Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Stewardship of the Heart

“…in any true sense there is no such thing as ownership of the earth and the shadow of any man is but for a time cast upon the grass of any field.” Henry Beston, Northern Farm.

It would be all too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that I own this land, this wooded five-acre hillside that slopes down from Grant’s Hill to Swan Pond. One of my neighbors has perhaps a better claim to that thinking, as this entire area, including my own humble parcel, once belonged to his father. So I’ve come to understand his attachment to it that extends even to my land, as it was once in his family, and he’s never stopped thinking of it as such. I, however, am a relative newcomer here, and unless I will the place to my own heirs, someone else will someday invariably take stewardship of this knoll.

But can any of us, no matter how long we’ve occupied it, truly own the land? Are the trees, hills and fields to be owned, or do they simply allow us the luxury of our imagined dominion over them? We’ve all witnessed the ravages of progress, how it can strip away acres of trees and replace them with shopping centers and apartment complexes. Yet, once abandoned, does the earth not take over again, with nature slowly but inexorably reclaiming what is hers? No legal proceedings are involved, no hand needed to sign deeds or easements. She simply moves in quietly, and over time, refashions the hills and fields into something more befitting her eclectic preferences.

Our history is full of stories of those who held unwritten rights to this land for centuries before the Europeans decided it was theirs simply to take. Who better to attest to the fleeting nature of ownership than those very souls who now eke out their existences in the places allotted to them by those with the power to decide such things? I think I know a little of how they must have felt as they left their ancestral lands, I, who have only been here a few years and who is hardly rooted yet can feel how tenuous my grip is on this place.

A good friend of mine once said that no one ever really owns the land, that we are all merely stewards, a reality that extracts from us a promise to leave it as we found it. He and his wife owned 80 acres of pine-studded wilderness not far from here, and he, too, had a healthy reverence for that wild place that held him in tenancy only. Even in death, whatever small space any of us occupies passes to someone else: heirs, new unrelated owners, even developers, and all perhaps thinking it is theirs, all theirs, to do with as they will.

None of us knows what lies ahead, and it’s perhaps better that way. If I should have to reluctantly leave this place someday, I hope that whoever comes after me will see the light golden in the pines at sunset and hear the wind approaching from the west on a stormy night. I hope they care for it, give back whatever they take from it, and not interfere too much with processes that have gone on long before any of us were here. But most of all, I hope they hear what it has to say and that they, too, take comfort in the truths it has to share.

My Feathered Visitors

While the earth continues to provide bounty for both earthbound and avian creatures, the time is approaching when my feathered visitors won’t be able to find enough to eat. The ground will freeze and be covered in snow and ice, and they will be hard-pressed to find some bit or morsel that will help keep them warm during the bitterly cold nights of deepest winter.

Research shows that birds are warm-blooded animals whose internal body temperature is roughly 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As they have virtually no body fat in which to store heat, it is crucial for them to eat almost constantly during the colder months, especially during those times when they are cut off from a natural food supply that includes seeds, berries, and insects.
Sudden dips in temperature can be fatal to birds, and it is then that they need our help more than at any other time. To maintain their body temperatures, birds need the extra calories that seeds and suet cakes can supply. Thus, it has been my practice here to try to fill that need as best I can, all the while fighting the good fight with squirrels and raccoons to make sure that the birds are the ultimate victors.

I recently downsized my feeding arsenal to just one feeder and one suet-cake holder, and these I place close to my front door for easy access and a fast approach during squirrel skirmishes. No matter how squirrel-proof the more sophisticated feeders are said to be, I have found none yet that those clever creatures cannot somehow defy. I have hung them from wires, from poles, and used all the baffles and foils I can think of. Yet, sooner or later, the feeder is on the ground, its contents scattered, and I’m faced yet again with deciding on another approach that, next time, may just work. I’ve even hung feeders from a long clothesline that is nearly 10 feet from the ground. Believe me when I say that squirrels can and do hang by their paws like high-wire acrobats and somehow make their way to the feeder. As frustrating as it is, it is nothing short of amazing.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure in feeding birds is seeing the vast numbers of different species that visit the feeder each day. Most bird-feeding devotees can attest to the thrilling antics of the chickadees, almost always the first to give in to hunger over fear. Other birds, like nuthatches, titmice, and woodpeckers take a while longer to trust that no harm will come to them if they come near. As for the seed that ultimately ends up on the ground, the ground-feeders such as juncos and chipping sparrows make short work of it. And barring that, raccoons can always be counted on to clean up the mess. A small flock of turkeys visited my porch on a cold winter morning a few years ago, and even an opossum visited once. Hunger is a powerful force that compels these creatures to go well beyond their natural boundaries.

It is a necessary and humane interdependence. For do we humans not reap, and sometimes even recklessly, from the animal kingdom for our own sustenance? And isn’t it only right to give something to them when they are hungry? As long as I’m here, or wherever I am, I will continue to provide a feast for the birds and other creatures while this good earth sleeps beneath its mantle of snow. And I will always believe that part of the reason they keep coming back is that they are indeed thankful.


Night Lights

This is the first in the "Fall Series" of essays begun in 2010.

Contrary to what some might think, no night in the woods is ever completely dark. There is never a time when I open my eyes and feel as though I’d never opened them at all. As starless and moonless as some nights are, there is always some sort of light shining from somewhere, and the black treetops are nearly always silhouetted against a lighter background.

