Monday, April 27, 2009

Tom the Wildflower Apologist

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Maine abounds in spring-blooming wildflowers. These range from everyday types such as common blue violet and coltsfoot, to the ephemeral bloodroot, which, while beautiful in its simplicity, has only a brief flowering time. Add to this mix the different trilliums and a smattering of lady’s slippers and we have a delightful potpourri of natural beauty.

Springtime wildflowers have such visual appeal that even while driving down a country lane, these vernal blooms literally jump out at me. I often stop and gaze, spellbound at the wonder and beauty of nature.

So why, then, do so many property owners ignore these same plants that so thrill and mesmerize me? I’ll cite two cases, either of which serves to make my point. First, a man bought a beautiful, riverside estate, complete with fields, gardens and a variety of ornamental trees and shrubs. But the place also came with an untamed bit of land where several kinds of wildflowers grew. This was the place the man selected as a parking spot for his truck and also, some farm machinery.

In spite of this abuse, the wildflowers continue to sprout, although their once-Elysian setting now more closely resembles a parking lot.

The other instance of blatant disregard for existing beauty happened just the past week, on the road where I live. A landowner has decided to build a new driveway. All well and good. Unfortunately, the site is (was) occupied by an immense stand of purple trilliums. These were plainly visible from the road and many of us considered them indicators of true spring. Motorists, walkers and bicyclists marveled at the beauty of their deep-red blossoms. And now they’re gone.

This wasn’t the only available site for a new drive, either. But what are a few wildflowers, to someone who cares little for nature?

I’ve always felt that the flowers that grow here on their own rival and sometimes exceed cultivated varieties for sheer beauty. Perhaps someday, others will take time to kneel down and examine some of these hauntingly-beautiful flowers. And then, maybe, they will think differently about plowing them under. We can only hope.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I'm Baaa-ck

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

My blog has been absent for a while, and I must apologize for that. Further, I want to explain why. About 10 months ago, I suffered a huge, financial loss. The newspaper chain I worked for was bought out by an out-of-state interest. This group had gotten a grant and had a new plan for running papers, a plan that included not paying writers and journalists. Instead, they would rely upon non-professionals who were happy to contribute solely for the purpose of seeing their names in print. So after 22 years, I was canned.

The hurt, which I took personally, never stopped. Until today. This needs further explanation. In addition to the newspaper work, I write for magazines. I have written for a regional magazine for about as long as I did the newspapers. This has been my economic salvation. In addition, I have gotten some new accounts, but these are not sufficient to pay bills. “What would happen if my magazine goes under?” I was swamped with what-if’s and undue worry.

And so I suffered. “How will I get by? What will happen to me?” Even worse, I stopped enjoying nature. I worried about what the people over me said, to the point that my stomach was constantly tied in knots, trying to please and appease.

I knew something was wrong when I went out on a sunny, warm spring morning and instead of basking in the glory of nature, worried about my economic status. Clearly, I was in trouble.

But no more, no more. Today, April 26, 2009, I had an epiphany. None of us will live forever. Each day is precious. So I see that worrying, trying to please people for some little sum of money is the ultimate in self-abuse. Whatever happens, economically, I will no longer trade my happiness for some vague idea of financial security.

As a forager, I know that I can get by. Maybe I’ll need to rely upon my outdoor skills more than ever. And just maybe, something good will come along and lift me out of these economic doldrums. But never again will I trade one, happy spring day for needless worry.

I thank God that I have the ability to see my foibles and to change my ways. Now, I can once again go out and enjoy the nature that I so love, to the fullest.

I urge every reader to adopt a similar mindset. Each day is precious, especially when spent enjoying the immense beauty of creation.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Capricious April

April has me at her beck and call. The fourth month of our calendar year, most capricious of the twelve, plays with my physical being as well as my emotions.

The dismal, gray landscape that greets me each morning does little to encourage the spirit or to inspire creativity. Huge piles of dirty snow remain on the edge of my lawn, along my driveway and worst of all, on top of my vegetable garden. I live in a valley, carved out long ago by a small stream. Here, tall pines cast long shadows and sunrise, at least the physical appearance of earth’s star, arrives much later than the almanac would suggest.

