Category Archives: Otter Creek

Day to day Otter Creek

Meals I would never serve to guests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bare Cupboard Pasta Salad

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

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

community Otter Creek

Murphy visits for the Fourth of July

All across America July Fourth is celebrated with flags proudly flying, fireworks, parades and picnics. In Otter Creek the stars and stripes line the street at one home, red white and blue streamers festoon the door of another. The long weekend is also a time for getting the lawn mown, a trip to the beach, and catching up on household projects. Americans can cram a lot into three days. In the spirit of not wasting a minute, I planned to decorate for the Fourth, build an arbor, see fireworks, paint the back basement hatch cover, bike, swim, boat out to a lobsterfest, and picnic with friends. This of course was in addition to the daily routine of weeding, watering and planting that maintaining a garden requires. It could all have been handled quite comfortably, if only Murphy hadn’t come to visit.

The weekend started with dinner on an island, then a long Saturday morning bike ride. Then it was time to tackle a project. The basement hatch is old and wooden, and while it really needs more than a coat of paint, I wanted it spruced up for the weekend. Scraped, swept and washed down, I cut in the edges with glossy black oil paint, and quickly had it looking shiny and fresh. I switched the laundry, cut fresh flowers for the house, came back out and looked at the gravel and grit on the doormat. There was a broom right at hand, so I did a quick left and right sweep, then stilled the broom as I saw a spray of tiny bits land and stick to the side of the hatch. No easy fix, it would have to dry, get sanded and repainted. I moved on.

Summer had started late this year, and because of the cool days, we hadn’t yet put the screen insert on the front door. I had hauled it over to the front steps weeks ago; it was time to put it in. Leaves and grass and pollen had landed on the screen, and I decided it would be easiest to sweep it off after I placed it in the doorframe. I removed the winter glass, and positioned the screen and clipped it in. The pollen began to fall on my face, my arms and my legs, and then it was moving, no, it was crawling all over me. A spider had laid its eggs there, and what seemed like thousands of tiny spiders were swarming on me. After frantic jumping around, head shaking and swatting, I swept the door off and headed in to hang some red white and blue bunting out the upstairs window. This is something I have done for the past three or four years, and is a really easy way to dress up the house. I unsnapped the first screen and pushed it away from the frame about an inch. I began to feed the long strip of fabric out the window with the other hand, when the screen detached from the top of the window. The screen is about four and a half feet tall, and it wobbled in my hand, gravity calling it to drop two stories to the ground below. I did not want it bent or broken so grabbed it with both hands. The banner slipped out and landed, forming a drape across the yellow daylilies beside the door that had given a nesting spider a home. I tried to pull the screen through the window, but it wouldn’t fit. There I squatted, arms out the window holding this big screen.

I used my head and shoulder to push the window open wide enough to maneuver the screen inside. I retrieved the banner, and tried again. This time I had a plan. I would hold the banner inside by pressing against it with my belly, and use both hands to get the window in its upper track. Then I would pull the screen towards me, where it would connect with the banner, and I could clip it in, firmly holding the banner in place between the screen and the bottom edge of the window frame. This was working. The screen teetered, but I pressed it into the top track. Slowly I pulled the bottom toward me to get it completely in the track. The phone rang, I exhaled, my stomach moved, the banner slipped out, slid between the screen and the window edge and landed on the yellow day lilies below.

I got the darn banner, and put it in place. The second one would have to wait.

While upstairs I emptied the wastebasket, tying the little plastic liner bag tightly. I went down, opened the back door and tossed it outside. It would go in the trashcan when I put my shoes on and went out next. The bag was very light, and hit the edge of the step and bounced up. It bounced a bit sideways, too, and stuck, hanging, on the side of the hatch cover, glued to the sticky wet paint just above the grit and gravel bits. “If it can go wrong it will,” is the adage popularized as Murphy’s Law. Yep.

It is with relief I heard my husband said friends had invited us on their boat, and I have to stop work and get ready. We watch the sun set from the middle of Somes Sound, and sip wine as fireworks blaze above our heads. It is late when we are dropped at the dock. It is even later when Triple A gets there to jumpstart our dead battery.

July third: The arbor is finished; the hatch cover paint is dry. We have biked, boated, watched fireworks, weeded, and picnicked. It is Fourth of July Eve, and we are ready for the Fourth, in spite of Murphy. Happy Independence Day, America.

