Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beginnings

The natural world awakes and changes come quickly, one atop the other. The ground continues to thaw, heaving areas where snow cover was shoveled or plowed, allowing frost to penetrate deeply. But soon, all frost will have left and the tortured, frost-heaved landscape will become level once again.

Plants respond to lengthening hours of daylight and warmer temperatures. Now, for those fortunate enough to have a good crop close at hand, is time for to harvest wild evening primrose, Oenothera biennis. The carrot-like, whitish root, with its strawberry-colored crown, is an excellent root vegetable. The foliage, which at this time appears as a basal rosette (leaves radiating out from a central point and spread flat on the ground), makes a fine potherb and the very young, tender leaves add spice to salads.

Dandelions, Taraxacum officinalis, appear on lawns and in gardens. The little first-of-the-year plants are yet too small to bother harvesting, but a week of decent temperatures and some sunshine will change that.

Common chickweed, Stella media, a perennial groundcover that persists over the winter, makes a good vegetable dish now when slightly steamed.

A friend who lives in Freeport writes me, telling of having pulled a number of rootstalks of cattails and taking the white, starch-laden shoots. These work fine rinsed and eaten raw or chopped in salads or even in stir-fry dishes.

There are other wild edible plants available now in addition to those I’ve mentioned here. Suffice it to say, anyone with a good ration of determination could conceivably go out and gather enough wild plants for a meal.


Basal rosette of evening primrose
So it has begun. From now on, the pace will only increase as other plants begin showing. And until next fall’s first killing frost puts an end to our bounty, we foragers have the world by the tail. Here’s to another season. Enjoy.
New shoot of common cattail
 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Welcome To RFD Maine


RFD Maine is a newspaper column that I wrote for the Republican Journal, a weekly newspaper in Waldo County, Maine. It appeared on the opinion page and was highly popular among readers. But the editorial staff wished for the opinion, or editorial page, to carry politically-oriented material rather than the folksy, down-home country stuff that I wrote. So they decided to drop it and replace it with a political column. When they told me of this, I put in my bid as writer for the political column and it was accepted. So I still have work, but not the kind I began with. I miss writing RFD Maine.

In the less-than-one month that RFD Maine has been absent from the paper, countless readers have called and written me, asking what happened. Of course I have no control over what a newspaper does. But it appears as though the editors and publisher don't have an ear to the ground regarding what the readers want, either. In fact, when I found out that the editorial page was going political, the editor mentioned that he had never read RFD Maine. 

However, it was the most popular column that paper had had in many years, and I have written for it since 1986. I'm wanting to peddle RFD Maine to some other paper, since I see that it "has legs." But in the meantime, I'll offer past columns to readers of my blog. If you, my readers, enjoy it as much as readers of The Republican Journal say they do, then I'll have more incentive to try and either get it back with TRJ, or else find another home for it. 

Meanwhile, here is my first installment of RFD Maine. It gives details of rural life throughout the seasons. I hope you all like it and please, do leave comments. 

Best wishes, and happy spring. 

