Day trips

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.

Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Maine destinations

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.





Another year, another camp tale

Snow patterns on Toddy Pond

Arrive in heaven, forty minutes.

The GPS gives me a countdown to arrival at camp; it is our first visit this winter, and a last-minute decision. Maine was hit with several feet of snow, the first snow of the season, and we knew the next several weekends were filled with family and trips. There was snow, freezing temperatures, and the only free weekend in sight, so off we went. Sometimes we make quite a production of going, planning menus, shopping, remembering the books, chess board, thermal socks, tea, and countless small details. Today we simply filled a box with whatever was in the fridge, and since that included a couple of lobsters, we were feeling pretty good.

At camp the sun is blinding on the ice, and while there may be work piling up at the studio, and contractors to deal with at the house we are finishing, here it is sun on ice, nothing else matters, or is even thought of.

We perform the rituals of opening camp. The door is unlocked, and I carry Drosselmeyer, our tough, solid Maine coon cat into the cabin. We start a fire, fill the wood box, and wear a path with our snowshoes as we bring in our hastily packed duffel bags, provisions and fishing gear.  At this point Dros is ready to explore, and he bounds out into the eighteen inches of powdery snow.  As he is only twelve inches tall, the snow confounds him. He leaps like a weasel, his back legs splayed out sideways as he humps his way up the hill. He’ll be back in an hour or so. I melt snow on the woodstove for him, and strain out the pine needles and moss using a coffee filter.

Gathering snow to melt on the woodstove

In addition to walking on ice and cooking on wood, my plan was to start developing ideas for the novel that has been festering. Instead I realize I will be writing about camp once again. In fact, I will probably write about camp every year. I hear the rumble as the pond makes more ice, stop writing character descriptions of the great people who seem to want to be in my story, strap on my creepers and head onto the lake. Plan house projects? Work on writing?  Forget all that. I just need to walk on ice. This is why I am here.

The surface is bubbled and lumpy, snow has melted then frozen, and the wind has carved both angular geometric patterns and soft undulating curves. The wind will continue to work its will on the pond until it is flat and shimmering, and ready to invite ice skaters. A loud crack, and I feel the ice tremble beneath my feet. A dry brown leaf taps and skids across the surface, escaping the land for an uncertain trip to the opposite shore. The ice bellows again. I don’t ever recall it being so vocal. I am told we will catch no fish today; they don’t bite when the ice is singing.

A stretch of black ice.

Camp is out of sight, and black ice stretches out at our feet. We can see cracks, and see that the ice is over eight inches thick. In Northeast Creek, Jordan Pond, and other places, the water is clear, and we lie down and watch the world beneath the ice. Here, it is just dark. I peer, and imagine shadowy figures swimming languidly beneath me, but they dissolve as I squint for a better look.

Back at camp we haul out the beach chairs my sister-in-law keeps tucked under the building. We unfold them out on the pond, staggering as the wind tries to grab them out of our hands. Firmly in place, we sip pale white wine, and watch the sun slide behind the trees, leaving the clouds glowing orange and pink like a melting Creamsicle.

End of day

There has been no flag, and no fish nibbled at our tempting live bait. This is the first time this has ever happened. We head into camp to crank up the stove to cook our lobsters. Dros bangs his head at the screen door; he is ready to come in. I scan our odd selection of goods, and plan a meal. Lobsters with fresh limes, focaccia with olive oil I have shaved our garden garlic into, and a cucumber and avocado salad.  We boil the lobsters on the stove, and give the shells to Dros, camp kitty, to devour. Camp games include chess, which we forgot to bring, Gestures and Scattergories. We rarely play games at home, but almost always do at camp, giggling and making up new rules, and tonight it is Scattergories. Then water is boiled on the wood stove to wash the dishes, and fishing gear is checked and prepped for the morning. Dark comes early at camp, and so does bedtime. I won’t say just how early we head to bed.

For tomorrow, there are a few potato pancakes from a family German dinner get-together, and a bit of my sister’s tangy, butter-tender Sauerbraten, to be warmed with a couple of scrambled eggs.

Tomorrow, when I wake, I will walk to a small cove where there is a beaver den. I will walk until I reach the sunlight. The sun comes up behind camp, and casts a shadow almost half way across the pond. When I finally reach the rays of the sun and feel its pale warmth on my face, I will do yoga, bundled and awkward in my snowsuit, which is affectionately called Mrs. Peel.

Will we then leave here and go home? Probably. But I can’t think about that now.





Cucumber Avocado Salad

Serves  four, unless you are at camp, where it serves two


Four medium pickling cucumbers, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cut into chunks.

1 Haas avocado cut onto about ¾ inch chunks.

1 T olive oil, fresh pepper to taste

½ lime

1 T red pepper jelly, warmed

Put cuke and avocado chunks in a bowl, drizzle with olive olive, and gently mix together.

Squeeze lime juice over salad, blend in jelly, and season with S+P





community Listening to the Dew: Nature Log

Seeking sunlight, we went looking for caves.

Pitch Pine grove in Otter Creek, Maine

It is the time of year when days are short. During the week it is barely light when I head to work, and usually dark when I head home. Weekends are the chance to get some sun and soak in those warm vitamin D filled rays. There are plenty of reasons to be outside—hunting down and cutting the Christmas tree, stringing lights, gathering mussels, bringing in wood for the stove—but these only give a few hours, if that, of outdoor time.

