Monday, December 29, 2008

Science Recognizes Mint

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Leave it to science to “discover” something that herbalists first identified in the early 18th century. A recent news item from The Discovery Channel highlighted a researcher’s supposed revelation regarding the curative powers of peppermint.

The gist of this “ground-breaking” discovery? Mint oil relieves indigestion and also has antiviral and antibacterial properties. While the researcher didn’t mention menthol by name, everyone else is probably aware that mint oil contains menthol, among other useful substances.

As a child, I was given mint extract in water. Grandma kept a little bottle of the stuff in her medicine cabinet. A few drops in a shot glass of water and in minutes, my tummy felt better. Mint has other medicinal uses and as such, should have a place in every medicine cabinet.

Even though modern science is 300 years late in giving mint the green light, the fact that a plant remedy is given official credence means much. Now, perhaps, officialdom will slack up a bit in their ongoing campaign to discredit chiropractors, herbalists and homeopaths. At least we can hope.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Winter Fog

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Fog hangs low over the snow, corrupting and shrinking it in a way that nothing else can. Winter fog, cool but not cold, tiny water droplets suspended in the air, envelopes fields and woods like a great, gray blanket.

Winter fog differs significantly from summer fog. Fog now is all or nothing, no patches here and there, no clear spots. Warm air and cold snow combine to make winter fog. In summer, different conditions conspire and the nature of fog differs greatly. Summer fog is locally predictable. The bottom of Belmont Hill becomes foggy nearly each evening in summer. Likewise a certain stretch of U.S. Route 1 in Frankfort. In winter, it is foggy everywhere or it is foggy nowhere.

It seems to me that winter fog has increased capacity to hold and disperse scents. Woodsmoke from idling stoves remains detectable for a great distance from its source. Exhaust from cars and trucks hangs near tailpipes, choking those who would enjoy a tailgate visit with their friends or neighbors. Rich aromas from barns, scents of farm animals and the salt tang of the sea coalesce and spur imaginations to great heights.

Winter fog kindles memories and lulls restless spirits. Winter fog embraces and asks to be embraced. If winter fog were music, it would fall in a minor key.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

I recently bought an Apple computer from some friends, used but only one year old and state-of-the-art. One of the programs that came with the unit allows the user to make a slideshow from digital images. I immediately recognized that here, was a way to make a wild plant presentation and tailor it exactly to my needs and wants.

My first task was to import all my plant photos from my other computer. Now, the meat of the project comes into place, that is, choosing which photos to use, what information to provide, adding music, dialogue, of “voiceover” and so on. While time consuming, this is the most enjoyable project I ever took on.

My “slideshow” won’t be ready for another year or so, because I have decided that I want to show the plants during different stages of their development, which means taking lots more photos. This will help people to not only locate, but identify useful, wild plants beyond a shadow of a doubt. Get to know a plant inside and out, throughout the seasons. That’s my motto. In the end, I will have a salable, useful and one-of-a-kind package.

A side benefit of this is the joy I get from seeing my favorite, wild plants up close on a 17-inch screen. Digital photography has enabled me to take close-up photos I never before dreamed possible. Color slides, the old format, were never kind to me. But digital, ahhh…that’s different. Now, I can capture such treasures as the poison-filled spines on stinging nettles, miniature details on the dandelion-like blossoms of coltsfoot and the teeny hairs on the edge of Clintonia leaves.

So let it snow and blow outside. Inside, I sit at my new computer and revel in the glory of spring, thanks to some good friends and the remarkable, new technology that makes such doings possible.

Monday, December 22, 2008

White Lightning

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Yesterday’s blizzard took me back to another early-season storm, this one in the late 1980s. Both were full-fledged blizzards and both shared an unusual component. Lightning.

While somewhat unusual, lightning sometimes occurs during snowstorms, especially large, regional ones such as what we just experienced. Even so, when the flashes illuminate a world of white, and thunder shakes the cottage, the scene takes on an otherworldly aspect.

Nobody can predict the weather for very far in the future. But so many of us feel a compulsion to make suppositions. And I suppose that if December, 2008, is any kind of indicator, then the Maine deer herd is in for a world of hurt.

Snow arrived early last year, too. According to my plowman, the first big storm hit during the second week of December. And rather than melting, the snow that fell last year remained on the ground, receiving regular supplements from additional storms. This caused whitetailed deer to seek the security of “deer yards,” places where snow depths are less and where they walk about, foraging on established paths. This gives some degree of protection from eastern coyotes and other marauders.

Any, by late winter, deer had pretty much exhausted all available browse and were subsiding on woody matter, filling but not nourishing. In the end, we lost great numbers of deer. They simply gave out. In fact, I heard reports of dead deer being found atop trees, right where they died. The snow finally melted, leaving the carcasses in the treetops. Bizarre, for sure.

So if we must endure a repeat performance of last year’s weather conditions, I suspect that the northern range of whitetailed deer will take a significant, southerly shift.

Skiers and snowmobilers, certainly, are happy. So one creature’s dilemma turns into someone else’s stroke of fortune. In the end, we can do nothing about any of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thorns and Roses

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Snow and cold, then rain and warm weather and then snow and cold again. Roller coaster weather conditions such as we have experienced in Maine over the last few weeks make for difficult driving and also, tough walking. In fact, the path leading from my house to the woodshed has melted and thawed countless times as of late. Now, the ice being coated with frost crystals and a light dusting of snow makes for treacherous walking.

I pondered a recent phone conversation on my way out for an armload of firewood. “If you’re careful,” my friend said, “You’ll never fall. But if your mind wanders, then you are in trouble.” Just thinking about that situation made my mind wander and I slipped. Instead of falling, I managed to catch myself. Still, the sudden flinging of arms and legs did little to help a sore back.

After regaining my composure, I continued on my way to the woodshed. I recalled, then, an incident from the far past. I was a youngster, and tripped while ice-skating. Joking with buddies, I became distracted and allowed one skate to catch on the other. The fall drove a tooth completely through my lower lip. Ever since then, I have become the proverbial soul of caution when walking on ice or other slippery surfaces.

For me, trouble comes when I’m not aware that the going is slick. A few years ago, I fell on an exposed cedar root. These, when growing above ground, are notoriously slippery. The fall made my feet dart out in front of me and I fell on my back, hurting a kidney. Now, I view every slippery-looking root with a mixture of caution and disdain.

