Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Family Treasures: The Harvester

Over a year ago, my father and I sorted through an old tote of photos and collected articles from his maternal side of the family. His mother, Ruth Ruston, died when he was five of cervical cancer. The items in the trunk belonged to her mother, Minnie Estelle Wicker, and Minnie’s mother, Emma Angeline Whitcher.
Among the assortment of natural beauty tips and recipes cut from the newspaper, I discovered that my Great-Grandma Minnie was a local singer, as well as an amateur photographer. There were dozens of photos taken on family camping trips of lakes and woods. I found a piece of birch bark, collected and kept as a memento. Was it something that spoke to her? For I also have a fondness for birch.
Beneath those layers we discovered older portraits and a hand-sewn quilting sample. There were also unopened envelopes of patterns that Minnie had sent away for; a doll pattern and an apron. Pamphlets from church events became brochures for the Order of the Eastern Star meetings, a spiritual group with no religious affiliation; it was a fraternal order that both men and women could belong to.
There were recipes from the US Department of Agriculture, explaining the correct nutrition for your children in 1917. Still yet came recipes scrawled out for danish pudding, baked apples, cauliflower pickles, suet pudding, cabbage salad, marmalade, olive oil pickles, molasses layer cake, chicken croquettes, homemade catsup, and canned beets. It’s unfortunate that most do not have clear instructions. They seemed to be recipes often used. At some point the handwriting changed and dated back to the turn of the century where my 2x Great-Grandma Emma had written down how to brine pork in a barrel, placing the separate cuts at varient levels and taking them out after different lengths of soaking.
At the bottom of the tote was a water-soaked book. One book in the whole trunk and it was like gold to me. I am an avid reader and I always have been. My mom helped me get a card to the adult section of the public library before I was of age as I had read through the children’s library. So, to find a book that had been saved over time, and set aside with other personal things, was a treasure to me.
I’ll never know if it was a favorite book, or if it had any sentimental meaning to an ancestress. I’ll never know if it was purchased or borrowed from a friend and never returned. I’ll never know if it was the book someone was reading at the end of her life or if it was a favorite book to bring along on vacations. But it speaks to me that there might have been another reader in the family who had fond memories of curling up with a book against a window in the afternoon light.
The book has a red cloth cover. It is water damaged and misshapen. The spine is cracked and bent and the book sits at an awkward slant. There is an old bug on the inside, where the cover seems to have been used as a means to its death. It has definitely seen better days.
Illustration by W.L. Jacobs
It is a first edition from 1911, called The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter, published by Grosset & Dunlop in New York. I was surprised to discover that the author was a woman, born Geneva Grace Stratton (1863-1924), who achieved commercial success with her writing in her lifetime, during which she wrote over 20 books. She wrote her fiction to support her non-fiction; she was an amateur naturalist.
A biographer stated that, “Readers who are completely in tune with nature and who find fulfillment through its healing qualities are easily absorbed into the characters of her novels.” Gene herself wore men’s clothing, wading into the swamp and woods, writing about the wildlife around her. She included her findings within her novels.
The Harvester is a syrupy love story. But the love the author had for the wilds comes through in her details. The information in using natural herbs for remedies alone would have been invaluable to most readers, caught up in the story of the Medicine Man who prepares them. The main character has a mystical vision and moves mountains to manifest that vision into being, the truest kind of magic.
I curled up with the book, tenderly turning old and worn pages. I stepped back into a time when other hands, not mine and yet with similar blood, touched the same pages in turn. Despite the impossible speeches, I found myself drawn into the Medicine Woods that Stratton-Porter described, transported to a space once also visited in the mind of an ancestor:
 “The forest is never so wonderful as when spring wrestles with winter for supremacy. While the earth is yet ice bound, while snows occasionally fly, spring breathes her warmer breath of approach, and all nature responds. Sunny knolls, embankments, and cleared spaces become bare, while shadow spots and sheltered nooks remain white. This perfumes the icy air with a warmer breath of melting snow. The sap rises in the trees and bushes, sets buds swelling, and they distil a faint, intangible odour. Deep layers of dead leaves cover the frozen earth, and the sun shining on them raises a steamy vapour unlike anything else in nature. A different scent rises from the earth where the sun strikes it. Lichen faces take on the brightest colours they ever wear, and rough, coarse mosses emerge in rank growth from their cover of snow and add another perfume to mellowing air. This combination has breathed a strange intoxication into the breast of mankind in all ages, and bird and animal life prove by their actions that it makes the same appeal to them.

            “Crows caw supremacy from tall trees; flickers, drunk on the wine of nature, flash their yellow-lined wings and red crowns among trees in a search for suitable building places; nut-hatches run head foremost down rough trunks, spying out larvae and early emerging insects; titmice chatter; the bold, clear whistle of the cardinal sounds never so gaily; and song sparrows pipe from every wayside shrub and fence post. Coons and opossums stir in their dens, musk-rat and ground-hog inspect the weather, while squirrels race along branches and bound from tree like winged folk.”

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