Lament of the Old Woman of Beare
Ebb tide has come to me as the sea.
What the flood-tide brings, the ebb-tide takes away.
I have known the flood and I have known the ebb.
The sun does not touch me. In me I feel the cold.
But still a seed burns there.
The time is at hand that shall renew me.
— a version by John Halstead
CAILLEACH, the old woman of Beare, the veiled one, laments in a 10th century Old Irish poem for the loss of her youth, for sweet loves and wine-filled nights of long ago that have given way to white hair and a cold that creeps into her bones untouched by the warmth of the sun.
I’ve been thinking of this early Old Irish poem in relation to the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which is traditionally celebrated on Feb. 1. It is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the turning point of winter, a time when the lengthening days give rise to thoughts of spring. The Celts, no less than us, looked forward to spring and the return of warm days and the new life that would rise up from the cold ground.
They watched closely for the signs of this turning. Imbolc, from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning “in the belly,” refers to the pregnancy of ewes. The lambing time of year, for them and for us, is a sure sign of the coming spring.
But we also have our Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out of his earth-hole on Feb. 2: If he sees his shadow, he quickly returns to his burrow and we know our winter will last six more weeks. This year, that ageless chubby groundhog did not see his shadow, prompting his handler to proclaim on his behalf, “There is no shadow to be cast! An early spring is my forecast!”
In Maine, we never get too carried away with hopes for an early spring. After all, that groundhog is from “away” and not nearly as grounded in the vagaries of our winters as we’d like our own weather prophets to be.
I had always wondered about the origins of the Groundhog Day tradition and the prophecy based on whether or not a shadow is cast. And then I learned about Imbolc and the Celtic stories about the old veiled woman Cailleach who rules over winter and death. Imbolc, the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, is the day she gathers wood for the rest of the winter. If the day is bright and sunny, she can gather lots of firewood to keep warm and she lengthens the winter to hold back spring as long as she can, which, in the world of myth-dream, also extends her own life as the old veiled woman of laments. But if the day is overcast, she sleeps in, fails to gather much firewood and rather than going cold herself she brings about an early spring. That’s one version of the tale.
Another is that Cailleach dies on Imbolc, but is reborn as Brigid, a maiden who rekindles earth’s fire and the renewal of life in spring.
Here in Maine the old woman’s veil is the winter’s snow.
Walking with friends on the trails of the Cathance River Nature Preserve in early February, I revel in the fresh snow blanketing the ground, creating cover for the voles that tunnel underneath, safe from predators as they nibble on their feed stock of grasses, seeds, bulbs, tubers, bark and roots. The height of the sun in the sky tells me it is surely mid-winter, but the cold and snow suggest otherwise. I don’t give much thought to Punxsutawney Phil or Cailleach of the old woman's lament or how long or short this year’s winter might be. It is bone-chilling cold this day and the snow looks like it's here to stay for quite some time.
Three weeks later, on the third Sunday of February, again walking with friends in the preserve, I notice how much snow cover is now gone. We’ve had several days in the mid-to-upper 40s, warm enough to make you think of spring but early enough to worry about apple trees going to bud too soon, snowshoe hares no longer hidden in white snow but standing out to winged predators like a fast-food restaurant with a blinking neon light. Then, as we go deeper into the woods, with enough coniferous trees to shelter the snow from the sun’s direct rays and warmth, it's winter again, with bent grasses frozen in ice and snow still hiding green mosses and the duff of the forest floor.
Then I notice all the circles of bare ground around tree trunks. Ah! That's the sign that always puts me in mind of Imbolc — even if it is a good three weeks after the true mid-point of this year’s winter between Dec. 21 and March 20. When I see those circles I know, truly, winter is turning: That the trees now take in so much of the sun's warmth and energy into their trunks, the stored heat emanates outward, melting away the encircling snow.
Down by the river, where ice still lines the banks, a pattern of ripples spreads outward from a lip of overhanging ice. Drips of melting ice? A small rivulet of snowmelt pushing through to the river? I dare not risk going to the edge of the riverbank to lie down for a better view. Whatever the cause, I take it to be another sign of spring’s slow, sure coming.
The wheel of the year turns slowly. New life stirs in the world at large and within. The ebb tide of winter will soon become the flood tide of spring. Sap rises, tight buds unwind. Snow melts, the river rises.
I notice where green mosses circle the base of trees, no longer buried in snow. Were they always green beneath the snow? How do they live when as much as 80% of the sun's energy is reflected by a blanket of snow.
I do not know. I do not yet speak their language.
Dried ferns, broken and bent. How do they know when it's time to become fiddleheads, slowly unfurling as spring advances?
I do not yet speak their language.
Why so few chickadees during our winter walks this year? Where are they hiding? Are we too noisy to hear their voices during the dead of winter?
I do not yet speak their language.
How can I say "I know these woods" when so much goes unnoticed, unheard, unknown?
The simple honest answer: I do not yet speak their language.
The basket of pears caught my eye as I was turning off lights in the kitchen in preparation for going to bed.
I stopped to admire them. I liked the way Linda had arranged them: two pears positioned vertically so that their bottoms were pointing up and the other pear sideways, revealing its stem and a gentle curve that was not unlike a woman’s waist and hip. Nestled inside a small wicker basket, they almost seemed to be snuggling with each other.
My appreciation evolved into the feeling that I should photograph this still life of three pears on our kitchen countertop.
Almost as soon as that notion came to me I began to talk myself out of it. I was heading to bed, after all, and rationalized that I could just as easily make a point of photographing those pears the next day … a little earlier in the evening, when I had more energy and could give the personal assignment more time and attention.
And then I remembered a story my longtime friend and mentor, the photographer Walter Rosenblum, once told me about the last photograph made by his longtime friend and mentor, Paul Strand.
