Monthly Archives: October 2010

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A Plague of Locusts

It is rainy and dark as I dash to the house, pushing the door shut against the buffeting wind. No, it is not a dark and stormy night, merely rainy and dark. I flick on the light and see dozens of black forms flattened on the freshly cleaned floors. It is October, and the annual battle has begun.

About an inch and a half long, brownish-green oval leaves from the locust trees insist on covering the dining room and kitchen, encroach on the living room, cozy down in front of the fire and the boldest cheekily dot the way up the stairs. Damp, they plaster themselves to the wood, and firmly resist being swept up. Instead, I stoop and pick them up one by one.

Wiping feet outside the door and again on a mat inside makes little difference. I leave in the morning, floor cleared, and upon return find they have invaded again. The door may have been opened for the cat, or someone dropped something off, and those leaves seized the opportunity to scurry in.

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia are not native to Maine. They have moved up from Southern New England. They are widespread now, however, but primarily in areas where they has been a long history of human habitation.

The ones around my house in Otter Creek are over one hundred years old. They seem startlingly out of place, with their dark twisting branches suggestive of exotic rainforests rather than our homely Maine woods. Even more out of place since they surround my house but not the homes nearby, fifteen or more of them, and they tower above the poplar, ash and apple at neighboring houses.

I was not familiar with their habits when I purchased this house fifteen years ago. I had stretched my finances to the limit, and was counting dollars as I replaced rotten windows and had plumbing for a kitchen sink installed. I bought the house in May, and watched in dismay as the neighbor’s trees burst forth with vivid chartreuse baby leaves, and my locusts remained black, stolid and leafless.

Corkscrew branches of the Black Locust

Corkscrew branches of the Black Locust

Daily I would look up, hoping for signs of life. Then resolutely ignore them and work on fixing stairs and laying floors. With each passing day it became more difficult to forget about them. I began to do addition in my head, tree removal at what? 500 dollars a tree? Probably optimistic. It just was not in the budget.

I counted the trees, cursing them, and wondered what to do without. Sheetrock in the bedroom? A sink in the lavatory? There wasn’t much room for budget cuts. And then, well into June, leaves and cottony white blossoms appeared. I blessed those trees, and thanked them. And finally got to know them. It is not an easy relationship.

In late winter I admire their bare, alien, corkscrew branches dark against the sky. And then I spend spring picking up the speckled snake-like branches littering the lawn. After I have cleared the yard, I am rewarded with magnificent creamy white blossoms, and the hum of bees is lovely and loud.

Black Locust blossoms are loud with the buzz of bees

Black Locust blossoms are loud with the buzz of bees

Followed by browning petals falling and sticking to everything and tracking into the house just like their autumn brothers. But soon green leaves unfurl like mimosa fronds, a delight to watch in the breeze, delicate and fine compared to their cruder companions, maple, oak and ash.

Some small green worms thrive on these leaves, and before long tiny black worm droppings are scattered over my white car. If not removed swiftly, moisture causes them to leave small bloodlike spots all over the surface and even a professional car wash is inadequate to remove these tough stains. Bleach and elbow grease are the only remedies– I park across the street at a neighbor’s. Two months after all our other trees have leafed out, the locust has finally stabilized for the summer. By August I gaze up and admire, pretending to have forgotten the spring struggle of sticky petals and bleach and worm droppings.

This peaceful truce does not last long. September, as other leaves turn autumnal shades of orange and gold, the Acacia gets dull and brown. Long before the maple starts to drop its leaves, the locust leaves fall down in a flurry. They lie on the ground and I step over them into the house, aware they quiescent, waiting. I sense their vast numbers, murmuring to each other. With the October winds they arise, and we battle again. They slip in the door and gain as much territory as they can, I stoop over and pad about the house picking them off one-by-one. By November they will be routed. I will have a few months peace to sit outside in a chair in the snow, a bonfire sending sparks up like fireflies through their beautiful branches. Guests frequently look up and admire our grove of trees, and the spiral shapes seventy feet above us.

“How lucky you are,” they say. Yes, I am. I know that. But I cannot help casting a frowning glance at those giants bending over us. Then I toss one of their limbs into the bonfire.

Otter Creek

My, my, my, maitake

Harvesting from the garden is rewarding. It feels good to store away beets for the winter that we started from seed, then thinned, watered and weeded. And potatoes whose leafy plants we had diligently shoved dirt around in hills and removed endless beetles from. Rewarding, because time and effort yielded a bounty better than any produce the grocery store could offer, and while farmer’s markets might have specimens as healthy as ours, hours of labor and familiarity with each plant add a flavor that cannot be matched.

Our garden is small this year, our root cellar is gone, and I miss the pleasure of knowing we have food stored away to supply our table with home grown vegetables throughout the winter and to share with family and friends.

But without sowing, weeding, hilling, debugging and digging we still have the joy of fall harvest, the guilty pleasure of gathering Maitake mushrooms. While mushroom experts have assured us there are no Maitake on our island, (also known as Grifola frondosa, Hen-of-the-woods and Sheep’s Head) we can assure you there are. Right here in Otter Creek, capital of the world and center of the universe. (We were told the same thing about morels).

What’s that behind that tree?

Chicken-of-the-Woods, frequent companion to Maitake

Chicken-of-the-Woods, frequent companion to Maitake

After a day in the studio a quick walk through the woods is a needed antidote to the glow of LCD and hum of computers. The scent of earth and rustle of dry leaves is reward enough. But when the air becomes crisp and the leaves begin to pile on the ground the Maitake burst forth from their wounded or dying hosts. And, when we are so lucky to find them, we gather the brown clusters and bring them home.

