashed the white and small nubs provided texture that would enhance anything drawn upon the skin of a birch. I cut off a few strips from the roll, and my sons sketched corgis and goats on them, and later stored the bark in their play house.

            While preparing for this year’s you-pick blueberry season, I swept and tied the playhouse that now serves as a weigh-in location, and noticed the roll of birch bark. How could I have forgotten this wonderful piece of Tasha’s life that exemplified her love of nature and art? Now the roll rests in a place of honor, a reminder of Tasha’s generosity and the slender birches crowning her woods.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Lavender and Silver

wisteria opening

            The first time my husband, John and I visited Corgi Cottage, Tasha led us to the upper bedroom with the canopy bed and long shelves holding her gardening books. From that point on, I called it the garden room because of the books and the splendid view of Tasha’s garden. But also, because of the tendrils of wisteria threading underneath the window and into the room. I’m sure Tasha didn’t plan on that vine sneaking into the bedroom, but its presence fitted the personality of Tasha who loved her gardens and reminded me of the garlands that often framed her illustrations.
            At that time, I didn’t know that it was a wisteria vine, because most of my experiences with climbing plants were with morning glories, clematis and ivy. I was unprepared for the waterfall of silvery, lavender cones of flowers cascading down the wall of her weathered cottage. The blossoms perfumed the air beneath our window. Their scent floated through the yard while a white-crowned sparrow sang, “Poor Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” and the sun painted the western sky apricot.
            Naturally, I pestered Tasha about the wisteria, and as soon as I arrived home, ordered two plants from a nursery. I planted them in front of my garden shed, envisioning a similar stunning display of blossoms. But nothing happened. I added more compost, mulched the plants, and still they did not bloom. So on my next visit, during the winter when Tasha’s vine slept, I asked many questions.
            “Try chopping at its roots, and don’t add any compost this year, maybe cut it back a bit,” Tasha advised. “And you might have to visit a nursery and purchase a blooming wisteria plant in order to know that have one that has the potential to bloom.”

            I tried Tasha’s gardening tricks, minus buying new nursery stock, but my plants only grew vibrant leaves. Seven years after planting the wisteria, I notice cone-shaped buds forming along a few of the branches. On a warm May afternoon, they unfurled, like theater curtains, and draped the roof of my garden shed. Bumblebees hovered among the blossoms. The sweetness of wisteria filled my lungs each time I lingered beneath the lavender shower. That evening while walking with my corgi, a hermit thrush’s silver call rippled through the woods, the wisteria shimmered in the sunset, and mirrored the splendor of Tasha’s garden.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tasha's Fireside Book Reviews

            While sitting by Tasha’s fireplace, sharing tea and stories, at some point, our conversation moved into what books we had recently read or the books that had inspired us. Tasha was a well-read woman with a library tucked off her parlor, so that unless a visitor wandered through that section of the house, she wouldn’t notice the many bookshelves. While the room held Tasha’s literary selections, her gardening books dwelt in one of the upper bedrooms.
            One time while perusing Tasha’s book collection, I was amazed to discover a couple of first editions with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. My hands shook as I viewed the pages and realized what treasures I held.
            “I found them in a London shop years ago, when I was living in England,” Tasha explained. “Mr. Rackham’s art inspired me to want to illustrate children’s books.”
            While I had read Pride and Prejudice, Tasha waxed on about Austin’s other novels, Sense and Sensibility and Emma and nudged me to read them. She also pointed out that to some degree, they are books that women cherish more than men.
            We both loved Thomas Hardy’s books and would muse about certain scenes such as the chapter with country dancing at the beginning of The Return of the Native. And of course, while living in England, Tasha had seen some of the places Hardy mentioned in his books. My husband, John and I had never read any of Wilkie Collins’ mystery novels until Tasha praised The Moonstone, and The Woman in White, plus she pointed out that Collins predated Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. So, John and I read all of Collin’s books and watched the film adaptations of his most famous novels.
            Ever generous, one snowy morning, Tasha drove us to a bookstore housed in a barn that was managed by a friend. She insisted that there were a few books that I must own, and that the shop owner would probably have them. Among the volumes she chose was the novel, Cranford by Mrs. Gaskell, with forty colored illustrations and sixty pen-and-ink sketches by Hugh Thomson, published in 1898. Miraculously, the shop owner located that exact edition of Cranford, and Tasha showed me the illustrations.
            “Thomson was another artist who inspired me to become an illustrator,” Tasha said. “When you read this, think about how much his art contributes to the story. And it is a lovely story.”
            I cherish that faded green volume with gilt lettering, a symbol of times spent learning from Tasha, and hearing her memories of what inspired her art, just as Tasha continues to inspire me.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Scented Treasures

