Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Industrious Forager's Reward

Back last spring and summer it seemed like an awful lot of work to find, harvest and preserve wild edible plants. Many days when my favorite plants were ready for picking, I was so busy with a myriad of other things that it was a chore to go afield. It would have been oh-so-easy to tell myself that this can wait, the plants will be there tomorrow.

But fortunately for me, reality always took the upper hand and I went about the business of gathering my plants.

In many cases, picking the plants was the easy part. After that came cleaning and inspecting for foreign debris and in the case of dandelions, trimming the brown band of dirt from the crowns. Who could blame me for allowing fresh-picked dandelions to languish in the refrigerator until they were no longer fresh, but wilted and perhaps even dried?

Here again, although it would have been so much easier to forget the dandelions and instead, sit down and sip a cup of tea and play music. Now, however, I’m so glad for having not succumbed to temptation.

Home-grown vegetables go hand-and-hand with the wild variety and I depend upon both. My shelves brim with jars of home-canned green beans, the French fillet variety, sweet corn, carrots, tomatoes and cabbage. These sit alongside canned dandelions and goosetongue.

Scattered about my house in selected, protected areas, are different kinds of “keeper,” or winter squash. And in one cabinet, I have stored my home-grown Scottish potatoes, red-and-pink varieties brought back from Scotland years ago and kept up ever since.

And in the freezer, packages of lamb’s quarters, dandelions (I preserve dandelions by both freezing and canning), Swiss chard and several different kinds of wild mushrooms await my pleasure.

And then there are fish. Vacuum-sealed, frozen packages of rainbow trout from my farm pond, smelt from the Kennebec River and black crappies from local ponds and lakes provide plenty of protein.

Add to this, woodcock and partridge, lovingly cared for and securely packaged to prevent freezer burn. These are treats, items for special occasions. In fact, one of my favorite wintertime meals is a woodcock soup made following my grandmother’s recipe. This calls for two woodcock per person, barley, parsley, finely-chopped or minced carrots and onion. After bringing to a boil, the soup should simmer for a half hour or more in order for the flavors to meld into one hearty blend.

In the refrigerator are jars of fermented bell peppers, green tomatoes and green beans. These pro-biotic treats serve as snacks, and healthful ones at that.

Also in the refrigerator are carrots from my garden, healthy as ever and already sprouting new top growth. These were the carrots that were just a little too small to put up in jars. But for fresh carrots, they excel, beating any commercially-grown and sold carrots by several magnitudes.

All these things taken together make up the well-deserved reward for the industrious forager.

So now, when winter gales drive pelting snow and temperatures hover well below zero, I can sit inside my wood-heated home and feast upon the bounty of last growing season. It was hard, but rewarding work. And for sure, these special, chemical-free foods beat anything available from the supermarket. Think about this next season when it comes time to do the hard work. But for now, enjoy the well-earned benefits of your labor.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Dark Days Of Early Winter

This is my least favorite time of year, with frozen ground but yet no snow cover. Signs of the growing season abound, with green plants such as dandelions and evening primrose visible. Some new shoots of peppermint have sprouted in a bed along the sunny south side of my house.

And yet, we can’t forage for plants because those we do find are only vestigial remnants of summer’s glory. Besides that, even though they look fresh and green, they are frozen stiff. A good snowstorm would end this “not summer, but not winter” season once and for all. But every time it looks like snow, we get rain instead.

This indecisive nature to our weather extends to ponds and lakes, too. It’s time for small ponds to get locked in with ice. That has happened, too, several times. And each time a good, solid inch of clear, black ice forms, a warm spell comes and melts it.

Gravel roads don’t escape, either. We have already endured one genuine mud season. The worst of it is, the grader did a fairly good job this fall. Then we had a cold spell, which froze the road and prevented it from deteriorating. But off-and-on warm spells and accompanying rains, heavy at times, have turned roads to mire and also, allowed speeding cars and truck to create new potholes and re-open old ones.

It’s maddening. We wear sweaters one day, parka and gloves the next. “It ain’t right,” as my grandpa would have said. Blame what you want, but my money goes on the crazy jet stream. The jet stream brings us our weather, good and bad, warm and cold. And when it’s time for cold, the jet stream takes a dip south, bringing us balmy weather. And when we yearn for warmth, the jet stream loops north, bringing us arctic and sometimes even polar air.

Besides all this unsettled weather, the lack of light due to short days and days on end without a trace of sun, makes us all a little lethargic. In my case, it’s hard to concentrate on writing. What would take me two hours now takes a whole day. Someone mentioned buying a special light bulb that duplicates sunlight. Perhaps that’s the answer. But a few sunny days would be even better.

Top it all off with a string of cloudy nights, precluding any astronomical observations, and we have a recipe for the blues.

It’ll end soon, no doubt. This happens every year and it’s to be expected. But while this drab and colorless dark time persists, it’s hard to deal with.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Weather Folklore

Weather folklore dates back to antiquity. The Bible, for example, contains references to weather and how to interpret signs in order to predict upcoming weather.

Here in America, we have not only our own versions of weather folklore, but also traditions brought over here from Europe by colonists. One such bit of lore holds that bees have some foreknowledge of how much snow will fall during the upcoming winter and build their nests accordingly.

