“Doing just nothing at all” 1879-1898

from 1898– Our life is so active, so filled with excitement, that we are much too little given in these days to quiet thought…there are very few of us who would not be the better for sitting down every day for a half-hour, with folded hands, simply for the purpose of thinking, or of letting the mind lie fallow without much effort at consecutive meditation.

I know how many women will smile when they read this, and will say, “This writer does not know what she is talking about” but indeed I do. I have led for many years an intensely occupied life myself, and I never the world would you have gotten through one-half or one-quarter of the necessary things if I had not made a point of quite often sitting down, folding my hands, and doing just nothing at all

from 1896– A day in which no breathing-space has been found is a wicked day. Not only is it our duty to the bodies which God has given to care properly for them, but it is, moreover, a positive duty to our fellow-man. 

from 1879– People do not know how to divide between the needful and the needless; they forget how minutes of rest lessen the total of the day’s fatigue; how little needless motions, liftings, frettings, increase it.

In the summer, I find that 24 hours a day just isn’t enough, especially when I try to squeeze some sleep into it. (Sleep? How unproductive is that?!?) Yard work, home-maintenance projects, gardening, farmer’s market, and of course, all the fun stuff–camping, barbecues, weddings, sporting events, and the vacations we pack into the 3 month window called summer. “Lazy summer days” have become a thing of unrealistic nostalgia.

 

Maybe they did have maids and hired help to help out with the housework. But, these women were not English aristocracy, they were American housewives who freely admitted they worked hard.

Besides, even with help, these women lived in an era with no electricity, internet, washers, dryers, cell phones… And let’s not forget that most blessed of modern conveniences, running water– they had to trot outside to the outhouse several times a day and there was no such thing as a quick shower or a long hot bath.

If they could manage to fit in some rest, I should think it would be much easier for me to do the same. How rare is it to rest and not do anything? How would that change our perspective toward the rest of our day?  This brings up another question, though. If we don’t have enough time to fit in rest, are we doing things that we shouldn’t be doing or things that don’t need to be done?

Sifting through that thought sounds exhausting. Another post for another day.

 

My Summer in a Garden, 1870- Week 7

I haven’t done a garden post in awhile. If you remember, I’ve been comparing my garden to Charles Dudley Warner’s 1870 garden diary this summer, here and here. Here we are, already on Week 7.

I am more and more impressed, as the summer goes on, with the inequality of man’s fight with Nature; especially in a civilized state.

“Impressed” isn’t the word that springs to mind when I consider the battle I’m fighting and quite possibly losing, but it is rather remarkable. It’s not even a fair fight. What was a tame little patch of lamb’s quarter that rounded out our salads, is now 5 feet tall and blocking the raspberry patch. The growth is staggering; I’m not sure when it happened.

This talk of subduing Nature is pretty much nonsense. I do not intend to surrender in the midst of the summer campaign… (This is written with the thermometer at ninety degrees, and the weeds starting up with a freshness and vigor, as if they had just thought of it for the first time, and had not been cut down and dragged out every other day since the snow went off.)

Chuck really knows what he was talking about, yes sirree. I’m experiencing the same weather conditions here. I’m not subduing, either; I’m simply trying to wrest a few vegetables from an area of ground that has a one-track mind. It’s determined to be a field of quackgrass, lamb’s quarter, purslane and an array of unidentified weeds and I’m putting up a lame fight.

If it’s not a plant subtly trying to conquer my world, it’s a bug. I’ve been hovering over my summer squash (really, squash–of all things!), in hopes of preventing the squash bugs from destroying my crop once again. And now the Japanese beetles have just moved in again. Here they are having their way with my grapes.

In all honesty, I really do enjoy gardening and all the food preservation that comes with it. But there are some days, like after several days of rain, when I don’t feel I’m making progress. To be fair to myself, I’m the caretaker of an additional garden this summer and while I won’t be asked to be a stop on anyone’s garden tour, I’m holding my own on my flower beds for the first time in forever. It IS work, but it’s not all bad. I’d rather pull weeds than walk on a treadmill in public and subject myself to a tv screen blaring drivel any day!

I, for my part, begin to appreciate the value of frost and snow; for they give the husbandman a little peace, and enable him, for a season, to contemplate his incessant foe subdued.

Amen, Mr. Warner. Is it November yet?

Harvesting Wild Grapes, 1907

Recently I discovered an essay written in 1907 entitled “Wild Grapes for Jelly.” The author writes of the summertime treasure that wild fruit can be to the select few who are willing to claim it. She says this about wild fruits, specifically grapes:

They yield their riches to those who know them best and who most desire them. If you have found them, then it is you only for whom they have ripened, a free gift of nature’s bounty.

It sounds romantic–a warm summer afternoon trot to the countryside, filling a basket with wild fruits, which then becomes a shelf of jam to enjoy all winter.

Sometimes it’s not all homemade lemonade and Little House of the Prairie, though. Consider my recent experience. While on a walk last week I discovered an enormous patch of just-ripening black raspberries. I don’t get many opportunities to play in the woods these days so an afternoon of foraging for berries sounded terrific. I exchanged my sandals for tennis shoes and dabbed a touch of vanilla extract on my bare arms and legs (which up to this point had worked nearly flawlessly as a bug repellent) and set out.

