Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Commentary on Imagination

The Bonnie White Hare bounds the open fields "where Imagination Weds the Past."  Anything I write or create with my hands melds facts and knowledge with my own imagination.  I may write a poem to accompany a piece I've made...or I may breathe new life into folklore as old as the hills.  But I find that when I allow my imagination full reign, new life is breathed into me!  As a child I had a vivid imagination...I could play for hours by myself, creating worlds known only to me.  The giant white rock riddled with weathered holes lying in the alley behind our house became my fairy kingdom.  Some days I was a girl pirate a-sail on the vast oceans, always looking for the next world.  And yes, I had an imaginary friend or two...

I love to watch little children at play.  They become immersed in their imaginary worlds.  So often, when adulthood enters, that ability is lost to life's cares and realities...instead, it reveals itself through the art, visual arts, music.  Perhaps that explains why these things are so revered in the grownup world.

For Emily Bronte, Imagination was an escape from a painful emotional existence.  When the cares of the world weighed heavily on her, she depended on her imagination to lift her up.  She wrote in her poem "To Imagination,"

"But thou art ever there, to bring
The hovering vision back, and breathe
New glories o'er the blighted spring
And call lovelier Life from Death.
And whisper, with a voice divine
Of real worlds, as bright as thine."

And Albert Einstein knew the importance of Imagination, writing,

"Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

And Ray Bradbury, while recognizing the importance of knowledge, places Imagination above it:

"Knowledge is important.  But if you don't have an imagination to use the knowledge, civilization is nowhere."

Never fear knowledge...and never fear imagination.  Right now I am dreaming up and piecing together in my imagination a Woolen Sea Witch who can tie up the wind in knots!  Go figure.

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Upon Opening Goody Prymm's Past: What the Past Teaches

Remember sat spellbound, her slender hand holding Goody Prymm's first account of making her way to the New World.  She was beginning to understand the depths of Goody Prymm's knowledge and experience.  Placing the first page gently aside, there was no turning back now, and she settled in and leaned against the old cupboard to read the next account...

                                                                                                   May 25, 1627

I cannot look ahead without looking back. The past, though sometimes painful, is a part of us and must teach us, and we would be wise to hearken its lessons.  Samuel and I are headed to the New Land together, though for different reasons entirely...he is running to, while I am running from; he for business ventures and profitable gain, and I to escape the tyranny.  Tansy was no witch, though she was hanged for one.  She was my beloved sister.

My grandmother was a wisewoman, one of the cunning folk of our area of Lancashire.  I grew up with her healing concealed up in our chimney to keep away malevolent forces...I well remember the hexafoils she scratched next to our windows...and the hag-stone tied to the door with red yarn for protection.  The corn dollies at harvest time, amulets said to promise good crops the next year, and the blue glass beads to be worn to heal lung infections, were all truths in our child eyes---after all, they were our grandmother's truths.  Our mother was a healer too, and though she honored our grandmother, she did not practice in the same ways.  Like most of the people of Pendle who were still faithful to Roman Catholic ways, their Masses held in secret, my mother's healing ways were in offerings at holy wells, pilgrimages, and praying to the saints...our Holy Mother in particular.

They both grew herbs and made their medicine from the plants they harvested.  And this, this was the sticking point...these things, which had long been accepted, came to be viewed as "daemonologie," and we were now deemed religious nonconformists...and ultimately a threat to the Crown.  A simple old woman bearing the deep wrinkles of wisdom and a gobber tooth---a spindle in her hand---was now become a witch, and the Old Catholic Ways now akin to witchery.  It was Fear and Ignorance hanged my Tansy in the woods that day, and I'll not forget it.  Samuel has warned me that there will be Puritans where we go, and so I've determined to start anew.  I will be a healer, but different from my mother and grandmother, my healing coming only from the plants I will grow...and I will watch my tongue, most assuredly.

Thankfully, our journey has been smooth these past few weeks.  Sometimes late in the night I creep up on deck and secretly breathe in the fresh salt air and gaze at the stars, our tiny guiding lights.  I've heard talk that we are close to our destination...a place they call Salem.  My hope lies in tomorrow's sunrise...leaving fear and ignorance behind, and welcoming a New World.