So a bee’s nest very low to the ground means that we can expect very little snow, bad news for skiers, snowmobilers and others who enjoy winter sports. And nests built high off the ground suggest to us that we better stock up on snow shovels and gasoline for our snow blowers.

That’s all very well and even sort of believable. But what are we to think when bees build their nests at dizzying heights in huge trees? If this bit of folklore has any merit at all, then we Mainers should probably start packing our bags for the trip to Florida, because snow will probably reach over 50 feet deep.

I say this because I spotted a wasp’s nest at least 60 feet up in a pine tree near my house. Certainly, I don’t pay much heed to how high bees build their nests, but this is the highest bee’s nest I have ever seen, and I’ve been around a good while and have seen many bee’s nests.

Even though we shouldn’t put much stock in the bee’s nest part of weather predicting, it strikes me as possible that while snow won’t reach depths of 50 feet, it might still get far deeper than we have seen in a long time. But then again, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Wooly Bears
The namesake of this column, the wooly bear caterpillar, the immature form of the Isabella moth, has long been a noted weather prognosticator. These fuzzy little caterpillars are black on each end, with an orange band in the middle. The length of orange band represents winter and the two black ends are, respectively, fall and spring.

Folklore says that the length of each band represents the length of the season it stands for. So if a wooly bear has two short bands and a long, orange band, then look out, since a bad winter is neigh.

So then, what are we to think of the wooly bear I saw the other day? This one had two long, black bands and a short orange band. Does this mean that we’ll have a long fall, short winter and early spring? If so, then the wooly bear’s forecast contradicts that of the bees.

I don’t really believe bees or wooly bears. I think the bees just build their nests wherever it suits them, with no thought of the coming winter. And as per wooly bears, I don’t trust them. I’ve seen too many wooly bears that bore an entirely inaccurate winter weather forecast.

In the end, I don’t think any thing or any one can accurately predict weather very far in advance. Which places me in the wait-and-see category. And that seems a safe bet.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Garden Weeds Get Ahead Of Tom

The edible weeds in my garden have quite gotten away from me this summer. Searing heat and high humidity have kept me from my appointed rounds and consequently, my lamb’s quarters have grown larger than normal.

But that’s not a bad thing, as it turns out. Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, puts out lots of side shoots as it matures, making akin to broccoli in that respect. And each of these shoots resembles a young, entire, lamb’s quarters plant.

And so I am eating the vitamin-rich lamb’s quarters with reckless abandon. I even have enough to freeze a few packages for winter’s use.

Even so, it’s time to do some serious weeding and cultivating, as soon as weather permits.

Next, readers might like to know that they are invited to attend any of my foraging sessions held at Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor each Tuesday through August 20. Sessions begin at 1:30 and last until 3:00 p.m.

To join in, just go to the reception desk at the inn and ask the receptionist to direct you to the foraging class. I like to begin inside, where I discuss whatever wild plant samples I may have collected earlier that day. Then, weather permitting, we walk around the grounds and identify useful wild plants growing there.

The inn’s habitat includes a seaside hedgerow, shady paths and a woodland walk.

On days that it rains, I show a DVD of wild plants.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Touching Scene

A Touching Scene 

A forest of mint and other perennial plants in front of my house have become a favorite haunt of songbirds. And since my front door is a glass slider, I have a front row seat to all kinds of bird activity.

While I’ve seen a number of warblers, these come and go, while white-throated sparrows and a lone catbird have become regular tenants. It’s interesting to watch the plants tremble as some bird hops about under their protective canopy. Of course the birds do me a great service by catching insects that might otherwise do me harm.

In addition to the perennials, I have a row of planters (Earth Boxes and Grow Boxes) lined up in front of the door, bordering the perennials. And because of the constant rainy weather, garden slugs and also, a new pest, ambershell snails, have proliferated. To protect the broccoli, basil, cucumbers and tomatoes in my planter boxes, I have used a combination of Sluggo slug bait and also, crushed eggshells.

I save and rinse my eggshells and let them dry and then grind them up as fine as possible. These I spread around on the top of the planter boxes so that they might deter slugs and snails. But lately I’ve noticed that the something was happening to the crushed eggshells. It seemed to me that perhaps heavy rains had simply washed them away. But that wasn’t the case.

Several days ago, I sat and watched a male white-throated sparrow as it emerged from the mint patch and landed atop one of the planter boxes. There, it pecked at what seemed to me must have been small insects. Soon after that, a female appeared. She sat on the ground, near the planter box.

The male then sorted through the crushed eggshells and selecting one tiny bit, picked it up in his beak and flew down to the female. He came within touching distance of her. She opened her mouth and he gave her the bit of eggshell, which she swallowed. The two repeated this process several times and I was amazed and touched by the degree of gentleness and tenderness the male exercised.

No doubt the female was tending her young and couldn’t get out to forage for scratch for her crop. The male knew that, which was the reason he went to such lengths to supply that necessary article for her.

Sometimes nature presents us pitiable pictures of death and suffering. But once in a while, she also reveals acts of kindness. In this case, the familial kindness shown was enviable.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Beware: Tiny invaders munch vegetables

When tiny snails showed up on my garden vegetables last summer, it puzzled me. These were totally unfamiliar and certainly unexpected. My thoughts immediately turned to zebra mussels, those exotic mussels that found their way into the Great Lakes and now pose a menace to native flora and fauna. Was there a parallel with these snails?