Scented Treasures
As a child, my mother grew great clumps of large violets that bloomed in late April, just in time for filling my May Baskets. I picked the purple or white flowers splashed with purple, and encircled the bouquets with some of their heart-shaped leaves, and stuck them into decorated paper cups. In my heart, I dearly wanted to pluck some of my mother’s primroses so that I could add a little yellow to each basket, but I was forbidden to pick any of those flowers.
On May Day, I snuck over to our neighbor’s house, left a basket on her porch, and rang the doorbell, and hid in her shrubs. This delicious trick, the opposite of Halloween’s begging, was repeated at a few other neighbor’s houses, plus my grandparent’s home and of course, my mother found a basket at her door. Thank goodness, for my mother’s long borders of violet plants that provided generous bouquets, yet I often wondered why those violets had no fragrance.
Once while visiting Tasha in late March and touring her garden, she showed me a patch of small English violets that had emerged from a covering of snow. Unlike my mother’s large plants, these violets grew closer to the earth with smaller leaves.
“When the sun warms their blossoms, they perfume this corner of the garden,” she said.
Back inside her cottage, Tasha gave me a nursery catalog featuring eight or nine varieties English violets with different levels of fragrance. Mirroring her taste in heirloom roses, Tasha had noted the most odiferous of the violets. The catalog listed different colors, red, white, lavender, purple, maroon, and dark purple, and some even had names such as “lamb’s ears” for the tiny white variety. I was enthralled and ordered several violet plants for my garden.
When they arrived, I planted them beneath a forsythia bush, eager for their blossoms to scent the shady space. But while on a walk around our farm pond for the first time, I noticed violets similar to the ones in Tasha’s garden, and when their lavender buds opened, I smelled their sweet violet odor. After talking to my husband, we discerned that the previous owners of our land were of English decent, and Mrs. Wadsworth adored gardening, so most-likely she had planted that bed of violets. Like so many other seasonal details, I called Tasha and told her about the wild planting and because their blossoms had just opened, she could expect her plants to bloom in a couple of weeks.
Slowly, my own bed of violets expanded, and I never walked by it without pausing to burrow my nose into their jewel-like flowers. A few deep breaths would slow my heartbeat, calm my mind and renew my energy. Despite their short stems, I picked tiny bouquets to fill a doll’s teacup so that even when inside, I could inhale their sweet scent. And come early, November, I was delighted to find a few blossoms blooming, a final gift before snow covered my garden.

Now that Tasha has passed away, each spring, my small violets remind me of tender moments spent in her green house and garden; like May Baskets, they were full of wonderful surprises and joy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Goats and Artistic Cheese