Cloudy nights can be surprisingly bright, as the clouds manage to reflect some of the sun’s residual light, making the sky appear lighter by comparison. If there is a full moon behind those clouds, midnight seems more like a late winter afternoon. And on the coldest January nights, the earth manages to reflect the light from the billions of stars that stand out in stark contrast to the black velvet drape they appear to be affixed to.

There are few street lamps along the long stretch of South Waterboro Road that separates me from both Biddeford and Waterboro. Sometimes, when it’s snowing, I turn my porch lights on and watch the soft and silent fall of flakes, each sharing its light with me before disappearing in the vast white sea below. Like fireflies on a hot July night, they possess a spark that is all their own as they fall noiselessly to earth on nights when the moon hides its face. Later, with the lights turned off, the glow lingers across my snow-enveloped world.

Some nights, I lie awake, my face turned toward the window, where I gaze upon the stars, occasionally seeing a light moving among them made by some celestial vehicle bound for parts unknown. On foggy nights, I stare up at a bare canvas through equally bare branches, watching them sway in the wind, soothed by a softening of atmosphere.

Once, on a full moon night, I saw a shadow skitter across the foot of my sloped driveway. It was a fox, probably on the hunt. It stopped briefly at one point to look back, ever vigilant, as is their kind, for danger. It soon resumed its moonlit trek and disappeared into the woods across the road. I sat for awhile, my eyes glued to where it had stood in the moon glow among the trees casting long shadows across the bluish snow. But it was not to retrace its steps that night, at least not while I was watching.

It is never completely dark in the woods. Even on the blackest nights, my eyes eventually adjust to whatever light shines faithfully behind cloud banks, allowing me to observe familiar shapes and shadowy objects that I take so much for granted during the day, objects that, in their altered nocturnal states, elicit a quiet reverence from their lone beholder.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Grass Harp (The Last of the Summer Series Essays)

A friend of mine and his wife raise horses on a farm in Bowdoinham and in his emails he paints vivid pictures of the hay fields that keep the feeding troughs filled, the livestock sustained and the rolling pasturage coiffed in gold. Through it all, he keeps time with the seasons, this man, remaining acutely aware of the pull and tug of the weather, of its imperatives and mandates, and its challenges. Sometimes, I feel that I can actually see him amongst the bales, guiding the tractor, forking and piling the fragrant grains, bending with them, ever at their mercy...

Haying season was one of the my mother's favorites times of year, as she herself had spent time as a girl involved in that hot prickly work, which hasn't evolved, technologically speaking, as far as other things have in this our complex world. It still involves interacting with the grasses, listening to their song (I am reminded of Capote's "The Grass Harp"), sweating and heaving and going from earth to mow and loft and as my friend proclaims, in preparation for the cold dark stripped and demanding days of winter.

It was a good thing when people had to get ready for winter, for the great drawing in, the wrapping up of things, the narrowing of vision and heightening of a thousand sensibilities and sharpening of ancient instincts in tune to nature's rhythm. Reading about the state of Alaska recently, I was pulled for the span of those 800 or so pages into a world where nature so often turns on a whim and plunges that part of the earth into deep and unforgiving cold or house-high snow, where natives have no choice BUT to be ready for all of that, or die. We have grown so complacent in other parts of the world, too much so, in our air-conditioned leaf and snow-blown comfort here in "civilization," where the advent of winter for many of us means nothing more than plopping a pair of boots down by the back door and remembering at the first snowfall that we forgot to bring a shovel inside. The weather, and all it portends, has become nothing more than a tweaking of our imaginations, to the point of lucratively warranting its own 24/7 televised coverage complete with all the drama and sensationalism that only nature can provide when other inane programming falls flat (which most does nowadays).

Fields dotted with bales, round or rectangular, flash by as I make my way through here in York County in an area once primarily devoted to generational farming and a firmly established way of life. Vestiges remain-a useful barn here, a few cows grazing there, a vegetable stand by the side of the road-thrilling and encouraging reminders that the practice is still alive and well in the minds and daily existences of a few at least who still maintain a direct connection to the earth and her processes.

The annual late-summer blackbird ballet also informs the watchful eye this time of year, as vast flocks of grackles and blackbirds cackle and swoop from place to place, decimating what little is left from the treetops and tall shrubbery before moving on in a great dark undulating cloud, a black lace curtain billowing in the great open window that is the sky. Though unrelated (or is it) to the grass harvest, it, too, is part of the cycle that folds over and over upon itself, leaving little untouched, unaffected.

It is September once again here in our little corner of the earth, and there is still time before the days shorten perceptibly, time to revel in what is not entirely summer nor entirely autumn but something wonderfully in between.


Water Lilies

The characteristics and origins of garden flowers and wildflowers are pretty straightforward and obvious most of the time. It's all pretty standard and routine in the flower world. They germinate from seeds, tubers or old roots left to winter in the ground, emerge as foliage and burst into bloom when they're supposed to. Nothing mysterious about that. Some, like marigolds and impatiens, die after a single season and must be replanted anew each year. Hence, their status as annuals, many of which produce seeds that can be harvested and saved for next year.

Then there are the perennials, those faithful and stalwart troopers that die back to ground level but whose roots persist beneath the frozen soil. In spring, we see the result of our fall bulb-planting efforts in the form of daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses; and later come the irises and daylilies, sprouting anew each summer from rhizomes that spread underground and that must be divided when they become too congested.

