Along the Banks of My River is a body of work that centers on the life of an early 19th century woman. The artist books, paper, and textile pieces originate from Anna Blackwood Howell's life and writing, including the yearly almanacs she used to track the cyclical nature of the seasons and to "profit by the experience of the past year." Howell lived from 1769 until 1855 in Gloucester County, New Jersey. Her husband, Joshua, died in 1818, and she inherited their farm and fisheries along the banks of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia. The Howells had eleven children, and she outlived six of them. In her almanacs, Anna Howell recorded near-daily observations and notes on the family fishing business, farm production, and household accounts.
While this project's focus is not climate change, it is largely about climate—that is, weather. The two- and three-dimensional works created thus far include topics such as bees, shad fishing, and the river, but weather is a constant refrain throughout as a primary influence on daily life. Howell's almanacs detail the continual challenges of living close to the land. Sometimes this is expressed in the emotions that accompany an "Arcadian" day or dismal skies, and at other times in relation to considerations of travel or, more crucially, the production of food. These concerns are increasingly relevant today as universal ones facing humankind. Rather than weather remaining far from daily thoughts, more and more of us understand all too well the effects of a dry spell, gale force winds, blizzards, or a sudden thaw. As I continue to explore these almanacs and create more work, I gain further insight into an era of a barter economy, the reliance on neighbors and community to endure environmental changes, and how life's fortunes can be dependent on weather. I notice little difference between then and now in the human desire to succeed within the bounds of nature, to push against those bounds, and the hard acceptance of what nature brings beyond our control.
Questions continue to arise as I work—some specific and factual and others broader in scope. Could Anna Howell read the signs indicating a change in weather? What were the consequences if someone miscalculated when to fill their icehouse? What did it feel like to ride in a sleigh across a frozen river? One question follows another as I attempt to imagine this life and landscape. Despite the faithful recordkeeping in these materials, there is much left unknown. I find myself curious about what I can't know, since no definitive answers exist to my questions. This blended world of the past—the known, the unknown, and the imagined—I find engaging. As I think about this past world, I connect it to the one in which I live. I want viewers to do the same, to be curious and imagine their own version of another person's world two hundred years ago. And I hope this body of work inspires them to reflect on the parallel themes of then and now.