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 for the information about Union Oil Company

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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.

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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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Looking for the lookout

Food, language, gardening, people, wildlife, history—the world is so full of wonder. My life skitters between them all, lacking focus perhaps, but never dull. Heading home to weed, a quick stop to chat with a neighbor set me off instead in pursuit of a watchtower.

Lookout TowerOtter Creek once had a state-of-the art World War I communication station. There is a commemorative plaque, and Acadia National Park has built a picnic area there. Near this is a hard-to-find road that starts wide and lined with regularly spaced trees but which then disappears into brush and becomes impassable. A rough wooden sign, slowly being absorbed by the tree it is mounted on, points the way to this road and reads To Otter Cliffs.

I knew all this, and had read about Alessandro Fabbri who was the determined and driving force behind the establishment of what is called The Fabulous Radio NBD. I had followed that road, thinking it led to the site of the radio station, but when it dead-ended in a small overgrown clearing, I guessed all signs of the station were long gone.

Otter Creekers love their history, and my neighbor Paul Richardson has devoted much of his life to recording it. I’d been making a map of our village, and wanted him to see if it was accurate. I spotted him at his greenhouse on the way home from work and stopped to have him look at it.  “Oh, yes,” he said, in his unhurried voice with its soft suggestion of Maine accent, “Very good, except this road which you say ends at the radio station. That was the road to the watchtower.”

security fence from WWI Otter Creek

security fence from WWI Otter Creek

Watchtower? I may have heard of it, but sloppily let it slide from my memory. Paul’s finger traced the road I have walked, snow-shoed, and shared with friends, just to show them the row of trees in the middle of nowhere and the ancient wooden sign.

“Was there anything left of the tower?” I asked. Paul said it had been years since he was there, but that there had been an old foundation. I explained how the road became impossible to follow, hoping for clues to find the watchtower site. “Oh, you don’t need to follow the road. You can get to the lookout just off the parking lot the Park put in.” Was it possible the remains of an old tower were so close by and I had never known? I was ready to explore, so dashed home, changed into explore clothes and got husband Dennis to join the search. He has lived here all his life, had never heard of the tower, and does not remember his dad mentioning it. I said Paul told me exactly where to go, and we would find it.

Eyebolt 188 feet above sea level on Otter Cliff

Eyebolt 188 feet above sea level on Otter Cliff

I was ramped up and positive, Dennis a bit more skeptical. We parked in the lot we have used many times, the parking lot for the path along the cliffs. This time we went in the opposite direction, and found the ground rose steeply. The rocks were covered in fern and moss, and the late day sun filtered through. We looked up the high, rocky outcrop and started our scrambled ascent. The light made the greens vivid, and the tree trunks seemed black, still wet with the morning’s rain. It was new terrain, and even without finding where the tower had been we already felt satisfied with discovery. We pulled ourselves up to the top of the ledge. The trees surrounding the parking lot have grown tall, but it was still obvious this was a high point. This point is 188 feet above sea level. There were views over Otter Cove, of Champlain Mountain, and out towards open ocean.  Once we tore our eyes away from the view and looked down it took barely a minute to spot an iron eyebolt and then the concrete blocks that were once part of the tower’s foundation.

We tried to find this end of the wide, tree-lined road we were familiar from the Miller Garden Road, but that will have to wait for another day.  We did find broken glass and bits of burnt coal, presumably from the coal stoves the watchers at the tower used to keep warm. There was no doubt, we were there, and we had found the remains of the tower.

Foundation of lookout tower built in 1917 on Otter Cliff

Foundation of lookout tower built in 1917 on Otter Cliff

Back home I pulled out my history of the radio station and found the dimly remembered photos of the tower. It was built in 1918 with funding from Alessandro Fabbri’s brother Egisto. Fabbri was awarded the Navy Cross for developing the radio receiving station, which was the sole receiving station for European communications.

Brandon Wentworth, radio-communications enthusiast and historian, wrote The Fabulous Radio NBD in 1984. Well-researched and the source of many of the historic photos shared here, it tells the history of Alessandro Fabbri, the Otter Cliff radio station, and the local men who worked there. My husband’s grandfather was one of them. He had enlisted, expecting to be sent overseas, and instead was stationed right here at the radio station which at one point employed over 200 men. And yet no one in the family remembers hearing of the tower. After the war was over the tower was used as a radio compass station, and is credited with saving more than one ship from going aground. It was razed in 1935 for the construction of the Park Loop Road, although the foundations are quite distant from the roadbed.

