Looked at any leaf litter lately?

It was a warm day for November, 51°F, and ants come out of dormancy when it gets warm. They need sustained warmth to become active again, and a few hours weren’t really enough, but it was a glorious day so why not go poking around looking for ants? I was taking an ant class, and newly armed with ant ID knowledge I wanted to test it out. But live ants will have to wait, I did not see one–all my ants must have been sound asleep. The leaf litter was alive, though, with moving, jumping, and gleaming things.

I walked through dried leaves on the trail, listening in delight as they rustled and crunched. Looking up, most trees had lost their leaves. There were the golden brown leaves of beech and oak, which persist into winter, and the occasional lemon-yellow foliage of a maple that did not want to give up. But I wanted to see the little stuff, so I dropped to my knees. A fuzzy white cocoon, 4mm in length, was lying in the curve of a crumbled bit of no longer identifiable leaf. Its form was perfectly elliptical, it gleamed clean and bright. Moth? I wish I knew, but I wish I knew a lot of things. A nearby leaf had been artfully skeletonized. The shape and direction of veins suggested a Maianthemum, a Canada mayflower. So much to see, and I had not even started to look.

cocoon in leaf litter

Sweeping the dry leaves off the soil I saw one or two quick-moving creatures run for cover. Too fast for me, I noted their glossy black beetle-like forms and let them go. Instead I leaned down to the exposed earth and inhaled. I never had a favorite rock star, but suddenly understood “swoon-worthy.” The rich, moist, peaty scent rocked me back on my heels with closed eyes. Finally I opened them and put my nose to the ground and my hand lens to my eye. Light was reflecting off a small coil. I rolled it onto my hand, and watched the coil unwind into a millipede and wander my palm. It eventually climbed down the side of my hand and back home. These common arthropods often curl up to avoid danger. This one uncurled instead, letting me see its coordinated prancing legs, not a thousand as its name might imply, but up to two hundred, and more than I could count. Along this gentle creature’s sides are two rows of ozopores, the openings to glands which produce a defensive odor consisting of cyanide, hydrochloric acid, and other irritating chemicals. It is enough to keep away a hungry toad, but not harmful to humans. Another very cool millipede fact is that they, (specifically an ancestor called Pneumodesmus newmani,) have been around 420 million years, and while there is a bit of argument, they were probably the very first animal to step foot, well, hundreds of feet, onto land. I sent a photo to an expert at the Field Museum in Chicago, and they ID’d this as the blunt-tailed snake millipede, Cylindroiulus punctatus. 

Gentle millipede finds the way home.

Not far away, under the litter in some loose decomposing wood, were a half dozen white spherical eggs, and several coiled snails. There were two very distinct snail types, both about 1.5mm long. One was flattened and a golden yellow color, the other was shaped like a whelk, with a pointy top and brown and maroon coloring. Having never tried to ID snails I did not realize it would be so much more difficult than the millipede. Will someone please create a guide to terrestrial gastropods of Maine? Gastropod is from the Greek words gaster and podos, belly and foot. Several months ago in a New York second-hand bookstore I felt compelled to pick up a 1939 copy of the illustrated Fieldbook of Illinois Land Snails by Frank Collins Baker. Even if it is not terribly useful for Maine snails, the guide, with its clear introduction to gastropod morphology and life cycles and meticulous line drawings, is now at the top of my teetering bedside book pile. The UMaine fact sheet on slugs and snails is primarily about how to eradicate them, not at all what I was looking for, but at least informs that we have about 90 species here. I am now finding references to a guide without images, and will hunt that down after I am done hunting through leaf litter. iNat suggests family Pristilomatidae, but there are no known observations in Maine. The snail hunt goes on.

I brought the yellowish one home for a visit, and placed it under my microscope. The snail remained stationary and I was examining its pale, slightly translucent shell and shadowy occupant when an even smaller animal ambled along. This was a soft-bodied mite, and I had seen at least a half dozen out in the litter, some red, some brown, some black. In the subclass Acari, the one with the snail was tentatively keyed to the genus Oribotritia. I had watched one in the field as it slowly excreted dark frass. I will now recognize this mite scat, which came out with undulations like soft serve ice cream, whenever I encounter it.

yellow snail

There were so many fragments of life in the soil. An entire discarded larval case, and many smaller bits and pieces of exuvia. A rather large (comparatively speaking, it was maybe a mammoth 8mm) chunk of compacted soil began to tremble and then before my astonished eyes seemed to grow legs, shake off soil, and reveal itself as a leafhopper larva, Agallia sp. I brought it home, photographed it, then took it back before looking it up. I can confirm that it hopped, it did several times, right out of the petri dish in fact, but it seemed to walk in a straight line, and the literature says they move sideways. 

leafhopper larva

You probably have leaf litter near you, so crouch down and take a look at all the life. This life feeds birds, and eventually feeds us. If you do not want leaf litter in your yard, drag it into a compost pile. The thousands of living creatures may get a bit tumbled, but will go on. Burning it will just create a massive smoke cloud, and certain death to thousands of harmless beings. So much life is overwintering in the leaf litter, patiently awaiting the return of spring, which will also wake up my sleepy ants. Then I can pick up a groggily awakening ant, and finally sharpen my ant ID skills.

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The not-insignificant barnacle

Do you look up when you walk, like my hiking pal who is always on the watch for a bird, or towards the ground as I do, scanning for crawling things, tiny growing things, and perhaps, when near the sea, barnacles?

Marin and Jaime, two barnacles I befriended, Jaime is the smaller one.

