Thursday, April 22, 2021

Earth Day 2021: A Collection of Earth Friendly Zines

I thought I'd celebrate Earth Day by providing a little collection of inspiring publications that help keep my spirits up. All are are available digitally through Zinio and other electronic clearinghouses, and none of them are from around here. Most of these center on permaculture, regenerative grazing, sustainability, reducing waste, and other means to accomplishing tikkun olam (the Jewish concept of healing the world).

Still a lover of print, I nevertheless welcome the chance to read well-produced digital versions of magazines I could never afford in print, and would have a really hard time letting go of. The beauty of electronic versions is that I can archive them and they don't stack up in piles on bookshelves--like my favorite house porn journal, Country Living UK (which I now get on Zinio).

The first is a lovely little gem from the UK that sounds like one of those "clean up your stuff" mags that spend too much time suggesting that you buy stuff to keep your stuff in. The Simple Things is, however, more of an inspirational foray into craft and nature from the UK that urges a simplified life but doesn't necessarily require that one immediately go out to the shops or head for Amazon, although it does frequently feature sustainably crafted goods.

The May issue includes an article on "Almost-wild" camping, which sounds like it could catch on in the US.



A year or so back I discovered a charming--and inspiring--magazine on Zinio called Junkies, which soon after changed its name to a less problematic and more appropriate re:think.

Published in Australia, it focuses on recycling, making, sustainable fashion, and a range of related topics. 

Every time I read an issue of this magazine, I imagine new ways to use things that in another life I would have thrown out. That alone is worth the subscription price.

Rather than things, this Australian publication focuses on philosophical and cultural issues, and especially on people "with the drive to make a difference" around the world.

Dumbo Feather's current issue's topic is Truth, and navigating the problematic world of information.

Several conversations are featured each issue, with interesting and inspiring people I might never have heard of if I hadn't  happened on this journal.

Australia has been the axis mundi of permaculture practice and development for years. In 2014, Robin Rosenfeldt moved to New South Wales and began a magazine designed to provide "ideas and inspiration for a resilient future."

Pip is a congenial, information-packed quarterly with evocative artwork and articles on sustainability, growing, eating, building, and thriving. The website has some wonderful videos and advice about living lightly on the planet.

Another quarterly Australian publication, Earth Garden might remind some folks of the US's Mother Earth News (to which I also subscribe digitally) but can confuse a whole lot of us in the northern hemisphere because of its seasonal focus. 

Sustainable living is once again the driving force, with an emphasis on gardening and dealing with the output. 

Terrific gardening and farming ideas, great recipes, solid advice on house-holding techniques (like canning and preserving) are all to be found within its pages.



Their high production values, collective ethical and cultural conscience (the Australian magazines acknowledge their debt to the indigenous peoples on whose land they create and publish), optimism, and practical suggestions for rehabilitating and sustaining the planet, make these all worth taking a look at. 

Happy Earth Day, folks. Stay well, get vaccinated, and help to save the planet.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Pi Day Pear Pie

Because my attention span is pretty limited these days, my posts are generally confined to The Farm. I keep promising to keep the Cabinet up and running, but am seldom successful.

This year, however, I've vowed to channel some of my current optimism into more concerted efforts at posting on both blogs, confining my rants on political economy and garden angst to The Farm, and explorations of a more ephemeral nature to this space. And what, to a pie lover, could be more ephemeral than pie? And yes, I know that Pi Day was yesterday (3.14), but I was so knackered after baking the pie that I didn't have enough steam left for blogging about it.

But of course there's a story, so here it is. A couple of months ago, I received word from my longtime e-mail provider, a former student who runs a business that manages such things, that he was moving to a Microsoft 365 platform and changes would have to be made. But since I don't know from Microsoft almost anything (despite the fact that My Son The Game Guy works for the company), I decided to cut and run. I laboriously moved all my contacts over to gmail, and copied volumes of letters to and from family and friends. This was not an entirely unenjoyable effort, because I was able to skim quite a number of letters that brought back memories of the last twenty years. There's further work to do, such as sorting letters by person, and extracting each correspondent from his or her spot in a much larger file to a more manageable one.