On the other hand, I was sure that the snails were just a bumper crop of some native species. Reason dictated that the snails were responding to an early spring and also to frequent rainfall of the summer. But in this case, it looks as though reason was wrong.

The tiny (100 could fit in a teaspoon, with room to spare) snails proliferated and in the case of my garden, succeeded in destroying pounds of chard, lettuce and broccoli. They even defoliated my carrots, although they appeared to dislike parsnip tops. This was a true plague.

All the same, I thought that the snail invasion was probably confined to the Mid-Coast area. Wrong again. According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension, these pesky snails showed up all over Maine. And worse, no one can determine exactly what species of snail they are. The snail boffins are totally perplexed.

Everyone pretty much agrees that the snails are a species of ambersnail, but exactly which species remains a mystery. Some suggest that the snails may be an exotic species, introduced by some unknown means. If that’s the case, then a recurrence of last summer’s snail eruption seems likely. Even worse, no one as of yet has figured out a practical means of controlling the snails.

Our great hope lies in the lingering snowpack of early spring and also, the lengthy time last winter when we had continual sub-freezing temperatures, but no snow cover. This allowed frost to penetrate deeper than usual.

Anyway, since snails (perhaps not all snails, I’m no snail expert) spend winters hibernating in underground burrows, deep-penetrating frost last winter may have killed them. If not, we may be in for a rough ride this summer. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Another Opening Day - April 1

Opening day of trout season, April 1, dawned cold, windy and rainy. The day previous was sunny and mild, wouldn't you know. Anyway, my fishing buddy Tony and I were determined to keep our tradition alive of going out on opening day despite the weather. And we did it again this year.

But torrential rain the night before made it nearly impossible to fish. The smallest brook, the tiniest stream, was turned to a raging torrent. After several hours of traipsing through wet brush and up and down steep banks, we decided to take a break and stop for breakfast, another part of our tradition. It was good to get warm, too, since our fingers were cold and stiff.

Surprisingly enough, several other people were out that morning as well, trying to catch a few trout from discolored, rushing water. I doubt that anyone else had any better luck than we did. Conditions were just too bad to admit of catching anything anywhere. Well, almost.

After breakfast, we hit the last several streams on our list and all were in spate, unwilling to yield any of their trouty treasures. By mid-afternoon, we had had it and were headed home in defeat. But I recalled a tiny brook that sometimes holds trout during the dog days of summer. Here, a spring-fed pool provides cold, oxygenated water, essential to trout survival in hot weather. I wondered if the pool held any trout now. There was only one way to find out.

We stopped and left the truck, with me going down to the pool to fish first. We've developed an alternating routine, where we take turns fishing the best pools first.

Anyway, on the first cast a trout hit and I managed to lose it at the last minute. Bushes and brambles surround the pool, making it difficult to lift a rod high enough to firmly hook a fish, let alone lift it from the water. The next cast resulted in another hookup and this time I claimed my prize.

I caught two more fish from that pool and Tony came down and took another. I had one trout that I had taken earlier, a token fish from another prized pool.

So in the end, we both caught trout on opening day. These were small trout, but their ceremonial value was immense.

We returned home tired, but happy. Another opening day had come and gone, and we had done our part. And now we, I, look to the future and hope for more opening days, perhaps warmer and sunnier than this one. But even if they come in cold and rainy, it really doesn't matter. Just getting out and doing it, keeping up tradition, is really what counts. Some things are just like that. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lingering Snow Keeps Parsnips Out-Of-Bounds

Parsnips. You either love them or hate them. I’ve never met anyone who was simply ambivalent about parsnips.

As for me, I love them and plant them in my garden every year. But instead of harvesting them in fall, along with carrots, my parsnips spend the fall and winter in the ground. This greatly increases their sugar content. Then, the following spring when the ground thaws, my parsnips are extra-sweet and delicious.

And right now in late March, it’s time to pull my parsnips. But I can’t, because they are covered by a huge pile of snow. My garden plot makes a convenient place for the snow plow man to use as a “push-off,” or place where he can dump loads of snow after making a long, straight run. I’ve tried to discourage him from this habit, but he has a standard retort. “I’ve got nowhere else to put it.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.

So my parsnips remain out-of-bounds for the foreseeable future, so near and yet so far.

On to another garden vegetable topic, I recently checked out Mike Webber’s blog in the online version of the Bangor Daily News. There, I saw a familiar-looking photo, along with a title that said something about due apologies to Tom. I clicked on the header and went to the full-length blog.

Mike had read one of my past blogs, one that I had named, “Chives Alive.” Mike posted a photo of his own chive patch, with the little green onion-like tops poking up out of newly-thawed ground. “Chives Arrive,” he called his post, thus the apology to me.

Mike, if you read this, you must know that I consider imitation the sincerest form of flattery. You go ahead and copy me any time. I’m honored.

By the way, Mike, did you plant parsnips last year and leave them in the ground all winter, as I did? If so, are you able to pull them yet?

