When cormorants appear on the rocks below the Brunswick-Topsham hydroelectric dam and falls of the Androscoggin River, I know the annual run of river herring has begun. There are probably other signs — such as the water temperature — but I rely on the cormorants to tell me what is happening below the river’s surface. From what is seen, I become aware of what is unseen: the blueback herring and alewives that begin their great migration from the ocean, swimming upstream along our major rivers, the St. Croix, Penobscot, St. George, Damariscotta, Sheepscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin, as well as any number of lesser tributaries. Upriver they swim, determinedly against the river’s flow that is swollen by the spring runoff; determinedly too because they are hunted, the prey of any number of predators, including osprey and eagles, larger fish, and, of course, cormorants. The migration begins in early May and typically lasts well into June.
like Jesus hanging from the cross
cormorants dry their wings
beneath the river’s dam
On the Androscoggin, and several other of the major rivers as well, the passage of the river herring to their spawning grounds upriver is blocked by concrete dams. At the Brunswick-Topsham dam they have a man-made fish-ladder to assist them. It’s a long concrete fishway, with a series of locks that the alewives will follow until they get to the pool at the top, where they will be sucked up into a holding tank on a truck, which will deliver them to their spawning grounds at various upriver locales. To get to that fishway, the alewives, blueback herring and occasional salmon must pass through a gauntlet of waiting cormorants. With their bodies half-submerged in the river, the cormorants patrol the river … with only their long necks and heads sticking up out of the water, looking very much a submarine’s periscope.
If you were to judge the contest between cormorant and an alewife based on how cormorants look when they are trying to gain altitude as they take off from the water, you might be inclined, as I have been, to give the fish better than even odds of escape. Cormorants flap wildly, their webbed feet seemingly a drag impeding their ascent, until somehow, eventually, they begin to rise, tuck their legs against their torso and fly away. It’s hardly elegant.
I hadn’t given much thought to how they perform underwater … until I came upon a YouTube video taken with an underwater camera showing a cormorant in hot pursuit of a fish. Like penguins and puffins and other birds that hunt their prey underwater, cormorants are really designed more for their underwater activities than those above. The cormorant zigged and zagged, following its prey like a heat-seeking missile. I would not want to be an alewife with a cormorant on my tail. More often than not, I’m guessing, the cormorant gets its prey. How it’s able to swallow that fish whole remains a mystery to me, for I cannot imagine that a speared alewife or blueback herring surrenders its one life passively, without a struggle. Eventually, either because its gullet is full or it needs a breath of air, a cormorant surfaces, then lets the current take it downstream until quick as a wink, it disappears below the surface to renew the hunt.
how strong the pull
swimming against the flow
alewives keep on going
A “Maine River Herring Fact Sheet” posted on the Department of Marine Resources website provides some answers to the question “Why are alewives important to the state of Maine?”
What’s interesting to me is that all the reasons listed regard alewives as serving some higher purpose than their own right to swim freely, feed, spawn and swim back to the great ocean again. Namely, their purpose is to be eaten by other creatures. And so, we learn “they provide an alternative prey item for osprey, eagles, great blue heron, loons and other fish-eating birds at the same time juvenile Atlantic salmon are migrating downriver.” Not only that. They also “provide cover for upstream migrating adult salmon that may be preyed on by eagles or osprey, and for young salmon in the estuaries and open ocean that might be captured by seals.”
How lucky salmon are to have so many alewives providing “cover,” giving themselves up that Salmo salar might live!
Everything eats alewives, according to the DMR: “Striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, American eel, brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, lake trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pickerel, pike, white and yellow perch, seabirds, bald eagle, osprey, great blue heron, gulls, terns, cormorants, seals, whales, otter, mink, fox, raccoon, skunk, weasel, fisher and turtles.”
It doesn’t end there. Alewives provide “revenue” for 35 towns that sell “commercial harvesting rights to alewives on 39 streams and rivers.” These alewives are “recognized” for “the value” they provided as “preferred bait for the spring lobster fishery.”
Lucky for alewives, then, that each female produces 60,000 to 100,000 eggs. Those eggs hatch in about three days, at which point, it seems, alewives are fair game for just about every other species with which they share their freshwater spawning habitat. From mid-July to early November, the young alewives begin their seaward migration. How many actually make it depends upon “the availability of feed in the lakes, the total numbers of young produced in a particular watershed, and the length of time they remain in the freshwater environment.”
as above, so below
so many alewives self-sacrifice
salmon are more worthy
Grandma McCarthy knew where meat came from in ways that I did not when she sent me and my brother Kevin to Herzog’s Delicatessen with a dollar and a quarter and instructions to buy a pound of shaved ham for our lunchtime sandwiches. We politely watched the meat man wearing a white apron take out a slab of ham resting on ice. With the whirring blade of his stainless steel cutter the meat man translated that slab into slices of pinkish meat, paper thin and ready to eat: shaved ham.