There are only sixteen short hours of daylight each weekend, weekends that include commitments like family gatherings, indoor construction projects, laundry and other household tasks. This weekend we celebrated Christmas with cousins, aunts, siblings, and in-laws. Otter Creek, where we live, and many at the gathering grew up, was of course a topic. The Tarn, a small pond where people used to skate, fish and iceboat, is filling in. Coyotes, unheard of thirty years ago, boldly sit by the road munching on their kill. Someone mentioned playing in caves were they were little, and wondered if anyone had been there lately. Caves? As we drove home I begged for more information.


I knew these would not be caves as most people think of caves—deep, extensive, a place to get lost in or explore. But I have lived in Otter Creek close to half my life, and had not heard about these caves. Sunday, I had already begged, we would get outside for some sun. Now we had a purpose, we were going to find caves.

The modest mountains of Acadia National Park have several caves. Day Mountain is a two-mile walk from our house, and the caves there are deep enough to reach a point where no daylight enters. I would crawl in, and squeeze into the little corner where light did not reach, and crouch with my eyes wide open. I played with touching my nose, and moving my hands towards each other, index fingers pointing, and seeing if I could get them to meet. This is a place I love to share with visitors.

One friend, huddled next to me, said turn on the flashlight. We gazed horrified at the dozens of large black spiders on the roof of our cranny, inches above our hair.

I was ready for some new caves. “How big?” I asked. My husband said he couldn’t really remember, but that they were big enough to fit inside. He said when he was young his grandfather told him he used to go up there with the girls. His grandfather was not specific about what they did, but the implication was they were big enough to get in out of the rain.

Sunday, chores were done or shrugged off. There was sun, glorious sun. It was twenty-one degrees. We got directions from neighbor Clyde, who has spent all his life in the Creek and knows every inch of it.

We headed up the steep hill behind the Otter Creek Hall (formerly the Congregational Church). I had walked back there a few times, and we tap trees in that area for maple syrup. We went beyond that. We followed deer trails to an old  property road, which marked a boundary of David Bracy’s land. David was one of the village settlers. The day was crisp and fine, and I was so happy to have the sun on my face that the search became secondary, as we knew it would.

After a short climb we reached an open ledge, a rocky stretch with twisted pitch pines and Dorr Mountain in the distance. There is a pitch pine grove behind my house, and these small growths are suggestive of Chinese watercolors. There is little underbrush, and the short stunted pines seem to rise out of the granite ledges. Silver grey deer moss covers the rocks. Frost edged a the opening of chipmunk hole, and we saw three more entrances to this little chipmunk community.  A large aspen had extensive beaver teeth marks along the bottom. It was a big tree, and I am not surprised he gave up.

Chipmunk hole surrounded by bits of pine cone

We continued to follow the old road, and there, plunk in the middle of the woods, was a fish shack. “That belonged to Mike Bracy,” my husband said. Around 1970 Acadia National Park employees were instructed to go to Otter Creek and destroy all the villager’s fish shacks. Later, they rebuilt Mike’s shack, and he moved it up into the woods. He was getting old, and no one really understands the logic behind the move, but there it is, a sturdy little building with newspaper insulation. Someone has sprayed a peace symbol on it, and some plastic toys lie abandoned inside the door.

Mike Bracy’s fish shack, moved from the shore to the woods.

Under a hemlock tree we saw the scrapings a buck had made with his hoof, and I was told they almost always marked their territory under an evergreen. I asked why, but did not get an answer.

After an open trail and sloping woodland floor we came upon a tumble of boulders  and ledges. There were overhangs, and some dark crevices, but nothing I would call a cave unless I was ten inches tall. Someone had been up there cutting brush, about two years ago judging by the ages of the cut marks. Several tall spruce were splattered with sap. Something, wasps, parasites, I do not know but welcome a scientist to explain, had wounded the trees and they were producing sap and making spruce gum. Otter Creek spruce gum was once sold in New York markets as chewing gum.

Spruce sap spatters on spruce tree.

The sun was already heading for the mountain that would soon hide it. We passed another hoof pattern in the earth, and sure enough it was under another hemlock. Could it be buck’s mark elsewhere, but it is only in the clear, needle covered space that we notice it?

I have had some sun, and while I did not get to crawl into a spider infested cave, I have learned a little more about the people who came before me in this village of mine, and explored a few hills and ledges I had never seen before.


Granite rocks in Otter Creek

A young cave




Tying one on

Assorted string

String, twine, rope, and ribbon, once part of everyday life, are seen less and less. The lumpy Kraft paper package tied up with fraying cord that was delivered parcel post is now rejected by the United States Postal Service. They want uniformity. Odd shaped bundles that ignited the receiver’s curiosity have been replaced with a half dozen standard ready-to-assemble priority boxes, complete with self-seal adhesive, no string required or even accepted. String may not be on the endangered list, but its homely presence is no longer a daily occurrence.

