Saturday, September 17, 2016

Shine on Harvest Moon

© 2016 Christy K Robinson

William Dyer, in addition to being the first Attorney General in America, a haberdasher and shipping investor, a cofounder of Newport, Rhode Island, a militia captain, surveyor, admiralty court judge, and Commander-in-Chief-Upon-the-Seas, was a farmer. He was the son of a farmer in Lincolnshire, and his sons were farmers and husbandmen (animal breeders).

Mary Dyer, his wife, would have been occupied during the years for which we have no record, with managing their household and farm, and probably their financial accounting (as other women were known to do). She witnessed a property transfer, and she had a well-practiced hand at cursive and italic writing, so she might have carried on business correspondence or matters relating to the Dyers’ enterprises.

In household inventories taken for probate in England and New England, the books that many people owned were a family Bible (the Geneva Bible was preferred by Puritans) and an “herball.” The herbal book identified edible and medicinal plants and gave recipes for preparing them as remedies for injury and illness.

Early Acadia (Maine and eastern
Canada), by Claude Picard,
mid-17th century
Our New England ancestors had large home lots, sometimes two or three acres even in the towns, in order to plant gardens and orchards to supply the needs of their large households of children and servants. Many also held tracts of land in forest, marsh, and meadow, to provide for their sustenance, building materials, hunting, and crops.

To judge by the woodcut images of the 16th and 17th centuries, the home gardens were often planted in raised beds with walkways between them, something we’ve noticed making a comeback in cities where backyard gardeners cultivate tomatoes and salsa or salad veggies.

They had fruit and nut orchards, blackberry brambles, the raised beds for cultivated vegetables and legumes, and even shelves with round pots for herbs, as I saw in a woodcut. The formal gardens were laid out not only for ornamental delight, but to facilitate irrigation in droughts. The gardeners preferred fences made of wood, stone, and hedge, but not of earth because it held excess water to drown or mildew the plants.

Wheat, rye, barley and Indian corn, squash, melons, beans, peas, and other crops were grown in the larger fields. We’ve often heard that potatoes didn’t come on the scene for another century or two, but letters from the 1630s indicate that John Winthrop Jr., in Connecticut, had a plentiful supply of Virginia potatoes, shipped in from Bermuda, and one of his correspondents who lived in Saybrook, on Long Island Sound, grew potatoes.

Gov. John Winthrop Sr. journaled on March 8, 1636 that the ship Rebecka, coming from Bermuda, brought a great store of oranges and limes (which prevented and cured scurvy in the winter), and "thirty thousand weight of potatoes... Potatoes were bought there for two shillings and eight pence the bushel, and sold here for two pence the pound." A skilled carpenter earned about 3 shillings (36 pence) for a 12-hour day's work, or about 3 pence per hour. If you figure a Boston base wage in 2013 of, say, $43 per hour, that's expensive for potatoes--about $13 per pound. We can extract from that "two pence the pound" that food was scarce and expensive in late winter, when last summer's crops were nearly used up and the first fruits and vegetables wouldn't be ready for four or five months. This is the time when Rev. Hugh Peter was organizing the fishing industry and sending the salt fish to New England towns rather than to Africa or the Caribbean plantations.

One cash crop New Englanders planted that we usually connect with the American South is tobacco. But tobacco quickly robbed the soil of nutrients, and subsequent food crops failed, so famine was rampant. Combined with Little Ice Age late frosts, wet springs, and summer droughts, the meager fields weren’t always sufficient to feed families for a year. In early Newport, food supplies were inventoried household by household, and grain rations were redistributed in the lean winter months so no one would starve.

Wampanoag garden at Plimoth Plantation, July 2016.
When the Plymouth colonists were planting their first crops in 1621, they were doing so in poor, sandy soil. The native Wamapanoags taught them what to plant and how to plant most effectively, and to “manure” (as the English called it) the seed hills with decomposing fish. The decomposition process both fertilized the soil and warmed it, a desirable outcome in the Little Ice Age. The “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, were planted together so that the bean vines climbed the corn stalks and returned nitrogen to the soil. 

Some New England colonists’ food was foraged in forest and field: groundnuts and purslane (the latter is a common weed rich in omega fatty acids), wild berries, grapes, tree nuts, and other plants. Though purslane was popular as a salad ingredient in Europe, Native Americans considered it an inedible weed.

They ate bears?
In addition to domestic animals and seafood, colonists ate wild game and fowl. William Dyer was sent with other men to trade goods with the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians, for their venison. That was considered a more efficient way of obtaining venison than hunting, because of the risk of injury, getting lost in the forests, or musket accidents. They also ate animals that make us shudder in horror: squirrel, muskrat, raccoon, bear, and other creatures. (My northern Minnesota grandparents and their siblings ate bear, walleye pike, and venison during the Great Depression and World War II, to supplement their ration card foods.)

Back in Olde England, unless they were gentry, their diets had been mostly vegetarian with a bit of rabbit or chicken, or possibly fish for special occasions. Beef, venison, pork, and turkey were for the privileged class. Peas and beans were their staple diet, and "pease porridge in the pot nine days old" wasn't just a nursery rhyme--it was every meal for the common man. Dried peas were also a staple for ships' passengers and crew.

But in America, that was turned on its head. “Flesh” foods saved their lives when crops repeatedly failed. Giant lobsters caught off Maine and Massachusetts were disdained as food for servants, slaves, and dogs. In the late 1630s and 1640s, it was forbidden to butcher sheep or lambs for meat because they were still scarce, the colony needed to develop the wool industry, and they weren’t getting textiles from England during its civil wars. But they slaughtered wildlife by thousands and millions, according to William Wood's 1634 book, New-Englands Prospect.