Tom




A Circle Of Seasons

          For me living in RFD Maine, signs of a past or soon-to-arrive season are always close at hand. This topic came to my attention when I noticed a vase of pussy willows atop my refrigerator.
          In perhaps one more month, the silky-gray catkins of  pussy willows will appear. Pussy willows fall into that fuzzy category of plants sandwiched somewhere between large shrubs and small trees. The still-naked twigs and branches, with their crop of furry catkins, are a time-honored symbol of spring. And as such, we revere them. If pussy willow catkins came on in summer, we would pay them no homage. But in late March and early April, we cherish our pussy willows.
Four Seasons
          Winter-weary souls go out in early spring in search of the first catkin-bearing pussy willows. Successful pussy-willow hunters usually cut a handful or two to take home and put in a vase. First-timers often make the mistake of placing their fresh-cut pussy willow sticks in a water-filled vase. That’s a mistake, because the branches continue to grow and become covered with pollen. Leave them in water long enough and they’ll set roots. Seasoned pussy willow fans know to put their prize in a dry vase, that way the display will remain intact until the following spring, when it’s time to go on another pussy willow foray.
          After considering pussy willows, I turned around and observed the old-time Mason jar with it’s bouquet of tansy sitting on a shelf above my television. The golden-yellow buttons (flower discs) have faded a bit, but there’s no help for it, because they are destined to remain there until late next summer, when they’ll be replenished with a new batch of cuttings.
          Besides the tansy, little wisps of the summer season remain in plain view on my back deck in the form of a folding lawn chair leaning against the house and of course, my barbecue grill.
          In my house, autumn, the fall of the year, is represented by several deer antlers adorning a wall, plus the “fan,” or tailfeathers of a particularly handsome partridge, or ruffed grouse, that I shot last year.
          Winter, my least favorite season, has no reigning ambassador at my place, at least not one I have expressly invited. But even the cold season gets passing notice at different times of year, because of my fondness for Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. His trademark work, The Four Seasons, is something I play frequently. This four-part concerto is appropriately enough broken down into Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. So even when listening to this timeless work in spring and summer, I’m reminded of winter.
Lesser Lights
          Reminders of the different seasons are visible in other places, too. These “lesser lights” are often in my way, only to get moved from where they are stored when their own season arrives and I dust them off and use them for their intended purpose.
          For instance, I keep my air conditioner in the greenhouse over the winter. The AC is heavy and the greenhouse is the closest outbuilding to the house. Besides that, my barn is very small and fully populated with outdoor equipment. So the greenhouse wins, or loses, by default.
          Even the woodshed shows signs of different times of year. Just the other day, I nearly tripped on one of the boards that I use at the bottom of each row of firewood. These serve the purpose of keeping my firewood from freezing to the ground. And by the time spring, or something like it arrives, the boards are free of piled wood and ready to serve yet another purpose. Now, they become walking boards.
          Mud season creates the need for long boards across low areas along the path between my house and car and house and barn. When genuine spring finally arrives and these vernal pools dry up, the boards go into storage back in the woodshed.
          Right now, inside the house, my humidifier works hard to keep indoor humidity levels at somewhere near the 50 mark. But when spring arrives and outdoor relative humidity rises far above winter’s desert-like state, and the woodstove goes to sleep for another season, the humidifier gets sent to the woodshed…literally.
          Even the food I eat is representative of the different seasons. For example, I’ve had a hankering for dandelions as of late, so to satiate my desire, I’ve been digging into my lode of home-canned dandelions. It’s impossible for me to feast on a meal of dandelions, even canned ones, and not think back upon the season and the circumstances from which they came.
          I just ate the last of the trout that I vacuum-packed and froze last summer. This not only brought to mind the joys of open-water fishing, it made me yearn for the upcoming spring, when open-water fishing on brooks and streams resumes. Eating that trout fillet also reminded me of the trout I raise in my farm pond, and the fun I have sitting by the pond in evening twilight, sipping ale and watching my fish rise to the floating trout pellets I throw out to them each evening.
Kodak Moment
          Well, it’s not really a “Kodak Moment,” but all the same the background on my desktop computer screen is always pleasing to me. I constantly change the background photo, choosing from the large crop of digital images stored on my computer. Currently, in view of and as a respite from cold, snow, more cold and more snow, I have a summertime photo for my desktop background.
          This photo shows a pastoral scene, a gentle hill, covered with hayscented ferns in the foreground and mature maple and white ash trees in the background. In this photo, everything is green. Gazing at it, I can almost smell the sweet fragrance of the ferns, coupled with just a hint of spruce gum. The photo was taken in an inland section of Sears Island, one of my favorite summertime haunts. And yes, the island abounds in spruce trees and the spicy aroma of spruce sap wafts about inland areas, toying with the senses and making each visit that much more enjoyable.
          I visit Sears Island regularly, from spring through fall, and am familiar with most of the plant life there. But now, in winter, I’d just as soon sit in my office by the woodstove and stare at the delightful summertime photo on my computer screen.
          Soon, it’ll come time to change my desktop background. I’m thinking of putting up a picture of springtime flowers, perhaps crocus or hyacinth. By the time the real crocus comes into bloom, I’ll switch photos and post one of me holding up a fresh-caught trout, taken along one of my favorite trout brooks.
          I suppose this circle of seasons awareness is an inherited trait, something from deep inside, reaching out over the millennia. And, thinking along those lines, I kind of pity people who live where there is no change of seasons. To someone from RFD Maine, even the most congenial climate would become old if taken in too-large doses.
         

