Monday, March 29, 2010

Instant Green

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

“Instant green. Just add water.” That could be a slogan for springtime in Maine. Let me explain. Today is Monday. This last Saturday, Maine woke up to near-record, cold temperatures and a dusting of snow.

Crocus flowers had turned to mush, looking like so many crepe paper blossoms that someone had doused with water. The ground had re-frozen so that digging with spade or fork was impossible. In short, winter had returned, in a big way.

Last night, the weather warmed to above freezing. And it poured rain, soothing me while I lay in bed listening to the tempest beating on my metal roof.

But still, signs of spring seemed far off. Things changed in short order, though. My house has a glass door, which allows me to stand in my kitchen and gaze out at my lawn and nearby woods. The view from early morning to late afternoon varied to a remarkable degree.

This morning, robins and juncos hopped about on the still-frozen ground, foraging for insects, earthworms, seeds and whatever they could scrounge up. I pitied them.

By mid-afternoon, though, the ground had completely thawed and the birds, while still wet, didn’t appear as pitiful. Robins finally had access to worms and, well, juncos are hardy birds anyway. Then something else came to mind. The grass had turned greener. In the space of about seven hours, my lawn and garden had transformed from an inhospitable brown to a welcoming green.

The rain. That’s the wild card, that's what had to have done it. Plus, I recalled the old saying about snow being “poor man’s fertilizer.” Old-timers had told me that snow brought nitrogen to the ground, helping plants to grow lush and green. It seemed like nonsense to me, though. I never believed it. But perhaps, the old boys had a grasp on something after all.

Though I wouldn't have believed it until today, it may just be that the snow brought nitrogen down and the rain, washing it into the ground, physically applied it to the roots of grasses, weeds and other, green plants. And those plants responded in a big way. Instant green.

But whatever the cause, one thing’s for sure. My place went from drab brown to cheery green, in the course of one, single day. I find that fascinating.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Opening Day Arrives Early

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

A pool in a stream down the road from me often gives up one or two good-size trout on opening day. For many years, that much-anticipated date was April 1. It would have been this year, too, but for a special proclamation by the governor on April 25, declaring open-water fishing season officially open.

For a month previous, my attention was riveted upon a large pool in the stream a few miles down the road from me. Passing by there nearly every day, I practically drooled at the superb water conditions. These were not too high and not too low, but just right. “If only they would open the season on the first of March, rather than April,” I told myself.

In truth, our April opener has everything to do with tradition and absolutely nothing to do with resource management. This line of thinking comes directly from fisheries biologists with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the agency that makes such decisions.

So then, why April, rather than March or in fact, any time after January 1? Tradition. That’s what they tell me, year after year. People enjoy preparing for opening day and look forward to it as to an official holiday. I never found their line of reasoning satisfactory. But other than petitioning for an earlier opening date, there remains little for the layperson to do.

In fact, I mark April 1 on my calendar and start counting the days to fishing season, beginning sometime in late March. And like a child the night before some big event, I’m usually too wound up with anticipation to sleep well. Toss, turn, check the clock for how many hours remain before the alarm rings. Then, when it finally does, I spring from bed in the pre-dawn darkness, dress, put on a pre-made pot of coffee and get ready to go out and try the waters.

Then came April 25. The proclamation came in the morning, but owing to an ultra-slow, Internet connection and the habit of GWI of holding messages in a queue before sending them out, I didn’t get the news until 2:30.

By 3:00, I was the proud possessor of a 15-inch brook trout and also, a rainbow trout of nearly the same size. This was a gift, an unanticipated boon. I reveled in my good fortune and thanked the government, the first time I had a kind thought for that entity in many years.

Later, it occurred to me that my opening-day preparations were of little value at this point. The thing had come and gone. And now, the rest of the year remained. I had planned a big day along with a friend. We had our schedule all planned, including the restaurant where we would stop for breakfast. We even knew what we would order. My pal wanted a double serving of corned beef hash, two eggs, over easy and two slices of raisin bread. I planned upon one serving of hash, eggs the same, coffee and no bread.

So that’s how much planning, waiting, thinking and hoping went into our opening day. We got together, my buddy and I, on the next day and went to our spots. It wasn’t the same, though. The magic was gone. We had fun, caught trout and so on, but it was anti-climactic. Something was missing and there was nothing we could do to re-capture it.