Here’s to all of us who dearly want for winter to go away for good. Let’s agree that sunny, warmer days lie just ahead. And of course, if anyone wants to keep in shape by shoveling snow, I know of a big pile of it that needs removing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Winter Wears Out Its Welcome

Why do people typically become frustrated and put out when winter conditions linger into spring, but when summer-like conditions persist into late fall, we welcome them?

This current snowstorm, for instance, coming on the last day of winter, seems terribly out of place, as does the below-normal temperatures of the past week. And to think, I planted lettuce and radishes in the in-ground-beds inside my greenhouse and now, the soil has frozen solid. I’ll have to replant when it finally warms up.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sad.” That’s what a famous proverb says. And boy, have we seen hope deferred. To think, that one year ago we here in Maine were reveling in temperatures in the mid-70s. And today we have snow, wind and temperatures in the teens.

I just read a statement from a weather guru with the National Weather Service. He said that this could possibly be the last big snowstorm of the season, but not to count on it. The same conditions that have prevailed for most of the winter continue, with no big change in sight.

In another instance of hope deferred, amateur astronomers throughout the northeast were handed a very attractive carrot, only to have it snatched away at the last minute. That carrot was Comet PanSTARRS. The comet was to be a naked-eye object low in the west beginning around March 8 and lingering until around March 18.

Like so many others, I had my viewing place all lined up ahead of time. It’s hard to find an unobstructed view to the west, what with all the trees. But a nearby farm on a hill provided just the perfect location. And the farm family happily gave me permission to come and watch the comet. They even came out and watched with me. But we saw no comet, only clouds.

I made multiple trips to the hill, only to find low-lying clouds covering the spot where the comet supposedly sat. And now, according to what I read, the comet has risen higher but dropped in magnitude, meaning that finding it will come much harder and will require a telescope. Hops of seeing it with the naked eye or in binoculars were dashed. And this particular comet will never visit our region again. It was just one of those things. Hope deferred.

Warm weather will return and so will clear skies. Ice will melt, snow will stop falling and flowers will bloom and fish will bite. But for now, that all seems so far away. But we have no alternative than to wait, with patience. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Daylight Saving Time

Some Thoughts On Daylight Saving Time

Daylight Saving Time (DST) intrudes upon our lives in many ways. And whether we like it or not, as with the weather, we can do nothing about it.

While many people credit Benjamin Franklin (indeed, I once believed this) with first devising DST, Franklin had nothing to do with it. Instead, the dubious honor goes to Englishman William Willett, who in 1907, proposed pushing clocks ahead one hour. Willett was a golfer and the extra hour of daylight would give him more time on the links. Talk about vested interests.

Willet’s idea did not fly, at least not immediately. But when World War I broke out, a number of countries, including the United States, embraced the time change for the sake of saving energy and also to give people more time to plant and maintain vegetable gardens. After the war, DST was dropped and re-adopted and dropped and then reinstated during World War II. Then in 1966, Congress declared it official and we have had it ever since.

Since then, the onset of DST has slowly inched forward. It seems to me that in my youth, DST began the last Saturday in April. Then at some point, as I recall, or should I say unless lack of sleep has made my memory faulty, it was moved to late March. Now it has moved forward to the second Sunday in March. Where will it stop? We have only 24 hours in a day and if left unchecked, these periodic extensions will begin where we left off. I’m only half kidding here.

Sleep is a dear commodity, one that many people go to lengths to acquire. Not everyone sleeps well. As one who suffers occasional bouts with insomnia, I can attest that lost sleep causes much discomfort. And when changes, even small ones, occur to our established sleep patterns, it can cause great physical damage. Anything that upsets our natural biological rhythms has the potential to make us sick, perhaps very sick. And DST certainly upsets our biological rhythms.

And what about the supposed energy savings? Well, according to a blog by Kelly Beatty, the Department of Energy conducted an analysis of the cost-saving effects of booting DST ahead to early March. Their conclusion? “There might be an energy saving of 0.5 percent.” Note the word, “might.”

Furthermore, a University of California study found that when Indiana (a lingering DST holdout) adopted DST in 2006, their electricity bills immediately rose about 1 percent. And by late summer, that figure rose by 4 percent. That’s right. I said “rose,” not “dropped.”

So in this case and in fact, more than likely most cases, DST costs us energy.

Finally, according to Swedish scientists, besides disrupting our sleep patterns and making us tired, cranky and inefficient, DST may contribute to heart failure. DST causes increased risk of heart attacks.

Like its founder, Willett, I have a vested interest that has to do with DST. I am an amateur astronomer and since darkness now comes one hour later, it means staying up one hour later in order to observe the heavens. In summer, when full darkness doesn’t set in until well after 9 p.m., I often fall asleep before I can set up my telescope.

But it’s the sleep disruption that I dislike the most. I’ve tried ignoring DST, not setting my clocks ahead. But living a time-oriented society, this does not work very well. In the end, we all must conform to DST.

Maybe some day things will change. But don’t look for it anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Beginning on or about March 8, Comet PanSTARRS should become visible just above the western horizon shortly after sunset. At that point, it may be hard to spot without binoculars. After that, it should be a naked-eye sight.

Viewers from the southern hemisphere, who have been able to see the comet for a while now, report it having two tails. Additionally, the comet brightens in magnitude as time passes, meaning that by mid-March, we should have some excellent views of it here in Maine. After that, it fades and will only be available to those with powerful telescopes.