Strand’s black-and-white photograph — made in 1975 when he was 84 — depicts a small wooden bird perched on an iron crossbar in front of a dusty building window on New York City’s 55th St. The bird is tipped forward, as if it’s ready to fly — except, being a wooden bird, it’s stuck in place, never to fly away.
Walter confessed to me that he didn’t understand why Strand was so eager to set up that picture. But he knew his friend needed his help, since Strand was undergoing radiation treatments and chemotherapy at that time for the bone cancer that would eventually kill him a year later. Walter helped his friend walk to the place where he wanted to take the picture. He secured Strand’s camera to a tripod, set the bird where he was told and then helped the older photographer place his camera in the right position. He remembered Strand shaking physically as he stood behind the camera and worried that his friend might not be able to complete his mission. Strand was notoriously slow in composing his images, but on that occasion he was decisive.
The next time Walter visited Strand and his wife, Hazel, at their New York City apartment, his friend was eager to show him the print, which he’d titled “Bird on the Edge of Space.”
“There’s a lesson in this picture,” Walter remembers Strand telling him.
Walter looked at the tiny bird on its perch, with the crossbars and a dirty window behind it, and wondered what was so special about it. He gently asked his friend about the image.
“Don’t you see the ‘death’s head’ looking at the bird from the other side of the window? A day later there was a fire in that building and that window fell apart in the intense heat. If we had waited another day, the image I wanted to capture would not have been possible. The death’s head is no longer there. The lesson, Walter, is that when you see something you want to photograph, don’t wait. If you wait, it might not be there for you when you come back.”
After Walter told me that story, I found the image in a book of Strand’s photographs that I own and took a closer look. Sure enough, the random patterns of grime on the window create an ominous-looking skull staring at the bird from the other side of the window. I intuitively knew why Strand made that picture: The tiny wooden bird that could not fly was a symbol for himself, fighting a cancer that would eventually kill him. What a perfect final image to make so knowingly!
And so, remembering that story, I realized that there would be no better time to photograph that basket of pears than that very night. Tired or not, I had to make the photograph. I got my camera, raised it to my eye, adjusted its settings and made several exposures of the still life with pears that Linda had created, probably without realizing it, for me to notice and admire.
The next morning, as I stood by that kitchen counter to prepare a bowl of cereal, I noticed that Linda had already removed one of the pears to add to her bowl of oatmeal.
It brought a smile to my face. With the removal of just one pear, the still life on our kitchen counter no longer captured my imagination. It was just a wicker basket with a couple of pears inside, nothing special ... or, at least, not so special as it was the night before.
Shortly after dawn on a cold December morning, while opening the curtains to our bedroom, I was startled to see the shadow of a hummingbird projected on a closet door. It was too late in the season for hummingbirds … yet, there it was.
And then it dawned on me: The shadow simply was a projection of the stained-glass hummingbird that hovers year-round in the lower right pane of our bedroom window. The slant of the rising sun was exactly right to create a shadow-box effect of a hovering hummingbird suffused in the golden light of an early winter dawn. I found it beautiful.
Each morning I looked forward to that surreal hummingbird hovering in our bedroom, until eventually my getting-up time no longer coincided with the optimum slant of sunlight needed to create the hummingbird’s shadow. For a few weeks I arose in darkness and the memory faded.
What put me in mind of it again were two recent events. The first was a March 31 radio interview that NPR reporter Renee Montagne had recorded with the 81-year-old South African playwright Athol Fugard. They were talking about his new play, “The Shadow of the Hummingbird,” which had a one-month run at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. this April. It’s a two-character play, with Fugard performing in the role of the grandfather, Oupa, who has a special relationship with his grandson Boba who adores him.
In the play, Fugard reads from his personal diaries and notebooks on stage as he portrays an old man with a passion for listing and categorizing birds who realizes late in life — thanks to his grandson — that he’s led an overly intellectual life. The grandfather urges his grandson to hold fast to his innocence.
Fugard shares with Montagne a journal entry that inspired his play: “It is Monday, the 15th, July, 2013. I was about to leave my chair, urgent matters needed my attention, and then a butterfly landed on a wall, and folded its wings in prayer. Also this morning, the shadow of a hummingbird on the floor at my feet, a perfect outline.”
Here’s what Fugard makes of that journal entry, translating it into art through his imagined character Oupa speaking to Boba: “Five sunbirds, flying around in that forest of love. I counted them — one, two, three, four, five — sparking in the sunshine as they hopped from flower to flower, dipping their beaks in, and me shouting hallelujah. Yes, Boba. I did shout it. But ever so softly, because I didn't want to break the spell of that moment.”
Montagne draws out of Fugard the playwright’s realization that it’s not only his imagined grandfather character — who sees himself as coming to the end — who is trying to get back that innocence of childhood. It’s also himself: “In the course of acquiring all this so-called knowledge, I've lost something. I've lost contact with something that I had. Because the moment when he saw those five sunbirds, that sort of rejoicing he had, the hallelujah that he wanted to shout aloud, all of that was there from my notebooks. And I wonder about myself now. I haven't shouted hallelujah for a long time, you know. Can I do it once more? I would like to believe that.”
The shadow Fugard saw was of a real hummingbird; mine was not. But for both of us, the shadow reality caught us by surprise and became an occasion for wonder.
The second event putting me in mind of the shadow hummingbird was a conversation via Skype I had two weeks ago with my friend Richard.
Richard told me that the day before — and just two days after he and his wife had placed hummingbird feeders outside their house in Chattanooga, Tennessee — sure enough, they saw a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering before a feeder, dipping its beak into the spout to siphon its life-giving honey water.
Just that quick casual mention got me thinking about the wonder of these tiny birds that weigh no more than 4 grams — less than a nickel, 3.5 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail — that are now heading north from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Averaging 20 miles per day, they must eat and drink constantly to keep their inner fire stoked during the return flight to their summer breeding grounds. The pace of this migration coincides with the northward unfolding of spring and the blossoming of the flowers and the arrival of insects that will feed them.