That’s all there is to it, no planting, bending and weeding, hoeing or tending. We just happen upon them as we walk. And yet since we gathered them ourselves they too take on a richness no market-bought mushroom can offer.

We have been sautéing, eating, freezing and sharing. The paella pan does double duty as we shred in mounds of Maitake in olive with some white wine. Maitake are meaty and full-flavored mushrooms. While we do not have a root cellar full of vegetables it is comforting to have a few meals of mushrooms on hand. It is so easy to gather them from the forest floor that I feel guilty to have this yield with so little effort. Oh, to be similarly able to stroll through the woods and gather beets and squash.

This year we found Maitake in several locations here in Maine, and a beautiful rosette in Connecticut. That’s where I grew up, and the woods there must have suited them. Every fall an Italian mushroomer would ask permission to gather from our forest, and my mother gave it to him. I think she enjoyed this annual exchange, describing him waving his hands through the air as she dodged his mushroom knife, and his offers to share the harvest, which she declined. Dad was more adventurous with food, he might have accepted and given them a try.

Dad was a foodie long before the term was prevalent. He brought back Mexican spices and canned enchiladas in the sixties and introduced us to a world of flavors unknown in suburban Connecticut. It was he who baked sour dough bread when he couldn’t find it in a store and created his own salad dressings. He loved to cook and share flavors, and was equally enthusiastic when we would take a turn at the oven or stove. Seated at the head of the table surveying my sisters’ apple crisp or roast beef, my stir-fried shrimp, or our mother’s classic leg of lamb, he would comment on flavor, smile with pleasure, and invariably say, “We eat like kings around here.”

It was Dad who led us to that classic mushroom cluster at the base of an oak in a cemetery in Connecticut, as we celebrated his life and went in procession to bid him farewell with bagpipes and tears and stories.

Tonight we eat those choice Maitake, harvested from near where he has joined Mom. They are sautéed with broccoli, red pepper and rosemary and sweet potato. I survey the table and enjoy the flavors and raise my fork in salute to the man who taught me so many more things than appreciating food, and say, “We eat like kings around here.”

Thanks, Dad.

Read Dad’s obituary here:

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Happy snuggled in Dad's favorite Otter Creek fleece vest.

Happy snuggled in Dad's favorite Otter Creek polar vest

community Otter Creek

Surviving, or Trial by Fire

McKinley and Eden are two villages that have vanished from this Island of ours. They have left merely traces of their existence. Otter Creek has lost its school, its post office and this year the market is closed. And yet the spirit of this little village is strong. It will survive.

Survivors, who are they, what are they, why them and not another?

Several years ago the Christmas tree fell over, with a bit of assistance from Mouchoir the cat. The crystal snowflakes the Man of Few Words brought me from Germany took a direct hit. One was shattered, a broom and dustpan the only way to deal with it. Another lost a few brilliant glass branches, I have them and may super glue it back together some day. The last two are a bit chipped and damaged, but survived enough to go back on the tree.

I now have a ritual, the broken crystal ornaments awaiting glue stay in the triangular Swaroski box, the others I hang with care and appreciation. I loved all the crystal snowflakes before the accident, but since the two I hang are the only ones that survived the tree disaster I cherish them in spite of, or perhaps because, of the chips and nicks.

Is it the near loss that makes me appreciate even more than before? Is it sad to have to almost lose something to increase appreciation?

It was almost three months ago that our house burned to the ground. It was my husband’s house, with all of his belongings. We lived a quarter mile away from each other, met, married, and were together either up there (his house, we called it Music Hill) or down here (my house, on Ben’s Hill). The root cellar was at Music Hill, as was the computer room, exercise space, movie monitor, the pantry and what we called survival food. Airtight containers filled with pasta, grains, dried vegetables, seeds, a wide assortment of basics that would feed us for a year. The fire that destroyed most of his belongings left a smoldering, smelly and charred skeleton but also randomly left areas virtually untouched. The survival food survived. Dried mushrooms and peas were rehydrated and served over gnocchi, one of several meals we have dubbed fire dinners. A chamber pot survived. We lifted a blackened bookcase and our sodden clothing underneath to find a photo album with photos still intact. In it were photos from neighbor Mike Bracy’s funeral when a doe came to pay her respects. This event and its images were remarkable, a curiosity, before. But now that it emerged from the flames when we were sure it was gone, it is priceless.

A fire that consumes one’s home is more than most people have to contend with. Rebuilding is time consuming and involves endless decisions. Just when my husband and I are ready to enjoy our time together biking, traveling and entertaining friends, we instead need to contemplate floor plans, building codes, sinks, windows, electricians, siding–it seems formidably endless. This fire also destroyed some of my husband’s family’s belongings, as his daughter was staying there at the time of the fire. Stress, emotion, uncertainty, the aftershocks of a home fire are as difficult as the fire itself. But like the chamber pot and dried ravioli, we have survived. Dennis’ daughter and family are back in their home rebuilding their lives, and we will rebuild ours. We will cherish the chamber pot, a grandson’s quilt, a pair of candlesticks and a photo album because they withstood the flames and are dearer for it. We almost lost them.

We have a village that will overcome a lack of post office and market. Otter Creek will not be as easily lost in time as Eden and McKinley. From the ashes of our house fire we have made dinners and plan a new energy efficient home. We pick the flowers from the house site for our table and look at them and marvel. They are indeed more special than any other wildflowers. We are surviving trial by fire.

NatureLog:

Wooly caterpillars on the prowl, Monarch Chrysalis turns transparent, a flock of wild turkeys block the road on the way home from work.