To spot PanSTARRS, go somewhere with an open view to the west, just after sunset. Look in the general area where the sun went down and find something like a star. This should be the comet. Binoculars will give a fine view and a telescope should give a remarkable view.

Of course all this hangs upon the weather, that bugaboo of amateur astronomers. The current spate of clouds and daily rain and snow showers does not bespeak of better things to come. It is vaguely possible that the comet will come and go without us getting much of a look at it.

This Saturday, March 9, is supposed to come on sunny and bright. If so, let us hope that the fine weather continues into the evening. After Saturday, weather folks are talking more lousy weather.

So if opportunity presents itself and conditions permit, I suggest taking a look at the first of the 2013 comets. I say the first, because a highly-rated comet is due late this fall. Stay tuned for more on that. But for now, check out PanSTARRS. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Early Coltsfoot Cheers Winter-Weary Tom

It was a beautiful, warm morning today and come noon, I thought to celebrate by driving to the pound for a lobster. Going home on a back road near a tidal river, I spied a splash of yellow on a raw, steep roadside bank. I knew immediately that here, was blooming coltsfoot.

Stopping for a close look, I was pleased to see the bank covered with the dandelion-like, showy yellow blossoms. Coltsfoot is our earliest-blooming wildflower and usually shows up in early- to mid-April. Last year it appeared in mid-March. And in 2013, it bloomed on February 22, 2013.

So just when I was feeling most despondent over another impending snowstorm, these brilliant-yellow flowers cheered me and gave me to understand that while it may snow some more, spring is on the way.

For another sign, a friend from the Belgrade Region wrote me that two days ago, he sighted a pair of turkey vultures. These, too, are unusually early. Turkey vultures follow the retreating snowpack north. Usually, we don’t see these until some time in late March or early April, at the earliest.

So while unsettled weather may obscure the sun, make no mistake: The steady onset of spring has begun and will not retreat. It may stall, but that is of trifling concern. Spring marches forward. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

How To Beat The Winter Doldrums

Today is Friday, Feb. 22 and it’s a sunny, relatively warm day, nice for late winter. But spring still remains a few steps ahead of us. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for coastal Maine beginning Saturday evening and lasting through Sunday.

Of course the storm may change direction, ride out to sea. But probably not. We’ll no doubt get several more snowstorms yet this season. So while we remain locked in winter’s grip, there are several sources of solace. One, something I do each year, requires very little effort.

I refer to the venerable Swedish practice of cutting white birch branchlets and forcing them in a water-filled vase. It helps to flatten the butt ends of the branchlets, or twigs, in order to encourage them to absorb as much water as possible. Keep the vase filled and soon, lime-green leaves will unfurl, a little vignette of what we can expect in just a few, short months.

And then for those who live in places where snow has melted on south-facing banks, we have an opportunity to do some early-season foraging. Some plants, perennials, do just fine under their blanket of winter snow. Two of these, wintergreen and ground ivy, make pleasant, healthful, teas.

So if you know where either of these two plants grew last fall before the snow fell, head out there now and try and find some. Pick the leaves and go back in and make a tea. For wintergreen tea, use lots of wintergreen leaves, since it makes a fairly weak solution. Ground ivy produces a very bitter tea. It’s high in vitamin C, so if, like me, you enjoy bitters, you’ll appreciate ground ivy. The late Euell Gibbons enjoyed both of these refreshing teas.

Finally, if you have a south-facing window, remove your shirt, if practicable, and stand back-to in the sunshine. Then turn around, close your eyes and let the sun shine on your face. Benjamin Franklin made this practice a regular habit. He called it his “tonic bath.” Dr. Franklin may not have known about vitamins from sunshine, but he certainly understood the benefits of regular, limited exposure to the sun.

These are just some of the various ways to beat the winter doldrums and give the heave-ho to cabin fever. And just think, by doing these things, we are in good company, the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Euell Gibbons. I can’t think of two people whom I admire more.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cabin Fever 2013

This winter seems a long one to me, perhaps longer than usual. And though we only had two snowstorms worthy of mention in December and January, February saw a number of lesser storms, plus a major blizzard.

And the usual number of below-zero temperature days has extended well beyond the token six or eight that we usually see on any given year. Add it all up and we have something like an old-fashioned Maine winter.

As a young man, ice fishing was my favorite wintertime activity, along with hunting hares on snowshoes and cross-country skiing, just for fun. But now, these activities no longer hold my interest. It hurts my back to cut holes in the ice and besides that, it no longer seems fun to stand on the ice for hours on end jigging, or watching for flags.

So I’m ready for spring and look forward to the March 20 vernal equinox with great anticipation. And somewhere in the middle of March, I’ll begin my countdown to the opening day of trout fishing in brooks and streams. Thoughts of springtime activities keep me going now and all notion of wintertime pursuits have long ago vanished.

But that’s just me. Other people have far different agendas. Recently, while waiting to speak to an ATV/snowmobile dealer regarding a feature assignment I’m writing for an outdoor magazine, I overheard a telling conversation. It was unusually warm that day and a customer, a snowmobiler, was bemoaning the shrinking snowpack. The man behind the desk commiserated, adding that it was likely to put a big dent in his business.