Among those whose letters I most value is my uncle Art. He is my father's youngest brother, and the only one of my paternal grandparents' children still living. At nearly 87, he's the family patriarch, and because of good clean living, a terrific sense of humor, a fabulous wife and family, and his mother's longevity genes, I hope he'll hold that title for at least another twenty years. 

When I began blogging in 2007, Art started letting me know what he thought about what I was writing, and one project I look forward to is going back through those letters and compiling them with my responses and the posts to which they're related.  Of course, I'll have to live another thirty years or so to get all that done, because both sides of my family have been copious correspondents, and both my grandmother and I saved one another's letters (for about forty years). There are also smaller collections of WWII war-correspondence, and substantial number letters from my father to me when we weren't together. 

And then there's the mass of email correspondence that began when both my father and I started using it around 1997, and continued until his death in 2004. I didn't start blogging until 2007, but not long afterward I started getting Art's responses--not attached to the posts themselves, but in e-mails. I hope he won't live to regret having sent them, but I will enjoy going back through them and revisiting whatever I wrote that caught his attention.

One of the things we especially enjoyed chatting about is family history, on which I wrote quite a bit in the early years of The Farm; I also included posts on recipes and other "collectables" here on the Cabinet, which is why I've popped this one in here. 

In September of 2008, I wrote about having A Surfeit of Pears, and Art replied with a recipe. I hadn't thought about it in years, but after rediscovering it I decided that I'd make one for Pi Day, which I celebrate every year by feeding The Beloved Spouse something round. And pie-like. I've been doing this since about 2011, when I wrote about the connection in an old blog I devoted to students, The Owls' Parliament (Geometry, Art, Pi, and Pie)

The result is pictured above, and the recipe (and Art's comment) appears below. 

OK so you got pears. Try this one you won't regret.

Pear Pie                                                                              

1/2  cup Sugar                                                                                                   
1     t  Vanilla                                                

1     Egg  beaten                                             

1     cup  Sour Cream  (Lite is OK)                
1     T    Flour                                                   
1     pinch salt

3 - 4 cups ripe pears  about 4 medium

Mix first 6 together fold in pears and put in crust
Bake at 350 deg for 15 min

Sprinkle on crumb topping -- bake 30 min more at 350

Crumb Top 

1/4   c   butter or margarine
2/3   c   flour
1/3  c   sugar
mix well with fork till crumbly

He also noted that it was okay to do what he often did--pick up a deep-dish crust at the market--but since I'm still avoiding the Texas nincompoops and don't have a ready source of decent pre-made crusts, I made my own, from a recipe I've used for years: Anna Thomas's Sweet Pastry Brisée from The Vegetarian Epicure (Random House Vintage, 1972, p. 286):

1 c. flour

1/3 c. sugar

1/4 lb. butter

pinch of salt 

The ingredients get mushed up together and then pressed into a 10-inch pie pan. Mine is about 1 1/2 in. high, so I press it up to the top edge but don't do anything fancy to it. I am not a great baker, and use shortcrust pastry whenever I make a pie because it's pretty much foolproof--even if it isn't any easier to make than a roll-out dough.

I did have to make some substitutions, because I didn't have any sour cream, so I used full-fat plain yogurt. I only had turbinado sugar, so use it for both crust and pie. I also used about 1/3 c. of oats with 1/3 c. of flour for the crumb top, because that's how I usually top fruit crumbles and betties, and it adds some texture for photos. Also, I used three 9.5 oz Anjou pears, but more would have been okay. I didn't skin them, and cut them in quarters, then slices about 1/4 " thick.

The result was so good that even TBS, who generally is not fond of sweet things, not only enjoyed the warm version we had for dessert last night, but had some for lunch today as well.

Pie always makes me happy, and now that I'm fully vaccinated, and TBS is halfway there, things are looking up. The weather is lovely, Spring is on its way, and although I'm not fond of the change from CST to CDT, I do enjoy having more light at the end of the day.

More soon, I hope.




Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Fulfillment of Figs

I'm taking a break from death cleaning for the moment, primarily because the accidental garden has come up with an abundance of figs, for the first time in I can't count how many years.

Usually I get a couple that I can just eat off the tree, being sure to say shehecheyanu (even though I'm not religious, I like to thank the universe for cool stuff that happens) before enjoying my first (and perhaps only) fig of the season.