Barnacles are easy to find, unlike giant silk moth cocoons, or a frozen wood frog in leaf litter, which I am always hopeful of discovering. There was a time I cursed barnacles. I had, in a burst of exuberance, leaped into the sea from a rocky ledge. I did have the foresight to make sure I would be able to climb back out onto the rocks but failed to take note of all the barnacles on those rocks. Thin red scratches across the front of my thighs and the inside of my upper arms getting sprayed with salty water was a painful lesson about the power of barnacles. Seemingly innocuous, they should not be ignored.

These days I lie on my belly, although not on barnacle-encrusted rock, to peer into tide pools and watch the mesmerizing way barnacles feed. They have hard, calcareous plates which form the operculum. Like the operculum of a snail, this can close tightly, which is very helpful for retaining moisture when the barnacles are left high and dry at low tide. But when they are underwater, these open and close, allowing six pairs of feathery cirri to rhythmically unfurl and re-curl, coming in and out of their volcano-shaped shelter. There are six types and patterns of this unfurling, and since I no longer take barnacles for granted I watch to see these patterns. Charles Darwin went far deeper with his barnacle obsession, writing about them on a daily basis for eight years from 1846 to 1854. He even named a barnacle, a burrowing barnacle he discovered while aboard the HMS Beagle. (For an informative and entertaining account of Darwin and barnacles, read Sam Kean’s article Darwin’s Barnacles.

Barnacle sketch from Maine Master Naturalist Program assignment

Darwin named his barnacle “Mr. Arthrobalanus.” Having a rock with unique and individual barnacles I look at daily I can understand the temptation to name them. Barnacles are hermaphrodites, containing both male and female sex organs, so gender-neutral names are in order. On my rock little Jaime is pressed tightly against a much larger barnacle, Marin. I know when they return to the shore if Jaime avoids being eaten by a whelk or seastar it will outlive Marin. Whoever lives longer, neither Jaime nor Marin will care that they had names.

Rock barnacles, Maine

The common rock barnacles in Maine, Semibalanus balanoides live up to eight years, but they are rarely larger than half an inch. I eye the larger ones and contemplate dining on them, but they are just too small. I save that treat for visiting the Azores, where barnacles can grow up to two or two-and-a-half inches. My husband and I ate them on a visit to Terceira in 2016, where they were served with a nail for prying out the edible portion. A return visit in 2022 found them still on the menu, and still served with a nail. 

Darwin spent eight years studying barnacles, I have maybe a month in. I  do not want to spend eight years topping my aquarium with fresh salt water and exchanging strong, wide Marin for an unknown barnacle. I just want to revel in the joy I have learning about them, and bore my friends with barnacle facts. When a mother barnacle releases her young to the sea, they are called nauplii. They are self-propelled larvae and can travel as far as ten kilometers. They molt numerous times, eventually metamorphosing into a cyprid. This is the last stage at which a barnacle can roam. It no longer eats, and simply searches for a forever home. Once it finds it, usually near other barnacles, it plants its head on the rock, secretes a brown glue to hold it there, and builds a dome-shaped home of six stationary plates, and four to form the operculum.

The glue is so strong that when the animal dies, the base shell is still glued to the rock. Yes, this is being studied, we could probably use this glue.

The barnacle will never move from that spot again. But adventure is not over. Barnacles are cemented close to other barnacles, and this is so they can reproduce. Every barnacle has both eggs, and a penis. The penis is up to eight times the length of the barnacle and has a tip that can taste and smell, and poke into the cases of neighboring barnacles to find ripe eggs. When it finds them, it sends in sperm to fertilize them, then discards its penis–it can grow a new one.

Page from Azores travel journal with barnacles.

The fertilized eggs are kept safe in the hard-plated home the barnacle has made until it is time to send them forth on their own adventures.

Thirty-odd years ago barnacles drew attention to themselves by scraping my skin, and it took that long to circle back and get to know them a little. Actually, to become a bit obsessed. I just ordered Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough by Rebecca Stott. Not sure I am ready for Darwin’s monographs recording eight years of barnacle observations.

Next time you are in barnacle country, take the time to crouch down and look. Can you see the operculum? Can you see the tiny ones and the old ones? I have yet to see nauplii and cyprids, except on the internet. But I have a microscope and time, and cannot think of a better way to spend the day.

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Embracing single digits

Grouse are cool!

COLD SNAP! People love to talk about the weather, and news of record-breaking frigid air coming from Canada has thankfully pushed politics aside. Unlike the recent ice, wind, and multiple days without power, the much-talked-about cold snap has created a frenzy that is almost like joy as people vibrate with anticipation. There were no long lines at the market, the battery shelves remained stocked. I easily found a parking space at Hannaford. Power outages may be a threat, but not many are talking about it, and I do not want to either.

Cold, without wind and wet, is just, well, COLD. You inhale and your nostril hairs freeze. It feels crisp, I rather like it. You can prepare for power outages in many ways, cold, not really. Our Maine cold, while it can be life-threatening for some, can also be an invitation to explore. I have never turned that invite down.

Along with cold we have snow. Maybe not a lot, but it is white ground cover and one of many reasons I will never move to Florida. It is also the best animal tracking I have seen in several years. It looks like Grand Central Station out there. So many visitors have left their tracks. 

Two days of frigid cold, it is dry, and tracks are clear. I bundle up in my vintage one-piece snow suit (do not understand why everyone does not have one, available on eBay, less than $30.00  US and you will be invincible!) and spend a few hours in the sun and snow, and  3ªF temp.