Both of these people truly had legitimate gripes regarding a possible early arrival of spring. Of course I kept my mouth shut and even though the customer glanced at me, as if waiting for me to at least nod my head in agreement, I declined to comment. After all, my feelings tended toward the opposite direction. “Each to their own,” as the old lady said when she kissed a cow.

And today another snowstorm, complete with driving snow and high winds, keeps me inside, close to the woodstove. The scene outside could well portray a northern Canadian landscape rather than a rural clearing in Midcoast Maine. The nearness of spring does little to assure me that this won’t last. This feeling of hopelessness hits at the same time each year. Some call it “cabin fever.”

Of course nothing this side of a warm, sunny day will dispel the melancholy associated with cabin fever. Going out to dinner helped me briefly. I tire of my own cooking and so asked a friend to a local restaurant yesterday. We both needed to get out. But the mutual high we experienced from being out of our respective houses and around other people vanished within a few hours of returning home.

So now I’m going to lengths to “think spring.” To that end, I searched my photo library for a close-up shot of an English wood hyacinth, a sweet-smelling, dazzling blue flower spike that erupts in early spring. This cheery photo now serves as a background on my computer screen.

Also, I recently was given one of my old jobs back, that of home-and-garden columnist for The Republican Journal and also, the Camden Herald. I wrote this column for a number of years, but in 2008, an out-of-state company bought up the newspaper chain and instead of keeping old-time columnists and employees on, they brought in a new group of workers, their “own people,” as the new editor phrased it.

But that group went bankrupt last year. Luckily, a Maine-based publisher bought the newspaper chain and so many of the old-time writers are back, including me. And now, as not only a writer for the editorial page but also, a garden writer, I can fill my mind with thoughts of gardening, flowers, seed starting, lettuce, vegetable selection and a host of other happy thoughts. This does much to allay the ill effects of cabin fever.

All of these things help, of course. But one thing above all soothes my winter-weary soul. It comes in the form of a realization. Let me explain.

Each year about this time, I tell myself that there’s no way all the snow and ice will melt to the point that we can get out and about by April 1 (which, again, marks the opening day of trout fishing season on brooks and streams). And then lo and behold, April comes and it occurs to me that my fears were unfounded. This has happened for so many years in a row that just knowing the truth of it acts as an anodyne to winter woes.

So whatever winter brings, know that as surely as day follows night, things will change dramatically in one, short month. Take heart, you who yearn for spring. It’s on its way and nothing can stop it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gun Control

Regarding my last blog, Angela wrote: Hi Tom, This was a really interesting piece-thanks for all of the info. It’s nice to get the other side of the story to balance things out. Although I don’t disagree with what you mentioned regarding gun control, it would be great if more gun owners stood up in favor of reasonable gun control. I’m assuming that you don’t feel that there shouldn't be any restrictions? What would you support?

Well, Angela, I do support strict enforcement of existing gun laws. Most certainly, I support greater oversight regarding mentally-ill persons owning or having access to firearms. And in a household where a mentally-ill person lives, I would support measures mandating that anyone else living in that place who owns guns take strict measures to keep guns from the hands of the mentally-disabled individual.

Not to compare people to animals, but I see a connection between those who give disturbed people access to guns and people who keep vicious dogs. Both are responsible for crimes committed, either by with the gun or by the dog. 

If the young man who committed the atrocities in Sandy Hook had been kept away from guns, he still may have done something horrible and probably would have…but it wouldn't have been with guns.

I’d also like to see longer and harsher sentences for those who commit crimes with firearms. With such a great number of repeat offenders, it seems that something has gone awry there. My feeling is if you break into a business or residence and brandish a firearm, you should get the maximum penalty if found guilty, automatically.

The typical slap-on-the-wrist punishment for such offenders does not work. Let’s put teeth into our sentencing.

That’s where I stand. Thanks for asking, Angela. I appreciate you taking time to comment.

Oh, by the way, I mentioned George Smith as being involved with Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM). He has left SAM, but continues as a powerful political mover and has considerable influence Augusta. Also, George writes a blog and his blog highlights lots of upcoming legislation and also, talks about laws that have already come to pass. My mentioning his association with SAM was something of a senior moment. I admit, I was perturbed over the news article about banning smoke from wood-burning stoves. I still am, in fact. With a blizzard raging outside, it's unsettling to think that there are people out there who would ban my woodstove. 


Friday, February 8, 2013

Enough Is Enough

Do good intentions always have good consequences? I don’t think so. It seems that every other day, I hear of some new law or some new proposal, that touches upon my life in a negative way.

Let me point out that I am all for clean air and clean water. In fact, I don’t know anyone who isn’t. But some measures to ensure that our environment are not well-thought-out and in fact, some seem nothing short of dictatorial.

Let’s begin with gasoline. Modern gas contains ethanol, which comes from corn. To make ethanol, corn that would otherwise remain in the food chain gets re-routed to ethanol production. This in turn causes rising fuel prices. Furthermore, the new gas raises havoc with small engines. Everything from outboard motors to rototillers and lawn mowers to chain saws, have a shortened life expectancy. The ethanol rots fuel lines. It also draws water into the gas mix, causing breakdowns.