Bar Harbor gardening Otter Creek

Missing: Fifty granite pillars

Granite in the garden

Granite chunks edge my gardens, the foundation of the house is granite fieldstone, I make paths with flat granite slabs, and whenever I dig into the back yard, I strike granite rubble. Scratch the surface anywhere on Mount Desert Island, and you will find granite.

Acadia National Park draws millions of visitors each year to climb its granite mountains and admire the steep rocky coast. Postcards feature warm pink granite edged by the white foam of the Atlantic. Frederic Church’s painting, Otter Creek, Mt. Desert, is of the cove behind my house and the granite notch I pass daily. In the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s granite was big industry on this island, and the first commercial quarry was here in the village of Otter Creek. Granite is the substance on which our lives are grounded.

I have been moving granite lately. Granite steps now separate the level grassy patch where the dining table is from the sloping hill to the woods. A crude wall has been built around the summer bedroom and constrains the pine needles strewn on the ground. I used crowbars and a dolly, and moved hundreds of pounds of rock. Each rock was touched, stroked and examined. The right shape and size was essential to fit the stones for the steps. One would be laid, and then another, and then an awkward space appeared. I removed them and tried again. Eventually, stone by stone, the puzzle was solved, and the steps created with a random pattern of about thirty pieces of granite.

Building with stone puts one in the moment. As I composed my steps, I would survey the collection of rocks I had hauled from throughout the yard and dumped in a pile. I appraised each one for the right fit. I would feel its edges, and ponder it from different angles. One wedge-shaped rock seemed too pointy, but rotated and inverted it was just right. Each rock when turned revealed different contours. I became mesmerized by the individual forms. There they were, odd shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. But which one would sit snug against the last rock I had placed? Just as I was convinced I’d have to go hunting for more rocks, that not one of them that would fit the next space, my perception would shift and with a satisfying sense of recognition a stone would stand out as right.

Granite slabs behind the house

The grain and color seemed as varied as the shapes. It is, of course, all granite from Otter Creek, but not necessarily Otter Creek granite. A common rock, granite is a major part of our continental crust and is composed of quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals. The color ranges from pink and gray to deep rose, blueish or almost black. The grain can be coarse with large individual pieces or so fine it appears to be almost all one color. It is color and grain that identifies granite. In Maine, Calais granite is dark gray and even-grained, the stone that came from the Thornberg Quarry in Addison is almost black, and Otter Creek granite is deep orange-red with a large, bold grain. The Maine Granite Industry Historical Society Museum in Mount Desert has a map of the island, with a piece of polished granite for each of the dozens of quarries on Mount Desert Island. Founder Steven Haynes can pick up a piece of stone, hold it in his hands, and by osmosis, bonding, knowledge and magic tell you which quarry it came from.

Jimmy's Wharf, Otter Creek

In the 1800’s quarrying in Otter Creek was a thriving industry. There were three different quarries in the village. The first was founded by Cyrus J. Hall in 1871 and operated about eight years. Roads were terraced into the hill and supported with granite coping stones. Oxen were used to transport the stone from where it was cut to a large granite wharf, the first product of this quarry. Jimmy’s Wharf is what it is called, although there is no sign, it is written on no maps, and no one seems to know who Jimmy was. At high tide a schooner would sail in to the wharf and load up. Four men, two oxen and a handful of tools produced eleven cargoes of stone. It was then shipped to Belfast where it was polished prior to delivery to its final destination. Some of those destinations were the Board of Trade building in Chicago, the American Baptist Publication Society building in Philadelphia and a bridge at Back Bay Fens in Boston, as well as libraries and public buildings. There is also a tantalizing mention in a local paper of fifty granite columns shipped to New York for a church. No other information given. How tall were those columns, what church do they grace, are they inside or out? Where are they now?

Drill holes waiting one hundred years to split granite, abandoned at Jimmy's Wharf in Otter Creek, Maine

My husband’s great-great grandfather Jules lived in Otter Creek in the late eighteen hundreds within walking distance of the quarries. We wonder if he might have worked them, or helped build the roads. Whether he did or not, his great great grandson worked at the last producing quarry on the island. At nineteen years of age Dennis Smith worked for Joe Musetti in Hall Quarry and burnt rock with kerosene and compressed air to prepare the surface for the quarrymen to work. He was there only six weeks, during the last days of the quarry, as a small crew completed a contract and then shut the quarry down for good. With the introduction of Portland Cement the granite industry had come to an abrupt end.