Then there are those blossoms that appear in odd places, where it seems that flowers shouldn't grow, where the odds are apparently all against them and where it makes no sense for them to even be. But they are, guarding the secrets of their impossible existences in thier very fibers.

In tropical locations that never see any frost, orchids fill that bill, sometimes taking hold in the crotches of old trees where the humidity and light are just right. And here, in the northern hemisphere, in spots too inundated with water to support any other type of flower, where thick almost leathery mats of pads loll about on the gentle currents, water lilies appear, cupped and graceful, each tethered to the bottom of the pond by a single flexible stem that can measure up to six feet long.

Nymphaea odorata emerge from rhizomes, or fleshy roots, growing in the sediment that accumulates on the floor of a lake, pond or along the edges of a slow-moving stream or quiet marsh. The blossoms, composed of white petals arranged around bright yellow stamens, appear in mid to late summer early in the morning and close by mid-day. The leaves, that can measure up to a foot across, are round with a narrow wedge-shaped notch that proceeds outward from where their submerged stems are connected.

Early in the season, a dense mat of new leaves float patiently on the surface of the water for several weeks until the unopened pointed buds of the lilies appear to break up the monotony. As they open, they release the scent for which they are named, but it is a gift reserved only for those who dare to venture near in canoe or kayak or who are able to get up close and personal to the very edge of a body of water in which they grow.

Water lilies are yet more evidence of how nature works to keep the cycle of life going. For the submerged stems and leaves are not only home to aquatic creatures such as frogs, bass and sunfish, but also provide food for beavers, muskrats, deer and ducks.

Looking out over the pond just now, its restless shimmering surface aglow with millions of sun-gems, I wonder how much more breathtaking it could possibly be. Then I notice the water lilies, bobbing among the leaves, and I have my answer



There's an intriguing quality to woodlands that I like to call the layered effect. It's most obvious when staring into a forested area that spans a large area and is composed of many different species of trees and other growth. Those in the foreground appear, of course, the clearest and offer the most detail. Pine needles, branches and leaves are all visible, distinct one from the other. But as the eye moves more deeply into the denser growth, images begin to blur, until they appear as layer upon layer of subtly different shades of greens and browns.

There, the edges of distinguishable shapes like leaves and branches blur, and smaller objects, such as individual pine needles, join to produce a tufted look when framed by the more delineated shapes of large boughs and trunks. Colors soften, and from that distance, pine boughs take on a bluish tint depending the slant of the light, becoming the stuff that woodland fantasies are made of.

This so-called layering process extends to all of life, from the air masses that exist above us to the ground we walk on. From its core outward, the planet we call home is a series of mineral masses that have continued to build on top of each other over billions of years. The uppermost layers, called plates, move constantly, releasing some of the intense pressure trapped beneath them in the form of earthquakes and volcanoes.

The oceans are composed of layers of water that start out relatively warm at the surface and get progressively colder toward the bottom. Clouds are layered masses of moisture, the air we breathe is just one layer in what we call our atmosphere, and in winter, snow accumulates in layers between storms. As all things grow, they do so by a process of new growth covering, or being covered by, old growth, as illustrated most distinctly in trees, whose new tissues emerge as rings that can be counted once they are cut down. As smaller plants grow, they do so as layers of new tissue displacing the old, snakes shed old skins to make room for the new, and even we humans evolve through growth that involves a layering process that takes place within and without.

Stylists speak of hair layering, painters apply pigment in layers toward the perfect finish, and masons put down stacks of foundational materials. We polish our nails with multiple coatings, we dress in layers against the cold, and even our lives could be said to be layers of experiences, one following another, each resting upon those that came before it.

Physically or philosophically, much of life evolves by degrees that often manifest themselves as shapes, objects, events or outcomes superimposed one upon the other. And the woods mirror that, in the detail they show us up close and layered against blurred masses of color and substance that act as backdrops, lending perspective and assigning meaning to what we are seeing. In this sense, nature is forever making connections between all forms of life, between the real and the abstract, between the clear and the hazy, between the lives of woodlands and wild creatures and our very own.

Looking deeply into the woods is an exercise for the mind and the eye, as both take in the myriad shapes, planes, surfaces and configurations that work together to produce what we see. And at some point in the farthest reaches, clarity dims as does reality and the imagination takes over. What is that over there, I often ask myself, when some shape, shade or shadow in the distance is too vague to identify. It could be nothing, I answer, or then again, it could be everything.




Sitting quietly on my deck one recent sunny afternoon, I noticed a very small movement along the edge of the railing. Upon close inspection, I saw that it was some type of dragonfly with what seemed to be purple wings and a purple head. Its size made it impossible to see clearly from where I was sitting, so not wanting to scare it away, I went inside quietly to get my field glasses. Magnified, I saw that the tiny creature was indeed purple, from its wee head and gossamer wings to its filament-sized segmented body.

I watched it for awhile and noticed others of its kind alighting elsewhere along the railing and on the deck floor. On a whim, I crept inside again and this time grabbed my camera, doubtful at this point that I'd be able to get a clear enough shot of those wondrous insects who are a boon to anyone who likes spending time outdoors and who has an aversion to mosquitoes and other pesky bugs. For it's a well-known fact that dragonflies are quite fond of mosquitoes as well as ants and whatever else they can manage to consume during their short lives.