                                                                       Imagination Prymm

Carefully placing the page with the one previously read, Remember sat quietly and reverently, reflecting on the old woman she had come to love so much.

***With a nod to "The Witch Trial That Made Legal History," by Frances Cronin, BBC News, 17 August 2011; and Touching Magic, by Ian Joseph Evans, Doctor of Philosophy and History, October 2010.

© 2017 Nancy Duncan


Friday, April 21, 2017

Healing Gardens: A Two-Sided Pillow

Goody Prymm---midwife and healer--- inspired me to make this little pillow.  Measuring 14" x 8 1/2",  I call it "Healing Gardens," as it portrays two entirely different scenes, each with healing plants:  a moonlight herb garden and a sunlit flower garden.  The Nighttime Garden side is mostly embroidery, using vintage wool and white linen threads.  It features a magnificent full moon of creamy white wool, the great lady looking over this garden of sage, rosemary, rose, garlic and hemlock.  I chose soft and dreamy colors to contrast the background of black wool, with stripes of muted undertones.

Flip the pillow over!  The Daytime Garden side awakens to much more action, as it features an ancient sun with cosmic spirals of energy flaring out to heat and give light to the flowers in this garden:  daisy, echinacea, and sunflower!  This side is primarily appliqué, with accents of embroidery, which gives it a more naive look.  Its colors are primarily bold and bright, placed against a background of rich gold wool.  The purple coneflowers seem to be reaching out to one another, while a busy bumble bee is making his way to the giant sunflower.

Here, a closeup of the little bumble bee...rather, a suggestion of one.  I wanted him tiny...but we all know how important the bees are, don't we!

I chose to stuff this pillow with fresh straw.  I like the stiffness of the finished piece, which makes a delightful crackle when held.  All natural...

  A wonderful way to bring in the merry, merry month of May, don't you think?

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Upon Opening Goody Prymm's Past: The Journey Begins

Goody Prymm had gone to the village to tend to some tasks, she said, and would be gone most of the day.  Remember was to stay behind and take care of fixing the evening's meal and completing a few other chores needing done.  Having already prepared the pottage which was now bubbling cheerfully in the kettle, and having folded their clothes, which had been washed yesterday using their lye soap and dried in the fresh spring air, Remember was now free of duties for a while.   It was a rare day indeed that Remember had the house to fact, it was the only day she recalled having ever been left alone and in charge.  She loved Goody Prymm so, but it felt somewhat freeing to be here...independent...and feeling that, she wandered into the lean-to and marveled at all the medicinal preparations which by now had grown quite low, but she knew that the gardens were beginning to burgeon, and soon the supplies would be refurbished, only this time, Remember would be her helpmeet.

Walking back into the main hall, her dark eyes lit, as they had so many times afore, on the great oak carved desk box situated on top of Goody Prymm's ancient cupboard.  Her curiosity as great as her dear Smoke's, she fetched a chair and gingerly took the box down, its being quite heavy.  It was dark oak and grandly carved on all sides with stars and crescents and wheels and the like, and hinged with H-shaped hinges, the corners dovetailed.  Remember knew this was one of Goody Prymm's treasures brought from the old country, which only added to its mystique.  There was a small key already in the lock, inviting to be turned and, casting her eyes around at no one, Remember accommodated, Smoke mewing encouragingly, and gently opened the lid.  A wonderful musty smell arose from its wooden interior.  Inside was a quill pen, no doubt fashioned from the molted flight feather of a turkey.  And there was blank paper...very old...most likely from England and transported here, as there were no paper mills in Ipswich.  A small pewter inkwell held the residue of homemade ink from long ago, and Remember recalled Goody Prymm's speaking of having made oak gall ink and writing on linen she had woven for pages, the same linen Remember had chosen for a sampler. Why had Goody Prymm not used this paper, she wondered...

