Life on Nantucket with Author Nancy Thayer: Second in a Series

  A Guest Post by Bestselling Author and Nantucket Resident Nancy Thayer

Nancy Thayer headshot 1

 On Island Girls and Houses

In my novel Island Girls,  a young woman named Meg returns to her father’s Nantucket house for the first time in years.  When she arrives, she sees:

“White clapboard, three stories high, with a blue front door sporting a mermaid door knocker…On either side of the front door, blue hydrangeas blossomed, and pink impatiens spilled from the white window boxes.  It was a storybook house.  A house with many stories.”

hydrangeas

 Houses hold the stories of our most private lives, and the hues, textures, and furniture reflect our dreams, hopes and memories.  As a writer who has lived year-round for almost thirty years on Nantucket, I find that many of my novels begin with a house.

Street Side Garden

Meg, now a college professor, is eager to return to her bedroom in the historic old house.

“Like all old Nantucket houses, this one rambled oddly around, with rooms that had fireplaces or closets built in at odd angles.  But the path to the bedroom, her bedroom, was embroidered into her memory like silk thread on muslin.”

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We are all shaped by our past, and so are older houses, which we shape, and which, if we allow them, shape us.  One thing I admire so very much about Trudy Dujardin’s interior design is her sensitivity to the past, to the life of each particular house, and her ability to match that to the desires of each particular owner.  It seems to me that something spiritual seeps into the wood and walls of a house, enriching it, just as scotch aged in oak barrels is enriched.

The house my husband and I live in was built in 1840.  It’s a tall, narrow house, with beautiful wide-board floors and peculiar additions, often called “warts” on Nantucket.  When we first lived here, our children were nine and eleven, and we used the attic for a playroom and for my son’s private lair as he grew older.  But I always coveted the attic because of its view of the harbor and two lighthouses, and when our children were in their twenties, we had a half moon window put in, refinished the walls and floor, and now I have a true room of my own to write in.

Nancy thayer workspace

I write on a computer set on a practical new desk from Staples, but I also have an antique walnut desk with brass pulls in my study, and a wicker bookshelf that holds correspondence, calendars, notebooks, etc.  I love having old furniture around me.  So much that I see, hear, and touch inspires me with material for my books.

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In Island Girls, “Meg cherished the room because of the slightly warped, ink-stained wooden desk and creaking cane-bottom chair placed against the back window, where she could sit and write or contemplate the starry sky and dream.”

Of course, houses must change, just as people do.  The driving plot of Island Girls is the father, who has left the Nantucket house to all three daughters–who have different mothers.  (Their father was a charmer, to say the least.)  The three girls have become estranged, but their father’s will requires them to live together for the summer in the Nantucket house.

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Their first argument begins with two of the sisters both wanted the same back bedroom, “with morning glory wallpaper and…a spool bed, covered with soft old cotton sheets and a patchwork quilt in shades of rose, lemon and azure, echoing the colors in the hand-hooked rug covering most of the satiny old pine floor.”

quilts

Some extremely modern events take place in this old house.  Houses are for the living, after all, and just as we respond to them, they settle around us however we are, so a room once full of settees and music boxes becomes a media room with comfy sofas and a flat screen TV.  Houses shelter us against the literal and figurative storms of life, they keep us safe, and they wait for us to come home.

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I didn’t know until I was writing the last chapter of this novel exactly how it would end, which sister would get the house, if the ending would be happy or sad…and as in all my novel,s my characters surprised me.  I think it will surprise the readers, too, and I hope it makes them smile.

Nancy Thayer headshot 2

A Comfortable Place to Sit

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One of the most important considerations in designing a home is the comfort of those who live there.  I believe that a home should be beautiful, as beauty lifts the spirits; it should be a sanctuary for health and well-being with clean air and non-toxic surroundings; and it should be be a place of comfort.  A house is not a home without a space to curl up with a good book, put your feet up at the end of a long day, and enjoy a snuggle with pets or people you love.

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When I designed my home in Madaket, one of my husband’s requests was that our living room be a place where he could truly relax.  He wanted to be able to come in, put his feet on the cocktail table, and have a beer with friends.  Nothing in this room is too precious.  The sofas were slip covered in crisp navy and white so that they could be cleaned easily, and a comfortable wicker chair lets our guests know that this is a summer home, where relaxation is encouraged!  (The white canvas is indoor/outdoor fabric, and completely washable!)

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I love to read, and I find window seats to be irresistible for hiding away with a book.  The light from the window, changing as the day goes by, the view into the garden, and the scent of a summer breeze takes reading in the middle of the day from a guilty pleasure to a perfect respite.

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A window seat in a bedroom is always a delight! A space devoted to intimate comforts should have a place to take a little nap in the middle of the day when your schedule allows.

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Creating a comfortable home requires planning; there should be welcoming chairs everywhere, with lots of daylight streaming through the windows, and a sense of order so you can really rest.  Ottomans let you put your feet up, and a little chairside table will hold both your book and a cool drink.

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If you are fortunate enough to have a beautiful view, then a comfortable place to relax and watch the sea and sky is always appreciated.  It’s the perfect place to enjoy your morning cup of coffee as you slowly wake to the day.

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When you sit down with a good book or to watch a movie with your family, you may not realize that your upholstered furniture too often brings chemicals such as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants (PBDE’s) and dioxin into your home through off-gassing.  Fortunately, today we have the option of choosing soy-based versus foam cushions, recycled filling for pillows, and organic upholstery fabrics.  Some of the world’s healthiest fabrics are also the most luxurious, including organic cotton, hemp, linen and wool.