Once upon a time, when there were two fig trees in the garden, I'd still not get many, but more than I have lately with the one survivor. The other one, near where the compost bins are now, apparently didn't get enough sun and finally just sort of fell apart. So I've really only had one surfeit of figs in the past, while I was still teaching, and it provided enough for making fig confit--a couple of jars of which I gave my favorite chefs at the Institution. If I can ever find the recipe I'll insert it back in here, but all I could find through the google machine were essentially for fig jam.

Almost the first thing I did when we got back from our road trip to California was to check the fig tree, since it had been pretty full of promise when we left. I was rather afraid that the Tree Rats would have demolished the baby figs, as they're currently doing with the baby pecans, but luck was with us and they were all still there. So I made sure the tree got watered if it didn't rain, and have been rewarded with a bumper crop. Just this week I've managed to produce a fig tart, a fig and caramelized onion pizza, and just a few minutes ago, fig and pecan muffins (with pecans I harvested last fall and froze). Recipes will follow, below, but first, a short disquisition on the wonder of figs.

My Grandma Clarice just loved figs. I wasn't much of a fan, but it was because of her affection for them (and my affection for her) that I even tried the ones from my own trees when our first harvest occurred the summer we moved into this house. As it turns out, figs are among the world's most healthful foods, and are amazingly versatile as well. They're sweet, but not cloyingly so (unless they get so ripe that they turn into jam on their own), and full of fiber, so eating them makes one feel virtuous, as well as having one's sweet tooth satisfied.

Artists have loved figs at least since Roman times, and there's a rather nice depiction of a basket of them from a fresco in a villa at Oplontis, which I used to show in my Humanities classes to keep my culinary students interested.

Figs are mentioned in numerous ancient texts, from Sumerian tablets to the Bible. I wouldn't be surprised if figs weren't what got Eve in trouble, since they were abundant in the Middle East, whereas apples were not. The Roman cookbook writer Apicius recommends preserving figs in honey, and I'm thinking of trying that by placing a few of my extras in a small jar and covering them with some of the Owens Valley honey we brought back with us in June.

So this is what I've got so far. The results have all been tasty, and easy to produce. But I'm not a recipe person, so you'll have to use your own judgement when it comes to amounts.

Fresh Fig and Almond Tart

I used one Trader Joe's All Butter Puff Pastry roll for this. I stock up on them in the fall when they're available, and use them for making tarts with seasonal fruit. To make this tart, place the pastry on a piece of baking parchment, and brush it with melted butter. Then use a honey-dipper to drizzle honey over that. Quarter enough figs (about 20 small ones?) to cover the top fairly densely, and then drizzle more honey. Sprinkle slivered almonds liberally.

Bake at 400F for about 15 minutes, but check after about 10. It might take as long as 20, depending on your oven. Let cool and cut into six or eight squares. You can also divide the pastry into squares before you put the figs on if you want to feed more people or create a prettier result.

Fresh Fig, Caramelized Onion, and Feta Pizza

Although I preach incessantly about making your own pizza dough, this is high summer in north Texas and my kitchen is not air conditioned. Enter, once again, Trader Joe's, where I can get two very nice organic pizza shells (Monteli Organic) to keep in the freezer for Just Such An Occasion. Do not defrost them; in fact, don't even take them out of the freezer until you're ready to load them up.

You'll also need a large sweet onion, most of a box of real Greek feta in brine (Trader Joe's, Costco, and Whole Foods, as well as most decent supermarkets carry it; pre-crumbled feta is a poor substitute), a few herbs (Provençal herbs work well, but so do thyme and rosemary--fresh if you've got them), and a little balsamic vinegar (optional).

If you're using the Monteli shells, preheat the oven to 420F. If using your usual crust, do whatever you usually do.

Slice the onion thinly, and slowly fry it in butter and/or olive oil until it begins to brown. Add a teaspoon of herbs of Provence, and a teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar and turn off the heat under the onions.


Quarter a bunch of figs (I truly cannot remember how many I used on each pie, but if you're really concerned about the number, you can count them, above) and set aside. Get the feta out of the fridge, but don't crumble it yet, unless you know about how much you'll need.

Get the pizza shells out, and spread half the onions on each one. Then arrange the figs fairly densely on top, and then crumble the feta over them. 

