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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


It contains just a few items, this simple garden. We've bought nothing from a nursery, transplanted nothing from elsewhere. Moss and ivy and geraniums just grow. Conifer needles fall. That's about it.

Every month or so, I weed. This means taking out dandelions, various little worts and banes, and also pulling out clumps of the wild geranium that otherwise would obscure everything. Such effort leaves artful patches of needles, and an exposed root system mostly mossed over.

Most people might not think this a garden at all, just some stuff under a tree. More intensively traditional gardens lie just beyond, above a rock wall.

It's perhaps my favorite garden. Its simplicity is endearing. It requires little care. Art takes many forms, I'm very happy to realize, including humility. And magnificence: the huge blue spruce under which the garden rests shouts its power for all to hear.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


A favorite game when I was young was Categories. For best results, it needed a large and somewhat literate crowd, so whenever my mother's clan got together, I would beg shamelessly for a game, my brothers and I proudly the kids among the adults. Each player made a 25-square grid on a piece of paper; then suggestions for categories on one axis were tossed out (e.g., Trees) until five were agreed to (obscure categories being nixed, regretfully), and one person was nominated to suggest a five-letter word for the other axis (WATCH, say), upon which the table was given 10 minutes to fill in the squares (Willow, Ash, etc.). One received more points for originality, that is, for coming up with an answer that no one else did. The scoring system otherwise remained pleasingly arcane, with pitched arguments as to points awarded/deserved and laughing capitulations to the insistence of fathers.

I'm reminded of this game when I look from the deck at the various conifers in view. They are obviously alike from a distance, firs and spruce and pines, and not so obviously alike from close, in needle (round or flat; singly or multiply attached) and twig (smooth or rough) and bark (ditto) and cone (upright or pendant). In a fit of teenage categorical imperative, I get out my Sibley Book of Trees to confirm.

Sibley, however, has been festooned with post-it notes, more than 50 of them, and I'm distracted from the mission. We lent the book to a young friend and each pink strip marks a species identified as growing in his immediate vicinity. Not surprisingly, in this evergreen state of Maine, almost a quarter of them were conifers. I'm impressed with his perspicacity and enthusiasm, jealous of his unbroken time in the woods, wondering at his patience in differentiating among jack pine and pitch pine and larch, white spruce and red spruce and black spruce. In some nostalgia I think that one used to want to know the name of everything, where it fit in the universe, what its distinguishing characteristics were. It was a way, I suppose, of making sense of the world, or more proudly, trying to control it.

I'm comforted to read Sibley's introduction, however, and realize that the very definition of a tree is actually quite hard to pin down, the problem being those pesky shrubs that act like trees, and vice versa. One woody stem, or multiple? Thick trunk or skinny? Short or tall? Crown of foliage or not? Sibley even indulges in a bit of poesy: if you can walk under it, it's a tree; if you have to walk around it, it's a shrub. I like that. As my days get more sanguine, I'm more and more pleased just to call that magnificent plant growing on the edge of the shore "tree."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Glad, then and now

We're just back from Copenhagen, visiting our daughter Kate for a week It's a beautiful city (see my wife's photos), a beguiling mix of the very old and the very new. Also, I suspect that all restaurants with windows on the street have contracts with the passing scene to require that at least 5 tall, attractive, blond people drive by on bicycles each minute. Makes it hard to concentrate on your smorrebrod.

If one must live in a city, Copenhagen is at the top of the list. Determinedly urban (when we left our apartment to go to the airport, a party was still going on in the apartment below and we met a couple on the stairs actually going into it, at 5:30 a.m.), yet it's on a reasonable scale, with a lot of gardens and parks. The lilacs were out everywhere, for example, exceeded only by the press of people taking in a rare, sunny afternoon on the Stroget, in the squares, on the city hall plaza. At least it didn't rain much, making the chilly air bearable (it reached 60 maybe twice all week). We were very glad to have visited, and with such a terrific tour guide.

Yet I'm ecstatic to be back. The lilacs in Maine are tree-like, just a couple of days from full fragrant flower, and the lupine are just starting, and the poppies are about to burst, and the trees are fully leaved, and I walk down to Ash Point on the edge of a warm rain shower, blue sky over the bay ahead, gray sky behind.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Perfect days

Wake up to brilliant sun warming the bed. Read Peter Cameron's Leap Year for a while, chortle. Get up for breakfast of fresh banana bread, juice and coffee. Look at email and Maine websites, walk dog, think about book. Go to land trust for meetings. Return home to lunch on the deck, sun warming clothes, breeze cooling skin. Go for long walk in Rockport with wife and dog. Stop in garden center for seed and fertilizer. Mow lawn in shirtsleeves, get hot. Cool off on deck, with dog lying contentedly in grass, chewing stick. Get cold, go in to warm house for cocktail hour.Cook real dinner, converse. Watch Law and Order re-run, go to bed at 9:00.