Other days we’d watch him do the same to a slab of roast beef, or baloney, the slices thicker but wrapped in the same white paper and taped securely so the meat would stay fresh. I never gave much thought to what took place before that simple exchange of money which allowed us to take that meat home to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the additional transformations that would come with mayonnaise, butter or ketchup and two slices of white bread pressing it all together.
Meat came from the meat man: It was simple as that.
My grandparents never ordered more than a day’s worth, and so we became regular customers of the meat man at Herzog’s Delicatessen during the two weeks of every summer that we stayed with them. The meat was always good. And sometimes if he was in a good mood the meat man gave us a slice of baloney on the end of a toothpick to eat on our walk back to our grandparents’ duplex on a tree-lined street in Cleveland’s West Side.
Grandma never made a point of educating us about the finer points of where meat came from … until one day I asked her about her childhood growing up on a farm in Ireland. In one of the stories she shared, Grandma recalled for us how her mother would grab a chicken and wring its neck. It was the necessary precursor to the special occasions when her mother would serve a roasted chicken for the family’s dinner. Then she’d pluck its feathers, pull out its guts and put it into a metal container to roast over the turf-fired fireplace.
“Really?” I said. “Oh!”
“Sure, Jimmy,” Grandma replied. “How else did you expect us to have chicken? There’d be no grocery stores where we lived. If you didn’t wring the chicken’s neck there’d be no chicken dinner for any of us.”
Then she demonstrated how you’d grab the chicken’s neck and swing it quickly round to break its neck.
I didn’t ask her about the geese, pigs or cows her family also raised on their small subsistence farm in the wild boglands of County Sligo. I already knew enough: My imagination filled in the rest.
the meat man wears white
by the end of the day
his apron’s stained red
Twenty-odd years later and newly married, my first wife, Karen, and I decided we’d be “back-to-the-landers.” We intended to grow as much of our own food as we could. We cultivated a small vegetable garden and surprised ourselves with how quickly we came to regard the woodchuck that was eating our newly emerging plants as quickly as they came up as an “enemy that must be killed.”
Without any qualms I felt a certain victory when my friend David, who lived across the street from us in Conway, N.H., shot one of the woodchucks with his high-powered air rifle just as it was emerging from its den. If you’re growing your own food you can’t afford to be sentimental. I still remember feeling triumphant over that woodchuck’s demise.
I received my comeuppance when another woodchuck picked up where its fallen brother had left off.
This time I took a less drastic approach and rented a Hav-a-Heart trap at a nearby lumber store. I successfully trapped the woodchuck, which was snarling and rattling the cage as I drove him a few miles down the Kancamagus Highway. I released him to an uncertain fate in the woods of the White Mountain National Forest -- and gave no thought whatsoever to the possibility that the habitat I’d released the woodchuck into would not provide the forage plants it needed to survive.
Our garden was now safe from its predatory raids, and that’s all that mattered to me as I reported back to Karen the successful exile of our second nemesis woodchuck.
In addition to planting that vegetable garden we had purchased a dozen chicks to raise as laying hens. They were “Rhode Island Reds” and they arrived at the local farm and feed store with dozens of other chicks, all of them peeping inside the boxes they’d arrived in, making quite a din as they waited to be picked up by their new owners. It was a rite of spring when that year’s chicks arrived at the local post office and then were delivered to the feed store for distribution to dozens of families in Mt. Washington Valley.
We transported our dozen yellow chicks back home in a deep cardboard box. It would be their home until I built a chicken coop and enclosed the hen yard with chicken wire near the barn attached to our rented farmhouse apartment. We placed a bare light bulb over the top and kept it on to keep the chicks warm through the mid-spring nights.
Even so, they kept us awake with their incessant and insistent peeping the entire night. Sympathy is not exactly what we felt listening to the din in our kitchen below the bedroom. I was more than happy to put them outdoors in their finished coop by the end of the week.
Those chicks became chickens soon enough. They are voracious eaters, eating not only every pellet of chicken feed we’d set out for them but also every blade of grass within their chicken yard. Before long their pen was a dusty desert, not a blade of grass left. We wondered when they would begin laying eggs -- eggs, after all, being the reason we had become chicken farmers in the first place.
Early one morning we were awakened by a halting “Err-ERR-ERR” followed by a more forceful “AROO.” And then another, and another, each call growing more confident. It never quite came across -- to my ear, at least – as “cock-a-doodle-doo.” But there was no mistaking what that early-morning crowing was all about: We had a rooster within our flock of Rhode Island Reds.