Place the pies directly on the rack. Cook for about 15 minutes, but check frequently to make sure nothing's burning. The ones I made the other night needed 20 minutes.

This is more or less how they should look:

Fresh Fig and Pecan Muffins

These turned out really well. I combined several generic muffin recipes and came up with these ingredients:
  • 2 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4-1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup brown or turbinado sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup plain yoghurt
  • 3/4 cup avocado oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped figs
Mix all the dry ingredients together thoroughly; in a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients (egg through figs) and then add them to the dry slowly, without beating: just enough to incorporate everything. Muffin batter is lumpy by nature, so don't try to make it smooth.

Divide the mixture evenly into twelve muffin cups. It's going to look like a lot, but these don't rise all that much, so you can stuff the cups. Most muffin recipes will tell you to butter the muffin cups if you use them, but I discovered that I had a box of silicone cups that are not only reusable, but they release the muffins beautifully. I sprinkled a little bit of vanilla sugar on each muffin for a little extra flavor burst. A little more brown sugar will work well for that, too.

Bake at 350F for 25 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. These are not terribly sweet, so you can feel really virtuous about eating all that high quality fiber. If you want to enhance the pecan flavor a bit, toast them before you add them to the muffin mixture.


 I still have quite a few figs left over, and will have to either freeze them or use them in something else yummy in the next day or so. I have in mind to try the recipe for Fresh Fig Breakfast Cake from the  Indigo Scones blog, but the results will have to wait.

Image notes: all of the photos are mine, except for the Oplonto fresco, which comes from Wikimedia Commons. The opening shot is a cheap excuse to link this post to Skywatch Friday, which I hope everyone who comes here will visit because the weekly sky photos from around the world are terrific.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Curating One's Life, Part 1

As a result my infrequent, and generally unsuccessful attempts to jumpstart this blog, ideas about potential post topics flit through this old brain like so many bits of paper in a tornado. But I have been thinking lately about the whole process of organizing one's life so that one can, as one ages, make some sense of it. I even got a book for the Kindle app on my iPad to inspire me: Margareta Rasmussen's The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Scribner, 2018). The whole thing is far less morbid than one might expect, and because I'm a natural born snark I love mentioning it to people, and offending their delicate sensibilities.

The truth is, that I'm genetically predisposed to be a gatherer. My mother's name was Hoard, after all, and she lived up to it. And I'm still facing the prospect of going through yet more of her stuff next week as we finally tackle The Great Garage Clean Out. The poor woman has been dead for twenty years and I'm still doing her death cleaning.

Having decided not to put my children through this, I've started tackling small tasks that can help me sort things out in an organized way, and even if my kids don't want to keep my stuff, at least it will be more or less catalogued so that they might be able to fob it off on somebody who actually wants it.

Take my vast collection of past issues of the British Edition of Country Living magazine. My poor husband has been hauling this stash (well, at least the pre-2000 collection; it was mixed in with a complete collection of Martha Stewart Living, until I finally went through those and recycled 90% of the content) every time we've moved since 1988. The first issue I own was bought in London in 1987, and I've been an irregular purchaser ever since. Since 2013 I've subscribed electronically through Zinio, but before then I had amassed 181 issues, including twelve issues of Countryside, an American knockoff that only lasted a couple of years, and to which I subscribed in Chicago until it stopped publication--about four issues after I'd sent in the check.

Now why, you might ask, would an old desert rat, exiled in north Texas, hold such affection for a British shelter magazine when there are more than enough locally relevant publications around here (also available as e-zines these days) to keep any homebody happy. Well there are quite a few, and I subscribe to a number of them, but even those tend to be published in Australia or Canada rather than in the USA, unless they're like Eating Well or holdovers from my hippie days like Mother Earth News and centered on sustainable eating and living.

The thing about Country Living UK, however, is that it has always been focused on stuff I'm a sucker for: rustic design, sustainability, smallholding, countryside, Aga (and other) ranges, Smeg refrigerators, and old creaky houses with personality and a need for TLC.

I once had a dear friend from the Hampshire city of Portsmouth, who thought I was completely bonkers because I had this bizarre (to her) sense of style and taste that meshed far more with the Country Living aesthetic than did her own. She died some years ago, but she would be equally dismayed by my loyalty to the BBC show, "Escape to the Country," watched loyally by the Beloved Spouse and me whenever we can find an episode on YouTube we haven't yet seen.

