E.B. White (1899-1985), the noted essayist and New Yorker writer, also wrote the children's classics, Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. This revised and updated book of letters, edited by his granddaughter, Martha White, adds the final ten years of correspondence and many new photographs to the earlier edition (originally edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth).
E.B. White on "the faint squeak of mortality."
From a letter White wrote to his brother Stanley in January of 1929, thanking him for praise of his writing:
"I appreciate your critical estimate and praise of my writing -- a special kind of writing which has always amused me. I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace. As a reporter, I was a flop, because I always came back laden not with facts about the case, but with a mind full of the little difficulties and amusements I had encountered in my travels. Not till The New Yorker came along did I ever find any means of expressing those impertinences and irrelevancies. Thus yesterday, setting out to get a story on how police horses are trained, I ended by writing a story entitled "How Police Horses are Trained" which never even mentions a police horse, but has to do entirely with my own absurd adventures at police headquarters. The rewards of such endeavor are not that I have acquired an audience or a following, as you suggest (fame of any kind being a Pyrric victory), but that sometimes in writing of myself -- which is the only subject one knows intimately -- I have occasionally had the exquisite thrill of putting my finger on a little capsule of truth and heard it give the faint squeak of mortality under my pressure, an antic sound."
From "The Letters of E.B. White: Revised Edition," edited by Martha White.
The Old Farmer's Almanac "Home Library" Series from Time-Life Books and Yankee Publishing
Traditionally, the pantry and medicine cabinet were stocked from the same kitchen garden. Foodstuffs were both nutrition and good medicine, some preventative and others curative, but never separate in the way we think of them today. Modern medicine is learning what our grandparents knew all along about apples, cranberries, chicken soup, vinegar, and countless other foods and herbs. These timeless remedies can keep us happy, healthy, and out of the doctor's office.
[Down East magazine, June 2008]
Essay by Martha White
My firstborn son is an apiarist, a beekeeper. To a lobsterman, a “keeper” is something of value, such as a legal-sized lobster, and I’ve been around lobstermen long enough that the word has crept into my vocabulary. I have always thought of my son as a keeper. He used to collect bottle caps; now he keeps bees and blueberries, and builds boats, and he bought land in the small town up the coast where I grew up, a town called Brooklin. Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that when we talk on the phone about his beehives, I tend to hear it as “keeping Bs.”
I am reminded of a Sesame Street show, when the Muppets played in a rock and roll band and sang rewritten lyrics to the Beatles tune, “Let It Be.” The Muppets sang it as “Letter B,” part of their ongoing efforts to teach the alphabet. Keeping bees has been much on television lately, as well, because of widespread colony collapses that have been attributed to genetically-modified crops, mites, viruses and other ills. Often, farmers who single-crop their fields — say in apples, blue-berries, or cabbages — must move bees by the truckload to pollinate the crops. Some theorize that bees may be dying because of a lack of diversity in their diets. This time, it may be Mother Nature singing “Let It Be” and it may be the small beekeepers who heed her cry.
Keeping blueberries, like keeping bees, is a relatively passive activity, although my son occasionally burns his blueberry barrens to keep down the weeds. My parents also had blueberry fields, and I have fond memories of my brothers and me strapping Indian water pumps to our backs and spraying the edges of the fields, to safeguard the woods. My son came into his blueberry fields when he bought land near the old Stoneset Farm on the River Road, a parcel owned by Edmund Williams, Jr.
About fifty years ago, Edmund used to sell milk from the cows he kept on Stoneset Farm. My parents were renting a house then, on the banks of the Benjamin River, so we were among Edmund’s lucky customers on the River Road. An early riser in our household could select an unopened glass milk bottle, pry the red cardboard cap off the top, and pour the sweet cream onto a bowl of Wheaties. Whoever came second got plain, whole milk.
There is a symmetry that I enjoy in my son buying land from Edmund and choosing to live in the town that I still love. My son is not a farmer or a milkman, but he kept sheep for a couple of years and boarded a cow one winter. He is a boatbuilder — like my father and my brother and my husband — so there is symmetry there, too. His land is partly wooded, partly cleared for blueberries and it is accessed by a logging road. What my son now calls “the Ed Williams bridge” crosses a small stream in back. A solitary evergreen that Edmund named “the lone pine” stands in the center of the clearing and a long rope swing dangles from an outstretched branch.