But now the law says that ever-increasing amounts of ethanol must go into the makeup of gasoline formulas. Need it or not, we are now burdened with it.

Next, we might look at light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs were deemed wasteful, so now people are compelled to switch to the new, mercury-containing curlicue bulbs. I read the two-page instructions on what to do if you break one of these modern marvels. They include opening all doors and windows, cutting out the flooring where the bulb broke and then calling a hazardous waste disposal unit. Do I want these things in my house? Definitely not.

That’s why I bought a lifetime supply of those “awful” incandescent bulbs. Call me greedy and self-serving, but if my old-fashioned light bulb breaks, I can just pick it up…no “hazmat” suit or respirator required, and throw it in the trash.

Then we have lead. As a fisherman and hunter, I use lead. Lead bullets, lead shot, lead sinkers and lead jigs. But now, these are being demonized and phased out.

It began more than 20 years ago when a doctor Kevin Potkvas conducted a study on loon mortality in New England. Over a long period, he acquired numerous loon cadavers. I think that one, perhaps two, of these dead loons had ingested lead fishing tackle. All of them, though, exhibited deep gashes on their backs, consistent with propeller wounds.

But what do environmental groups, including the Audubon Society want to ban? Are they interested in establishing slower speed limits for motorboats on inland waters? No. Instead, they now have a bill before the Maine legislature to ban all lead sinkers and jigs under a certain size. This would affect all Maine waters.

But since loons require many acres of surface area in order to establish a breeding population, they as a consequence, do not inhabit streams and rivers. Loons do not live on trout streams, in other words.

But that makes no difference to Audubon. They want to ban lead period, on lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. This puts fishermen at a decided disadvantage. It also puts trout at a disadvantage, since fish caught on jigs (jigs with lead bodies, I might add), are seldom seriously injured by hooks. Such fish are easily released, unharmed.

But ban these artificial lures and people will have no choice but to resort to natural bait. And when trout take natural bait, their chances of survival after being hooked and released decline greatly.

I have contacted the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine governor Paul LePage and also, George Smith from Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and have asked them all to consider having Audubon amend their bill to allow for continued use of lead sinkers and jigs on brooks and streams, places where there are no loons. Whether my efforts will bring fruit remains to be seen.

Readers may wonder why I haven’t contacted Audubon. I haven’t because in talking with various people connected with them, I see no chance for reason.

As a side issue here, I wonder why environmental zealots don’t address the problem of mercury in what ought to be pristine Maine waters? Did you know that brook trout from Aroostook County, Maine, have a high mercury content? It’s true. The stuff is airborne, coming here from other states to the southwest. But that’s a political issue that won’t be easily won. Far easier to put the heavy boots down on fishermen.

Another lead item concerns non-toxic shot on migratory waterfowl. In heavily-hunted areas such as Merrymeeting Bay, a lead ban may have some small validity…not much, since lead is the next heaviest metal to gold and when it lands on a mud bottom, such as in Merrymeeting Bay, it quickly sinks. Even so, it’s possible that every decade or so, a duck could ingest lead shot.

But the lead shot ban exists everywhere, even on the ocean. When the ban was first imposed, I was guiding duck hunters out on Jericho Bay, a place with deep water and swift, powerful tides. No duck ever born could, even it if it wanted to, swim down to the bottom and pluck up a lead pellet. That is an impossibility. But still, lead shot is prohibited, even there. Even in the Bay of Fundy, where tides run faster than the average person can run, lead shot is banned.

The recent groundswell among the anti-gun crowd in Maine has brought up some interesting, needless proposals. Among them, Democrat lawmakers are proposing that gun owners have special liability insurance. Yes, you read me right. Mandatory, government-imposed insurance. Sound familiar? It’s scary. It scares me.

Also, holders of concealed carry permits would have their information made public. This would enable criminals to target their homes, looking for guns to steal. It just doesn’t make sense. To me, this sounds more like 1930 Germany than 2013 Maine.

And the latest bit of deviltry, that I heard on the news last night and which prompted me to write this blog, has to do with smoke from woodstoves.

The piece highlighted all the bad components of wood smoke. Well, duh, everyone knows that it isn’t good to breathe in smoke…any kind of smoke. But the new momentum has as its basis the simple fact that people can SMELL smoke from other people’s woodstoves. And if you can smell it, one man said, it is hurting you.

I often write about the almost cloying effect that the first whiff of woodsmoke on the air has on me each fall. One particle of woodsmoke per several million isn’t going to hurt me or anyone else. And yet the news story interviewed a man (someone obviously from some place other than Maine) who wants wood burning banned.

“I smell it when I walk my dog,” he said. To that, I made a gesture toward the television screen and quickly turned it off. And I’ll bet anything that this same man, who wants to take away our most renewable source of energy, walks his dog on other people’s property. I bet that in fact, he purposely takes his dog down the road so that it can defecate on someone else’s land. That’s the reason so many people walk their dogs on public places. Is there an irony here? I think so.

Anyway, I’m sure some readers will have different views on topics mentioned here. So be it. But as for me, I’ve had enough. No more. No more.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Prices Way Out Of Line

I think a short note regarding book prices is in order. Several readers have contacted me wondering why my book Foraging New England is listed at an outrageously high price. I appreciate people telling me about that, since I was aware of it.