Although I’ve seen second-hand references to almanacs that taught when to plant and harvest, by the phase of the moon, or the equinox or solstice, it’s been more difficult to find primary sources of that information, perhaps because modern agricultural practices are based on observed science and not religion-based (including pagan) views of astrology. See the examples from 17th-century herbal encyclopedias that I’ve reproduced at the end of this article.

Some lore suggests that the moon phases affecting bodies of water also affect animals and plants. Humans are more than 75 percent water-based, and our words lunatic and loony derive from centuries-old beliefs that erratic or insane behavior is heightened at the full or new moon because of our water content. From time immemorial, women have measured their menstrual cycles and fertility by the 28-day moon phases.

Traditional beliefs were that during a waxing (increasing) moon, it was the perfect time to plant seeds, and sow fields; but during the waning period beginning at the full moon, it was time for harvest, pruning, weeding, and drying of herbs or garden produce.

There are names assigned to the full moon in every month of the year, but the Harvest Moon is the full moon nearest the autumn equinox. It’s named so because the Harvest Moon occurs at the climax of the harvest season, so farmers can work late into the night by the moon's light.
Illustration from Gerard's Herball, 1633.
Click to enlarge.

There are also traditions about planting certain crops or garden foods in the winter or spring, by the moon phases. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, and other root plants that produce below the ground were planted during new moon because of the lower ground moisture that increased with the waxing of the moon and its tides.

Following are excerpts from some of the 17th-century herbal encyclopedias available online.

A new orchard and garden:
or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good, for a rich orchard: particularly in the North and generally for the whole kingdom of England. With The country housewifes garden for herbes of common use, as also the husbandry of bees, all being the experience of 48. yeeres labour, and now the third time corrected and much enlarged
by William Lawson, 1618

“Garden flowers shall suffer some disgrace, if among them you intermingle Onions, Parsnips, &c.”

Of gathering and keeping Fruit.
Although it be an easie matter, when God shall send it, to gather and keepe fruit, yet are they  certaine things worthy your regard. You must gather your fruit when it is ripe, and not before, else will it wither and be tough and sower. All fruit generally are ripe, when they begin to fall. For Trees Doe as all other bearers Doe, when their yong ones are ripe, they will waine [wean] them. The Dove her pigeons, the Cony her Rabbets, and women their children. Some fruit tree sometimes getting a taint in the setting with a frost or evill winde, will cast his fruit untimely, but not before he leave giving them sap, or they leave growing. Except from this foresaid rule, Cherries, Damsons, and Bullies. The Cherry is ripe when he is swelled wholly red, and sweet: Damsons and Bullies not before the first frost. Apples are knowne to be ripe, partly by their colour, growing towards a yellow, except the Leather-coat and some peares and Greenings.
Timely summer fruit will be ready, some at Midsummer, most at Lammas [Aug. 2] for present Use; but generally no keeping fruit before Michaeltide [Sept. 29]. Ward Winter fruit and Wardens longer. Gather at the full of the Moone for keeping, gather Dry, for feare of rotting. Gather the stalkes withall: for a little wound in fruit, is deadly; but Not the stumpe, that must bear the next fruit, nor leaves, for moisture putrifies.  

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Culpeper’s complete herbal:
consisting of a comprehensive description of nearly all herbs with their medicinal properties and directions for compounding the medicines extracted from them
By Nicholas Culpeper, physician (1616-1654)

ADDER'S TONGUE—(Ophiogloetum Vulgatum.)
Descrip,—This herb hath but one leaf, which grows with the stalk a finger's length above the ground, being flat and of a fresh green colour; broad like water plantain, but less, without any rib in it; from the bottom of which leaf on the inside riseth up, ordinarily, one, sometimes two or three slender stalks, the upper part whereof is somewhat bigger, and dented with small dents of a yellowish green colour, like the tongue of an adder serpent, (only this is as useful as they are formidable). The roots continue all the year.
Place,—It grows in moist meadows, and in such like moist places.
Times,—It is to be found in May or April, for it quickly perisheth with a little heat.
Movement and Virtues,—It is an herb under the dominion of the Moon and Cancer, and therefore, if the weakness of the retentive faculty be caused by an evil influence in any part of the body governed by the moon, or under the dominion of Cancer, this herb cures it by sympathy. It cures these diseases after specified, in any part of the body under the influence of Saturn, by antipathy. It is temperate in respect of heat, but dry in the second degree. The juice of the leaves drank with the distilled water of horse-tail, is a singular remedy of all manner of wounds in the breasts, bowels, or other parts of the body, and is given with good success unto those that are troubled with casting, vomiting, or bleeding at the mouth and nose, or otherwards downwards. The said juice given in the distilled water of oaken buds, is very good for women who have their usual courses, or whites flowing down too abundantly. It helps sore eyes. Of the leaves infused or boiled in oil, omphacine, or unripe olives, set in the sun for certain days, or the green leaves sufficiently boiled in the said oil, is made an excellent green balsam, not only for green and fresh wounds, but also for old and inveterate ulcers, especially if a little fine clear turpentine be dissolved therein. It also stayeth and refresheth all inflammations that arise upon pains by hurts and wounds

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Other books on 17th-century herbs, fruits, and vegetables:
The English Housewife, by Gervase Markham
The English Husbandman, by Gervase Markham
Early American Gardens: For Meate or Medicine, by Ann Leighton

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Christy K Robinson is the author of five books and two history sites, three of the books revolving around the titans of New England. Click their titles to read the five-star reviews and purchase the paperback or Kindle editions.

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