A dowser came and suggested where water might be found on this rocky parcel, one of the highest spots in town, and his advice panned out. My son dug a well and hit good water at just fifteen feet, no drilling required. The old adage about “leaving well enough alone” comes to mind. My son has well enough; he’ll let it be.
Meanwhile, Ed Williams, Jr., recently died at the age of ninety-two. He was born in 1915 in a house just down the road from one that his grandfather,
Elias Steadman, had built. Before he died, however, Edmund had transferred his farm to others who will tend the land, the same family who had boarded their cow with my son. When Edmund sold my son his parcel, they spoke about when my family lived in West Brooklin. “I didn’t see much of them after they moved to North Brooklin,” Edmund recalled, as though we’d moved to North Carolina instead of just three miles down the road.
Edmund enjoyed riding his tractor on his property even in his nineties, but he found little reason to go farther afield. He was a self-taught man and an avid reader, particularly interested in history and genealogy. For many years, he was an active member of the local historical society and the Brooklin Keeping Society — which is to say that Edmund was a keeper, too, and he was careful to pass that baton — another, and perhaps the most important, letter B.
It was springtime, two years ago, when The New York Times reported that a chicken had mysteriously turned up in the New York City backyard of its restaurant critic, William Grimes. Reporters and photographers flocked to the scene and periodic news flashes ensued, as the hen made herself at home and eventually began to lay. Just as Mr. Grimes was figuring out what hens eat and that they don't need a rooster to produce eggs, the newly famous Australorp abruptly flew the coop. Was Grimes' chick a poultry victim of city crimes? Or was she simply fleeing freedom of the press?
Then, last winter in Maine, a couple noticed that a hen had taken up residence under their porch, evidently hiding from a hawk. When that hen also disappeared, they blamed the predator. A few days later, however, the hen turned up, alive and well, under the hood of their pickup truck, where it was presumed to have ridden back and forth to work a few times. Ordinarily, hens in the backyard are not news in Maine, but this commuting hen was an exception.
About that same time, I accompanied my mother to a doctor's appointment and was surprised that the subject of chickens came up again. It turns out that her arthritis medication is comprised of chicken combs.
My mother, a food columnist, had been following both the Grimes' hen and my own small flock of Rhode Island Reds, better known as "the ladies." When she thought that the spring in her step might spring from the combs in her knees, she wrote, "I feel like cooking up a big spaghetti dinner as a thank you to the ladies."
Hens, as even food critic William Grimes didn't know, love to eat spaghetti, probably because it looks like worms. An ear of corn is also entertaining to offer. My hens, upon first encountering corn on the cob, went into an immediate huddle to discuss, at great gossipy length, whether it might be a grenade. When it hadn't detonated after 10 minutes, they designated one hen to try it. She bravely pecked at it, squawked, "Corn, you idiots!" and they all joined the feast.
Now, it's winter, 2003. Grenades are showing up in suitcases in London and we're all feeling as jittery as a pullet with an unexploded ear of corn, and chickens have made the news again.
Our US soldiers in Iraq just adopted 250 chickens to carry atop their Hum-Vees when they head across the dusty oil fields. They're calling this Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken (KFC). These patriotic little hens have been drafted as the early warning devices of chemical warfare.
Here on the home front, the snow is melting and my free-ranging hens can expand their turf once again. One spring, they nearly fell victim to an avalanche when a huge load of snow fell off the roof onto a bit of lawn, where only minutes earlier the hens had been picking up sunflower seeds. ("No single snowflake would have felt responsible," to paraphrase the old Almanacs.) I rushed out to find they were just practicing their early warning signals. ("Squawk! The sky is falling!")
Meanwhile, our US troops near Iraq are busy strutting their stuff, planning their first response, and installing poultry pens on Hum-Vees. This year, we're sending chickens to the front lines and I, for one, plan to keep a beady eye on the front pages.