Tailings from Otter Creek quarry, Drosselmeyer the cat likes to play there.

In Otter Creek, the stone wharf still stands, but has fallen into disrepair. A causeway has blocked the entrance where the large ships once entered the cove. Massive stone slabs with telltale wedge marks along one edge lie abandoned in the woods. We walk the roads, still clear but slowly narrowing, that had been built for those oxen to haul their heavy loads. And somewhere in New York City is a church with fifty granite columns from Otter Creek, Maine.

The quarries of Otter Creek

Pine needles and granite edging by summer bedroom

Nature Log: We gathered and ate the last of this season’s oyster mushrooms, watched a snapping turtle lay eggs, and lifted a piece of granite to reveal a garter snake. The stone was gently replaced.

community Day to day gardening Nature Log Otter Creek

The Rain in Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acadia National Park Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Invasion of the garlic mustard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day to day gardening Maine Otter Creek

Digging in the dirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

community Maine Otter Creek

Pick up lines

Every April our town offers a roadside pick up. Things too big to put in the weekly household trash collection can be hauled to the curb and taken away for burning, chipping, recycling or to the landfill, whatever the town deems best. This is a wonderful service, and while every year there is discussion of stopping it as an unnecessary expense it is always voted back in.

Refrigerators, three-legged chairs, new-in-the-box mattresses, dysfunctional propane heaters, table umbrellas with torn canvas, a Nordic track with no visible flaw except being out-of-date­, the items are motley and incongruous. A clean, pristine, aqua-glazed flowerpot, price tag attached, leaves one wondering why it is on the curb. Did its mate die an untimely death, and it was unwanted as a single? Nearby a jumble of broken and unidentifiable parts leave no doubt why they are awaiting pick up. Most things are in poor condition, truly worthy of being hauled and away and mashed, but there is a fair amount of stuff that has a lot of life left.

I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and the idea of a week of unwanted items adorning our groomed lawns and perfectly trimmed hedges was unthinkable. These roadside discards fascinate me. I love to slow down as I pass a pile. I am not looking for a treasure, I am simply mesmerized by the stuff. I spot two matching twin maple beds with frames, and remember someone asking me if I knew of any. There is no way am I going to remember which friend needs some. As I look at them and force my brain to cough up the name, a van pulls up and the beds are gone. I admire a vintage rucksack with dusty labels. Some venturesome soul from Otter Creek went to Paris, departing on a Holland America cruise ship October 13, 1951. I cannot make out the name, and really want to know. Was it a neighbor, or a relative of my husband? I stoop to photograph the graphically beautiful label, and a couple prodding the pile near me ask if I am taking it. “No” I reply, and it is pulled away while I quickly snap a picture, and in less than a minute they open it and dump the leather sandals, men’s size 10 and in excellent condition, circa 1950, onto the ground, hop back in their bulging station wagon, and head off to the next pile.

I look at an old victrola, the legs are rotted and it struggles to stand erect. A neighbor wanders over and says, “I’m going to take that,” as he rubs his index finger with his thumb. “It’s worth money, and I sure need some.” He heads back home, presumably to get something to move it with, but when I pass by the next day I see two energetic fellows toss it on their truck and move on. Pick up week is not a waiting game. They are not bumper-to-bumper, but the cruising vans and trucks form a steady line through the town, and hesitating is not a good choice.

Looking at other people’s discards and speculating on the history behind them is only one aspect of the annual pick up. I also have the chance to do my own housecleaning. Dragging things out of the shed or basement to the roadside is satisfying, a general spring-cleaning, good feeling. Finding it gone the next morning, picked up by someone in one of the slowly cruising pickup trucks that populate our streets every year at this time, is also satisfying. I ponder; do I really want to get rid of this wooden swinging patio chair? It works, it’s cool, just needs to be refinished. In the pile it goes. I do have the option of snatching it back on Wednesday, which is the day the town picks up on our street. I have yet to snatch anything back. I rarely know who takes my offerings, but they are in my mind. There is a connection between us. The plaster lion, once boldly painted, was used as a doorstop until he had his tail whacked off by a vehement door closer. I brought him outside, intending to repair the tail. Instead the rain washed off his lovely colors. He was now not only tailless, but also colorless. My husband several times picked it up. “Garbage?” he asked. “No,” I said. Eight months later it becomes part of town pick up week, as I lovingly set the lion down by the road. In less than six hours he has a new home. I do not know who saw him and wanted him, but I smile with pleasure that someone did, and whoever they are, we are connected, because we both saw something we loved in that plaster lion.

