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.