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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hull Creek

Just finished reading Hull Creek, a novel by Jim Nichols. It's a good, strong book about lobster fishing on the coast of Maine - mid-coast, actually, and Camden, Rockland and Owls Head at that. Camden is very thinly disguised as Pequot but Rockland and Owls Head appear pretty much in all their glory. It was fun to read about local landmarks, sad to read about the increasingly pinched lives of local Mainers, and disturbing to read about the onslaught of people from away ("swanks"). Mr. Nichols might have been a little less unrelenting in his treatment of the foreigners - some of them (us) are harmless at worst and may actually do some good at best - but I can see his point, that there's a helplessness, an inevitability to this slow tide of money and manners. And sometimes not slow but a grab and a pounce at any price.

The book's descriptions of fishing and wildlife are excellent, and I expect that one take-home from the novel is that there's a chance there will be fishing and wildlife for years and years to come. The Maine way of life may be powerful enough to convert even the grabbiest of swanks, so long as the birds and the lobsters and clean water and humility survive. Even Camden's pretty nice in the off-season.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Red alert - human stuff

Humans seem to use red much like plants do - to attract attention, whether it's a large flower pot placed at the end of a driveway or a door painted red in contrast with grey cedar shingles and still-vivid November grass. Being self-aware, we also use red to flirt and seduce, or warn of danger. At the very least a conscious vitality is implied, if not overtly advertised, a way to live on in minds and memories. Our blood is stirred.

I was especially pleased to see this grave bouquet in Ash Point Cemetery, red leaves and red berries commemorating Ms. Libby's apparent immortality.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Red alert - berries

Okay, so the red berries and fruits of late fall can't compete with the grandstanding strawberries and raspberries of summer. The fruits, like rose hips and crab apples, are pretty lively in October but wither in November. The berries, both those more orange in hue and those that are spectacularly red, are gorgeous even though they don't provide food for the exalted human taste. Just as important, they sustain our fellow travelers, the deer and the birds. I like their wildness, their bravery, their inspiration, their modesty - muncher and munchee alike.

The winterberry, however, is the most heartbreaking of all. Its growth can be delicate, a few sprigs against a mossy spruce, or it can be profligate, spreading like fire along a lane. I cut a few twigs, and when I get back to the house, put them in a vase. Throughout the winter the berries will dry and fade and carry us through. For even months later, they will retain a kiss of red, a promise of cardinals and lilacs, a resurrection of spirit.

Next time: red human stuff.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Red alert - leaves

Now that the fancy display of sumac and maple and oak and burning bush is done, it's a little harder to find the beating heart of optimistic red around us. But a walk in the not-yet-barren November woods does just fine (forgive the amateur pictures via phone camera). It's a wonderful time of the year, quietly sandwiched between the blaze of October and the garishness of December. Red is such a joyful color, and once you start to look for it, it's everywhere. Bah, therefore, to any political or financial connotations. Look at the world with your blood.

Next time: red berries.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Eats Leaves and Rots

Just finished raking the lawn and depositing the leaves on the garden beds (we think it helps the flowers survive the winter). The raker appears to be a dying breed. Here in the country he has been replaced by the riding lawn mower which doubles as a mulcher. In the city lawn services and their multifarious motors rule the mornings: at the end of our street the other week, three guys wearing leaf blowers herded the little beasts into corrals, the guy with the monster yellow mower beat them to pieces, whereupon the blowers regrouped the remains for the benefit of a big tube that sucked them into a truck, which, even though it had a cover over its bed, leaked leaf particles like a dust storm. And we wonder why allergies are on the increase.

I shouldn't cavil about the motors (if I had to do yard work all day every day, I'd want it mechanized too). But at eight o'clock in the morning? And wouldn't requiring rakes and bags actually create jobs? for which nothing is more sacred these days.

The green lawn is actually a tyrant, isn't it. I wonder if anyone's calculated the waste of chemicals and water and gasoline it requires. I'm tempted some years just to let the leaves rot where they fall, but of course peer pressure and the glories of your own patch of conquered wilderness prevail every time. The natural world is perfectly capable of taking care of its own -why don't we let it? Maybe next year....

Friday, November 11, 2011

The edge of winter

Back in Massachusetts for a spell, after another week of wrong-season weather in Maine. It wasn't quite warm to sit outside, but for a couple of those days it felt mild and bright enough to be the edge of summer rather than the edge of winter. It was as if the Halloween weekend blizzard in New England was the shortest winter on record. Perfect weather for hiking, of course, including an especially invigorating walk up Bald Rock with friends on Saturday.