I will follow most tracks for a bit, but love to follow otter tracks. I sometimes see otters, but that is just a bonus. I like it when they bounce after me and seem to want to play, but feel a bit intrusive when they chatter and hiss. Today in single-digit temps I did not see otter, but what a medley of activity. In less than an hour of walking, I saw tracks of vole, mice, coyote, deer, grouse, crow, squirrel, grouse, and maybe a red fox. The grouse wandered off trail to leave scat. It was a peaceful walk, no blood, no sign of predation and death, though that is just part of the cycle.

Sometimes these signs can be hard to interpret.If you want info on what the tracks you see are, many area non-profits generously offer workshops. Go to one, meet cool people, and embrace the cold. Stay in and stay warm, or, bundle up, and get outside. Be smart and safe, and a world of wonder is waiting. Listen to the crunch of your feet in the snow, how cool is that! No electric power is terrifying. Cold is natural, not to be feared, but to be loved. 

I look behind and see only one set of prints where once there were two. I lived with a fellow cold-lover for decades. But I am not alone, he has not left me. Energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Dennis’ energy surrounds every step I take. Happy Birthday, D! I made parsnips tonight for you. Love, always.

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Snow and Ashes: Releasing Dennis

man holding firewood
Bringing in wood at camp

The other three seasons are fine, but winter was our playground. It sparkled, we sparkled, we could not get enough and it always ended too soon. If we were not together at first snow, Dennis would call me at work, or I would try him on his phone. We always shared the excitement of those first flurries, however modest they were, and often celebrated with a bonfire. We would watch the snow drift down and catch the occasional flake. We wondered if we knew who it was, as each snowflake has a bit of organic material at its core and could be anything, anyone.

Winter brought us alive, so we never fully understood how cold and snow brought things to a halt for so many folks. We were heading to an animal tracking workshop outside Bangor one Saturday morning. I glanced at the temperature on the car display and noticed it had gone from thirteen to fifteen. I remarked about things heating up when Dennis pointed out the minus dash in front of those numbers. We arrived at the nature preserve around the same time we got the notice that that program was canceled because it was too cold. We hiked around pretending to lead the class, but then wandered back home and discovered the Waldo Pierce Reading Room and Library along the way. We had passed the sign for it many times, but this time stopped in and are now Waldo Pierce fans. Waldo was born in Bangor, and a was flamboyant  painter of scenes with steamy color, and the perfect character to meet on that cold and blustery day. As often happens, our adventure was not the one we had expected.

Out in the snow

Winter lovers need winter gear, and we both wore warm and soft fur hats. I bought Dennis his signature badger hat in Quebec City, scene of many a winter getaway. It has now been passed to his grandson, and a companion fur hat went to his grandson’s wife. The day before Thanksgiving they wore them to Long Pond, where Dennis had taught kids, grandkids, and me to fish. We all released ashes where Dennis released too many fish to count. Full circle, he is there forever, where his great-grandchildren will learn to fish, too.

Grandson and great-grandchildren where Dennis taught so many to fish.

We had many winter adventures at Dennis’ family camp, sometimes with grandchildren, sometimes without. The colder, icier, and snowier the better. One particularly windy and frigid weekend made ice fishing a challenge. The holes we had drilled kept filling in as fast as we cleared them, even with lean-tos of shingles acting as a windbreak. We headed into the cabin. Stew on the woodstove and curling up on the couch with an old quilt was another way to enjoy winter. Outside all was dark, no other cabins or homes were close enough to see their light. The temperature was -21ªF, and the wind rattled windows in the simple building Dennis’ dad had built. We slept, taking turns to throw a stick in the stove, but warm as toast once we jumped back under the mounds of blankets we had piled on. Sometime, who knows maybe two or three am, I heard Dennis struggling to get into his snowsuit. I protested, saying there was no need to go out, we had  a chamber pot. He ignored me and searched for the zipper. I assured him it didn’t matter, whatever  he had to do, just do not go outside! I got up and tried to pull him back to bed. He looked at me and said. “I started the car before dinner, and then forgot all about it.” That was our lifeline back to the world. I let him go. He returned, said there was still gas in the car, and a really long icicle coming from the exhaust pipe. 

Snow was always worth exploring

This year first snow in Otter Creek happened while I was in the Azores. At first I felt disbelief, thinking I had to be there. But Dennis had died of a rare disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, PSP, almost a year ago. He wasn’t going to call me, and we weren’t going to share first snow. The last morning on Teirceira, the island we had visited together a few years ago, I walked to the public swimming spot not far from the hotel. Someone was leaning against a basket, fishing from the pier. The waves were a bit rough and frothy. I pulled out a small wooden urn and reached out to let the ashes swirl into the water below. They danced down towards the water and I leaned out to watch. A sudden updraft brought the ashes back up and into my face in an instant. I pulled away. They were on my cheeks and my black shirt was covered in white. I brushed the flakes off and laughed. We had our first snow afterall.

Across the ice and into the twilight

Energy can not be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one form to another.” Attributed to Émilie du Châtelet.

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Auction Fever and Shared Memories: Releasing Dennis

man fishes frm stone wall
This man would fish anywhere

I am here and Dennis is not.

Right after I typed this I leaned back and my eyes went to the large orange Club dutch oven above the stove. KA-BAM! This was a phrase he used with such enthusiasm it sometimes made me jump. Suddenly he was at my side.

