Thursday, November 27, 2008


Thanksgiving Day, 2008, dawned clear and sunny here at my woodland residence in Waldo, Maine. A thick coating of hoarfrost covered every surface and it delighted me to watch sunlight play across facets of each crystal, making them sparkle and shimmer.

I recall other Thanksgivings when conditions were more foreboding. For some time, I have traveled to the Lincolnville Beach home of friends to share the holiday with them. One year, a thick coating of ice covered trees, houses, cars and of course, roads. Creeping along a frozen thoroughfare near a river, I turned a sharp curve and there saw a policeman in the middle of the road, back-to. The cop was watching something, I didn’t know what.

This wouldn’t have bothered me except that the place where I was compelled to pause was no place for anyone to stop. The next vehicle to negotiate the icy road would probably come around the blind curve and slam into me. So I decided that I would proceed. The officer jumped in the air and waved his hands. Coming to my now-open window, he abused me verbally. I, in turn, told him that if my car got wrecked, he would be liable. At that point, he said that far up the road, a wrecker was pulling a vehicle out of the ditch and that was why the road was blocked.

I inquired as to road conditions elsewhere and the cop said similar situations were happening all over. I waited until the road was clear, drove another mile to a turn-around and went home to a lonely dinner of canned turkey and boiled sweet potatoes.

Another Thanksgiving Day saw the first snow of the season. This never melted, as most early snows do. Instead, it stayed on the ground until spring. That was the year when it was possible to shovel down a few feet and find unfrozen ground. We tilled our gardens early the following spring.

I remember the Thanksgiving while still living at home, we had a deer roast instead of the more traditional turkey. This was a small doe that I had shot and my grandma overcooked it, making it a bit dry. I recall being fascinated at the thick coating of condensation on the kitchen window, formed by all the steam coming from the cookstove. And though I was well below legal age, my grandpa gave me a bottle of beer. It tasted heavenly.

Thanksgivings come and Thanksgivings go and each year, we grow a bit older. Perhaps some day I will look back on this present Thanksgiving and remember little things such as the frosty, inviting morning.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

The life of a freelance writer has many drawbacks. But it also has certain merits, one of which is the great amount of personal freedom that such a life allows.

Sometimes, at least for me, a new day dawns and I wake up to find that I have no definite plans and no demands upon my time. Today being such a day, the topic of free time seems a fit topic for discussion.

In years past, rural folk had seasons when besides the daily chores, there really was little to do. That’s when people read, studied, fished, walked in the woods, played music and did just about what they wanted to do. For most people, that idyllic lifestyle seems no more than a dot on the i of the far distant past.

This being late November, I feel the call to sit on the beech ridge out back and wait for a deer to come by. But a Northeast storm filtered in during the night and now, rain, some wet snow and gale-force winds make that an unpleasant proposition. So I sit inside and watch the flames dance through the glass door of my woodstove. Later, I’ll work on one of my long-term projects. I have yet to decide whether that will be an unfinished novel or perhaps, the picture presentation of wild plants that I want to put together as a teaching tool.

In years past, I would drive down to the bay and watch spray flying off the tops of wind-whipped waves. But now, I find it more enjoyable to sit inside and watch through the window as pine trees whip and flex in the wind.

It’s a good day to put a pot of beans together, and to watch black-capped chickadees as they fly back and forth between the woods edge and a bird feeder hung on a plum tree in front of the house. But whatever I do today is solely my decision. It’s my time and I cherish it. A day such as today has worth far beyond any monetary gain that might present itself. Money can buy almost anything except time. And this is my time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Irish Knife

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

I feel naked without a jackknife in my pocket. A small, folding blade comes in handy for countless chores and it’s really hard to comprehend life without such a useful, even indispensable tool.

A thin blade and flat body suit me best. Bulky knives wear out pants pockets far too soon. Oddly enough, the thinner, flatter knives are a bit more expensive than larger types. So when, many years ago I saw a bucket of $4 knives on the counter at a local hardware store, it seemed like a waste of money. But upon closer examination, the knives, made in Ireland, appeared fairly well made and certainly worth the slight asking price. So I bought one, simply as a spare should I ever misplace my more expensive, everyday knife.