Day after day they make their way north, continuously feeding, continuously hours away from starvation, storing just enough energy to survive overnight and resume their journey the next morning.
I won’t expect to see them here in Maine until late May or early June. The first sighting, I’m pretty sure, will take me by surprise. I will startled by a sudden zipping, followed by a moment’s hovering, as a ruby-throated hummingbird sips nectar from one of the bleeding heart flowers blooming in our backyard.
I hope I’ll be mindful enough to whisper ‘Hallelujah.’
The god of this day is snow. Large snowflakes drift down in the night sky while we’re sleeping. They gather on the branches of trees and the boughs of pines, blanketing rooftops. All is quiet. We awake to a world made new by snow.
The snow-god calls me out of the warmth of this house and I am obedient to its wishes.
I go down to the river. I walk through an evergreen forest that has become silent in the snowfall. No cawing crows, no chickadees singing their name from within the woods. Do they wait for the falling snow to end? Do they perch in zazen, patient and quiet?
Boughs bend from the weight of snow. The trail before me is white with the absence of footsteps. I stop to listen to the silence of falling snow.
As soon as I stop to listen, just off the trail, a chickadee alights on a pine bough. It seems curious about me. Just as the thought arises -- “Well, hello, my little friend …” – the chickadee flies off. A small shower of snowflakes as it disappears into the forest.
White and black, a stand of birch trees in the snow.
Rabbit tracks crossing the trail. Beech leaves covered in snow.
The sound of rushing water as I descend a ravine on the trail that takes me down to the Cathance River. Muffled, though, by the snow.
I walk like an old man, not wanting to tumble down the snow-covered icy incline leading to the river. Almost to the bottom, in a half crouch, my left foot slips … and I tumble any way. Slide the rest of the way down like a kid on a Flexible Flyer sled. No one is present to watch and, perhaps, laugh at my ungainly descent. Of course, that also means no one is present to help if I injure myself -- a reminder to be careful.
Base of a tree like two pencils point to point: When did the beaver leave behind this unfinished task and will it resume gnawing this tree when warm weather returns again?
The river is high, no doubt because of all the rain we’ve had the week before. Snow-laden boughs occasionally unburden themselves, sending a shower of snow into the river’s rushing water. Even in winter the water cycle continues, from clouds to streams and rivers and lakes and eventually the ocean where it begins all over again.
Ice along the edges of rocks and the river’s bank diverts the river’s flow.
Tall pines: A cathedral roofed in snow. No hymns, no chants, no rosaries whispered in the back-most pew. I recall the line from a poem by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose order observed the Rule of Silence: “Love winter when the plant says nothing.”
Climbing up from the ravine, a hint of sun. Snow is no longer falling. The god of the day has moved on. Already the pines and trees are divesting themselves of snow, reverting to their old familiar appearances. How quickly a new world becomes old.
Maybe it was having lunch at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in downtown Millinocket and seeing all those photographs, drawings, paintings that A-T thru-hikers had donated to decorate its walls.
Maybe it was the sad feelings I had before entering that café, walking down Penobscot Avenue and seeing half the storefronts empty or closed and hardly anyone walking the sidewalks even though it was early afternoon and the whole town was looking a bit like a ghost town, which I knew wasn’t exactly true but it was half way true and that’s the sad truth of a town that had fallen on hard times back in 2008 when its paper mill closed for good and took all those good-paying jobs with it.
Maybe it was just that I’d been feeling like I’d been spending an awful lot of time lately staring at computer screens, researching and writing stories during my day job and working on photographs in the evenings more often than not.
Maybe it was all of the above.
Whatever the reason, when it came time to start the long drive back home — three hours more or less a straight shot down Interstate 95 — I decided on a slight detour. Totally on impulse, when I saw the sign for the road leading to Baxter State Park, I made that turn and headed up-country with but one goal in mind. I wanted to see Katahdin, as close as I could get to it, which I knew given the time and the shorter days of late autumn wouldn’t be that close.
Sometimes close enough is good enough.
The park ranger advised me that taking the tote road to its northern terminus would probably take two-and-a-half hours. I opted, instead, to take a small eight-mile spur the ranger told me would dead-end at the parking lot for Roaring Brook Campground. He said there was a nice short hike from the lot to Sandy Stream Pond, where, if I was lucky, I might see a moose or two.
When I got there it was a little after 3 p.m. The parking lot was empty. The woods were silent, not even a chickadee calling out its name. I knew the sun would be setting behind Katahdin and that darkness would settle in soon enough. A cold wind reminded me I didn’t want to get lost or take a fall, with only a light jacket to keep me warm, no gloves or hat. I set forth on the Sandy Stream Trail, camera and tripod in hand, already jubilant, loving the silence of the woods with most of the hardwoods bare of leaves and the slight wind not enough to make that distant ocean sound going through the pines that’s akin to the sound you hear when you put a seashell up against your ear. In less than half a mile I found myself standing on the pond’s eastern shore, looking across at Katahdin, with the brilliant sun almost resting on its southeastern ridge line.
Ah, Katahdin: A sacred mountain to the people of the white rocks, the Penobscot, who gave it the name “The Greatest Mountain.” I stood on the shore of Sandy Stream Pond, already frozen along its perimeter, and watched in silence as the sun slowly set. No sound, no moose, no people, no worries, no thoughts of doing this or that. Just being there, as present as I could be, to ALL of it, the streams flowing out from the pond, itself formed by streams and rivulets flowing down the mountain, a gathering of waters that would eventually flow via brooks and ponds and streams into the East Branch of the Penobscot River, which would eventually connect with its West Branch and flow down to the sea.
