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.

 

To think I almost put my snowshoes away

 

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Sadly, February was mainly dedicated to flu survival and recovery. Happily, I got better in time to visit my children in Virginia, meeting their new chickens, touring Monticello, and celebrating my former brother-in-law’s 50th birthday. (How could that be?)

Now, somehow, I find myself a week away from spring, with visions of paddling trips dancing in my head. There is much to share and catch up on!

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View of last week’s snow-laden trees from flat on my back. I’d been tugging on a sapling bent across the path and pinned to the snowy ground. As it popped free, I tumbled backwards, arms flailing, to see the forest from a slightly different angle!

Today is another snow day, our ninth, counting the 3 days we missed with October’s wind storm. That is two more than in any other school year I can remember. With our third nor’easter in 11 days upon us, and a blizzard warning, we may miss tomorrow as well. Last week’s storm brought about 14 inches of wet, heavy snow that plastered itself to the sides of trees and created Dr. Seuss-like mounds on every branch and twig.


In late February, I was tickled by the sign above, spotted in Thomaston during a book delivery jaunt. The weather was warm and the air felt like spring. I truly did almost put my snowshoes away. Now I think the groundhog may have been wiser than I thought!

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Out snowshoeing this morning, with just a dusting of new powder, turkey tracks were everywhere. In places, the forest floor was in turmoil where they’d torn up the leaf litter in search of food. Hopefully the turkeys were feasting on ticks, already active here in Maine. I found the first one of the year crawling on my pants last week. Seems like we should either have ticks or blizzards, not both!

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Usually, I have the back woods to myself. This morning, though, I was greeted by a new friend. Our neighbors had taken a walk with their kids, leaving behind this snowman, decorated with branches, pine cones, and lichen. By mid-afternoon, he was rapidly becoming just a snowman-shaped blob.

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Well, it certainly feels good to be back to writing. Look for more news soon, including updates on Upwards and the author life and perhaps even some paddling plans. Then, in April, our family adventure in France will take us to Paris, Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley.  Until then, stay warm, dry, and safe!

Looking and seeing in the winter woods

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.     Marcel Proust

To clarify, I’m all for seeking new landscapes! Like April in Paris, this spring, where we’ve just booked a hotel a block from Notre Dame! In our everyday world, though, there are plenty of new discoveries to be made, if we would just look for them.

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The forest is still criss-crossed with animal tracks. As the snow turned thin and slushy this week, the imprints stood out in greater detail. Tiny “handprints” of red squirrels were everywhere, as were the squirrels themselves. The warmth prompted me to carry along my binoculars and to pause from time to time. The repeated call of a barred owl came from afar, but it was mostly red squirrels that I saw.

One explored an ancient log pile, dark and damp, adorned with scattered piles of demolished pine cones. He moved with fluid energy among the logs, popping out first here, then there, to scold me. Later, another bravely stood his ground atop a stone wall. Only his haunches moved, quivering with indignation, and the shiny blackness of his eye stared me down. He looked fit and well-fed, the subtle gray and rust of his sleek fur elegant in the drab and cloudy light.


Canine tracks still mystify me. The one above was repeated in a single line that roughly followed my old trail for quite a distance. Both coyotes and foxes frequent these woods.

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There’s green stuff out there, too. Not just trees, but much more, if you look closely. This small native plant, whose relatives once dominated primeval swamps, is very common. Somehow, it thrives in the northern forest, surviving months of ice and snow.

Looking a bit like a miniature spruce and often called “running pine,” the club moss is neither a conifer nor a moss. Closely related to ferns, the club mosses are vascular plants, with “veins” of xylem and phloem. Their ancestors were once the most complex plants on Earth. In the Carboniferous period, 350 million years ago, club mosses well over 100 feet tall dominated the forest that was later transformed to vast deposits of coal.

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This species, Lycopodium clavatum, is found in damp woodlands throughout North America. During the asexual part of its rather complex reproductive cycle, it produces spores, which are released from the plant’s erect, yellow-brown strobilus.

The spores are, for me, perhaps the most fascinating part of the story of the club moss. High in oil content, they are water resistant and flammable. Native tribes knew many medicinal uses for the spores, and, according to the Virginia Native Plant Society, medicine men tossed them on the fire during ceremonies to produce a flash of light.

In my reading, I found a host of other historical uses for the powdery spores, including flash photography, magician’s tricks, fingerprinting powder, fireworks, and treating rashes. Good incentive, perhaps, to try collecting some this year!

Upwards receives first book award!

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OK, how humble is it to say “first” book award? Honestly, though, my hopes and dreams for this book continue to grow, as more people read and share their thoughts. The volume of responses is growing and opportunities for the new year are coming in fast.

A few highlights:

  • Four upcoming events in the next three weeks (details on the events page)
  • Just invited to present at the Wilderness Paddlers Gathering in Fairlee, VT in March
  • Planning two events during the Adirondacks’ Celebrate Paddling month in June
  • And, of course, Honorable Mention in the category of Biography/Autobiography from the New England Book Festival.

The Boston-based New England Book Festival, sponsored by JM Northern Media, recognizes the best books of the holiday season in 17 categories. Winners are judged on “general excellence and the author’s passion for telling a good story” and “the potential of the work to reach a wider audience.”

To balance out the many hours devoted to the book, I continue to plan for next summer and enjoy today. A deluge of rain, amid temperatures as high as 55 degrees, has washed away much of our snow. The sight of green grass and brown leaves has been a welcome change. Sunday’s afternoon walk, on boots not snowshoes, felt free and unencumbered.

