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What to do in June: then and now

For various projects over the years I have compiled a stack of reprints of agricultural, health, and “better living” manuals and almanacs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which prescribe monthly tasks and helpful hints, including Thomas Tusser’s Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1557) and its sequel Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, Richard Saunders’ Apollo Anglicanus: The English Apollo (1665 edition), and Nicholas Breton’s Fantastiks: Serving for a Perpetuall Prognostication (1626) just to name a few titles. While we may not welcome a regimen as much as early modern audiences, I’ve got a busy summer ahead of me so must make some lists. The contrast of rural life centuries ago with (sub-) urban life today is striking: my busy life looks pretty leisurely in comparison.

What to do in June, circa 1600:

1) Weed:  in June get thy wedehoke, thy knife and they glove: and wede out such wede, as the corne doth not love. Slack no time thy weding, for darth nor for cheape: thy corne shall reward it, or ever thou reape. (Tusser)

2) Shear the sheep, but not the lambs.

3) Fatten pigs.

4) Ensure that all outbuildings are in good condition to store grains when the rain comes: things thus set in order, in quiet and rest, shall further thy harvest and pleasure thee best. (Tusser)

5) Harvest the first crop of hay: it is now June and the Hay-makers are mustered to make an army for the field. (Breton)

6) Distill roses and “sweet herbs”.

7) Drink the “pleasantest” wine, and white wine in particular, for it purgeth Choler, and noxious humors from the stomack. (Saunders).

8) Eat “Sallets of Lettice prepared with Vinegar” (Saunders)

9) Don’t eat too much, and exercise: all this month glut not the stomack, but arise from the table with an appetite; arise betimes in the morning, and exercise your body with some long walk. (Saunders)

10) Take heed of eating Cheese and Apples this month, and don’t stay too long in the bath, but to wash the feet this month in cold water is commended. (Saunders)

What to do in June, circa 2015:

1) Weed.

2) Trim the claws of my cats, even those of intimidating Mr. Darcy (or take them to the pet groomer).

3) Buy “healthy weight” cat food for my cats, especially Mr. Darcy.

4) Write nice note to new neighbors asking them to paint their old peeling shed, which borders our garden.

5) “Harvest” flowers from lady’s mantle, alexanders, roses, and other June flowers.

6) Put terrible-smelling salmon stuff on roses.

7) Drink the “pleasantest” wine, especially Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand.

8) Get on the kale bandwagon.

9) Don’t eat too much and exercise.

10) Seek out new goat cheeses–the only kind of cheese I can eat—and try to take more advantage of my clawfoot tub, as well as what Nicholas Breton calls the sweet season [in which] the senses perfume, and the spirits comfort.

Arthur Wesley Dow June Morning

Arthur Wesley Dow, A June Morning (also known as A View of Ipswich, Massachusetts), 1893.

What to do with my Woad?

I tended to my garden intensively for the first time this spring yesterday: late, I know, but the end of the academic year is just too busy for me to engage in anything beyond department business. I did a bit of raking and snipping earlier on, but yesterday was the very first day that I really got my hands dirty:  very satisfying. The weather has been absolutely beautiful here; if anything, it’s a bit dry, but I feel terrible complaining when other parts of the country are experiencing either drastic drought or flooding! There are definitely some losses out there: lots of veronica, bee balm, St. John’s Wort, avens. I have two less lady’s slippers than last year and only one jack-in-the-pulpit, but I’m happy that these extra-special plants appeared at all. The side border that runs along Hamilton Hall is absolute perfection if I do say so myself: I am totally in love with the front line of lady’s mantle and sweet cicely. Another plant that looks particularly good this year is epimedium or barrenwort–sometimes also called bishop’s hat. What a great plant: dry shade, little maintenance, neat and tidy! As you can tell from this rambling list of plants, I tend to go for old-fashioned plants and herbs in particular: my garden preferences, like so much of my life, are based on history and curiosity more than anything else. I like to mix old herbs and modern perennials together, and the contrasting combinations are often a bit…….odd. But such is the result when you choose a plant for its heritage rather than its appearance. I’ve got a conundrum now as I brought some woad back my favorite herb farm (The Herb Farmacy, Salisbury, Massachusetts). For the sake of heritage, I had to have this ancient dyeing plant, but does it really belong in my small urban garden? It’s not particularly attractive, a biennial to boot, and blue is my least favorite color.