Daytime temperatures only in the mid-40s make it necessary to wear a jacket for outdoor work, especially under cloudy skies. Such conditions also dictate that we continue to pay homage to the woodstove. Without a fire, the house becomes cold and clammy. But wood doesn’t burn well now because the same temperatures that call for a fire also keep the chimney from drawing. Smoke fills the room each time the stove door opens and when the wood finally catches, it burns for only a brief time before regressing to a low-grade smudge.

Melting snow and ice create sinkholes in the dooryard and in the driveway. Long-forgotten logs and rocks, pushed up by the retreating frost, become stumbling blocks for the unwary. Water from snowmelt forms wide pools, mandating the use of “walking boards.” These are stored in the barn and only used in April. When the land finally dries, they go back to storage, out of sight and out of mind for another year.

Spring bulbs emerge, but refuse to bloom. These need sunlight and for days, even weeks, the sun seems so very distant and foreign. Accordingly, crocuses, tulips and daffodils send up their leafy tips but keep their colorful blossoms under wraps.

The storm systems that sweep through Maine every week or so signal their arrival by causing arthritic joints to ache. Fingers become stiff and unresponsive. Oddly, the onset of low-pressure systems causes the most physical discomfort. When the system finally arrives, symptoms gradually fade.

But April has an alternate persona, maddeningly shy and reclusive. This other personality holds a promise, one that makes the fourth month’s dark side so difficult to endure. If it wishes, April’s sun can send healing warmth to our very bones and joy to our hearts.

April’s grandeur has no peers. Hayfields become carpets of soothing green and poplars on distant ridges, all decked out in swaths of gauzy, pastel green, contrast perfectly with scarlet red maple flowers. Fire on faraway blueberry fields sends out tantalizing streamers of fragrant smoke.

April, if it only chooses, has the power to lull, to soothe and transform.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seal on a Floe

The road from my house to town parallels the route of a tidal river. This river hosts lots of interesting wildlife, including various sea ducks, geese, anadramous and saltwater fishes and sometimes, seals.

So it wasn’t a great surprise to see a large animal on an ice floe. But making a sure identification was somewhat difficult. From a distance, the critter was shaped like a porcupine, hunched up in the middle. Of course it would have had to be the world’s largest porcupine. No, it was definitely a seal.

A powerful monocular usually sits in the catchall sleeve on the door of my car. But I had taken everything out recently in order to give the car a thorough cleaning and had forgotten to replace the scope. So I had to rely upon the naked eye.

Harbor seals have spots, though, and lack the high back that this animal displayed. This seal was of a solid, slate-gray color except that the sides appeared somewhat lighter. And it had an unusually large, bulky head. All this tells me that I was looking at a hooded seal.

With the mystery solved, I sat on some guardrails and watched the seal as it slowly slid downstream. The tide was running out and the seal was headed for the harbor. A warm, spring sun shone down on the river and the seal appeared to be enjoying the warm spell. It occasionally shifted its weight and moved its head around, as if taking in the scenery.

I imagined that the seal was enjoying itself immensely, doing what seals do on a fine, spring day. I wished that I could have stayed to watch the seal and ice floe disappear from sight, but business called. Nevertheless, I was grateful for such cheery, inspirational entertainment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pursuing Happiness

A man recently wrote me, wanting to know how I made a living. He envisioned a lifestyle change and hoped to live a simpler life. And he considered me an example of someone to emulate.

He went on to list his assets…houses, motor vehicles, boats and so on. But he never mentioned his heart, or his inner feelings. More to the point, he didn’t state his values, nor did he elaborate upon the things that really meant something to him.

I wondered, then, if he really wanted to live as I do. My answer to him probably came as a great surprise. I explained that his list of material assets was certainly impressive, and mine paled by comparison. It seemed to me that if our situations were reversed, I could live quite comfortably by selling most everything and living off the interest. But I didn’t tell him that because it probably wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Then, too, he may not have understood how I could say I was rich, yet had very little money. I did point out that nature had always been good to me, that I managed to keep my food budget down by hunting, fishing, gardening and foraging. I explained how I circumvented huge, wintertime fuel bills by cutting and burning wood from my own woodlot.

I mentioned my house, too, how small it was. But however small, it was big enough for me. My seeming lack of interest in money, fancy boats, cars, trucks and houses in highbrow neighborhoods must have come as a great surprise.

Why, indeed, I asked, would anyone wish to be like me?