I try to be present to the ALL of it -- as I’m reminded by the Penobscot prayer “All my relations,” meaning not just my human brothers and sisters but all the winged sisters and four-legged brothers, and trees both standing and fallen, and the rocks with lichens and striations from the time of the glaciers, and the rivers and streams and flowing air all around us.
I watch the sun disappear, feel a gathering chill in the air. I give thanks to Katahdin, for calling me to this place and time of feeling at home. To all my relations, I bow, give thanks.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney holds court with a group of Bowdoin College students at the college’s pub during his visit to Brunswick for a reading in 1986 of the then recently published collection of poems “Station Island.”
Surfing the car radio while driving on Interstate 90 across the state of New York, my heart skipped a beat, then sank, upon hearing an NPR news broadcaster announce, “Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since Yeats, has died, the BBC and other news outlets are reporting …”
The Aug. 30 broadcast noted Heaney was 74 and had been in ill health. Few other details were provided, except to say Heaney’s publisher, Faber & Faber, had confirmed the news. It haunted me the rest of the drive to Cleveland.
I met Heaney a long time ago, in 1986, when he came to Brunswick to give a poetry reading at Bowdoin College. I was a reporter for the hometown newspaper and I’d called the college hoping to land an interview with the Irish poet. I’d been reading his poems since the late 1970s, when, as an English major at the University of Southern Maine, I had purchased “Poems, 1965-1975,” a collection drawn from his first four books of poetry, “Death of a Naturalist,” “Door Into the Dark,” “Wintering Out” and “North.” More so than the poems of William Butler Yeats, Heaney’s poetry put me in touch with my Irish heritage, rooted as it was in the very activities my Irish forebears would have engaged in as small farmers in County Sligo and County Mayo: the hard labor of digging potatoes and cutting turf and tending cattle in fields that were one step removed from being bogland. Poem by poem, often with knotted brow, I strove to discern the meaning of poetic images he conveyed by means of a word hoard far richer than my own, containing words rooted in older languages than modern English, words of the countryman, words spot-on in meanings both literal and metaphoric.
Heaney was not quite as famous as he would become upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, but he was well on his way to reaching that pinnacle when I requested a sit-down interview with him. He could easily have begged off, citing any number of reasons I would have accepted … largely because I knew The Times Record, having a circulation of only 10,000 in 19 communities within Maine’s mid-coast region, could hardly register with him as a “must-do” interview.
But Heaney agreed to meet with me, and when I arrived at our appointed interview location — a professor’s office or some other quiet nook in one of the college’s 19th century buildings — he was smiling, immediately putting me at ease with his easy open manner. He wore a tweed jacket, with black denim pants, a striped light-gray shirt and a wide tie. His eyes were dark, alternately piercing and twinkling with mirth. His graying hair was not quite as windswept and wild-looking as it appeared in the portrait taken in his younger years that graced the back cover of his 1975 collected poems. But it was wild enough and he referenced it during our interview when I asked him about the caricature by David Levine accompanying a recent New York Times review of his latest poetry book, “Station Island,” published in 1985.
Laughing, Heaney told he didn’t mind Levine’s exaggerations, saying: “I thought my chin was too big …I thought I looked more like Conor Cruise O’Brien. But one is always flattered to be caricatured by David Levine. I just wished he had the right photograph to work from … The hair was right, though.”
In that reply, and, indeed throughout the interview, Heaney was down-to-earth, at ease, not taking himself too seriously … but giving me, a complete stranger, the courtesy of straight answers to honest questions. There was no hint of caginess or wariness whatsoever. He didn’t even ask for a quick summary of my credentials for doing the interview. It seemed sufficient enough to him that I had expressed an interest in meeting him and talking about his poetry.
He generously gave me a half hour or more of his time on a cold winter’s afternoon. In doing so, he deepened my understanding of not only his work as a poet but also any writer’s work … if one aspires, as he clearly did, to dig deeply into one’s life and times. Without making any big deal of it, Heaney offered lessons of conscience, teaching me, a fledgling journalist, that writing is both a personal and communal endeavor that requires tough-minded self-honesty, diligence and an unflagging openness to others … and courage.
“I think, in general, that poets begin wanting to be sure they can write poems,” he said in reply to my opening question asking about the movement in his books from childhood memories and personal experience to historical themes and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “And then, the second stage is asking, ‘To what end am I writing?’ In other words, there is a certain kind of morality that enters in upon the merely aesthetic. I think there is a danger if too much moral pressure is put upon the aesthetic — but it is a balance.”
“So, indeed, the early poems are personal memories and, on the whole, autobiographical. The poems are attempting to make little epiphanies — or, little holding areas for experience. But I think, by and by, by the time it comes to ‘Wintering Out’ and ‘North,’ the third and fourth books, there is an attempt to make one’s personal experience somehow more representative, first of all, of the situation in Ireland. And, of course, those books were written at a time when there was more upheaval going on in the society any way.”
During the interview, Heaney spoke of the recent translation he did of the medieval Irish narrative poem “Buile Suibhne,” which his version titled “Sweeney Astray.” In retelling the legend of the Northern Ireland king Sweeney, who is cursed by a Christian cleric named Ronan to a life on the run, — a mad outcast who lives on watercress and water and traverses the length and breadth of Ireland, driven often by his adversaries to the tops of trees, like a bird — Heaney told me he felt a certain affinity to the naked and forlorn Sweeney who’s never at home in his own land:
“Part of my intent in doing ‘Sweeney Astray’ was to proclaim — obliquely — that Ulster was ‘Irish’ as well as being politically ‘British.’ I wanted to go behind and underneath the 17th century Plantation … as if an ‘Indian’ were to discover a work of literature written in the Massachusetts area in the 12 century and translate it so the word name ‘Massachusetts’ wouldn’t be just a colonial possession; it would be affirmed as a ‘native’ possession before that.