When the Park Loop Road was constructed, a memorial to Alessandro Fabbri was placed in 1939, and is there today. In the eighties the Park planned on expanding the area for parking and picnicking. Diane Lee Rhodes was hired to assess the site. She wrote Archeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial in 1983.

This in-depth study has photos of the station and the tower, and concludes with the recommendation that the site should be preserved.

The steel pier at the Otter Cliff radio station

The steel pier at the Otter Cliff radio station

Diane wrote, “We have many areas in the NPS system that illustrate and commemorate the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but very few representative examples of World War I activities, especially communication technology. Acadia’s Fabbri area is a unique and eloquent tribute to the technology and military defenses of the period, and to the dedicated men who served here,” and “The Fabbri Memorial site can add an entirely new dimension to interpretation at Acadia.”

Excerpt from Diane Rhodes report

Excerpt from Diane Rhodes report

In spite of the report’s recommendations, stone steps, barrack walls, foundations, and water tower footings were all eradicated in the 1980’s for picnic tables and comfort stations. It is a delightful place for lunch, and I, and many bikers and hikers, are grateful for the toilets, and yet I wish history could have been honored. It would have made the picnic spot a richer place, and my husband’s grandchildren would be able to say, “The lookout tower? Oh yes, I know where it was, my great -great grandfather was stationed there.”

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Ans and others, my silent friends


A family group peers at the camera, dressed in their Sunday best. This photo is a souvenir from Sharon Springs, New York, a town that has seen better days. Sharon Springs is a bit rough, just like the unfinished lathes that frame the picture. There are seven people in this photo, seven unknown faces, each with an entire unknown life outside this printed image. These brief moments captured from a life tantalize me, and I buy stacks of black and white pictures of strangers at junk sales, old photo albums of other people’s worlds, and, like this photo, a single image of someone else’s relatives.

This family photo sits on a shelf in my laundry room, and I have gazed at these folks many times. The well-dressed men take the center of the stage, and at first glance the women are not even noticed. They are there, though. Two are leaning in from the top, trying to get in the picture, but so unimportant they have part of their heads out of the frame. This is not because the photo is missing a piece. They simply were not included when the photographer opened the shutter. Another woman seems to be on tiptoe, trying to look over the shoulders of the men. The men are front and center and proudly posed, straw boater hats in hand. A family resemblance is pretty clear, but they are all so eager to pose for the photographer it seems they are disconnected from each other. The spidery writing on back reads, “The Family Group, Dan’s Rock, September, 1899.”

Mounted on dark greenish cardboard, the faces in this photo landed in the antique shop where I found them, and now they are in Maine. We have become friends. I have never heard their voices, but I enjoy their company when I am cleaning the lint catcher, or folding napkins.


I have just been given another black and white photo, this one from the 1950’s, and taken here in my village, Otter Creek. At a chance grocery store encounter I was told about the photo. The owner was waiting for me outside when I left the store. He just happened to have it in his car; he wanted to make a sale. I wanted it, and now it is propped in front of me. Unlike the photo from Sharon Springs, I have plenty of resources for learning about this image.

Measuring 14×12 inches the photo is of the fishing shacks in the cove behind my house, which have been gone for decades. It was taken by photographer Sargent Collier in the 1950’s, and feels posed. Ansel Davis, Ans, pronounced sounding something like Ants, stands outside a shingled shack and pulls on a line, possibly pulling in his boat. A young girl leans against a ladder amidst a stack of lobster pots. The lobster traps are carefully draped in rags, and also lie in artful disarray. People who knew Ans say his would have been piled more neatly, and easier to use. The girl is a mystery. A relative of Ans’ says she looks familiar, and another person thinks she may be Ans’ son’s girlfriend. Whoever she is, she is not dressed for a day mending traps at the fish house. A soft clean white blouse, cotton skirt and ankle-wrap espadrilles seem specially donned for the occasion.