Some years ago we were planning a Christmas feast in our new house, expecting 30+ friends and family, and none of our pots were big enough for the deer meat sauerbraten that was the main event. I said, “let’s look on eBay!” and leaned over him at his computer to pull up the auction site. This was a new world for Dennis. We found a 10-quart dutch oven in a perfect fiery orange-red to sit beside our yellow and turquoise roasters, creating a graduated row of pots like Russian nesting dolls.

I do not know if everyone gets auction fever, but having more than once won a bid on something I immediately regretted, I have learned to enjoy the auction high, but set a price before-hand that I do not exceed. Well, not by much. I explained auction fever to Dennis, and how we had to decide what we were willing to spend, and then stop bidding at that point.

We logged in. The auction was ending in an hour, there had not been much action, and we placed our $20.00 bid. Most of the six bidders soon dropped out, and it quickly became just two, “CenturyCool,” and us. When there were ten minutes left we were ten dollars above our max. I had let Dennis’ last “raise bid” slide. “Time to stop!” I said. But I saw that gleam. I knew it well. Watch out, eBay! He grabbed me and pulled me onto his lap in the big leather swivel desk chair. I squirmed but became riveted on the screen. 

Adrenalin began to flow. Dennis held the cursor over the “increase your bid” button, ready to beat any counter bid from CenturyCool. I would have stopped, but became wrapped up in Dennis’ single-minded determination to get that pot. We did. Dennis was unstoppable, and pretty quick with the cursor for a beginner.

We paid three times what we had planned. But we were jubilant, flushed with victory, and had no regrets. We have used that pot many times, and each time Dennis would say, “Aren’t you glad we got it?” And yes, I was. 

The auction prize is on the right

When Dennis died on November 29, 2021, so too did Dennis and Karen, a pretty awesome couple. I have been releasing Dennis’ ashes for the past six months, traveling to places we had gone together. I carry the brochures with his obituary, photos, and quotes which we had at his service. Sometimes I am alone, sometimes I meet people, and sometimes I am joined by someone who wants to be there with me. I welcome those who want to see his ashes drift off, but also have no sense of need, and do not want anyone to feel obligated to do this. I am adding new memories to shared memories, and find this helps as I tiptoe into life without Dennis.

He is now, besides everywhere, in the raspberry patch he tended so lovingly. He is drifting down the Narraguagus River, and heading upstream with alewives in Damariscotta. His ashes are on the gravelly beach at Pemaquid where we each scooped up sand for our wedding ceremony. We mingled his quickly gathered grains, with my tiny, inspected and chosen, bits of sand. We loved sunrises, and a pumpkin-yellow October sunrise saw him gently blowing off Otter Cliffs. Soon ashes will be released in a village on Terceira in the Azores where he talked fish with local fishermen until I dragged him away to our waiting table to eat barnacles. There will be traces of Dennis on Squaw Mountain, now Big Moose Mountain, where long before I met him he was a fierce and crazy glade skier. He tried to make a skier of me, but knew we shared other things, and we did not need to spend any more time with him dusting the snow off my suit. 

Dennis is on a golf course, silver-gray flecks buried deep in the grass. I was not sure of protocol so slipped in at dusk and crept to a hole where he once made a winning and challenging putt for his team. I did not golf with him either, but for years I would bike 20 miles every Wednesday in season to meet him in Southwest Harbor at The Causeway Club. He golfed there, as well as at Northeast Harbor where he once watched a bullfrog eat a chickadee, and wanted to stop it but chose to not interfere. There were so many reasons to love this man. His detailed description of the scene was vivid, the bullfrog gripping the tail of the bird, and pushing its head under the water of the stream, the bird’s frantic calls, the silence when it drowned, and the leisurely consumption of the chickadee by the frog. Dennis was a master storyteller. I still feel as though I watched this scene unfold myself, but I only know it from Dennis sharing it with me.

We shared stories, and awe of the world. Winter was a time for getting out and exploring, not huddling in a house. Nearby Jordan Pond channeled arctic weather and was a favorite spot for donning suits and goggles and feeling the exhilaration of single digits and snowdrifts. One time, along the edge of Jordan, we saw some slightly blown-over tracks from a snowshoe hare. We followed through the brush, because we loved following tracks. The wind was hurling frozen chips of snow at our faces. Then, ten feet in front of us was the hare itself, nipping on some alder and unaware of us. We stopped in unison and, motionless, watched this animal with no suit or goggles calmly eating its meal. 

man and woman in blizzard wearing goggles
Dressed for Jordan Pond

So many shared memories. I walk that path at Jordan and recall the day we saw a hare in a storm. My sunrise walks remind me of those Dennis and I shared. The orange dutch oven high on a shelf brings back Dennis’ first eBay auction.

Now I am alone, retracing steps, reliving stories, remaking life. Dennis is not here—but he is everywhere.

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On the Narraguagus: Releasing Dennis

Dennis on his rock

THE RIVER IN CHERRYFIELD was lined with fishermen, their fly rods sending tight loops over the water. Atlantic Salmon returned here every year, and the Narraguagus River attracted anglers from around the world. The fish that were caught were killed. That was in the 1960s and ’70s.

Not long ago I returned to Cherryfield, walking along the river’s edge looking for the location of Academy Pool. My husband, Dennis, had pointed it out on one of our many weekend getaways to that village, but as I peered through a dense thicket of briars and alder I found it difficult to imagine scores of wader-togged fishermen awaiting their turn on the water.