And then, underneath the blank and somewhat brittle pages, Remember found yet other pages, neatly bound in hemp twine...pages on which Goody Prymm had indeed written, the ink having darkened over time.  Did she dare undo the twine?  She felt as though she were invading a secret space in Goody Prymm's mind.  But youth being impulsive, that thought was soon cast aside, the temptation too keen, and her curiosity too dear to refuse.  Her slim fingers lightly pulled the loose end and opened to Goody Prymm's thoughts.

The first page read thusly:

                                                                                               May 1627

It has been two months since we set sail from Weymouth on the Spirit.  Samuel had prepared us well for our journey to the New Land, which he says will take us months to reach.  But did he know what it would be like?  I wonder.  His ambition, while admirable, frightens me sometimes, as I think it overtakes him.  There is constant sickness in the hold, both from the unhealthy conditions as well as the ship's pitching and rolling, the recent storm having torn the sails of our small merchant ship.  Winds on the ocean, I've discovered, can be both friend and foe.  If too strong, they can wreck our vessel, shattering masts and opening seams in the hull.  If not strong enough, they can leave us to rations and possible starvation.  And what of pirates and privateers?  We have no cabins but resort to our piled up baggage having become our only living space.  My single comfort is in knowing that I have my two wheels, Samuel having paid well for that luxury, my refusing to come otherwise.  My spinning wheels are my most important link to my mother and grandmother.  I miss them so...and oh! how I mourn my Tansy's tragic end!  Would that we could return to the carefree days when we two ran through the woods of Lancashire, free as crows on the wing!  To think such darkly sweet thoughts serves no good, though, and so I turn away from them and concentrate on now and the future.  Our fellow passengers have brought stones for peaches, plums, cherries...kernells of pear, apple and quince...seeds of woad, hemp, flax and madder...roots of potatoes...wheat, rye, oats, beans, and peas to plant.  In my desk box here I too have stored my own seeds and roots for our new world, our new life.  Seeds are hope, after all.

My lids grow heavy as does my heart...perhaps our ship's name is a good omen, for we all need the proper spirit to make this journey...

                                                                                                              Imagination Atwell Prymm
                                                                                                                  Age 18
Remember allowed Goody Prymm's words to sink deep into her heart, and she wondered how she ever could have thought that being left here alone today was independence...

***With a nod to Robert C. Ritchie's "Perils of the Ocean in the Early Modern Era," from History Now:  The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute; and Anne Stevens' research, from

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Prelude and Preference to the Modern Laptop

I'm a writer.  Although I have only had a very few published articles (and those in somewhat esoteric publications), still I write nearly every day.  My current focus is my Goody Prymm blog series, which I hope to have published in the next few years.  So, yes, I am a writer...and a lover of history and its artifacts, so I suppose it's not unusual for me to take up an interest in writing tools of the past.

I've been reading a lot about the Bronte sisters lately.  And although I taught Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre for years, I've suddenly taken a keen interest in Emily Bronte in particular.  Best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights,  Emily remains elusive to historians, as she was quite the solitary person.  I like that.  I am like that in many ways (though Emily would most likely never have a blog!)..and I am most enthralled by her poetry.

In Deborah Lutz's The Bronte Cabinet, she reveals the biographies of the three sisters---Charlotte, Emily, and Anne---through nine objects of theirs, one being their slope desks.  This captivated me, knowing that, upon these portable desks, some of the world's greatest literature was born!  I began researching the history of slope desks, finding that they go back hundreds of years, even used on the battlefields.  Well!  I needed to have one of my own!  I recently purchased this little slope desk, believed to be ca. 1900 to 1909.  It was purchased in Pennsylvania as an American antique by the seller's mother back in the 60s.  She is now 96.  It is made of genuine mahogany (typical of slope desks), the bottom being pine.
What charmed me most was the little brass heart escutcheon for the keyhole... <3

When folded out, the desk could be placed in the lap whilst traveling or simply placed on a table, much like today's laptop.  In the 1800s it was all the rave.  Sometimes the desktop surface was leather, but most times in the Victorian era, it was a type of material such as velvet or baize (like on billiards tables).  Mine is green baize.  At the top end is a tray for desk supplies, and little wood separators which could be removed if desired.