True to form, I was so intent on collecting berries that I crashed around the patch, heedless of thorns and branches. The mosquitoes were more bothersome than usual but I reached my goal to fill my little pail.  It was only on the way home I noticed my agony. Scratches and little streaks of blood all over my legs, with itchy welts springing up everywhere. I was able to count 27 distinct mosquito bites (dang vanilla) and something unknown had stung me on the back of the knee. It kept swelling up bigger and bigger and my homemade salve didn’t help at all. So I spent the evening hobbling around with a plantain poultice tied around my knee. No one dared to say it, but I’m sure I looked as much of a wreck as I felt.

Modernism scarcely approves of all this labor. We cannot suppress a doubt as to the economy of expending so much time and care to catch and imprison a few dozen jars of sunshine.

From a strictly economic angle, maybe it wasn’t the best use of my time. But what else would I have done on a Sunday afternoon? Probably something of very little value, like watching TV, or browsing Pinterest, or alphabetizing my cookbooks…(definitely not).  But I couldn’t resist fresh berries, free for the picking.

In theory, we acknowledge the wastefulness of our effort. But in practice, a great many of us go on preserving, year after year. In fact, we really love the close boundaries of home, and prefer the work that is direct and personal to a bigger work…

I can’t agree that it’s always “wastefulness” but in some situations maybe it’s not a good use of time. In spite of the questionable economics, I consider it a successful afternoon. So far, I possess over 2 pounds of black raspberries, a fruit which can’t be bought at my local grocery stores. I’ll use some in smoothies and some in pancake batter, but most of them will be made into black raspberry syrup, which I’ll can for later use. And it will taste mighty fine this winter. By then, I’ll have forgotten how much I sweated picking them during a ridiculous heat wave and my scratches will have healed and my legs and arms will no longer itch.

Breakfast–yogurt, topped with black raspberry syrup and granola

After all, we but take our place in the long line of women who, since cooking was invented, have gathered the fruits of the earth and stored them up for use and comfort. Every year with the ripening of the fruit has this ritual been accomplished, through ages of unwritten history.

And I’ve joined that long line of women and added one more year to that long history.

Trying out a Simpler Life

This past month we took our summer vacation. We spent a week on a lake in northern Wisconsin. We rented a teeny 1930s-era cabin at an old-fashioned “resort.”  The cabin had electricity, a kitchen sink, and a toilet. (The shower house was a short walk away.)

Throughout the week, I kept noticing ways in which life in our Northwoods cabin differed from our everyday life. Here are a few of things that I noticed the most:

Stuff. I had so few belongings that I used many things for more than one purpose. A mug doubled as a measuring cup. A saucer became the cover on a bowl of leftovers. A rolled up blanket functioned as an extra pillow. A few times I cooked in stages because we had one skillet. We just “made do” with what we had or did without but we got along fine.

Entertainment. We had electricity but no internet or tv. So instead we found entertainment in our surroundings and surprisingly, found no end of ways to stay busy. We watched boaters and water skiers go by and got to recognize some of them. We noticed clouds and fronts move in and out throughout the day and watched the sunset every night. (It’s amazing how different every sunset is.) We watched every day for the duck with 8 ducklings who bobbed around in the water and the loon that came around our dock in the early evening. And time flies when you’re sitting in front of a bonfire and just talking.

Cooking. I made our meals without any recipes and I never looked for online inspiration to help me make dinner. We had a craving for potato salad one day and I made it from memory, with a spoonful of this and that. By golly, it tasted the same as when I follow a recipe and drag out multiple bowls and measuring spoons. I need to trust myself more in the kitchen!

Cleaning! Oh my. After breakfast we’d do the dishes, then sweep out the whole cabin, make the bed, and put away a few misplaced belongings. That sucked a whopping 10 minutes out of the day. Then I had to decide if I would read my book sitting out on the dock or in the hammock.

I realize that I was living a fantasy kind of life. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to live that way permanently. I want more than four outfits, two books, and a week’s worth of food. And let’s not forget my garden, canning jars, and my crafts. I would miss them terribly.

But I did learn a few things that will do me well to adopt back in my “real life.”

-We estimated and brought enough food to last the week. Since we didn’t want to waste any, I found ways to incorporate leftover ingredients into a meal the next day. Because our refrigerator wasn’t jam-packed, ingredients didn’t hide behind the condiments and leftovers and become forgotten and spoiled. I think I was more organized because I didn’t have endless options and I used what I had instead of cooking according to my ever-changing whims.

-We found that overall, we didn’t miss technology, even though at home, a tv, radio, or something is nearly always on.  We spent more time outside because the outdoors was so much more interesting than anything in our tiny cabin, with nothing enticing us to stay indoors.  Because we weren’t distracted by electronic entertainment, we went to bed when it got dark and woke up with the sun. In spite of being on vacation with few responsibilities, I still think we were more well-rested than at home.

It was great to get away and “reset” and see life in a different angle. I don’t plan on giving it all up for a life in the Northwoods any time soon, but I’d like to incorporate a few things into my life for the other 358 days of the year.