Is there a lesson to take from this? Perhaps it is that the value we place on a thing depends upon how much it costs us. If we don’t work for something, don’t look forward to it and don’t expend a certain amount of emotional capital on it, then we probably won’t appreciate it as much.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Downtown Wildlife

Who would have thought to encounter a wild turkey flying down the middle of the road, while driving within the compact, urban limits of the City of Belfast? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. But that was exactly what happened this past Saturday.

I was a passenger in a ¾-ton pickup truck and not paying much mind to what lie ahead. But when the driver hollered, “look at that,” my attention immediately became riveted to the scene unfolding directly in front of me. A large, tom turkey, long beard swaying in the wind, was steadily winging toward our truck, at about windshield height.

At was apparent that the bird was trying valiantly to gain altitude. But would it? Could it? We began to slow down, but the turkey’s increase in speed made up for our loss.

When about a hood’s length from the windshield and more to the point, me, the turkey pulled it off. As I ducked, sure of imminent catastrophe, the bird got the lift it so needed. I looked up in time to see a pair of turkey feet passing just inches above the windshield.

At that point, the bird made a sweeping run for a nearby, white pine. It lit on an upper limb with more grace than I would have thought possible.

A memorable event, that was and certainly fortunate for all involved that it worked out the way it did.

So it was not surprising when, on Monday, I saw a small, brown animal waddling across the hot-top parking lot of the local credit union, also in-town Belfast. It was a muskrat.

This was a bit unusual, but not terribly so. In spring, when brooks and streams run high, muskrats go on the move. It’s mating season for them. The little, 1970’s ditty, “Muskrat Love,” comes immediately to mind.

All this just goes to prove that here in Maine, we needn’t live way out in the williwacks in order to experience wild nature. All we have to do is keep our eyes open.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Digital photography has made picture-taking so much easier than in the old days of film and color transparency. And it’s way cheaper and it saves time. In my case, taking photos for magazines and newspapers involved going to the photo shop to buy film, going out and taking the photo, returning the exposed film to the shop, waiting for them to develop it, picking it up and taking it home to study and finally, mailing selected photos in.

Besides making my work-related photography easier, I have discovered, thanks to Sky and Telescope Magazine, that anyone with a telescope and digital camera can take fairly decent photos of the moon and planets.

My first photo accompanies this blog. It wasn’t planned, either, but happened purely by accident. The moon was nearing a pine tree and would soon move out of sight. That made the image appear crushed on the right side. The other side shows a portion of the unlit part of moon, that which wasn’t reflecting sunlight. In an earlier stage, that’s called, “the old moon in the young moon’s arms.”

The other forms in the image are, well, I just can’t say. Are the perhaps, reflections? Were they there all the time but not visible? Beats me, but when I looked at the thing on my computer, I knew I had a winner.

Anyone wishing to try taking pictures of the heavens needs only to have a telescope, one with a sturdy mount so it does not wiggle, and a digital camera. Although my camera is somewhat complicated and larger than most, it worked fine. Also, I understand those new, tiny but powerful digital cameras work wonders for this application.

Might the thing even work with binoculars? Perhaps. It’s worth a try. In either case, just focus on something, the moon, for instance, hold the camera lens to the eyepiece and shoot away. Don’t expect miracles, but don’t be too surprised if one or two shots work out quite nicely. Most of all, have fun enjoying the moon, stars and planets.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beware of Ticks

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Last night I went to bed with all intentions of reading a book on Abraham Lincoln. Upon removing my tee shirt, I noticed something on my chest. It was a tick and it had imbedded itself in my flesh. I immediately ran downstairs to the bathroom mirror, where I saw the thing in gruesome detail. Its legs were wriggling, no doubt in an attempt to drill even deeper in my hide.

Knowing that pulling ticks off with tweezers can result in the head remaining imbedded, I resolved to take a more reasoned approach. So I got a needle and some matches. Heating the point to red-hot and applying it to the tick resulted in it backing out. I then killed the creature by impaling it and later, placed the dead tick in an envelope.

Having met people who had suffered the terrible tribulations of Lyme disease, I have begun a vigil to monitor the bite site for the telltale, red “bull’s-eye” that indicates the presence of Lyme. So far so good, I’m happy to say.

Today, a friend mentioned that the lab at Waldo County General Hospital routinely sends tick specimens out for further analysis. This is a free service, except that the testing facility accepts donations.