This was not, as it turned out, a dragonfly, but a damselfly. And if my research and assessment are correct, it was a male violet dancer damselfly, a diminitive member of that insect family, called Odonata, that appeared to measure no more than one and half inches at best. The female is roughly the same size but duller in color, while the male's coloring is brighter and more pronounced. Unlike their close relatives, damselflies keep their wings close to their bodies when not in flight.

Aside from its mesmerizing color, its most striking features were its large protruding eyes and the metallic sheen of its long segmented thorax and abdomen and the delicately transparent quality of its wings. Had this insect been larger, it might have been imposing; but as such, its size enabled me to appreciate it for what it was-an intricately complex living thing that seemed to enjoy basking in the sunlight on my deck.

Sitting quietly for its own sake provides so many opportunities to see things that I'd otherwise miss in my day-to-day comings and goings, and I'm never prepared for what my vigilance and patience will reward me with, such as the very small creature making its way one afternoon in a slow undulating motion along the edge of a plant pot. It was a tiny inch worm, probably no more than one-eighth of an inch long and bright green. Or sometimes, I am so focused on the words spanning a particularly interesting page of text that I don't immediately notice a fly no larger than a pinhead land along the margin and sit there until I move and it flies away. Even with my reading glasses on, I have all I can do to distinguish its body parts one from the other and am always amazed at the intricacy present in so small a living organism.

My question when I see such tiny creatures is always the same: if they are themselves so small, then how much smaller must the food they eat be? In the case of inch worms, the answer is simple. As the larvae of adult moths, most consume vegetation, eating their way through leaves and often doing quite a big of damage in the process. But the damselfly? It seems that it eats the larvae of mosquitoes and other tiny aquatic organisms. As for the tiny flies that sometimes distract me from my reading, they tend to prefer decaying substances like most other types of flies. In short, the answer is simple though not at all discernable with the naked eye: they eat whatever they can overpower or can physically consume. For me, this adds just one more layer of mystery to the goings-on in a world that literally has no room for one of my kind. A Gulliver of sorts, I content herself with being a spectator at these mini-events, and it's not such a bad thing to be after all.


The Great Acorn Drop

It starts slowly at first, a ping here, a pop there. If I didn't know any better, I'd think someone was out there at 5 a.m. target practicing with a BB gun, or popping corn. But those particular events aren't usually accompanied by the frantic rustling of leaves or by loud and aggressive chatter.

It's the annual acorn drop, one of the few times during the year when squirrels and other small critters that cherish these tidbits steer clear of the bird seed in favor of larger more succulent bounty. Their days are spent high in the treetops, chattering away at each other and at anyone or anything that deigns to interfere with the process. They leap from branch to branch like circus acrobats, shaking the acorns off, then rushing back down tree trunks and burying their bounty or storing it away in tree hollows for a time when food will not be as plentiful.

Eastern gray squirrels build two types of dwellings-summer nests made of twigs and leaves and winter dens in the cavities of hardwood trees or in the eaves or attics of houses and other buildings. They mate twice a year, first in the early spring and then again in mid-summer. Once the second litter is born around August or September, the young from the first litter have left the nest and are fending for themselves. Two of these chubby little rascals have lately become regular visitors to my bird feeders, stopping at nothing, not even my presence at the door, to clean out the bowl or the decimate the suet cake. Cheekier than even most adult squirrels, they even go so far as to run up onto the railing when I'm sitting there with my book. They sniff at the air, decide they don't like me, and leave, but never position themselves so far away that they won't see me come inside, giving them another window of opportunity to sneak in for a few more bites of food.

As for the oaks whose bounty temporarily distracts my furry gray friends, the very large ones have been known to produce as many as 10,000 acorns in a single year. Oak trees rarely drop the same number of acorns every year, and this is actually one of their survival techniques. In years that see bumper crops of the capped nuts, called mast years, animals like the gray squirrel and others, such as turkeys, chipmunks, blue jays, deer and bears can't consume them all, and many are left to grow into new trees. Other years, leaner crops attract fewer predators, ultimately leaving enough acorns to take root and sprout. While the reason there are more acorns some years than others remains unclear, but the fact remains that it all balances out in the end, for no matter the number of acorns, there will always be some that will grow into new trees.

What this means in terms of chronology and the seasons is that we are once more well past the half-year mark and on our way toward autumn. Just this morning, I passed a small stand of maple saplings that are already sporting red leaves. Now this could mean some sort of disease or insect infestation, or perhaps the small trees have been deprived of light or are exposed to an overabundance of standing water. In any case, their color startles, for it's too soon to be seeing this now in early August, the last and most benign of the full summer months, the month of crickets and cooler nights, of a changing slant of the light and the scent of fullness in the woods and out-of-the-way places.

There's a new crackling sound in the leaves as the wind moves between them, a new crispness that wasn't there a month ago, their rustle louder as they begin the slow process of releasing their moisture toward their inevitable fall. But summer will persist until the autumnal equinox in September, the month of indecision, of the push/pull between two seasons, when the world as we know it here in the north clings to one yet is inexorably drawn to the other.







perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers. ~Claude Monet

What is there to say about flowers that hasn't already been said? That they are beautiful and dazzling and provide the perfect accent in an anotherwise dull space? That they fill the world with fragrance, or that their colors mesmerize and defy characterization? Flowers are "all of the above," and then some. What sort of nature writer would I be were I to forget that they are the end to the means that millions of plants undertake to produce them?

