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.”