1) Best Rediscovered Antique Food: Apples and Cider. If there’s a characteristic product of New England, it’s not maple syrup, it’s apples and cider. In drawing the ruins of cider mills, I obsess over apples, modes of milling them for drink, (water-powered and horse or oxen-powered), what varieties of apples were used for cider (ungrafted, hard and bitter), why hard cider was the drink of choice for man, woman and child (safer to drink than well water in a time of bad sanitation).
In autumn there is superb apple-picking at the local orchards. Great heirlooms: Roxbury Russet, Arkansas Black, Winter Banana and Macoun (introduced in 1923, not technically an heirloom, but a fine crunchy sweet apple anyway. Try to find one).
2) Best Unexpected Modern-day Tie-In to an Archaeological Site: You’d be amazed at what’s out there on Google. Especially when you’re hunting down information on abandoned cellar holes in the New England forest. On Google, I find one story with a very sweet ending:
Thomas and Martha Rogers begin farming in Petersham, Mass, circa 1740. They have cattle, sheep, oxen, pigs and pastures, grain, fine hay meadows and a two-story Colonial house with good cellar and ell at the rear. Their barn has a manure basement and stone ramp for herding in cattle and backing up a hay wagon, stone-walled enclosures and cattle lanes, two wells, outbuildings, and sugar maples to mark out the fence lines and tap for syrup. The Rogers are substantial, upright citizens. Their 15 children, those who outlive them, will carry on the family farm, and so will their children and their children’s children, and so on.
Here’s what I find on Google: Thomas and Martha’s great-great grandson Charles Rogers, born in 1855 in the very house that stood above these cellar stones among which I’m now standing knee-deep in ferns and dewberry rendering in pencil, grows up to be somebody. As a teenager he leaves the farm and works his way West, settling in Victoria, BC, where he learns to make candy. His new company, Rogers Chocolates, succeeds, grows and prospers.
Naturally, Rogers Chocolates has a website. An order of their chocolate-covered candied orange peels and Ice Wine Truffle Bars arrives by Fedex in August and keeps me going at the place of his birth. Under a sweet spell, I draw the fallen-in foundation, buried in biomass, stones pushed apart by tree roots and shaded by hemlocks and hardwoods. The chocolate is very, very, very good.
3) Best Popular Culture Investigation of 18th and 19th century New England: Who isn’t interested in what the founding fathers drank? While drawing the overgrown ruins of an old inn and onetime tavern, I got inordinately curious about menus, tavern signage, drinks, and customs. Drawing the mossy cellar stones I listened closely, and heard the faraway clink of glasses, hoof beats of arriving travelers and the calls of a drunken cattle drover ordering another mug of tod and a syllabub for his friend (see recipe) with a hunk of (passenger) pigeon pie on the side. In 1818, ten cents will get you a mug of tod at Fields Tavern in Athol, Massachusetts. For four cents more, they’ll take care of your horse while you drink it.
4) Best Heirloom Animal: Oxen. Slow, ponderous, powerful, beautiful. The sustainable tractor of the colonial era. They did everything from hauling stone to plowing fields to pulling stumps to turning wooden gears on cider mills. Oxen were preferable for plowing small, stone-walled fields- the family-farm field that became impractical for machinery like harrows and harvesters, pulled by the horse power of a new market economy. Think about it: you are a proud New England farmer. You have spent years building your stone walls well, so they will last for centuries (and they do). Would you take them down again to make space for the latest in farming technology? Why not just start over in Omaha?
Back to oxen: I was smitten with their dewy-eyed patience and sturdy handsomeness. One stormy day in October I watched a Red Devon named Henry turn the sweep of a wooden cider mill. I sat in the bleachers at the Belchertown fair and cheered on the great white Chianinas in the oxen pull. I drew them as they rested in the shade of their ox trailers, as their owners spoke long and enthusiastically of their oxen; they loved them too.
5) Best Island Getaway: Ireland. On holiday this July, I sketched fiddlers and box players tearing it up in Galway pubs every night, then cleared my head with sea air in the morning on the River Corrib. The Ant Man and I hiked the windy moors of Connemara and wobbled around the Aran Islands on rented bicycles.
Threading our way through packed crowds of all-night revelers in the streets of Galway (it was Horse Race Week) we had hilarious and slightly dangerous fun. Not as dangerous for us as it must have been for the young lasses in ten-inch platform shoes. Lovely Ireland. They build their walls from stone, too.
6) Best Literal Overview of Historical Ecology: Thoreau’s 19th Century landscape was tame, bucolic, a patchwork of cultivated fields, open meadows and small woodlots. He mourned the chopping down of the forests and eradication of wildlife (nothing larger than a muskrat around Walden Pond). “But since I left those shores the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water.” Sorry he couldn’t have stayed around for the rebound effect.
7) Best Birding at the End of a Pencil: Bobolinks at Petersham Commons. There’s a large open meadow off Main Street in Petersham. The town keeps a mowed footpath leading from the street to a small pond at the bottom of the hill; it’s a lovely place for a stroll, full of tall green waving grass and wildflowers, and by May, bobolinks. They are here because of the meadow, they are declining, ironically, because of the forest.
8) Best New Mammal Unfazed by Human Presence Since it Can’t See it. An indication of how well the New England forest has recovered is its wildlife. Moose, bear, fisher and my new favorite critter, porcupine. This one was grazing on a friend’s front lawn. Luckily for me, porcupines don’t see too well.
9) Best Audiobook to Draw By in the Ruins of a 19th Century Farm: When I tired of red-eyed vireos and hermit thrushes, I listened to podcasts and audio books. Wendell Berry’s That Distant Land, a collection of chronological and character-driven stories of farm life in the 19th century was perfect. It’s what was playing while I drew this:
10) Best Historical Costume in a Dream: There’s a commotion outside my window. I look out through a veil of mist to see people stroll by dressed in 18th and 19th century finery. Revolutionary War officers in high black boots and white breeches ride glossy, prancing horses. Others are in street clothes: long dresses, long black coats, hats. A woman in a tall powdered wig stands out; she’s dressed for the grand ball in a gown of gray and silver silk. As she turns and looks at me, she dissolves into the mist, leaving me with the sense I’d just been visited by the people whose histories I’d spent the past few months rudely rummaging around in.
When I woke up, I swore off pizza and syllabub at bedtime, a good New Year’s resolution, by the way.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” –Henry David Thoreau
Wishing you all a joyful, peaceful and prosperous New Year; may it be fascinating and timeless for you, too.