My dad had a varied assortment of string and cord, some was on spools, some in a bag, and others wrapped around shingles. He never passed any up at yard sales or flea markets. A giant spool, ten inches tall and eight inches in circumference, offered a lifetime supply of orange nylon cord. There was black cotton twine, brown-gray jute, and a white string in some other material that he would pass through a flame to melt and stop from fraying.

As children, my dad’s string was frequently resorted to. We made cat’s cradles, macramé hanging plant holders, and used it for jewelry. It was called into service to hang Christmas ornaments, and tied around the knob of a door that was then slammed shut to pull a tooth. I do not ever remember buying string at a store. We had whatever I might need for a project, hanging on the wall in his shop, neat and arranged by weight and type. His string was never in tangle, just as his knives were never dull. This was a man with a full-time job, three kids, and always in the midst of a project, from swimming pool deck, to fieldstone fireplace to growing award-winning beefsteak tomatoes or learning German. He still had the time to keep his string tidy.

Dad, of course, was not the only one with a string stash. Most households had a collection of it. String was a commonplace and completely simple commodity. It still is, but the three feet of twine that wrapped bundles of wood at the campground has been replaced with ten or more feet of clear stretchy plastic. The box from the bakery that was once tied up with white cotton string, offering a convenient carrying handle, is now quickly taped closed and handed over. We are certainly not a stringless society, but as it becomes replaced with tape, staples or plastic, the times we do tie things up are becoming more and more infrequent.

There is such a variety of string–so many hues, weights, and uses. My dad’s collection was beautiful. My more modest collection is a colorful assortment in a corner of the shed, admittedly not as neat as his, but an artistic still life nonetheless. While much string can be used for many purposes, string was also specialized. There was green gardener’s string, lightweight kite string, packing string, guitar string, fishing line, and some tightly twisted black string whose original purpose is long lost. And then there was a golden-brown rough twine used for bundling hay. This has been replaced with wire, but in the early 1900’s it was this honey colored and grass-scented twine that kept hay bundled into blocks for delivery as fodder.

Hundreds of pieces of string, saved from hay bales, tied together.

I know this because we have a wooden board with u-shaped curves at each end, which is wrapped with yards of hay twine. Some farmer carefully took the string off each bale of hay he used to feed his cattle. He accumulated these pieces all summer, and the following winter tied them together with tight square knots and wrapped it around the wooden holder he had made. Silvery gray pencil in an elegant script stated the year, 1938, and the total length of the twine. As he used it, he would cross off the old length, and pencil in the remaining amount.

The time required to do this is astounding. I marvel as imagine this unknown farmer tying a small tight knot and reaching for another rough length to add. A winter task, he probably knotted after dark, with a fire burning, and I see him in a high-backed comfortable chair with a dwindling mound of loose twine at one side, a growing roll of neatly tied string on the other. It is evidence of the importance of string and of the frugality of the beginning of this century. To save all those pieces, tie them together, wrap the new long length, and then use this string, is classic Yankee thrift. Decades later we look at this with respect and awe. Today, that bale string would be pulled off and tossed.


String is still utilitarian, but these painstakingly saved and tied rolls are works of art. Barbara Kurgan, designer and stylist from Otter Creek and New York City, has a deep appreciation of the beauty of string. She collects and displays balls of string and string accoutrements. String in mass, or as a ball, appeals to her. Her kitchen has an eight-inch tall spool of red and white baker’s string, and near it is a perfectly round ball of red twine perched on a string holder.  She is a collector, and her string collection mingles with her other collections on display in deep curio cabinet.

Baker’s twine in Barbara Kurgan’s kitchen

“String is rife with potential,” Barbara says. “I love when something natural has been transformed by man to fulfill a function, a wolf becomes a dog, and fiber becomes string.” She also likes all the words and phrases associated with string. “Think of the nuances,” she says, “Tie downs, tie one on, string someone along, string theory, strung out.”  She lifts a large flat spool from the cabinet. “This came from Japan, and is spun from twisted unbleached paper. I got it years ago, long before the ‘Green Movement’.” It is now in Maine, and while it is still string and capable of performing its function, it has been transformed once more. It is now captive in a tableau, and viewed for its shape and color and texture and the story it tells.

Curio cabinet with display of string and other objects in Kurgan’s Maine home

String, mundane, humble, and practical, is never showy or frivolous. Its simplicity is appealing. There are only two basic types, braided, and twined or twisted. Single-ply string is made by spinning fiber or fur, and can be made from nettles, hemp, maple, cotton, straw, jute, rabbit fur, sheep’s wool, alpaca, and the cocoons of larvae. There are even businesses which make yarn out of the fur from your cat or dog. It can be collected it when you groom your pet–my Maine coon needs frequent brushing, and soft brown and black kitty fur mittens are in my future.

After spinning the fur or fiber, the single strands are then twisted or braided. Thread with two strands is called two-ply, string with twenty strands is twenty-ply. It is then formed into balls, or wrapped around spools or bobbins. One single perfect strand is beautiful; a group of spools and balls become art. A massive ball becomes a tourist attraction. Francis Johnson rolled one ball of twine for twenty-nine years, eventually building a plexi-glass shed to protect and display it. Finley Stephens of Missouri rolled a ball of string weighing 3,712 pounds. It is now a draw at O’Malley’s Irish Pub in Weston, Missouri. He used packing string, gathered from area post offices. The post offices no longer use string, Mr. Stephens has died, and the ball of string will grow no more.