However, the hospital rejected my request. They would not send the tick out for lab testing without doctor’s orders. Lacking health insurance and not wishing to incur doctor’s fees and being of a contumacious nature, I have decided to take the wait-and-see approach.

It strikes me as odd that such a reasonable procedure as testing a tick that had bitten a person must involve red tape.

I do suggest that anyone bitten by a tick, take the official approach and visit their physician. Early treatment is of the essence, regarding Lyme disease. The faster a victim is placed upon a regimen of antibiotics, the better the chances of not contracting the disease.

Here in Maine, we have several kinds of ticks. All of them are liable to attach themselves to humans. The life cycle of these parasites runs thus: Ticks disengage themselves from their animal hosts in March and fall to the ground, where they deposit their eggs in the leaf litter. The creatures may then find another host to affix themselves to. Early springs, such as Maine is currently experiencing, with lots of newly-bare ground, encourage a successful transfer.

Unfortunately, even though blackflies and mosquitoes have not yet made their presence known, ticks are active and plentiful. So after outdoor activity, make sure to check yourself for any, clinging ticks.

I have been bitten by ticks several times, and have never felt the bite. It was only hours later that I discovered their presence. So be vigilant and protect yourself. It only takes a minute to check your body for ticks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Spring officially arrives three days from now, on March 20. But in fact, it’s already here.

Today, by mid-morning, temperatures had shot up to the low 60s, prompting me to set aside all thoughts of work and go for a walk outside. The first thing that struck my eye was a small, orange-and-black butterfly.

To the best of my knowledge (I find butterfly identification maddeningly difficult), this was a hop merchant, or comma butterfly, a member of the Polygonia genus. These are also commonly called, “angel wings,” owing to the somewhat erratic shape of their wings.

This is one of the earliest butterflies to emerge, beating even the mourning cloak. All the same, never, ever, have any butterflies appeared around my Waldo home in mid-March.

Next, I gasped at the sight of blue crocus in full bloom, on a gravel bank by my house. These are at least three weeks ahead of schedule. I got down on my knees and marveled at this sure sign of spring.

A few days ago, coltsfoot began showing on a hillside by my farm pond. Today, many more have opened, shining bright yellow in the warm, spring sunshine.

As I walked, a warm breeze wafted a sweet, almost cloying, aroma over me. My heart jumped, as if physically recounting the most pleasant of memories. I became fully aware of my surroundings in every way, the milky, spring sunlight, the gentle, aromatic breeze, the sounds of woodpeckers hammering and crows squabbling in the distance. The essence of spring, gushing out for us to enjoy.

Next, digging down at the base of some dried-up stalks of last season’s Japanese knotweed, I found the little, red tip of what will soon become this years shoot. This, too, was at least three weeks ahead of time.

And along the edge of my gravel drive, I found the fernlike, shoots of Equisetum arvense, or field horsetail.

Perhaps in coming years, when spring seems so far away, the memory of St. Patrick’s Day, 2010, will buoy my spirits.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Early Spring, To Be Or Not To Be?

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Today, Monday, March 15, 2010, the ice left my farm pond. This marks the earliest date ever for ice-out. What’s more, coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, blossoms are beginning to open. This usually doesn’t happen until the beginning of the second week of April, three weeks hence. I suspect that soon, people in southern Maine will report seeing dandelions in bloom. At first glance, coltsfoot flowers bear some resemblance to dandelion blossoms.

Weather forecasters predict temperatures in the mid-50’s for the foreseeable future. So what, if anything, does this mean in the long run?

It’s easy to assume that balmy conditions so early in the year indicate above-average temperatures for spring and summer. Such thinking only makes it more difficult to accept a sudden turn-about, if that should happen. Better to take it day-by-day and accept what we have to deal with in the here and now.

Last year’s cold, rainy weather set the stage for low expectations this year. By July 4, my garden vegetables had all yellowed and died, victims of standing water, cold temperatures and lack of sunlight. So this year, despite an unusually early spring, I’m taking measures to prevent another such loss. In short, instead of regular, garden beds, I’m building raised beds. These drain well and in the case of prolonged inundation, should give cultivated vegetables at least a 50-50 chance for survival.

And if, in fact, we here in Maine are blessed with a warm, dry spring and summer season, what of it? We can only say that it’s about time that Maine enjoyed the comforts associated with prolonged, warm weather.