It seems to me that what works for one may not work for another. We all need to content ourselves with our own situation and try and make the best of it. If we have a goal, then it makes sense to work toward that goal. But in the end, it’s what’s deep down that counts. I could never enjoy life away from my beloved countryside, away from the nature I love. But that’s me.

I’ll close by saying that nature has always been good to me. The simple life pleases me and I find solace in recognizing the divine in the pageant of changing seasons. And most importantly, I’m happy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Regarding Skunks

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Sometimes, serendipity strikes with a vengeance. Last night, I went to bed perplexed. A local historical society had asked me to be the speaker at their monthly meeting. I asked the caller, “What do you want me to talk about?”

“Oh, animals I guess. You know, the stuff you write about.” Well, that certainly left lots of room for interpretation. What animals would I highlight and what would I say about them?

So while lying in bed, tossing and turning, the answer came and not in a way that I had expected or appreciated. Pungency assailed my nostrils and for a brief moment, I wondered what it was. And then the answer became patently clear.

It was a skunk. Or skunks. I had heard, off and on, sporadic thumping and crashing coming from the crawl space under my house. I fervently hoped it wasn’t a skunk, but hoping never accomplishes much.

Skunks seek abandoned buildings for their winter dens, so my field guide to mammals says. Apparently skunks can’t read, because my house is not abandoned. In fact, I live in it. Nonetheless, the skunk, or skunks, selected it for a place to spend the winter.

Skunks do not hibernate, but instead lay low, lethargic from the cold. They get up and walk around on warm nights in winter and that accounts for the bumps and thumps at odd hours of the night.

Also, skunks mate in March. So that answers the second question. “My” skunk was undoubtedly a female and she was not 100 percent amenable to her suitor’s advances. Which is why she sprayed.

So now I head off to deliver my talk, no doubt reeking of skunk but suitably armed with material for my lecture. Funny how things go, hey?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Vanishing Fields

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Farm fields, how precious a commodity. And now they’re gone. Some of our fast-vanishing fields date back to when the first European settlers established farming communities in what is now Maine. And over the intervening years, families lived on the farms, generations being born, living and dying, buried on the edge of their fields.

Until only a short while ago, even during my lifetime, fields carried the names of the families that owned and worked them. As farming gave way to working in towns and cities, many of the fields grew up into alder, poplar and birch. Stone fences separating one property from another were the only way to determine that here was once a field.

Some fields remain. The price of hay having soared, a scant few entrepreneurs cut their hay and sell it. But mostly, the fields that haven’t all gone to scrub growth are gone, felled by the developer’s proverbial axe. Subdivided into postage stamp parcels, the fields are now house lots, front yards.

What I find particularly sad is this. People have forgotten the names of the old fields. Once, a casual conversation might include a reference to seeing a deer or moose in Smith’s Field, for example. The hearer immediately drew a mental picture of the place. Everyone was familiar with Smith’s Field. We knew these places by name. But now, place names are forgotten.

The whole process bespeaks of the breakup of communities. We don’t know each other. Many, appear not to even want to know their neighbors. It’s just sad.

At one time, most small towns had their resident historians. These were people who could name each field, even grown-up fields. They knew every woodland burying ground and could point out sites where churches, grange halls, mills, stores, dance halls and taverns stood. These living repositories of local history are, like our fields, vanishing.

It’s a new age, for sure.

What Makes Plants Grow Under The Snow?

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

With the onset of spring, many plants shed dormancy and begin to grow. This happens even to plants that are, and have been all winter, completely buried under snow.

I always had the idea in the back of my mind that some slight bit of sunlight filtered to the ground, thus providing energy for plants. And as hours of sunlight lengthened, plants responded accordingly. But that’s just not so. The truth struck me after a recent blizzard. My office skylight was covered with snow. I sleep in a small loft over the office and the skylight provides a bit of morning light. But not that morning. In fact, my office was black as the inside of a boot. Consequently, I neglected to glance at the clock upon waking up and seeing that it was still dark, immediately went back to sleep.

I got up late, a bit peeved with myself. And then it hit me. If a few inches of snow on my skylight could shut out daylight so completely, surely the many feet that covered the ground did the same. Plants, then, do not grow under the snow in response to sunlight.

So what prompts plants to put on new growth even though they remain in a world of total darkness? For a certainty, this happens all the time. Melting snow reveals all kinds of new growth.