But who can anticipate every danger? That’s not what life is all about anyway. So while I take more than reasonable care, I don’t look for problems either. I shall not allow the thorns to keep me from taking time to smell the roses.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Where is the outrage? Who rails against it? I mean the salt that we spread on our roads at the first hint of snow. The true reason behind the practice of salting roads is clear enough to me, but town fathers, road commissioners and of course, movers and shakers at the Maine Department of Transportation are blissfully unaware of it.

Do we contaminate springs, wells and groundwater, cause expensive motor vehicles to rust prematurely and kill untold plants, trees and shrubs solely to allow business and commerce to function at the same pace year-round? No, not at all. There exists a deeper reason.

The argument that salting roads makes for safer driving is spurious at best. Nothing is more difficult and shall I say, dangerous to drive on than slush, specifically the slush created when road “salt” is applied to snow.

I went shopping early this morning, as the season’s first significant snowstorm was at its worst. This was in order to avoid driving on salted roads. When snow falls at a rate that precludes spreading salt, most towns contain their efforts to keeping the roads plowed. Salt comes later. The exception to this is when an insignificant snow begins, a light dusting, too little for plowing. Then the salt flies out by the ton.

The country roads were as I had suspected, plowed but not salted. Driving was easy and in fact, the potholed road where I live was somewhat improved by virtue of snow filling the ruts and holes. Upon reaching town, though, things changed. Town crews had forgone plowing and instead, heaped application after application of salt on the roads, creating a five-inch layer of mush.

I recently learned how the Norwegians deal with snowy roads. Instead of salting, the wise Norse simply pack the roads down and drive on top of it. Yes, people must reduce their speed but their vehicles don’t rust out and accidents are fewer when compared to driving on slush.

But I digress. This story began with me about to reveal the real reason we salt roads. I have demonstrated what the reason isn’t and now I will reveal what it is. In our arrogant way, we want to control nature. And one way to do that is to spread enough salt on our roads that within a day, the surfaces are bare, as in summer. But who’s fooling whom? In the end, nature has her way. In response to our practice of pounding our wells, streams, ponds, lakes, springs and wetlands full of salt, nature has the final say. Once tainted, always tainted. And make no mistake, we are tainting our water with road salt. Is it really worth it? I say, emphatically, “no.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Limb Loss and Life Expectancy

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

This past week’s ice storm tore large limbs from the pine trees surrounding my cottage. This was in addition to those limbs lost to recent, hurricane-force winds, not to mention the limbs that succumbed to the great ice storm of 1998. Now, I can walk about and view huge, ancient pines with great gaps, long stretches of trunk where once limbs projected.

So why mention this at all? Well, the thing brings up a question, and I can’t come up with an answer. Let me explain. Trees need leaves in order to manufacture food, chlorophyll, through the process of photosynthesis. In the case of pines and other conifers, the needles perform the same function as leaves on deciduous trees.

So my question is this: What percentage of limbs can a tree lose before it can no longer produce enough food to maintain life? It’s possible that I will learn the answer the hard way, when my trees begin to die. But that’s a heck of a way to find out. Better, it seems, to find a tree expert and see if there is a formula for the thing.

In the long run, I’m certain that ice storm loss and wind damage has a beneficial effect, natural “pruning,” if you will. When one big, old tree dies, it opens the surrounding area and allows sunlight to penetrate the canopy. This, in turn, permits other trees to reach for the sky, literally. Nature works in mysterious ways.

How Much is Too Much?

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

This past week’s ice storm tore large limbs from the pine trees surrounding my cottage. This was in addition to those limbs lost to recent, hurricane-force winds, not to mention the limbs that succumbed to the great ice storm of 1998. Now, I can walk about and view huge, ancient pines with great gaps, long stretches of trunk where once limbs projected.

So why mention this at all? Well, the situation prompts a question, and I can’t come up with an answer. Let me explain. Trees need leaves in order to manufacture food, chlorophyll, through the process of photosynthesis. In the case of pines and other conifers, the needles perform the same function as leaves on deciduous trees.

So my question is this: What percentage of limbs can a tree lose before it can no longer produce enough food to maintain life? It’s possible that I will learn the answer the hard way, when my trees begin to die. But that’s a heck of a way to find out. Better, it seems, to find a tree expert and see if there is a formula regarding limb loss and life expectancy.

In the long run, I’m certain that ice storm loss and wind damage has a beneficial effect, natural “pruning,” if you will. When one big, old tree dies, it opens the surrounding area and allows sunlight to penetrate the canopy. This, in turn, permits other trees to reach for the sky, literally. Nature works in mysterious ways.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tom Doesn't Travel Well

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

“You don’t travel well,do you Tom,” a friend said as we stood waiting for a bus in the city of Montreal, Canada. I had forgotten to bring aspirin, and my back ached tremendously. Also, I was dead-tired from tossing and turning on my bed the night before, unable to sleep because of a strange setting and all the accompanying noises.

“No, I guess I don’t take to travel much to speak of,” I replied. “But if you think I’m bad, let me tell you about old Mr. Thomas, our neighbor when I lived at home with my folks.

Mr. Thomas was in his early 90’s at the time, I think. Anyway, he was my grandpa’s good friend. And in all of his 90-some years on this earth, he never traveled very far from his home in Belmont, Maine. So when grandpa asked Mr. Thomas if he would like to ride to Ellsworth with him, Mr. Thomas had to stop and think before he answered.”

“I never been to Ellsworth,” the old farmer said. “But since you ask, I guess it’s time I went.”

“So Mr. Thomas hopped into grandpa’s old Chevy and the two headed for Ellsworth, nearly 50 miles distant. Grandpa told me that his friend marveled at the sights and said that he wished he had gone on a road trip way sooner than he did. But better late than never.”

My friend cast me a quizzical gaze before climbing in the bus and settling down for the ride back to our hotel. He assumed, and rightly, that Montreal was about as far from home as I had ever been. In fact, like Mr. Thomas, I consider 40 miles or more a significant jaunt. And any locale 100 miles away rates as something of a foreign destination.

So call me backward, provincial, or whatever. But I just don’t like to travel very far from the pine-studded hillside on my little piece of Heaven here in Waldo, Maine.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Of Hares and Hounds

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Today saw the first measurable snow around my place. I could barely wait for daylight to go out and see what kind of critters had crossed my driveway during the early-morning hours. Fresh tracks on newly-fallen snow excite me.

Surprisingly, I saw only one kind of track. A hare had loped along the side of my drive and then slowly hopped down the center. But then it reversed direction and the tracks became farther apart, indicating that the bunny had put on a burst of speed. I wondered what might have alarmed the hare. The answer soon became evident.