“Sweeney is from Ulster. He’s from County Antrim. He’s a king of the territory, Irish-speaking and aboriginal. He is also displaced from his territory. So I had a certain personal identification with him, since I was living at the time I was doing this in County Wicklow [in the Republic of Ireland]. And feeling displaced, a little bit. I mean, growing up as a Catholic in the North, you knew you ‘belonged’ and yet you weren’t part of the dominant, established ethos: You didn’t belong. You belonged and you didn’t belong, at the same time.”
In reading the transcript of that interview I’m struck by how easily Heaney moved from self-deprecating humor to incredibly personal and deep self-revelations. He was wide open in his honesty; he made it seem as natural as breathing. There was no pretense of self importance, no pontificating, no impatience in answering questions he undoubtedly had been asked a many times before by more knowledgable and skilled interviewers.
I could have listened to him for hours, but Heaney had a scheduled meeting with some students that had been lined up for him by the college. He apologized for having to cut short the interview … and then invited me to join him for a beer at the college pub where the students would be meeting him.
In that generous invitation I felt a kind of benediction. Once again, Heaney had made me an equal, someone with whom he’d be happy to raise a pint. He reinforced those feelings as we walked together across the college campus and he asked me what poets I might be reading. I told him “Derek Walcott” and “Gary Snyder.” He nodded and said both were worthy of my time. He told me he appreciated Walcott’s poetry for its assimilation of Caribbean, European and African cultures and language. I told him I’d seen once, on stage at Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, a performance of Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain” and understood little of it but liked it nonetheless. He smiled and acknowledged Walcott could be tricky to understand, but was always worth the effort. I asked him who he was reading at that time and he mentioned the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and the exiled Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky. I made a mental note to check them out, since I had not read a single word of either poet at that point in my life.
Once we got to the pub, both of us grabbed our beers and I drifted back to the sidelines where I watched Heaney take questions from the students who were assembled there to meet with him. He grinned, engaging them with questions of his own. He showed them every bit the same warm-hearted openness he’d shown me during our half-hour interview together.
Later, during his reading that evening, you could have heard a pin drop when Heaney recited a poem from the “Station Island” series of Dante-like imagined conversations with the shades of various friends, heroes, family members. In the poem, he encounters the shade of a murdered friend, a Catholic pharmacist who in the middle of the night had been called out of bed, where he’d been sleeping with his wife. His killers were two off-duty policemen who shot him point-blank in the head when he opened the door in response to their urgent call for “pills or a powder or something in a bottle” for “a child not well.” The poem ends with Heaney’s confession to his slain friend, a victim of sectarian violence:
“‘Forgive the way I have lived indifferent –
forgive my timid circumspect involvement,’
I surprised myself by saying. ‘Forgive
my eye,’ he said, ‘all that’s above my head.’
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him
and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.”
In that one poem Heaney brought each of us into the time and place of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, where violence by both Protestant and Catholics cut lives short — all for senseless reasons that simply fueled more violence, more tragedies, more trouble. It also challenged us to consider, in our own lives, the injustices that we might be timidly avoiding or kidding ourselves by “circumspect involvement” that we were doing something to end those injustices.
Even now, 25 years later, I remember Heaney’s words of self-reproach … and realize how truly they speak to my own human condition.
So, without asking it of me but it’s there nonetheless, I owe a debt to Seamus Heaney.
In the quarter century since our one and only meeting, I’ve faithfully purchased each new collection of his poetry. I never failed to find within those slim volumes important mileposts of his human journey, experiences both personal and universal. Heaney, with his gift for poetry and his faithful and honest attention to the people and places and experiences of his life, had so generously shared those epiphanies with the rest of us that we might gain something useful, some small wisdom, to help us through our own days.
In his last published collection, “Human Chain,” many of the poems reflect on mortality – a theme, no doubt, inspired by the poet’s near brush following a severe stroke in 2006. In the poem “Miracle,” Heaney retells the well-known story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man in Capernaum, a healing that takes place only after the crippled man is lowered through a hole cut into the roof into the crowded room where Jesus is teaching. Heaney makes a persuasive case that the Gospel version of the healing miracle doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s the poem in its entirety — a reminder that we should be mindful, always, of the heroism of daily life, a miracle we sometimes overlook as we look to the heavens for our salvation.
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in —
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up
Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight light-headedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.
Sitting on the wharf at Newagen I am of two minds.
One places me in the here and now of a bright June sun creating shimmering sun glitters dancing on the calm waters of the harbor at low tide. A seagull harks. A soft breeze from the ocean tempers the warmth of the blazing sun.
A distant lawnmower introduces a discordant sound to this otherwise quiet harbor scene, but I don’t mind. After all, it’s a Saturday. Given all the rain we’ve had this spring and early summer, it’s a wonder more homeowners aren’t out mowing their lawns on this sunny day. A counterpoint to the quiet I knew I’d find here, it’s the pivot point from the here and now that puts me in mind of the summer of 1974, when I first came to Maine and immediately fell in love with the quiet that envelops Southport Island with the mystique of a place where time seems to stand still.
The lawnmower, then, is a reminder that even here time passes. There’s work to be done and with that activity inevitably comes the sounds of power saws, hammers pounding nails, the thrum of a lobster boat pulling into the harbor.
I give myself over, then, to memories of that other time so long ago, when I lived in a basement apartment below the Newagen post office. I’d been hired by Marvel Wynn, a Cleveland artist in her 60s whom I had met in a life-drawing class taught by Shirley Aley Campbell at Cuyahoga Community College. Chatting with Marvel during a break from our drawing, she surprised me with a question: Would I like to work at her art gallery in Maine for the summer?
It was my lucky break … and a dream fulfilled. At that time I wanted to be the next Winslow Homer or Andrew Wyeth and Maine was where I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. Even now, almost 40 years later, Marvel’s job offer seems fated. I don’t know how else to explain the right timing of that out-of-the-blue offer.