What’s the answer, then? I don’t know. But I find this a thought-provoking question, indeed.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hope Deferred

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

“Hope deferred makes the heart sad,” so goes the proverb. That maxim comes to life for me about this time each year. Now is when I pine for spring. Each brief hint of the approaching season brings inspiration and joy. But it seems that each bit of hope gets rudely dashed by another jarring shot of winter.

Here is an observation. In late summer, people begin speaking of fall and winter as if summer were already past. When goldenrod blooms and New England asters brighten wildflower meadows, we know to cover our tender vegetables because frost is imminent. The transition from summer to winter occurs in an orderly, neat manner, with few interruptions.

The transition from winter to spring, however, does not follow the same, seamless progression. For instance, on February 28 of this year, an unusually warm day caused a portion of the snowbank in front of my house to recede just a bit. This exposed a small portion of my chive bed. And lo and behold, there were freshly-sprouted chives. These were only an inch or so tall, but they were the first green plants of the year. I nibbled a few and they were bursting with garlicky flavor.

The chives had been growing under the snow all the time and I just didn’t know it. Anyway, near the chives, a few branches of a weeping will freed themselves from their wintry prison and I was amazed to see several silvery catkins, all new and fuzzy. How my spirit soared. Spring was on the way.

That night, temperatures dropped to the single numbers, freezing my chives. And then it snowed. The first storm brought only an inch or so. The next day, another storm, this one a raging northeast snowstorm, hit us.

Why, then, is the arrival of spring so frequently accompanied by fierce, winter conditions? It just doesn’t seem fair.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road

Despite unprecedented snow depths and relentless cold, spring has made itself known. To wit, I saw a dead skunk in the middle of the road and yes, it stunks to high Heaven (a tip of the proverbial hat to Louden Wainright III).

Right about now, late February, is just about the time when skunks ought to be nosing about. But how do they navigate 4-foot snow and even 12-foot snowbanks? Whether they walk on top or burrow beneath makes little difference. The skunk I saw reminds me that the earth continues to spin on its axis and the sun continues to strike our world at a sharper angle, thus providing more and more warmth. In the end, this translates to spring.

The same day I saw the skunk, I saw a robin. While this is not really a big deal (some robins spend the winter on offshore islands and make regular forays to the mainland), this single robin appeared to be a lone pioneer, a spring-thinking bird. It gave me hope.

Last winter was a “beezer,” as my Scottish friends would say. This winter is worse. In fact, although I filled my woodshed to overflowing, I’m almost out of firewood. It appears that I may need to don snowshoes and haul some more wood out from under the snow. Unheard of, but true nonetheless.

So a few signs of the spring, a lone robin and even a smelly skunk, are quite welcome now. It has been a rough one.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


One morning, during the January cold spell, my digital thermometer registered 38 degrees below zero. That’s one degree lower than the lowest reading I had ever seen, which was sometime in the 1960s. And the cold did not dissipate, either. Instead, it just stayed well below zero, day and night, for an extended period of time. I wondered how any plants, wild or otherwise, could bear this practically unprecedented stress.

I seriously considered what the landscape might look like next spring, when entire groups of plants failed to come to life. And for that matter, I pondered whether spring would come at all. I thought about the years 1815 and 1816, when crops failed because of cold and people left Maine for warmer climes. These thoughts and more plagued my consciousness.

To make matters worse, ice dams built up on not only the north side of my roof, but also on the south side. This had never happened before. Was this a sign of a nascent, ice age? Would I ever again pick fiddleheads and dandelions? What about vegetable gardens? Might the warmth, if it came at all, not arrive too late to allow crops to mature? It happened in the past, so it certainly seems as though it could happen again.

Then one day it got warm. The sun shone brighter than it had in weeks, or so it seemed. The remaining ice on my roof, stuff that I was unable to remove by raking or chipping, melted. And the East Waldo Road thawed so rapidly that trucks sank in the dead sand that the town passes off for gravel, creating deep ruts. Mud season had arrived, or at least a cameo version of the same.

I decided to grab an ice drill, fishing rod and pack basket and go ice-fishing. I arrived at the pond and walked out, wearing nothing more than blule jeans, a wool sweater and a baseball cap. The fish bit, a warm breeze fanned across the remote pond and I realized that yes, spring would eventually arrive. And the plants? Well, deep snow covered the ground, even before the first Arctic blast. And the snow never melted, in fact, hasn’t yet. Snow serves as an insulator and so our plants, even potentially fragile ones, are probably no worse for the experience.

