Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Early Coltsfoot Cheers Winter-Weary Tom

It was a beautiful, warm morning today and come noon, I thought to celebrate by driving to the pound for a lobster. Going home on a back road near a tidal river, I spied a splash of yellow on a raw, steep roadside bank. I knew immediately that here, was blooming coltsfoot.

Stopping for a close look, I was pleased to see the bank covered with the dandelion-like, showy yellow blossoms. Coltsfoot is our earliest-blooming wildflower and usually shows up in early- to mid-April. Last year it appeared in mid-March. And in 2013, it bloomed on February 22, 2013.

So just when I was feeling most despondent over another impending snowstorm, these brilliant-yellow flowers cheered me and gave me to understand that while it may snow some more, spring is on the way.

For another sign, a friend from the Belgrade Region wrote me that two days ago, he sighted a pair of turkey vultures. These, too, are unusually early. Turkey vultures follow the retreating snowpack north. Usually, we don’t see these until some time in late March or early April, at the earliest.

So while unsettled weather may obscure the sun, make no mistake: The steady onset of spring has begun and will not retreat. It may stall, but that is of trifling concern. Spring marches forward. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

How To Beat The Winter Doldrums

Today is Friday, Feb. 22 and it’s a sunny, relatively warm day, nice for late winter. But spring still remains a few steps ahead of us. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for coastal Maine beginning Saturday evening and lasting through Sunday.

Of course the storm may change direction, ride out to sea. But probably not. We’ll no doubt get several more snowstorms yet this season. So while we remain locked in winter’s grip, there are several sources of solace. One, something I do each year, requires very little effort.

I refer to the venerable Swedish practice of cutting white birch branchlets and forcing them in a water-filled vase. It helps to flatten the butt ends of the branchlets, or twigs, in order to encourage them to absorb as much water as possible. Keep the vase filled and soon, lime-green leaves will unfurl, a little vignette of what we can expect in just a few, short months.

And then for those who live in places where snow has melted on south-facing banks, we have an opportunity to do some early-season foraging. Some plants, perennials, do just fine under their blanket of winter snow. Two of these, wintergreen and ground ivy, make pleasant, healthful, teas.

So if you know where either of these two plants grew last fall before the snow fell, head out there now and try and find some. Pick the leaves and go back in and make a tea. For wintergreen tea, use lots of wintergreen leaves, since it makes a fairly weak solution. Ground ivy produces a very bitter tea. It’s high in vitamin C, so if, like me, you enjoy bitters, you’ll appreciate ground ivy. The late Euell Gibbons enjoyed both of these refreshing teas.

Finally, if you have a south-facing window, remove your shirt, if practicable, and stand back-to in the sunshine. Then turn around, close your eyes and let the sun shine on your face. Benjamin Franklin made this practice a regular habit. He called it his “tonic bath.” Dr. Franklin may not have known about vitamins from sunshine, but he certainly understood the benefits of regular, limited exposure to the sun.

These are just some of the various ways to beat the winter doldrums and give the heave-ho to cabin fever. And just think, by doing these things, we are in good company, the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Euell Gibbons. I can’t think of two people whom I admire more.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cabin Fever 2013

This winter seems a long one to me, perhaps longer than usual. And though we only had two snowstorms worthy of mention in December and January, February saw a number of lesser storms, plus a major blizzard.

And the usual number of below-zero temperature days has extended well beyond the token six or eight that we usually see on any given year. Add it all up and we have something like an old-fashioned Maine winter.

As a young man, ice fishing was my favorite wintertime activity, along with hunting hares on snowshoes and cross-country skiing, just for fun. But now, these activities no longer hold my interest. It hurts my back to cut holes in the ice and besides that, it no longer seems fun to stand on the ice for hours on end jigging, or watching for flags.

So I’m ready for spring and look forward to the March 20 vernal equinox with great anticipation. And somewhere in the middle of March, I’ll begin my countdown to the opening day of trout fishing in brooks and streams. Thoughts of springtime activities keep me going now and all notion of wintertime pursuits have long ago vanished.