Soon after this, my favorite knife turned up missing. So I went to a drawer and found my Irish-made knife. It has relatively soft steel, so it doesn’t stay sharp for long. On the other hand, it takes an edge rather quickly. So I got by, at least until I felt comfortable in forking over what I considered a grand amount for a “good” knife.

As unbelievable as this sounds, I quickly lost the Irish-made knife. No problem, though, because I had my new knife. But that quickly vanished and before I had time to go out and buy a new knife, I located my Irish knife. It was some time before I bought another knife but eventually, I did. And even more unbelievably, I once again lost my new knife. So it was back to the old, Irish knife. At this point, I decided not to shell out any more money on knives, not as long as I had the Irish knife.

Two days ago, I lost my Irish knife and despite a diligent and prolonged search, decided that it was gone forever. I began planning where to shop for a new knife. But in bending over to pick up a bit of paper from the floor, I spotted a familiar object protruding from some folds in the upholstery of an easy chair. Yes, it was the Irish knife.

The grooves on the Irish handle are worn smooth, the end of the large blade has become rounded from using the thing as a Phillips screwdriver and in general, the old knife has seen better days. But I have no intention of ever parting with it, not willingly anyway. I figure that anything that keeps popping back up after being lost that many times deserves to stay in my pocket, at least until it finally disappears for good, of its own free will and accord.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hidden World Revealed

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Yesterday, the completed manuscript of my new book, Hidden World Revealed, went to the printer. Soon, I’ll have in hand a compilation of several years worth of notes, ideas, feelings and observations. I didn’t realize until now that the book actually represents many days of my life. Proofreading the manuscript brought to mind times and feelings, some happy and some melancholy.

Hidden World gives me a glimpse into myself. Without knowing it, the essays and accounts therein allow me to look at my life, my particular station in life and even my special niche in the world. Instant recall, that’s what I get when reading any of the essays. And believe it or not, the printed word can elicit clearer, more precise memories than even a photograph or recording.

A form of diary, Hidden World Revealed, follows changes through the seasons. It chronicles plant and animal behavior and also, human behavior. After all, we are all part of nature, like it or not.

Hopefully, my book will encourage others to partake of nature, or at least to become more aware of the natural world. I enjoyed living it, writing it and now I enjoy reading it. It was a great honor for me that Nancy Randolph, of Just Write Books, agreed to publish and promote my contribution. I hope everyone else likes Hidden World as much as I do.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Freezer Foraging

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

As we go into the third week of November, winter sits just around the corner. Even now, wild edibles are scarce. Wild plant fans are limited to harvesting roots and a few evergreen leaves. Diligent foragers, though, have one prime location left…the home freezer.

My freezer contains, among other things, fiddleheads, dandelions, stinging nettles and curled dock. Who would think to find such unorthodox treats in a freezer? On the other hand, why shouldn’t wild edibles share shelf space with more conventional fare? After all, the above-named plants lend themselves well to freezing. Fiddleheads, for instance, keep their integrity for a year or more when properly packaged and frozen.

So while others content themselves with a winter diet of wilted produce from the supermarket, I re-live glorious days afield by foraging in my freezer. Some may revel in spinach soufflé, but I luxuriate in fiddlehead Alfredo. Steamed nettles complete with a dash of lemon and enhanced with a pepper medley, bring a flush of warmth to wind-whipped cheeks. And instead of broccoli grown in Mexico and treated with who-knows-what kind of chemicals, I enjoy the occasional side dish of naturally-grown dandelion greens.

What about those souls who failed to put up foraged foods this past season? Well, there’s nothing for it now but when spring rolls around, which it always does, it might pay to embark on a campaign to fill the home freezer with tasty, nutritious wild edibles.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Misplaced Values

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

How far the State of Maine has fallen from the days when rural residents met in some small town and asked one another, “Get your deer yet?”

In the days of my youth, getting a winter supply of meat for your family was a token of honor. “Young Tom did all right,” one old-timer might say to another upon hearing that I had procured some venison. Today, nobody asks and nobody tells. In fact, most of us make it a point to remove any type of clothing that might mark us as hunters before venturing into town.

Only today, I went to my doctor’s office to pick up some medications and the receptionist, the doctor’s wife, asked me the age-old question, did I get my deer. She then went on to tell how one of my neighbors, a young lady who often brings home the proverbial bacon, “got her deer” just last week. To this, a woman in the waiting room who had apparently been eavesdropping began moaning about “the poor deer.”