So my worrying was in vain. Spring will come, probably about the same time it always does. Country folks will head out and dig dandelions and later, pick rocket, or mustard greens. Trout will sip Mayflies and peas, spinach and asparagus will provide gardeners with early-season goodness.

Our world is tough. It takes a lot more than a little cold weather to put it down. We’re tough, too. Mainers always have been a durable breed. So come on, cold. Give us all you have. Spring is only 26 days away and nothing can stop it now.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tom Does Chinese

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Of all people, I, “Mr. Natural,” had an irresistible urge to visit a restaurant and eat Chinese food. Sure, I’m aware of the dangers of MSG and so on. But after a lengthy period of being stuck inside because of bad weather and extreme cold, I became tired of frozen fiddleheads, fish and canned green beans. Call it cabin fever, it makes no difference. I was going batty and had to get out. And I fixated upon Chinese food.

So for the last few weeks, I dreamed of getting a writing check, cashing it and going out for Chinese. The more I thought about it, the more important it became. The check finally arrived, the weather cooperated and I was ready to roll. But it was not to be.

I had planned to hit the restaurant a bit before noon, to be ahead of the crowd. But a phone call kept me tied up in my office until 12:30, too late to go. So I decided to go the next day. But the next day dawned on a sad scenario. Ice dams had done their malicious work, and water ran down the walls inside my house. No Chinese today, just lots of time on a ladder, hammer in hand, pounding ice.

The next day seemed perfect. I waited until the set time and took off. But Central Maine Power trucks had the way blocked a couple miles down the road. I waited for five minutes and seeing no sign that the trucks were planning to move, turned around and drove home to a meal of leftovers.

Today dawned clear and cool, and with an appetite for Chinese food whetted to fever pitch, I set out down the road. With no CMP trucks in sight, I kept on and at another intersection, struck out on Route 1, heading for the restaurant.

A few people were already there when I arrived, but the place wasn’t crowded by any means. I could practically taste the egg foo young, the dish I had dreamt of for so very long. The waitress brought me a pot of tea to sip on while I waited for my meal. But the tea was tepid, just this side of cold. I drank it anyway.

My meal came and I noticed that the egg foo young was black on bottom and along the edges. The chef had scorched it. I hoped that the scorching would not affect the taste. But it was too late. It tasted burnt. Still, this was what I had waited for all those many, cold weeks.

About halfway through my scorched egg foo young and now fully-cold tea, a group of elderly ladies came in and sat at the table behind me. Almost immediately, I noted an unpleasant odor. Perfume. Awful, old, nasty, sweet perfume. It smelled a bit like the lavender water my grandma used to wear to church, but it was 10 times stronger and much more offensive.

I took my courage in hand, tried not to breath through my nose and ate the last of my meal. The price had risen by nearly four dollars since my last time at the restaurant and I wanted to get my money’s worth.

And so ended my trip to the Chinese restaurant. There is no moral to my story, either. It’s just a brief portrait of life in the slow lane here in Waldo, Maine.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Knew That

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Ever read something and say to yourself, “I knew that?” My chiropractor saves copies of a popular, health magazine and gives them to me at each visit. Every once in awhile I’ll extract some gem of wisdom from these, but most of the time it’s an, “I knew that” experience.

For instance, the last bath of magazines had a spread on newly-popular mushrooms and their health benefits. This showed the common names but not the botanical names. So when I saw a photo of something labeled, “Maitake,” I recognized it immediately as a mushroom that I commonly pick from the wild. The text said it was also known as Hen of The Woods, which clinched my suspicion. I have a freezer full of Hen of The Woods.

While the article didn’t say, I would imagine that Maitake is a Japanese name, which would indicate that this mushroom grows in Japan. Had the author included the indisputable, scientific name of Grifola frondosa, I would have known immediately the identity of the fungus in question.

Anyway, the article tells that the mushroom is good when frozen, which I knew. It also said it provides vitamins, which I also knew.