Actually, we had two.
We discovered this one day as we watched our strutting rooster chasing after another bird, pecking it unmercifully. Upon closer inspection, we realized the harassed hen actually was another rooster. What we didn’t realize is that we had one rooster too many — that the subordinate one would cower so much, day after day after day, it eventually would become crippled, its legs bent in a perpetual crouch. That subservience carried over into its morning crowing as well: In the pre-dawn quiet that gave way to the dominant rooster’s increasingly articulate and boastful cock-a-doodle-doo we began to distinguish another garbled, hoarse and muted crowing. A mournful start to a bright new day, if ever there was one. We began to feel sorry for our crippled rooster. But we didn’t know what could be done to ease his world of constant sorrow.
Soon after, our 10 chickens began laying eggs. Our meditation on the cruel pecking order of chickens and roosters gave way to the pure pleasure of eating fresh eggs, with deep-yellow yolks, sunny-side up, scrambled and folded over in omelettes. We’d retrieve several eggs each day from the straw nests inside the chicken coop, as the mother hens rushed outside to eat their fill of that day’s pellets. It seemed, to us, a fair exchange.
Chanticleer crows at dawn,
another cowers and croaks
-- the world is what it is
Then it came time to move on: I’d been offered a new job as a reporter for the afternoon daily newspaper The Times Record in mid-coast Maine. We knew we couldn’t take our chickens with us. It was time to “give them up” … a curious turn of phrase, since it really meant our 10 chickens and two roosters would be the ones called upon to give themselves up — in order to become meat. We researched how to slaughter our chickens: Sure enough, the execution method my grandmother had remembered was among those recommended. It sounded easy enough.
I selected our crippled rooster as the first to be slaughtered. But even he knew when it was time to put up a fight. I had him under my arm, and when I grabbed his neck he flapped his wings madly. I could barely hold him. When I went to twist his neck it was like rubber. It did not snap. The rooster struggled to escape my tenuous hold. The other chickens began squawking loudly. Soon a bunch of neighborhood kids had gathered around me to watch the spectacle I was making for their entertainment.
Our neighbor’s 7-year-old son, who’d been raised as a vegetarian, asked me why I was trying to hurt the rooster.
“So we can eat him,” I said, still struggling to wring the rooster’s stupid neck.
“Why do you want to eat him?” the boy asked.
I couldn’t believe I was having this rational conversation in the midst of slaughtering my first chicken, or rather, rooster.
“We like chicken,” I said, still struggling and getting increasingly flustered by the act of violence I realized the neighborhood kids were watching intently with wide-eyed wonder. “It’s a kind of meat -- like pork or beef.”
“What’s meat?” he asked.
“It’s something you eat,” I said. “Now stop asking questions. I’m trying to kill this rooster …”
At this point, my friend David came over and told me to drop the rooster. He told me he’d had a better, more humane, way of doing the deed. A few minutes later he came back holding a pair of nunchucks, a Chinese martial arts weapon involving two sticks connected together at one end with a short chain. David walked over to our crippled rooster and swung one end of the nunchucks. Thwack! The crippled rooster dropped like a rock. David walked over to the chicken yard. Thwack, thwack, thwack! He went through that yard like the grim reaper, making short work of our flock of Rhode Island Reds.
It took me the rest of the day to dunk them, one by one, into a large pot of boiled water, which loosened the feathers for easier plucking. Headless, plucked and gutted, by the end of the afternoon my wife and I had processed enough chickens to get us through our first few months of living on a tight budget in Maine.
Wring out the rooster’s crow
pluck his feathers, gut him
I did not realized, until that day, how much offal is created in the butchering of 10 chickens and two roosters. I had no idea what to do with the several buckets of innards that graced our yard after the job was done. My friend David had a ready answer.
“We’ll feed it to Sammy’s pig,” he said.
Sammy’s pig was named “Christmas Dinner.” David and his wife, Pat, did not want their youngest son to develop a strong emotional attachment to the piglet he had caught in the pig scramble at the annual Fryeburg Fair. Scramble is the right word to describe what happens when 10 greased piglets are set loose in an enclosed arena with 20 or 30 kids chasing after them with burlap sacks in their hands.
The challenge isn’t catching a piglet so much as stuffing it inside the sack before it squirms loose and runs squealing away. The piglets do not go quietly, or easily, into the dark night of a cinched burlap sack. Sammy had a right to be proud of his accomplishment in being one of the lucky ones to catch his pig.
Even so, his parents let him know right off that by Christmas that piglet would be served on a platter as a holiday dinner. They were practical parents and did not believe in deluding their children about life’s harsher realities.