Plaque at Cable Pool, on the Narraguagus River

I was pretty sure I was in the same place where we had stood that day, but the river whirled and eddied and I was uncertain which particular spot was it. Next to Washington Academy, which gave the pool its name, a gentleman was mowing his lawn.

I asked him if he knew. He reached out as though to grab my shoulders, but his hands stopped a few inches away. “Ah, COVID,” I thought as he pretended to spin me to face the water I had just left. He gestured widely and said that was it. He remembered the days when it was a fishing destination and the big fish that came through. He did not remember my husband. He seemed happy to stop mowing, so we chatted about history. Cable Pool, a short way upstream, was named after the U.S. Geological Survey cableway that was used when monitoring the water. Remnants of it mark the spot, along with a plaque.

I told him how Dennis Smith, a young and newly passionate fly-fisher, had fished there in the  ’70s and how he had long supported catch-and-release. I shared this from one of Dennis’ files:

“On June 21, 1974, an Atlantic Salmon conservation movement was started in Maine on the Narraguagus River in Cherryfield. The first documented live release of an Atlantic Salmon in the famed ‘Cable Pool’ took place on this particular day. Dennis Smith, a young wannabe salmon angler, decided to release a salmon if he was lucky enough to induce a strike.”

I told him I was learning to fly fish; he described how clear of brush the riverbanks had been and that there was still an old bench if you could get down to it. I have brochures that share some of Dennis’s story and handed one to this kind man. He started to read a bit aloud and I knew I had to leave. He looked into my wet eyes and opened his arms wide. In a second, I was squished in a big comforting bear hug. COVID was not on our minds.

Dennis had a degenerative disease called Supranuclear Progressive Palsy. We had a cemetery plot and urn burial plans when we met with a caseworker to fill out advance directives. The caseworker asked what Dennis wanted to be done after death, and Dennis surprised me by saying he wanted his ashes scattered, with some at Academy Pool in Cherryfield.

I wasn’t prepared to bushwhack down to the water yet, so I drove the short distance to Cable Pool. I parked by the spot below the ice dam where Dennis used to fish while I would crawl around looking at plants to try to ID them. Someday, I had promised him, I would be ready to learn how to fish.

There were two fellows there already fishing. Reluctant to have my first solo fly-fishing experience under watchful eyes, I left my gear in the car and wandered down. I admired a shad that one of them had landed and said how good the roe was. The younger fisherman, hearing my voice, peered at me and asked, “Karen?” It was Jason, who had bartended in Bar Harbor and served us many times, as dinner at a bar was usually easier and better than cooking. He told me Dennis had given him tips on when and where to fish. The other man listened as we talked about salmon and shad and changing times. He asked if I knew about the Downeast Salmon Federation. Dennis had been involved since the early days of the organization, and our conversation circled around the fish hatchery, catch-and-release, and back to the moment. I explained how I was learning to fish and was going to release some of Dennis’s ashes.

The older man said, “What are you waiting for, girl? Go get your stuff!” Suddenly it was a group effort. We laughed at my story of spending over an hour getting tangled in my leader and finally cutting it off and starting over. They admired the fly I had tied following Dennis’s pattern for his trusty “Rodney Dangerfield.” Jason had me step on a rock, the choice spot for casting, and from which I knew Dennis had fished many times.

Standing on Dennis’ rock for my first cast

After 20 minutes of companionable fishing, Jason and the other man left. With golden light, reflective waters, and peaceful thoughts, I fished on. I got my second strike, but this time lost my fly. Who knows where that Rodney Dangerfield will end up? I stooped, and released some of Dennis to keep it company.

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The World was our Oyster

Oyster festival shuckers are almost as good as the oysters.

Oysters were a recurring theme throughout the life Dennis and I shared. We stood hip-to-hip by the kitchen sink and competed to see who could open the most, the fastest, and the cleanest. We drilled holes in shells and hung them from our Christmas tree, we made an annual getaway to the Pemaquid Oyster Festival in Damariscotta, and we had a respectable shell midden growing taller and wider in the backyard.

Some of the oysters in that midden are bigger than my foot, and came from Glidden Point. Our favorite oysters were of course the ones we were eating, but the memory of Glidden Points seemed to have an extra sweet, briny flavor to it. With a shell up to eight inches long, these are among the only oysters grown wild and still harvested by hand. We ate oysters throughout the year at other places, but our annual trip to Pemaquid and Damariscotta for a local oyster festival was our idea of oyster heaven. Damariscotta is an Abenaki word meaning “a place of many fish.” For us, it was the place of many oysters. 

We would take a stroll to the Whaleback midden, and every year read the same interpretive panel about its history. People sat by the river and ate oysters and threw the shells here. This was between 200 BC to AD 1000. I think if Dennis and I lived for a thousand years our midden would have rivaled the Whaleback midden. This Damariscotta midden was once thirty feet tall, and the largest in Maine. A Massachusetts company hauled most of it away for fertilizer and chicken feed, but it is still worth looking at and imagining the tower of shells that once was. 200 tons of shells were removed in about a year. What took a thousand years to build was reduced to a gleam of white along the riverbank. 

The tale is that some of the shells deep in that midden were 18 inches long. Dennis and I look at each other and contemplate how to handle an oyster that big. Raw in one gulp is out of the question. I think we ended up with grilling it, and watching as the shell slowly opened to reveal the sweet and tender meat within.