Before fruit, there must necessarily be a flower, and before the light fades, their is often the last color we see amidst the interminable green of summer. It is the first color in spring and the last in fall as the year creeps again toward winter, dwarfed only by the changing of the leaves and defying the mornings when frost has claimed the less stalwart among them.

They drape our vales and hillsides, brighten our small hollows and ditches, and pop up in our lawns and along our woodland edges. They cascade from window boxes and baskets, paint bold swatches across fields, drip from rock walls and arbors and imbue the ocean air with a fragrance that can only be described as heaven-sent. On a more practical note, they provide us with a tangible means of celebrating certain traditions and, ideally, they make more glorious the last journey we all take from this world to the next. What else can I add that will give flowers their just due, to assign them, once and for all, the status they deserve as one of the most joyfully indispensible blessings that nature has bestowed upon us?

Like so much else, flowers came into this world, to this Earth, slowly and deliberately. Their purpose was to add a final and glorious touch to the vegetation that predated much of what we know today as annuals and perennials, as vines and shrubs, as weed and wanted plant, displaying an intricacy of color and texture not seen in other living things. They loom large or small in the landscape, from the enormous blooms of tropical flowers to the tiny blossoms of ground-cover plants so small that they escape our notice and are often trampled underfoot in our rush to get on with the processes of living.

Yet who among us does not love flowers? Who among us could find anything negative to say once we know of the miraculous journey they undertake to get here and, in some instances, such as the daylily's brief stint, to grace our lives for but a day? A morning glory opens at the first touch of sunlight then fades with the light, while a moonflower blossoms at day's end and fades with the dawn. Lady slippers appear in shady wet places in late spring and johnny jump-ups live up to their names by producing more of their own kind each year without any effort on anyone's part. Jonquils, crocuses, hyacinths and tulips usher in spring while brown-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace save their graces for later when the summer's heat distracts and dismays. As fall extends the year's bridge toward winter, chrysanthemums, both domesticated and wild, share their own late glory with us in field and garden when the rest have called it good for another year.

What would our lives be without flowers? Our tables, nightstands and sideboards would be bare, our yards and lawns one endless unbroken ribbon of green. Our winter holidays would be devoid of the reds and greens of poinsettias and amaryllis, while our spring festivities would take place without the lily's pure and gentle touch. From the bouquests of carnations and freesias in supermarket garden shops to the goldenrod and forget-me-nots along roadsides, flowers persist as an easily accessible source of beauty and comfort. They are small quiet blessings, appearing often in our lives when we least expect them and when we need them most.



At first, it appeared to be coming from across the pond. With July fourth just days away, it wouldn't be unusual to see flashing lights from across the pond. But no sound accompanied these quick flashes, so I got up to investigate. There it was again, once, twice, and as I neared the window, I realized it wasn't fireworks at all, but a single firefly clinging to the outside of the screen. Every few seconds, its tiny lamp flashed, once, twice, as it crept slowly along the mesh. After awhile, I lost sight of it when it either moved out of my range of vision of flew off into the warm muggy night.

When I looked into the distance to the woods beyond, I saw that they were teeming with more fireflies, as nature held her own little fireworks show. I couldn't keep up with all the tiny flashes, going off in unpredictably in different spots, and each in pairs. They called to mind other summer nights when, as children, my sister and I chased after these small insects in our backyard in Biddeford. One time, my mother caught several in a jar, effectively creating our very own little night-light that she let us enjoy until she told us that bugs aren't happy in jars and released them back into the night.

Fireflies, or lightning bugs, are small brownish beetles that measure about an inch long and live for about two months. They generate their signature glow in light organs located just below their abdomens where oxygen mixes with a substance called luciferin that produces light but very little heat. The process is called bioluminscence, and the flashing pattern, different in each of the 2,000 species, is used primarily to attract mates or to warn potential predators that fireflies aren't very tasty.

In some instances, enough lightning bugs gathered in one place engage in synchronized flashing during which they signal to each other in succession, creating an effect that is not unlike a lighted Christmas tree. While I've never seen this phenomenon, I have witnessed instances when a wooded area simply sparkles with their intermittent flashes.

All science aside, fireflies, winged cousins to the glow-worm, possess the ability to momentarily dispel the discomfort of a hot muggy night, and in the process, transform an otherwise dark foreboding place into a scintillating earthly sky filled with stars that don't stay in one place for very long. Just when I'm feeling withered and worn from another scorching day, longing for cooler weather and anticipating yet another long and sleepless night of tossing and turning, these tiny beacons illuminate the way back to tolerance and patience, two virtues that come in very handy for someone who isn't a big fan of summer's heat and mugginess.

Heat lightning is another welcome reward at the end of an unbearably warm day. Generally not the harbingers of a storm, the flashes brighten the sky above the tree line, sharply delineating their branches against the quick bursts of white light. On a much grander scale than the humble light emitted by fireflies, they claim the night in a quietly dramatic way, erasing all memory of the day.

Each season brings its own set of challenges, but not without also offering us the solace that only nature's beauty provides. During the day, the beauty is evident on all sides because of the light. On summer nights, from the tiny glow of a firefly to the lightning that brightens the sky, the light is everything, taking center stage, commanding our full attention.