A month-and-a-half after his capture, Christmas Dinner was no longer a scrawny piglet. He had bulked up considerably. As I entered his pen, I soon understood how that had happened. Sammy’s pig smelled the offal. He somehow realized it was to be his meal. He started squealing, grunting, snorting with anticipation. I dumped one bucket into his feeding trough. By the time I’d turn to pick up the second bucket and dump it too, the first load had been eaten. “Inhaled” is a more apt description.
Watching Christmas Dinner eat that offal with such intense and single-minded focus was unsettling. Shocking, actually. That a pig, fated to be eaten soon enough as “meat,” would be such an enthusiastic meat-eater himself was not something I had really thought much about. Pigs are intelligent creatures, this I already knew. But how intelligent? How much awareness did Christmas Dinner have of the food chain and his place in it? Did he have any inkling that the humans who’d served him his offal dinner would some day be making short work of his tender loins and tasty hams?
I’d like to think not … but I’m not so sure.
Almost a decade earlier I had my first real inkling of how smart pigs are when I was living on Southport Island along the coast of Maine. A local lobsterman, Gary Snowman, had mentioned in a conversation that his young son Leland had a pig. I asked him if it would be OK to take its picture.
“Sure,” he said. “Come by anytime.”
Leland’s pig was much bigger than Sammy’s pig: I’m guessing it weighed 200 to 300 pounds when I stopped by with my camera to take its picture. The pig was fenced in and had a small house inside the enclosure; it was almost like a dog-house. When I sidled up to the fence to get a closer look at him, the pig grunted and ran with surprising speed right towards me. For a second I wondered if he would crash into the fence where I stood, but he turned quickly and made a fast circuit of his pen. When it was at the far end, I jumped the fence and hoisted myself on top of the pig house.
Leland’s pig was not pleased. It ran another circuit around the pen, grunting and snorting, and then rushed toward the pig house. Leland’s pig entered it with a snort. Thump. The house shook. Leland’s pig ran outside snorting, and seemed pissed that I was still sitting atop his home. The grunting became more insistent. Leland’s pig ran into its house and this time I felt the roof lift a bit with another loud thump. I realized then that the pig was trying to dislodge me from the roof. Its anger toward me, the intruder, was unmistakable and more than a little unsettling.
This time I obliged him by backing off the roof and quickly scrambling over the fence.
The glare of Leland’s pig
left no doubt, no sirree,
he’d eat me if he could
Roast beef was the Sunday dinner staple of my childhood. Dad happily took over the cooking duties that day, slicing white onions to adorn the pot roast held together with strings. He’d put it inside a speckled blue roaster and then into the oven to cook throughout the afternoon.
Dad liked his roast beef “well done.” That meant the meat was never red rare but, instead, came out of the oven uniformly brown and dry. Gravy took care of both problems. It would be decades before I learned that beef was not meant to be cooked so thoroughly.
We lived in suburbia, so there were no cows nearby. In my late teens, when I began roaming in my mother’s 1963 Chevy Nova I’d admire the Holstein dairy cows grazing on the hillsides of central Ohio. The black-on-white irregular patches on their sides, even from a distance, seemed like maps of faraway foreign lands. The cows seemed peaceful in their pastures, at least in the warm weather months. During the winter they seemed stoic, suffering the cold wind with a patience I could barely fathom.
Twenty-five years later I stood on the edge of a dairy farmer’s milking barn. I had a notebook in my hand, writing as fast as I could what the farmer, whose first name was Anne even though he was a man, was telling me. He spoke of the rising cost of feed and fuel and how the price he got for milk didn’t cover his costs. Times were hard for Maine’s dairy farmers, he told me.
I suddenly became aware of a large presence at my elbow. Turning, I was surprised to find a cow standing next to me.
“You might want to move,” the farmer said to me.
I did as told. The cow passed by me. What it did next completely shocked me: The cow, udder and all, reared itself up, mounted the cow in front of it, and started humping. The farmer laughed, telling me that cows sometimes do that when they’re in heat.
He moved comfortably among his herd. He knew the name of each one, which ones were docile and which were not. To my unpracticed eye they all looked the same. I marveled at the sheer size of his cows, and the affectionate way he addressed them as they lined up at their feeding trough, which was computerized to give each cow exactly the amount of feed it needed. No more, no less. Each cow had a necklace with a bar code on it, which a scanner somehow conveyed to a computer and then back came the signal dispensing the right amount of feed.
How did we come to master
such large creatures
grabbing teets, pulling milk
How many chickens, pigs and cows are sacrificed each and every day for our consumption? I wondered this during a recent visit to a friend’s small farm in Bowdoinham, which had chickens for eggs, pigs for meat and two cows for milk and cheese.