So get out, enjoy the near-record temperatures. Watch for pussy willows to sport their fuzzy, white catkins. Sharpen that dandelion digger. Buy a fishing license. Do all the things that come to mind at the approach of spring. Maybe, just maybe, we will win this time, after all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When The Frost Leaves The Ground

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The piecemeal manner in which frost leaves the ground in spring fascinates me. At first glance, it seems natural enough to assume that the process occurs uniformly and gradually. But in fact, it doesn’t happen that way at all.

Of course it all depends upon how deep the frost has gone in the first place. And that, depends upon whether the ground was wet or dry, covered or bare and also, the type of ground, such as clay, sand and so on.

For starters, places that we keep open by shoveling have the best chance for frost to penetrate deeper than spots that were continually coated with snow. For instance, I always shovel the walk from my house to the greenhouse. When frost begins to leave the surrounding ground, the land appears to sink. But the shoveled area rises. This makes for a very uneven surface and difficult walking.

Other parts of my lawn are wet and others are bone dry. These, too, exhibit heaving and settling to varying degrees. To view such scenes, it seems impossible to imagine that in a few, short weeks, the entire area will be level…or, in the case of my lawn, sort of level.

All this brings to mind the frost heaves on our rural roads, “thank-you-mam’s,” that cause motor vehicles to leap into the air and come down with a bang. There are solid reasons why some parts of roads heave and others don’t. Refer to the second paragraph above.

I’ll end with a question, something that has always puzzled me. Why do they put warning signs on insignificant frost heaves and minor bumps, all the while leaving the truly huge ones unsigned?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Keep It Simple

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

A friend recently gave me a recipe book on “free” wild foods. Without exception, these recipes included components that were not at all wild and certainly not free.

For me, the whole idea of foraging is to procure a pure, wholesome product from nature that, when prepared with a minimum of muss and fuss, results in a palatable and healthful meal. The idea of going shopping for a half-dozen commercial products to make my wild food more acceptable goes against my grain.

A few of these concoctions involved so many different ingredients that the one, wild ingredient became of only secondary importance. If that’s what it’s all about, then why bother, I ask?

Sure, it’s fun to experiment. And yes, sometimes a relatively involved recipe that incorporates wild plants is a thing of beauty. In fact, my new book, Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide, includes a few complex recipes. But for the day-in, day-out wild plant fan, I feel it best to keep it simple.

Let me give an analogy to illustrate my point. I’m a dedicated fisherman, one who sometimes kills and eats his catch. To me, nothing beats the simple elegance of a native brook trout, cooked within hours of its being taken from the stream. Sprinkled with fresh-ground, black pepper, placed under the broiler and cooked only until the meat flakes, nothing beats it. But sometimes, people tell me of catching a trout, taking it home and stuffing it with who-knows-what, pouring marinades and sauces over it and then baking it in an oven. Yek!

So before subjecting that lovely trout to something better suited for farm-raised tilapia, or when considering how those dandelions or fiddleheads might fit into some long and drawn-out recipe, try my advice and just keep it simple. Often that’s the best way of all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Late Friday night, while viewing Saturn’s rings through my 8-inch Dobsonian telescope, I heard a large animal padding around in the woods by my house. “There goes a big buck,” I said to myself and quickly forgot the incident.

Saturn had just risen to a point where seeing was not severely compromised by the earth’s atmosphere and I reveled in the experience. My having been out in the dark long enough so that my night vision was fairly acute further enhanced the quality of my session.

While departing from Saturn to hunt for a nearby nebula, I heard the animal walking again, this time closer and possibly headed for me. “That ain’t no deer,” I thought. But what was it? Speculation runs rampant in darkness, especially in a woodland setting such as mine. Every species of big game living in Maine has, at one time or another, paid me a “dooryard visit.” And a few animals that aren’t supposed to live here have passed by, too.

Now, with a certainty, the animal drew steadily closer. I could take the suspense no longer and ran to the house in order to flip the switch that would turn on the outside light that would illuminate my dooryard. Night vision be darned, this was something of considerable consequence.

The light flashed on and there, at the edge of my lawn not 40 feet away and staring straight at me, stood a group of the largest ducks I had ever seen.