I worked in the gallery three days a week and got paid for it. I lived in the apartment below it rent-free. I had four days a week to discover the coast of Maine, which gave me time to head out to Monhegan as well as explore a number of peninsulas that were down east from Southport Island. I fell in love with Maine and its people and resolved that summer to make it my home.
I spent a fair amount of time at the Newagen town wharf that first summer. It was only a short walk down a dead-end road from the gallery. From its upper deck I could watch as lobstermen hoisted from their boats the dripping crates carrying that day’s haul of lobsters. They paid me no heed.
But I soon learned my presence as a newcomer to the island had, in fact, been duly noted when one of the Newagen lobstermen, Leland Snowman, stopped by my basement apartment late one afternoon with a mess of mackerel he’d caught.
“They’re a bit oily and you gotta keep an eye for the tiny bones, but they’re awful good to eat,” he said.
That night I cooked them on my two-burner hot-plate, the fillets sizzling like mad in the Teflon skillet I’d brought from home. They were everything Leland said they’d be … a taste of wildness and a far cry from the breaded fish-sticks I’d eaten back home to avoid the eternal damnation we’d been taught would be the final torment of our souls if we ignored the Pope’s commandment against eating meat on Fridays.
Quite often, from my observation post on the wharf, I’d watch young Timmy Sherman in his punt chasing a small wooden sailboat he had made. It moved across the sheltered waters of the harbor surprisingly well. Like the lobstermen, Timmy paid me no heed. He was immersed in his own small world -- captain of the seven seas within Newagen Harbor. A decade later it didn’t surprise me when I learned Timmy was now working at a local boatyard.
At extreme low tide, I’d walk the steep ramp to the dock so that I might view the barnacle-encrusted pilings supporting the wharf. Strands of seaweed dripped from their cross-braces. I felt as if I were in a foreign country, a cool damp refuge from the summer sun, a place that would magically transform itself every eight hours with the change in tide, a place primeval, with everything being tied to the cycles of the tides and the arc of the sun from one horizon of the ocean to the other.
Just before sunset laughing gulls would fly back to their roost on a nearby uninhabited island, filling the air with their raucous calling. On one such occasion, I remember diving off the dock with Jeanie and Chuck, two new friends I’d made that summer. It had taken me all of the summer to gain the courage of diving into the ice-cold Atlantic. The shock of it was like a bolt of lightning through my body. The three of us quickly swam back, hoisted ourselves onto the dock, shivering and laughing but oh! so alive!
Once, as the sun set, I watched Leland clamber carefully down from the Dolphin, his lobster boat, and step into the bobbing dinghy tied to a mooring in Newagen Harbor.
I hear a hollow thunking sound as the two boats swing together.
Leland is neither in one boat nor out the other. He’s suspended between them — just a moment — then he’s safely in the dinghy. He makes sure Dolphin is secure at her mooring. He puts the oars in their locks. He rows without hurry toward the dock, feathering the oars. With each smart pull, water drops fall from the oars. The setting sun casts the scene with a deep gold tinge. Time slows. Seaweed drips from the dock’s exposed pilings, there’s a gentle lapping sound as the tide advances. A seagull harks.
Now Leland ties his dinghy to the lower dock, nods to my greeting as he climbs the ramp up to the wharf and then heads home.
That was almost 40 years ago. I don’t see his boat in the harbor. I wonder if he’s still alive, and where his boat might be if he’s gone to the great beyond.
here and now
— or long ago –
boats turn at their moorings
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
For a long time I thought of milkweed as a weird plant. I didn’t know what to make of its spongy pod that oozed a white sticky liquid if you squeezed when it was still green. Then, in the fall, the pods burst open, sending thread-fine feather seedlings off to propagate themselves in the fields I’d go walking in near my mom’s home in Ohio. By late November the pods became transformed into dry empty shells, dulled grey by the wind and sun. Milkweed stalks listed into the coming winter winds like drunks weaving this way and that as they stumbled down a city sidewalk.
My good friend Richard Dubé opened my eyes to its rightful place in the world. It was the summer of ’82. I’d just graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in English literature. I fell back to my old ways and became, once again, a day laborer. I’d been pulling weeds in the back nursery at Lucas Tree Experts, where Richard worked as a landscape designer, and he’d come outside to see how I was doing. He pointed to a small cluster of milkweed plants, pods unopened, still green and standing tall.
“Do you know what I think of when I see milkweed?” he asked me.
Here, I should mention that Richard is a trained naturalist. He earned his degree in forestry at Hocking Technical College in southeastern Ohio. That’s where he met Mary, fell in love and got married. I missed their wedding, but they didn’t hold that against me. A few years later they moved to Maine, allowing my friendship with Richard to deepen with weekend hikes in the mountains of New Hampshire and western Maine, beach excursions on Cape Elizabeth, and regular bird-watching and botany walks at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Sometimes Mary would join us, but more often it would be just Richard and me ambling along with cameras or binoculars around our necks, ever alert to the possibility of the world revealing itself as wondrous strange. For me, those walks invariably were enriched by Richard’s impromptu lessons in botany.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “The pod looks like an Irish currach, the bunched seedlings like the scales of a fish. What about you?”
“Mexico,” he said.
“Mexico? How so?”
“The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south. For a long time no one knew where they spent the winter months. Now we know. They winter in the mountains of central Mexico. They fly there by the millions, clustering in colonies on pine and oyamel fir trees. They’re so thick the trees turn orange in color and branches sag from the weight.”
“What’s that got to do with milkweed?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said. “Without milkweed, monarchs wouldn’t exist. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is the principal food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. It’s named after Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing … which is interesting, because the milky latex in the leaves is a toxin. The caterpillars accumulate these toxins and when they turn into butterflies the toxins are concentrated in their wings and exoskeletons. Birds and other predators learn that the monarch butterflies taste bad. Sometimes they even vomit. Long story short: they avoid preying on monarchs.”