Ansel Davis in red cap and checked shirt

Ansel Davis in red cap and checked shirt

This photo was not in my copy of Collier’s book, Downeast, Maine, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Gaspe. I went to the library and took out his 1952 book, Mount Desert, the Most Beautiful Island in the World, and found it on page 55. Instead of identifying the girl, the caption reads Lobstering is one of Maine’s chief industries, and here is a typical headquarters for the several million dollar annual endeavor. It is an odd, satiric or condescending comment. Flipping through the pages of the book I saw a picture of a couple toasting each other, one holding a cup of clam broth, the other hoisting a lobster. It is rather hokey, and definitely staged. I study Ans pulling on his rope in the photo, and am not convinced he has a boat on the other end. But it still seemed likely that the girl, even if she had dressed up for the picture, had a connection to Ans, and to Otter Creek.

I continued to show the photo to neighbors and family, hoping to find out about the girl, but learned more about Ans with each encounter. He was friendly with kids, and shared his knowledge of lobster fishing and making traps. His wooden traps were hand-made, and fitted with intricate knot work. He passed on this skill. He called my brother-in-law Peewee, and my husband ice fished near him at Eagle Lake. I learned about the road to his house, Corkscrew Hill, which connected the east and west sides of the village before a causeway was built. There are still a few granite blocks where the bridge was, and a faint trail where the road ran. But no one knew who the girl was.

There were plenty of people who remember Ans, though. The wharf on the far side of the cove was Ans’ wharf. He lobstered and gardened and raised children and had a fish house on the cove. Although not a big talker, he took the time to pose for a photographer from away. His family was one of the first to settle Otter Creek.

I learn nothing about the girl, but am getting to know Ans. He worked long, hard days. Physical labor was just part of life. Now I have seen his face. He was kind to children, and shared. I learned that when he “was done,” meaning too old, worn and tired to work, he went home and put a shotgun in his mouth and killed himself. He simply couldn’t do what he wanted to do any longer.

This photo, acquired by chance, brought new people in my life. They smile, silent. Their lips never move, but stories were told. I may never know who the girl was, but because of her, I have gotten to know Ans.

Fish houses  in Otter Creek

Fish houses in Otter Creek

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Following the Kansas Road

Tiny building, big view

Tiny building, big view

It is Kansas Road, not Yellow Brick, which takes us to another world. Dorothy followed the yellow brick road and landed in Oz. We stuck bikes on our car and found ourselves on Kansas Road, light years from Otter Creek.

Every year we go to a smelt fry in Columbia Falls, Maine. I am not fond of things one does every year, because it seems eventually you will have no free days left, all will be committed to some event or family get-together, or holiday or reunion or anniversary. But the smelt fry has been on our must do list for about ten years. The fry is fund raiser for Downeast Salmon Federation, and although I used to eat maybe one or two token smelts and dine on salads and sides, I now finish off my little cardboard basket of these light, barely batter-coated, flash-fried fish.

We have fine-tuned this annual outing to the point that the smelt fry, while remaining the motivation, is no longer the primary part of our get-away. We arrive in Cherryfield at The Englishman, a classic federal-style bed and breakfast on the banks of the Narraguagus River, and quickly change from business clothing to casual. After checking out the eagles and osprey, we sip a chilled glass of white as we listen to the constant thrum of the river. Life slows; we mellow, and then head off to Columbia Falls. There we munch smelts with hundreds of other smelt seekers, and socialize. This is extremely easy. You ask a neighbor for a napkin, they are piled at spots along the tables, and end up exchanging stories. Most people come as couples, singles, or very small groups, and are really interested in knowing why others are here at the smelt fry. I have been to business events, and after-hour socials, and while they are relaxed, they just are not anywhere near as relaxed as the Downeast Salmon Federation Smelt Fry. No one seems to feel uncomfortable, or nervous, or concerned about making an impression. We share “How many smelts did you get?” stories with Abbie and John, fellow smelters. We meet Marcylene, a dwarf pygmy goat, who chews grass from my hand and nonchalantly allows eager children, and me, to stroke her silky fur. We discuss photography with Richard, and Columbia Falls’ history with a couple, the husband has family roots here.