That was yesterday. Today is rainy and quiet and everything is growing like mad. Who's to say which day is perfection? Me the mere mortal, or the grass?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Down to earth

I suppose, in the great panoply of things that bother me, calling land trusts "elite" is among the least toxic. Nevertheless, it's a charge we occasionally hear. I heard it most recently at the Maine Land Trust Network conference last weekend in Topsham, in a very benign way, of course, and in the context of something to avoid. However, the keynote speaker, Peter Forbes, who slipped in the comment, clearly had it in mind when he said that promoting community-centric preservation activities would counter such charges. Kind of like damning with faint asides.

Forbes is clearly on the "use" side, as opposed to the "preserve" side of the land trust movement. He says we're just starting Land Trust 2.0, in which community use of the wonders of nature will educate, enforce and reinforce our relationship to the land. All true, but his evangelism seems to discount the need to protect much more land from development in the first place. I believe his ideas work wonders in those cases where the land has already been compromised, or where a problem of over-use already exists. By all means, the community will help to solve the problem. But when an opportunity arises to protect an undeveloped parcel forever, we must do so and then make it available, as possible, for public use. The tide of development history is against us. We must force the issue and hope the community agrees, and benefits, and applauds.

The very diversity of endeavors on display at the conference puts paid to Forbes' pleas for a new theory. Land trusts and other groups in Maine are doing amazing things - a farm in Falmouth provides employment and education for the teenage kids of Somali refugees, community-owned forests provide recreation and sustainable logging in Amherst and Grand Lake Stream, the Appalachian Mountain Club sponsors the Great Maine Outdoor Weekends, the Saco River Recreational Council cleans up after (and educates) the 100,000 boaters using the river in the summer, Kennebunkport Conservation Trust integrates outdoor education into the primary school curriculum, the 4-H Center at Bryant's Pond inspires kids for the outdoors. (These are just from the three workshops, of 32 in total, that I attended.) These are the very anti-thesis of elitism - they are literally down to earth. Apparently, Maine folks are figuring things out without the help of national theorists.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Help! Spring is stuck!

I don't usually plead for influences from the southern climes - social, political, meteorological - but we're desperate up here in Maine. The thermometer hasn't been over 50 for days. Send us something warm! And I don't mean hush puppies.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Nature-deficit disorder

... is the term coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods, a book I'm interested in reading, if not for the slight anxiety that it might contain enough dry research to squelch the very sentiments it's trying to promote. Perhaps it's enough to recognize the feeling in the gut that today's children are being terribly deprived, perhaps one should just wish for a book of such a title composed entirely of joyful, exuberant poems describing fort-making and bug-watching and pickings-up of masses of wood-frog eggs from a mucky vernal pool well-distant from any road or screen, not to mention bird-listening on a real twitter account. Apparently, the research shows that unstructured outdoor play and adventure is supremely important, not including outdoor baseball and soccer games which are full of adult rules, but the walk in the woods around whose trees one never knows what's lurking, or laughing. That's what produces confident, creative kids.

I myself am suffering from NDD today, cooped up inside. That is, I should be suffering, given the insistent rain and the outdoor thermometer that I recorded at 50 this morning and then watched fall as the day continued. May 1, they say it is. I won't believe it if I don't have to.

But I'm not really so afflicted. I'm so lucky as to live free and unstructured when confined to quarters, delighting in words, and even more lucky to suffer a most delightful nature hangover from yesterday's outing: on a clear day that managed to be both cool and warm, I took a long, exploring walk of almost 3 hours through sections of town - undeveloped woods, emerald-like hay fields, seashore at low tide - that I had not yet experienced, including long snowmobile trails completely delightful in not-winter. OK, so I won't turn up the heat or light the wood stove now that it's May, and I'm a little tired of being cold, and the solution of long underwear and an extra (third!) pair of socks is frankly ridiculous, and I guess I am suffering this very false spring from a touch of NDD. Where is the March of yestermonth? But that's the beauty of us nature freaks. Who cares how we cure ourselves, the goldfinches?