But that’s just me. Other people have far different agendas. Recently, while waiting to speak to an ATV/snowmobile dealer regarding a feature assignment I’m writing for an outdoor magazine, I overheard a telling conversation. It was unusually warm that day and a customer, a snowmobiler, was bemoaning the shrinking snowpack. The man behind the desk commiserated, adding that it was likely to put a big dent in his business.

Both of these people truly had legitimate gripes regarding a possible early arrival of spring. Of course I kept my mouth shut and even though the customer glanced at me, as if waiting for me to at least nod my head in agreement, I declined to comment. After all, my feelings tended toward the opposite direction. “Each to their own,” as the old lady said when she kissed a cow.

And today another snowstorm, complete with driving snow and high winds, keeps me inside, close to the woodstove. The scene outside could well portray a northern Canadian landscape rather than a rural clearing in Midcoast Maine. The nearness of spring does little to assure me that this won’t last. This feeling of hopelessness hits at the same time each year. Some call it “cabin fever.”

Of course nothing this side of a warm, sunny day will dispel the melancholy associated with cabin fever. Going out to dinner helped me briefly. I tire of my own cooking and so asked a friend to a local restaurant yesterday. We both needed to get out. But the mutual high we experienced from being out of our respective houses and around other people vanished within a few hours of returning home.

So now I’m going to lengths to “think spring.” To that end, I searched my photo library for a close-up shot of an English wood hyacinth, a sweet-smelling, dazzling blue flower spike that erupts in early spring. This cheery photo now serves as a background on my computer screen.

Also, I recently was given one of my old jobs back, that of home-and-garden columnist for The Republican Journal and also, the Camden Herald. I wrote this column for a number of years, but in 2008, an out-of-state company bought up the newspaper chain and instead of keeping old-time columnists and employees on, they brought in a new group of workers, their “own people,” as the new editor phrased it.

But that group went bankrupt last year. Luckily, a Maine-based publisher bought the newspaper chain and so many of the old-time writers are back, including me. And now, as not only a writer for the editorial page but also, a garden writer, I can fill my mind with thoughts of gardening, flowers, seed starting, lettuce, vegetable selection and a host of other happy thoughts. This does much to allay the ill effects of cabin fever.

All of these things help, of course. But one thing above all soothes my winter-weary soul. It comes in the form of a realization. Let me explain.

Each year about this time, I tell myself that there’s no way all the snow and ice will melt to the point that we can get out and about by April 1 (which, again, marks the opening day of trout fishing season on brooks and streams). And then lo and behold, April comes and it occurs to me that my fears were unfounded. This has happened for so many years in a row that just knowing the truth of it acts as an anodyne to winter woes.

So whatever winter brings, know that as surely as day follows night, things will change dramatically in one, short month. Take heart, you who yearn for spring. It’s on its way and nothing can stop it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gun Control

Regarding my last blog, Angela wrote: Hi Tom, This was a really interesting piece-thanks for all of the info. It’s nice to get the other side of the story to balance things out. Although I don’t disagree with what you mentioned regarding gun control, it would be great if more gun owners stood up in favor of reasonable gun control. I’m assuming that you don’t feel that there shouldn't be any restrictions? What would you support?

Well, Angela, I do support strict enforcement of existing gun laws. Most certainly, I support greater oversight regarding mentally-ill persons owning or having access to firearms. And in a household where a mentally-ill person lives, I would support measures mandating that anyone else living in that place who owns guns take strict measures to keep guns from the hands of the mentally-disabled individual.

Not to compare people to animals, but I see a connection between those who give disturbed people access to guns and people who keep vicious dogs. Both are responsible for crimes committed, either by with the gun or by the dog. 

If the young man who committed the atrocities in Sandy Hook had been kept away from guns, he still may have done something horrible and probably would have…but it wouldn't have been with guns.

I’d also like to see longer and harsher sentences for those who commit crimes with firearms. With such a great number of repeat offenders, it seems that something has gone awry there. My feeling is if you break into a business or residence and brandish a firearm, you should get the maximum penalty if found guilty, automatically.

The typical slap-on-the-wrist punishment for such offenders does not work. Let’s put teeth into our sentencing.