Mine Oyster in Boothbay Harbor

Across the river is the Glidden midden, and there we once saw horseshoe crabs doing their mating dance. The middens are old, but horseshoe crabs have been around for 250 million years. We had no idea they would be there, but were in the right place at the right time, which is how our life flowed. Every year between the May and June full moons horseshoe crabs move in from the ocean to mate and lay eggs. We saw chains of crabs, a large female in the lead, and smaller males jostling each other like bumper cars to be the one to hook on and follow her up the beach. There, she would lay her eggs, and the male would fertilize them. We watched fascinated until the thought of oysters for dinner pulled us both away.

Seven years into our relationship, having gotten through some ups and downs, and many plates of oysters, Dennis decided we needed to get married. I had been in an unsuccessful marriage many years earlier, and was not convinced. Of course, as Dennis pointed out, this time it would be successful. It was a hard sell, but one of his oft repeated mantras is “never, never, never, NEVER give up.” He said it was the true Winston Churchill quote. He still didn’t have it quite right, but it was a creed he lived by. 

It seemed a bit unethical to me, but he brought my mother into our marriage debate. When my mother was living alone, since my father was in Alzheimer’s care, Dennis said we had a spare room and she could live with us. My mom and I sparked often, not at all the same way Dennis and I sparked, and while I would have loved her near, same house was too near. This does get back to oysters.

“If we got married it would make your mother so happy. She’s ninety now, we shouldn’t wait,” he said. He saw me weakening, and one evening I came home to a silent house and a hand-written proposal in the form of a dozen notes in envelopes, (no, I’m not telling what he said) each taped to a riser of the stairs leading to our bedroom. 

It was confirmed, we were going to get married. But where and when? We wanted simple. We knew my parents could not attend, and Dennis’ children were scattered. Just starting to think about planning a family event seemed complicated and made my head hurt and Dennis laugh. Besides, we didn’t really want a wedding, we just wanted to be married. What did we both love? 

Pemaquid Oyster Festival = Happy and married

Oysters, of course. Dennis found a JP, and one rainy September afternoon we were married at Fort William Henry on Pemaquid Point. The following day we had a celebration any wedding planner would envy. There were hundreds of fellow oyster lovers, lively music, much dancing, and probably the most oysters I have ever eaten. And us. We drove home holding hands and smiling. Every once in a while a little sloshy noise came from my belly full of oysters.

A bit of Dennis is now settling in among the oyster beds of the Sheepscot River, and drifting by the Whaleback midden. I think he will like hanging out with some crazy, hormone-driven horseshoe crabs.

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The Raspberry Patch: Releasing Dennis

“Raspberries! Pick your own, and please put your money in the box.” Our roadside sign was perhaps not quite so grammatical. Dennis had no problem using “UR” for “your,” but if I was making the sign I spent far too long contemplating not just grammar, but what font to use. Somehow every year we put up a new sign and were open for business. 

The raspberry patch, which was at the south end of the vegetable garden, grew over the years. The patch was one of Dennis’ passions. I wish I knew if it existed before him, or if it was his own idea to turn a bush or two into what it is today, but I can’t ask him now. 

Raspberries can flourish on their own, but in Dennis’ world they needed tender care. As the summer heat increased I might say “The peas are dry,” and then go down to hear the rhythmic swishing of water from the sprinkler system cooling off the raspberries, not the peas. I once got a call from an Airbnb guest staying at his mom’s house asking if we could please turn off the sprinkler. It was 10pm. The water is pumped from the house, and yes, it is loud. I went down and shut the spinkler off. Good thing we live nearby.

Dennis always wanted people to understand how to pick raspberries, but unless he was there it was hard to explain. So, for those who are going raspberry picking for the first time, here are Dennis’ tips. 

    Wear protective clothing

    Gently pull, do not twist or tug, a berry, If it comes right off say thank you and put in your basket, if it does not, leave it be.

I am not sure he intended the raspberry garden to get so big, but it just grew and expanded into new territory. Volunteer raspberry plants would be moved from between rows, and a new row started. We also potted up extra plants and sold those on the side of the road. We traded our abundance with the Burning Tree Restaurant, Otter Creek’s only, and creative and brilliant, full-service restaurant. More raspberries went to a Bar Harbor bakery, and yet more took the ferry out to the Islesford Dock Restaurant. 

The raspberries took a lot of work. We would pull out the old canes in the spring, wearing gloves, pants, and long sleeves, yet somehow still ended up with tiny red scratches wherever exposed flesh could be found. We would tend each other with cotton balls soaked in Witch hazel for me, hydrogen peroxide for Dennis, just one of those couple differences. We kept both on hand. Can’t say who healed sooner.

A local arboriculture company dropped off a load of wood chips, and we filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, shoveling many pounds between the rows, then raking them around the base of each bush. This may not have been such a smart idea, as the red ant population sky-rocketed. But so too did the amount of ripe, sweet raspberries. 

Dennis’ ability to speak decreased as his disease, Progesssive Supranuclear Palsy,  progressed. I became the one at the end of the phone. Jane from Bar Harbor would call and ask if it was time yet. I had bumped into Jane at yard sales, and knew she was a family friend. She told me confidentially that Dennis let her pick for free because she would give him a jar of jam. Mid-July  she called and asked if she could come pick. My eyes moved to the cupboard where we had eight jars of raspberry jam. “That would be lovely, Jane, I will call you when they are ripe.” And I did. Dennis told me he never called her back, as he knew she would phone daily till the raspberries were ripe. I liked our plan better. 