In my own defense, I have to say that I come by this proclivity genetically. The results of my Ancestry DNA test showed me to be far more British than anything. A smidgen of German and Dutch, but all the rest English, Irish, Scottish and maybe a little Welsh. Even the tad of Scandinavian that showed up in the first go-round (as more data comes in, the picture becomes clearer) has disappeared. (There was a short article in the last update with advice on how to get one's Viking tattoo removed.) And all those Brits mostly went to Canada before they moved south and west, so there's no escaping the Commonwealth.

I'm still trying to locate the origins of some of the ancestors, but have no great urge to find any lost royalty or famous folk. But since they all seem to be from villages rather than cities, I suppose that accounts for my affection for open spaces (although not too heavily treed), and for windy wastes and Thomas Hardy novels.

So today I managed to locate all of the old issues scattered about in bins and cubbies around the house, and have divided them roughly into seasons (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec) and will rotate them in appropriate stacks onto the bottom shelf of the stand next to my comfy chair where I can re-enjoy them seasonally and perhaps get inspired to do something other than pine away for the lochs and firths.

My last post extolled the virtues of curatorial apps, and my adventures on Pinterest have been especially helpful. One reason why we'll never have to haul boxes of magazine clippings around again (aside from the probability that we won't be moving anywhere) is that all the inspiring images I used to collect are now neatly housed on some sixty boards sorted into terribly clever and artful categories, able to be consulted on any whim.

That is, at least, until the EMP hits and I spend the rest of my life regretting having tipped all those interesting, inspiring old articles into the recycle bin during the latest spasm of Death Cleaning.

Image note: All of the Country Living issues during the first sort-through. The cat tried to keep me company on the table, but soon left in disgust, all of the bare spots having been taken up by magazines. Taken on the iPhone.

Monday, December 31, 2018

In Praise of Digital Collection Aids

Almost a year after I promised (yet again) to attend more closely to this blog, and having broken my promise (yet again), I'm back. No promises this time. Just a post.

One reason for not fulfilling promises is the distraction factor presented by other social media. In the last year I've discovered Pinterest, and Pearltrees--about which more later--and have become fairly active on Quora, which allows me to spout. Profusely.

But this post is really about why I've chosen to ignore my misgivings about "sharing" and jump onto a couple of social sites that have turned out to be especially useful and have enabled me to organize stuff more successfully than I've ever been able to before. Online, anyway.

Pearltrees (my account is private, because I don't want to participate in the wider social aspects of the platform; it's also pricey for the features I want) has given me a way to archive interesting articles and information, and to categorize them helpfully for later use. Pocket does something of the same thing, and I do use it as another bookmarkish sort of app, but anything worth keeping for very long goes to Pearltrees.

The real jewel, though, is Pinterest. Those of you who know me, and have heard me spew on about the evils of Facebook and the like, might be surprised at this new development in my digital evolution. Do remember, however, that although I'm a slow adopter, once I find something especially useful (like course web pages and blogging), I'm all in. In addition, Pinterest doesn't overly or incessantly bombard me with ads for crap I'm decidedly not interested in. Instead, it loads me up with nice photos of stuff related to my boards, and makes it easy for me to pick and choose, and edit, and discard when necessary.

I realize that this is a form of virtual hoarding, but at least it doesn't involve material objects (for the most part), and it's really pretty. I love being able to create categories of objects and describe those categories amusingly when necessary. But the ability to collect images of geological structures, maps, food, architecture, plants, and myriad other objects in a way that doesn't require me to be cutting pictures out of magazines incessantly and trying to find ways to make them available when I need them. I'm also astonished that so many contributors are such good photographers, whose photos enrich the visual quality of my boards and provide me no end of entertainment and wonder.

So yes, I do have quite a few boards (58 public and 1 private), with numerous sub-categories; I also follow quite a few people (115) and have a few more followers (273 at last count). The experience has provided me with a number of ideas for posts here. Whether or not any of that comes to fruition depends on how far along I get on other projects, including the Farm. That has suffered almost as much from neglect as the Cabinet has, but for different reasons--including the maintenance of a hand-written reading journal I keep up much more faithfully.