At the other end is a latch and, when opened, reveals a place for writing paper and whatever the owner desires to keep there.  So far I keep an antique photograph of two sisters and a lock of my (startlingly!) greying hair tied with a slip of antique Victorian lace.
I was informed by a locksmith that the hole to the right of the latch once held a metal pin which would have been a part of the lock (most likely a ward lock).  I wanted a key made, but as this was the case, my little slope desk would need further restoration, and I prefer my antiques stay as they is a part of their history.  Opening up the other side is yet another section for objects.


The entire storage tray can be fact, the locksmith said, "Do you know that it has a false bottom?"  I told him I had suspected that, but was proven wrong as my hand can slide under there.  I believe it just made more room for paper.  But that's what's so intriguing about antiques...mysteries abound!  So what else do I keep in my writer's slope desk?  So far, I have a traveling ink well, an 1800s silver nib pen, a vintage dip pen nib wipe, and a small magnifying glass (who knows...maybe I'll create a teeny tiny book just like the Brontes!).

The pen actually came from a mid-Victorian era traveling embroidery kit that I inherited.  In my research I discovered it is a prized collectable, marked S Mordan & Co Makers, which made these high-end solid silver dip pens from 1845 to the 1860s.  I figured it belonged here more than in the little traveling kit...but I will return it to its rightful place when I buy another antique dip/nib pen.  You can see how it is so portable!

The traveling ink well is just so darned clever.  Made of brass, it holds a glass well (which still has ink residue) which can be removed.  It is only a few inches in size....perfect for traveling.

Finally, I found a dip pen nib wipe in the shape of a little leather book!  There are leather "pages" inside through which the writer can slide the tip of her pen to keep things neat.  It is only 1 1/2".

The portable magnifying glass has a small ring for a chain so that it can be worn around the neck...and was typically used to examine stitching closely.  Charlotte had one in her slope desk...:)

I've said before that I am not really of this world...I much prefer a beautiful, simple antique slope desk filled with all manner of both practical and pleasurable objects over the modern laptop.  Why, just yesterday I entertained the idea of creating my own oak gall ink...and writing the very first page of A Year and a Day in the Life of Goody Prymm using all of these writer's tools...

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Wordsworth was right.

The World is too much with us...

In the early daylight hours, my once-quiet world becomes   racked, yet again, with the Noise of men's machines.
Trucks, electric saws, mowers, and leaf blowers unite to produce one, huge, truculent Cacophony,
A continual assault to my ears.
And the building!  It seems never to cease!

So I grab my walking poles and set out on a long excursion     by the lake.
There, I slow.  There, I can feel the morning breeze breathe...and I with it.
Discern the soft and tranquil twitter of the wild birds as they build their nests,
A building that is serene...akin to the earth, and most pleasing to my senses.

My pedestrianism is a rebellion, and in some ways like that of Emily Bronte
(For a woman to go walking in her time, especially alone, was considered defiant and odd).
But for Emily, to walk the moors in solitude was freedom from constraints, and a prayer.
Mine lies in the defiance of unadulterated, manmade noise.

So I go to hear the flowers bloom.

I go to imagine, as I walk, the soft sound of an animal's footpad in the woods.
I go to drink in the lapping of the water against the lake's shoreline,
And gather in my mind the grasses as they softly swish in the wind.
Yes, I go.

At night, my world is different.
I lie in bed quietly reading,
My window open to the muffled undertones of the owl's trill in the woods.
And, putting aside my book, I close my eyes, still sustained by my morning's walk,
And breathe in the Eyes of the Night.