Facebook was an easy way to let folks know our raspberries were ready. They came, and picked, and only one got cranky about the red ants (we did warn folks). They stuffed bills and checks into the box. Dennis was gleeful as he came home with a wad of cash. Of course he was, he loved cash. I think $71.00 in ones made him happier than a thousand in stocks, which was a good thing.

We got fancier with the raspberries, using my grandfather’s pothole digger to plant posts at the end of each row. We ran rope along the rows about three feet from the ground, keeping the canes up and easier to pick. The raspberry production was pretty impressive. Dennis liked to pick and bring some home to put on his cereal. I would include them in a salad dressing, or sprinkle on ice cream for dessert.

For the past three years a neighbor would pick raspberries and bring them to Dennis, since he could not get out to pick. We live in a pretty caring and wonderful village. But we still did a drive by. This was Dennis territory, and he needed to keep an eye on the berries. We parked on the edge of the berry field, and he sampled the sweet, red, juicy berries just a few months before he died. He was happy. This is a place that was always imbued with Dennis’ spirit. It now has a few of his ashes.

The raspberry rows have not been tended lately, but they are still producing lots of fruit. There is no sign, the money box is still nailed to a post, but I do not check it. Help yourselves to raspberries, it would please Dennis, who gave away almost as much as he sold. Do not put cash in box I will not find it. Watch out for red ants, and if you peer closely, you just may see a tiny bit of silver dust from Dennis’ ashes. That’s where the sweetest berries are.

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Our PSP Path, and Ashes to Beloved Places: Releasing Dennis

man with wine glass outside snow and ice
Dennis faces PSP with a glass of wine and a smile

You might say scattering your husband’s ashes is an end. Dennis died November 29, 2021 from a neurological disease called PSP, Progessive Supranuclear Palsy. Neither of us believed this disease would win. If he was here, he would say it didn’t. Releasing ashes and sharing his story has been a road I would not have asked for, but it is a journey, not an end.

When we married, it was second time for us both. Mine had been brief and childless, his had been long with kids and grandkids. I was happy without a ring, but he was not happy without one. When we decided to be a married couple, I insisted it be longer than his first marriage, and we promised each other that.  It might have been, except for PSP.

Second marriages seem to offer what everyone hopes for from first marriages. Neither Dennis nor I liked the idea of divorce. We both believed in lifetime marriages, and wished we had not added to the growing divorce statistics. But if we hadn’t we would not have found each other. We were astounded to have found more than a partner, but a mate–whatever you want to call it, soul mate, adventure buddy, best friend–who offered things we did not have in our previous marriages. We were kids again, hiding under tables and going boo! Kissing whenever we could. Laughing, playing endless games and going on adventures. These were the best years of my life, and I hope his too. (That’s what he said, anyway)

He didn’t tell me when he thought something was wrong. He felt it inside before it was obvious. But then he began to shuffle when he walked. I thought it was a second hip replacement needing help, but the hip was fine. We met with doctors and naturopaths, and listened to stories of others with similar symptoms. We were given diagnoses of Lyme disease, Parkinson’s, one of his daughters told him he should get checked for syphilis, and a stranger at a bar thought it could be a parasite. We were given suggestions, but none fit. We looked into stem cell therapy. Whatever diet he felt would help, I was on board, creating menus and religiously following whatever he wanted from paleo to plant-based. He was diet-bombed by well-meaning family who sent whoopee pies and chocolate coated-cookies, so diet never really had a chance. And they were right. 

We circled back to mainstream medicine, and a neurologist determined Dennis had PSP and gave him an eight year lifespan. I asked about the diet Dennis then believed in, and the doctor said it didn’t matter, give him whatever makes him happy. So, whoopee pies and fat ass in a glass (Allen’s coffee brandy and milk) it was. It was also a relief not to have to follow some pretty demanding diets that involved time-consuming prep, and I no longer had to try to get to the mail before Dennis in case there was a sugar bomb. 

Finding out Dennis had PSP started us on a journey and we tackled it together. We were both in denial, or naive, but we somehow still believed there was a cure. Even as Dennis and I stopped biking, and walking sticks became the norm, and then a walker, he still said he was going to live to be 125. Less than a year before he died he hid behind a door to scare me. How did he get so frail, but still be so cute and sexy? His attitude that all was fine kept us going, and made things easier for me. I hardly noticed when I packed for us both, and made all travel arrangements. The wheelchair at the airport was just a courtesy. 

Denis was delighted when he managed to hide on me.https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/774768181

Dennis had always been the driver. I loved navigating, feeding him tasty bits, and reading stories aloud as we drove on our adventures. Becoming the driver was one of the few difficult transitions. PSP was sucking his life away, but somehow we just adapted, and still had adventures.

I joined a PSP facebook group, and they were my support, even if they did not know it. Dennis did a Cure PSP zoom group.

We traveled to the National Institutes of Health, and they confirmed the PSP diagnosis. I am not sure Dennis ever really accepted he only had a few years to live and that  those would be difficult, but in brief candid moments he did. 

Speech became more difficult, even with the most awesome speech therapist you could ask for. She helped with flashcards and other ways to communicate, but we really communicated through telepathy. I do not understand it, but up to two days before he died we carried on conversations when no one could understand him verbally. Thumbs up and down made yes/no questions work for everyone else.

