Sunday, February 27, 2011

Housekeeping in the Great Forest: The Trees 2

Detail of an early 19th century quilt from Pennsylvania

Here are quotes from The Trees by Conrad Richter that describe various domestic activities. I deeply appreciate Richter's descriptions of these tasks and his respect for what women accomplished in the wilderness in creating a home from nothing but what they could find in the forest.

What they brought from Pennsylvania:
In that pack under his rifle were a frow [a cleaving tool] and auger [tool for boring holes], bar lead and powder, blacksmith’s traps and a bag of Indian meal wrapped up in a pair of yellow yarn blankets. Sayward carried the big kettle and little kettle packed with small fixings, Genny the quilts thronged to her white shoulders and Achsa a quarter of venison with the bloody folded buckskin her Father had taken since the last trader. Even the littlest ones, Wyitt and Sulie, had their burdens of axe, bullet mould and clothes.

Shadbark hickory tree

Making a broom:
Her mother’s old broom was worn til it wasn’t more than a club, and she cut a green hickory stick, her knife splitting a splint at one end. This she turned back and split another, and another. When she was done and the handle whittled down, she had a fine, new broom.

Making bread:
She spilled the grey white meal soundlessly in the little kettle, hoarding every pinch, feeling of it between her fingers. Not even the fur on the belly of a mink or beaver was soft and velvety as this. They must have run it through the deerskin sifter. Never had she baked wheat bread before but she well knew how…. Now the girl’s firm hands mixed the flour and some water together, working in a little precious salt and maple sugar with the miller woman’s yeasty stuff. By the time she set it by the fire to rise, her father had taken off his buckskin leggings that were wet from the fording of streams and had lain across her and Genny's bed,* some of the quilt over his bare legs, dead as a log from his long tramp.
"Bed" is very loosely speaking, a bed of leaves on the clay floor covered with a bottom quilt and a yarn blanket or a top quilt.

Making a buckskin shirt:
Now she went on about her business, working a doeskin with her hands. They had taken hair off with lye from fire ashes and tanned it with oak bark liquor in a log trough. Once the hide was worked soft, Jary would lay it on the table and cut it out with the cabin knife, and Genny’s nimble fingers would sew up a shirt for Wyitt. He had some squirrel ready that he wanted it trimmed with.

New neighbors have brought considerably more to the forest:
Genny said they had pewter and copper ware, a looking glass with a towel they hung on a tree, more pots and kettles than you could shake a stick at, a grind stone and grubbing hoe. And that wasn’t half of it. They had two chests; fine patched quilts; a big iron shovel and a small one Genny thought for the fire; a candle mould, reels, a flax and spinning wheel. And the woman had all the bushes airing with shirts, britches, petticoats, bedgowns and sheets like great folks had. The walls of the Luckett cabin, Sayward expected, would look mighty bare of clothes to such a woman.

Ladies Yellow Slipper (cyridedium pubescens [orchidacaeae])

Getting ready for a visit from the new neighbor:
Then she went and redd out [tidied up] the cabin. She was glad she had set sour dough to raise that morning. Only yesterday Wyitt said he knew where it had early yellow lady slippers and she had him fetch some for Genny to stick in cracks between the logs. She told him to fetch some fresh mint and cucumber tree leaves, for they made it smell good and welcome over a swept dirt floor... When the kettle started to simmer, she used it a fifth time, as a teapot, putting in a lick of dittany and sassafras root shavings. Then she poured out a pair of steaming wooden cups and set them with her two breadstuffs on the table.... Her sour dough biscuits were not fine and scanty but of a hearty size with a square of smoked bear’s bacon set in the top of each to run down over the sides and bake with a tasty crust.

Leaves of the cucumber tree (magnolia acuminata)

Getting ready for a new husband:
Quickly she turned back indoors and redded up the cabin. Her splint broom scraped and hackled the bones, gristle, bed leaves and black boot dirt off the hard clay floor. The hearth she swept clean with a turkey wing. Her old buckskin rag wiped dust off logs and chinking. The clean-washed blankets she lugged down from the marriage bed and spread them over the everyday place she slept in. Last she fetched out a choice slice of roast venison she had saved back for her man if he came home, and set a place at the table....

Dittany (cunila mariana), also known as stone mint, which Sayward used to make tea

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