Someone has the inconsiderate and displeasing habit of walking their dog along the road and stopping in front of my driveway, where it relieves itself either in the driveway or around the mailbox post. This morning, the evidence told me that the dog spotted the hare and made after it. The owner succeeded in stopping it before it went too far, though. The dog, obviously obedient, stopped and trotted back toward the road.

Normally, I would have pursued the hare myself, following its tracks as they led through high sedge and fir thickets. But with temperatures in the single numbers and 25 mile-an-hour winds, it was just too uncomfortable for that. Hopefully, the hare will survive and I will chase it on some other morning when the bushes hang heavy with new-fallen snow.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sun Dogs

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

As the sun drops behind the pines on the ridge in back of my house, I am surprised to see a prominent sun dog a few degrees east of the setting orb. And while my new, The American Heritage Dictionary carries no description of a sun dog, my 1969 Merriam-Webster dictionary does. It says, “A small nearly rounded halo on the parhelic circle most frequently just outside the halo of 22 degrees.” Of course to a non-scientist, this sounds like gobbledygook.

Not to pick a scrap with Merriam-Webster, but I have never seen a round sun dog. In every case, sun dogs that I witnessed were in the shape of a bar. These show the color spectrum the same as a rainbow.

Anyway, sun dogs precede storms. I think I heard something once about ice crystals in the atmosphere reflecting the sun’s rays, and thus a sun dog. I’m not certain if that’s so, but I do know that a sun dog is about the most reliable weather indicator going. When a sun dog appears in the afternoon sky, it’s for certain that a storm is neigh.

While one sun dog is a sure sign of oncoming bad weather, two give an infallible testimony. Tomorrow’s storm probably won’t be too severe, because I only saw a single sun dog.

By the way, I have also seen the word spelled sundog. But since Merriam-Webster was kind enough to include a description in their dictionary, I’ll adhere to their spelling…sun dog.

So call them sun dogs or sundogs, it doesn’t really matter. But remember that they are reliable weather prognosticators.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

December Bonus

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

December 1 usually marks the end of the year for foragers. But yesterday, I sat down to a plate of freshly-dug dandelions. These had grown in and around the edges of my vegetable garden. Unseasonably warm weather gave dandelions and a few other wild greens a chance for one, final push.

I had triple-tilled the garden this fall, in order to fully mix some sand that I had added to improve the soil’s tilth. So it surprised me to see dandelions poking their little, green heads up. But it just goes to show how tenacious these “weeds” are.

Soon, long stretches of below-freezing weather will put a final end to such shenanigans and my dandelions will have to come from the freezer, not the garden. But for now, I’m pleased to have continuing access to fresh, wild food.

I decided not to harvest a patch of chickweed, dark green and enticing, growing on a raised, “lasagna” bed. Since chickweed persists throughout the winter, it will be there when snow melts in spring. And by then, I’m sure I’ll need the cheer afforded by the first, wild plants.

What an odd, in-between month is December. Not yet winter, and well past fall. So until the proverbial hammer finally falls, I’ll gladly accept what nature offers.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Thanksgiving Day, 2008, dawned clear and sunny here at my woodland residence in Waldo, Maine. A thick coating of hoarfrost covered every surface and it delighted me to watch sunlight play across facets of each crystal, making them sparkle and shimmer.

I recall other Thanksgivings when conditions were more foreboding. For some time, I have traveled to the Lincolnville Beach home of friends to share the holiday with them. One year, a thick coating of ice covered trees, houses, cars and of course, roads. Creeping along a frozen thoroughfare near a river, I turned a sharp curve and there saw a policeman in the middle of the road, back-to. The cop was watching something, I didn’t know what.

This wouldn’t have bothered me except that the place where I was compelled to pause was no place for anyone to stop. The next vehicle to negotiate the icy road would probably come around the blind curve and slam into me. So I decided that I would proceed. The officer jumped in the air and waved his hands. Coming to my now-open window, he abused me verbally. I, in turn, told him that if my car got wrecked, he would be liable. At that point, he said that far up the road, a wrecker was pulling a vehicle out of the ditch and that was why the road was blocked.

I inquired as to road conditions elsewhere and the cop said similar situations were happening all over. I waited until the road was clear, drove another mile to a turn-around and went home to a lonely dinner of canned turkey and boiled sweet potatoes.

Another Thanksgiving Day saw the first snow of the season. This never melted, as most early snows do. Instead, it stayed on the ground until spring. That was the year when it was possible to shovel down a few feet and find unfrozen ground. We tilled our gardens early the following spring.

I remember the Thanksgiving while still living at home, we had a deer roast instead of the more traditional turkey. This was a small doe that I had shot and my grandma overcooked it, making it a bit dry. I recall being fascinated at the thick coating of condensation on the kitchen window, formed by all the steam coming from the cookstove. And though I was well below legal age, my grandpa gave me a bottle of beer. It tasted heavenly.

Thanksgivings come and Thanksgivings go and each year, we grow a bit older. Perhaps some day I will look back on this present Thanksgiving and remember little things such as the frosty, inviting morning.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

The life of a freelance writer has many drawbacks. But it also has certain merits, one of which is the great amount of personal freedom that such a life allows.

Sometimes, at least for me, a new day dawns and I wake up to find that I have no definite plans and no demands upon my time. Today being such a day, the topic of free time seems a fit topic for discussion.

In years past, rural folk had seasons when besides the daily chores, there really was little to do. That’s when people read, studied, fished, walked in the woods, played music and did just about what they wanted to do. For most people, that idyllic lifestyle seems no more than a dot on the i of the far distant past.

This being late November, I feel the call to sit on the beech ridge out back and wait for a deer to come by. But a Northeast storm filtered in during the night and now, rain, some wet snow and gale-force winds make that an unpleasant proposition. So I sit inside and watch the flames dance through the glass door of my woodstove. Later, I’ll work on one of my long-term projects. I have yet to decide whether that will be an unfinished novel or perhaps, the picture presentation of wild plants that I want to put together as a teaching tool.

In years past, I would drive down to the bay and watch spray flying off the tops of wind-whipped waves. But now, I find it more enjoyable to sit inside and watch through the window as pine trees whip and flex in the wind.

It’s a good day to put a pot of beans together, and to watch black-capped chickadees as they fly back and forth between the woods edge and a bird feeder hung on a plum tree in front of the house. But whatever I do today is solely my decision. It’s my time and I cherish it. A day such as today has worth far beyond any monetary gain that might present itself. Money can buy almost anything except time. And this is my time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Irish Knife

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

I feel naked without a jackknife in my pocket. A small, folding blade comes in handy for countless chores and it’s really hard to comprehend life without such a useful, even indispensable tool.