How do you watch the man you love and wanted to be a wrinkled old couple with die? And how did he smile and laugh until it was time to be still and gaze into another world? After years of dealing with PSP together, we needed and had help. Dennis’ granddaughter came to stay for a few months, and they were golden. Sara was no-nonsense, building the stand-up walker, teasing him, and sharing an Allen’s Coffee Brandy and milk, along with morning-after regret. David took him for coffee at the pier more times than I can count, and today wears many of Dennis’ favorite sweaters and boots since they were the same size. Melissa and another David played music for him, Grandfather’s Clock. So many friends came, sat with him and told stories, showed pictures of fishing adventures or read.  

When he fell, and he did, even when I was right at his side, strangers picked him up, dusted him off, and learned about PSP. We became the PSP poster couple because we never gave up. Two years before his death a friend asked why I did not consider a safer home for him. A year before he died, I asked him what he wanted from the rest of his life. The answer was the same. Love. I could not bear the thought of not having his back to press against at night. He talked about the young daughter of friends closer than family that fed him donuts when we all went ice fishing for the last time. 

PSP took Dennis’ life, but not his spirit. Mid-May, I handed out the last of the brochures we had printed as a program for his service/party on New Year’s day. It had his obituary and a few photos and quotes. I had not planned to reprint but knew I wanted to keep sharing, so reordered them with no changes. This was an insignificant order, 250 8.5 x 11, tri-folded brochures.

Bruchure panels
The flyer for Dennis’ service

A day after I placed the reprint order I was in Cherryfield releasing ashes into the river. Uprint called. A person. A soft-spoken female-sounding voice. She said she noticed a problem with my file, it said January 1, 2022, and here we were in June! I explained it was a reprint of Dennis’ program. She went on to say that she noticed it because of the quote, requoted sort of from Winston Churchill about never giving up. For some, this is a cliché. For Pam, it was a life changer. She told me that she was at a low point in life, depressed, and wanted out. Somewhere in the midwest, the file for the brochure came under her scrutiny, she read the whole story, and felt uplifted. Dennis L. Smith was the one who gave her direction and hope. Here he was impacting, maybe saving, a life he never even knew about, six months after his death. I shared this story with a local pastor who said, “You can’t script something like that.”

And so I will make a journey, releasing ashes wherever those ashes and I find ourselves. Some releases I will write about and share, but all are precious. Love always.

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Wild about wild weather


Hurricane Arthur was modest by storm standards, but still not your everyday weather. Our hurricane season is officially from 1 June to 30 November, but storms of official hurricane size do not happen every year.

I was born during Hurricane Hazel, back when all hurricanes were female, and when the wind picks up, I do, too. My mother, on the other hand, would take shelter, draw the curtains, and turn up the music. She hated wind. I do not know if this is because she gave birth surrounded by floods and power outages, and I came alive in the eye of a storm, but this was one of our many areas of disagreement, in spite of a powerful love.

When Arthur hit the Maine coast many miles south of my village Otter Creek, it had been down-graded to a tropical storm. Our winds were perhaps twenty to thirty miles an hour. It was enough to get my attention and draw me outside to sit and feel the chair shift beneath me, but it was not threatening. Storms, wild weather, loud and screaming wind—they are exhilarating and make me feel electrically charged, pumped up, and raring to go. I know lives can be lost and property destroyed, but instead of fear or the feeling the need to buy batteries and tape my windows, I just want to be out there.

When storms head our way, the media suggests stocking up on food, batteries, storing water, getting medical prescriptions and basically getting ready for Armagedden. I failed to heed their suggestions for surviving hurricane Gloria, made no preparations for the havoc predicted for Y2K, and shrugged at the idea the world was ending with Comet Kohoutek. I have friends who stored 50 gallons of water in one-gallon jugs for Y2K, pretty time consuming. Preparation makes sense, but I never seem able to justify the time. Plus, I am in the fortunate position of having wood heat, an awesome all-weather Bison hand pump on my well, plenty of kerosene lamps, and a root cellar stocked with staples and vegetables. Instead of checklists and worry, I can watch trees bend and sway and breathe negative ions.

Since we are safely at the edge, we can revel in the wildness. Even though we are far from heart of the storm, the winds are fierce and the air electric.

I feel some guilt at getting pleasure from a potentially destructive force of nature, and want no one to be harmed, but I cannot deny its call. It has always been so.

My sister Susan and I ran out of our grandparent’s farmhouse to sit under the giant hydrangea in the front yard. I was maybe seven. As we huddled, the hundred-year old maple was struck by lightening or wind, I am not sure which, but it crashed down in front of us, the branches flattening part of our inadequate shelter. We emerged to look at the majestic fallen limbs, but without fright. The gentle creamy hydrangea blooms had in some way protected us.

A few years later or perhaps a few years before, a storm hit in the middle of a summer heatwave. We were then living in a carefully planned development in an old apple orchard, where the front yards all melted together. A dramatic display of heat and fork lightening lit up the night. Three little girls somehow escaped mom and ran into the night. I was the youngest of three sisters, we had no brothers, and we frequently made up our own games. That night it was run around barefoot and bare naked in the grass of our suburban front lawn. We all had towels, we had just been bathed, and held them high overhead in the wind as we scampered. When the lightening flashed illuminating the lawn we had to squat down and cover ourselves in the over-sized towels, so we would not be seen. I peeked out from my terry cloth cover to see my sisters, pale humps dotted on our lawn.

Now I am inside a house, and safe. The walls creak as the wind buffets it, and outside a tin can is being rolled and bounced, clanking one way, and then another. Far to the South hurricanes mean danger. But I am in Maine, the wind is wild, and although I have a practical respect for the forces of nature, it does not mean I have to hide.

I am safe, and should just go to bed. My husband sleeps. I am going out to play in the wind.


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