Next, an article described various bacteria-fighting herbs. Able to fend off E. coli and other nasty critters, these herbs may eventually be added to bagged, green vegetables to thwart bacteria. All well and good. But one of the herbs named got me suspicious. Goldenseal, a plant that wildcrafters have over-harvested from the wild and is now cultivated for the herb market, contains something called berberine. This told me that in the end, everything is about money. To find the answer to most any question, just follow the money trail. But I knew that.

Goldenseal is readily available…for a price. Another wild plant, however, also contains copious amounts of berberine and it is not in any danger from over-harvesting. It’s goldthread, Coptis groenlandica, and it grows all over Maine in woodland settings. Aptly named, goldthread plants produce a vast network of thin, golden roots. These abound in berberine. Each year, I harvest goldthread roots and make a goldthread tincture by steeping the cleaned roots in vodka. I take this as soon as I get a scratchy throat, and also as a prophylactic against infection.

So, big news, goldenseal contains berberine and berberine protects against harmful bacteria. I knew that, and I also knew about goldthread, which the author never mentioned. But goldthread is free and goldenseal is expensive. And now you know that.

Butternut Squash contains lots of beta-carotene, as well as a good dose of healthful vitamins and minerals. So the magazine said. But I knew that. Which is why I grow a bunch of butternut squash each year and eat them all fall and into the winter.

People are no longer in touch with nature, so another article said. In order to feel better, we need to get outside and commune with nature. I knew that, which is why I live in the woods and spend so much time in nature.

Finally, another article said that we should not drink water from plastic bottles, since the plastic leaches into the water. And when on a trip, bring water (filtered) from home in a stainless-steel thermos, not a plastic jug. I would never buy water in the first place, especially in a plastic container. I knew that. And on trips, I always carry a steel thermos of Waldo water with me.

The article also said that drinking water from the tap is dangerous and to only drink filtered water. I would imagine that this is probably true for water from a municipal water supply. But I have a spring, which produces pristine water. It doesn’t need filtering.

It just strikes me funny how all the things that come naturally, that so many of us were always aware of, are suddenly a very big deal. But again, I refer the reader to the money trail. Just remember that no matter the topic, somebody, somewhere, is making money on it. There really isn’t anything new under the sun, only new ways to make money on what already exists. And I suppose that that’s not a bad thing

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Candlemas Day - The Countdown Begins

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

An old-time saying goes, “The prudent farmer has half his wood and half his hay by Candlemas Day.” The exact date of Candlemas Day falls on February 2, a day more widely known by most for something not at all connected with the church calendar.

Groundhog Day, February 2, has significance for me, far beyond whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow. The dark days of December and January have come and gone, defeated by the ceaseless passage of time. Candlemas, Groundhog Day, brings with it the absolute certainty that light, warmth and life will eventually return. Up until now, that cheery event seemed far beyond our reach.

February, while a rather snowy month, brings with it certain, distinct changes in the natural world. Chickadee song takes on a different tone, as they become territorial, preparatory to breeding season. Male woodpeckers test out their “drumming” skills by pounding on hollow trees and skunks and raccoons make forays into backyards. And, always, someone sees a robin or two. By month’s end, maple sap may run in ancient trees on south-facing hillsides.

So for me, the countdown to spring begins on February 2. This year, the period between Groundhog Day and official spring spans 46 days. And in that brief period, great and marvelous transitions occur, culminating in the death of dark, cold winter and the new life of tender, verdant spring.

Monday, January 26, 2009

From Waldo to The Moon

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

My yard is pockmarked with craters both large and small, shades of the lunar surface. This phenomenon holds much interest and gives me an insight into how craters are formed on otherworldly surfaces.

The craters in my yard are, of course, formed in snow. Here’s what happened. The last snowstorm to hit covered pine trees with snow and it has been just too cold for it to melt. But a strong, gusty wind yesterday did what the sluggish thermometer wouldn’t. It blew snow from the pine branches and it landed on the ground in such a fashion as to make it resemble a crater field on Mars or the earth’s moon.

Craters happen in other mediums, too. Each raindrop, falling on soft or dusty ground, creates a crater. Every “plop” forms a depression. But these are so small that we usually don’t notice them. Sometimes, though, during extreme dry spells, a passing shower looses just enough water droplets to make fairly large craters on the hot, dusty ground. These, like the snow craters at my place, we notice.