A thin blade and flat body suit me best. Bulky knives wear out pants pockets far too soon. Oddly enough, the thinner, flatter knives are a bit more expensive than larger types. So when, many years ago I saw a bucket of $4 knives on the counter at a local hardware store, it seemed like a waste of money. But upon closer examination, the knives, made in Ireland, appeared fairly well made and certainly worth the slight asking price. So I bought one, simply as a spare should I ever misplace my more expensive, everyday knife.

Soon after this, my favorite knife turned up missing. So I went to a drawer and found my Irish-made knife. It has relatively soft steel, so it doesn’t stay sharp for long. On the other hand, it takes an edge rather quickly. So I got by, at least until I felt comfortable in forking over what I considered a grand amount for a “good” knife.

As unbelievable as this sounds, I quickly lost the Irish-made knife. No problem, though, because I had my new knife. But that quickly vanished and before I had time to go out and buy a new knife, I located my Irish knife. It was some time before I bought another knife but eventually, I did. And even more unbelievably, I once again lost my new knife. So it was back to the old, Irish knife. At this point, I decided not to shell out any more money on knives, not as long as I had the Irish knife.

Two days ago, I lost my Irish knife and despite a diligent and prolonged search, decided that it was gone forever. I began planning where to shop for a new knife. But in bending over to pick up a bit of paper from the floor, I spotted a familiar object protruding from some folds in the upholstery of an easy chair. Yes, it was the Irish knife.

The grooves on the Irish handle are worn smooth, the end of the large blade has become rounded from using the thing as a Phillips screwdriver and in general, the old knife has seen better days. But I have no intention of ever parting with it, not willingly anyway. I figure that anything that keeps popping back up after being lost that many times deserves to stay in my pocket, at least until it finally disappears for good, of its own free will and accord.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hidden World Revealed

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Yesterday, the completed manuscript of my new book, Hidden World Revealed, went to the printer. Soon, I’ll have in hand a compilation of several years worth of notes, ideas, feelings and observations. I didn’t realize until now that the book actually represents many days of my life. Proofreading the manuscript brought to mind times and feelings, some happy and some melancholy.

Hidden World gives me a glimpse into myself. Without knowing it, the essays and accounts therein allow me to look at my life, my particular station in life and even my special niche in the world. Instant recall, that’s what I get when reading any of the essays. And believe it or not, the printed word can elicit clearer, more precise memories than even a photograph or recording.

A form of diary, Hidden World Revealed, follows changes through the seasons. It chronicles plant and animal behavior and also, human behavior. After all, we are all part of nature, like it or not.

Hopefully, my book will encourage others to partake of nature, or at least to become more aware of the natural world. I enjoyed living it, writing it and now I enjoy reading it. It was a great honor for me that Nancy Randolph, of Just Write Books, agreed to publish and promote my contribution. I hope everyone else likes Hidden World as much as I do.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Freezer Foraging

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

As we go into the third week of November, winter sits just around the corner. Even now, wild edibles are scarce. Wild plant fans are limited to harvesting roots and a few evergreen leaves. Diligent foragers, though, have one prime location left…the home freezer.

My freezer contains, among other things, fiddleheads, dandelions, stinging nettles and curled dock. Who would think to find such unorthodox treats in a freezer? On the other hand, why shouldn’t wild edibles share shelf space with more conventional fare? After all, the above-named plants lend themselves well to freezing. Fiddleheads, for instance, keep their integrity for a year or more when properly packaged and frozen.

So while others content themselves with a winter diet of wilted produce from the supermarket, I re-live glorious days afield by foraging in my freezer. Some may revel in spinach soufflé, but I luxuriate in fiddlehead Alfredo. Steamed nettles complete with a dash of lemon and enhanced with a pepper medley, bring a flush of warmth to wind-whipped cheeks. And instead of broccoli grown in Mexico and treated with who-knows-what kind of chemicals, I enjoy the occasional side dish of naturally-grown dandelion greens.

What about those souls who failed to put up foraged foods this past season? Well, there’s nothing for it now but when spring rolls around, which it always does, it might pay to embark on a campaign to fill the home freezer with tasty, nutritious wild edibles.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Misplaced Values

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

How far the State of Maine has fallen from the days when rural residents met in some small town and asked one another, “Get your deer yet?”

In the days of my youth, getting a winter supply of meat for your family was a token of honor. “Young Tom did all right,” one old-timer might say to another upon hearing that I had procured some venison. Today, nobody asks and nobody tells. In fact, most of us make it a point to remove any type of clothing that might mark us as hunters before venturing into town.

Only today, I went to my doctor’s office to pick up some medications and the receptionist, the doctor’s wife, asked me the age-old question, did I get my deer. She then went on to tell how one of my neighbors, a young lady who often brings home the proverbial bacon, “got her deer” just last week. To this, a woman in the waiting room who had apparently been eavesdropping began moaning about “the poor deer.”

I addressed her in a gentle manner and reminded her that she was being rude. Then, a man standing nearby began to chuckle. He wore a smirk that you could spot a mile away. I shook my head in disgust and walked out.

Such is the treatment that anyone guilty of obtaining their own food from our woods and waters is apt to receive in this age of misplaced values.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November Wood

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

A dearth of blogs as late reflects my pre-occupation with fall chores, the most demanding of which was putting up firewood. But now, thanks to several good and caring friends who helped me in the daunting task, my shed brims with split firewood.

Also, for the first time in a long time, I have plenty wood left over for next year. This does not happen often and it wouldn’t have happened this year were it not for outside help.

Now, in mid-November, we in Mid-Coast Maine are in the most difficult time of year for wood burning. To wit, it’s not cold enough to burn good hardwood but it’s too cold not to burn something. Burning maple, ash or beech now makes for an overly-hot fire. And woodstoves have no off/on switch. So fitting wood in the fire at night before retiring requires a keen eye to the thermometer and a responsive ear to the weather report.

I like a mixture of poplar and white birch for these moderately chilly but not bitter-cold nights. By morning, if things go right, enough coals remain that it takes only 10 minutes or so to stir up a new blaze. I could easily circumvent this hit-or-miss exercise by simply turning on my propane heater. But the increased cost of propane irks me to the point that I prefer taking a chance on being cold. Besides, burning wood makes me feel good. The stuff comes from my woodlot. It’s there for the taking and so I burn wood.

Soon, we who burn wood will tire of the process and hope for spring, when we can once again let the stove grow cold. But as for now, that tang in the air of woodsmoke invigorates me.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Second Bloom

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

It’s that time of year when many plants, including flowering shrubs, go into a limited, second bloom. I noticed yesterday that a pussy willow by my house has sprouted new, velvety-gray catkins. But we are heading into winter, not spring. So what gives?