I addressed her in a gentle manner and reminded her that she was being rude. Then, a man standing nearby began to chuckle. He wore a smirk that you could spot a mile away. I shook my head in disgust and walked out.

Such is the treatment that anyone guilty of obtaining their own food from our woods and waters is apt to receive in this age of misplaced values.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November Wood

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

A dearth of blogs as late reflects my pre-occupation with fall chores, the most demanding of which was putting up firewood. But now, thanks to several good and caring friends who helped me in the daunting task, my shed brims with split firewood.

Also, for the first time in a long time, I have plenty wood left over for next year. This does not happen often and it wouldn’t have happened this year were it not for outside help.

Now, in mid-November, we in Mid-Coast Maine are in the most difficult time of year for wood burning. To wit, it’s not cold enough to burn good hardwood but it’s too cold not to burn something. Burning maple, ash or beech now makes for an overly-hot fire. And woodstoves have no off/on switch. So fitting wood in the fire at night before retiring requires a keen eye to the thermometer and a responsive ear to the weather report.

I like a mixture of poplar and white birch for these moderately chilly but not bitter-cold nights. By morning, if things go right, enough coals remain that it takes only 10 minutes or so to stir up a new blaze. I could easily circumvent this hit-or-miss exercise by simply turning on my propane heater. But the increased cost of propane irks me to the point that I prefer taking a chance on being cold. Besides, burning wood makes me feel good. The stuff comes from my woodlot. It’s there for the taking and so I burn wood.

Soon, we who burn wood will tire of the process and hope for spring, when we can once again let the stove grow cold. But as for now, that tang in the air of woodsmoke invigorates me.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Second Bloom

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

It’s that time of year when many plants, including flowering shrubs, go into a limited, second bloom. I noticed yesterday that a pussy willow by my house has sprouted new, velvety-gray catkins. But we are heading into winter, not spring. So what gives?

Well, we have had a number of unusually cold nights and now the current spate of warm weather has tricked plants into thinking that spring has arrived. This is in no way harmful, and since the plants are only partly enthusiastic about blooming, they won’t suffer a bit when genuine spring arrives many months from now.

It’s interesting, though, to go out and check for what shrubs are in bloom. Forsythia, that famous springtime treat, frequently goes into a limited blooming period now. And speaking of forsythia, a native shrub with yellow, forsythia-like flowers naturally blooms at this time of year. Witch hazel never has quite as many individual blossoms as forsythia but I like it as well or better. And witch hazel is more than just another pretty shrub. It is useful as well.

Witch hazel distillate is something that I make certain to keep fresh and on hand. This is made from the woody part of the plant and is a safe and effective old-time remedy for cuts, bruises, dry skin and insect bites. Plus, it has a pleasant aroma.

So get out and enjoy this last flush of blooming vegetation. It won’t last long, I guarantee that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Meadow Voles

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Two years ago, meadow voles nearly destroyed all my fruit trees. My oldest apple tree survived only because of a successful bridge graft. I had never done that kind of graft, but it was a do-or-die situation and luckily, it worked out. The next fall, I was careful to wrap my tree trunks with a protective barrier. This was held on with florist’s wire.

To digress, meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus, tunnel under the snow and have the uncanny ability to locate fruit trees as well as ornamental trees and shrubs. There, protected by their frozen roof, they gnaw not only the bark but also the roots. When they manage to girdle a tree or shrub, the plant dies (unless dramatic steps are taken, such as my bridge graft).

So when I saw a meadow vole dart across the path leading to my house, it spurred me to look about and see where it was heading. A thick bunch of chives on one side and a grassy thatch around the apple tree in front of my door made up points A and point B, where the vole traveled. These rodents are active both day and night, so it wasn’t unusual that I spotted it.

I tried several ways to kill the vole and any other voles that may use the same route. But my efforts were in vain. So my best hope was to at least check my trees to see if the wrapping was still intact. And to my amazement, I found that in the one year that the wraps and wire were on the trees, the diameter of their trunks had increased dramatically. The trees were, in fact, growing around the wires. I immediately clipped all the wires and re-wrapped, this time in a looser manner.

So I learned two things. One, that voles are not going away any time soon and two, young fruit trees grow much faster than I ever imagined.