“OK, so milkweeds are good for monarchs. What’s the connection to Mexico?”
“That’s where they go for the winter, by the millions …”
That conversation took place almost 30 years ago. Even now, remembering the gist of it, the tingle of the epiphany I felt comes rushing back to me. My friend’s generous lesson might well be the first conscious understanding I had of the powerful reality of coevolution and the multiple networks that connect … well, everything.
“Milkweeds, monarchs and Mexico” became for me a shorthand reminder of how our world is, truly, one vast web of inter-being.
In ancient India, this understanding is conveyed by the beautiful image of “Indra’s net,” which stretches infinitely in all directions, with a single jewel glittering at each vertex, reflecting infinitely all the other jewels that are similarly strung like a galaxy of glittering stars. As above so below: delve into any small patch of earth, pick a plant or an insect or bird, and then follow the jewel-adorned threads of net outward and see where they might take you. Monarch butterflies ride the wind, making their way south to their wintering grounds in a volcanic mountain region of central Mexico; Indra, the god of rain and thunderstorms, is the “one who rides the clouds” or sometimes a white elephant. Which image requires more imagination to believe as true?
A good many years later my simplistic notion of the monarch’s migration from the milkweed fields of Maine to a small mountainside forest in Mexico took an unexpected leap into a deeper realm of mystery.
I’d been reading an article, probably in a National Geographic magazine, reporting that monarchs flying north from Mexico die long before it’s time to head back the next winter.
What that means is that the monarchs’ migration, both north and south, is completed by a different generation than the one beginning the journey -- four generations later, according to researchers.
Four generations, four different butterflies, each going through the four stages of the monarch’s life cycle: Egg, then larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult butterfly. Four stages during one life cycle, and that life cycle goes through four generations in one year during the monarchs’ migration from, or to, Mexico. Truly, Indra’s net! Each generation of butterfly enjoys a life of about two to six weeks … except for the fourth generation. These butterflies, born in late summer or early fall, will live for up to eight months, time enough to make the long journey to Mexico, where they will hibernate, mate and die just as a new generation emerges to journey northward and start the cycle all over again.
Somehow, the map to the wintering grounds gets passed on to the generation that needs to find its way to where it all begins, or ends, take your pick. The monarchs’ migration is guided by an inborn genetic GPS system over thousands of miles, with fields of milkweed plants along the journey ripening just in time to provide essential food and cover for eggs and larvae as well as flowers for the emerging butterflies to pollinate.
Not quite a month ago, on March 14, a headline migrated into my computer courtesy of Common Dreams.org: “Herbicides for GMOs Driving Monarch Butterfly Populations to ‘Ominous’ Brink.” I felt like I’d just been told a dear friend was ailing, in the hospital, prognosis uncertain.
Too quickly I jumped to the conclusion that it had something to do with continued logging of the monarch colonies’ winter grounds in the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve. Created in 1986 to protect the forests they depended up, I knew that logging of the pine and oyamel fir trees has continued.
But the Common Dreams article cites a newer threat: The use of genetically modified crops in the American Midwest, accompanied by the intensive use of the milkweed-killing herbicide glysophate on 120 million acres of crops, according to staff writer Lauren McCauley.
A critical feeding ground — the milkweed plants growing up between millions of acres of soybean and corn — is being killed off because Monsanto has genetically modified the seeds of those crops to enable the mature crops to withstand extremely heavy doses of its glysophate herbicide, called Roundup. The corn and soybean genetically modified seed is called Roundup Ready; milkweed and other wild plants that flower and provide nectar to bees as well as butterflies have no such protection.
“Before Roundup-Ready crops, weed control was accomplished by running a tiller through those fields and chopping up the weeds and turning over the soil, but not affecting the crops,” Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas insect ecologist told Yale Environment 360. “The milkweed survives that sort of tillage to some extent. So there were maybe 20, 30, 40 plants per acre out there, enough so that you could see them … They have effectively eliminated milkweed from almost all of the habitat that monarchs used to use.”
The monarch colonies in Mexico that used to average 22 acres hit a record low of 2.9 acres this winter. Taylor estimates the monarchs’ population declined by 59% from the previous year. Along with bees, monarchs are one of the principal pollinating insects in North America. Bees are dying in record numbers as well.
Monsanto, meanwhile, is the beneficiary of a rider attached to a spending bill aimed at averting a government shutdown. Congress approved HR 933 and President Obama signed it into law on March 26. The rider, which seems fairly described as “The Monsanto Protection Act,” effectively bars federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of controversial genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds, no matter what health issues may arise concerning GMOs in the future. Many members of Congress say they were unaware of the rider when they approved the bill. A grassroots campaign is under way to strike down that 11th-hour rider.
Monarch butterflies are heading North in one of the world’s greatest migrations. How many will not find the food they need to complete the journey?
Indra’s net is being torn asunder.
how long … how long!
milkweeds, monarchs, Mexico
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.
Paddling to the headwaters
sounds easy enough
yet river’s source
turns out to be
two branch streams
entering a pond
I thought to be
of all that water?
hard to imagine
… and yet
fill the pond
the other ‘Western’
on a map
a beaver dam
-- fallen branches
ridge of rock
in relation to
to its beginning
Route 201 bridge
over the Cathance
three days of rain
a safe place
to put in
beneath the bridge
hoping to score?
ah, how nice
go with the flow
-- but not today
to the river
cars and trucks
across the land
across the river
beef cattle grazing
some look up
as I paddle
past Bisson’s Farm
shriveled lily pads
will rise again
a nest of sticks
black soaring bird
no a crow
ready to break
sending seed boats
-- or, maybe not
tall as a man
along the shore
trees it took
two step ashore
rifles in hand
tall as a man
how warm inside?
how many beavers?
in the wind
of a large
turn a corner
from its source
take it …
seen or heard
through it all
so turn around
“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of year, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
— From “The Edge of the Sea,” by Rachel Carson
Here in Maine many of our place names are derived from Wabanaki words whose meanings are linked to unique features of the landscape or human activities that took place there hundreds and even thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s.
