April 08, 2020

Life in the woods good to octogenarian > Modern ‘conveniences’ have no place in daily life for Vermont’s Tasha Tudor

TASHA TUDOR’S HEIRLOOM CRAFTS, by Tovah Martin, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 2000, 160 pages, $25.

For anyone who ever has dreamed of a simpler, more basic life – of chucking everything and moving into the woods – “Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts” is as much about that lifestyle as it is about creating.

Living in the style of the 1830s, the legendary Tasha – more than 90 books have either been written or illustrated by her, or have been written about her – crosses the boundaries of time as she dips candles, spins flax, makes soap and presses cider.

The reader is invited into Tasha’s Vermont homestead, which is filled with American antiques and collectibles, an integral part of her 19th century lifestyle. Through the words of Connecticut author Tovah Martin and the photographs of Richard W. Brown of Vermont, 85-year-old Tasha takes the reader on a journey back in time, using only original tools and almost-forgotten techniques as she creates in pioneer fashion.

There are photographs on every page, some created to illustrate the craft described; others to show the depth and meaning of Tasha’s rich, close-to-nature life. Each chapter begins with an original piece of her watercolor artwork, especially created for the book.

For those who don’t recognize the spritely, slightly bent woman with the soft silver bun and the gnarled wrinkled hands, dressed in long skirts and an ever-present shawl, her work is immediately recognizable. While many of Tasha’s book illustrations are intended for children – “The Secret Garden,” “The Little Princess” – they have found a welcome audience among adults.

Living in a hand-hewn house, Corgi Cottage, Tasha still practices age-old techniques. Her industriousness, ingenuity and artistic achievement are awesome.

“I enjoy making things,” she told author Martin, who attributes much of Tasha’s handiness to Yankee ingenuity. “If a varmint runs off with a guinea hen in the night, she gathers the telltale feathers and sews them into toys,” writes Martin.

Tasha creates handmade wonders that reflect her 19th century ways, carefully explaining the process along the way. “Tasha’s hands are never idle, and she has an obvious aversion to sitting still,” Martin says.

But it is Tasha’s philosophy of life that allows readers a glimpse of her true spirit.

“Tasha never truly left childhood and all its winged dreams behind,” Martin wrote. “If you try to discover the source of her fountain of youth, she calmly explains that her imagination never faded.”

In contrast, in a chapter on sewing, a Yankee thriftiness is clear:

“Few tasks provide Tasha with greater pleasure than giving a tattered garment a new lease on life. ‘Look at this,’ she says proudly while lifting her skirts ever so slightly. ‘I’ve darned all my wool stockings, and they’ll now serve me several more winters.”‘

A sequel to an earlier publication, “Tasha Tudor’s Garden,” the book centers on Tasha’s primitive lifestyle: raising goats and poultry for milk and food, harvesting wood for heat, and weaving cloth for garments. As she struggles against cold New England winters and unpredictable summers, the artisan remains calm, practicing age-old crafts with ease.

Each of the seven chapters is dedicated to a specific aspect of Tasha’s country life, ranging from herb gathering and use to the creation of marionettes and other handmade toys.

Nowhere in Tasha’s home is her dedication to staying true to the ways of the past more evident than in her kitchen, which contains no food processors, toasters or microwaves. “Tasha has a few choice words to say about all of these electric gadgets,” said Martin. “Instead, she keeps a complete inventory of antique cooking utensils close at hand – beaters, sifters, churns, spoons, ladles, molds – as well as tins, crocks and jars. Dangling overhead is a healthy complement of useful herbs, tied in bunches.”

Aside from being obviously staged, the book’s photographs by Brown are crisp and beautiful. They provide a peek into Tasha’s mountainside retreat and her simplistic, back-to-the-land way of life, showing the reader everything from the construction of the barn to the sewing of buttons.

The book is a lovely journey into the past, and the reader comes away with an appreciation for the term “handmade” while at the same time feeling exhausted by Tasha’s determination to remain true to “the old ways.” It is clear that shearing her sheep, milking her goats and canning the bounty from her garden are not hobbies for Tasha – they are her style of life.

“Everything in Tasha’s life has a purpose,” wrote Martin. “Everything earns its keep. The goats, the gardens, the wooden snow shovel, the chickens that strut about. All the parts of Tasha’s life work comfortably together.”

Anyone reading “Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts” will learn much more about Tasha and her life philosophy than they will about crafts, but the journey is delightful. Tasha is everyone’s grandmother, baking bread and cookies, mending a torn hem and creating a home that allows an escape – even if it is just in the imagination – from the 21st century.

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