These were some kind of domestic ducks, as far as I could tell. But were did they come from? As I watched, the ducks, heads held high and not uttering a single sound, marched around the periphery of my woodland opening and disappeared into the darkness. Apparently, ducks do not quack at night.

The next morning just after sunrise, I awoke and went to my front door to peer out at the new day. And there, in front of my greenhouse, were five, huge ducks, huddled together for warmth.

As I write, the ducks remain, sitting on the sunny side of my little greenhouse. Whose are they? How did they get here? And what will I do with them?

Such are the questions that confront those whose lives revolve around wild plants and wooly bears.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

When The Wild Geese Return

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

All seasonal changes in nature take place on a sequential basis. These may occur earlier some years (as in the current, early spring) and later at other times. But the time between events, no matter when they begin, never varies.

For instance, when coltsfoot, a bright-yellow wildflower, blooms, anadromous (go to sea for a part of the year) brook trout ascend tidal rivers. Or, when mourning cloak butterflies emerge from hibernation and begin flying about, close to the ground, spring peepers will begin calling within one week.

Sometimes, we humans intuit coming changes, too. I woke up this morning, blinked the sleep from my eyes and listened. It was time for Canada geese to return. I fully expected to hear their noisy honking, high overhead. But no. Silence reigned. No geese, just total quiet.

Forgetting about geese, I opened my email and there was a note from a friend telling me that he had seen a flock of geese in a nearby field. So my instinct was right. The geese just didn’t happen to fly over my house, but they had, indeed, arrived on schedule.

It’s great fun to ascertain these patterns. Try noting when different birds arrive, when various wildflowers bloom and when frogs and insects become evident. Jot down the times of these events and then compare dates of one event to another. The time between arrivals, blooming times and so on may vary by a few days, but never by much more.

To get into this in an even larger way, begin observing the constellations. What happens when the Big Dipper rises to a certain point, as in over that pine tree out back? Certain natural events coincide with the ever-changing patterns in the sky.

Change. It’s something that most of us dislike, some fear and others totally eschew. But in nature, change always was, and remains, ongoing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

First Wild Plants

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The ground has thawed and a few of our hardier, wild edibles have become available. Yep, winter has loosed its grip on us and a new foraging season has begun.

First, I spotted several evening primrose plants. The red-tinted basal rosettes make finding these easy. Another simple trick involves searching to the downwind side of last years dried stalks. When the seed capsules explode, these biennial plants literally cast their seeds to the wind. A hand-held trowel suffices to dig the pink-topped, white root. And believe me, if my garden hadn’t already provided parsnips, evening primrose would certainly grace my table for the next few days.

Next, ice has receded from the banks of my farm pond, allowing access to clumps of cattails and the little, starch-filled sprouts that protrude from the rootstocks. But the thought of wading in ice water and pulling roots from soupy, gray clay gives me chills. All the same, it’s nice to know that these somewhat novel, food products are available.

Finally, although this seems way too early (not complaining, just observing) for them, the green tips of daylilies have risen to a point where, if need be, they could provide one of the first, wild greens of the season.

In truth, I’ll wait a bit before going out and digging or picking anything. Let the plants grow a bit larger. Besides, it’s cold and wet out there. But come the next warm, sunny day, I expect to have my first, wild meal of the season. And that’s an annual event that means a great deal to me.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Parsnips, Carrots and Earthworms

Parsnips, carrots and earthworms. What do these have in common? Well, on February 25, 2010, I dug all three from my vegetable garden. The root crops were no surprise, of course. Covering these with some kind of protective mulch and digging them throughout the winter is a time-honored practice. But finding the ground entirely frost-free in February and loaded with earthworms, no less? Well, that happens but rarely, once in a blue moon.

Here in Waldo, spring arrived almost as early back 1984. I was able to plant peas in a raised bed on a south-facing hillside around the third week of March of that year. That was the earliest that I had ever seen frost-free ground.

Lest the term, “global warming” enter into this, remember that early frost-free dates do occur fairly regularly. One notable, early spring happened in 1775. Minutemen left off plowing on April 19, to take part in the fights at Lexington and Concord. During the running battle back to Boston, British soldiers dropped like flies, from heat exhaustion.

So my best advice is to enjoy the current circumstance, without trying too hard to dissect it. Go out and watch the tender, green tips of daylillies as they emerge from the newly-thawed ground. Pick a few, forest-green lengths of newly-risen chives. And dig those parsnips, carrots and earthworms.