And Quora, on which I get to opine on subjects I actually know something about (mostly food and breastfeeding at this point, with an occasional foray into things archaeological or design-related). They made me a "top writer" in 2018, for which I was offered a subscription to the New York Times (I already subscribe), so there's not much to that except a chance to set people straight on how to avoid wasting food and how to wean babies. I get to follow interesting people who say interesting things about things that interest me. It does take away from writing time, though, even though I've learned quite a bit from the experience. I can't hide behind a screen name, though, and that does tend to temper my bent toward snarkitude. I tried to be "Hoban Washburn" for a while, but got outed and had to stop. I did not, however, realize it was a no-no, so my misdemeanor was unintentional.

And if anyone's wondering, yes, I do have an Instagram account, and one for YouTube, but don't use either. I'm absolutely positive that nobody but my immediate family would be interested in my cat, dog, and backyard wildlife videos, and Instagram doesn't add anything to what Pinterest offers me. But they're there, just in case.

I am spending some time updating the blog roll (which I started to do at the beginning of the year but got distracted), so if you're coming back after an absence, check out some of the goodies on the side bar. And do visit the Pinterest page if you're interested in what interests me these days.

Also, have a great new year. In many ways, it couldn't possibly be as bad as this one has been--but at least it should be interesting.

Note: I apologize for the over-usage of "interest" in its various forms. Although initially unintentional, I started having fun with it--and with the derivation of "P-interest." My beloved daughter, a long-time user, laughed heartily when I initially called it "PIN-ter-est" instead of "PIN-trest." It always does take me a while to catch on.

Photo note: This is the shot of my renovated downstairs bathroom, which I've used as the "cover" photo for my "Bathing Rooms and Water Closets" board on Pinterest.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


That's me, in the photo, hiding amidst the fronds of fennel last summer. I'm pretending to be a Black Swallowtail larvum, cleverly avoiding predators as I munch my way toward transforming into my adult version.

Only I never made it. Nature is often clever, allowing critters to blend in with their backgrounds in order to propagate themselves. For some reason, however, these caterpillars don't hide very well, and I (me, not my caterpillar avatar) watched at least three of them, hopefully, over a couple of weeks. I really wanted to see the process worked out in my very own garden, so as soon as I saw a female Swallowtail hovering over the fennel crop planted specifically for her kind, I'd anxiously await the arrival of a new member of the family.

None of them made it. The local cardinals--which have become something like the tree rats in their ubiquity and obnoxity (not a word, I know)--made quick meals of them when I wasn't looking, and I never saw a single chrysalis develop.

At any rate, I used this photo as a tentative metaphor for what I hope will happen over the next few months. I was feeling terribly guilty about not posting for all these months until I decided to update my blog roll. Hardly any one I used to read all the time is still posting regularly, so now I don't feel so bad.

But I'm trying to mend my ways, and have plans for several small explorations of ephemera that could lead to a more-or-less monthly habit. There are so many things out there worth mentioning, and so many of us who need distracting from current preoccupations, that I'm going to try to get this thing going again.

Unless one of the cardinals, emboldened by the nice weather, decides to have me for lunch. Fortunately for the butterflies, they (unlike the squirrels) haven't started having sex yet, so spring is still a way off, and the caterpillar in this case is only a metaphor.

For the moment, though, I'll be tidying up the blog roll and adding a few things, and collecting miscellanea to add in future posts.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Still Living

Over the last few weeks I've mostly been loafing and contemplating the universe, enjoying The Beloved Spouse's summer holiday and the unusual reasonableness of the weather. Most mornings or late afternoons I can take an hour or so to read in the hammock we've installed in the back yard, a good command post for observing snoozing animals and working through the many stacks of books I've piled here and there with the intention of getting to at last. Trouble is, I accumulate more before I finish the ones I have in process, so the piles aren't getting any shorter. 

We did, however, make time to invite family over for brunch last Sunday, which meant getting the house tidied up, and as I went through the rooms hoovering away I kept noticing how still life compositions turn up everywhere. I'm not really sure how conscious they are, stemming as they do from the desire to put things out that remind me of our lives: rocks, shells, books, tchotchkes, photos, and other bits of memorabilia. The phenomenon is unmistakable, however. An eighteenth-century Dutch painter could make something of these little tableaux.

