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