Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seal on a Floe

The road from my house to town parallels the route of a tidal river. This river hosts lots of interesting wildlife, including various sea ducks, geese, anadramous and saltwater fishes and sometimes, seals.

So it wasn’t a great surprise to see a large animal on an ice floe. But making a sure identification was somewhat difficult. From a distance, the critter was shaped like a porcupine, hunched up in the middle. Of course it would have had to be the world’s largest porcupine. No, it was definitely a seal.

A powerful monocular usually sits in the catchall sleeve on the door of my car. But I had taken everything out recently in order to give the car a thorough cleaning and had forgotten to replace the scope. So I had to rely upon the naked eye.

Harbor seals have spots, though, and lack the high back that this animal displayed. This seal was of a solid, slate-gray color except that the sides appeared somewhat lighter. And it had an unusually large, bulky head. All this tells me that I was looking at a hooded seal.

With the mystery solved, I sat on some guardrails and watched the seal as it slowly slid downstream. The tide was running out and the seal was headed for the harbor. A warm, spring sun shone down on the river and the seal appeared to be enjoying the warm spell. It occasionally shifted its weight and moved its head around, as if taking in the scenery.

I imagined that the seal was enjoying itself immensely, doing what seals do on a fine, spring day. I wished that I could have stayed to watch the seal and ice floe disappear from sight, but business called. Nevertheless, I was grateful for such cheery, inspirational entertainment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pursuing Happiness

A man recently wrote me, wanting to know how I made a living. He envisioned a lifestyle change and hoped to live a simpler life. And he considered me an example of someone to emulate.

He went on to list his assets…houses, motor vehicles, boats and so on. But he never mentioned his heart, or his inner feelings. More to the point, he didn’t state his values, nor did he elaborate upon the things that really meant something to him.

I wondered, then, if he really wanted to live as I do. My answer to him probably came as a great surprise. I explained that his list of material assets was certainly impressive, and mine paled by comparison. It seemed to me that if our situations were reversed, I could live quite comfortably by selling most everything and living off the interest. But I didn’t tell him that because it probably wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Then, too, he may not have understood how I could say I was rich, yet had very little money. I did point out that nature had always been good to me, that I managed to keep my food budget down by hunting, fishing, gardening and foraging. I explained how I circumvented huge, wintertime fuel bills by cutting and burning wood from my own woodlot.

I mentioned my house, too, how small it was. But however small, it was big enough for me. My seeming lack of interest in money, fancy boats, cars, trucks and houses in highbrow neighborhoods must have come as a great surprise.

Why, indeed, I asked, would anyone wish to be like me?

It seems to me that what works for one may not work for another. We all need to content ourselves with our own situation and try and make the best of it. If we have a goal, then it makes sense to work toward that goal. But in the end, it’s what’s deep down that counts. I could never enjoy life away from my beloved countryside, away from the nature I love. But that’s me.

I’ll close by saying that nature has always been good to me. The simple life pleases me and I find solace in recognizing the divine in the pageant of changing seasons. And most importantly, I’m happy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Regarding Skunks

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Sometimes, serendipity strikes with a vengeance. Last night, I went to bed perplexed. A local historical society had asked me to be the speaker at their monthly meeting. I asked the caller, “What do you want me to talk about?”

“Oh, animals I guess. You know, the stuff you write about.” Well, that certainly left lots of room for interpretation. What animals would I highlight and what would I say about them?

So while lying in bed, tossing and turning, the answer came and not in a way that I had expected or appreciated. Pungency assailed my nostrils and for a brief moment, I wondered what it was. And then the answer became patently clear.

It was a skunk. Or skunks. I had heard, off and on, sporadic thumping and crashing coming from the crawl space under my house. I fervently hoped it wasn’t a skunk, but hoping never accomplishes much.

Skunks seek abandoned buildings for their winter dens, so my field guide to mammals says. Apparently skunks can’t read, because my house is not abandoned. In fact, I live in it. Nonetheless, the skunk, or skunks, selected it for a place to spend the winter.

Skunks do not hibernate, but instead lay low, lethargic from the cold. They get up and walk around on warm nights in winter and that accounts for the bumps and thumps at odd hours of the night.

