Category Archives: Listening to the Dew: Nature Log

Camp Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Maine destinations

Fog travel

As night paled the outlines of the trees across the pond became more distinct. It wasn’t sunrise yet, but the dark had yielded. This is camp, where my toes at the foot of the bed are about twenty feet from the water’s edge. It is January, and the water is hard.

As smoothly as the horizon of trees had appeared, it disappeared. A white cottony mist obscured everything but a short stretch of ice in front of the cabin. I knew there was a cove across the pond, but I could not see it. I recall an old Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Brigadoon, where a traveler comes upon a village in Scotland which appears only once every one hundred years. I could not see the cove, and so had no proof it was there. It might have been carried off to join that fabled village, or something entirely different may have replaced it.

The mist became thicker, not moving or swirling, but waiting motionless above the ice.  I put on my creepers and headed out.

My husband joined me, and a few minutes from the camp the only thing visible was the bright fog and each other. Keeping the sun at my left shoulder, we cross the ice. The camp, the ice shacks, and the shoreline were all hidden. The sun was the only indication of direction, and even so it was easy to find ourselves walking first to the left, then to the right. We paused somewhere near the middle of the pond and did sunrise salutations, awkward in our snowsuits. Cobra, with my face lifted to the brighter patch of haze that hid the sun, brought me down to the ice, but the fog went right to the surface. There was no looking below it or over it, or around it. It was everywhere, and everywhere else was gone.

We are alone on the planet. A raven calls but other than that all is still, except for the occasional groaning of the ice. We are not on a pond in Maine, we are nowhere. The fog goes on forever, there is no other side of the pond, and the camp where we started has ceased to exist. We have been here days, perhaps centuries.  There is just white. No time, no space.

Driving along back roads on dark foggy nights we use words like pea soup to describe the intensity of the fog, or, here in Maine, the phrase dungeon thick.  The foghorn wails on those nights. That fog is a dense layer of cloud lying close to the surface of the ground that reduces visibility to a very specific number, less than .62 miles. One tenth of a mile more clarity, and it becomes mist.

Carl Sandburg describes it:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

But that is not this fog. This fog is eternity, and we will be here forever. We walk slowly, we run, it is all the same, we make no progress.

We stand, perhaps somewhere near the middle of the pond and decide to walk back toward the sun. The fog lets us go, and we hear voice shouting, ”Flag!” Stumbling and laughing we run to the tip-up, with its orange square of fabric bouncing gently. We pull up a perch, and head back to camp, a grey silhouette on the shoreline.

 

 

 

Acadia National Park community Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Nature Log Otter Creek

Seeking sunlight, we went looking for caves.

Pitch Pine grove in Otter Creek, Maine

It is the time of year when days are short. During the week it is barely light when I head to work, and usually dark when I head home. Weekends are the chance to get some sun and soak in those warm vitamin D filled rays. There are plenty of reasons to be outside—hunting down and cutting the Christmas tree, stringing lights, gathering mussels, bringing in wood for the stove—but these only give a few hours, if that, of outdoor time.

There are only sixteen short hours of daylight each weekend, weekends that include commitments like family gatherings, indoor construction projects, laundry and other household tasks. This weekend we celebrated Christmas with cousins, aunts, siblings, and in-laws. Otter Creek, where we live, and many at the gathering grew up, was of course a topic. The Tarn, a small pond where people used to skate, fish and iceboat, is filling in. Coyotes, unheard of thirty years ago, boldly sit by the road munching on their kill. Someone mentioned playing in caves were they were little, and wondered if anyone had been there lately. Caves? As we drove home I begged for more information.

 

I knew these would not be caves as most people think of caves—deep, extensive, a place to get lost in or explore. But I have lived in Otter Creek close to half my life, and had not heard about these caves. Sunday, I had already begged, we would get outside for some sun. Now we had a purpose, we were going to find caves.

The modest mountains of Acadia National Park have several caves. Day Mountain is a two-mile walk from our house, and the caves there are deep enough to reach a point where no daylight enters. I would crawl in, and squeeze into the little corner where light did not reach, and crouch with my eyes wide open. I played with touching my nose, and moving my hands towards each other, index fingers pointing, and seeing if I could get them to meet. This is a place I love to share with visitors.

One friend, huddled next to me, said turn on the flashlight. We gazed horrified at the dozens of large black spiders on the roof of our cranny, inches above our hair.

I was ready for some new caves. “How big?” I asked. My husband said he couldn’t really remember, but that they were big enough to fit inside. He said when he was young his grandfather told him he used to go up there with the girls. His grandfather was not specific about what they did, but the implication was they were big enough to get in out of the rain.

Sunday, chores were done or shrugged off. There was sun, glorious sun. It was twenty-one degrees. We got directions from neighbor Clyde, who has spent all his life in the Creek and knows every inch of it.