         
         


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Opening Day A Bust




Today, April 1, 2014, marks another opening day of trout fishing in brooks and streams. As per tradition, I arose before sunrise, had a cup of coffee and headed out fishing. But what awaited me was something totally unexpected. Everything was frozen.

Streams that are normally productive on this day were locked up in a thick coating of ice. The few that I did find open had shelf ice on the edges, making it tricky if not dangerous to venture out and take a cast.

Streamsides and banks were treacherous because of snow and ice. I slipped while climbing a wet, snowy hillside on my way back from a stream. Another place saw me breaking through the snowcrust up to my knees at every other step. This was where old cattail stalks stuck up only a foot or so above the snow. Had I thought, I would have realized that cattail stalks, even old, brown dead ones, are taller than one foot.

Every time I broke through, it would knock the wind out of me. In short, this old body endured a virtual marathon of physical demands. And the at most, I’m just a little tired right now, but that might be mostly a result of tossing and turning last night, sleepless, like a youngster on the night before Christmas.

As per results, not a trout moved. Nary a bite. This marks the first opening day in many, many years that I have gone fishless. Well, not exactly. My plans for fish for supper being dashed, I stopped by the store on the way home and bought a fresh Atlantic salmon fillet.

Usually on April I, a few wild plants are in evidence. This year the only plant I saw was a toxic one, buttercups. These had overwintered on a wet, sunny hillside. But as per useful plants, it looks as though we’ll need to wait just a bit longer for spring to arrive in earnest.



Sunday, March 30, 2014

Marooned By Mud


Tuesday is April 1, opening day of trout fishing in brooks and streams. I’ve not missed an opening day for the 60-some years that I’ve been fishing. And if possible, I don’t plan on missing this one. But it’s going to be rough.

I’ve always boasted that it would take a lot to keep me from going fishing on this traditional date and now it looks as though nature has called my bluff. Specifically, I live one mile from the nearest paved road, on a strip of dead sand and mud called East Waldo Road. And as of yesterday, East Waldo Road is impassable to motor vehicles. I’m marooned at home.

It doesn’t appear as if the town can do anything about current road conditions, since rain is forecast for the rest of today and into Monday. Even if they wanted to, which I’m not certain they do, it doesn’t look as though a gravel truck could reach the worst parts of this miserable excuse for a road.

So Tuesday morning, I will have to try and walk from my house down to the paved section of road. My driveway, not exactly a great feat of engineering in and of itself (I built it) is pretty bad. A dammed-up seasonal stream has broken out from confinement and now runs like a river across my driveway. But I can probably ford it.

Walking on the main road, though, will be problematic. Ruts, some several feet deep, weave this way and that up and down the road. So pedestrians (me) will need to walk on top of the snowbanks on the roadside.

Walking one mile in summer would be a trifling matter, something accomplished without thought. But this is different. However, despite a winter pretty much stuck indoors because of ice and snow, I’m still in pretty good shape. I should make it.

One thing’s for sure. When I reach the end of the mud gauntlet, my buddy in his waiting van will be a welcome sight indeed.

Meanwhile, if anyone has access to a private helicopter, I could use supplies. Topping the list is broccoli, lettuce, potatoes and beer or ale. If the other stuff is unavailable, just send ale. Food for the spirit is more important at this point. Besides that, I’ve got lots of canned goosetongue, Swiss chard, dandelions and green beans to hold me over.