Even knowing what I now know about where meat comes from, I am not yet a vegetarian. I eat meat and relish it. When saying grace I try to remember the living creature that was slaughtered to become meat for our table.
More often than not, I forget.
A little more than two weeks ago, I joined with maybe 200 others to celebrate the life of Macy Whitehead, who had died on May 16, just two days after his 88th birthday. We deferred our normal daily routines – work, play, attending to homes and families — and sat together in prayerful silence inside the Phippsburg Congregational Church. Quakers call it “waiting worship” and it’s an apt description of what occurred that Friday morning during a unprogrammed period of silence in which we listened with open minds and hearts to the innermost voice of our being and reflected on the life of our departed friend.
Out of that waiting worship, quite often, a kind of collective wisdom emerges. It’s conveyed in the stories, insights, poems, prayers and songs that arise during an hour or two of mindful, reflective silence and are shared in a spirit of love and celebration. Each person's experience is unique, of course, but more often than not there's a unifying thread, a common narrative, that pulls all the disparate sharing together into something that feels — and I'm going to go out on a limb and say 'is' — greater than the sum of the parts.
Listening to the stories being told I was struck by how often they were based on small mundane events ... the stuff of everyday life. We tend to think that it’s the big occasions, decisions or accomplishments that measure our lives. In Macy’s life, those measurements were indeed large: his conscientious objection to war during World War II; his volunteer service with the American Friends Service Committee in rebuilding Italy after the war, peacemaking work recognized in 1947 by a Nobel Peace Prize in a joint award to AFSC and its counterpart in England; his marriage to Edie Lamb, a Quaker from Ireland “who could sing” and became the bedrock of their 60-year marriage that was blessed with four children and five grandchildren; his ministry as a Congregationalist pastor that invariably took him and his family to poor parishes in rural areas, including a Lakota reservation in South Dakota that was one of the poorest communities in the United States; his retirement career as a family counselor; his singing in barbershop quartets and the Oratorio Chorale … to mention just a few highlights.
I chose to share a story Macy told me when I interviewed him a few years ago for a six-part newspaper series about his experiences as an American Friends Service Committee volunteer in Italy after World War II. He cared little about the Nobel Peace Prize recognizing that work. He remembered feeling it was “no big deal” when the announcement was made in 1947. He simply felt a calling to help Italians rebuild villages in Italy’s Abruzzi Mountains that were completely devastated during the war.
In the town of Montenerodomo, Macy was given the assignment to lead a work group in building an asilo — a day nursery that would enable young mothers to leave their children their while they planted and harvested in the fields of the lower hills. Initially, he couldn’t get any Italians to join the volunteer effort. They were too demoralized to even begin clearing away rubble from the project site.
Macy and two Italian teachers decided put on a marionette show in the village square. In the simple script they wrote, a marionette depicting a peasant laborer — a ‘contadino’ named “Peppino” after his landlord’s son Giuseppe — engages a skeptical clown marionette in a conversation about the need for everyone to pitch in to build the asilo. The clown can’t understand why anyone would work without getting paid, forcing an exasperated Peppino to explain step by step just how the project would benefit the entire village. Repeatedly, Peppino exclaims, “What’s wrong with this dumb person? He doesn’t understand!”
The day after that street theater performance in the village square, Macy had no trouble enlisting volunteers to clear rubble and begin laying the asilo’s foundation. The villagers understood what the clown did not: They had to work together, otherwise the future held no hope. It was his last project in Italy before heading back to the States in August 1947.
Almost 50 years later, Macy returned to Italy to revisit villages he had helped rebuild. Hardly anything looked familiar. The asilo in Montenerodomo was gone, replaced by a bell tower. An Italian named Nicola, who had been a teen-ager during Macy’s stay in his village, made a special point of seeking Macy out and thanking him for some carpenter’s tools he had been given a half century earlier. Macy didn't remember the occasion, and wondered why it was so significant to Nicola.
“You gave me a job to do,” Nicola said. “That started me doing something with my life.”
Some carpenter’s tools … a glass of fresh lemonade for a young girl … careful listening and support for an 18-year-old boy struggling with whether he would register with the local draft board … getting lost on the backroads of Maine with his out-of-state grandson and making an adventure out of it as they continued their quest in search of the Angora rabbit for sale. A love of music, animals and the outdoors passed on to his children … navigating a small sailboat in the New Meadows River … introducing homemade hummus and Birkenstock sandals to a young friend and helping him discern his calling to become a minister. Together we stitched a patchwork quilt of stories and memories and it was wonderful and beautiful and true to life.