We headed up the steep hill behind the Otter Creek Hall (formerly the Congregational Church). I had walked back there a few times, and we tap trees in that area for maple syrup. We went beyond that. We followed deer trails to an old  property road, which marked a boundary of David Bracy’s land. David was one of the village settlers. The day was crisp and fine, and I was so happy to have the sun on my face that the search became secondary, as we knew it would.

After a short climb we reached an open ledge, a rocky stretch with twisted pitch pines and Dorr Mountain in the distance. There is a pitch pine grove behind my house, and these small growths are suggestive of Chinese watercolors. There is little underbrush, and the short stunted pines seem to rise out of the granite ledges. Silver grey deer moss covers the rocks. Frost edged a the opening of chipmunk hole, and we saw three more entrances to this little chipmunk community.  A large aspen had extensive beaver teeth marks along the bottom. It was a big tree, and I am not surprised he gave up.

Chipmunk hole surrounded by bits of pine cone

We continued to follow the old road, and there, plunk in the middle of the woods, was a fish shack. “That belonged to Mike Bracy,” my husband said. Around 1970 Acadia National Park employees were instructed to go to Otter Creek and destroy all the villager’s fish shacks. Later, they rebuilt Mike’s shack, and he moved it up into the woods. He was getting old, and no one really understands the logic behind the move, but there it is, a sturdy little building with newspaper insulation. Someone has sprayed a peace symbol on it, and some plastic toys lie abandoned inside the door.

Mike Bracy’s fish shack, moved from the shore to the woods.

Under a hemlock tree we saw the scrapings a buck had made with his hoof, and I was told they almost always marked their territory under an evergreen. I asked why, but did not get an answer.

After an open trail and sloping woodland floor we came upon a tumble of boulders  and ledges. There were overhangs, and some dark crevices, but nothing I would call a cave unless I was ten inches tall. Someone had been up there cutting brush, about two years ago judging by the ages of the cut marks. Several tall spruce were splattered with sap. Something, wasps, parasites, I do not know but welcome a scientist to explain, had wounded the trees and they were producing sap and making spruce gum. Otter Creek spruce gum was once sold in New York markets as chewing gum.

Spruce sap spatters on spruce tree.

The sun was already heading for the mountain that would soon hide it. We passed another hoof pattern in the earth, and sure enough it was under another hemlock. Could it be buck’s mark elsewhere, but it is only in the clear, needle covered space that we notice it?

I have had some sun, and while I did not get to crawl into a spider infested cave, I have learned a little more about the people who came before me in this village of mine, and explored a few hills and ledges I had never seen before.

 

Granite rocks in Otter Creek

A young cave

 

 

Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Nature Log Otter Creek

Mushroom fever


The start of our large autumn harvest

Death by mushroom happens every year, as it has for hundreds of years, but it does not deter me from gathering my favorite edible fungus, Grifola frondosa, sometimes called hen of the woods. Death in mushroom is a newer concept, and one I first heard of at a recent mushroom party. As a gatherer and eater of wild mushrooms, and someone who loves wandering old cemeteries but never wants to be in one, being buried in a mushroom shroud has a purity and simplicity that appeals.

It is mid October, leaf peeper season, and the leaves of the trees are burnt orange with an occasional blast of bright red. Storms have not yet stripped the branches, and photographers gather at choice locations to capture the glory of the Maine autumn. It has been a spectacular and long-lasting fall. This is also maitake season. My husband has joined me foraging, and our first outing yielded a half dozen rosettes of these earthy and flavorful mushrooms. More than once we filled the trunk of the car, and gladly gave them to fellow mushroom lovers. This fall we harvested about a hundred pounds. Other gatherers are collecting massive amounts as well. An abundance of color has coincided with an abundance of maitake several times. Years with few mushrooms have been paired with less than glorious foliage. Coincidence, or do the same weather conditions and temperatures that stimulate vibrant fall leaf colors also promote maitake growth? If there is a scientific connection I would like to know, but not knowing doesn’t dampen my mushroom fever at seeing so many giant fungi, and I cannot stop gathering them.

The color of old oak leaves and dead pine needles maitake often blend into the forest floor. It is their height and rose blossom shape that I spot.

In late September we drove along a dirt road though an old forest. ”Stop,’” I called. It was the first spotting of the season. Three large clumps of maitake rose above the ground cover of damp oak leaves, but they were blackened and gelatinous. They would grace no one’s table. Maitake have a firm slightly toothy texture when cooked, and retain their shape and size, not diminishing the way commercial white mushrooms do. Their flavor is deep and full, earthy and buttery. We have found them in other months, but it is late September and early October when we hunt them seriously. Fall is also prime time for many other mushrooms in Maine—hedgehogs, black trumpets, or a second fruiting of chanterelles. It is also the season for Laeitoporus sulphureus, or chicken of the woods, and we have harvested a good year’s supply from the stump of a two hundred year old ash tree just cut down at my husband’s family camp. These bright orange mushrooms are meaty, do not have much water content and when cooked are very like chicken in texture. Delicious, but it is maitake that capture my soul.

 

Varying shades of brown, the maitake mushroom resembles a giant dried rose with velvety petals curving away from a hidden center.

There are a few locations we check annually, and some produce year after year. Harvests vary widely, though. Last year we had perhaps five pounds, all were eaten or shared, and none saved for the winter. Next year may be equally slim. And so it was that this year’s bounty was greedily collected. We ate maitake in omelets and we added it to soup and stews. We sautéed it with bacon and added cream and rosemary for a pasta sauce. We had maitake and Swiss cheese quesadillas. My husband went off on a fishing trip, and I looked at the close to hundred pounds of fresh maitake on the table in the backyard. It was the first time I ever gazed at these delicious monsters with dismay. They might still be fine in a few days when he returned to help process them, but they might not, and to pick them and not use them was not an option.

A few phone calls and the mushroom party was on. The model is as old as community. I had mushrooms, and I needed help. The friends who came took away half of what they bagged, we had plenty for our winter supply, and in a few hours the table buried in mushrooms was bare. It is a simple formula to share a harvest, and share an evening. We covered the dining room table in paper and everyone took a pile of mushroom, a soft brush to clean off dirt, and a knife to cut away any spongy or questionable areas. Wine was poured; local feta, seedy crackers, and red pepper quiche were consumed.

Alexandra, Tammy and Marilyn clean mushrooms, there was plenty for everyone.

This was a hen gathering, quite appropriate for hen of the woods. There is freedom in a gathering of all women, laughter flows and hands never stop working. We exchanged information. “Where does one find all these mushrooms?” Tammy asked. While it was indeed a shame I had to pretend I had forgotten exactly where we found them, I could at least offer advice–they are most commonly found at the base of older oaks, usually trees with signs of damage such as a dead limb or lightening strike.

Maitake still life by Tammy Packie

We all had suggestions for preparing them, but conversation rambled down many other roads. I had passed a four-foot tall houseplant in a garish plastic Italianate urn to Marilyn, one of my mushroom-cleaning friends. I had been slowly killing the plant, but the urn was un-killable, and I could not just throw them out. “Flourishing,” she reassured me, “The dead leaves are all gone, and it is healthy and thriving.” “Still in that baroque pot? I asked. “Er, no,” she replied. “Does anyone want it?” she asked all us around the table. There were no takers, and suggestions of gold spray paint, theatre groups, Halloween décor, and anonymously gifting to a problematic landlord were offered. The conversation veered to cremation urns, which this unfortunate plastic pot resembled, and right back to mushrooms. We were, after all, sitting with one hundred dwindling pounds of mushrooms in front of us.

mushroom

Maitake rose, by Tammy Packie

Forget urns or coffins–be buried in a corpse-consuming mushroom suit. Mushroom shrouds–I had never heard of them, but am right on board. Marilyn’s daughter told us about them, and it is a simply brilliant idea.

Jae Rhim Lee, visual artist and human-environment researcher, has founded the Infinity Death Project. The project includes a fungi-laced shroud as well as exploring cultural aspects of death denial.

From DEAF Expo, Rotterdam 2012: The Mushroom Death Suit consists of a base layer of cotton and a top layer of netting embedded with mushroom spores and mycelium, which allows the fungi to grow and spread across the body. The ‘Alternative Embalming Fluid’, liquid spore slurry that allows spores to develop and grow inside the body, accompanies the suit. Lee is training fungi to consume her own body tissue and excretions (skin, hair, nails, blood, bone, fat, tears, urine, feces and sweat) as part of her Infinity Burial Project.

Lee was asked in an interview, “How does one train a mushroom?”
Her answer: “Although the mushrooms I’m using prefer wood-based food sources, mushrooms will pretty much eat anything. The training process involves introducing different food sources to the mushrooms and then slowly depriving the mushrooms of wood-based substances. One mycologist has even trained mushrooms to eat plastics like Bakelite. “

The stylish mushroom suit

Before learning about the mushroom suit I had requested my family donate my body to science to have eyes, heart, kidney, every usable organ used, and then let some pre-med student practice on the rest. I have held firm to this for decades. My mind was changed at the mushroom party. My organs will still be donated, but the premed student loses out. A consumer of mushrooms, being consumed by them has a sense of circular completion. I will eat maitake, chanterelles, morels, trumpets, whatever fungi is in season, with even more relish, knowing that as they sustain and give me pleasure now, I will be one day feeding them.

Mushroom party is over, but we took away an evening full of laughter, boxes full of maitake, and a plans for a new wardrobe addition–the mushroom death suit.


Note:
If you gather from private property, please ask permission first. Lucky us, one of our sources is a neighbor who shudders at the thought of eating fungus. Oaks are frequently found near cemeteries, but my advice is to not gather in an area that systemic pesticides just might, maybe have been used. I would also never harvest from a tree close to a golf course. Those greens are pristine and beautifully maintained but mycelia draw from a fairly large area. It is possible that maitake do not pull nutrients beyond their host tree, but I am not taking that chance. Scientists, please tell me if you know, I have seen some lovely specimens at the edge of a golf course I just walked away from. (And lived to tell).