We may not use string as much as we once did, but when we do there is comfort and familiarity. String has remained relatively unchanged, and I tie a knot just as my mother did, and her mother’s mother’s mother. Together we form a long line, a string of string users, past, present and future, and we are slowly, inexorably, being rolled into a giant, record-breaking, ball of twine.



Listening to the Dew: Nature Log

Mushroom fever

The start of our large autumn harvest

Death by mushroom happens every year, as it has for hundreds of years, but it does not deter me from gathering my favorite edible fungus, Grifola frondosa, sometimes called hen of the woods. Death in mushroom is a newer concept, and one I first heard of at a recent mushroom party. As a gatherer and eater of wild mushrooms, and someone who loves wandering old cemeteries but never wants to be in one, being buried in a mushroom shroud has a purity and simplicity that appeals.

It is mid October, leaf peeper season, and the leaves of the trees are burnt orange with an occasional blast of bright red. Storms have not yet stripped the branches, and photographers gather at choice locations to capture the glory of the Maine autumn. It has been a spectacular and long-lasting fall. This is also maitake season. My husband has joined me foraging, and our first outing yielded a half dozen rosettes of these earthy and flavorful mushrooms. More than once we filled the trunk of the car, and gladly gave them to fellow mushroom lovers. This fall we harvested about a hundred pounds. Other gatherers are collecting massive amounts as well. An abundance of color has coincided with an abundance of maitake several times. Years with few mushrooms have been paired with less than glorious foliage. Coincidence, or do the same weather conditions and temperatures that stimulate vibrant fall leaf colors also promote maitake growth? If there is a scientific connection I would like to know, but not knowing doesn’t dampen my mushroom fever at seeing so many giant fungi, and I cannot stop gathering them.

The color of old oak leaves and dead pine needles maitake often blend into the forest floor. It is their height and rose blossom shape that I spot.

In late September we drove along a dirt road though an old forest. ”Stop,’” I called. It was the first spotting of the season. Three large clumps of maitake rose above the ground cover of damp oak leaves, but they were blackened and gelatinous. They would grace no one’s table. Maitake have a firm slightly toothy texture when cooked, and retain their shape and size, not diminishing the way commercial white mushrooms do. Their flavor is deep and full, earthy and buttery. We have found them in other months, but it is late September and early October when we hunt them seriously. Fall is also prime time for many other mushrooms in Maine—hedgehogs, black trumpets, or a second fruiting of chanterelles. It is also the season for Laeitoporus sulphureus, or chicken of the woods, and we have harvested a good year’s supply from the stump of a two hundred year old ash tree just cut down at my husband’s family camp. These bright orange mushrooms are meaty, do not have much water content and when cooked are very like chicken in texture. Delicious, but it is maitake that capture my soul.


Varying shades of brown, the maitake mushroom resembles a giant dried rose with velvety petals curving away from a hidden center.

There are a few locations we check annually, and some produce year after year. Harvests vary widely, though. Last year we had perhaps five pounds, all were eaten or shared, and none saved for the winter. Next year may be equally slim. And so it was that this year’s bounty was greedily collected. We ate maitake in omelets and we added it to soup and stews. We sautéed it with bacon and added cream and rosemary for a pasta sauce. We had maitake and Swiss cheese quesadillas. My husband went off on a fishing trip, and I looked at the close to hundred pounds of fresh maitake on the table in the backyard. It was the first time I ever gazed at these delicious monsters with dismay. They might still be fine in a few days when he returned to help process them, but they might not, and to pick them and not use them was not an option.

A few phone calls and the mushroom party was on. The model is as old as community. I had mushrooms, and I needed help. The friends who came took away half of what they bagged, we had plenty for our winter supply, and in a few hours the table buried in mushrooms was bare. It is a simple formula to share a harvest, and share an evening. We covered the dining room table in paper and everyone took a pile of mushroom, a soft brush to clean off dirt, and a knife to cut away any spongy or questionable areas. Wine was poured; local feta, seedy crackers, and red pepper quiche were consumed.

Alexandra, Tammy and Marilyn clean mushrooms, there was plenty for everyone.

This was a hen gathering, quite appropriate for hen of the woods. There is freedom in a gathering of all women, laughter flows and hands never stop working. We exchanged information. “Where does one find all these mushrooms?” Tammy asked. While it was indeed a shame I had to pretend I had forgotten exactly where we found them, I could at least offer advice–they are most commonly found at the base of older oaks, usually trees with signs of damage such as a dead limb or lightening strike.

Maitake still life by Tammy Packie

We all had suggestions for preparing them, but conversation rambled down many other roads. I had passed a four-foot tall houseplant in a garish plastic Italianate urn to Marilyn, one of my mushroom-cleaning friends. I had been slowly killing the plant, but the urn was un-killable, and I could not just throw them out. “Flourishing,” she reassured me, “The dead leaves are all gone, and it is healthy and thriving.” “Still in that baroque pot? I asked. “Er, no,” she replied. “Does anyone want it?” she asked all us around the table. There were no takers, and suggestions of gold spray paint, theatre groups, Halloween décor, and anonymously gifting to a problematic landlord were offered. The conversation veered to cremation urns, which this unfortunate plastic pot resembled, and right back to mushrooms. We were, after all, sitting with one hundred dwindling pounds of mushrooms in front of us.