We laughed and cried as shared memories, in the manner of Friends, filled that cozy white-steeple church with the deep peace of Macy’s gentle loving spirit.
sad hearts can’t help but laugh
at the puppeteer’s peasant
sowing seeds of peace
Come join our parade. We’ll be led by the “loon ranger,” Gary Lawless, close observer of the loons of Damariscotta Lake, who paddles his kayak in solidarity with these elegant water birds and their crazy laughing songs. Let us remember to be good neighbors to these shy birds whose closest living relatives are penguins and the “tube-nosed swimmers,” albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters. May their haunting tremolo songs always grace our great ponds and lakes, filling our dreams with intimations of wild nature — both theirs and our own.
He's joined at the head of the parade by Al Miller, who's been performing, telling stories and inspiring others to share their gifts on stage and off at The Theater Project for 40 years. Several hundred of us followed them down Brunswick’s Maine Street on Friday afternoon, laughing and dancing under a cloudy sky that threatened to rain on our parade ... but did not. Not just children but adults, too, wearing costumes and masks signifying all creatures great and small. Let us remember: the good Lord made them all.
Perhaps the children wondered what it’s all about, this joyful march through the center of town by young-at-heart adults disguised as wolves, cobras, eagles or butterflies. We told them: “It’s a celebration.”
A celebration that calls us to be mindful of all our wild brothers and sisters, the birds, mammals, plants and insects that share our habitat in the watersheds of the Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers, which join with four other rivers in Merrymeeting Bay — the Cathance, Eastern, Abagadasset and Muddy rivers, a joining of sacred waters that will flow into the Gulf of Maine, the name of our very own bioregion in northeastern North America.
May the children catch a sense of wonder as they marched along with us in the third annual All Species Parade, organized and sponsored by Spindleworks and Arts Are Elementary.
Let us remember Salmo salar, our endangered fellow traveler, the Atlantic salmon returning each spring from the North Atlantic Ocean to spawn, if they’re able, in the swift-running gravelly tributaries of our major rivers. What a mystery! The instinct to return to the river of their birth to reproduce and begin once again the cycle of alevins becoming fry becoming parr becoming smolts, which then turn silver and undergo other changes that will allow them to live in the Atlantic’s salty waters for up to three years before returning to our rivers as salmon to begin that cycle all over again.
Let us remember the secretive Canada lynx, reviled by some as an undocumented alien who sneaks across our border in search of snowshoe hares. What the lynx might teach us is that there is no line — on this side “ours” on that side “theirs” — but instead one vast boreal forest, itself ever-changing due to clear-cutting and a changing climate. In truth, it was their “home” long before it was ours.
Let us remember the piping plovers and least terns, those endangered shorebirds that nest on our beaches; may they nest in peace. And the Katahdin arctic, found nowhere else in the world but the summit of Katahdin; may we stick to marked trails and leave these smallish butterflies alone to bless our highest peak with their rare and fragile beauty.
Let us share stories of fish and fowl, flora and fauna, reptiles, amphibians and insects. In doing so, it will become, truly, their parade too.
reading a book
with pages missing
how much is lost
A version of this essay appeared as an editorial in the May 12, 2011, edition of The Times Record.
On Feb. 18 I saw my first V-shape flock of Canada geese honking overhead. I worried then they were heading north too early, but it now seems they already were in synch with the record-breaking temperatures that soon came our way. The National Weather Service office in Gray reports we had the warmest March on record, with the average temperature of 41.2 degrees being 7.7 degrees above normal. Portland had seven days with record warm temperatures, including six days in a row from the 19th through the 24th; it set a daily high record of 82 degrees on March 22 – the earliest date in the year for Portland to have reached 80 degrees or warmer.
If it’s that hot this soon how hot will it be come summer? And it wasn’t just me thinking those thoughts.
Edwin “Sonny” Colburn, an 80-year-old who’s been keeping track of such matters since 1947, told the Bangor Daily News the ice of Hancock County’s Beech Hill Pond went out on March 21. “It’s the earliest I’ve seen it go,” he told the BDN’s Tom Walsh. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It used to be that fishing season didn’t start here until May, but you can pretty much fish year-round now.” Foresters worried about the lack of snowmelt and how dry the forests are already; on March 23 much of the state was placed on “red alert.” On the coast, clam diggers worried about an early arrival of “red tide,” the harmful algae bloom that arrives with warm water temperatures and causes clam flats to be closed for as long as it floats in and out with the tides.
I could do a Google search and find comparable statements about our warm spring from virtually any region of the United States. And what would I know? Facts, opinion, anecdotes … most of it limited to the human perspective.
