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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Using Gourds Creatively

Today’s entrepreneurs have nothing on our ancestors.  They were resourceful and thrifty.  Before the days of big-box stores or even general merchandise stores, when they needed something to make life easier or more comfortable, they figured out creative ways to use plentiful natural resources found nearby.

For many of us, our family trees are filled with simple, hard-working individuals who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They learned to make-do with whatever resources they could find.  They’d probably be shocked by the amount of “stuff” we have in our homes today – the rooms of furniture; the cabinets filled with cups, plates and glasses; and the various appliances and gadgets.

I recently travelled to rural Middle Tennessee to visit my mother.  She restored and lives in her family’s ancestral home.  Seven generations of her family have found shelter inside the house’s walls, and each generation has left its fingerprint on the place.  Those generations also left behind various household items and furnishings they found useful and essential for living daily life.  Some folks might consider these things junk; Mom and I consider them treasures.  They give us a peek into the lives of those we only know by name and sometimes a faded Daguerre-type photo.

Included in all of this accumulated “stuff” are a variety of dried and hollowed-out, long-neck gourds.  Mom displays them in the kitchen alongside old cookware and household items from other eras.  We figure they were once used as dippers to scoop cool, refreshing water from the nearby spring. 

Gourds are members of the Cucurbitaceae family and have been grown and used or eaten throughout the world for thousands of years.  Members of this family include squash, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins.  There are numerous cucurbita, or ornamental gourd varieties, too, including ones with long necks that make excellent dippers (like Mom’s) and wide ones with shorter necks that make good bird houses for wrens or martins.  The key to obtaining useful ornamental gourds lies in the drying-out process.

Gourds grow on vines from flowers that bear fruit.  Once they reach maturity after 100 to 180 warm-weather days, their stems dry out and turn brown.  They are then ready to be harvested.  Gourds should be cut from the vine with a few inches of stem still attached.  Bruised or immature gourds or ones with rotten or shriveled spots should be thrown away as they won’t dry or cure properly.

To dry them, gourds should be placed in a dark, well-ventilated area with space all around each piece to allow air circulation.  The drying process takes at least four weeks.  Gourds are properly cured when they are become light-weight and the seeds rattle inside.  At this point, they can be painted, coated, or decorated.

Mom’s dipping gourds look to be very old and well-used.  Their surfaces have been worn smooth (most likely from much handling) and look and feel like thin wood.  Countless people working the nearby farm land probably welcomed the sight of the gourds and the cool water they held.

On this same trip, I also found my grandmother’s old sewing basket on an upstairs shelf.  Of course I had to open it and examine the contents.  Among the many needles, pins, and wooden spools of thread were two tiny, smooth gourds.  Instantly I remembered as a child seeing my thrifty grandma pushing these gourds into Grandpa’s work socks to repair a tear or a worn spot.  She called them her “darning gourds” and said their shape helped her achieve smoother repair seams that Grandpa would never feel on his sensitive feet.

Today, artisans continue to find interesting and creative ways to use gourds, including making bowls, small vases, and even lamp shades with various sizes of dried gourds.  Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, features artisans who specialize in creating unique handicrafts, including an artisan who makes one-of-a-kind lamp shades from large gourds.

Some Amish communities produce and sell online numerous varieties of clean, dried gourds for use in craft projects.  Several years ago, a neighbor purchased four dried gourds and painted them white.  He cut a single hole in each one and attached them to a tall pole in his back yard.  Each spring the swallows return to build their nests inside the gourds, and each summer the birds zoom around our yards, snagging mosquitoes to eat.  This seems like a healthier, more natural way to control unwanted pests.

Yes, people are capable of creativity and resourcefulness with what can be found in nature.  And I’m guessing the amount of garbage and waste our ancestors generated was nothing close to what people generate today.  Imagine -- no plastic bottles and cups.  Who needed such when you had a natural drinking vessel growing in your own garden?

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