Well, we have had a number of unusually cold nights and now the current spate of warm weather has tricked plants into thinking that spring has arrived. This is in no way harmful, and since the plants are only partly enthusiastic about blooming, they won’t suffer a bit when genuine spring arrives many months from now.

It’s interesting, though, to go out and check for what shrubs are in bloom. Forsythia, that famous springtime treat, frequently goes into a limited blooming period now. And speaking of forsythia, a native shrub with yellow, forsythia-like flowers naturally blooms at this time of year. Witch hazel never has quite as many individual blossoms as forsythia but I like it as well or better. And witch hazel is more than just another pretty shrub. It is useful as well.

Witch hazel distillate is something that I make certain to keep fresh and on hand. This is made from the woody part of the plant and is a safe and effective old-time remedy for cuts, bruises, dry skin and insect bites. Plus, it has a pleasant aroma.

So get out and enjoy this last flush of blooming vegetation. It won’t last long, I guarantee that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Meadow Voles

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Two years ago, meadow voles nearly destroyed all my fruit trees. My oldest apple tree survived only because of a successful bridge graft. I had never done that kind of graft, but it was a do-or-die situation and luckily, it worked out. The next fall, I was careful to wrap my tree trunks with a protective barrier. This was held on with florist’s wire.

To digress, meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus, tunnel under the snow and have the uncanny ability to locate fruit trees as well as ornamental trees and shrubs. There, protected by their frozen roof, they gnaw not only the bark but also the roots. When they manage to girdle a tree or shrub, the plant dies (unless dramatic steps are taken, such as my bridge graft).

So when I saw a meadow vole dart across the path leading to my house, it spurred me to look about and see where it was heading. A thick bunch of chives on one side and a grassy thatch around the apple tree in front of my door made up points A and point B, where the vole traveled. These rodents are active both day and night, so it wasn’t unusual that I spotted it.

I tried several ways to kill the vole and any other voles that may use the same route. But my efforts were in vain. So my best hope was to at least check my trees to see if the wrapping was still intact. And to my amazement, I found that in the one year that the wraps and wire were on the trees, the diameter of their trunks had increased dramatically. The trees were, in fact, growing around the wires. I immediately clipped all the wires and re-wrapped, this time in a looser manner.

So I learned two things. One, that voles are not going away any time soon and two, young fruit trees grow much faster than I ever imagined.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Rainbow

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

On Tuesday, I drove to Bangor to interview someone for a magazine. Visiting cities, even small ones, never sets well with me and I always find myself eager to conclude my business as quickly as possible in order to get out of town as soon as possible. This day was no exception.

So after finishing my interview, I decided to take the first road out of town rather than drive back through the city. This was Route 2, and it headed west. I hadn’t been on this road for a long, long time but the general direction was right and so all was fine. It wasn’t long before traffic thinned to practically nil, leaving me on a country road with all kinds of possibilities.

Before continuing, let me back up a bit in order to mention the rainbow. Just after leaving my driveway that morning and getting out on the main road, I saw a full rainbow superimposed on a leaden sky. One leg of the rainbow appeared to be anchored somewhere near my cottage. This seemed a good omen and bode well for the rest of the day.

Back to my trip home. A powerful windstorm had removed the last, clinging leaves from deciduous trees, which cast a new and different aspect to the landscape. Now, sunlight shone unimpeded on hill, wood and field. But the tone, the shade of this sunlight was decidedly different from that of summer or early fall. It was egg-yolk yellow, with not a bit of glare or harshness. And the contrast between sunlight objects and those in the shade was marked and powerful.

I sensed a feeling of peace and since there were no anxious or determined drivers close behind me, I slowed down to a few miles below the posted speed limit and enjoyed the view. It was a treat for the senses. Every old barn I saw had character, imparted partially at least by the angle and tone of the light. Golden corn stubble stood in naked fields, Canada geese appeared black, silhouetted against the sky and over everything and in everything, a sense of stillness prevailed.

Upon arriving home, I walked around the lawn and inspected my newly-tilled garden plot, picking up the soil and crumbling it in my palm to test the tilth. Just before going inside, I looked out in the sky and gave thanks. The rainbow had kept its promise.

Monday, October 27, 2008


It’s that time of year again when people stop along the East Waldo Road and pick branchlets from common winterberry, Ilex verticillata. This shrub loses its leaves but the bright-red berries hold fast and persist until birds turn to them as starvation food in mid-winter.

Winterberry is a form of holly, although it is rarely recognized as such. Anyway, it’s commonly used in holiday decorating, mostly in sprays and on wreaths. The road where I live, East Waldo Road, is lined with winterberry and now that the leaves have fallen, the brightly-colored berries contrast sharply with a brown and gray background.

Once, I wondered if regular picking of the branch tips would harm the shrub. Excess pruning can and does set back domestic fruit trees and shrubs. But over the years that I have observed several winterberry bushes along the road, it looks as if this seasonal “tipping” has little or no effect upon the plant.

Even if picking did harm the plants, casual pickers are by and large lazy and unwilling to venture far from the road in order to harvest winterberry branchlets. So shrubs that are more than 20 feet or so from the travel lane remain untouched, to provide life and excitement during those colorless, dismal days of November.

By spring, all the berries will have vanished and the shrubs will again fade into relative obscurity. That is, until next fall when the leaves drop and the red berries once again assume center stage in nature’s road show.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Devil Dogs

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Last night, as so frequently happens, I was rudely awakened by demonic-sounding howls. Some were high-pitched, long and drawn out. Others guttural and abbreviated. These were eastern coyotes and by the sound, there were lots of them.

At first my sleep-muddled mind thought, “Where did all these dogs come from? Who has dogs?” Then I remembered that the few neighbors within hearing distance don’t have dogs. What really puzzled me was that the sounds came from varying compass points. It appeared that the initial bunch of these devil-dogs had initiated a kind of spontaneous “howl-in.”

Now fully awake and a little bit angry, I concentrated my attention upon the source and depth of the screams and howls. The closer ones were easy to pinpoint. Then, far away, others would answer. The whole woods rang with the most horrifying sounds.

Some people, particularly those who do not suffer the indignity of regularly being awakened by these wild mutts, might find some kind of twisted romance in all of this. The “call of the wild,” and that sort of thing. But when this happens two or three times a week, it quickly gets old.

