In the turning of the seasons, we give thanks

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They are treasured old friends, those forest places that we walk until we know them with every fabric of our body, and soul. We return, unbidden, adding layers of memory as the seasons pass. On the blank canvas of a place, we paint the story of our time together.

So it is with the trail behind our house, the less-than-two-miles out and back that I walk most often. Late one fall afternoon, not long ago, I followed the path through a gap in the mossy old stone wall, to an opening under a few magnificent hemlocks. This spot has always drawn me, and I often pause there. 

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My thoughts rushed back from wherever they’d been wandering when something moved, close beside the path. A spiky hummock of quills, its back turned toward me. This was my first porcupine in “my” woods and deceptively quick despite its cumbersome gait. It wasted no time reaching a tree and climbing steadily to safety.

This encounter will forever enliven this bend in the trail. No matter the season, on my homeward way, I’ll conjure up a prickly ball in the crotch of that tree, framed by the yellow leaves of fall. Just as I’ll remember the night I looked up into the surprising face of the full moon, shining white behind the firs. And farther along, the hill where an owl had snatched a mouse, leaving only the marks of its broad sweeping wings.

Since that fall afternoon, the snows have come, early for our part of Maine, and we’ve embraced the turning of the seasons to this time of gratitude. I think how our lives, too, consist of layers upon layers.

This Thanksgiving, we will gather in another log cabin, in Virginia, for the first Thanksgiving hosted by the new generation. Megan and Jacob will fill their home to bursting, stretching the seating and sleeping and serving, with the aesthetic creativity of two graphic designers.

As we paint new memories, they will never replace those that went before. The years of Dad’s rousing voice singing Over the River and Through the Woods. Searching for hazelnuts in a worn wooden bowl heaped with nuts that you had to crack yourself. Grandma Searls, urging everyone to “eat some turnips for the Pilgrims.” New on old, forever and ever, or at least for today.

This then is my prayer for all of you, that you paint memories anew this Thanksgiving. That you embrace the turning of the seasons, from prickly porcupines to the frosting of the forest, and that this season of gratitude brings you joy. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Simply delightful

Yesterday I woke up full of energy and anticipation. Saturday, October 20th was an unheard of, empty-square-on-the-calendar day. Lately, I’ve been marathoning through, doing whatever it takes to satisfy my school, family, community, and author roles. With the Kindle release of Upwards, I’ve been glued to my laptop far more than I should.

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For a day forecast to be sunny and 60 degrees, it did not have an auspicious start. The first pale light of morning revealed trees already bending to a vigorous, audible wind, under thick cloudy skies. In fact, a gale warning was in effect until mid-afternoon. Perhaps I would start with the safe chore of stacking wood, I thought.

 

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A tidy porch and empty wood rack beckoned

Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, was running through my mind as I headed out to the garage. Did you know that the song “Simple Gifts,” also used as the tune for “Lord of the Dance,” was composed by Joseph Brackett, a Shaker elder from Maine, in 1848?

I like stacking wood. The orderly pattern pleases me. There’s the puzzle component, fitting the pieces together just so, while arms and shoulders grow gradually weary. Today, rather than use the tractor, I decided to haul it by the armload. Lots of armloads.

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Sometimes the camera forces you to see the beauty right in front of you
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My artwork for the day

After some Biscay Orchards cider, cheese, and crackers, I headed for Dodge Point, one of our local preserves. There’s a lot of history entwined in this 500-acre property on Newcastle’s River Road. A brick factory there, on the Damariscotta River, left behind a mosaic of brick-red fragments, which can be found all along the shore. Today, though, I crossed the heart of the preserve on the Ravine Trail.

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Not surprisingly, the brilliant reds had mostly fled and even the yellows looked rather tired. The beech leaves, though, were still stubbornly green, just beginning to move toward yellow. I knew they would cling to their branches until spring, keeping skiers and snowshoers company with their papery rustle throughout the long winter.

The trail skirts Ice Pond, once a local source of ice for cooling old-fashioned iceboxes. Looking at the relatively small pond, I wondered what qualifications made one pond more attractive than another for cutting ice. Perhaps in this case it was just proximity.

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A day like this should end in a boat and mine did. The far shore of Little Pond was bathed in golden sunlight as I slid my old canoe into the water. I made a slow circuit of the pond, to the “kee, kee” of a soaring red-tailed hawk.

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For perhaps the last time this year, I followed the path of the setting sun toward the western shore. There, in the shade, the colors were reflected with surprising intensity. Out in deeper water, a large fish jumped, and a flight of ducks took flight in a bright spray of water. I lingered as the moon rose and the sky behind me took on a pinkish hue.

