Photo credit: Kirke Bent
When I decided to write about Laura Ingalls Wilder
, author of the Little House books, I didn’t mean to write about my father. Or mother, grandfather, or any other family member for that matter. Certainly not about myself. That I did has something to do with Wilder and her work.
There are lots of Lauras. Your Laura might a composite of your own creation, a blend of images projected into your brain as you read her novels. She could be drawn from Garth Williams's illustrations for the 1953 standard edition of the Little House books, or a freckled, nine-year-old Melissa Gilbert, skipping down a grassy hillside in the opening credits of the Little House on the Prairie
TV drama. Then again, so few photographs of Laura Ingalls Wilder survive that your Laura may be one of them — perhaps that shot taken with Mary and Carrie, with preteen Laura in a checked dress, looking off camera and slightly fierce.
Laura (on the left) and Rose (on the right) standing in the ravine at Rocky Ridge Farm. Courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
My Laura is an adult. She is at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, the Ozark farm where she and Almanzo raised their daughter, Rose, and made a home for over 50 years. Rocky Ridge Farm is where Wilder wrote. She wrote about sustainable farming, chickens, her home and garden, her attitudes, family, and neighbors, but most of all she wrote about the first two decades of her life.
By age 20, Laura Ingalls Wilder had survived blizzards, droughts, prairie fire, a plague of locusts, malaria, diphtheria, the loss of a brother, and the loss of a child. She had moved at least a dozen times, not including temporary moves for teaching and claim sitting. Between ages 50 and 60, Wilder wrote her memories down, first in an autobiography she called Pioneer Girl
— unpublished until 2014 — and then in the bumper crop of children’s books that made her famous.
The Prairie Is My Garden. Harvey Dunn, 1950. Image courtesy of the South Dakota Art Museum.
I have never been a farmer. I have never been a pioneer, unless you count starting a suburban community garden. Hurricane Sandy is the only significant natural disaster I have experienced. But now that I am poised on the brink of 60 years old — about the age at which Wilder picked up pencil and paper and wrote her memoir — I have found that exploring her works is like having a personal time machine. She has helped open a portal into my own melting pot of memory as I explore the places and plants of her life.
In my opening chapter — about Laura’s birth and years in Wisconsin — I note that she and Mary collected black walnuts. If you’ve never eaten them, black walnuts are intense, and, for me, recall vivid memories of my father. As I worked, the story of Dad and the black walnuts was so immediate and compelling that it came out fully formed, and I wrote it down. I suppose I should provide a bit of background.
The elegant black walnut, illustrated in an early book about trees called The North American Sylva. Courtesy of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden.
My mother grew up in the middle of the Illinois prairie, became a teacher, and taught in a one-room country schoolhouse, just like Laura and Ma Ingalls. Her family inspired my love of gardening and my confidence with canning jars. My father was a farm boy from Henry County, Kentucky, whose stories included the Christmas crate of oranges — the single gift shared among his family of nine —and walking to school unless the creek was too high, in which case they rode the mule. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized that our first family car, a mammoth black Hudson sedan dubbed “Old Jenny,” had been named after a mule of his youth.
Sitting at my computer, I wondered if in Wisconsin in the early 1870s, Pa Ingalls had cracked the walnuts that Laura and Mary collected. Wilder doesn’t say. The secret to how my father extracted black walnut meat intact from their shells died with him.
A black walnut shades the barn at Rocky Ridge Farm. Courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
Dad gathered the nuts from around town each fall. He was a small, wiry man with strong, deft hands that gnarled with arthritis as he aged. Outside the garage, he spread the nuts on his soil sifter to dry, covered with an old window screen to foil the squirrels. I know that he husked the nuts outdoors, removing their fragrant outer cases, and then brought them — still in their shells — down into the basement to cure. At that point, the veil of mystery descends. My next memory of black walnuts is the smell and flavor of my mother’s nut ball cookies, as much a part of Christmas as the tree and the manger scene.
The first time I tried to harvest black walnuts was the autumn after we buried my father. Collecting them was easy, as black walnut trees are relatively common in New Jersey, just as they were for the Ingalls family in Wisconsin. Removing the husks, I stained my fingers what seemed a permanent greenish-brown, as I learned an up-close-and-personal lesson in the strength of natural dyes.
After the nuts had cured in the basement for about a month, I assembled a small arsenal: nutcrackers of various sizes and shapes, including one specially advertised for black walnuts, and nut picks. Nut extraction day had arrived. If someone had been recording — at the time, it would have been VHS — they would have had something worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos
. Nuts bounced and ricocheted, but the shells didn’t budge. They were so hard I wondered if they might substitute for gravel in resurfacing roads. I graduated to a claw hammer, then a small sledge, and eventually managed to smash open a few nuts, pulverizing the nutmeats at the same time. The result was a thick paste of walnut embedded with tiny shards of shell. I picked up the phone, but neither my brother nor my two sisters could shed light on Dad’s techniques. I gave up. Two weeks later, an expensive bag of shelled black walnuts from a Midwest supplier arrived in the mailbox. They just didn’t taste the same.
That's my story, and there it was on my computer screen perched in the middle of a chapter about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Now what? As is my practice, I sent the introduction and first chapter off to my editor, Tom Fischer at Timber Press. I thought he would nix this diversion into memoir, but it survived his blue pen. The result: a short personal piece in every chapter that followed.
You never know where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books will take you. Read them for the memories they might bring to the surface. Read them for their characters, details, and plots. But most of all, read them for their lessons on nature and gardening. As I write this, the days are shortening. Summer is turning to fall. Maybe this year I’ll gather some black walnuts, find some tools, and try again.
Images taken from The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder© Copyright 2017 by Marta McDowell. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. Her particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel. She is the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
, All the Presidents’ Gardens
and The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder