Category Archives: Day to day

Bar Harbor community Day to day Maine

Signed, sealed, taped, and delivered…with love

Stuffing a box with old sales flyers.

Stuffing a box with old sales flyers.

I am not good about birthdays, and rather than suffer annual pre-birthday stress about what to get, I simply get a gift when the right thing pops up, no matter what time of year. I had a nice collection for my nephew and his family, but had been neglectful about mailing and needed a carton to hold them. I went to the dump, which is no longer called a dump but the recycle center, and found a promising box in the corrugated cardboard stall. It had been flattened, so I taped it back into a rectangle, and loaded it with the gifts.

When I got to the post office I was going to stuff the box with padding, using discarded paper from the recycle bin, tape it, address it and send it on its way. I was filling the bit of space around the gifts with crumbled newspaper, and a woman stopped to watch. “I’ve seen people scrounge through garbage cans for deposit bottles, but never saw someone raid paper recycle cans before.” This gave me a moment’s pause. I certainly could go buy plastic bubble pack, sold right there at the post office. While frugal, another reason for using paper is not wanting to add to our plastic waste. I was mortified to be compared to a bottle scavenger, but forgot about that as I realized I had forgotten to bring my packing tape.

The post office sells rolls of tape, but it is a little bit of tape for a lot of money–yep, frugal–and I had three big rolls with a lot of tape for a little money back home. Then I saw the partially used roll on the counter.

The postal workers knew nothing about it, and there was no one else in the lobby. It seemed someone, like me, had arrived without tape and bought a roll and used what they needed, leaving the rest for the next person. They had clearly purchased it there, it was the post office standard issue small roll. It was doubtful they would be coming back for it. I happily ran tape across the top of my box, thanking my absent helper. What an unexpected gift. These small presents are treasures far beyond their value. They are a stranger reaching across time to say hello. I have read of people paying the toll for the car behind them, but have never done that, or received that. It seems a sweet gesture, but strikes me as contrived. Leaving the tape was practical, the buyer had no more use for it, and it was in a place that someone needing it would find it, but not being forced from someone who did not need it.

Recycle bins at Bar Harbor postoffice

Recycle bins at Bar Harbor postoffice

I have purchased pump pots for a party, and left them at the hall we used for future renters. Leaving the local fair, we hand our unused ride tickets to children coming in. These are simple, easy, passings-on many people do, and, like my tape at the post office, give great delight to the recipient. They are gifts, no strings attached.

I finished addressing my box as a couple came and shared my counter. The woman had a priority box that did not have self-seal adhesive, and sent her husband to search for some tape. I waved the roll, offering it to her, and said “Look, someone left this for us.”  She kept her eyes on her husband, reached out her hand, took it, and said to him, “I found some,” without acknowledging me.

We connect with people daily. At the post office this morning one woman viewed me as a scavenger and another did not see me at all. But they are unimportant, because someone else left me a gift, so I could send my gifts on, filled with  love, and the kindness of a stranger.

 

Day to day Otter Creek

Celebrating the silly

It is April Fool’s Day and I am coming out of the closet: I love pranks. I have been told they are politically incorrect, can turn our children into vengeful monsters, and are responsible for our high crime rate. They are childish, and I am not a child. And yet I cannot resist playing them with friends whom I know will tolerate me, and I applaud the complex and well-executed gags that others perform.

Flying penguins

Flying penguins

A news program in Australia announced that the country would soon be converting to metric time. The April 1 story described the new system with 100 seconds to the minute, 100 minutes to the hour, and 20-hour days. Furthermore, seconds would become millidays, minutes become centidays, and hours become decidays. One young student recalls being told by his science teacher about this change and how they could go to the post office and get little stickers to place around their watch faces. She was not sure if he had fallen for the joke or if he was trying to fool them.

Pointless, yes, but it is light-hearted, too. Unrelieved earnestness needs a bit of mischief to keep us from getting too serious—silly pranks not mean tricks where someone is hurt or embarrassed. In fact, I have a pretty narrow definition of prank. It can’t be simply slapstick, such as clear packing tape across a doorway. It cannot dash hopes. I would never convince someone that their book was going to be published, or they had won an award, only to disappoint. It needs to be just the opposite, setting up a belief in something disappointing, and then taking away the disappointment. The rush of surprise and relief hopefully ends in laughter.

One year a friend was renovating a building. This included lifting it and digging a basement. The project had already been stalled a few times, and was way behind schedule. I wrapped yellow barrier tape across the front of the building, and created a sign saying artifacts from the Red Paint People had been found during excavation, and all further work was to be stopped until an archeological site survey was completed. My friend arrived at the property and asked the contractor (who was in on it) why nothing was happening. After reading the sign, he went in to make a few calls. His secretary smiled and handed him my April Fool’s card.

The BBC also enjoys foolish April pranks. From a convincing article on spaghetti trees, to flying penguins, and proposed plans to turn Big Ben’s clock face into a digital display, this respected corporation has been making an absurdity seem credible for over fifty years.

Here on Mount Desert Island there was a short-lived April Fool’s Day Party called the wreath police party. Christmas was long past, and it seemed time for the numerous brown wreathes with torn and bedraggled ribbons to be taken down. We decided to add some motivation. We would gather on April Fool’s Eve for a light snack then divide into teams. We had a stack of sticky neon orange tickets and a checklist. I once straddled my girlfriend’s shoulders as I poked a ticket loosely stuck to a broom handle to tack it to a second story wreath. Half an hour later we reconvened for dinner and awards: oldest wreath, biggest wreath, most dangerous, most ticketed, April Fool’s morning dawned with small orange squares brightening the dry and dead wreathes.

April Fool’s mischief need not be elaborate to be effective. One year my daughter and I  switched all the drawers around in the kitchen, and when my husband reached for a fork, he stared at a drawer full of spice jars, his face bewildered as he tried to register what was going on.

Childhood visits to my aunt were enhanced because she lived above Jack’s Smoke Shop.I never even noticed all the cigars and smoking accessories, because a spinning display by the door was crammed with small colorful packages of practical jokes. There was gum that made your mouth black. I got that for my oldest sister. There was the fly in the plastic ice cube. This was a treasure, and I would even put it my own tall lemonade glass, if I couldn’t find a cousin or uncle I hadn’t already slipped it to. These admittedly not very clever gags were all left behind many years ago, but have left a simple joy of play.

April Fool's gloves

April Fool’s gloves

This year’s foolery practically created itself.  When my husband and I were in Quebec a few weekends ago, he lost a pair of gloves. These leather driving gloves had been his favorites for over twenty years. We retraced our steps, searched the car, and revisited places we had gone. No gloves. The morning we left the concierge offered to call the two nightspots we had been to the previous evening, but which had not yet opened. Back at home, I found the gloves while unpacking. A little Photoshop play, and I had a letter from the concierge saying my husband’s property had been found. A banged up and torn envelope has a paper package containing one glove. He will be presented with this at dinner on April Fool’s. The second glove will be in my lap, ready to hand over if the disappointment of getting only one glove seems too great. (Please do not mention to my husband if you see him today)

Humor changes with the social climate. Not many people are amused by the corny hi-jinks of Groucho Marx, the Joker is a villain, and clowns are more commonly portrayed as terrifying rather than funny. We are perhaps too sophisticated for practical jokes. But today, April Fool’s Day, let’s recall the simple childish delight in pure, pointless, absurdity. Whether you are the gullible one, or the prankster, or both, celebrate the silly.

If you fall for a joke, just look your prankster in the eye and say it does not matter, since gullible is not actually a word, and isn’t found in any dictionary.

 

 

 

Acadia National Park community Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Just squidding around

Sydney’s dad shows the soft skin and colors of a squid.

Pale and luminous, the squid drift in a group towards our lures, and then scatter. Their movement is smooth, so different from fish that swim with tail flicks and fins. They slide. Propelled by sucking water and then forcing it out of their body cavity their path is straight and direct, not curving and swaying like a fish. Standing on the pier watching them in the bright lights that shine on the water their silence seems deeper, larger, and more palpable than that of the mackerel that swim nearby.

Catching squid is supposedly easy, but we are not getting any. The lures we bought are heavy, and when we shine our flashlights on them they cast a soft luminous green glow, not unlike the squid itself. The squid come near them, check them out, but are not fooled. We are just so fascinated to see these tentacled creatures stealthily pulsing through the water, always in a pack, that we do not care. We have a picnic: bread and olive oil, sliced cucumbers, molten goat cheese and warm sweet tomatoes from the garden sprinkled with our own sea salt. It is a family outing, and the kids are squid fishing, eating, and chasing each other, while we squid fish and eat. And plot the next squid expedition.

Setting up the picnic to squid by.

A week later we try again, this time going to Northeast Harbor, two inlets over from Otter Creek. We are surprised to see the dock filled with people, and then astounded at the number of milky squid sliding back and forth in the water below. One young boy is pulling a spinning squid through the air, and his dad gently strokes it and unhooks it, then adds it to their bucket.

We have just encountered Sidney, perhaps thirteen years old, a squid whisperer for sure. One family is just leaving, and say they have caught two squid, but that they watched Sydney, who they call Squidney, pull them in as quickly as he can throw his lure back into the water.

We toss out our heavy lures, and again the squid scatter. Sydney casts his small blue lure and draws it across the surface. He snags a squid, the tentacles spin, spraying water, and he pulls it through the air. Again his dad unhooks, and this time shows us the speckled pattern on the squid’s skin. He remarks that some have a deep red color, while others are pale. As he holds it the color changes. The squid is dying, but he is held with reverence, and it does not seem a cruel passage.

Sydney pulls in another squid

Sydney is happy to share his skills, and shows us his lure, much lighter than ours. I toss mine in, and Sydney gives advice on jigging and how to create movement that will attract the squid. He then he tosses his line back in and thirty seconds later pulls up a squid. Young Sydney is unknowingly modest. He believes I, too, could catch buckets of squid if I had that lure. I am skeptical. I will order some, but I think it is more than the lure, it is Sydney’s skill and dexterity.

His dad agrees. He generously tells us where to get that lure, and then says, “We were both fishing, but Sydney kept catching them, not me, so I just help him.“ It is a lovely father-son partnership. They share a respect and love for squid. Sydney sees a baby squid, and begs his dad to let him catch it and keep it in an aquarium so he can study it. But they do not have an aquarium, and so the baby squid is left alone. They both tell us squid habits, and that squid are smart. “After a while in one spot, the squid tell each other to stay away from our lure, it is taking their brothers away.” I believe. Sydney tells me how they swim in one way when content, and another when looking for food. He has observed them and paid attention.

The father cups Sydney’s most recent catch in his hand and shows us how to clean a squid. The entire time he speaks to us he is stroking the squid, and I reach out and run my fingers along the firm smooth flesh. Yes, I feel love.

Squid have ornate patterns on their flesh.

We talk recipes. I am making paella the next night, which is one of the reasons we came to catch squid, and Sydney asks us to please take some of his. We do, and he and his dad know they will be respected. But we are not done. The night is fine, the air calm, and we continue to optimistically toss our clunky lures among the cruising squid, as we watch Sydney pull one after another high through the air.

Then–fast, large, and dark–a wide, fat, seal races into the group of squid. We yank our lures out of the water and a hundred squid explode, shooting two feet above the surface of the water and sending water spray in all directions as they make desperate leaps away from their predator. The light on the erupting water droplets, the shimmer of the colorful skin of the squid–it is finer than Bar Harbor’s Fourth of July fireworks. The seal circles two more times before heading out of the narrow area between the dock and the floats. And the squid return to their calm silent cruising.

We also leave. Sydney’s dad has been suggesting they go home for about half an hour. But the squid are still thick, and as we walk up the ramp to the car we hear Sydney say, “Just one more, please dad?”

Squid tentacles

A squid’s tentacles with a golden glow.

Acadia National Park Day to day Dramatis Personae Maine Vanities Uncategorized

TRUSTY David Trust

Is the ice safe? A reasonable question, since every winter, somewhere, someone goes through. But not David Trust, and not his daughters. David has been an ice fisherman for most of his life, as were his dad and his grandfather. When David’s girls came along, he taught them how to fish, too. Along with being safe, he passed on other rules of ice fishing and of life: keeping your line untangled, being neat, knowing when you can trust the ice.

“We’d be out on the ice, get a flag, and off one of my daughters would go,” David says. “I’d dig one of my buddies in the ribs and say, ‘watch this.’ And we would all look. She concentrated so hard she didn’t know we were following her every move. And sure enough, just like I showed her, she would see if the reel was spinning. If it was, she’d set the hook and bring her fish in, coiling the line into the neatest pile.”

David speaks lovingly of his girls, and the special family times they had out on the ice. “I raised ‘em like boys, but they still turned out like girls,” he says, blue eyes gleaming. “They’re grown now, and they still love to fish.”

But times have changed, and so has the lake. David says that only ten years ago there were kingfishers, redfin shiners, crayfish, polliwogs. The water was brimming with life and vitality, diverse and healthy. Today he says the lake is barren, no forage fish, just bass, some lake trout, some pickerel. “Some asshole brought bass in, they killed everything, they killed the lake,” David says.

And indeed the fish are not there in the numbers they used to be. But this lake is where he learned to fish and where he taught his kids, and so he tries to fish here every winter, making it a family affair. “We have bonfires, hot dogs, hot cocoa,” he says. “It’s all kids, dogs, food and fish. Last time there were six inches of slush, but it didn’t stop anything. The kids were soaked to the bone and still tearing around, racing out to check a flag.”

But for serious fishing, he heads to inland Maine. Out on the ice, on the frozen surface of Green Lake, is his winter home, his winter castle. David’s icehouse, where he spends every minute he can, is 56 square feet of pure luxury. Copper counter tops, Alpine stereo, gimballed stove, weather instrumentation mounted on the roof for wind speed, barometric pressure and humidity. The comfortable dining benches fold out into an equally comfortable bed, and there is a solar panel and 12-volt brass lamps. “Last one I’ll ever build,” he says. And indeed it would be hard to top this one. Fishermen for towns around speak of his icehouse with a mixture of awe and incredulity.

David squints out over the brilliant white surface of the lake. “This is what it’s all about, nothing but fishing, and eating. Then fishing some more and eating some more.” He gets up an hour before sunrise and fishes until dusk. Then he stops. “End of the day, you’re done,” his says with finality.
A pair of eagles flies by, flying close, then parting. David pauses in mid-sentence to follow their flight. Yes, it is the fish that bring him here. But it is not quite as simplistic as fish then eat, fish then eat.

Teaching kids to keep their lines untangled, meticulously crafting a 56-square-foot model of luxury, and the casual acceptance that stopping what you’re doing to watch the eagles play is the proper use of time—this is life on the ice for David Trust. And great life lessons to pass on to his daughters, even though they are girls.

Excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates.

These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.

Bar Harbor Day to day gardening Maine Otter Creek

Pumped Up

Hard body, graceful moves, and a regal profile – this smooth operator has moved right in, and I am right in love. I have just installed the well pump of my dreams.

When my 55-foot well did not supply an adequate amount of water I had a new, very deep, very expensive, well drilled. The old well still had water, so rather than abandon it I put a gray-green, refined and elegant antique pitcher pump on it. I liked the idea of being able to pump water if there was a power outage, and simply to drink from it as I gardened.

It proved to have a few leaks, and did not work when temperatures were below freezing. It went to my sister-in-law’s garden to be an ornament and I purchased a new pitcher pump from a company in Pennsylvania. This one was bright red, squat and a little rough around the edges, but promised to work. It did, but each spring meant replacing the leathers, and the moving parts froze into non-moving parts in just a few years.

I saw an old pump at a yard sale, got excited, then pragmatic. I would just be buying someone else’s problem. A long-handled pump at a local plumbing shop was almost a week’s salary, and not attractive. I could not find a new pump I liked, the old one had become purely decorative. The cobblestone surround I had been working on was left unfinished. “A work in progress,” I would say if anyone asked. It was a work stalled. This limbo lasted several years. I set aside some money in an envelope in my desk drawer labeled “Save the well,” and moved on. I saw the non-working pump on an unfinished stone column daily, but looked away in denial.

Eventually I was ready to cough up the money that had appalled me a few years back. I found a beautiful repro pump, much more lovely than my old pitcher pump, but as I read the details it was not so very different, I would still have leathers, and the chances of it working in the winter were not great. One search, I think it was for perfect pump, listed Bison pumps in Maine. I looked, and it was instant, unconditional love, proof one can find their perfect match online. Not old-fashioned, with no attempts to mimic a traditional pitcher-style, this pump is unabashed function and drop-dead gorgeous. It is also made in Maine, and I like to buy local. Almost triple the cost I had quailed at a few years ago, the Bison seemed like an investment I would not regret. I swallowed, but without hesitation ordered my pump. Ordering from Bison is not an impersonal exchange of credit card number and product. These people cared. They told me how to measure depth and diameter, and counseled the length of pipe I would need. When it arrived in three neat boxes everything was clearly labeled. The instruction book was in simple step-by-step English, and guided us through the installation process.

What pleasure to deal with a company that sees things from the customer’s viewpoint. They must have sent pumps to innocents like myself and asked them exactly what they needed to know to install it. Tags on the parts packages were numbered, and matched the instructions. Connections to be made that looked obvious bore polite warnings, “Please do not do this step before checking that you have completed the previous step.” They knew I was about to skip something important. “Read instructions completely before installing” I was told. A wooden paddle was enclosed to rest the pump on as the rods were lowered into the well casing. It would have been a strenuous task without it and we would have found a way to support the pump, but how nice that they thought of it and gave us the tool. We installed, but it did not pump. Within hours Judy replied and asked us to check the connections on the rods. We had not tightened one of them. We tightened it. It now works flawlessly. I know it will work flawlessly as long I as I am here to pump it. This pump is a spare, elegant piece of engineering. I drink from it every day. I love lifting the handle and pumping a few smooth easy strokes and hearing the rush of fresh well water. My cat leaves the house each morning and jumps on the stone basin below the pump and laps his morning drink. If he hears the pump when I pump water for myself he comes running over for the fresh water splashing into his trough.

This Bison pump satisfies on so many levels. It gives me a fresh water supply without electricity. It is a stainless steel sculpture that is simply stunning. It bears a memory of dealing with people who make a good product, and deal with customers with patience and interest. It was made with pride, and I pump it with pride and pleasure. What a testament to what made in the USA, made in Maine can be.

Day to day Otter Creek

Meals I would never serve to guests

A brief flurry of cupboard doors, bowls are snatched from the fridge, a quick pass over a gas burner and dinner is on the table. It has no name, came from no tried-and-true recipe, and it can never be duplicated. It is rarer than truffles, as uncommon as mare’s milk, yet far less dear. Bare cupboard feast is the name we use for these meals made with no forethought or shopping lists. Prepared without preparation and presented without ceremony they vie with dinners offered by acclaimed restaurants for palate-pleasing flavor.

The unplanned dinner necessitates pairings otherwise viewed skeptically. First glance might not reveal a meal in the random elements in the cupboard and refrigerator, but there is always a combination that will turn into dinner. How fortunate we are that we are never in a position to state, truthfully, that there is nothing to eat. Those evenings when I have not shopped for dinner and have no meal in mind bring out my greatest and most pleasurable skills as a cook. It may be tempting to simply head into town and go to a restaurant, but the challenge of raiding the cupboard is far more satisfying. It is also a gentle reminder of just how much we have.

There is always a variety of pasta. I stock up when at Trader Joe’s, and we are gifted with exotic squid inky linguine or mysterious grains in beautiful packages that we cannot read. Jars of sauces and tapenades are picked up on travels because they looked interesting, but never used because I do not tend to cook with prepared sauces. The freezer usually has a bag or two of mushrooms we have gathered, fish caught, and deer or duck hunted. I suspect I could come up with decent, no, wonderful, dinners for several weeks. And probably feed us, though less pleasingly, for quite a while after that.

Eight pm, we are hungry. I thaw some bass caught by my husband and his grandson, brown it in the herby breadcrumbs left over from topping a layered potato dish and heat the remains of last night’s pasta primavera sauce. Oh, there is that little dish with the seasoned ricotta filling. I stir it into the primavera sauce and slide the browned fish into it. This is topped with some oil-cured olives.

I had cooked too much orzo two nights ago, gauging quantity is not one of my skills. That was warmed and tossed with the olive oil dipping sauce from last night’s bread. The oil, with minced garlic, sage and pepper coated the orzo and served as a bed for the fish. Greens from the garden, a quick mustard-lemon dressing, and dinner was ready. Each bite was a rich burst of disparate, but happy-together flavors. “I wish we could share this,” I say as we eat. But I know unless someone walked through the door right then it would never happen. To recreate this meal I would have to make the ricotta filling, primavera sauce, herbed bread crumbs, and have plenty of bass. This meal will never happen again.

It also only happened because I loathe waste. Leftovers are considered trash food by many. I was once at a dinner and watched as a dozen uneaten jumbo shrimp were scraped into the trash compacter, followed by a plateful of devilled eggs and a bowl of guacamole. “We always make fresh,” my hostess boasted, and “We would never put waste on our gardens, we buy mulch,” she replied when I asked if they had considered composting.

A pantry full of food, however ill-assorted, is not a luxury all are fortunate enough to share. I feel a sense of security when I have drawers and shelves filled with non-perishable food items. Grains, simmer sauces, pickled beets, anchovies, and olives can pair with whatever little dishes of leftover salad dressings or vegetables are in the fridge. While I love menu planning, seeking recipes, shopping, prepping, tasting, and serving, there are usually expectations to be met and guests to please. Making a Bare Cupboard Feast has no pressure. The freedom of creating, and very quickly, is simply fun with no worries. Working with this limited palette in a very short window of time precludes much thought. I think that is its appeal for me. I can spend hours researching recipes, planning a menu, and be knocked for a loop if an essential ingredient is not available and I have to rethink.

The week night scratch meals are created playfully. No time to look things up, I draw on my memory. Like interdisciplinary studies, differing ethnic cooking techniques and flavors meet and work together. The plan is being made as things are pulled off the shelf.

3pm, and we are invited to go boating with friends in an hour. It was suggested we bring a dish. Could dash to town and buy stuff, but there is not really enough time. I had been practicing Bare Cupboard Feasts for about three days, just seeing how far I could go, so the cupboard was really bare. Here it is, and I was asked for the recipe twice.

Bare Cupboard Pasta Salad

Package of trader Joe’s multigrain fuselli with flax
A cup of monkey nuts left from a cocktail party
Last night’s roasted summer squash, eggplant and red pepper
Frozen peas
Garlic (we always have garlic)
Tamari, black bean sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, Zea Salt
Hard-boiled eggs (from lunch)

If you are passing through Otter Creek, stop by some evening. An unplanned guest would be welcome for an unplanned meal!

Day to day

Puttin’ on the dog

The Queen's well-trained attendants pour wine for her guests

The Queen's attendants pour wine for Her guests

Their royal majesties Queen Victoria and Prince Albert graciously hosted a dinner party in the neighboring town of Bar Harbor and we were fortunate enough to be on the guest list. Since commoners are perhaps not appropriate dinner companions for royalty, we were elevated for the evening, and attended as Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker.

I had never heard of Lady Florence, but a few minutes research brought her to life. She lost most of her family in the Hungarian revolution and escaped to a refugee camp with her father when she was four or five. She was taken from the camp by a slave trader and raised to be a harem slave. Sir Samuel Baker, after the death of his first wife, travelled with Maharaja Duleep Singh and saw Florence in a Bulgarian slave market. He was unable to out-bid the Ottoman Pasha, who wanted her, and so he bribed Florence’s attendants to release her, and they fled the country. She traveled with him, at times dressed as a man, at times on a camel, throughout Africa and Asia for the next twenty years. Fluent in five languages, she was his assistant, interpreter, and eventually wife.

Lady Florence Baker

Lady Florence Baker

What a great role to play, and of course dress for. Dress up, fun when six or eight years old, has never lost its appeal. Dress up is very different from dressing up, which is also well worth doing, but dress up usually involves costumes, props, and a bit of acting.

Playing Lady Baker I had a feathered straw hat, crocheted gloves, an ivory fan, soft leather pumps and a mutton-sleeved, high-waisted gown. I also had a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent. While not all at the dinner had put on the dog–an archaic phrase for making a ostentatious display–there were glitzy necklaces, a few tuxedos, shawls and bonnets, lace and velvet. Roles were played, fake British dialects assumed, and we all stepped out of ourselves for a bit. That is the appeal of dress up.

Lord Nelson chats with Florence Nightingale

Lord Nelson chats with Florence Nightingale

In our mundane lives we have, well, lives. Responsibilities, jobs, homes and family are always present. Lady Baker, dead almost one hundred years, on this occasion had nothing to worry about except dinner and her manners. Other guests shed their everyday lives, too. Lady Idina Sackville, a.k.a. a gallery owner, amused the company with her outrageous remarks, Lord Nelson flashed his sword, and the Queen and Prince were amply toasted.

Dress up is not to everyone’s taste, but those who enjoy it invariably end up with an attic full of gowns and accessories, and can pull something together at fairly short notice. A polka dot scarf is a cap for a serving wench, or a sash for a pirate. There are some dressers who specialize in an era or character, but I am happy as a gypsy, a witch, or a lady-in-waiting. There is always a bit of research, and finding appropriate props, language and accessories is educational, or at least I claim that in an attempt to justify my passion for costume. When I am a pirate I practice my talk-like-a-pirate phrases, and when I was a gypsy fortune teller at the local fair ground, I learned a bit of Romany, and walked with a sinuous gait and a jingling belt. Running the trebuchet at a Medieval Fair, I curtsied and Mi-ladied convincingly for hours, and learned the physics of the this large weapon and a fair amount about warfare. Halloween, needless to say, is a favorite day. One year I played an alien, with a throat box that turned my voice into a creepy synthesized inhuman sound. Walking in jerks, each movement robotic, not fluid, I approached young trick-or-treaters asking for help getting back to my planet. Curiosity and suggestions vied with wide-eyed stares and calls to mommy for help.

There are random chances for dress up: I have been asked to tell fortunes at fund-raising seance, have dressed as classic French maid for a friend’s dinner party, and been a mummy at Halloween haunted house. Then there are organized events: SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, hosts many dances, classes, revels and wars, and since their era ranges from 600 to 1600 and is global, there is plenty of opportunity to dress. As a member I have worn a Renaissance swordsman’s outfit, and of course learned to fence. New Year’s Eve and Mardis Gras frequently have masked ball opportunities, and I have gladly donned tux and top hat a la Marlene Dietrich when hostess for a fundraiser.

Great Northern War, SCA, Maine

Great Northern War, SCA, Maine

Is there a dress up gene, or is it acquired? I will beg out of this argument, but present as evidence a photo of myself and my two sisters, dressed as the angels we surely we not. My mother also made me into a miniature Zorro, and one sister into a talking giraffe, with a two-foot tall neck and head, eyes peeking out of holes in the throat. Both my sisters and I wore our father’s navy uniform and his drum corps outfit. With a friend in grade school, we won the clown contest as a two-headed three-legged clown at the 4H fair. We spent a day wandering the fairgrounds perfecting our three-legged stride in a costume my mother made for us.

While we rarely saw our parents do fancy dress my dad would don a wig for his high school reunions and mom was always eager to help bring our costume fantasies to life. It was with great delight that I finally saw my parents dress up to attend my SCA events. They donned the clothes and much to my astonishment played the game. Mom exchanged medieval and ageless household tips, dad chucked axes and showed us all up.

In favor of genes, my sister had a high school job as Mr. Peanut, for Planter’s peanuts, and stood at a traffic circle offering samples and encouraging people to stop in and buy. Following in her footsteps, my niece’s first summer job was dressed as a coffee cup, advertising the coffee shop she worked for. Dress up runs in the family.

Being someone else for a night gives a freedom the everyday does not offer. It was exciting to be Florence Baker, a rescued slave, abolitionist and explorer, and to share tales of my travels to the source of the Nile. The evening eventually draws to an end, but once home I procrastinate taking off the gloves and gown, and washing out the ringlets. The return to reality is hard. After dress up I never want to stop playing my role and go to sleep, because I know when I wake up the world will have moved through space and time and be normal once again.

The fan, feathers and dress go back in the attic, I stop frightening those at the post office as I practice my Hungarian accent, and meekly return to work. But a secret pleasure adds flavor to the day, because no one knows that yesterday I spoke five languages and rode camels.

community Day to day gardening Nature Log Otter Creek

The Rain in Maine

Spring rain can be so constant and so gentle that it becomes a background companion to the day, rather than a threat. A few might be driven inside by the wet, but most go about their business. We do, too. Finishing an after-breakfast stroll along a favorite stream to do some trout-spotting, we encounter another walker. Hair damp we greet each other, and he mops off his glasses to see us better. “Just misting,” he says as we pass, and we share perhaps just a hint of self-satisfaction that we, at least, have not been deterred by the rain.

The rain does not prevent activity, but it does direct it. We leave our bikes in the shed and finally tackle a long-avoided list of chores, recycling the computer, buying cleaning supplies, selecting annuals for hanging baskets and pots, and hauling unwanted clothes to a collection box. These only take a few hours, though, and there is a long afternoon ahead.

The uniform gray of the sky is not only unvarying from horizon to horizon, but seems the same at five pm as it did at noon. The day has a peculiar sense of timelessness. Inside the house the steady beat of rain on the roof calms and the occasional louder ping of a drop against the metal rim of the birdbath proclaims breaks the monotony. Donning rain gear, I go out and pull weeds. They slide out easily from the wet soil. I have this day to myself, and dart from flower bed to flower bed, giddy with the gift of these endless hours. It is too wet to scrape the peeling windowsills, certainly can’t paint the outdoor tables, though they need it, and it would be silly to think of building that grape arbor.

I sing and skip, and belt out a hackneyed version of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” from Lerner and Lowe’s 1958 musical Gigi. “Thank heaven, for rai-neee days,” I shout in a heavy French accent, safe in the knowledge that I am the only one home.

Bags of pine needles that were raked last fall refresh the short path that goes by the Pieris japonica and through the Solomon’s seal. Witch grass is gently coaxed to give up its roots, newly discovered invasions of garlic mustard are eradicated, and plants that are trying to take over other plants are reminded of their place. A twelve-inch circle of Lily of the Valley gets taken out of the lawn and put into a glass planter for the house. It is a day without focus, without time, bouncing from weeding to picking oregano and mint for dinner, to weeding and picking flowers for arrangements in the house. It is a rainy day.

The sound of drops rhythmically hitting the windows, roofs, trees and plants that get in the way of their descent is soft and hushed. This is no storm, there is no wind. The sway of the flowering cherry and the nodding of the forsythia are caused by the rain. Colors are intense. When buying annuals this morning a woman said, “This is my favorite kind of day for getting plants. The true colors of things can be seen.” I had agreed with her.

After hours of gardening in the midst of vibrant green grass, laying neon orange pine needles, and picking luminous creamy Viburnum the truth of that resonates.

Acadia National Park Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Invasion of the garlic mustard

The down side of not taking a weekend away is that all those projects and chores which are conveniently out of sight when we go road tripping stare at us and say “now.” The list for this weekend included framing the new raised beds, raking the leaves under the lilacs, rebuilding the grape arbor, and hopefully tending the two sections of hay-scented fern sod I put in last spring.

This fern sod was ordered and planted before I was prepared to give the sod the moisture it needed to get established. I was sharing a delivery with a friend who wanted them right away, but my outdoor faucet had frozen and split and needed to be soldered. I need to learn to solder. Instead, I spent over a week filling the watering can in the kitchen sink, and sprinkling the two long stretches of sod, one in the front of the house, and one in the back. It required multiple trips, while the newly purchased soaker hoses lay flat and empty. Finally, the faucet was fixed.

A few ferns appeared, but my friend had a tall dense strip of fern along the walkway to her house. My ferns were sparse, and barely survived. I hoped that after a winter of rest they would come forth the following spring healthy and forgetful of my poor nurturing.

This weekend I went to look for signs of life, and there they were—soft green tendrils and delicate miniature fronds. But a towering forest of garlic mustard had invaded their space and appeared ready to overwhelm and obliterate them. The item on my list called tending the ferns turned into eradicating the mustard.

We are so cognizant of rare species and protecting animal and plant populations that the idea of deliberately wiping something out seems wrong. It did feel wrong, but it also felt intensely satisfying. Trowel in hand I created piles of limp garlic mustard. Hours, about four without a rest, left the ferns exposed and a large area cleared around them. After a few backstretches, I let my focus widen. I wish I hadn’t. The lovely but nasty shoots were along the path to the well, and formed a border around the compost pile. I sighed, and using a favorite phrase of my dad’s, girded my loins and tackled them.