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The obligatory May lady’s slippers picture; epimedium, espaliered yew, sweet cicely, unplanted woad. Below, John White’s “ancient” woad-stained Pict warriors, from Thomas Harriot’s briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588) and the British Museum. Despite the claims of Julius Caesar and Pliny, there’s a lot of doubt among historians as to whether or not the ancient inhabitants of Britain really stained themselves blue with woad in preparation for battle: just ONE reason why every medievalist I know detests Braveheart!

Woad Stained Pict Warriors John White BM

May Wine

I have a particularly fond childhood memory of dancing around a Maypole wearing festive (alpine? Elizabethan?) dress at the hippie nursery school I attended in Vermont, and consequently I always celebrate May Day. I do not erect a Maypole in my backyard, but I been known to don the occasional flower wreath or sprig in my hair (especially if I don’t have to go anywhere) and I usually make May Wine, the traditional German spring spirit. May Wine (Maiwein) is simply sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff (galium odoratum, or Waldmeister, “master of the woods”, in German), and there are lots of variations, both from the past and in the present. You can simply take a few sprigs of the herb, tie them together, and drop them in a bottle of Moselle to infuse for the afternoon in the refrigerator if you like, or you can make a May Punch, by adding sparkling water or wine and fruit. Have your own Happy Hour, or invite your neighbors and drink to the retreat of winter and the onset of spring, a universal sentiment but one that seems very apt this particular year!

Health to all Goodfellows British Library

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A Health to all Good-Fellowes (c. 1615-40), British Library; German May Day postcard, c. 1900.

My “recipe” for May Wine is always evolving. Generally I take one bottle of Moselle and another of sparkling wine (Proseco, Cava, or if you can find it, German Sekt) and pour them into a glass pitcher to which I add the sweet woodruff (you must snip it before it flowers) and a few splashes of Italian sparkling lemon soda. I leave this concoction for most of the day, and then strain it and pour it into glasses filled with a few strawberries or raspberries. My sweet woodruff is definitely not ready for prime time this year (it is barely out of the ground), so I bought several potted plants, for the first time ever: even if my garden is not ready for May Day, I am.

Sweet Woodruff Dietrich 1834


Sweet Woodruff Bluestone Perennials

Sweet Woodruff (Galium Odoratum, Asperula Odorata, the “master of the woods”,  from Dietrich, A.G., Flora regni borussici (1833-1844); Kerner von Marilaun, A.J., Hansen, A., Pflanzenleben: Erster Band: Der Bau und die Eigenschaften der Pflanzen (1887-1891), and Bluestone Perennials.


I had been wanting to write a post on Black Beauty, the first “real” book I ever read and one that shaped my childhood in several ways, for some time, and as today marks the birthday of its author, Anna Sewall, this seemed like the perfect time. So this weekend I brought out my old copy for inspiration but almost as soon as I opened it up I realized I could not read this book again, much less write about it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a wonderful book:  I just don’t want to go through the horse’s painful journey again. Of course everything turns out all right for Black Beauty in the end, but Sewall gives him such a strong voice, and fills his story with so many harrowing, realistic details, that the moment I opened up the book (after decades) it all came rushing back. I can’t imagine how I had the courage to read this tome in the first place at age seven or eight: the fearfulness of youth, I suppose! But I’m not going back: the protective material side of me has surfaced, fortunately, and I’m going to focus on the decorative aspects of books today instead of their content.

Black Beauty 1st ed.

Black Beauty 1897

Black Beauty 2011

Covers of Black Beauty:  1877 first edition, 1897, and 2011 Penguin Threads edition–with design by Jillian Tamaki.