Liquid Light

Occasionally, a glance outside leaves me speechless. It's not that I can't find the words to describe what I'm seeing, but I'm at a complete loss if I try to give voice to the feelings it evokes in me. It happened again the other night, when I happened to look out the window on my way to bed and saw the half moon.

Now that's normally a wonderful event in its own right, often made even more wonderful on a cloudy night when the moon disappears and reappears again every few moments. But on this night, not only did its glow mesmerize from the heavens, but from the surface of the pond as well, and even the word "magical" doesn't come close to the effect produced when the pale emanations from only a partially exposed moon casts its glow across rippling water.

I stood at the open window for quite some time, holding my breath as the wispy clouds moved across its asteroid-ravaged face and then, within moments, set it free again. Each time it did, its position had shifted just a little, refashioning the squiggles of light, shortening some, lengthening others, until more clouds drifted past. And if the scene weren't enough of a miracle, cool night air drifted in through the open window and an owl hooted from somewhere deep in the woods.

Seeing the moon casting its light across the pond that night was like watching a single candle flickering in an otherwise shadowy room. Flooding a room with bright light produces the same effect as does full sunlight beating upon the water. On a bright sun-filled day, the pond becomes a large blue eye full of watery daylight, dazzling the viewer, while at night, a single moonbeam stretches across its shimmering expanse. It's exactly the same pond in exactly the same place, but the sun and moon have their own separate and unique effects upon it, and each event produces startlingly different emotions in whoever is fortunate enough to behold them.

A body of water contributes to such an event in different ways depending upon its temperament at the moment. On completely still water, the effect is one of a wide beam of static light, while on a breeze-riffled surface, the effect is one of diffusion, as hundreds of wriggling lines made of liquid light shimmer in perfect harmony across the pond, not unlike tiny puddles of liquid mercury squirming around on a moving surface.

Several nights later, the pond showed me yet another of the many facets of its personality. A storm made its way in slowly from the west, and the sky turned a deep smoky and ominous gray along the southwestern treeline. The water picked up this theme by turning a deep slate gray, and as the westerly wind gusts increased, its surface became a small sea of white caps rushing toward the southeastern shoreline. The more the wind stirred, the more turbulent the water became, until the rain came and vied with the waves for supremacy. I doubt there was a victor, as it was more of a frenzied dance than a battle, but it nonetheless made for a spectacular performance, one more to add to my growing collection.

I never know what to expect when I look out over the pond or what aspect of its temperament will be made visible at any given moment. The one thing I can be sure of is that it will not disappoint, as moodiness in this context is never a problem.




The human species is the most complex, specialized and highly evolved of all living organisms, and as such, is completely dependent upon all other life forms that came before it. The irony in that is that it doesn't work the other way around, for no other life forms depend upon humans for their survival. No matter how superior we may think we are, we have essentially proceeded from all other forms of earthly life, and they were all here long before we were. I would go so far as to say that none of them would be all that traumatized were we to mysteriously drop out of the biological equation.

Yet no other species, however enlightened, is as capable of upsetting the ecological apple cart as humans, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the garbage we produce and that we seem to have no idea what to do with. No other living creature produces so many byproducts that nature cannot reassimilate to the extent that we do, and no other even comes close to the disrespect for the environment that humans are capable of.

No matter where I go, I see it. Be it on the lovely path at the bird sanctuary at Biddeford Pool or along the edges of the Mast Road in Lyman, the evidence that humans have passed this way is painfully evident in the form of all manner of detritus such as food wrappers, empty cans, and the infuriatingly ubiquitous cigarette butts. If there is such a thing as violence against nature, then this is surely one manifestation of it, and one that is so easily avoidable.

Many cities and towns regularly dispatch sweepers to clean their streets and roads, yet who is there to monitor the less-travelled paths and lanes? And isn't it, or shouldn't it be, incumbent upon each and every one of us to display a proper respect for nature by at least not asking her to dispose of our garbage, too? Yes, certain things do disappear into the soil given enough time, but the best nature can do in most cases is to wait until enough autumn leaves have fallen to cover the unsightliness of objects that simply do not belong there.

I've been just as guilty myself in the past of rolling down my car window and tossing out a gum wrapper or a used tissue. But as I sat in my car on Main Street in Biddeford recently waiting for a friend who was on an errand, I noticed a man walking along with a long-handled grabber, picking trash up along the sidewalks and depositing it into a bag he carried. It occurred to me that the visible trash, of the sort that clogs our streets and drains, is considered more of an eyesore and an affront, and so it must be quickly disposed of. But conversely, it seems that the old "out of sight, out of mind" maxim applies to the less frequented by-ways where it seems less of an transgression to crush a cigarette out or toss a granola bar wrapper because fewer people are likely to see it. Yet are we doing our environment less of an injustice because no one is likely to make a fuss?

I feel one should be made, as it is very unpleasant to walk along the roads less taken, absorbing the beauty of a grass carpet dotted with wildflowers only to glance down and spot something completely incongruous and that spoils the view. If we are to smugly claim the honor of being the most civilized species, then shouldn't we act the part as well where our Earth is concerned, consider our origins and stop this needless desecration of our surroundings?

There are places for trash, and the seaside, roadways, fields and secluded woodland paths are not among them. While many of us are trying harder to recycle and to be more careful about how we dispose of our trash, we can't stop there. We must become the species that not only takes freely from the Earth and from nature but gives back to them as well, not in the form of garbage but in one of respect and a passionate unwillingness to defile their sacred beauty.