Or I could go for a walk at the nearby Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham in search of other perspectives ... which is what I did on March 24, the first Saturday of spring.
It was a day in which the high temperature eventually hit 71 degrees. I knew even before I stepped foot inside the 235-acre preserve this would be an unscientific foray. Sadly, I don’t have a deep, grounded knowledge of nature in even my own backyard to be able to make scientific judgments of what’s going on. Unlike Henry David Thoreau — who precisely recorded in his Journals more than 150 years ago when the first buds appeared on dozens of trees, when the first flowers bloomed, when he heard the first calls of birds returning to his beloved Concord fields and forests — I can’t even name common plants, let alone know if they’re poking through the soil sooner or later than they normally would.
I walk the trails, then, aware of how much I don’t know. The only blessing of my ignorance is that it leaves me open to questions or insights I might learn from whatever catches my eye and speaks to my heart. In doing so, walk by walk, my understanding of a small corner of the world slowly grows.
Walking the Barnes’ Leap Trail, I come to a pond with silvery dead trees within its center and along its shore. It makes me think that beavers might have played a role in creating it. The ground I walk upon to get to the pond’s edge is spongy. I hear a call, not quite a frog’s “tronk, tronk” but also not a bird song I can easily identify. I stand still, hoping to hear it again: No sound other than the wind rustling through the pine boughs. If it is a frog I wonder if it has emerged from its frozen state too early ... whether the end of winter hibernation will coincide with the arrival of its food sources, whatever they might be. I do not know. I only have the question and the question underscores how little I know about the lives of my wild brothers and sisters.
ice out at the pond
a frog heard
but not seen
I come to the river; just a few weeks ago its banks had been lined with ice. Now it’s free-flowing, with green buds appearing on the trees lining its banks. Three mallards — two males and a female — paddle along the opposite shore. There doesn’t seem to be any competition going on between the males for the female mallard’s attention. I wonder “why not?” — spring, after all, being the time for procreation and perpetuating the species. There’s no fighting between the drakes, they escort the female without evident favoring by her of either one’s attentions. Could one of the males be of last-year’s offspring? Or, a lower-ranking drake waiting for his chance to mount the other drake’s mate? If that were so, wouldn’t the dominant drake be more aggressive? More questions without an answer. I follow the threesome upriver to see what might be revealed, but they apparently tire of me chasing after them and rise in flight, quacking, to a more private spot farther upstream.
three mallards paddling
— two with deep-blue wing bars —
tight buds tinge the trees
I proceed down the trail and hear the cheerful voice of an old friend, Maine’s state bird, the chickadee. Unlike the occasional “tsits” I’d hear during the winter, this bird’s song is cheery, a full-fledged “chicka-dee-dee-dee” sung repeatedly from a perch somewhere in the stand of trees to the right of the trail. I scan the bare branches and find my little chickadee at the peak of one of the tallest trees. Raising my camera to my eye and extending the telephoto lens to its full length, I discover it’s looking directly back at me, as curious, it seems, about me as I am about it. Chickadees, I know, survive the long cold winter by creating food cachés throughout their territory. Through a miracle of evolution, their brains actually expand in the fall, adding memory cells to help them recall the locations of all those cachés during the long cold winter months when a reliable food supply is critical to survival. Then, when warm weather returns and with it a plentiful mix of food sources, their brains shrink. Scientists speculate that this wipes the memory clean, which serves the adaptive purpose come fall of not confusing the chickadees about whether a caché is of this year or last year.
I wonder if that process of wiping the memory clean has already begun for chickadees in our Maine woods, triggered by the early arrival of summer weather. What if it’s too early, what then? My worries return, now in relation to my small blackcapped friend singing his heart out atop the budding tree. He does not appear burdened by any forethought of his own doom — which might be just as well.
“Here and now” is his motto. I struggle to make it my own, knowing full well that it does not absolve me from the responsibility of living in harmony with all my relations — and not just in the present but, as Native Americans so wisely understood, for the seven generations to come.
In other words: Do no harm.
But given how little I truly know about the world I live in, the way forward, it seems to me, will require humility, caution and compassion. Walking these woods along the Cathance River — as I've done frequently since last fall — I engage in a conversation with blackberry brambles and ferns, birches and beech trees, hemlocks and pines, chickadees and crows and all the other wild brothers and sisters who share this place with me with such dignity and grace.
ah, there! high in the tree!
staring back at me
In a Jan. 2, 1956, letter to her friend Betsy Wyeth, Christina Olson offered a glimpse into her life during the long winter months in the three-story farmhouse she shared with her brother Alvaro in Cushing at the end of Hathorn’s Point.