Milbridge tidal waters

Milbridge tidal waters

Then we return to our riverside haven to watch the sun go down and listen to deafening peepers. We could just drive home, but being in a part of the world that is just a bit different from ours is now what draws us back year after year.

At dawn we hike the river’s edge. Every morning I do sunrise salutations, a yoga sequence, and here I do them on an old railroad bridge with the water roaring beneath and the scent of a red fox in my nostrils. After breakfast we bike off along the Kansas Road.

Sign post for Kansas Road

Sign post for Kansas Road

Kansas Road. It is short, a four or five-mile stretch from Cherryfield to Milbridge, and hugs the Narragaugus. We are in no hurry, and biking Kansas in Maine is such a foolish idea I am determined to love this route no matter what. But the ride is gentle, and the scenery fine. We pass scarecrows, a few cowardly kitties, cows, alpacas, and get chased by a dog. There are no leash laws in Kansas. We pass through Milbridge, slowing down to gawk at the Extreme Makeover house on Main Street. Reality TV is a concept that fascinates me. Also makes me glad we don’t subscribe to television.

We strike out on side roads. The shoulders are not great, but every passing car kindly gives us a wide berth, and a wave. No one didn’t wave, and I realize it used to be like this in Otter Creek, but now there are many passersby who simply pass by.

Wharf with old bait bags, and pick up trucks

Wharf with old bait bags, and pick up trucks

The roads to the water lead to lobster co-ops and working wharfs, and fishing boats outnumber sail. We’re not in Bar Harbor anymore.

We bike, tires bumping, out on a long wooden pier. Pickup trucks line the parking area; their owners are hard at work on the ocean. I find a worn and discarded bait bag and am inspired to turn it into art, but am vehemently vetoed by my husband, whose bike it would have been tied to. There is litter. It is mostly bits of rope, a single leather glove, pieces of old lobster traps. This would be removed as unsightly back on Mount Desert Island, but it adds to the laid-back, no-fuss feel, and I find it comforting.

Store on Kansas Road

Store on Kansas Road

We find some chaga, and stop to ask the homeowner if we can have some string to tie it to the bike. She is a stunning brunette with two soon-to-be stunning adolescent girls. They are interested in the chaga, but happy to let us have it. The girls are tossing potatoes in the air and at each other as we chat with their mom and tie the chaga down. “What’s with the potatoes?” I ask. She smiles, and flips one in the air to the girls. “I’m teaching them to juggle,” she answers.

Bridge at Cherryfield end of Kansas Road

Bridge at Cherryfield end of Kansas Road

We continue down to the point, the road is a bit potholed and rough. A fellow is watering the flowers on his deck as I careen past his house, and we smile and wave. A big asphalt lump in the road bounces me off my bike seat, and he laughs and shouts, “Watch out for the bump,” as I round a corner and leave him behind.

Twenty-plus miles later we have looped back, and leave Kansas Road for our B+B. I really don’t like doing the same thing every year, but going to another world doesn’t get old. We’ll be back next year.

Much of Downeast Maine is for sale. We passed many homes with signs in the yard. If you have a hankering for life on the other side of the Kansas Road, one of these might be for you.


For sale

For sale

for sale

for sale

For sale

For sale

For sale

For sale

For sale

For sale

For sale

For sale



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Forcing spring

The third round of forsythia. It takes less time to forces them open as we get closer to spring.

The third round of forsythia. It takes less time to forces them open as we get closer to spring.

Dull gray and brown leaves on the ground, the sky is grey, most days have a few drops of rain, and the wind is chilly.  I’d rather winter. I never want to let go of winter. I grab its tail and hold on as long as I can. But when the snow is gone and the days are long and the cold is still damp and bone chilling, I am finally ready. The same week I hang up the snowshoes, I go and clip aspen branches, forsythia, shadbush, and other likely twigs showing the slightest bump, just the barest hint, of bud. I place these in a large bucket of water near the wood stove, and usually within a week have spring arrive. A late March snow may cover the ground and I’ll be right out there making a snow critter with the wet, grainy snow, but back in my house are bright green leaves, fuzzy gray catkins, and curling yellow forsythia flowers.