When I was still teaching, I'd spend a fair amount of time in art history classes pointing out the ubiquity of still lifes among the works of almost any artist one could study. This genre reaches an apex during the Baroque, of course, especially among the Dutch, but it's really everywhere--and everywhen--throughout the history of human creative endeavor. Although denigrated by nineteenth-century art historians as less important or indicative of talent and imagination than history painting, these visual Wunderkammern appear with increasing frequency after Roman mural paintings started filling the walls of villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

Early photographers must have been grateful for the very stillness of the still life because of the long exposure times the  technology initially required, and Louis Daguerre's wonderful studio photos of assorted objects or shelves of fossils mimic the painted compositions of found objects popular among the collectors of the nineteenth century. My favorite examples for students were these:

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Shells and Fossils 1839

Alexandre-Isidore Leroy De Barde, Selection of Shells Arranged on Shelves (before 1828)

A couple of years ago I participated in a MOOC offered by Cal Arts called "Live!: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers." One of my favorite assignments involved creating a "world in a box" and my submission, called This Is Not a Baroque Still Life, looked like this:

Sorry about the quality of the image, but I'm too lazy to take it into Photoshop to make it look prettier. According to my concept statement, "I tried to include items associated with traditional still life compositions, but with anachronistic elements (like the nineteenth-century photo) as well. An emptied bookshelf provided the frame." Had I been more religious about the composition, I'd have made it more three-dimensional by hanging some bits off the edge, but the components were fairly appropriate. Perhaps some day I'll try painting it and bring the process full circle.

To get back to my original notion behind this post, the tendency to create compositions like this seems to be a major aspect of how we embellish our homes. I hesitate to say "decorate," because I'm not sure that the urge to surround ourselves with objects is fundamentally about prettying things up (which what decoration suggests to me)--but rather about memory. The things I stash on surfaces (book cases, sideboards, tables, even windowsills) are things that remind me of people and places I have loved. They're not all just visual, either. When I picked up a bowl of desert holly this morning (I needed its normal resting place yesterday to hold brunchy things and had stashed it atop the china cabinet), its scent immediately took me back to Owens Valley, where I'd (probably illegally) picked it to bring back to Texas.

The increasingly sophisticated photo apps on smart phones is making it possible to record my little domestic museums, and to play with them in various ways. I'm amused that what I'm doing with my iPhone camera these days is something like what I had my students do in my History of Art and Design classes many years ago. The original assignment was for them to photograph a still life we composed in class (using a digital camera that recorded the image on a 3.5" floppy disc!) and then to manipulate it in Photoshop to make it look like the work of a particular artist or designer. I still have several of these stashed away, and perhaps some day I'll resurrect them and feature a collection of student work on the Cabinet. But here's what a simple app (probably Old Photo Pro or Vintique) did to a shot of one of my window sill collections:

I'm not sure why I don't have the original orientation in my library any more, but the idea's still evident (and including the spiderwebs was intentional). The objects all hold a bit of meaning: a dried gourd from an early garden at this house, an old clay pipe from my misspent youth, a Kokeshi doll (part of a collection from my childhood years in Japan), a ceramic cat that belonged to my mother, and an incense dish with little lead figures (a hut, a crab, a boat) designed for use with bonsai arrangements. It occurs to me only now that the background actually records a version of our north yard that no longer exists--the ladder having since almost disintegrated and been moved to behind the garage, and the pots on the fence having been broken by some large feral intruder only a few days ago. The objects have been placed more or less randomly and are occasionally cycled in and out of the grouping, as is the custom in Japan. A display (although I hesitate to call this sort of randomness a real "display") in a Japanese tokonoma is thoughtfully and purposefully arranged to set a mood or to show off a prized group of possessions, usually fewer than what I typically include in my more accidental collections.

Creating still life compositions seems to be an innate tendency in people all over the world, and perhaps this activity reflects fundamental cultural needs--for memory, reflection, contemplation, or even ostentation: personal Wunderkammern archiving moments in individual lives. I wish I had noticed this before I stopped teaching, because I probably could have gotten more mileage out of the concept had I realized how fundamental the idea of composing personal items into meaningful assemblages is to our creative lives.

Image credits: The Daguerre and Leroy de Barde works are included via Wikimedia Commons. The rest are my own.