The day was devoured by garlic mustard. Black flies were ignored in my weeding frenzy. I was oblivious to everything except plant-by-plant removing the mustard. My watchstrap unsnapped and I unconsciously snapped it back. I felt a sharp sting and acknowledged a red ant bite. The pain did not subside, and I figured he was in the cuff of my garden glove stinging away. I could not be bothered to flick him out. I had mustard to remove. Finally the pain worked its way through my mustard killing mind, and I pulled back the glove to look. I had snapped a piece of my flesh in the watch band, and a white pustule and blood blister were the source of my discomfort, not a red ant. Watch stuffed in pocket, I went on. The towering piles of mustard were shoveled onto a trailer and hauled to our burn pile, as I would not give them the chance to grow in the compost. I then when back for more.

Dinner had been planned; chicken thighs with five-spice powder, jasmine rice, warm arugula salad with cashews and caramelized onions. Around eight thirty pm, when I was beginning to squint to see the mustard shoots, I got dragged away and taken out to dinner. I went to sleep feeling pretty satisfied. I knew I had missed many smaller ones, but would tackle them as they grew.

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we visited my mother-in-law and planned our day–a bike ride of course, and perhaps brunch at the Bar Harbor Inn.

I wanted to try moving some cranesbill geranium from the woodland garden to the area I had cleared of mustard. Cranesbills are one of my favorite plants. It has a sweet scent, is a lovely swath of pink in the spring, covers the ground and does not need weeding, and spreads, but gently. If it spreads too far, it is easy to pull it up, as its root system is shallow. It is a very civilized plant, unlike that mustard. I grabbed my trug, and feeling happy with a hard day’s work behind me went to the other side of the yard to move those cranesbills before biking or brunch.

I rounded the corner humming, approached the garden, and came to a halt. There they were. Not so many, but there they were. Growing in clusters by the Solomon’s Seal, and under the Piers Andromeda, garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, was stretching towards the sun. I asked my husband to go play golf or something, and rolled up my sleeves.

I will not admit they have won, but know that I have not. I will continue to pick them off, but accept they may be part of my life. A friend first identified this plant for me two years ago, shortly after it appeared in our yard. She was the one who warned me how invasive it was. She also mentioned that it is edible. There are recipes for pesto, soup and salad with garlic mustard. Stir-fried garlic mustard with roasted sesame seeds and ginger could be a sweet revenge.

Alliaria petiolata is not going to go away. There is far too much to eliminate. I see it smiling at me from behind the summer bedroom and boldly nodding along the edges of the wood shed. Garlic mustard is an enticing name, however, and the leaves are pungent and tasty.

Perhaps a roadside sign:
U Pick, Garlic mustard, $2.00 per pint. We pay you.

Day to day gardening Maine Otter Creek

Digging in the dirt

French Intensive is not a language class. One of many names for double dug gardens, it is the name I heard most frequently in high school when my Dad and I shared our copies Mother Earth News and Foxfire books. Biodynamic, raised bed, double dug, biointensive—while details may vary, backbreaking dirt digging is a common denominator.

I freely admit it was my idea to try French Intensive gardening. Last year our garden had two successive plantings of beets rot and die as seedlings. The parsnips were skimpy, and instead of eight bushels of potatoes for family and friends, we had just enough to get us to March. Witch grass taunted from between every row and our harvest went from bountiful to adequate. I have been part of this garden for only ten years, but that is long enough to see the decline. I had mentioned my childhood interest in intensive gardening years ago, but the garden was producing, so why change? This year it was time for change.

Three four-by-sixteen raised beds have been created. Digging two feet down may not seem like much, but it feels like taking core samples the hard way. After eight inches of topsoil there was a compact layer that had to be pick-axed through. This hard, almost concrete, layer had deposits of ash from some burn pits possibly eighty years old. After that, loose, rust-colored sand went down twelve inches. It goes deeper, but that was as far as we were going. This was easy shoveling. As we turned it over I was told that my husband’s father dug a trench for a water line from his house to his parent’s, crossing the field we were digging in. It was four feet deep, not our paltry two, and 200 feet long. The story is that not one rock was encountered. Digging into that lovely red granular layer, I believe it. Putting foot to shovel it slid in with no resistance.

The warm brown topsoil on the surface is recent, just two generations. It was built with seaweed, compost and hours of manual labor. A great-great grandfather had sold the original topsoil to the estates in neighboring Seal Harbor, which was not blessed with the rich dark earth of Otter Creek.

Red, gray, brown, white, orange–the colors of these levels are distinct. They do not blend as they transition, but abruptly turn from one substrate to another. It is beautiful to dig a spade through these layers. The colors are an inspiring palette of earth tones. But lovely though the colors are, it is still an intimidating amount of work to make these beds. After eight feet, just half of the first bed, we considered hiring a local do-anything guy to dig for us. It would be an easy out. It was very tempting. But the vision of harvesting our vegetables from a bed we may have planted and tended but did not put sweat and love into deterred us. We made a good but painful choice.

We now know every inch of these beds. We know their colors, and we know their layers. When our vegetables grow, we will know exactly what their roots are in, because we saw it, we touched it, and we have planted our own roots there.