As I lay in bed early one morning, I watched a small spider descending on a single strand of web material just outside my window. It disappeared below the sill but then reappeared as it made its way up the screen before vanishing again on one side. This went on for several minutes as the tiny yellow creature explored the area probably trying to determine whether or not it would be a good place to weave a web. I didn't watch it long enough to discern what its decision was, but long enough to realize that I had been privy to yet another process that goes on relatively unobserved by most of us during our daily activities.

Now I've never been a great fan of this particular insect. Like many people, I am unnerved by the way a spider propels itself along, and I always gasp when I see one of its kind lurking in a corner or scurrying out from a sink drain. The tiny ones tend not to bother me as much as the larger more conspicuous ones, and I've been known to recoil in horror when my hand has moved too closely to one. Yet, as much as they unnerve me at times, I am fascinated by these creatures that sometimes seem to materialize out of thin air as they hang from threads that are all but invisible.

While all spiders exude silk through a tiny opening in their abdomens, not all of them use this material for web building. Some spiders use it simply to encase the thousands of eggs they lay in a season, while others use it to help them get around via a process called ballooning. The silk liquid that the spider produces hardens the moment it hits the air, and the process involves creating a thin layer of it that is designed to catch the wind and move the spider from place to place. Of those spiders that don't build webs, some actively hunt, while others, classified as jumping spiders, leap great distances to capture their prey or to avoid imminent danger.

There are four basic species of web builders-cobweb spiders, orb weaver spiders, cellar spiders, and funnel web spiders. These spiders have the poorest vision of all and depend for their survival upon the vibrations produced when hapless intruders become entangled in their webs. Orb weavers are responsible for the intricate webs we see outside in dense shrubbery or in open fields. As a child, I remember being startled quite often when suddenly coming upon a web produced by the large and very imposing black and yellow garden spider, an event that always put the kibosh to whatever exploratory journey I might have been on. The body of the female garden spider can measure one inch or more in length, and its web can be as much as two feet wide. It spends most of its time hanging head down in the center of the the flimsy structure, waiting for an unsuspecting victim to come along. And by the way, the scary creature we call daddy-long-legs isn't a spider at all but a member of a separate insect family that only look like spiders.

It's important to keep in mind that, despite our dislike of these creatures, spiders serve an important purpose in the ecosystem by keeping house fly, mite and other problematic insect populations under control. Of course, as with all other insects, spider populations themselves can reach troublesome proportions, and there are things we can do to minimize our encounters with them that include limiting the places they might like to hide, shaking out our shoes before we put them on, stacking wood away from buildings and being vigilant when opening cardboard boxes that have been in storage for awhile.

There really is no way to predict just where or when we will come upon spiders or any other insect or bug toward which we all display varying degrees of disgust or delight. They are, like all else in nature, part of life, and yet another species with which we must coexist, albeit uncomfortably at times. For the short while I observed this particular tiny arachnid moving back and forth across my window screen that morning, I was again reminded of how many other communities exist within our own larger one and whose inhabitants are bound, as we are, to many of the same laws of nature in order to survive.



"Last night the rain spoke to me slowly, saying, what joy to come falling out of the brisk cloud, to be happy again in a new way on the earth!~Mary Oliver

It rained last night, not the kind of insistent rain that quickly creates puddles and fills storm drains but the kind that drowns out other less desirable noises like radios playing too loud in other apartments and tires negotiating asphalt. It was a steady but soft rain that took awhile to drench leaf and branch but that kept singing long after from the eaves and overhangs. The air coming in through the open windows was clean and fresh, the dust having no power over this blessed elixir dripping from clouds that turned day into night a bit sooner than usual.

I went to bed earlier than usual, too, just to lie there and listen to it, to watch the leaves on the shrub outside my window glisten in what bit of light from the street lamps was able to penetrate its density. The long vine growing all summer around it extended its finger and tapped the glass lightly in the breeze, and individual leaves gave a quick start each time a vagrant rain drop fell on them. Even the cat slept more deeply in the knowledge that nothing interesting would be out on such a night, nothing to tease it from its dreams to the windowsill.

The rain suffers much chiding and derision, but really, is there anything to be done about it other than to accept it as the necessary and inevitable thing that it is? For what would any of us or anything be without it? All living things would die of thirst, nothing would grow, and dryness would rule the land. As the years move in on me, I am more and more contentedly resigned to whatever nature finds it important to do, and when is rain not important? It's been a relatively dry and rainless summer, much to the joy of those who insist on spending a predetermined number of days each year lying in the sun or romping on beaches or lake shores. But we are reminded every day of the consequences of going without rain for long periods of time by the sad pictures on the evening news of corn stalks that never stood a chance of producing and the implications of this on our food budgets.

Rain comes from clouds that are the result of water being pulled up through the atmosphere from the earth in an eternal cycle that keeps green things green and living things alive. It gently washes the dust from summer-weary plants and scrubs the very air we breathe. And who among us hasn't experienced the exhilarating and heady sensation of taking in a few deep breaths after a summer shower? Who among us didn't feel the urge, as children, to splash through puddles or toss stones into them to watch the water ripple outward, each tiny wavelet diminishing in intensity before vanishing altogether? And who hasn't held their face up during a spring shower in hopes of catching a raindrop or two on their tongue?