Cruising and checking out other people’s leavings is fascinating. I also appreciate being able to offload things that cannot go in household trash. Without pick up week, I would waste a Saturday morning, as it’s over half an hour drive to the transfer station which then charges you by the pound. It probably wouldn’t happen. The piles in the shed would grow, and grow, overwhelming my daughter and family when I move on.

Since I do have this convenient method of disposal at hand I have turned it into a game. I have become obsessed with rating my leavings, and guessing how long they will be sitting unwanted by the road. I haul a matched set of spring steel chairs to end of the drive. These have to be the most comfortable pieces of lawn furniture around. But they need to be sand blasted and I am not going to do that. They don’t last long.

My goal is to have everything I put out taken before the town truck comes around. I come close. I like to think I have a pretty high quality of discard. I have also spotted some of my leavings in the home of my stepdaughter, and that of neighbors who live down the road. My stepdaughter rescued the pink and black marble chess set with four broken men, a Bermuda souvenir that has been replaced. The neighbors took the sunny yellow lavatory sink, and thanked me. They said they liked passing my house at pick up week because I had such interesting stuff. Maybe they took the lion.

This exchange of goods is a phenomenon few towns share. The gains are innumerable. The vast piles shrink as people who have either a use or a market for them take things. These objects are given a second life rather than being disposed of by the town, which costs not only labor but disposal fees. Bar Harbor, a neighboring town, has forbidden removal of anything from their transfer station. Liability is the reason, and yet what a shame. Instead of recycling they are adding to the mass of garbage that has to be dealt with at great expense.

I check my pile, and am delighted that someone took the glass carboy with some nameless liquid inside. It is a great bottle, but I’d planned to clean it for ten years, it was time to let someone else plan to clean it. The table saw my dad and I bought at a yard sale for him to use was sadly put out; he is no longer here to use it. A friend spotted it, and was ecstatic. I helped carry it to his house, pleased it would continue to be used, and by someone who knew and admired my dad.

Town pick-up is not about the town generously removing our big trash, though we appreciate it. It is about passing on tales and tools, being tantalized by incomplete stories, and giving things another purpose and another life before they get trashed.

Now, will someone please tell me who went to Paris in 1951?

Acadia National Park Day to day Maine Nature Log Otter Creek

Nesting, Nesting 1-2-3-4

Snowshoeing several weeks ago I startled a downy woodpecker. She flew from a perfect round hole in the decapitated, shoulder height trunk of a white birch I was passing. She flew into my arm, and then, all a fluster, (we both were) landed on the branch of a tree ahead of me. She was building a nest.

Several years ago a woodpecker nested very close to that white birch, near the top of a dead tree in our yard. While I do not love trees dying, if they do, I am not inclined to grab the chain saw and turn them into firewood. Deadwood provides food for birds, home for insects, and composts on the ground. If I had removed them, I would have missed the nesting, hatching, and fledging of a family of baby woodpeckers.

After watching the parents take turns sitting on the eggs, both they and I were delighted when a small brood of babies was hatched. These babies buzzed. I would drive into the yard after work, and roll down the window and listen. The soft droning noise was unmistakable, even though almost 200 feet away. The parents were very attentive, flying in and out, presumably with food. I could not see the newly hatched birds, although I could hear them. A neighbor’s cat also heard them. I came home one evening, smiling in anticipation of my private bird vespers. Arlo, a muscular cat with dense black fur, was three-quarters of the way up the tree. I leapt out and raced up, sending him home. This was not a cat who took no for an answer, and I was not happy he had discovered the nest.
We battled the next few days. I made chicken wire cages, and hung sharp objects around the base of the tree. Arlo persisted, he was a very persistent beast. Between tossing him back home, barricades and sharp obstacles, he was finally confined to mewling at the base of the tree, unable to get up the trunk to the nest.