Anyway, I found out the reason and it is nothing that I have any control over. When books are about to go out of stock or when a new version is about to be released, prices skyrocket. And since I recently revised Foraging New England, and the existing supply of the current version is dwindling, the distributors have jacked the price up to a ludicrously high amount. Why they do his is beyond my ken. 

I would suggest that anyone wanting a good foraging book for New England buy Wild Plants of Maine. Most, if not all, of the plants in that book also grow throughout New England. Of the two books, I like Wild Plants of Maine better.

The reason for that is because of the publisher. Foraging New England is published by Globe Pequot Press, a company I have written for for over 20 years. But GPP is a big, national publisher and as such, has hordes of copy editors, whose job it is to parse, change, delete and in general remove the author’s original wording anywhere possible. These are freelance people who subcontract for the company and their eviscerating of manuscripts is a way for them to justify their existence.

So what people read in a nationally-published book, not just my books but anyone’s, is often a far cry from what the author originally wrote.

On the other hand, Wild Plants of Maine is from a Maine-based publishing house. And except for correcting spelling errors or accidental syntax errors, what you read in WPOM is what I wrote and what I meant. The publisher of this book, Just Write Books, Topsham, Maine, has a care for her authors and listens to them and works with them, not against them.

That, for anyone interested in getting into writing and publishing books, is the difference between national publishers and smaller publishing houses.

Again, I apologize for that ridiculous price spike on Foraging New England. It’s a good book, but not that good.

By the way, I appreciate the nice comments about my cabin fever piece. Take heart...spring is coming.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Groundhog Day

Today, January 31, 2013, I went outside and located young chives, happily growing as if spring had already arrived. Nearby, were young sprouts of orpine and also, spearmint, all newly-emerged from the earth. Alongside a raised bed, dame’s rocket looked as green and healthy as when it went to sleep last fall. So what gives?

Well, it’s been a winter of contrasts. December came in cold and snowy, a real old-time Maine winter. But early January saw a warm spell and the first full-blown mud season of the year. Then for nearly two weeks, temperatures hovered at or somewhat below 0. And last night, a warm wind blew (blew is an understatement…gusts topped 60 mph), accompanied by a heavy rain.

The warm temperatures and rain melted all the snow. And the plants that I found had no doubt begun sprouting during the last cold snap, then they got covered with snow, an insulator, and now they sit out in the open, sans snow.

My lawn looks lush and green, a sad reminder that it could have used one more mowing before putting away the mower. For all intents and purposes, spring has arrived.

But wait, as they say on TV. The weather forecast calls for teens and single numbers tonight, so this taste of spring will be at best, short-lived.

No matter what, though, winter is at least and probably more than, half over. The old saying: “The provident farmer by Candlemas Day has half his wood and half his hay,” points to the second of February being the traditional mid-point of winter.

Candlemas Day, a church day, has fallen into disuse by the general populace, replaced by the more fashionable, Groundhog Day. But even Groundhog Day has its basis in truth. Groundhogs are not very sound hibernators and often wake up during warm spells in winter. And they do indeed leave their burrows and venture about.

I do like the optimism surrounding the groundhog’s predictions. If he sees his shadow, we are in for six more weeks of winter. Well, six weeks from February 2 puts us in the middle of March, quite early, in my opinion, for spring to arrive.

So take heart. Winter’s back is broken and from now on, despite sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow, it’s all downhill. And now please excuse me, since I must go out and pick some wintergreen leaves for tea, before the deep freeze sets in.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cabin Fever

For me, sub-zero weather means enforced confinement. That is, it’s far too cold for outdoor activity, so I sit inside, write, play music on my pipes and feed the wood stove.

Friends tend not to drop by either, given the biting cold and also, the risk of flu. Every other person I speak with on the phone, it seems, either has or has had, the flu. So keeping away from sick people becomes a priority for me and this means days on end without the company of other humans.

Besides that, getting the flu could spell trouble for me in a big way. Living alone, I have no one to help in case of sickness. But my lifestyle is my choice and it didn’t just happen that way. We “pays our money and takes our chances,” so the old saying goes.

All this makes me wonder how the old-time trappers ever managed it. I’m not talking out west mountain man times either, but rather old-time Maine trappers. These people would take off for a month or more in the dead of winter, running their traplines and living in remote camps far away from civilization.

At least we today have radio and television, email and telephones. The old timers had nothing. But this much I know, from talking with older folks who were around during the early and mid-20th century; there wasn’t much time to sit around and get lonesome, since the trapper’s life was one of constant work. And when they weren’t preparing hides and doing camp chores, they were sleeping. It was work while the sun shone and sleep when it didn’t.

In looking over my photo collection, I came across a photo of the headstone of a Revolutionary War soldier who served during the winter at Valley Forge. Thinking about the privations and hardships those men endured makes me feel foolish about my own slight discomfort.

So when the door handle freezes on your car and you have to warm the key with a match, don’t cuss; just be glad you have a car. And even though heating fuel has become way overpriced, just be glad that you don’t have to burn half-green softwood, the way those old-time trappers did.

As far as getting lonely, email has taken up a lot of slack and single people, even those out in rural areas, can connect to the world at the pressing of a few keys.

In retrospect, things ain’t so bad after all.