I tramped, I tromped, the trail more brown than white, looking around at the woods, rather than down at my feet. You know how it feels when you’ve just climbed up, then down, a mountain and hit the flat? The joy of simply swinging along is wonderful.

Gone, though, was the hushed white wonderland of winter. Every step was a loud crunch, either on a couple of inches of frozen remnant snow or, mostly, on frosty ground. Crunching along at a good pace, out to the edge of an old beaver pond.

There, nature had sculpted striking designs in the paper-thin sheet of ice that rimmed the pond. I walked a few feet out to sit on a log, trying not to destroy too much of the beauty, finding an inch or two of air between the ice and solid ground below. The sound of my progress was deafening, all wildlife no doubt well warned of my visit.


When I sat, though, to take in the play of the brilliant sunlight across the ice, the ruckus continued. A vigorous wind, rustling the trees in the pond, gave the ice a tortured voice. The grinding, cracking, and squealing never let up, and the cold soon nudged me to head back home to a cup of hot cocoa and my never-ending to-do list.

As my faithful readers know, I am still learning the ins and outs of social media, and recently discovered that my automatic sharing of posts somehow missed the last one. If you’d like to join me on an earlier walk, here is my January 5th post.

 

Bombogenesis…it even sounds scary!

Winter so far has brought enough bitter cold and snow to make us believe that it’s serious this year. The snowshoeing has been great. I’m thinking of it as the start of training for next summer’s north woods adventure (still in the planning stages).

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Berries at the edge of the swamp shone in a coat of ice last week.

The word “bombogenesis” had somehow escaped my notice for some 56 years…until yesterday. According to NOAA, the term describes the rapid intensification of a mid-latitude cyclone, measured by its drop in central atmospheric pressure. A drop of 24 millibars or more in 24 hours creates a bomb cyclone like Winter Storm Grayson, whose pressure dropped an incredible 59 millibars as it approached New England yesterday. Skies are still dark here, but soon I’ll head out to start shoveling my way to the garage and our snow blower. As of now, school is open with a 2-hour delay. 

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Farewell small spots of bare ground, farewell to tracks and signs of life that laced the winter woods, farewell to quick and easy walking…soon all my trails must be won once more.

Around nine in the morning, the first powdery sprinkling of snow began dusting the ground. As I followed my favorite trail by the swamp to a far hill, I took a last look at the many animal tracks, almost memorized in my traipsing back and forth day after day. Dad had discovered the scene in the photo below, one sunny day last week. “There’s a story!” he exclaimed. Tiny prints of mouse or vole raced for the cover of a hole, the sweep of owl wings marking either the creature’s demise or narrow escape.

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I ventured out again around one o’clock yesterday. The blizzard conditions were just starting, and snow was quickly reclaiming the forest, even a moving person. The particles bombarded me, an audible pelting against my parka. Once, a gust of wind gave a hint of the fury soon to follow and I thought of turning back, but didn’t. I was warm, the temperature thirty degrees warmer than on some recent days. At the same far hill, I turned around, the tracks I’d made already blurring into fluffy whiteness.


Trudging home, I could still faintly see depressions from the ski poles that my daughter Megan had used on Christmas week. Soon, they, too, would be buried, our ramblings just a pleasant memory of a week of family fun. The woods tomorrow will be all new.

Sleuthing in the littoral zone, the fight against invasive aquatic plants

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Roberta Hill, from the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program, helped us sort and identify the aquatic plants we collected from Pemaquid Pond during our Invasive Plant Patrol workshop.

Back in 2009, a man named Dick Butterfield did what I did yesterday. He attended his first workshop with the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program (VLMP), to start learning to identify dangerous invasive aquatic plants. His thirst for knowledge, combined with concise, effective training, soon saved one of our local lakes.

No doubt armed with his mini waterproof identification key to the 11 most-unwanted suspects, he ventured out on his very first patrol, on nearby Damariscotta Lake. And found hydrilla, which the Maine DEP calls “the most problematic invasive plant in North America.” The lake is huge, with 45 miles of shoreline, but volunteers and experts sprang into action to contain the hydrilla in the tiny cove where Dick had found it. Dick caught it early, which is critically important in the fight against invasives.

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Paired up with buddies, we went out into our assigned sectors to collect plant specimens in the littoral zone, the zone of richest diversity along the lake’s shoreline.

Our workshop was information-packed, but my message for you is simple. In Roberta’s words, “The work of citizen scientists [volunteers] on the the front line is the most important piece in this fight.” Training focuses on just those 11 likely culprits, which fall into three main structural categories. That means that some types of plants (like hairy, grass-like stuff) you see can just be ignored. To demonstrate how easy screening samples can be, VLMP recently set up a table at L.L. Bean and taught willing shoppers how to use the key. Their average time to key out a sample was just two minutes.

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The sorting pan for one of the three broad categories that the eleven-most-unwanted invasive plants fall into. Although we were just learning, and made some mistakes, visible in the photo are some innocuous native milfoils and bladderworts that we collected on our plant patrol.

I was invited to yesterday’s workshop by the Pemaquid Watershed Association, which I’ve belonged to for many years. One of my resolutions for 2017 was to become a more active PWA volunteer. I’ve been writing some press releases and plan to volunteer for plant patrols on McCurdy Pond, where I often keep my canoe. If you’re interested in learning more, visit the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program or take a peek at the Key to the Eleven Most Unwanted Invasive Aquatic Plants.