It’s going to be a long mud season, by the looks of it.




Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Winter Has Lasted Way Too Long


Last January was warm enough for this orpine to begin growing
We all know someone who remains stuck in an earlier time. I knew someone who was stuck in the 1950s. He combed his hair, dressed and spoke as if it were 1958. His music, too, reflected that period of time. I haven’t seen this guy for many years and I wonder if he has ever seen fit to accept the passing of time and act accordingly.

Our climate lately reminds me of my good-time rock-‘n-roller friend. It’s stuck in January. The vernal equinox has come and gone and the sun has approximately the same strength that it exhibited in September. But these miserable arctic blasts, intrusions of super-chilled air from the north, keep bringing us January conditions in late March.

April 1 is the opening day of fishing in brooks and streams in Maine. This has no basis in practical fisheries management and is solely rooted in tradition; that’s how it’s always been.

I caught my first trout at age 4 and have been at it ever since. I have never, ever, missed an opening day of trout season. Some years I’ve had to contend with snow, other years just plain cold temperatures and sometimes rain. But never, ever, in my 62 years of fishing, have I seen prolonged cold such as what we are experiencing now.

As always, I’ve been doing my pre-season scouting. Usually, I am able to spot trout finning in bright, clear pools. But not this year. All the pools are frozen, locked in ice. Waterfalls are frozen. Everything is frozen, including the tidal river near my house. So my biggest challenge this coming opening day will be finding open water to drop a line in.

Foragers, too, have been dealt a difficult hand. In fact, I’ve got my first field trip of the year scheduled for April 23. It’s going to have to get awfully warm between now and then for us to find any plants at all.

By now, we in Maine should be feasting on the young leaves of wild evening primrose and cooking the parsnip-like primrose roots. I would ordinarily have pulled some of last year’s cattail clumps and harvested the young, white sprouts that would later become this years cattails. But I can’t because the ponds are frozen, the swamps are frozen and the cattails lie beneath a thick coating of ice and snow.

People have long-since tapped their maple trees in order to harvest the sweet sap used for making maple syrup. But the sap lines have frozen. It doesn’t get up above freezing during the day and the sap can’t flow. This will likely go down as the poorest maple syrup year of all time. Expect a price increase for maple syrup.

By now, I would ordinarily have planted lettuce and other early greens in my solar-heated greenhouse. But I can’t, because the greenhouse beds are frozen solid.

And now, another blizzard is forecast to smash into coastal Maine. Just what we need, another blizzard.


I cannot remember a year with a colder spring than this and as I said, I’ve been around quite a long time. When spring finally breaks and we get a steady diet of above-freezing days, we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief. And here’s one thing more. Like everyone else, I often complain about the weather. I’m complaining now, for sure. But you will never again hear me complain about it being too warm. Let it get hot, I don’t mind. All I’ll need to do if the heat becomes a tad uncomfortable will be to remember the spring of 2014 and that will put an end to any dissatisfaction regarding heat. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

First Day Of Spring, Kind Of


Knowing that today, the official arrival of spring, would be snowy and otherwise nasty, I took a ride yesterday, looking for signs of spring. Normally, snow would be mostly gone and buds on willows and certain shrubs would be visibly swollen. Some years, pussy willow catkins are out by now. But not this year.

This year, deep snow covers the ground and it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. And trees and shrubs exhibit no signs of spring. As far as annual plants and herbaceous perennials, they may as well be on the far side of the moon, for all the good they do us, hidden as they are beneath snow and ice.

Even our streams and rivers remain locked in winter’s unrelenting grip. The Passagassawaukeag River, a tidal river near my house, is covered with ice. A large waterfall on the “Passy” is frozen solid. Imagine, a frozen waterfall. And small streams are totally frozen and covered with snow, offering little hope for anxious anglers waiting to get out and wet a line on April 1, opening day of fishing season.

I did find one, little ray of hope. A steep bank on the south-facing side of the Passy River was peppered with not-quite-open coltsfoot blossoms. These are by and far the earliest wildflower to appear and the sight of them cheered me greatly. On the other hand, the coltsfoot bloomed in February last year.