Also, skunks mate in March. So that answers the second question. “My” skunk was undoubtedly a female and she was not 100 percent amenable to her suitor’s advances. Which is why she sprayed.

So now I head off to deliver my talk, no doubt reeking of skunk but suitably armed with material for my lecture. Funny how things go, hey?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Vanishing Fields

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Farm fields, how precious a commodity. And now they’re gone. Some of our fast-vanishing fields date back to when the first European settlers established farming communities in what is now Maine. And over the intervening years, families lived on the farms, generations being born, living and dying, buried on the edge of their fields.

Until only a short while ago, even during my lifetime, fields carried the names of the families that owned and worked them. As farming gave way to working in towns and cities, many of the fields grew up into alder, poplar and birch. Stone fences separating one property from another were the only way to determine that here was once a field.

Some fields remain. The price of hay having soared, a scant few entrepreneurs cut their hay and sell it. But mostly, the fields that haven’t all gone to scrub growth are gone, felled by the developer’s proverbial axe. Subdivided into postage stamp parcels, the fields are now house lots, front yards.

What I find particularly sad is this. People have forgotten the names of the old fields. Once, a casual conversation might include a reference to seeing a deer or moose in Smith’s Field, for example. The hearer immediately drew a mental picture of the place. Everyone was familiar with Smith’s Field. We knew these places by name. But now, place names are forgotten.

The whole process bespeaks of the breakup of communities. We don’t know each other. Many, appear not to even want to know their neighbors. It’s just sad.

At one time, most small towns had their resident historians. These were people who could name each field, even grown-up fields. They knew every woodland burying ground and could point out sites where churches, grange halls, mills, stores, dance halls and taverns stood. These living repositories of local history are, like our fields, vanishing.

It’s a new age, for sure.

What Makes Plants Grow Under The Snow?

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

With the onset of spring, many plants shed dormancy and begin to grow. This happens even to plants that are, and have been all winter, completely buried under snow.

I always had the idea in the back of my mind that some slight bit of sunlight filtered to the ground, thus providing energy for plants. And as hours of sunlight lengthened, plants responded accordingly. But that’s just not so. The truth struck me after a recent blizzard. My office skylight was covered with snow. I sleep in a small loft over the office and the skylight provides a bit of morning light. But not that morning. In fact, my office was black as the inside of a boot. Consequently, I neglected to glance at the clock upon waking up and seeing that it was still dark, immediately went back to sleep.

I got up late, a bit peeved with myself. And then it hit me. If a few inches of snow on my skylight could shut out daylight so completely, surely the many feet that covered the ground did the same. Plants, then, do not grow under the snow in response to sunlight.

So what prompts plants to put on new growth even though they remain in a world of total darkness? For a certainty, this happens all the time. Melting snow reveals all kinds of new growth.

What’s the answer, then? I don’t know. But I find this a thought-provoking question, indeed.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hope Deferred

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

“Hope deferred makes the heart sad,” so goes the proverb. That maxim comes to life for me about this time each year. Now is when I pine for spring. Each brief hint of the approaching season brings inspiration and joy. But it seems that each bit of hope gets rudely dashed by another jarring shot of winter.

Here is an observation. In late summer, people begin speaking of fall and winter as if summer were already past. When goldenrod blooms and New England asters brighten wildflower meadows, we know to cover our tender vegetables because frost is imminent. The transition from summer to winter occurs in an orderly, neat manner, with few interruptions.

The transition from winter to spring, however, does not follow the same, seamless progression. For instance, on February 28 of this year, an unusually warm day caused a portion of the snowbank in front of my house to recede just a bit. This exposed a small portion of my chive bed. And lo and behold, there were freshly-sprouted chives. These were only an inch or so tall, but they were the first green plants of the year. I nibbled a few and they were bursting with garlicky flavor.

The chives had been growing under the snow all the time and I just didn’t know it. Anyway, near the chives, a few branches of a weeping will freed themselves from their wintry prison and I was amazed to see several silvery catkins, all new and fuzzy. How my spirit soared. Spring was on the way.

That night, temperatures dropped to the single numbers, freezing my chives. And then it snowed. The first storm brought only an inch or so. The next day, another storm, this one a raging northeast snowstorm, hit us.

Why, then, is the arrival of spring so frequently accompanied by fierce, winter conditions? It just doesn’t seem fair.