I will say that I don’t like coyotes. Not because they have effectively extirpated all the varying hares in my part of Maine and not because they kill more than their fair share of deer. I dislike them because they intrude upon my sleep, leaving me fatigued and even a little shaky. Devil dogs, that’s what they are.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Importance of Stratification

Spring-Flowering bulbs fascinate me. It’s time to plant crocus, snowdrops, daffodils and so on, which always strikes me as odd. None of these are buried anywhere deep enough to escape freezing, so why plant them now? Wouldn’t in make more sense to wait until spring, when the ground thaws and then plant our bulbs?

The truth is, bulbs absolutely will freeze, but that freezing doesn’t kill them. In fact, like so many other nascent life forms, certain seeds for example, bulbs need a period of stratification, or time spent in a cold environment. Even knowing this, I find it an act of faith to go out on the hillside behind my place and plant spring-flowering bulbs in October.

Besides buying some bulbs to plant outside, I always reserve a few for forcing indoors. I use hyacinth for this, since they are by far the most fragrant. Along about the end of February, when my winter-weary soul cries for some sign of spring, I’ll take my bulbs out of the refrigerator (these, too, need their period of stratification) and place them in a special, bulb-forcing jar. Then just when I need them the most, my bulbs break out in a burst of color and heady fragrance.

Probably we humans, too, need our time of stratification. I know that even though I inwardly complain about winter, I could never find joy in a place that had no winter. It’s the contrast of the seasons, point-and-counterpoint that adds spice and interest to life. Live out my days walking on some tropical beach in a place that never sees a frost? No thank you, that’s not for me.

So I’ll begrudgingly accept my enforced period of stratification. That way, the coming spring will be all the sweeter.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

View from the back door

My morning routine involves first lifting the shade of my bedroom window and looking outside at my woodshed roof to see whether or not it is covered with frost. Then, coming downstairs, I’ll look out the front door to scan the now-empty vegetable garden. Finally, my steps take me to the back door and the view there.

My backyard, really a pine-studded hillside, often holds early-morning surprises such as a passing deer or any number of different birds. And always, I inspect the three apple trees planted there by a low, rail fence. Even now, after numerous hard freezes, a few rubbery leaves cling to branches, tenacious, unwilling to release their grip and thereby signal the end to this past growing season.

It pleases me to know that I am doubtless the first human to tarry on these precise coordinates on the globe. Plenty of nearby places are better suited for house or even camp. The ground where my cottage stands was never tilled, whereas the hillside down the road a bit shows evidence of long-ago cultivation. So except for wandering hunter-gatherers, nobody has ever lived right here, at least until I arrived. To me, that’s very special and even a bit humbling.

On a 20-degree morning such as this, with not a speck of wind, wood smoke from my stove climbs straight up. But with the sun comes the first, gentle zephyr. This interrupts the smoke column. Then, as warming air continues to rise, brief gusts punch and jab at the rising smoke and standing on my back deck, I get a whiff of pungent birch. Thus my day begins, full of expectation and wonder.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rain or Don't

Rain or don’t. That’s what I say on a day such as today. The weather forecaster called for rain, heavy in the afternoon and continuing throughout the night and into tomorrow. So I worked like heck on some outdoor chores and when the first drops fell, went inside for an afternoon of office work.

But the rain never came. In fact, the sun poked out, tantalizing and provocative. So I thought well, I’ll head out again. But then the sky darkened and it looked as though surely, rain was imminent. But again, the sky lightened. This pattern continued all afternoon. How does someone plan their time when the weather can’t make up its mind?

I don’t care for days like this. Rain or don’t, that’s what I say.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


October to me means frost-coated mornings and still days under cerulean skies, a thin veneer of wood smoke hanging low to the ground and the earthy scent of newly-dead leaves. I remember once standing around a pickup truck talking with some neighbors. It was one of those still, cold mornings mentioned above. One guy looked around at the dazzling reds, yellows and purples surrounding us and said, “I wish it could be October all year round.”

I understood what he meant, too. A transition time, October has its fleeting moments of grandeur, followed by a more somber period at month’s end. Today was one of those grand October days, and it will go down in memory for a hundred different reasons, all of them good.

October colors are pure Technicolor, straight out of an old John Wayne movie. I almost expect, upon getting up in the morning and stepping outside to greet the day, to see credits emblazoned across the heavens: “Brought to you by God, starring…”

Shadows now are longer than a month ago, and the contrast between light and shadow is striking. And at sunset, temperatures quickly plummet, a radical departure from how it was only a month or two ago.

Splitting and stacking firewood makes its irresistible demands upon free time and that’s okay. Today, two friends came to help me with the task. This was their own idea and I could not dissuade them from it.
And while it was hard work, we had a grand time. Banter flowed, as did jokes and well-intended, friendly barbs. At day’s end, my woodshed was about half full, an impressive feat for one day.

Take weather and scenery so grand that I wish I could put in a bottle and save it for later, mix it with the fellowship of good friends and a general sense of peace with the world, and the result becomes something very, very special. October is good.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pond Life

Today I wrote my trout-fishing column for The Maine Sportsman Magazine. The piece centered on natural baits. Several of the insects that I suggested using as bait are easily gathered with a hard tooth rake.

The method is simple. Go to a shallow, weedy pond and stand at water’s edge. Then, extend the rake as far as possible and let the head sink to bottom. Next, draw the rake back, bringing with it as much leaves, sticks, weeds and muck as possible. The aquatic insects and so on will then head back to the pond as soon as they can free themselves from the accumulated debris.

I found only one of the critters that I sought, but one was enough to take pictures to illustrate my column. But the exercise had more rewards than just a few photos for a column. I found all kinds of critters, things I hadn’t expected.

The first pull of the rake produced a half-dozen tadpoles. In late fall, frogs, toads and their tadpoles become pretty much out of sight and out of mind. But this exercise reminded me that tadpoles, or pollywogs, remain active all winter and are frequently seen moving about under the ice.

Next, I found a number of leeches. This surprised me. After all, I was working in my trout pond and didn’t expect to find any of these here. It would seem that the trout would have eaten them all. But they are present in numbers, telling me that swimming in my pond may result in getting attacked by bloodsuckers, a morose thought.

One haul produced only one critter, but an interesting one. A newt struggled with the wet leaves and sticks and finally freed itself. I watched as it clumsily padded its way back to the pond.

My last item of interest came with the final pull of the rake. A giant water bug, it was. The thought came to mind that if I’d had someone with me who was not familiar with giant water bugs, they probably would ask if these things could bite. I spoke the answer out loud. “Yes, they bite. They have a wicked beak and can inflict a nasty wound.” Nobody heard me, of course, but I really didn’t care.