I’m interested in learning what happens to the snow craters when warmer temperatures finally return and the snow begins to melt. I suspect that the craters will widen, but not necessarily deepen. But I’ll just have to wait and see. Such natural and commonplace occurrences as snow craters fascinate me to no end. It’s all part of just sitting back and observing nature.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tom Versus The Snowplow

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

I take eye drops for a medical condition. Since my drug store is about 20 miles away, it makes sense for me to have them send me my prescriptions, rather than to drive. Also, as a freelance writer, my different accounts send my paychecks in the mail. These two items alone should serve to illustrate how important uninterrupted mail service has become to me.

But the guy who plows our road does not understand this. If he did, he might refrain from slamming his plow blade into my mailbox with such marvelous regularity. This has become such a common occurrence that I have taken steps to thwart this destroyer of my link to the outside world.

First, instead of the standard, cedar post, I managed to appropriate a section of telephone pole…this being one that a speeding driver snapped in two in front of my place. The pole has withstood several passing glances, but I’m told that if the plow were to hit it dead-on, it would snap like a twig. But thus far, the mailbox itself, rather than the pole, remains the center of this bully’s attention.

As per the mailbox, the standard method of nailing a rectangular board to the top of the post and then affixing the box to the board, has failed miserably. The plow rips both mailbox and board from the post, usually crumpling the mailbox beyond repair. So I devised a system whereby the mailbox simply flies off the post and lands in the snowbank. Damage is usually limited to minor dents, the kind that I’m able to pop out or bend back into place.

My system, a simple one, requires two, large nails on each side of the post and a length of strong twine. I sit the mailbox on the post and tie it down using the twine and the two nails. When the plow smacks the box, the twine breaks and instead of sustaining the entire shock, much of the energy dissipates as the mailbox pops off the post.

This has its drawbacks, though. Often, the door flies open, strewing mail (and yes, I have found soaking wet paychecks buried in the snow) hither and yon. I don’t quite know what other steps to take. It seems quite certain that we, the snowplow guy and I, have an understanding. He tries his best to destroy my mailbox and contents, and I try to thwart him. So far, he has the upper hand.

I dream of new and sinister methods to meet the snowplow man’s challenge. I wouldn’t dare employ these, because they are probably illegal. But it helps me to at least entertain the thought. One of my ideas is to use a steel post and steel mailbox. This would require a visit to the local machine shop, in order to have the thing made. If the solid metal post were planted deep enough, and frozen in, I can imagine that it would do a good bit of damage to the plow. But as I said, I just don’t dare go that far.

Another dream entails a mailbox on a pivot. This would resemble the rigs that knight trainees used to learn how to joust. If the knight doesn’t duck in time, the arm spins around and a big, heavy ball smacks him in the snout, dismounting him. I can see, in my mind’s eye, a big, metal ball, nailing the plow truck and sending it into the ditch. But again, I would never do this. It’s nice to imagine, though.

Before anyone says, “But plows can’t avoid hitting mailboxes…there’s nothing they can do,” let me point out that my mailbox stands on a straight section of road. Other mailboxes, some quite ancient, are in a similar position and they never, ever, get smacked.

I’m perfectly convinced that this is purposeful. He knows that I know that he knows that I know.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Maine Gets No Respect

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Maine gets no respect from the national news media. Case in point, consider The Weather Channel’s total disregard of the Pine Tree State. Here’s a typical example.

The Weather Channel television guy gives the national weather update. We see a storm coming in from the pacific, and hear of 70-degree weather in California. The camera pans the national map, while the reporter describes conditions in the west, midwest and the south. Then we come to New England.

“Cold returns to the northeast tonight, and Bostonians should expect temps in the teens.” The guy blabs on about Boston weather and ends his report, having made no mention of Maine. In fact, Maine is not even indicated on the map. By this time, I’m jumping up and down, hollering at the tube.

Another example occurred on the Yahoo! Online weather report for Monday, January 19. This included news items regarding the bitter cold that hit the northeast over the weekend. The big news was a minus-30 degree reading in New Hampshire. However, not a word was mentioned about the record-setting minus-50 degree reading in Northern Maine. Where in the United States, barring Alaska, has it gotten to –50 lately? Nowhere. But, apparently, Maine doesn’t count.

An ex-patriot Mainer, living in Florida, often sends me e-mails, asking how cold it was here. She has no other way of obtaining that information, since the news media totally ignores the State of Maine.