Maitake rose, by Tammy Packie

Forget urns or coffins–be buried in a corpse-consuming mushroom suit. Mushroom shrouds–I had never heard of them, but am right on board. Marilyn’s daughter told us about them, and it is a simply brilliant idea.

Jae Rhim Lee, visual artist and human-environment researcher, has founded the Infinity Death Project. The project includes a fungi-laced shroud as well as exploring cultural aspects of death denial.

From DEAF Expo, Rotterdam 2012: The Mushroom Death Suit consists of a base layer of cotton and a top layer of netting embedded with mushroom spores and mycelium, which allows the fungi to grow and spread across the body. The ‘Alternative Embalming Fluid’, liquid spore slurry that allows spores to develop and grow inside the body, accompanies the suit. Lee is training fungi to consume her own body tissue and excretions (skin, hair, nails, blood, bone, fat, tears, urine, feces and sweat) as part of her Infinity Burial Project.

Lee was asked in an interview, “How does one train a mushroom?”
Her answer: “Although the mushrooms I’m using prefer wood-based food sources, mushrooms will pretty much eat anything. The training process involves introducing different food sources to the mushrooms and then slowly depriving the mushrooms of wood-based substances. One mycologist has even trained mushrooms to eat plastics like Bakelite. “

The stylish mushroom suit

Before learning about the mushroom suit I had requested my family donate my body to science to have eyes, heart, kidney, every usable organ used, and then let some pre-med student practice on the rest. I have held firm to this for decades. My mind was changed at the mushroom party. My organs will still be donated, but the premed student loses out. A consumer of mushrooms, being consumed by them has a sense of circular completion. I will eat maitake, chanterelles, morels, trumpets, whatever fungi is in season, with even more relish, knowing that as they sustain and give me pleasure now, I will be one day feeding them.

Mushroom party is over, but we took away an evening full of laughter, boxes full of maitake, and a plans for a new wardrobe addition–the mushroom death suit.

If you gather from private property, please ask permission first. Lucky us, one of our sources is a neighbor who shudders at the thought of eating fungus. Oaks are frequently found near cemeteries, but my advice is to not gather in an area that systemic pesticides just might, maybe have been used. I would also never harvest from a tree close to a golf course. Those greens are pristine and beautifully maintained but mycelia draw from a fairly large area. It is possible that maitake do not pull nutrients beyond their host tree, but I am not taking that chance. Scientists, please tell me if you know, I have seen some lovely specimens at the edge of a golf course I just walked away from. (And lived to tell).


In The Garden

Back to Green

Grape leaves with water drops

The plants in my garden flower abundantly in the Spring and Summer, going from the dreamy mauve and pink of lupines and bleeding heart to bold orange day lilies, blazing scarlet Monarda and deep purple monkshood. Now it is Labor Day, September, and instead of bloom I have green tinged with brown, and yellowing leaves. Some I will leave all winter–the flower caps of Queen Anne’s Lace provide a frilly cup to hold a serving of light winter snow, and the globe thistle create a spiky silhouette against the white ground. But now they just accuse me of neglect. I try to recall when I last tended the garden, and acknowledge the accusation is justified.

In Spring I weed and plant and live and breathe my gardens. Green, all that green after a dark winter inspires me and I wake to tend the returning flowers, shrubs and vines. I prune and thin and transplant as needed. Then I just step back and admire from a distance. In mid-July there is a massive invasion of unwanted growth, and I spend a few hours in a frenzy of weed-pulling, moving with determination from one flowerbed to the next, filling the wheelbarrow again and again.

Fading Queen Anne’s Lace

Then August blurs by in bike rides, boat rides, fund-raising dinners, family visits and no weeding. Today is Labor Day, and there it is once again, my September garden of green and brown. A pale Autumn Joy sedum is just starting to come into color and a late-blooming phlox adds some crisp white, but seed pods, yellowing leaves and dried flowerheads predominate. It has not always been like this for me. When I had a tiny in-town house with a picket-fence enclosing a tiny yard, I had the seasons under control. I had over-laying sheets of graph paper with neatly labeled plants, one for each season, so in spring I would know not to inadvertently plant on top of a yet to emerge platycodon or other late awakener. But 1600 square feet is a radical difference from an acre, and I have yet to master continual bloom here in Otter Creek. There is also a vegetable garden that requires attention, and so year after year I look around in September and sigh at the lack of color, while out of sight there are gaudy red tomatoes, ruby chard, glowing sunflowers, and vibrant squash blossoms.

Next year, I always say. That ten-foot run of phlox could be dug back to two, and surrounded with fall flowers. The Chelone is out of control, and a reducing it to a modest four-foot circle would leave additional area for Echinacea and rudbeckia. I sip my dark smoky tea, and really look at the weedy mess.