So my project for this afternoon was a roaring success. I have a few photos for my column but more important, I learned that just because fall is here, with winter close behind, life goes on under the water. Inspirational stuff, to be sure.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sea Conks

A quick stop at a seafood market in Bangor brought with it a pleasant surprise. There, among haddock fillets, lobster meat and sides of red snapper, were a number of containers that read, “Down East Whelks.” These I instantly recognized as the so-called, “sea conks” of days gone by.

These mollusks are anathema to lobster fishermen. The carnivorous sea conks, or whelks, eat far more than their fair share of expensive lobster bait. As late as the 1970s, pickled whelks were a common sight in stores and fish markets up and down the Maine coast. But a string of laws, rules and reguations put this down-home industry out of business.
Anyway, to find these traditional treats for sale once again brought back a flood of pleasant memories, scenes of driving around on the Washington County blueberry barrens, fishing, hunting and always, eating pickled sea conks.

Appreciating this old-time treat takes some getting used to for many sensitive palates. The rubbery texture and snail-like appearance often puts people off. But for me, I can think of nothing better. Well, there is something better. “Bloaters,” or smoked alewives, are another traditional treat that government regulations have served to take off our table. But that’s another story for another blog.

For now, I’m just thankful to have access to one of my favorite, old-time foods. Long live the sea conk.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Preparing For Winter

My last stick of firewood was hauled from the woods and deposited along my driveway. Now it remains to be cut up, split and stacked. Normally this takes a couple of days. But this year is different.

For whatever reason, I now have two years or more worth of wood piled and staring me in the face. Never, have I had this much wood ahead. And the prospect of working it up seems so daunting that I almost would rather that it just go away. But it isn’t going anywhere, of course.

Help is scheduled to come this weekend and barring an unexpected bout of rain, we should get a cord or so finished. The rest will remain for me to pick at as time allows. And then, after that last stick has been secured under cover of my woodshed, I’ll sit back and relax.

At that point, I’ll sit back and take an inventory. Food aplenty sits in my freezer and homemade canned goods line my shelves. The cupboards are filled with freshly dried herbs to fight colds and flues. And winter squash are nestled here and there, even on bookshelves.

So the day will come, and pretty soon, when I can say, “Let it snow. I’m prepared.”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Late-Season Harvest

One night last week, temperatures plummeted to the high 20s. Before that, several nights in the low 30s covered the landscape with a thick coating of frost. That was all it took to transform bitter dandelions into succulent greens.

Even better, I noticed that where a truck had dumped a load of sand for amending my garden soil, dandelions had apparently grown up and migrated through the sand in their quest for light. This made them easy to dig, root and all. So with basket in one hand and a dandelion digger in the other, I harvested a late-season bounty of sweet dandelions.

Fresh wild edibles are on their way out and soon, snow will cover the frozen ground. But until then, we foragers must keep our eyes open to every fleeting opportunity to reap where we didn’t sow. Groundnuts, Jerusalem Artichokes and dandelions lie waiting for the industrious forager. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Thoughts on Weeds

Yesterday was garden clean-up day. Weeds, brought in with a load of not-quite-composted cow manure, fought me tooth and nail all summer. And by season’s end, they had won the contest. But now, with most of the weeds pulled and hauled away, the tide of battle has swung my way.

Of course all was not bad regarding those “weeds.” Many of them were excellent edibles and I frequently ate my weeds while waiting for the more familiar cultivated vegetables to ripen. Galinsoga, purslane and lamb’s quarters provided many a healthful side dish. By July, though, the weeds had literally outgrown their worth.

The culprit, of course, was near-continual rain. It rained and rained and rained. The dry periods between rains were not of sufficient duration to fully dry the soil or the vegetables. This kept me out of the garden and spurred the weeds toward unprecedented growth.

But now, at season’s end, all this makes little difference. No one knows what next year will bring and all we can do is hope for the best and act accordingly. One thing remains perfectly clear, though. No matter what, those pesky weeds will return. I’ll utilize them to the fullest extent and if they finally get the upper hand, I might even cuss them. That’s all part of the self-sufficient lifestyle.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wild Places

Wild is where you find it. My place in Mid-Coast Maine lies only about six miles from the small city of Belfast. And yet, I am more isolated than some of my friends who live in the Moosehead Lake Region. Of course it all depends upon location, and I am located well off of a poorly-maintained dirt road.

Situated off the road as I am, I have no neighbors that I can see and only a few that I can even hear. Setting out from my front door and taking a quick right-face, I can walk for many miles through unbroken woodland. So despite the relative nearness of Belfast and a sprinkling of new neighbors up and down the road, I live in a wild setting.

A 15-minute hike to the nether reaches of my woodlot brings me to a place of near-perfect tranquility. Visitors here often comment upon the quiet. They are impressed with the absence of traffic noise and with a general lack of sound from commerce and industry. Again, this apparent wildness suites me fine.

Little backwaters of nature, cul-de-sacs where the hum of machinery cannot penetrate, exist throughout the length and breadth of Maine. These unsung sanctuaries are anodyne to those whose spirits require peace and quiet. Fortunate am I to have found a wild place all of my own.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Secret Tree

Nearly 30 years ago, while cutting pulpwood on a woodlot in the Town of Waldo, the landowner asked me to go with him to try and find a very special tree. He said that in the beginning, he had simply stumbled upon the tree. After that, he had gone back to view it several times and each time, had great difficulty in pinpointing the tree’s location.

We had the same problem and again, only found the tree by sheer accident. As we slogged through boggy, wet ground, getting slapped in the face by alders and attacked by mosquitoes, our quest seemed a terrible waste of time and energy. And then, in the middle of a small clearing, we found the “Secret” tree. As red maples go, it was pretty much a maverick. Bent, twisted and at once beautiful and grotesque, the tree bespoke of the amazing tenacity that is built into every living thing. Damaged at some date far in the past, the tree grew down and then back up, a living pretzel. And of all things, the tree had a hollow section on the bottom, large enough so that a small animal could easily pass through it.

We marveled for a while, and then went back to work dropping and limbing fragrant, balsam fir to sell to the pulp mill in Bucksport. But the picture of the secret tree remained emblazoned upon my mind’s eye, never to be forgotten. Today, I own that woodlot and in fact, live on it. And the secret tree? It stands on the edge of a little pond that I dug just in front of it and it is the focal point of a small clearing. Over the years, I have planted various perennial plants and shrubs along the little path leading from my house, up a gentle hill to the pond and the secret tree. The clearing, with the pond and tree, are a destination of worth and scarcely a day passes but what I don’t make the short pilgrimage up the hill, to gaze in wonder at the secret tree.