Enough of suffering, compassion and sanctuary! Like anything that seems likely to go away, books have becoming more precious as objects for some time, both in their original form and in variations and adaptions. One company that seems to be bridging the gap between literature and art is Juniper Books, which offers ready-made and custom collections of books gathered around a particular author or theme with covers and spines designed to decorate the bookshelf. When they can’t find an appropriate set of books to house their designs–they just cover up odd volumes–and so we have an Ernest Hemingway set of elephant-embellished books and an anonymous set of elephant-embellished books, all ready for a pachyderm-themed study (like mine).

Hardovers Juniper Books Hemingway Set

Hardcovers Elephant Book Set

And if you’re just looking for book forms, there are a variety of options: ceramic books are my particular preference of this genre –book-shaped vases and flasks go way back, at least to the eighteenth century. A couple of years ago I bought up as many of the book candles below as I could obtain at Anthropologie (a store that will put candles in anything and everything): I didn’t particularly care for the candles (still intact); I just liked the “books”. They are long gone from the store now, but these more colorful book vases are still very much in stock. A bit more sophisticated examples from Seletti and Kim Marsh are available here and here, and I suspect I could gather much more.

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Anthropologie ceramic book vases

Book Vases

Hardcovers Kim Marsh

British Bakers

I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).


Pastel Time

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Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).

I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!


Baking Winner

THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.

Snow Light

I’ve got nothing…but snow: sorry, worldly readers, I must feature snow yet again! With another 17 inches deposited from this weekend’s storm, we are now up to about 7 ½ feet by my unofficial calculation. We’ve got two major ice dams over our bay windows (thanks Victorians!!! the 1820s house is tight as can be) that have been depositing incessant drops of brown water into our house over the past few days, and I woke up happy this morning because it was so cold that the leaking stopped…for awhile. That about sums it up. You do develop perspective when you go through a prolonged period of weather adversity, and begin to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not sure that our tunnel is coming to an end yet (it’s only February!), but I did see a lot of light this weekend. Saturday night we walked to dinner through the snowy streets and I noticed it was so light outside, and when we returned home it seemed lighter still. What the weatherman was calling a blizzard was intensifying, and the sky was an eerie light gray–I almost expected to see the famous Boston Yeti out back….and there he was!

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Yeti in Salem Feb 14

Sorry it’s so blurry–I can’t venture out back because we haven’t shoveled, so this (these) picture(s) was taken through my dining room window, while it was snowing.  And yes, this is a rather pathetic attempt to place the Boston Yeti in Salem; he/she lives in Somerville, I believe. Seriously, that snow-lit sky was beautiful on Valentine’s Day evening, even though it meant ever more snow.

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And yesterday, blustery cold. Behold the inside of my second-floor library window, with major ice-dam leak above: all clear and dry today, for now. I promise: this is my last post on snow!

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Snowbanks in Salem

Fair warning: this is not going to be a “pretty” Salem post. The first few pictures–taken on the morning after the second major snowstorm in a week that raised our snowbanks to four feet or so–are picturesque, but the remainder reveal a far less pristine picture. I try to walk to school as much as possible even in conditions such as these, so I thought I would show you yesterday’s commute, which was not for the faint-hearted. Generally I walk down side streets to get to Salem State, but yesterday I was determined to navigate busy Lafayette Street, to see if I could actually walk on the sidewalks. I would say that about two-thirds of the way was a clear path: the remainder clogged with snow that property owners (whose responsibility it is) had neglected to clear, forcing me, the mere pedestrian, into the busy, narrowed street. Nearly every single intersection was marked by a HUGE snowbank with no cut-through, again–forcing me into the street. I’m not sure if there is anything to be done about this particular problem: the snow has to go somewhere!

Setting the Scene: Lower Chestnut Street, the day after the second storm.

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My commute yesterday: starting off and proceeding to Lafayette:

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On Lafayette:  the owners of #276 and all the houses pictured below apparently feel no responsibility to clear their sidewalks.

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The most intimidating snowbank, at the corner of Holly and Lafayette Streets, and on the other side, a nice man clearing his sidewalk.

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