Starting in March, my phone conversations with Tasha often discussed the first snowdrop or crocus to blossom, the return of red-winged blackbirds, or the constant cheeping of spring peepers. As much as we loved the first flowers and flocks of robins, one of the most important markers in the progression of spring was when our goats delivered their kids. Even though we had both kept goats for numerous years, we confessed tidbits of apprehension when we found a doe in labor. Most of the time the births were normal, but now and then, we had to assist the mother as she brought forth twins or triplets. When all the does had birthed their young, our conversations turned to how many kids now scampered in the barn, how well they drank from their bottles, and which female kids would make champion milkers.
 But of course, the spring ritual of goat kids actually began in a different shed where Tasha kept her male goat, nick-named Bucky after Buckminster Fuller, who lived with another goat in a separate shed. While Tasha never accepted my offer to milk her does, she sometimes sent me to fill Bucky’s water bucket and to feed him hay.
During the evening chore time, I would follow Tasha around, assisting in small ways. Milking her does was a cherished task. Her gentle female goats knew who was to be milked first, and without any prodding, the does would walk out of their pen, and jump on the stanchion. They needed no restraint to keep them on the small platform where Tasha stripped them of their milk as they munched on a pan of grain. As soon as one goat was finished, she jumped off, and allowed the next doe, her special moment with Tasha. The only sound was of milk flowing into the metal bucket and the goat’s teeth crunching on her feed. As the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh wrote, these sounds are the “music of milking”.
Tasha preferred Nubian goats with their floppy ears and broad Roman noses, splashes of vanilla-colored spots shimmering on their brown coats. Nubian does love attention and can be one of the most vocal breeds, bawling about their need for more hay or a small snack from the garden. Because the goats provided a rich manure that Tasha spread on her vegetable and flower garden, so that those plantings yielded bountiful crops, and lush blossoms on her peonies, foxgloves, and numerous roses.

Although I had crafted cheese from cow’s milk for many years, I turned to Tasha for answers about how to perfect my goat cheese. She suggested a French cheesemakers book, The Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese, and also gave me a subscription to Dairy Goat Journal. Tasha also pointed out that cheesemaking is an art that demanded precision, patience, and constant practice. Like the paintings and sketches scattered at the end of her trestle table, Tasha applied these character traits to her simple life and encouraged me to follow her example in whatever artistic pursuit I explored.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Warmth from Tasha's Fire

Sitting near Tasha’s Fireplace
The thermometer at my barn registered two degrees this morning, a cold temperature for farm, located where the breath of Lake Michigan warms our air. Sunshine shimmers on the paths cut through the many inches of snow that fell last week. Because most of my visits to Tasha took place before my family headed into maple sugaring season, I associate frigid temperatures and mountains of snow with Vermont.
Frosty lace patterns spread across Tasha’s windows, especially in those upstairs bedrooms farther removed from the cook stove and fireplace. Out of doors, each step squeaked on the icy snow when I walked Tasha’s driveway so that I could fetch her mail. Sometimes a fine mist of snow blurred the edges of the wood, limiting the view, but most days the sunshine glittered on the snowy caps decorating tree limbs, or on the undulating, snow-covered forest floor. A red scarf swathed my face in order to filter some of the cold before the air flowed to my lungs. While the trek resulted in numb toes, the joy of Tasha’s fireplace waited for me.
If a constant fire hadn’t been burning in the Rumford fireplace, a man could have stepped inside it and looked up through the brick chimney. First thing in the morning, Tasha would stir the embers, add a few birch bark logs that quickly flamed, and then add oak or other hardwood that would burn for hours. When I emerged from the canopy bed, leaving behind a nest of the featherbed and quilts, I slipped into my coat, hauled in armloads of wood, and deposit them on the hearth. Throughout the day, either Tasha or I would poke at the fire, add another log, and revel in the heat. And like a final blessing, each night Tasha banked the fire so that it could sleep through the night and be revived at sunrise.
Once while watching sparks dance up the back of the fireplace, Tasha brought up the folklore connected with the sight. She and her brother had called the sparks British soldiers because they reminded them of the Redcoats. No such tradition lingered from my childhood, only the memories of flushed cheeks and wood smoke clinging to my hair.
When the discussion traveled on to how others loved her fire, Tasha confided, ““Often when I invite someone for tea, the fire mesmerizes them, their faces grow dreamy, and they are hesitant to depart. Usually, I can shoo them away by announcing it is time to milk the goats and attend to the evening chores.”

Thankfully, I was privileged to draw my chair closer to Tasha’s fire, to listen to her stories, learn from her wisdom, and bask in the warmth of her friendship.