So happy spring…I guess.

In other news, I got an email yesterday from someone representing Conde Nast, wanting photos of my wild plant tours and some high-resolution photos of the wild plants. I had never heard of Conde Nast and so thought I was being scammed. I didn’t just fall off the hay wagon yesterday, you know. I wrote back asking for some kind of explanation, only to find out, much to my chagrin, that Conde Nast is the publisher of Gourmet, Bon App├ętit and Epicurious magazines and they are creating a special issue magazine with a directory of foragers from around the country. And they are going to include me. 

I sent them the plant photos. Luckily, my friend and publisher Nancy Randolph had some photos of me on field trips with groups, so we satisfied Conde Nast’s request. Nancy mentioned to me later that after the magazine comes out, I may get calls from some big-time New York papers and if that happens, I shouldn’t accuse the caller of not really being who they say they are.

But what can I say? I’m from Waldo Maine. I don’t get out much.

Keep the faith. Spring, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, must eventually arrive. The sun has made its trek north and casts its light on earth from a more direct, powerful angle.

Oh, one other thing. I’m including a photo here and it has three captions. They are: Tom’s place on the first day of fall, Tom’s place on the first day of winter and Tom’s place on the first day of spring. I may or may not include the one other season we have here in Waldo, Maine, the Fourth of July.








Friday, March 14, 2014

Tom's Seminar Schedule For Spring - Summer 2014


My 2014 season schedule is shaping up nicely and I have a number of presentations planned around the State of Maine. Here is my schedule, effective as of March 14, 2014. I’ll update this list as more dates get firmed up. I’d love to see some readers of my blog at one of my sessions.

March 29. Digital presentation and question-and-answer session for University of Maine Extension’s Rural Living Days held at Mt. View High School in Thorndike. My class time is 10:45 to 12:15.

April 23. Next, I’m doing a digital presentation and plant walk for Jackson Memorial Library in Tenant’s Harbor, beginning with the indoor part at 12 noon, followed by a plant walk on local nature trails. For more info, contact Hanna Tannebring at (207) 594-9209.

May 3. Digital presentation of springtime plants at Merryspring, Camden, followed by a plant walk. Class from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.

May 17. Plant presentation for Adult Education group at MSAD 40 in Union. Indoor presentation in Union School at 10 a.m. followed by plant walk at Rain Tree Farm in Union.

June 8, 9. Two-day session for hosted by Lynn Howe at Harpswell. For more information, call Lynn at (207) 725-7437.

June 12-13. Woodie Wheaton Land Trust, Forest City on East Grand Lake. Evening digital presentation followed by 9: a.m. plant walk the next morning. Contact Patty A. Michaud at (207) 448-3250 or email her at info@woodiewheaton.org for more information.

July 8, 15, 22, 29. Every Tuesday classes at Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor. The public is welcome. Contact the Inn at (207) 633-4152 for more information or to sign up. There is no charge.

July 19. Plant walk at Holbrook Island State Park in Brooksville. This off-the-beaten-path state park is a true undiscovered gem in the state’s park system. Few visitors, lots of room both inland (even has their own little mountain, complete with trails to the peak), freshwater marsh and lots of shore land. No reservation needed. Just arrive on or before 1 p.m. and we’ll walk about this excellent spot and find wild plants.

July 20. Another session with Lynn Howe in Harpswell. Specifics not yet available, but call Lynn and she’ll be able to help.

August 5, 12, 19, 26. Tuesdays at Spruce Point Inn. See July schedule for more info.

August 22. Plant presentation and walk for Cobscook Community Learning Center in Lubec. For more information, contact Valerie Lawson, Program Manager, at (207) 733-2233. Sounds like a good time to me. I plan on doing some fishing from Lubec Breakwater after the session.

August 23. Evening presentation for Downeast Lakes Land Trust, followed by plant walk the next morning. For more information, contact Tanya at (207) 796-2100 for more information.