The vibrant baby pecker noise increased in volume, and listening became an evening ritual. Watching morning and night, I still almost missed it. The first flights of those downy babies, fuzzy little intrepid balls of feathers, demanded a cheering squad. I rah-rahhed as each tumbled out, righted itself, and shot straight for the nearest branch. Acrobatics could wait for later.

That was a few years ago, and I am excited by the possibility of once again watching Downie’s feed and raise their young. Winter has given way. It let go reluctantly, and we shift from ice fishing to archery in the backyard in short sleeves. And nesting. Yep, the birds are at it. I watch crows out the window as I sit at my desk. They are dismantling an old squirrel nest, efficiently recycling. They fly off with twigs in their mouths to some unseen home. Ravens may have nested by now, but are still singing their courting song and doing belly flips as they fly, soaring. Almost touching, maybe they do touch, but their flight is seamless. An eagle has been flying nearby by with nesting material, and my husband, curious, snow shoed when there was still snow. He made note of the towering white pine, and we now watch the nest from a distance with binoculars.

Birds are in the mood. Every evening I hear a woodcock in the back yard, a male, making his beep-beep noise, then flying up and spiraling down, the air a rhythmic sigh in his feathers.

Biking Acadia National Park’s loop road, we pause near the Otter Cove causeway. Three immaculate white male mergansers swim and show off to three drab females. The water is so clear we can see a nearby eider as he flaps his wings and swims to the bottom of the cove for a mussel snack.

Winter was stubborn this year, but is has finally happened, the shift from frozen beauty to procreation. One moment I rhapsodize about the sun on ice, and before I can lament its loss, I am reveling in nest building and airborne mating dances.

Happy spring. At last.

Day to day Day trips Festivals Maine Maine destinations Otter Creek

Spring snow, sweet syrup

Boots and shovels then tee shirts and rakes, stoke the stove and open the window, freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw, spring, winter, winter, spring—March in Maine is neither fish nor fowl.

“I’m ready for spring,” even the devoted winter fans have been heard to say as March shifts from cold to warm and back. Spring is a tease, revealing the creamy blooms of snowdrops one day, and then hiding them again under six inches of snow. The winter coats and mittens were boxed and ready for storage, but a recent snow flurry caused us to pull them out and bundle up. For those of us who really love winter, this on-again, off-again is a needed weaning period. We are happy to have one more chance to don our fur hats and feel snow on our faces. The hats were boxed up, but we really weren’t quite ready to stow them in the attic and admit winter was over.

This morning the world was white again. Knowing this may be the last snowfall of the year, we don’t wait, but get up and head right out to play before going to work. But while the flakes are wet and real, there is no threat behind this snow. The winter lion has been declawed. We laugh fearlessly in its face, coats on, but not zipped. We know, too, that the snowdrops and hellebores will come to no harm. This is spring snow, saying a gay farewell. It lacks the seriousness of storms at the start of winter, which bring their cold breath and warnings of long nights and a frozen world. It is wet, and even though it covers the ground, it will soon be gone.

Alternate freezes and thaws are also what makes the sap run. Collecting maple sap and boiling it down for syrup is a tradition for many Maine families. It requires little investment, just a tap, a jug, a pot and a fire.

Syruping fits smoothly into daily life here in the Creek. Half an hour or so to set taps for a few days, then collecting now and then between hiking and dinner, and then boiling in the back yard. When there was more family around, it was done on a larger scale. Now, we tend the fire while making a few starts at cleaning up the yard. An old burlap back is stuffed with the weeds we pull off the garden and becomes a target for a few rounds of archery practice. We swap stories. I tell of my dad boiling sap in the kitchen, and peeling the wallpaper off the walls. I hear of my husband at eight or nine years of age using quart canning jars, the ones that had wire hoop handles, to collect sap, and how he had to collect many times a day. His grandfather helped him make homemade taps from discarded bits of tongue and groove planks. They whittled a slice of the groove side, giving it a point to pound into the tree, and the sap would run down the groove into the quart jars.