Last petals on the hydrangea

The overgrown patches are lush and full, tangled branches tumble under and over each other. Silver webs stretch from a flowerhead to a neighboring leaf, and the drops of dew, so many every night that the mornings sometimes seem washed by a light rain, reflect the light of the rising sun. There is sound, too. No gentle spring garden or showy summer blooms offer this. The leaves murmur, and there is a constant tip tap tap. It comes from all around, in the garden and from the trees above. A hiss and tremolo comes from the left, and I hear a sweet shimmering trill on the right.

The grapevines droop, each leaf holding a bright white spot of water on its tip. One drop falls with an audible “tupp” onto the leaf below. This leaf is then overloaded, and bends to send its drop and the newcomer to the next leaf. Many leaves are doing this, and the entire wall of vine is shimmying and sending out a chorus of “tip-tap –plop,” as the leaves, relieved of the weight of water, spring back up.

The climbing hydrangea near the grapes has a small fringe of white petals along the edge of what were massive flowerheads. A breeze shivers through the weeping cherry, and a lone petal drifts away from the hydrangea and descends to the browning grass, accompanied by the rustling applause of a yellowing trumpet vine, and the nodding encouragement of the Queen Anne’s Lace seed cups.

My gaze and ears continue to take in the weedy green again garden. Lazy for sure, but I think perhaps I will not pull out half the phlox and three-quarters of the chelone to plant a patch of September bloomers, after all.

Dried thistle pod

Day trips Destinations Festivals Maine destinations

The people behind the plane

Fly-in in Greenville this weekend–it’s all about planes.

Fly-in  in Greenville, Maine

Gary Norris at the fly-in in Greenville, Maine

Gary and Maureen Norris
The white Cessna 180 bobs and shifts on the sparkling waters of Moosehead Lake. Gary Norris and his wife Maureen pull their canoe off the pontoons and tie the seaplane up at the dock. The announcer checks their time and broadcasts “Second place.” Maureen yells out a resounding “Yes!” then bounces up and down and jumps into her husband’s arms. It is the Greenville Fly-in, and Gary and Maureen have just finished their run at bush pilot’s canoe race. Energy levels are at a bursting point, and this couple is charged up.

“We live and breathe this weekend,” Maureen says.

“We missed a few years ago. And that was really hard,” Gary adds.
The sweet little plane nestled against the shore did not look so pretty four years ago. It was Gary’s first plane and a childhood dream come true. “I always wanted a plane as a kid, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would own one.”

The Cessna had been a vivid orange. “We called it the flying pumpkin.” Maureen says, They flew it at the competition in Greenville but in the second year the engine went.

Fifty- two weeks until the next fly-in, and as long as they were putting in a new engine, they figured they might as well do a complete restoration. This may not be logical to everyone, but for Gary and Maureen it was a natural conclusion. “We devoted every weekend and many a week night for a year to this plane” Gary says. “A new engine, and we gutted the inside and stripped the paint.” They had it repainted white. Why white? There is no answer, but white it had to be. Gary owns a flooring business, and all the company trucks are white. His personal vehicle is white, the Toyota Landcruiser they bought to keep at camp on Moosehead is white, and Maureen‘s Denali is white.

Gary is soft-spoken and resolute, Maureen exuberant and sparkling, and together they get things done. People call them Rooster and co-pilot. Maureen is a convert, though. Although her dad was a pilot, planes were simply not her thing. Gary, however, has been obsessed since he could crawl. And it wasn’t just planes, it was seaplanes. “I’d hear one when I was a kid, and run down to the dock to see it come in. A DeHaviland Beaver. What a plane.” Gary has made most of his dreams come true, but has yet to get a DeHaviland. “We keep buying megabucks” Maureen quips, but if the Dehaviland comes into their lives, chances are it will be bought with hard work and total focus. A brief stint with Amway reinforced Gary’s natural tendency to visualization. “See what you want, pin a picture on your refrigerator, and concentrate on getting it. You will.” For Gary this works. “I buy what I can afford” is his philosophy, and if he needs to work more to afford something, that is just the price you pay.

“I dreamed of planes as a kid, but never even thought for a second I might ever sit in one, and owning one? No. Not a possibility. We were poor, our house burned down, and I lived in a tent. Never had running water. When I was twelve I worked on a farm so I could have a little money.”

Gary is pragmatic about a pretty hard childhood. “When I was 14-15-16 I worked at a flooring company, we didn’t have money, I wanted something, I had to earn the money myself.”

But he still dreamed of flying. High school graduation, it was time to decide what to do with his life. Gary joined the army. He had wanted to join the air force, be a pilot. Fly. But his mother, who had not been able to live her own dreams, thought she was giving good advice when she told him not to bother, “Your grades aren’t good enough, forget being a pilot.” she said. Gary did not try. This is a man who sets a goal and then achieves it. But, as a teenager, he did not have the clear vision he has today. “I didn’t even try, and I regret that.” One of Gary’s few regrets.

When Gary got out of the army he came back to Maine, to his family. He worked for the same flooring company he had worked for as a kid. He might still be an installer for this company, but they went out of business. Gary had always worked extra hours, filled in for other installers, did carpet installation on weekends and evenings. “If you put down a yard a day, you got paid for a yard, if you put down fifty, you got paid for fifty.” Hard work, honest work, and it helped Gary turn from a one-man operation to a respected member of the business community. “There are bigger carpet installers out there, but we have a reputation. Even when it was just me, I was there when I said, I charged what I said.” And that has not changed.

