On Bees & Bread

I thought maybe the isolation offered by universal quarantine would bring blogging back as a cultural trend. But after two months of 24/7 life at home, I realized this is not happening. Reading blocks of text (even when interspersed with pictures) is very early 2000s and our attention spans are roughly the length of a TikTok video. And then there is the fact that we are all too busy in isolation. Freaking out and fighting over available virus information/disinformation, trying to do our jobs and manage online schooling, and baking sourdough bread all take a lot of time. So the anticipated cultural revitalization of blogs hasn’t happened. That said, I would like to start posting again.

Happening Now

Lots of farming-related activity is going on. Bread-making, growing food, and new this year: bee-keeping. As Benjamin Franklin cautioned, I have a beehive…if I can keep it. That’s not precisely the quote but it is in the general spirit of the enterprise.

I am excited about the bees. A little too excited, my kids might say, as my moods swing in accordance with whether or not the hive seems to be thriving. But I have good reason to be nervous: apparently, keeping the hive alive and in good health is on par with keeping our Constitutional Republic alive. Basically, I have the same job as Congress. Even so, I was feeling pretty good about everything related to the bees before I heard about the murder hornet. This two-inch long protein-eating nightmare has descended upon Washington State and is munching its way across the continent, one beehive at a time.

Sourdough Bread

In a gut-level anticipation of a pandemic, I became wound up a few years ago about making my own wild yeast and taking charge of my own destiny through bread. It took me a while (a long while) to really get cranking, but now I’m as weird as the rest of the internet about sourdough bread. I’ve had some massive failures along the way, and I still don’t score fancy patterns into the top of my bread in the way that is Instagram-worthy, but I make the bread and we eat the bread and I smell the tangy, weird smell of my starter once a day and feel a rush of emotion. I don’t understand it but there you are.

Homestead Viewing

Like millions of other people, I watch videos about tiny houses by the trailer-load. I also watch a few over-the-top farm ladies on a regular basis. Why I like the suggested resources: because each of these people make it okay to care about farming and aesthetics, or minimalism and aesthetics. Having a simplified, countrified, even isolated lifestyle doesn’t mean you are surrounded by junk. In fact, it means the opposite. A few of my favorites:




And Now for Something Different: Friday Book Chat

The books in our online store are all vintage of course, so they vary in quality and condition. I thought if I explained a bit about the books it might give you more insight into not only their condition, but what makes them compelling enough to deserve a spot on The Roving Home’s bookshelf. And, by extension, your bookshelf. So here it is: the first (extremely casual) Book Chat featuring four selections…

The Death of Books? Not so Fast

Jamie Schwaberow for The New York Times

Pages, printed and bound, aren’t going away anytime soon.  Our appreciation for books may be more along the lines of perceiving them as objects ripe for manipulation as opposed to the noble repositories of knowledge, but as a lover of books, I’ll settle for that.  I just want books to be around, and if they are primarily around as decorative items, as doorstops, as props for a Pottery Barn catalog shoot with the covers ripped off so that the binding is exposed in some sort of arty attempt to get the books to “match”, that’s perfectly alright with me (not that anyone’s asking).  It’s taken years for me to reach this state of equanimity.  I used to gnash my teeth at reading accounts of books being purchased by the yard for the fake-old new libraries of fake-old new rich people.  But now I save my hysteria for worthier causes – which no doubt I’ll share at some point.  Now I realize that all those designers buying books by the yard and styling Pottery Barn catalog shoots are actually saving books, if not in the literary sense, then in the literal sense.  These designers are creating a nostalgia market so great that generations to come wouldn’t even dream of having a house without books, even if those same generations can’t recall ever having read anything from a printed page instead of a screen.

The New York Times has a story today on this very thing: designers crafting something altogether book-ish but unliterary out of books.  Read about it HERE.  The book is dead, long live the book.

Books: Historic Houses of Early America (fascinating!)

Historic House of Early America by Elise Lathrop, published in 1924.

Don’t let the yawn-worthy title of this book fool you; Historic Houses of Early America offers 464 pages – including illustrations – of fascinating reading.  History seen through the doorways and along the corridors of our oldest homes.  The stories abound, with references to people with names like “Auntie Burr” and a sort of overzealous interest on the part of the writer in identifying which houses belonged to patriots and which houses belonged to loyalists.  She disapproves of the latter.

But this partisan interest begins to make sense when you take a moment to reflect on the fact that houses are designed to be inhabited by actual people who engage in all the things actual people do – making love, war, and everything in between.  Of course the homes of these same people become central to history.  And of course it makes sense that a writer, not much more than a century removed from the events of early America, would find it interesting that John Hancock couldn’t get married in his fiancee’s living room as planned (even though hand-painted French wallpaper had been imported and installed in anticipation of the wedding) because, as a patriot, he couldn’t risk being so close to Boston at the time.  I’d like to see the living room of this 18th century house, both because it would make the person of John Hancock more real to me (who thinks of any of these people as real?) and because I’d love to see that wallpaper.