While things have improved–we now use plastic hose that fits into an opening cut in the caps of recycled milk jugs–it is still very low-tech. That is part of its appeal. It is also a way to be outside and moving around. Snowshoeing is over, ice is not safe, and biking is only possible on particularly warm days and even then many of the roads in the park are still covered in snow. Tapping trees, hauling heavy buckets of sap, bringing in spruce to keep the fire going, these are all ways to keep from stagnating.

The season is short, too. It is over just before you get tired of emptying buckets and smelling like smoke. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to tap trees and make syrup. We might do it just for them. The jars of deep gold, thick, sweet syrup are just fringe benefits. Otter Creek Gold is maply, more flavor than sweet, slightly smoky because we boil it over wood, and the best maple syrup on this planet. Sugar, or rock maple trees have more branches and a greater surface area to produce sap. They also have a higher sugar content. Their syrup is sweet, and maply. Our syrup is maply, and then sweet.

But how sweet it all is. How satisfying to make flavorful syrup to pour on flapjacks, drizzle on ice cream, use in salad dressings, meat glazes and baking. We bottle some in tall elegant bottles, make Otter Creek Gold labels, and give them as gifts.

Syrup time is sweet. If you cannot tap and boil, you can certainly taste. Sunday is Maine Maple Syrup Day, and many sugar houses are giving tours and tastes. Go sample, then get yourself some taps.

Otter Creek Uncategorized

Looking for a sign

Rabbit tracks, the neat silhouette where a deer has slept, the sharp outlines of a coyote’s claws, these imprints are crisp and clear. After a long stretch of single digits and snow on top of snow on top of snow, the melt has begun. The now grainy surface takes an imprint as clear as the concrete in front of that Chinese theatre with hand marks of the Hollywood famous.

There is still a deep base covering the undergrowth in the forest, the dark tree trunks rise from the smooth expanse of snow, and there is no indication of a path or trail. With snowshoes, the woods are open in every direction. It is so free and different from summer walks, when paths are followed and trails lead around rocks and stumps. These obstacles are now deep beneath the surface we walk over.

There is so much to see. Years ago I took a class taught by a student of Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing. He emphasizes sign as well as track, and I find his big picture approach gives a more complete understanding of whatever animal we might be tracking. Instead of just looking for the next paw print, going where the animal went, we crouch to see what it saw, notice when it paused to eat, and where it sat and scratched, leaving a small tuft of fur.

One of my husband and my first dates was a hike up the Pot Hole Trail on the side of Cadillac Mountain. The trail begins and ends here in our village of Otter Creek, Maine. The pitch pines were shrouded in fog, there was ice along the rocks, and I bent to poke at coyote scat with a twig. He bent too, and together we speculated on this animal’s recent meal, and where it had been to find it. A bond was formed.

We hike regularly, as much for what we can see and learn as for the exercise. We spend this afternoon in the forest behind our house. A raven’s call causes us to look up, and we see a pair spiraling together. We sniff an astringent scent, and then see the straight focused path of a red fox. Signs are all around. Bright orange drops of urine dot the snow, possibly part of a courtship for snowshoe hares. One of a mating pair of will leap in the air, scattering the orange spray as the other hare runs under it.

The art of seeing is a part of Rezendes’ book title, and it is a phrase I am cognizant of every day. I extend it to the other senses, and as we walked the distant rhythmic crash of waves was constant. I hear it now. We passed a ledge that had spent months deeply encased in frozen water, and was now dripping from a thousand tapering points of ice. Quick high-pitched splashes kept beat with slower louder drops. There was the smell balsam fir as our heads brushed a branch. And for touch, there was the spongy softness of a new polypore. This is the season when they grow on the sides of birch, and their creamy freshness stands out brilliantly, a contrast the to white snow and black bark. And we are back to sight.

We went seeking signs, and found them, but they also they found us. As I left the woods for our back yard I passed a dead poplar trunk, broken off about five feet high. There was a thump on my arm and a whinnying call, and I watched in amazement as a downy woodpecker flew past after hitting me, and landed on the branch of a nearby tree. The small round hole she came from was two feet from my shoulder. I left quickly, hoping she will return and nest there.

We saw sign- scat and fur and stained snow and hare chomped twigs. Late winter is a time of connecting with the world out there, and I am not ready for this season to pass. The downy woodpecker gave me an irrefutable message however, for she is surely the sign of spring.