“We had cold weather for six weeks,” she wrote in the letter quoted within Betsy Wyeth’s coffee-table book “Christina’s World: Paintings and Pre-studies of Andrew Wyeth. “No break to amount to anything. Just a day or two when the temperature rises a few degrees then back it goes to zero and below … We had a lot of wood, but if this keeps on all winter don’t know whether there’ll be enough or not. It disappears very fast when you have to keep the stove full all the time … Al is cutting wood for next year’s supply. It takes about all of my time to keep the fire and get something to eat!”
I’ve been thinking about that quote for several days now, since taking a drive up to Cushing on March 1 during this winter’s worst snowstorm. I barely made it down the 12-mile peninsula to Hathorn’s Point due to the unplowed roads that challenged my low-riding Toyota Prius’s traction abilities. No matter: It heightened my appreciation of the isolation the Olsons must have felt living alone in that weathered old farmhouse set atop a hill overlooking the St. George River and Maple Juice Cove. I only saw a car or two on my slip-sliding drive to Hathorn’s Point.
The farther I went, the more the road narrowed. As I neared the end of the peninsula, with snow swirling in close-to-whiteout conditions, I felt like I was almost at the end of the world.
How much more so would that have been true some 50 years ago for the partially crippled Cristina and her younger brother Alvaro.
Global warming might well be tempering the feeling of hibernation that was a common experience of Mainers who chose to stay put and hunker down for the long cold winters in the mid-20th century. This winter has been largely snowless and downright balmy, with few days even getting within shivering distance of 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even so, I remind myself of the famous quip delivered by the late Dudley Rockwell, who used to lead tours of the Olson House during the summer months. “It was like heating a lobster trap,” he said, noting that each winter it would take several cords of wood to heat the gabled farmhouse built in the late 1700s.
Room by room, the Olsons would close down the house during the winter months. They kept busy — and stayed close to the warmth of their wood-fired kitchen stove.
Their house is empty now. Standing before it with my camera on a tripod, I’m buffeted by strong winds coming off the St. George River, which drive the snow horizontally against the unpainted clapboards and the tall paned windows. The house defies this show of nature’s force — an emblem for the difficult but dignified lives of the brother and sister who lived out their days in its labyrinth of rooms and commanding view of the hayfields stretching down to the water. Doors that would have stayed open in the warm summer months, inviting neighbors to pay a visit, are now battened down. The house is stubborn, independent, not unlike the Olsons.
I walk down to a small apple orchard, the trees gnarled and lichen-covered, wondering how long it’s been since anyone has harvested its apples. I circumambulate the house, appreciating its elegant wood drain-spouts, which once collected rainwater for storage in a cistern beneath the farmhouse. I imagine a spire of smoke rising from the brick chimney over the kitchen. In today’s driving snowstorm there is no such evidence of life-giving warmth within the house. Swirling snow, wind, and cold surround the brown-gray house in whiteness, now as then reducing the landscape to bare essentials.
Even 40-some years after the deaths of Alvaro and Christina (within a month of each other in 1967 and 1968 respectively), I feel their presence as I freely trespass what would have been their yard, garden and hayfield, eventually making my way to their small family cemetery to pay my respects.
I think, too, of the artist Andrew Wyeth, who over the span of his 30-year friendship with the Olsons painted their portraits and captured the artifacts of their simple homespun lives in hundreds of drawings, watercolors and some of his most memorable temperas (obviously “Christina’s World” and “Wind from the Sea” but also the lesser-known portraits “Christina Olson,” 1947; “Miss Olson,” 1952; and “Anna Christina,” 1967). He’s buried in that cemetery, too, with a simple slate-gray gravestone giving only his name and the years of his birth and death — an understatement true to the Maine spirit Wyeth captured so well, one that allows his paintings to be the living testament of his life, rather than a stone marker over his grave. I whisper a prayer of thanks to him for helping me learn something vital about seeing people in their inner beauty and strength, rather than making a judgment based on the superficial appearances of a crippled body, an unpainted clapboard house and a simple lifestyle.
For despite the difficulty of their lives and the isolation they no doubt felt at the end of Hathorn’s Point — at least during the long dark winter months — I do not feel pity for this unmarried brother who gave up fishing and stayed on as the caretaker of the farm and companion of his crippled unmarried sister. Nor do I pity Christina.
If Wyeth’s paintings teach us anything — and, indeed, they teach us much about the Olsons and their lives in this more-than-200-year-old house — it is that the human spirit is often stronger than the trials and tribulations of life that an outsider might assume will surely beat that spirit down. Like the house that was their home, the Olsons proved themselves tougher than a winter nor’easter coming in off the St. George River.
Old house atop the hill
— March roars in —
Snow and cold come and go