Whether I would return again this season, I did not know, but this place and its spirit, its life and rhythms would stay with me, within the memory of a day of simple delights.

 

The icing on the cake, Upwards e-book on Kindle today

Just in case you can’t wait another moment, the Kindle version is available here, for $9.99.  

Upwards cover 2nd printing

 

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My daughter Megan celebrated her first birthday on vacation in Maine

Somehow I can’t think of first birthdays without thinking of cake and icing, chocolate being the most effective, smeared across chubby cheeks. Forget the presents, which the older kids are always glad to rip open. The real joy is in the smashing glory of the cake.

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Picking up the second printing back in May

Today marks the first birthday of Upwards and the culmination of a rewarding, fulfilling year for me. With your help, we are well into our second printing and looking forward to a jam-packed season of holiday events. And more than the numbers – 47 author events and a bank account almost in the black – is the joy of the people. In the indie bookstores and libraries at the heart of communities from the Adirondacks to Maine. In the words of cards and emails that both thrill and humble me. In the memories of readers’ stories.

Eleventy-first birthdays make me think of Bilbo Baggins, that most beloved hobbit, and his party of “special magnificence.” Though we don’t have any of Gandalf’s magical fireworks, today would also have been the 111th birthday of my maternal grandmother, Janice Sutherland Crowell Wheeler.

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Four generations, from Grandma Jan to tiny Megan

“Growing up,” I wrote a year ago, “Grandma Jan and I shared a love of books and birds and wildflower walks. Through her, I discovered treasured favorites like The Secret Garden, and she encouraged me to publish my first article at age 13. I have chosen today, October 19, 2017 as the official release date…in honor of a very special woman.”

A year later and another milestone, as we release the Amazon Kindle version of Upwards. I’m not sure what Grandma Jan would make of that. She worked in a library, with books whose pages you could turn as you read to a small granddaughter. Her nature guides and history books were filled with notes in a scribbly hand that got harder to decipher as the years rolled by. What would she have thought of reading on a screen?

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…the man who never reads lives only one.     George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

I believe I know. She wanted everyone to love books, and read them. With Kindle, travelers can carry dozens of titles on one small device and read to their heart’s content. There are some whose vision is so much happier with zoomed up print. My book will even be enrolled in a lending library, with royalties coming in each time a page is read. New horizons, for a new year…happy 1st birthday, Upwards!

If you’re visiting for the first time, welcome and please consider subscribing by clicking the blue button, on the right sidebar. Explore the blog, from poetry to stories of building homes in Honduras or passing through Greenland’s Prince Christian Sound. Learn more about Upwards and my NFCT thru-paddle here. For those who love Upwards, Amazon reviews would make a wonderful Christmas gift for this grateful author! Thank you.

 

A blog post at last

Hello from your long-lost writer and many apologies for the months of silence. I last left you in France, an eternity ago, and certainly have some catching up to do.

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After spending most of the summer of 2017 shepherding Upwards from tender manuscript to the polished published version, I promised myself that the summer of 2018 would be for travel and adventure. Let’s see if my promise came true!

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John Meader snapped this picture of me during his photography workshop at the Maine Canoe Symposium. Nursing some bruised ribs, I did not get out on the water, but enjoyed both presenting and learning, as well as trying out my new camera, a Canon point and shoot that can zoom to 25X.

As school ended, I headed south, to camp in Shenandoah National Park with my kids and extend my book tour into the Adirondacks. Waterfalls in full torrent joined several bears in making this a memorable visit. Driving in along the Skyline Drive, a curious cub stood watching from some tall grass, just a quick connection, then I was past. A mother with two cubs, in steadily growing rain above Dark Hollow Falls, and later a lumbering, unconcerned young bear right on the manicured gravel-and-bench civilization of the Limberlost Trail made my week. We hiked, made pizza and peach cobbler in the reflector oven, and wisely retreated home one night when it simply poured.

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Our family has not been blessed with any babies for around a decade, so we were thrilled to discover we had a new little cousin on the way. Stopping to see the mother-to-be in NJ in June, I brought some of my family’s favorite books, of course!

Epilogue – We welcomed Emmett Archer into the family on September 22, 2018! 
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July was intense. At last, after three long years, another expedition was on the calendar. A combination backpacking and canoeing challenge, it would prove to be the heart of my next writing project. Off the grid most of the time, I chose not to blog, but promise to share the story in detail with everyone who has been hoping for another book.

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Then, of course, there is the thrill and pull of the author life. I’m still in love with it and there’s no end to the stories that I could tell. Meeting thru-paddlers and people who’ve climbed Everest, famous authors and readers with heart-wrenching stories of challenge and loss. I loved my recent review in the Adirondack magazine LOCALadk, by J.T. Hall, whom I met at the Adirondack Paddlefest back in May.