That’s where I stand. Thanks for asking, Angela. I appreciate you taking time to comment.

Oh, by the way, I mentioned George Smith as being involved with Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM). He has left SAM, but continues as a powerful political mover and has considerable influence Augusta. Also, George writes a blog and his blog highlights lots of upcoming legislation and also, talks about laws that have already come to pass. My mentioning his association with SAM was something of a senior moment. I admit, I was perturbed over the news article about banning smoke from wood-burning stoves. I still am, in fact. With a blizzard raging outside, it's unsettling to think that there are people out there who would ban my woodstove. 


Friday, February 8, 2013

Enough Is Enough

Do good intentions always have good consequences? I don’t think so. It seems that every other day, I hear of some new law or some new proposal, that touches upon my life in a negative way.

Let me point out that I am all for clean air and clean water. In fact, I don’t know anyone who isn’t. But some measures to ensure that our environment are not well-thought-out and in fact, some seem nothing short of dictatorial.

Let’s begin with gasoline. Modern gas contains ethanol, which comes from corn. To make ethanol, corn that would otherwise remain in the food chain gets re-routed to ethanol production. This in turn causes rising fuel prices. Furthermore, the new gas raises havoc with small engines. Everything from outboard motors to rototillers and lawn mowers to chain saws, have a shortened life expectancy. The ethanol rots fuel lines. It also draws water into the gas mix, causing breakdowns.

But now the law says that ever-increasing amounts of ethanol must go into the makeup of gasoline formulas. Need it or not, we are now burdened with it.

Next, we might look at light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs were deemed wasteful, so now people are compelled to switch to the new, mercury-containing curlicue bulbs. I read the two-page instructions on what to do if you break one of these modern marvels. They include opening all doors and windows, cutting out the flooring where the bulb broke and then calling a hazardous waste disposal unit. Do I want these things in my house? Definitely not.

That’s why I bought a lifetime supply of those “awful” incandescent bulbs. Call me greedy and self-serving, but if my old-fashioned light bulb breaks, I can just pick it up…no “hazmat” suit or respirator required, and throw it in the trash.

Then we have lead. As a fisherman and hunter, I use lead. Lead bullets, lead shot, lead sinkers and lead jigs. But now, these are being demonized and phased out.

It began more than 20 years ago when a doctor Kevin Potkvas conducted a study on loon mortality in New England. Over a long period, he acquired numerous loon cadavers. I think that one, perhaps two, of these dead loons had ingested lead fishing tackle. All of them, though, exhibited deep gashes on their backs, consistent with propeller wounds.

But what do environmental groups, including the Audubon Society want to ban? Are they interested in establishing slower speed limits for motorboats on inland waters? No. Instead, they now have a bill before the Maine legislature to ban all lead sinkers and jigs under a certain size. This would affect all Maine waters.

But since loons require many acres of surface area in order to establish a breeding population, they as a consequence, do not inhabit streams and rivers. Loons do not live on trout streams, in other words.

But that makes no difference to Audubon. They want to ban lead period, on lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. This puts fishermen at a decided disadvantage. It also puts trout at a disadvantage, since fish caught on jigs (jigs with lead bodies, I might add), are seldom seriously injured by hooks. Such fish are easily released, unharmed.

But ban these artificial lures and people will have no choice but to resort to natural bait. And when trout take natural bait, their chances of survival after being hooked and released decline greatly.

I have contacted the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine governor Paul LePage and also, George Smith from Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and have asked them all to consider having Audubon amend their bill to allow for continued use of lead sinkers and jigs on brooks and streams, places where there are no loons. Whether my efforts will bring fruit remains to be seen.

Readers may wonder why I haven’t contacted Audubon. I haven’t because in talking with various people connected with them, I see no chance for reason.

As a side issue here, I wonder why environmental zealots don’t address the problem of mercury in what ought to be pristine Maine waters? Did you know that brook trout from Aroostook County, Maine, have a high mercury content? It’s true. The stuff is airborne, coming here from other states to the southwest. But that’s a political issue that won’t be easily won. Far easier to put the heavy boots down on fishermen.