Readers might construe this post as tongue-in-cheek. It is not meant that way. I really resent the total lack of coverage for Maine. It’s unconscionable.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Birds and Gravel

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Early this morning, I watched a blue jay as it picked at a pile of salty gravel that had fallen from the wheel well of my car. This interested me, because up until now I never gave much thought to how songbirds process their food.

Lacking teeth, birds must consume gravel and tiny stones on a regular basis. These go to the crop where they serve as ersatz “teeth,” grinding nuts, insects and whatever else the bird swallows. After watching the above-mentioned jay, it struck me that in summer, gathering fodder for a crop presents no problem. But in winter, the process becomes extremely challenging, forcing birds to adopt inventive methods of filling their crops.

While everyone knows that feeding birds in winter helps them through tough times, I have never read or heard anything about providing gravel for their crops. It seems to me that if we saved a container of fine or at least, mixed-sized gravel and presented it to birds in winter, they would most likely appreciate our gesture.

Of course this would require only setting out small amounts of gravel at time, because it would eventually freeze and become essentially, unavailable to birds. But a regular sprinkling of gravel on a platform or some other such location would probably make life much easier for a host of birds.

I plan to have a supply of grit or gravel available next winter in order to put my theory to the test. Who knows, but if it works, you may some day see for sale in the garden and hardware centers, something called “Tom’s True Grit,” or some such thing. A guy’s gotta make a living, after all…

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

When ice makes walking difficult and snow and sub-freezing temperatures limit time spent outside, my world shrinks. Enforced servitude to the woodstove becomes the order of the day.

At the same time, near places suddenly become distant. My mailbox, less than a 10-minute walk on a normal day, may as well stand in Nome, Alaska. And town, a 15-minute drive, remains out of bounds when snow mounts, making driving impossible.

When coupled with a power outage, I’m plunged into the 19th century. Computers, televisions and other electronic devices become inanimate objects, with no utilitarian use. But after all, is that such a bad thing? I think not. In fact, it seems to me that everyone ought to experience some degree of total isolation at least a few times in their lives.

Candles and canned goods replace electric lights and fresh foods. Real, live music, performed on the spot, makes recorded music seem totally irrelevant. And books, read by squinting through bifocals in flickering candlelight, bring comedy and drama, laughter and tears, to life in a way that no movie or television show ever could.

I pity those who never, ever, found themselves alone. It’s a learning experience and a necessary part of life.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Product of Mexico

“Product of Mexico.” Those three words, when affixed to food products, scare me.

Spending Christmas with friends means coming home with a platter of food, the kind of stuff I rarely, if ever, prepare for myself. In this case, it was a huge portion of standing rib, along with a salad of mixed greens and three, colorful, sweet peppers. I ate the rib and salad the next day, but could not help wondering about the place of origin of the greens. As per the peppers, there was no doubt about where they were grown. Each one wore a sticker bearing those three, ominous words, “Product of Mexico.”

I love peppers, especially red, sweet peppers.
But knowing that supermarket peppers are likely to have a high pesticide content, gives me pause. I often raise my own peppers, cut them into strips and freeze them. These, I eat without thought of chemical contamination. Mexican peppers, though, are suspect. Mexico lacks our strict laws governing agricultural practices.

So I washed the beautiful, giant peppers that my friends had given me and I washed them again. And even with that, each, crunchy mouthful conjured pictures of some field in Mexico, with people walking about, spraying any number of toxic chemicals on the produce. It’s an image that won’t go away.

In this brave, new world of instant messaging and international trade, an unbelievable number of products that Americans consume originate in places like China, Korea and Mexico. But consumers find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. American-grown, organic produce is way overpriced. This leaves the budget-conscious shopper with only one choice…buy the foreign stuff, take it home and wash it and hope for the best.

All this brings me back to my own, particular situation. I rarely buy vegetables because I not only raise my own, but also harvest and put up wild veggies. The quality of my own produce is beyond question, as is that of wild, edible plants. And best of all, nothing in my freezer or in my canned food shelves bears the title, “Product of Mexico.”

Anyone can follow my example, at least to some extent. All of us have access to wild edibles. A vacant, city lot, for example, can hold an amazing variety of useful, wild plants. And anyone with access to the southern sky can plant a few veggies, even if that means doing so in containers. There is always a way.

With just a little effort, we can all say “No” to “Product of Mexico.”