Unnatural, yes, and possibly cruel, as the forced branches last only a few weeks before I replace them with the next blooming. April, called the cruelest month by T.S.Eliot, fosters cruelty.

It also fosters tenacity. My early spring flowers bloom for weeks on end. The snowdrops have been nodding since March, and the hellebore started flowering in February. They were snow-covered a few times, but the seemingly thin delicate petals are tough and last through April. I pick a few and put a line of small, aqua bottles, old liniment bottles, on my dining table, each with one slender bloom.

Outside, the weather is quite contrary. I see a few teenage boys stroll the main street in baggy shorts, and the same day I see a couple with woolen jackets and fur caps. I dash home from work, thinking I’ll go for a bike ride, but the rain is spattering and the temperature has dropped, so I bundle up and rake instead. I feel cold, which I never do in winter, because I’ve stopped wearing my lovely wintersilk layers, and don’t bother with hats and gloves. This in-between season is confusing, and part of me longs for the comfort and simplicity of winter.

One pre-spring I had a pile of branches and twigs pruned from the trees in the yard. The bonfire was stoked, and bit-by-bit I tossed them in. It was dusk, and the glow of the fire made everything beyond its light dim and dark. One branch, perhaps a half inch in diameter, was added to the pot. It hissed, a bit of moisture steamed out, and then it bloomed. In the midst of smoke and flame, this valiant little branch decided to bloom.

spring flower

Helleborus Niger in Otter Creek

It happened quickly, and my eyes never left the branch from start to finish. The buds got bigger, swelling to bursting point. The bright chartreuse tips of leaves pushed out of the end of the bud. There was not going to be a spring for this branch, so it made one for itself.

Like time-lapse photography the leaves unfurled, curling, maturing, reaching full size. My eyes followed one leaf until it was fully open, and then another just starting nearby. This branch must have come from a flowering shrub. A few small flower heads emerged, a cluster of pale green stalks with whitish bulbs at their tips, but they did not open more than that.

Around me in the dark were trees and shrubs with bare twigs and branches. It was far too early for leaves to bud out. The fire pot was full of limbs and brush, all grey and black bark, silver twigs, and no leaves. In the center of this pile, held up by the branches below it, this one branch, alone, was full of green spring leaves.

Then it steamed, the leaves curled and shrank and the branch burned.

It is April. The damp wind and gray days seem endless. We clip back brush, and tend the burn pile every weekend. I pull branches that seem ripe, ready to burst, and feed them end first into the flame. But never has one done anything but spit a bit of sap.

It was just a twig in a bonfire, but that each year the memory of that quick spurt from dormant to alive, that desperate grasp at spring, turns my head away from the snow and the cold, and reminds me of the glorious days ahead. Finally I, too, want to bloom again.

The house is full of sprouting aspen and tall sweeping forsythia branches with yellow flowers. Blue bells, snowdrops and hellebores bloom scattered in the still dead grass. Winter is over, and I am ready to say goodbye.

Snowdrops and Glory-of-the-snow bloom long before the grass is green.

Snowdrops and Glory-of-the-snow bloom long before the grass is green.










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Celebrating the silly

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

Flying penguins

Flying penguins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Fool's gloves

April Fool’s gloves

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

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

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




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DONKIES Claire Wallace



Haffas Farm. Family name? Think again. “Half-assed, of course,” chuckles Claire Wallace. “My husband and I both had full-time jobs and no spare time, and then we bought a couple of asses without really knowing what we were doing. Pretty half-assed, don’tcha think?”

Claire is small and lively, hurling loaves of bread through the air to feed her herd. She used to have horses—wild mustangs—until she visited her daughter in Virginia. There, at a farm show, she saw donkeys and walked out saying, “I’ve got to have me a mule.” And so she acquired Jack. She bought him thinking he was eight or nine, and she laughs as she recalls dealers saying, “You bought old Jack?” He was probably closer to thirty, she admits, but “he gave me lots of babies.”

“I didn’t want to go home to Maine without a donkey, and that’s how I got Jack. But I didn’t know how much donkeys holler, either. I opened the door once after we were on the road, and he hollered so bad I slammed it shut and wouldn’t open it again till I got home. I told my husband, ‘Come out here and listen to this.’ I opened the door, but Jack was silent. It took three days before he began to holler again.”