(Proving that my life is way too busy, I had scheduled this post and not quite finished it, when it posted itself right on schedule this morning. I promise…more soon!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An amazing, extravagant day

By now, we had made peace with a slower, more thorough pace than originally planned. We toured only one chateau, but we chose well – Chenonceau, billed as “The Ladies’ Chateau,” influenced over the centuries by the women who lived there. In the 16th century, there was Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henri II, and later his wife, Catherine de Medici, who ousted Diane when the king died and she became Regent. Then, in the 18th century, came Louise Dupin, a brave, enlightened promoter of writing and learning, who cleverly protected the chateau during the French Revolution.

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The history doesn’t end there, as Chenonceau also had a role to play in both world wars. We decided to rent audio guides and again found them a wise choice. In room after room, I would listen, then go back to hear again the more interesting tidbits. The chapel’s stained glass was destroyed by bombs in 1944, but has since been tastefully replaced.

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Visitors walk on the original floors, where in some places the design remains only at the edges of the room. This carefree hare was protected by the nearby furniture. Although some corners were roped off, we were free to wander more than I would have expected.

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The stately arched bridge that reaches out over the River Cher was Diane’s creation, but it was Catherine who later built on it a long, elegant ballroom. It’s possible to rent a canoe and paddle downriver and underneath the chateau, if you have time.

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By World War I, Chenonceau was owned by the Menier family, of Paris chocolate factory fame. They transformed the ballroom and another gallery above it into a 120-bed hospital at their own expense. Simone Menier served as matron of the facility, which was equipped with a state-of-the-art operating theater and one of the first X-ray machines. From the windows, convalescing soldiers would fish in the river below, tying small bells to their lines to signal a bite. Then, during the second world war, the chateau found itself sitting on the line between the occupied and free zones, allowing the Resistance to spirit many people through these same rooms to safety.

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In honor of baby Prince Louis, whose birth was announced while we waited in Charles de Gaulle airport for our flight home, I am including this incredible portrait of Louis XIV. The massive ornate frame draws the eye and dominates all else in the room. The Sun King reigned for over 72 years, the longest of any European monarch. He visited the chateau in 1650, at age 11, and later sent this portrait to commemorate his visit.

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Every room had fresh flowers, often many arrangements in one room, all changed twice weekly by the chateau’s florists. Here are some from The Five Queens’ Bedroom.

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Don’t you just love this photo of Mom and Dad, patiently waiting for us to finish?

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Of course, Diane and Catherine both had their gardens…Diane’s was my favorite.

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Next time you are in France, I hope you will go to the Loire Valley and see Chenonceau. It’s worth the trip. Now, though, it’s time to say au revoir, after one last story.

To make our adventure complete, we wanted to visit a winery and not just any one. In Charlottesville last fall, Megan had been impressed by a red wine from Domaine Fabrice Gasnier, from the nearby Chinon region, and had taken a photo of the restaurant menu. As we drove, though, vineyards lined every road and there were countless signs with grapes and bottles on them. How would we find Fabrice?

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Luckily, we soon came across a large, helpful map on a display board near the river, showing the location of all the local wineries.  After one small wrong turn, we found the right place and squeezed into the crowded driveway. By the doors to a large barn, a couple was sitting outside, but there were no signs to indicate where to go or if the place was even open. They came right over, though, smiling. “Come, come,” they said, drawing Megan and I through a door into a dark, crowded room, filled with voices and music. In the dim recesses ahead, a long row of barrels faded into the darkness.

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Incredibly, we had stumbled on a party, been welcomed into a gathering of friends, to celebrate the first bottling of the new year. Before long, we each had a glass in hand and were tasting different red wines, while chatting as best we could in both languages. Then Dad got up there and sang “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” with his new friends.

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Afterward, we all agreed that this had been a highlight of the trip. Eventually, we even found the retail area. In the photo above, Megan and Dad are making a few purchases from Fabrice himself. I plan to save the bottle that I bought for when Megan comes up in August and we’ll drink a toast to serendipity! So, a la prochaine, until the next time.

 

 

 

 

The humblest and grandest of dwellings

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Mention of the Loire Valley brings visions of exquisite châteaux, but there are other living spaces here, that couldn’t be more different. In the Loire Valley, winding our way up along France’s longest river, we would experience both.

As we left Carnac, I was navigating, tracing our route carefully to find the smaller roads that would hug the river. Driving in France, unless you are on the large toll roads, is slow and picturesque. If there is a village, it seems, you will pass through it, with a sign as you enter with the village name and another as you exit, showing the same name with a slash through it. Just past Angers, we found the river and followed it toward Saumur.