So the tree has become part of my life. And to think that at one time, it was all I could do to even locate it. But now I am familiar with the tree in every season, from soft, pastel spring to crimson fall and into stark, black-and-white winter. The tree is mine now, and I am its.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Animals have regular habits, which makes them predictable. They sleep, eat, hunt, mate and travel according to a timetable which, in turn, is pretty much dictated by the changing seasons. At one time, when we as a race of beings were more attuned to nature, humans followed a more-or-less regular routine. This, I believe, is healthy and good. Most people today have long since deviated from any nature-related or dependent schedule.

Regular mealtimes, or lack thereof, are a prime example of how far we have departed from what was once the norm. When I was young, we ate breakfast around 7 a.m. and had what was then termed, “dinner” at 12 noon. Supper, what people now call dinner, was set at no later than 6 p.m. Lunch was more properly termed, “a” lunch, meaning a snack. This was taken at any time.

For whatever reason or reasons, I never outgrew the regular meal schedule that I had become accustomed to as a youngster. In my circle of friends, I am pretty much alone in this, at least to the best of my knowledge. Anyway, if I miss an occasional breakfast it’s no big deal. But when noontime rolls around, I really feel hunger pangs and must eat. And to miss supper sets the stage for feeling not-so-red-hot the next day.

Many of my friends are of a habit of dropping in to visit around 6 p.m. and no matter how I plead with them to share my meal, they refuse. Back at home, most of them finally sit down to eat at 9 p.m. or even later. Anyway, these evening visits result in me putting my food away in the refrigerator, uneaten, and hungrily waiting for my visitor to leave so that I can finally sit down and eat. But by then, the much-anticipated, whatever I had prepared, has lost much of its appeal.
Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older that I tire in late afternoon. But I don’t think that completely explains it. My best working times, and that goes for mental as well as physical work, are in the morning and early afternoon. So any mid-morning or early afternoon distraction, be it visitors or phone calls, detracts from my productive time. Yet, I see my friends doing their work, whatever it is, at all different hours. It just seems that this cannot be good.

My buddy, who works in the woods with me cutting firewood on my woodlot, likes to start the workday about two hours before pitch dark. For me, that’s when I’m winding down. He wonders why I am rarely enthusiastic about going out and doing physical labor at this time of day. Again, I think that this isn’t good. Late afternoons and early evenings are for relaxing. Of course everyone hasn’t the luxury to follow my suggested routine. All I’m saying is that I see a marked difference between my habits and times of doing things and those of my friends.
It all boils down to this: I live a different kind of life than that experienced by most people. I still act and respond according to natural rhythms. And those natural rhythms tell me that a somewhat dependable, predictable routine is a good, healthful thing.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Home [on the] Range

Consult any field guide to mammals and it will indicate, among other things, the average home range of each animal species. This does not mean that the animal might not stray much further, but rather delineates the day-in, day-out territory the critter covers in its regular travels.

Humans are much the same. We all have a home range, and I consider that the territory that we cover on foot rather than by any mechanized conveyance. For some, that home range or territory is no larger than their house and yard. For others, it can cover many miles. For me, it’s easy to pinpoint an exact size. It’s ten acres, the size of my woodlot.

I walk around my woods on a regular basis. If something is amiss, I’m quick to see it. Changes are quickly noted and I feel about as “in charge” of my home range as anyone could ever be. That’s not to say that I exercise much control over things, but only that I am aware of what goes on.

For instance, I am aware that a huge, ancient white pine has died. This, along with some others, was irreparably damaged by the ice storm of 1998. And only now, are these powerful giants of the plant kingdom finally relinquishing their grip on this earth. Of course there’s nothing I can do to bring my tree back. So instead, I’ll cut it and haul it to a nearby sawmill. There, it will go toward pine boards to be used in building a planned addition to my cottage.

Taking this home range idea a step further, I heard a radio interview with a man, an author, who wrote a book about his circle experiment. He took a map showing his property, placed a saucer over it with his house in the center of the saucer and drew a circle. Then he proceeded to identify and date every house, mill and historic site within the circle. My home range project is not as ambitious. It only involves identifying all the plants growing on my range.

On the other hand, keeping track of everything that grows and everything that happens on my ten acres, entails considerable effort. But it’s fun and more to the point, it’s rewarding. If I can describe my home range in detail, then I really do have some kind of relationship with it, something deeper than simply paying Caesar his due, in the form of yearly property taxes.

I suggest that anyone can learn a lot by taking a closer look at their home range.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Last Trout

Maine’s open-water season on trout ends today, September 30. So I went trout fishing. April 1, opening day, is a cheery holiday for me but September 30 rings with sweet, melancholy thoughts about fast-vanishing days, weeks, months and years.

It seems like only yesterday that I arose in the pre-dawn hours, dressed in heavy clothing to ward off the cold and headed for the nearest trout stream. There, I was rewarded with several icy, lethargic but nonetheless appreciated, brook trout. That’s opening day. Today was different, though.

In April, anticipation fills the spirit. Every little sign of green, every swelling bud and each brilliantly-colored brook trout that takes my hook, betokens the coming, new life. The sweet air, pregnant with possibilities and promise, buoys my soul and enlivens my step. Today, though, things are in reverse.

I love brook trout. To me, nothing that God ever created matches their form and beauty. A casual observer might say that all brook trout look the same. They do not. Yes, all have certain characteristics and those include white piping on the leading edge of pectoral, ventral and anal fins, yellow dots interspersed with red dots inside of blue halos and wavy vermiculations on the back. But these standard features vary from fish to fish.

Trout of late September are nearly ready for spawning and their colors are twice as brilliant as in spring. Each individual fish might serve as a subject for a great painter, each one remarkable as a thing of exceeding beauty. So while I feel a bit sad because the season ends today, I know that in six months, I will once again climb out of bed in the blackness of early morning and head for that little trout stream, there to fulfill a promise and re-enact a ritual that I have participated in for many, many years.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Life In The Face of Death

Fall signals the end of green, living things. Or does it? Even now as autumn leaves turn yellow, orange and purple, plants are putting energy into their next incarnation.

Look at any perennial plant. There, at its base, grows a little package of life, the nascent plant of next growing season. Trees and shrubs, too, work to perpetuate their productive lives. As chlorophyll production dwindles and finally ceases, new buds form. These will brave winter cold and dessicating winds. And sometime next spring, the little buds we see now will unfold, making good, reassuring us regarding the eternal promise of continuity and continuance.