"Invigorating" is the word people usually hide behind to disguise their fear of winter. Also, "loving the change of seasons," "fresh and healthful," "pure." All of those words are true; we've evolved to be conscious of the power of abstractions, self-delusion and even beauty. We've also evolved towards helplessness. Most higher animals deal pretty well with winter - migrating, hibernating, storing up food, making weather-proof burrows and nests. Modern humans have progressed even farther; no more stocking the root cellar, drying the deer meat, banking the foundations, communing with the family in the candle-lit darkness of the evening, now we're able to maintain our lives at the same level of comfort no matter what the weather. (Some think to escape to Florida but that's just trading in the tyrannies of oil heat and blizzards for A/C and hurricanes.) But when a big storm threatens, we find we have not progressed at all. We are totally dependent on people we don't know, on systems of delivering food and electricity and heat that are foreign and unfeeling. We last a day or two and then beg help from an anonymous utility, or government. We depend entirely on switches and ignitions, and if they don't work, we don't work. How humiliating for an apex predator.

What ultimately saves our bacon is the other human trait that's evolved so well - our social safety net. To see that under attack, devolving and shamefully underfunded, now that's real fear.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Deer yard

For most of the summer and the fall, the deer have mostly avoided our little patch of civilization, leaving the hostas and phlox and other edibles in our yard alone. I see them just as frequently in the woods in back, however, as they cross and re-cross the several roads going down to the water. Including today.

We're well into hunting season here in Wildlife Management District 25, for moose as well as deer, although an appearance of the former in this semi-rural coast would cause a stampede of hunters more heavily armed with cameras than with cannons. I have eschewed the wearing of any orange hats, not expecting hunters to work so close to Hondas and picture windows. Yet the two deer I saw this afternoon, young does, I theoretically could have shot, had I an antlerless deer permit, a weapon stronger than words, and the proper temperament. They were standing in what I've always thought of as a deer yard, even though it's about as different from a real deer yard as it can be. It's a meadow-like place, with raspberries in July and fireweed in August, with some "weeping" trees whose branches form tents, with a few old apple trees on the edges, with larger trees all around. Sounds like a perfect place to gambol and all the other silly things we impute to wildlife. In reality, it's a terrible place to hang out, too open, too exposed, very unlike a real deer yard which is a place of shelter in the winter, acres of conifers on a south-facing slope that provide shelter from deep snow and high winds.

One of the deer was properly sheltered from attack under some of the weeping branches. I wouldn't have seen it at all if it hadn't been that its companion stood stock-still in the open, glowing in the sunshine like a holy thing. We watched each other for some minutes. I even picked up the dog so she could see, but her eyesight is no longer that good and she was indifferent when I whispered, "See the big dog?" When at last I turned away, I scuffed my foot slightly on the tar. Immediately, the two deer bolted away, white tails flagging.

As I walked back home, I tried to imagine aiming a gun at that creature who stood so clearly, so confidently in its own backyard. I couldn't.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


In this part of Maine (probably in most parts) we have red squirrels, and on our property at least one. That is, I see only one at a time but for all I know, there may be many, taking turns running across the ground and jumping from branch to branch. They seem to be more tree-oriented than the gray squirrel that so bedevils urban dogs; in fact, the red I saw the other day was climbing to the very top of a 40-foot fir on the shore. It might have been up there for the view, for it was a particularly pretty day. More likely it was seeking fresh buds and needles and even cones, the seeds of which are its favorite food.

The red squirrel is quite cute, being not much bigger than a chipmunk. Beyond that, I doubt humans think much about squirrels except to curse them in their attics.

Nor am I sure how the squirrel feels about humans. It scolds me, from the safety of a tree of course, when I'm out splitting wood. It finds the deck railing a convenient place to pick apart a cone, leaving its tell-tale midden of discarded cone bits behind. I've even seen it climbing directly up and down the outside walls of the house, presumably using the cedar shakes (an ex-tree) for toeholds. No nature-based reasons for the last-named exercise come to mind; recreational or psychological ones do.

Climbing to the tops of things fulfills all kinds of desires. My house is bigger than yours; my dad is taller than yours; the seeds are always greener at the top of the tree; I'm at the top of the world, on top of my game, high on Jesus. You'd think that getting closer to the infinity of space would make us humble. On the contrary, it seems to make us proud. Thank goodness the red squirrel chides us for our hubris and runs up things just for the hell of it.