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Dad had been telling us the history of the area’s sparkling wines, when suddenly we came upon the grand facade of Gratien & Meyer, the cellars that he had visited long ago. They offered tours to see how their wines (not called champagne because we weren’t in the Champagne region) had been made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Their cellars, like the many troglodyte cave homes around Saumur, were originally quarries. When the soft limestone called tuffeau was dug out in this region, the caves left behind were inhabited and still are. Often, part of the structure would be in the hillside caves and part would be outside, constructed of blocks of the pale yellow-tan tuffeau that had been quarried there. Tomorrow night we would sleep in rooms like that.

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Deep in the cellars, we were introduced to the wine-making process, from the careful blending of grape varieties, through the labeling of the bottles. Labels were applied up the neck of the bottle to hide the inconsistencies in how full the bottles were. Men turned the bottles 1/4 turn each day and could do 50,000 in one day. Then there was the innovative change to metal wire to hold the corks, rather than the hemp cord that rats would sometimes chew through. Note the knight-like face mask above, that the workers wore to protect themselves from carbon dioxide-fueled accidents!

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From Saumur, we drove to our B&B in Amboise, whose chateau towered above the city. We enjoyed the family feel of Les Collones de Chanteloup, located along a quiet lane. Our breakfast there included some dainty local strawberries very close in size and taste to wild ones and tiny individual pots of chocolate mousse, served in antique flowered porcelain as old as the recipe. Of course, there were also the typical cheeses, meats, breads, cakes, croissants, yogurt, and freshly-squeezed orange juice, too.

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That day, we visited the chateau at Chenonceau and had our most surprising adventure, a true serendipity and the subject of tomorrow’s post, most likely the last for this adventure. We’ve been home now for almost a week – time to finish up!

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The experience of cave dwelling for a night did not disappoint us. Megan and I had the interior room. The curving walls, damp and rugged, set off the clean bed, which was bravely made with crisp white sheets. Crusted on the rough walls were bits of rocks, tinged green with moss or lichen, that mysteriously made their way into our hair. The cooler sleeping temperature (naturally around 54 degrees Fahrenheit unless the heat was on) was a nice change after several sweltering nights in much fancier rooms.

The hotel’s restaurant served dinners centered around bread baked in the traditional troglodyte manner, with various toppings, but we opted for burgers a short walk away at a restaurant by the small village church instead.

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Carnac’s mysterious standing stones

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I wish we’d had more time to devote to the old walled city of Saint-Malo. Familiar to Megan and I as the setting for the second half of the captivating WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, we felt honored just to be there. This was also the home of Jacques Cartier, who, in 1534, sailed from here to explore the St. Lawrence River, claiming (and naming) Canada for France. We spent our too-short time in the many high quality shops, buying gifts.

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Carnac, which we reached after driving south across Brittany, was one of the areas that Dad most wanted us to experience. Think Stonehenge, but with nearly three thousand prehistoric megaliths, the largest number anywhere in Europe, scattered throughout the countryside. These mysterious, giant standing stones date from as early as 4000 B.C.

 

We loved our small hotel, Lann Roz, which had a nice patio area and stellar cuisine. Dinner started with three amuse bouche, which we’d first encountered at Le Spinnaker. These surprise treats, courtesy of the chef, included a miniature cup of savory mousse, a cube of smoked salmon and a tiny pastry. From the fixed price menu, I chose langostine cream soup, lamb with new potatoes, and a chocolate, coffee, caramel tart. Heavenly!

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The next morning, we were (or mostly I was) determined to see some of the stones without company. No little trolley trains or fenced in areas for us. So off we went, map in hand, for a driving loop in the country. The route, we discovered, consisted mostly of walking paths and narrow overgrown drives. However, we felt right at home after years of exploring dubious logging roads in northern Maine.

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Dad headed our low clearance Opal sedan down a steadily dwindling farm lane, one of its warning sensors dinging in outrage. We saw two not-very-skittish partridge, gorse in full yellow bloom and, at last, three of the vertical standing stones known as menhirs. (The table-like configuration of three stones, as in the top photo above, is a dolmen, often a burial site.) Though their origins are shrouded in mystery, the Carnac stones are believed to have both religious and astronomical significance.

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This small chapel is typical of Breton architecture, clean and white and simple. The weather, as you can see, continued to be totally unlike the rainy cold we’d anticipated. The temperatures around 80 degrees F. were near record highs, and I was glad to have brought some sleeveless tops. Leaving Carnac in the noon heat, we headed east toward the Loire Valley, where chateaux and wine awaited.