Creative Nonfiction, Stephanie Minteer

Beatrice Trum Hunter, Renaissance Woman

by Stephanie Minteer

If you’d been watching public television at WGBH, Boston shortly after Julia Child made cooking shows famous, you might have encountered Beatrice Trum Hunter extolling the virtues and rewards of simple cooking using organically grown, natural foods. She was enlisted by the nascent independent medium to produce a taped show demonstrating healthy living techniques to a skeptical New England audience. Already an expert, she had perfected fermenting vegetables, yogurt-making, sprouting, and vegetarian cooking in order to feed the eager summer guests retreating to her Deering woods. At age 96, and alone now, she is still cooking, writing, creating art, reading, studying, learning something new every day.

Beatrice lives in the same house she and her husband John restored in the 1950s. Son of the world famous photographer Lotte Jacobi, John brought his bride from New York City to two hundred fifty forested acres in Deering, New Hampshire, to embark on a life of self-sufficiency. Though unaccustomed to the natural world, Beatrice took to their new lifestyle like a beaver to a pond. She dug and planted vegetable gardens, became a gourmet cook, invented and developed her own recipes, helped with the house building, and when house and barn were completed, agreed to start a summer retreat for city folk who wanted a taste of solitude.

Beatrice Trum Hunter
Photography by Stephanie Minteer

Today, seventy years later, Beatrice is a diminutive woman with strong hands, salt-and-pepper bobbed hair, loose-fitting clothes, and a ready smile. She lives independently in a few rooms of the house she and John rebuilt at the end of a half mile-long dirt road. Her artesian well provides her with abundant, clean water, which she conserves, nevertheless, by drawing enough for cooking and drinking only once each day. Her pot-bellied woodstove keeps her warm in winter; her screened porch, which doubles as a file room, keeps her cool in summer.

She is the author of more than thirty books and countless articles, a natural foods expert, a researcher of every aspect of our food chain and wrong-headed preferences, from sugar substitutes to soil amelioration to consumer safety. And she is still writing and publishing. She will talk to you brilliantly about our addiction to sugar, and how microbiomes might save the future.

She recycles everything, reuses, repurposes. Her innovation will make you take a second look at scan codes and security-printed envelopes, which she saves and folds into origami shapes. After a health scare, she gave away her art collection and most of her extensive library, but she recovered and moved back home. Now her wildflower and feather collages decorate the bare walls. An old-fashioned letter writer, she personalizes every card she sends with bits of found material. And she still gives away a book once its been read.

After the death of her husband John and with her distinguished mother-in-law in a nursing home, Beatrice turned to photography. Using the camera equipment she inherited, she produced and exhibited her own unique body of work: ice crystals. But the camera is still now. Words were her true medium, and it is to words she has returned.

Although diminishing vision makes reading more tiring lately, Beatrice still reads incessantly, if not as fast. She handwrites her manuscripts and has a friend transcribe her words onto computer discs for her publisher. A loyal friend of the United States Postal Service, she has now met all the criteria for having her rurally delivered mail dropped directly into a box outside her door. And once a month, a USPS envelope appears, bulging with packets of the latest commemorative stamps, her one indulgence. She is saved a mile-long walk to the old mailbox and is assured a visit from the mail carrier six days a week. A one-woman clipping service for any topic of interest to her or her friends, she carefully selects articles from the many journals she receives, dates and files them for future reference or delivery. And when Beatrice sends you an envelope of clippings, accompanied by a perfectly printed, handwritten note, you can be sure it will arrive in a recycled mailer.

Shy and self-effacing, this woman would be surprised to discover her simple, efficient lifestyle inspiring a new generation. A clean-living nonagenarian, her bright eyes twinkle as she freely admits to a few foibles: a bite of something sinfully sweet after supper and an addiction to Downton Abbey and Nature on PBS. A Netflix subscriber, she keeps up with the times. Her approach to aging draws on the same determination she demonstrated when she first came to live in New Hampshire: use your mind, take care of your body, keep busy, persevere. Live every day with intention.