She points out Gladys Done, named because it took her so long to be born. “I birthed her right here, but she just didn’t want to come out. When she finally did, I just took her in my arms and said, ‘Ain’t you glad it’s done?’” Claire grins, delighted at her joke. “And that’s Elvis,” she says, pointing to a shaggy donkey, “cuz of the long hair. This here is Molasses, see it’s got asses in it! And Clementine, one of Jack’s babies. She is a darling, for sure.”

Not every one appreciates asses, though. She was chastised by her boss for having people talk to her about Jack while she was at work. “People used to come in and ask how my ass was, heck, we thought that was pretty funny. But the manager didn’t. Said tourists wouldn’t understand. So I had to tell them to stop.” The state wouldn’t let her have Halfass on her license plate, either.

“I told them, ‘Read the bible, you’ll find asses there, so why can’t I use it?’”

“I was born right by that telephone pole,” she points to it with her ready laugh. “This was my grandparents’ place, called Verandah Flats. They rented cabins. There was a two-hole outhouse and a pump in the kitchen. ‘Running water’ they advertised. Yeah, if you put it in a bucket and ran with it.” Claire bends over chuckling. “But I don’t know how they did it, grandfather on crutches, a forty-year-old horse on the back pasture to feed. It’s a lot of work having animals.”

She has no regrets, no wishes she had explored the world a bit more. “Why?” she asks. “I see folks I went to high school with coming back now. They went away, got rich, and now they want to come home. But they spent thirty years in some noisy city. Can you believe it? All that time working to save money so they could come back here. Heck, they shoulda done like me, just never left. I have it all right here.” She gives one of the donkeys, Clementine, a big hug. Half-assed Farm? Think again.


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

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

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Fog travel

As night paled the outlines of the trees across the pond became more distinct. It wasn’t sunrise yet, but the dark had yielded. This is camp, where my toes at the foot of the bed are about twenty feet from the water’s edge. It is January, and the water is hard.

As smoothly as the horizon of trees had appeared, it disappeared. A white cottony mist obscured everything but a short stretch of ice in front of the cabin. I knew there was a cove across the pond, but I could not see it. I recall an old Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Brigadoon, where a traveler comes upon a village in Scotland which appears only once every one hundred years. I could not see the cove, and so had no proof it was there. It might have been carried off to join that fabled village, or something entirely different may have replaced it.

The mist became thicker, not moving or swirling, but waiting motionless above the ice.  I put on my creepers and headed out.

My husband joined me, and a few minutes from the camp the only thing visible was the bright fog and each other. Keeping the sun at my left shoulder, we cross the ice. The camp, the ice shacks, and the shoreline were all hidden. The sun was the only indication of direction, and even so it was easy to find ourselves walking first to the left, then to the right. We paused somewhere near the middle of the pond and did sunrise salutations, awkward in our snowsuits. Cobra, with my face lifted to the brighter patch of haze that hid the sun, brought me down to the ice, but the fog went right to the surface. There was no looking below it or over it, or around it. It was everywhere, and everywhere else was gone.

We are alone on the planet. A raven calls but other than that all is still, except for the occasional groaning of the ice. We are not on a pond in Maine, we are nowhere. The fog goes on forever, there is no other side of the pond, and the camp where we started has ceased to exist. We have been here days, perhaps centuries.  There is just white. No time, no space.

Driving along back roads on dark foggy nights we use words like pea soup to describe the intensity of the fog, or, here in Maine, the phrase dungeon thick.  The foghorn wails on those nights. That fog is a dense layer of cloud lying close to the surface of the ground that reduces visibility to a very specific number, less than .62 miles. One tenth of a mile more clarity, and it becomes mist.

Carl Sandburg describes it:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

But that is not this fog. This fog is eternity, and we will be here forever. We walk slowly, we run, it is all the same, we make no progress.

We stand, perhaps somewhere near the middle of the pond and decide to walk back toward the sun. The fog lets us go, and we hear voice shouting, ”Flag!” Stumbling and laughing we run to the tip-up, with its orange square of fabric bouncing gently. We pull up a perch, and head back to camp, a grey silhouette on the shoreline.




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