Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Housekeeping in The Fields

Pennyroyal (mentha pulegium), which was used as an ant and flea repellant

I devoured in a day Conrad Richter's The Fields, sequel to The Trees. The feeling of this book is different. In The Trees, the drama overshadowing the characters is the problem of physical survival in the face of extreme isolation, lack of necessities and amenities, and a very formidable natural setting. Far more than the pioneers, I suspect, this reader was shivering in her timbers with fear for the characters.

In The Fields, the drama has shifted to the intricate relations among people, since now there are a lot more of them where the Luckett family first plunked down its two kettles, quilts, and hunting and trapping gear. Clearing the forest to make a field and planting a crop is a cruel struggle. We see Sayward Luckett Wheeler's efforts not only to "defeat the trees" as she put it, but also to corral her children to the ways of civilization.

Here are quotes from The Fields that give an idea of Sayward's work.

Even her cabin looked small and pitiful aside of the big timber. But it had a tight roof against the rain, stout walls against the beasts and the winter, a bed to sleep in, a fireplace to cook by and gourds on clapboard shelves spilling over with what grew in woods and patches. Hanging from her rafters she had dittany tea, herbs for complaints, a jug of whiskey if you needed it, sacks of meal and grain. With these she reckoned they could make out.

A piggin
The river was her boundary. Down here was a place to get gourds in the late summer. You sliced off the tops for lids, pulled out the guts and had all the piggins and pipkins [small earthenware pot with a horizontal handle] for your shelf boards you wanted....

Her and Portius’ bed was the only one left down the ladder. This bed Sayward had made new in the fall. First she littered fresh fallen leaves on the bark she had spread on tamped dirt floor. Then she laid ticking [strong ticking fabric] she had sewed up herself and stuffed with corn shucks and wheat straw. Between the yarn blankets on top of this Sayward from time to time took her ease....

My, but the cabin smelled good with its joists hanging with curing dittany and pennyroyal. They had to gather linn [jute] for rope and hickory bark for light wood when candles ran low.

Shellbark hickory (carya laciniosa).
First she stood a slab bench with a gourd of soft soap by the run, and all had to scrub their heads and hands like they were pewter plates. Then she hung up a [black] haw comb, and every time before you came to eat, you had to hackle your hair with it. Oh, she was bound you’d be somebody around here. She put those puncheons [planking] down in the cabin just so she’d had a floor to scour, he believed. Now she talked of getting lime from Maytown and making her boys whitewash the logs…. Her ways were so “cam” you figured she was easy-going, but that’s where she fooled you. The day wasn’t long enough for the things she studied out to do to get you along in the world. She was having a loom built and said she knew where she could get her hands on two more ewes.

Blackhaw (viburnum prunifolium)

Wheat was coloring up fast. It would have to be reaped, bound, shocked, flailed, and the chaff fanned out. Then her flax had to be taken care of, pulled, spread, turned, ripped for the seeds, and that was only a start of the long “tejus” work before it could be spun. All the time corn and potatoes would have to be hoed and sprouts and weeds fought. And meanwhile the hay had be made and put away. It was all coming in a pile. You couldn’t put off a crop once it was ready.


She smelled just the same, that good, clean smell of soap and wood smoke and something broad, sweet and healthy that was just her. He reckoned a part of it came from May apples. She always dried May apples, he recollected, and laid them among her clothes in the chest.


Jodi said...

Oh my, my fingers are itching to get a hold of these books! The way you describe things--books, paintings and people--is why I love coming here.

Anonymous said...

I devoured in a day Conrad Richter's The Fields, sequel to The Trees. The feeling of this book is different.flowering shrubs