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Firelight and the smell of burning wood brings its own kind of relaxation, especially when you’re enveloped in a cozy chair close to its warm glow.

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A porch, veranda or deck can be another living area, serving as a quiet library during sunlit hours, and the perfect spot to watch evening fall with candlelight and a glass of wine to toast the end of day.

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Most of us live busy lives, sometimes too busy, and it’s good to take a moment to sit down occasionally, and enjoy what we’ve accomplished. As A.A. Milne said (as Winnie the Pooh), “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Winnie The Pooh

It’s Time for Plan Bee

Flying honeybee

The humming that you hear when you step into the garden in summer is the song of hundreds of bees, honey and bumble, moving pollen from one flower to another as they feed.  Not only a charming aspect of the garden, bees are responsible for the successful pollination of fruits, nuts and many vegetables, including many of the plants you grow in your backyard.  Honeybees are critical to agriculture.  Best-selling food author Michael Pollan has estimated that they pollinate thirty to forty percent of the food we consume.

healthy foods

With so much at stake, the health of our honeybees has to be a primary environmental concern.  For the past few years, though, bees have been dying off from what was, at first, an unknown cause.  Labeled “Colony Collapse Disorder,” the die off began to get the attention it deserved from scientists worldwide.  Several theories were proposed, including mites, viruses or other pathogens, or a decline in natural habitat.  Increasingly, however, scientists began to identify two main sources of concern:  farming monoculture, where bees suffer a dietary imbalance from feeding on only one kind of pollen, and a new class of neurotoxin pesticides, called neonicotinoids.

(I first wrote about the danger to bees in April 2013; you can read that post here. )

farm

Although nicotine has been used as an insecticide since colonial times, today’s nicotinoids are different.  Based on nicotine, they also include clothianidin, thiametoxam and imadacloprid, among other chemicals.  They’re used to coat plant seeds, and are released as a lymph inside the plant as a permanent insecticide.  Bees who have sucked dew from maize leaves that absorbed neonicotinoids becojme disoriented, get lost on their way back to the hive, and die.

Nantucket beekeeper David Berry, owner of the Nantucket HoneyBee Company, says, “(The nicotinoids) are literally part of the tissue of the plant itself. It seems to be collectively lethal to bees. The wax in a beehive is like a sponge. Over time these chemicals collect in the wax and seem to become much more damaging to the bees.”

There is some good news, though!  Greenpeace reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is introducing new labels for neonicotinoid pesticides that will prohibit the use of those pesticides when bees are present.  The labels will include information to reduce spray drift, and in red letters, they will read “this product can kill bees and other insect pollinators.”

Europe has already gone one step further, and has banned the use of neonicotinoids entirely, due to their fatal impact on European bee colonies.  A bill was just introduced in Congress to impose a ban on neonics until a scientific study can prove no harm will come to bee colonies from its use.  Greenpeace has a three step plan that includes:

  1. Banning the seven most dangerous pesticides
  2. Preserving wild habitat
  3. Restoring ecological agriculture

Ultimately, there must be a ban similar to Europe’s in order to protect our vital bee population.  Labeling is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Here’s How You Can Help

You can sign the petition asking Congress and the EPA for the ban on neonicotinoids, support local, organic farms in your region, and plant a bee-friendly garden of your own.

garden

Your choices do make a difference in keeping the earth around you a healthy home for bees and other wildlife.  Here’s a step by step plan to help you create a bee-haven, with some added tips from beekeeper David Berry:

Step One:  Do not use fungicides, herbicides or pesticides in your garden, relying instead on natural controls for insects and other gardening problems.  Read my tips on organic gardening here.

toddler gardening

Step Two:  Plan your garden to include pollen and nectar sources as close to all year round as possible.  On a warm winter day, honeybees may be out foraging for food for their young.

winter garden

Step Three:  Start with the earliest bloomers, including witchhazels, willows and Acer maples. David Berry adds that letting part of your property go back to its wild state helps to feed bees and other beneficial insects. He stresses that urban areas can be wonderful places for bees to collect nectar, too, where people plant gardens and water them. The next most important time is the middle of the summer, when the heat builds and not much is in bloom. That’s when plants such as Russian Sage and Lavender can be helpful. Clethera, sometimes called Sweet Pepper Bush, blooms on Nantucket in mid-summer, produces a beautiful fragrance and makes great honey. Luckily for Nantucket beekeepers, much of Nantucket’s open space has clethera growing on it, says Berry.

milky white witch hazel blooming after rain in the spring

Step Four:  Plant masses of flowers, as single plants may not attract bees. Another tip from David Berry: look for older cultivars. The older variety of plants are better for bees, including clover as part of the lawn. It wasn’t until the fertilizer companies convinced people that clover was a weed that it began to disappear. Clover makes some of the best bee nectar!

flowers

Step Five:  Plant with the bees’ favorite colors:  purple and blue, followed by yellow and orange.

honey bee

I would add my own petition, that if we are to protect the earth and all the living things in it, that we must first remember to see beauty in the smallest forms of life, and then share that beauty with a child.  Here are wise words from one of my favorite naturalists and authors, Rachel Carson, from her book The Sense of Wonder:

“And then there is the world of little things, seen all too seldom.  Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous.  With this beginning, it is easy to share with them the beauties we usually miss because we look too hastily, seeing the whole and not its parts.  Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.”

Beautiful child with sunflower

Learn more about Rachel Carson and her work here.

For a humorous look at the life of bees, watch Bee Movie, written by Jerry Seinfeld!  The cartoon does point out that without bees pollinating our flowers and crops, plant life and our food chain would be in serious danger.  Watch a short clip here.

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For more information on bees, visit HoneybeeLives.org.