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

treeindrive

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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It’s winter, let’s bond

Otter Creek at dusk

Otter Creek at dusk

People post photos of their thermometers when it registers minus six, or minus twelve, and there is a heck of a lot of talk about degrees, wind chill factor, frozen pipes, and all the things that accompany record colds. But there is not much whining or self-pity. We live here.  Not just in the glory May to October days, but year-round.

I love biking Acadia in the summer, dining at ten pm because the sun has finally gone down, and having early morning hours to garden before I go to work. But winter is actually the best of the year. The days are short, it is cold, most tourist–based enterprises have packed their bags and fled to warmth. But it does not feel closed up, grim, and lonely. There is a calm, a peace, and a strong sense of camaraderie. Barbados and skimpy summer dresses call to me, and someday I may answer, but I am not ready yet.

Twigs coated with ice

Twigs coated with ice

Now, I need the biting cold, the sparkling brilliance of a sunset on ice and snow, the instant freezing of nostril hairs when I inhale, and the connection with our climate and our world.  It is far more intimate than in the summer, and there is a much stronger consciousness of the elements and the weather.

There is also a deep communal awareness of the grandeur and power winter offers.  An acquaintance I passed in the snowy streets this morning said, “Those Florida snowbirds just do not know what they are missing,” as we both looked at the fresh snow, over an inch thick, on every twig and branch.

Spring, summer, and fall are full of wonder but are also busy, and there never seems enough time to enjoy it all. There is also the urgent need to enjoy it before winter returns. When winter does arrive, things slow right down. I am once again aware of breathing.

In winter we get down to it. When the ice is good, we get out and skate, because it may not be good tomorrow. Piles of snow, and we are strapping on snowshoes, or heading to the carriage roads for a ski. Winter is fleeting, and when conditions are good they need to be enjoyed right then.

The core population that overwinters, while appreciating the stunning beauty, has a tough, unsentimental “we can handle it” attitude. I am reminded of the 1970’s slogan “love it or leave it.” Some may complain about shoveling, and there are the occasional frozen pipe disasters, but while people help each other year-round, in winter it includes a deeper feeling of unity and bonding.

In winter, almost every face we pass on the street or in the store is familiar. We have time to look at them. The population is a combination of those with roots here, and those with spirits here. Together we connect, and get it.

It is the weekend, and so we get out. We hike Wonderland, an icy path along the ocean. Creepers keep our feet from sliding and at the point waves are spewing seaweed and debris in the air as they smash into the rocks. The sky is bluer than it ever is in summer.

A couple rounds the corner coming towards us. We smile, and pause to remark on the cold. There is silence as we look towards the beach, and a row of ice-shrouded shrubs is sparkling like a ballroom chandelier.

We part to walk our opposite ways, knowing that we are the winter people, and we get it.

 

Bar Island in winter

Bar Island in winter.

acadia national park

Icy path at Wonderland.

 

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Maine vulture misses Florida flight

Backyard birding in Maine suggests chickadees, cardinals, and perhaps a few mourning doves on the ground, not a turkey vulture with a five-foot wing span. And not in the middle of winter.

vulcan in feederOur feeding station is larger than most bird feeders. A wide platform for food scraps, it attracts mostly crows and ravens. It gets pretty busy in the winter, and in December, with ten inches of snow and temperatures below freezing, there was plenty of activity as birds gathered for free and easy food. I always look out the glass doors as I pass to see what the crows are up to. Last week I did a classic cartoon-style stop in my tracks, trying to register what I was seeing. The big black shape tearing into the chunks of leftovers did not compute.  About six times the size of a crow, the young turkey vulture took up most of the space on the platform.

I generally see these birds, Cathartes aura, commonly called turkey vultures, buzzards, or John crows, from March until October, flying in sloppy circles or drifting on thermals high in the air. I once had about four or five of them join me on a picnic when kayaking in Calais, landing twenty feet from me and just sitting there, watching my every move.  It was an up-close and far too personal view of them. I thought them ugly, with their scaly, red unfeathered heads and sharp pale beaks.

The bird hanging out at our feeder should be on his or her way to Florida. I do not know if it is a male or female, as they have the same coloration. It has survived far colder temperatures than it is used to, and is probably having a hard time finding food. Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, and can detect the early stages of decay.

Their sense is so acute, they were once used to find gas leaks by the Union Oil Company. Ethyl mercaptan, with its noxious rotten egg odor, is injected into natural gas so it can be detected. This is the same chemical emitted from carrion, and a retired engineer tells about seeing turkey vultures spiraling above a leaky section of pipe, believing there was food below and so making the engineer’s job of finding the problem easy.

Drosselmeyer the cat investigates the big bird at the feeder
Drosselmeyer the cat investigates the big bird at the feeder

But when things are frozen, they do not give off an odor. Turkey vultures on the east coast migrate to Florida, where dead things smell, and they can find food. Our visiting vulture was possibly attracted to our yard by all the crows feasting, and found a meal even without smelling it.

The first few days the crows were indignant at this massive interloper on their platform. They flew at him. They crowed and heckled. One sat on a branch above this gentle giant and defecated on him. He (or she) was unperturbed, and sat for hours slowly tearing bits of frozen meat from the rib cage of a deer a neighbor had shot.

This vulture, which we have unfortunately nicknamed Vulcan, would eat, then fly up into a tall white pine to rest. He was here over Christmas, and we watched him as we ate our Christmas dinner. We then went to visit family, and returning after a three day absence saw no sign of him. We hoped he had headed south, but the day after we returned he was back.