Which brings me to the fact that, though I’ve long been interested in historic homes, it has been more in the capacity of the decorative arts, or -to put it less grandiosely – to see how people used to arrange the furniture.  I sometimes forget that houses can have a significance that transcends the color of the bedroom walls.  People – and, by extension, their homes –  are part of the events that conspire to form human history.  I do think of public buildings in this sense, but have failed to realized that a place where everyday domestic activities occurred can be just as important to our shared past.  Historic Houses of Early America will no doubt serve to broaden my limited view of this past.

As an added bonus, the book offers history just the way I like it: heavy on the anecdotes (including a few interiors-related ghost stories), short on the diagrams.  Something just on this side of fiction, which is fine by me (though I have my standards; I draw the line at Oliver Stone movies).

More from Historic Houses in future posts.  How could you resist a book that opens with the following inscription?

All houses wherein men have lived and died/Are haunted houses.  /Through the open doors /The harmless phantoms on their errands glide /With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

The Builders – Longfellow


All this and early 20th century photographs? Delightful.

Interiors: Order from Chaos

One of a few entries I posted elsewhere pre-October 2010, before I (officially) started The Roving Home blog.

My son’s habitual slobbery – though he is but a wee lad –  is already breathtaking at times, prompting one of his aunts to make the following observation more than once while watching him dribble through his meals: “You know, there are messy babies and neat babies…and he is a messy baby.”

And yet.  There are moments, even in his celebrated messiness, when some sort of innate desire for order – at some level, no matter how humble – penetrates the pile of detritus in his room like a shot of sunlight through fog.  A few days ago I demanded that he clean his room and told him I would check on his progress.  When I arrived, I found this:

He had sorted his books, previously scattered throughout the four corners of his room, into a grid.  Then I began to observe the other little signs of order amidst the chaos and realized each visit to the beach over the last several weeks yielded a stone or shell, which he lined up along the porch railing after returning home.  And the items are all white, except for a purplish one I placed there and to which he objected – a fact I hardly noticed at the time.

My house (my life) falls far short of what I hope it will be – what I know it can be.  I look around and think: “There are neat homes and messy homes…and I have a messy home.”

But I think of my son and know there is hope.  The desire for order, to make sense of the chaos, will triumph, even if only for a moment, in the smallest of ways, a line of white rocks against the looming dark.

Books: Virginia Lee Burton, A Life in Art

Everyone knows that the citizens of the first world no longer make anything.  And by make anything, I don’t mean manufacture in the industrial sense.  I mean actually make something.   We are divorced from the work of our hands, and now spend all of our time slumped in front of a screen of some sort.  A screen which keeps getting smaller.  Right now you’re no doubt reading this post from a screen the size of a bandaid.

We don’t weave our rugs or mill our wheat or cobble shoes or pluck a few hairs from a horse’s tail to make a paintbrush capable of rendering the slenderest of lines.  Not that I want to pluck hairs from a horse’s tail for any reason.  But I would like to reconnect with my hands, my physical self. This sensation of disconnect between the work we do and our physical lives was underscored by reading Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art.

She was an artist and author of children’s books.  She met publishers’ deadlines, met her own deadlines, cooked, canned food, ran a design collective, danced, raised children and sheep, tended to the ego of her famous sculptor husband, all while entertaining copious friends who stopped by for feasts of lamb roasted over an open fire in the summer and Scandinavian nisu bread and carol-singing around a spinet in the winter.  Oh, and she designed and made by hand the family’s annual Christmas card.  And another thing: she didn’t seem to irritate people with all this bustling productivity.  A quality which would alone justify a biography.

Burton was eminently connected to culture and ideas and the abstract, but practical all the same.  Ideas were based in the real world, and design concepts were carried out by hand.  The Folly Cove Designers, the group she founded, created incredibly detailed and beautiful designs.  They were also the craftsmen and technicians, expected to develop techniques sophisticated enough to meet the aesthetic demands of their designs, and designs rigorous enough to work within the parameters of their technology.  They carved these designs into linoleum blocks and inked and pressed the blocks by hand onto fabric to create placemats and tea towels and more – pieces for everyday use.  It’s hard to believe that there was a time when our homes were filled with items, from the chamber pot to the silverware, that were made by hand.  The Folly Cove Designers insisted on carrying on this tradition by making useful items that were also beautiful, removing art from the realm of the specialist and putting good design back into the hands, literally, of the consumer.

Burton insisted on utilizing the labor-intensive process of the hand-made, not for nostalgia’s sake, but for her own sake, for the sake of living the best life possible.  And living the best life possible involves making things.  Not all of the time, not everything, but something, and, in doing so, acknowledging that your hands need real work.  It sounds overly simplistic, and certainly contemporary life cannot be built brick by handmade brick.  But in our hurry to surround ourselves with synthetic materials engineered to make our lives easier, we forget that we ourselves are made up of organic matter.  That we are just waiting to be made into compost, and that we recognize ourselves in the natural world and miss being a part of things, so to speak.

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman is a slender volume, and not intended to be comprehensive in matters of design, or craft, or even Virginia Lee Burton herself.  But it captured the spirit of a life well-lived.   I think I’ll head into my studio now, just after I whip up an apple pie from scratch.