Gary is the American Dream before it went haywire. He is living the life he wants, earning the money he needs, and facing every morning knowing he does not owe anyone anything. Most recent dream? A hunting camp in Alaska. He bought one last year, and the first time he was dropped in he spent a week putting on a new roof. “I worked until midnight more than once.” You know he is not exaggerating. And if he does not have an immediate goal he just works and saves. “He’s like a squirrel” Maureen says, “He doesn’t even know where all his nuts are buried.”

But he knows what makes him happy, and that is flying. And working hard. He is flying a 180 today, working hard everyday, and if that Dehaviland Beaver is off the refrigerator door and on the strip it will not be such a surprise.

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.

community Day to day

Just squidding around

Sydney’s dad shows the soft skin and colors of a squid.

Pale and luminous, the squid drift in a group towards our lures, and then scatter. Their movement is smooth, so different from fish that swim with tail flicks and fins. They slide. Propelled by sucking water and then forcing it out of their body cavity their path is straight and direct, not curving and swaying like a fish. Standing on the pier watching them in the bright lights that shine on the water their silence seems deeper, larger, and more palpable than that of the mackerel that swim nearby.

Catching squid is supposedly easy, but we are not getting any. The lures we bought are heavy, and when we shine our flashlights on them they cast a soft luminous green glow, not unlike the squid itself. The squid come near them, check them out, but are not fooled. We are just so fascinated to see these tentacled creatures stealthily pulsing through the water, always in a pack, that we do not care. We have a picnic: bread and olive oil, sliced cucumbers, molten goat cheese and warm sweet tomatoes from the garden sprinkled with our own sea salt. It is a family outing, and the kids are squid fishing, eating, and chasing each other, while we squid fish and eat. And plot the next squid expedition.

Setting up the picnic to squid by.

A week later we try again, this time going to Northeast Harbor, two inlets over from Otter Creek. We are surprised to see the dock filled with people, and then astounded at the number of milky squid sliding back and forth in the water below. One young boy is pulling a spinning squid through the air, and his dad gently strokes it and unhooks it, then adds it to their bucket.

We have just encountered Sidney, perhaps thirteen years old, a squid whisperer for sure. One family is just leaving, and say they have caught two squid, but that they watched Sydney, who they call Squidney, pull them in as quickly as he can throw his lure back into the water.

We toss out our heavy lures, and again the squid scatter. Sydney casts his small blue lure and draws it across the surface. He snags a squid, the tentacles spin, spraying water, and he pulls it through the air. Again his dad unhooks, and this time shows us the speckled pattern on the squid’s skin. He remarks that some have a deep red color, while others are pale. As he holds it the color changes. The squid is dying, but he is held with reverence, and it does not seem a cruel passage.

Sydney pulls in another squid

Sydney is happy to share his skills, and shows us his lure, much lighter than ours. I toss mine in, and Sydney gives advice on jigging and how to create movement that will attract the squid. He then he tosses his line back in and thirty seconds later pulls up a squid. Young Sydney is unknowingly modest. He believes I, too, could catch buckets of squid if I had that lure. I am skeptical. I will order some, but I think it is more than the lure, it is Sydney’s skill and dexterity.

His dad agrees. He generously tells us where to get that lure, and then says, “We were both fishing, but Sydney kept catching them, not me, so I just help him.“ It is a lovely father-son partnership. They share a respect and love for squid. Sydney sees a baby squid, and begs his dad to let him catch it and keep it in an aquarium so he can study it. But they do not have an aquarium, and so the baby squid is left alone. They both tell us squid habits, and that squid are smart. “After a while in one spot, the squid tell each other to stay away from our lure, it is taking their brothers away.” I believe. Sydney tells me how they swim in one way when content, and another when looking for food. He has observed them and paid attention.

The father cups Sydney’s most recent catch in his hand and shows us how to clean a squid. The entire time he speaks to us he is stroking the squid, and I reach out and run my fingers along the firm smooth flesh. Yes, I feel love.

Squid have ornate patterns on their flesh.

We talk recipes. I am making paella the next night, which is one of the reasons we came to catch squid, and Sydney asks us to please take some of his. We do, and he and his dad know they will be respected. But we are not done. The night is fine, the air calm, and we continue to optimistically toss our clunky lures among the cruising squid, as we watch Sydney pull one after another high through the air.

Then–fast, large, and dark–a wide, fat, seal races into the group of squid. We yank our lures out of the water and a hundred squid explode, shooting two feet above the surface of the water and sending water spray in all directions as they make desperate leaps away from their predator. The light on the erupting water droplets, the shimmer of the colorful skin of the squid–it is finer than Bar Harbor’s Fourth of July fireworks. The seal circles two more times before heading out of the narrow area between the dock and the floats. And the squid return to their calm silent cruising.

We also leave. Sydney’s dad has been suggesting they go home for about half an hour. But the squid are still thick, and as we walk up the ramp to the car we hear Sydney say, “Just one more, please dad?”

Squid tentacles

A squid’s tentacles with a golden glow.