For example: “Pemsquodek” or “Passamaquoddy” means “bay where pollock are plentiful.” It’s also the name for the Native Americans who still live along the easternmost point of Maine’s coast. We can easily guess what placed them there. “Cobscook” means “at the waterfalls” — a reference to the dramatic tidal flows that occur in the small inlet of the much larger Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tide changes in the world. “Punamuhkatik,” or “Pembroke,” is “the place where “tomcod are caught” as well as the locale of the reversing falls created by the powerful currents of the tidal waters filling and draining in Cobscook Bay.
Looking out from our camping site at Cobscook State Park, then, on Memorial Day weekend, I can’t help but feel the presence of the indigenous people who were living here more than 10,000 years before me. The place names in this scenic corner of Downeast Maine are relics of their once-thriving coastal fishing culture. Being mindful of that teaches me to be humble, respectful of this place and the people who named it. It’s an invitation to live in what author John Hanson Mitchell termed “ceremonial time”: Remembering those who came before us and reflecting on how the landscape shaped them and how they might have shaped the landscape.
Low tide, Cobscook Bay, sunset: It sure beats watching some mindless sit-com or reality game show on a big-screen TV. At almost 20 feet of tidal change, the bay’s tidal flats are losing, or gaining, almost a foot of water height every hour. The incoming tides carry into the bay the cold and nutrient-rich ocean waters of the Gulf of Maine. The receding tides draw out nutrients and wastes deposited in the bay from feeding marine organisms and human activity. The twice daily flushing of the bay is a harsh but ideal habitat for mussels and clams, crabs, urchins, bloodworms, periwinkles and dog whelks and a whole host of other marine creatures and seaweeds that live here.
Thirty-eight years ago, in 1974 when I first came to Maine, the tidal changes occurring four times a day in the coves and bays of Maine’s 3,478-mile coastline were a revelation. I felt myself in the presence of mystery, of hidden powers I only vaguely understood to be somehow connected to the pull of the moon’s gravity. Later, I learned the sun plays a role, too, and the earth, and that it’s not just matter of gravity but also of inertia. But don’t ask me to explain it. I’m content to leave it in the realm of “mystery.”
More recently, I came across a magazine article describing what apparently is the prevailing scientific hypothesis of how our moon came into being. This explanation, too, is in the realm of mystery. A big mystery, one that for me is no less religious or meaningful than the biblical story of the six days of creation.
Here’s a brief synopsis: Some 4.5 billion years ago, not long after the proto-Earth was formed out of debris left over from the formation of the sun – a process of accretion that scientists believe might have taken up to 20 million years to complete — a Mars-sized object hit our planet in a glancing blow. Some of this object's mass merged with the Earth, other portions were ejected into space, along with fragments of the proto-Earth’s newly formed crust. These ejected fragments eventually coalesced into the moon.
Two conditions of Earth’s habitability were created in that mammoth collision: the moon with its gravitational pull creating our oceans’ tides; and the 23.5-degree tilt of our planet from what had been a vertical axis.
The pull of the orbiting moon also is what has kept our tilt stabilized at 23.5 degrees, which creates the seasons and distributes the sun’s radiation more evenly around the globe. Without seasons, the North and South poles would turn into a perpetual deep freeze, the equator would be hellishly hot and the diversity of life forms on Earth would be greatly diminished.
The regular rise and fall of sea level occurring with the tides creates an unique environment that many scientists believe played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth. In the intertidal zones life forms are exposed to periods of being immersed in water and other periods when they are exposed to air. Some organisms developed the ability to live outside of their aquatic habitat, their comfort zone. Over time, life moved from the sea to land. Some life forms choose to remain in the intertidal zone: Tough enough to survive in two distinct habitats that appear and disappear four times a day.
No wonder my first summer in Maine living on Southport Island I instinctively regarded the tidal flats as a primordial landscape.
Nearly four decades later, looking out over a cove of Cobscook Bay as the sun set and the bay's waters drained out into the Gulf of Maine, I felt that way still: The placid waters will soon give way to mudflats and barnacle-encrusted boulders draped in rockweed scattered here and there. A new world will emerge — one described so vividly by Rachel Carson in her 1955 book “The Edge of the Sea.” That became my bible during the summer of 1974 on Southport Island, its words enlivened and enriched by my chance discovery that Carson had made her home on Southport and no doubt had chronicled the very mudflats, tide pools and rocky beaches I was exploring on my own for the first time.
Carson’s book taught me the names of the creatures living in the tide pools and shallows of Maine’s rocky coastline. I learned to differentiate periwinkles from dog whelks, discovering to my surprise the latter are predatory carnivores that feed on mussels and barnacles. The mystery of the globular bleached shells I’d find broken apart in the upper tidal zone was solved when I saw a hovering seagull drop something to the rocks below and then watched it feast on morsels of sea urchin meat exposed when its spiny greenish shell broke apart. Those white mystery shells were simply bleached shards of unlucky urchins exposed in the low tide. Lifting up strands of rockweed in the mid-to-lower tidal zones I saw how nicely they sheltered tiny crabs and even baby lobsters.
Sounds of seepage and seagulls harking, sounds of spent waves and seawater creeping landward. All those Southport Island memories came rushing back to me faster than an advancing tide, a counterpoint to the fast-ebbing tide my wife and I watched as the sun set at Cobscook Bay State Park: Linda glancing occasionally up from the book she was reading, I standing next to my camera on a tripod waiting for the moment when heart and mind aligned themselves with all that was before me.
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