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Rendering

The weather was promising...and so, with the advent of spring would come spring cleaning.  All would be scrubbed, swept, and washed...and to do that they needed soap.  When Imagination and Samuel had come over the ocean they had brought with them several firkins of soap, but soon they needed to make their own, which was not difficult as the New Land had everything they needed to do so.  Every year after, then, come spring, Goody Prymm would make her batch of lye soap, and this year she would teach young Remember the way.  The ocean's tide and the phases of the moon were traditionally taken into account in the making of soap, but of course Goody Prymm didn't always follow the book, often relying on her own extensive experience and oftentimes her deep intuition.  Although it was preferable to "put in" after a full moon as it waned and then withdraw it right after a new moon as it waxed, this process, she had learned, took far too long and didn't prove necessary for success.  Therefore, she decreed that they would begin while the full moon had begun to wane, but then continue until their soap was made.  And, as the making of lye soap took place outside in the dooryard garden area, the light of the waning moon, along with a large fire kept going for some time, would aid them in their pursuit.  All was in readiness, as Imagination and Remember had saved the ashes from their winter fires and the waste cooking greases and fats accumulated from their meals needed to make their soap.

Outside in a back corner of the garden along the path they had packed down firmly with dirt and seashells, sat a stone slab with a groove carved in it, resting on a pile of rocks.  Goody Prymm and Remember brought out several kettles and a bottomless barrel, along with straw and small sticks.  Placing the barrel on the stone, they then laid a layer of straw and sticks in the barrel, putting the ashes on top.  Next Goody Prymm instructed Remember to pour water slowly, slowly, over the ashes, causing a brownish liquid to ooze out the bottom of the barrel.  This was the solution of potash lye, which was gradually collected as it flowed into the stone's groove and dripped into a clay pot.

Earlier in the day, Remember and Imagination had prepared a large fire which would be used in the rendering of the fats, the most unpleasant part of the task, as cleaning the fats and greases of impurities, quite frankly, stunk.  They put the greases into a large kettle and added an equal amount of water, which they boiled until the fats melted, Remember pinching her nose and making such a frightful face as to get Goody Prymm chuckling.  They then added more water, the same amount as before, which they would allow to cool overnight.  Now they could just sit outside in the moonlight among their newly planted gardens and enjoy the cool spring night air.  Their conversations drifted softly in and out like small waves tickling the shoreline as they shared their thoughts and dreams and memories, Remember stroking her little Smoke as she lay purring happily in her lap.  After a  considerable lapse in discourse, Remember seemingly melted down and blurted out to Goody Prymm that she knew she would have to return home in the early summer, as she would have completed her sentence by then, a sentence meant for punishment but which turned out to be her greatest blessing...and she didn't want to go home!  This was her home, she insisted, and she wished she could stay here with Goody Prymm forever!  Truth be told, olde Imagination confessed, she felt the same, as she had come to love the young girl as though she were her own.  Perhaps Goody Prymm could see to it that she stayed.  With that, Remember sighed happily and deeply, and leaned back to gaze up at the millions and millions of stars that looked for all the world like diamonds that had been cast like seeds in a field of black velvet.  And settling back for their nighttime vigil, they took turns, as they always did, tending the fire and catching brief winks.

At the sun's golden rising, they stretched and went to check on their kettle, finding that the fats had indeed solidified as Imagination had expected and had floated to the top, creating a layer of clean fat.  They placed this fat in yet another large kettle, adding the lye solution, which they would boil.  And then Goody Prymm did an odd thing, something that seemed akin to a spell from her great book hidden in the cupboard.  She sent Remember to fetch a potato, which she placed in the liquid, stating that they would boil the solution until only a small portion of the potato was above the surface, an indication of the proper strength needed for the soap.  When at last the potato met its mark, they continued to boil the mixture until it rose into a frothy thickness, this taking another six hours!  Finally, when they suspected enough time had passed, they each tasted it to see if it had lost its "bite," an indication that the soap was ready.  And so it was.  Exhausted from hours of mixing and boiling and bubbling and tending fires, it was gratifying to pour the soft slippery soap into a barrel, which would eventually be ladled out with a wooden dipper for their cleaning.

The small black shadow first halting and then darting ahead of them, it was now time to put out the fire and spruce up the garden area before going inside where they would heat their pottage and prepare their herbal tea...and settle into their stitching and treasured companionship.

***With a nod to "Colonial Soap Making-Its History and Techniques," by Marietta Ellis

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Where Is Goody Prymm?

Why, a little bird told me that she and Remember are gathering what they need to make lye soap out in the dooryard gardens.  They're waiting for the spring rains to pass!   Coming soon....