Another lead item concerns non-toxic shot on migratory waterfowl. In heavily-hunted areas such as Merrymeeting Bay, a lead ban may have some small validity…not much, since lead is the next heaviest metal to gold and when it lands on a mud bottom, such as in Merrymeeting Bay, it quickly sinks. Even so, it’s possible that every decade or so, a duck could ingest lead shot.

But the lead shot ban exists everywhere, even on the ocean. When the ban was first imposed, I was guiding duck hunters out on Jericho Bay, a place with deep water and swift, powerful tides. No duck ever born could, even it if it wanted to, swim down to the bottom and pluck up a lead pellet. That is an impossibility. But still, lead shot is prohibited, even there. Even in the Bay of Fundy, where tides run faster than the average person can run, lead shot is banned.

The recent groundswell among the anti-gun crowd in Maine has brought up some interesting, needless proposals. Among them, Democrat lawmakers are proposing that gun owners have special liability insurance. Yes, you read me right. Mandatory, government-imposed insurance. Sound familiar? It’s scary. It scares me.

Also, holders of concealed carry permits would have their information made public. This would enable criminals to target their homes, looking for guns to steal. It just doesn’t make sense. To me, this sounds more like 1930 Germany than 2013 Maine.

And the latest bit of deviltry, that I heard on the news last night and which prompted me to write this blog, has to do with smoke from woodstoves.

The piece highlighted all the bad components of wood smoke. Well, duh, everyone knows that it isn’t good to breathe in smoke…any kind of smoke. But the new momentum has as its basis the simple fact that people can SMELL smoke from other people’s woodstoves. And if you can smell it, one man said, it is hurting you.

I often write about the almost cloying effect that the first whiff of woodsmoke on the air has on me each fall. One particle of woodsmoke per several million isn’t going to hurt me or anyone else. And yet the news story interviewed a man (someone obviously from some place other than Maine) who wants wood burning banned.

“I smell it when I walk my dog,” he said. To that, I made a gesture toward the television screen and quickly turned it off. And I’ll bet anything that this same man, who wants to take away our most renewable source of energy, walks his dog on other people’s property. I bet that in fact, he purposely takes his dog down the road so that it can defecate on someone else’s land. That’s the reason so many people walk their dogs on public places. Is there an irony here? I think so.

Anyway, I’m sure some readers will have different views on topics mentioned here. So be it. But as for me, I’ve had enough. No more. No more.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Prices Way Out Of Line

I think a short note regarding book prices is in order. Several readers have contacted me wondering why my book Foraging New England is listed at an outrageously high price. I appreciate people telling me about that, since I was aware of it.

Anyway, I found out the reason and it is nothing that I have any control over. When books are about to go out of stock or when a new version is about to be released, prices skyrocket. And since I recently revised Foraging New England, and the existing supply of the current version is dwindling, the distributors have jacked the price up to a ludicrously high amount. Why they do his is beyond my ken. 

I would suggest that anyone wanting a good foraging book for New England buy Wild Plants of Maine. Most, if not all, of the plants in that book also grow throughout New England. Of the two books, I like Wild Plants of Maine better.

The reason for that is because of the publisher. Foraging New England is published by Globe Pequot Press, a company I have written for for over 20 years. But GPP is a big, national publisher and as such, has hordes of copy editors, whose job it is to parse, change, delete and in general remove the author’s original wording anywhere possible. These are freelance people who subcontract for the company and their eviscerating of manuscripts is a way for them to justify their existence.

So what people read in a nationally-published book, not just my books but anyone’s, is often a far cry from what the author originally wrote.

On the other hand, Wild Plants of Maine is from a Maine-based publishing house. And except for correcting spelling errors or accidental syntax errors, what you read in WPOM is what I wrote and what I meant. The publisher of this book, Just Write Books, Topsham, Maine, has a care for her authors and listens to them and works with them, not against them.

That, for anyone interested in getting into writing and publishing books, is the difference between national publishers and smaller publishing houses.

Again, I apologize for that ridiculous price spike on Foraging New England. It’s a good book, but not that good.

By the way, I appreciate the nice comments about my cabin fever piece. Take heart...spring is coming.