He and the crows have established a comfortable relationship. I have seen as many as three crows crowded onto the platform with him, brushing feathers and sharing food, while another 6 or ten are on the ground below of on nearby branches. My cat is fascinated by this creature, and runs up and sits below the feeder, watching him. When the vulture flies in and lands on the feeder he spends some time shifting and adjusting his position. He may have a problem with his right leg, but I am not sure. He occasionally stretches his wings, and the browns, warm grays and chocolate colors of his feathers are very like those of my Maine coon cat.

Turkey vulture photo by Iliuta Goean
Turkey vulture photo by Iliuta Goean, Dreamstime

Buzzards flying overhead in warmer weather may be admired, but often we make corny jokes about who they may be circling, or say disparagingly, “Oh, that’s not an eagle, it’s just a vulture.” But they are cleansers for our planet, Cathartes aura means purifying air, and while they eat carrion they are very clean themselves. They have few predators, but will projectile vomit at attackers, and are accurate up to five feet. I am keeping my distance, but have come to admire this vulture and his species.

How this bird ended up off track here in our village of Otter Creek is a mystery. I do not know why he didn’t join his fellow buzzards as they left for Florida. I do not know if he will be able to survive the winter, although we will supply him with food. I don’t know if he will be here tomorrow, but I hope he will.

One lost turkey vulture has come into my life, and I have contacted local birders asking for suggestions to help his survival. It may be too late for him to join his fellows in Florida, and his chances of survival are probably not great. I never thought I would feel an affinity for one of these carrion-eating birds, but I do. I anthropomorphize and see the vulture sharing his space with a bunch of crows like a tolerant big brother. I see him in the tall pine, wondering where his mates have gone, and debating ready food versus starting the scary flight to Florida alone. I imagine that he knows he has found a place and friends that care about him. It is now minus four degrees Fahrenheit. The wind is blowing snow in blinding circles. Somewhere out in this wild night Vulcan has found a roost.

My mornings are spent looking out the window as I dress for work. With this weather, he would have a hard time finding food on the Florida trip, so I hope to see him here, where he will at least be fed though we cannot offer warmth. If he is not here tomorrow, I will hope he is headed south and makes it safely, if a little thinner. But I will never know if he has started his migration, or been frozen while sleeping. And he will never know that I am rooting for him.

 

Thank you to http://www.holoweb.com/cannon/turkedy.htm for the information about Union Oil Company

Published simultaneously at mainemorsels.bangordailynews.com

Note: January 3, he is still here.

 

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Our Trees are Really Fake

Our wild, spindly tree is glowing with tiny yellow lights. The branches are random lengths, no tree farmer ever pruned its shape, and I would never have any other kind of tree.

One fir sentinel, tied up to a sapling, the slope up to Cadillac Mountain is behind it.

One fir sentinel, tied up to a sapling, the slope up to Cadillac Mountain is behind it.

After we cut this ungroomed tree for the house we cut a few more to set by the deck and behind the bonfire pit. They are not artificial; they are real trees, and stand proudly in the snow as though they have been here all their lives. But they have no roots. Only we know they are fakes.  Anyone visiting our house in winter would see our lovely balsam firs and unless they had been here in the summer would never doubt that these trees are growing here.

Some get draped in lights, others are just covered with snow, but the evergreens add a closeness and Christmassy feel to our backyard, which, while wooded and lovely, is large scale with majestic white pines, red maples, and ash. Propping our little forest of fir around the terrace where we have bonfires all winter creates an intimate circle.

We cut our trees from a friend’s wood lot, where thinning is beneficial to the trees we leave behind. We never know till we get home which will be the indoor tree. Whichever one we choose, once it is in the stand I always say it is too perfect, and it is. A transformation turns this scrawny, sometimes one-sided tree into a dazzling, larger than life vision with a history dating back hundreds of years, far longer than its life rings. It assumes a regal presence, overtaking our living space, calmly reminding us of Christmases past and future, and that we, like the tree, are only here for a short span of time, but what a glorious span.

This tree is completely glammed with dozens of chandelier crystals from my mother. There are oyster, clam and mussel shells from dimly remembered dinners that have been sprayed silver, and a lifetime collection of family and handmade ornaments. There is an tiny accordion fold book from a member of my book artist group, a playing card glued to wrapping paper from a ten-year old, but that was over twenty years ago, and a very old-ladylike crocheted and felt bird from a one of my mother’s friends, and a goofy cork horse. They are all dear to me. Some of my family ornaments were recovered–the box my mother had set aside for me disappeared when she died–and our tree now includes a tinseled cut-out Santa from 1922 that was given to my grandparents when my dad was a baby, and a German elf we used to find candy in each Christmas day. The star that serves as our tree-queen’s crown is from my husband’s mother.

This elf from Germany has a hollow body my mom used to hide candy in.

This elf from Germany has a hollow body my mom used to hide candy in.

Cardboard Santa from 1923, given to my grandparents for their baby, my Dad.

Cardboard Santa from 1923, given to my grandparents for their baby, my Dad.

Otter Creek Angel

Otter Creek Angel

Outside the ring of fir trees jostle and elbow each other as they peer in to see the queen. I’d be happy with spruce, pine, or cedar, but I share this space, and my partner insists on fir. They will be there watching as the queen is carried out. Tinsel will shimmer, she will be unadorned, but it is not tragic. One ornament goes with her to the pyre. It is not one of my treasures, but it chosen for its beauty, and like a Viking’s favorite sword, it will accompany her as she leaves us.

On Candlemas Day she will blaze and warm us all. Traditionally, this is the day old Christmas trees, wreathes and garlands are burned. Her blazing branches will remind us yet again to make our days count. The circular court of fir trees sway and do homage as her sparks leap to the sky, dancing above their limbs and burning out high in the dark night air.  Their day will come.

 

 

The First Christmas Tree.

http://www.historytoday.com/alison-barnes/first-christmas-tree

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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.

 

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