Dramatis Personae

Samovars, Nijinsky, and Russian tea in Otter Creek

Steaming cups of strong black tea, silk-gowned ladies on a wide wrap-around porch, and yeast rolls that never fail–the Russian Tea Rooms were an exotic destination in the rural landscape of Otter Creek. Here secrets were whispered on the piazza, business deals made in front of the fire, and dull to titillating conversations exchanged between royalty and rusticators.

Beautiful stonework remains from the Russian Tea House.

The Tea Rooms, called the Tea House on some maps, or simply Romanoff according to the Bar Harbor Record, opened in 1899 on the Otter Cliff Road, then part of Ocean Drive.

It was a meeting place for the many summer visitors to Mount Desert Island. Carriages would bring the merry groups out, or the more ambitious would follow the old native American trail from Bar Harbor. A writer of the time describes the scene: “Coaching parties (to Otter Creek and Jordon Pond) have been quite in vogue this season, and the crack of the whip, the rumble of wheels, and the clear notes of the bugle are familiar sounds…” (The New York Times, September 13, 1903)

Social columns of local and city newspapers reported the parties given at the Tea House, and listed the names of the illustrious guests. On August 15, 1902 “A dinner was given at the Russian Tea House tonight by Mr. and Mrs. Louis von Gaertner. Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Pendleton, Prince Del Drago, Mrs. Roberts, Miss Godwin, Mr. and Mrs. Wetzeler, and Mr. Bass.” The town must have buzzed when a few years later the prince, 27 years old, married the wealthy widow, Mrs. Schmid, 50.

The Tea House overlooked Otter Cove. Where there is now a forest, lawn would have stretched down to the water. The view from the piazza would have been wide and quite likely offered vistas of the mouth of the cove to the ocean.

The grounds of the Tea House were a gathering place as well as the restaurant itself. The summer residents of Mount Desert Island, called rusticators because they felt life here was simple compared to their worlds in Boston, Philadelphia or New York, would picnic on the grassy field between the Tea House and the water. Henry Van Dyke, in his short story “A Holiday In A Vacation,” says “There were plenty of places considered proper for picnics, like Jordan’s Pond, and Great Cranberry Island, and the Russian Tea-house, and the Log Cabin Tea-house, where you would be sure to meet other people who also were bent on picnicking… There were dinner parties, and tea parties, and garden parties, and sea parties, and luncheon parties, masculine and feminine, and a horse-show at Bar Harbor, and a gymkhana at North East, and dances at all the Harbors.”

Granite that has been through a fire is not stable enough to build a house on.

But it was the Tea House, an imposing grey Victorian with a vine-covered porch and cozy dining rooms that was the real draw–that, and being taken care of. Log fires kept any evening chill away, and small nooks and corners provided comfortable spots for catching up with friends. Private parties were treated like the royalty some of them were, and Mrs. Robertoff, the proprietor, made sure everything went smoothly. She was such a conscientious owner that the Bar Harbor Record described her as ”looking after everyone’s comfort in her own pleasant way.” (1911)

A few short years later Mrs. Robertoff is gone. The local
newspaper ran an ad in 1915:
The Russian Tea House
Ocean Drive
Open to the public June 12, 1915
Under New management
Arrangements made for week-end parties.
Chicken suppers and lobster dinners a specialty.
Telephone 66

Advertisement for the seasonal opening of the Russian Tea House, Otter Creek, Maine.

The following summer Vaslav Nijinsky summered here on Mount Desert Island. His wife says that he spent countless hours practicing at the Building of Arts, just a few miles from the Tea House. Did he and Ramona have tea in Otter Creek? It is here that the record gets dim, and the next mention of the Tea House is when it had new owners, George and Hilda Renwick, and it was their home, not a business.

George was from Scotland, a Latin teacher and a gardener. The Tea House property was over a hundred acres, and he planted over eight varieties of apple trees. George had a large greenhouse across the street from the house. Lilies and other cultivated flowers still bloom in the field where it stood. A Harvard graduate, he was described as crusty by Dennis Smith who worked in the greenhouses as a child. “He drove an old black Ford like a wildman, smoking a pipe, and careening corners.”

George married Hilda Emory, and their niece Charlotte Harlan used to visit them in Otter Creek. She recalls summers on the wide porch, and gatherings inside around a piano, where family and friends spent evenings singing and making music. George had tenor voice, and years later sang at her wedding.

The Tea House was destroyed in the Fire of 1947, which burned much of the island. Charlotte remembers the phone call and hearing about Hilda fleeing in her nightdress. Their house was the last one to burn before the fire was stopped, sparing the rest of Otter Creek. George and Hilda’s moved down the street to house still called the Renwick House but their lives never fully recovered.

The property was sold after their deaths to the current owners, Gail and Henry Grandgent. They planned to build a house on the Tea House’s foundation but were advised that granite that has been under extreme heat was not stable. Instead, they built a charming home just past the ruins, with a view to the cove and old quarry, and plan to create gardens among the old granite walls of the Tea House. Gail, who has boxes of exotic teas lining the shelf of her kitchen, may bring her cup into that garden room and once again tea will be sipped on the site of the Russian Teahouse.

Bricks from the fireplace Prince Del Drago once warmed himself in front of.