Rain means different things to different people. To some, it means cancelling a planned outdoor event or moving it inconveniently inside. To others, it means turning sump-pumps on and placing buckets under roof leaks. Farmers look constantly to the skies out of concern for their crops and to keep well levels up, while homeowners rejoice at not having to get the garden hose out as often to keep the lawn green. Rain can be a boon or a bane, depending on how we choose to look at it.

It rained again last night, as it has many nights in the past and as it will many more in the future. It was long slow penetrating shower that eased the earth's thirst and lent a note of freshness to the end of another muggy day. It will happen again in the weeks and months to come, and if I have anything to say about it, I will turn in early many more times to listen to its melody and bask in its coolness.

Then, when morning comes, water gems clinging to leaf and web will again split the light to brighten our world, an event which would not be quite as glorious were it not for the rain.


House Finches

My cat, Muffin, alerted me this morning to the spectacle going on outside. Oh, she didn't exactly approach me directly to inform me of this. Rather, she did her cat thing and spent much of the morning dashing from window to window in an attempt to get the best vantage point from which to watch the show. And I know enough to realize that she doesn't act this way unless there is something out there worthy of my time and attention.

As the various weeds and grasses once again reach maturity, the birds have descended upon them in a frenzy. For the last few days, I've been seeing them streak by my windows and have heard their peeps and tweets as they forage among the tall full-headed stalks of grass and other plants that are once again bearing their annual or biennial loads of seeds. There they were, dozens of them, flitting from place to place, from shrub to shrub, poking through the vegetation that grows near the back steps and flying back and forth from the top of the surrounding fences to the thick unruly growth just outside the bedroom window. Not until just now did I take the time to check on what type of birds these actually are, and a quick (because they don't stay in one place very long) look told me that they were all female house finches, the very drab nondescript counterpart to the more colorful males who sport bright red feathers on their heads.

There wasn't a male among them to be seen, and it caused me to wonder just what the ratio is of males to females and when exactly the boys come out to partake of the feast that, if this frenzy keeps up, will be short-lived at best. It doesn't take any time at all for a flock of birds, male or female, to totally deplete an area of desirable food, and I'm wondering if this isn't some kind of avian "early bird" shopping experience whereby the girls just HAVE to get there first for the best deals.

A few of them gathered briefly in the butterfly shrub next door where they were joined by a few monarch butterflies and honey bees, themselves feasting on the nectar hidden deep inside each tiny floret. They seemed oblivious to the birds' presence, and it appeared that there was plenty of room for all concerned as the various species did what comes naturally to them.

This is such a rich time of year. There is a distinct scent of ripeness in the air, trees and shrubs are as full as they're ever going to get during a single season, and it seems that they somehow know this as they dance about in the breeze when just a few days ago, they were sagging under the weight of the humidity that blanketed the area for several weeks. I'm hearing chickadees again, too, and remembering how they prefer cooler crisper weather, I welcome them back to the fence posts and feeder perches where their summer absence is always noticed and mourned.

The great finch invasion will continue until not a seed is left, much to my delight, for it's not much of a stretch for me to picture myself soaring with them on the air currents that dip and rise between the buildings and among the trees that delineate the properties here where the line between urban and rural is smudged, and some of each spills into the other, including flocks of birds that don't know or care that these are not open woods and fields but simply front lawns and back yards where small miracles, such as their exuberant foraging, happen almost everyday.


Friday, June 6, 2014

A Bending of the Light

It happens every year at about this time without fail in this part of the world. The heavy oppressive damp days of July and August descend upon us, and for days that sometimes grow into weeks, the air waves are filled more often than not with the sound of air conditioners and fans running. The sound becomes commonplace after awhile, and the silence almost deafening on days when we must turn them on early as the sun aims its hot eye once again upon us.

Without warning, the wind direction shifts from south or east to west and north, and we are refreshed by the cooler air from Canada that banishes the high summer haze from the landscape. Freed from the ephemerous curtain that hangs over everything for most of July and sometimes into August, objects become clearer, more sharply defined, colors brighter and richer, and we can see again. And then one day, again without much fanfare, there it is. The decidedly altered slant of the light, both in early morning and late afternoon, signaling once again the earth's slow but inexorable tilt away from the sun's intensity. It is almost as it if one day, the light and heat are fully upon us in their insistent mid-year way, and then the next, they have turned their attentions away from us to focus on something else besides baking us and coaxing sweat from every pore. Shadows fall sooner than they did, and birds no longer sing into the twilight hours.

It is once again coming upon my favorite time of year-early autumn. Not a huge fan of heat and humidity, I welcome the cooler drier nights of this end-of-summer month. Just knowing the evening and night will be cooler makes the day's heat more tolerable, and that this month is a gateway of sorts to that glorious season of multicolored tapestries and still mild but bug-free days. There is no question that this cool-down invigorates me and makes me want to get back out there roaming and seeing what I've been missing these last few torrid weeks.

Butterflies congregate on flower shrubs, and birds busy themselves seeking out the plump seed heads of many plants and some species of trees. My little chipmunk friend has been running back and forth across the porch these last few days, most likely foraging for and storing away supplies for the coming cold months. I've started putting bread crumbs out for him, and they are disappearing. That tiny creature keeps me grounded and connected internally to the wild places. We share a common love, it and I, for the places untrodden by the rest of the world.

At night, the window fan pulls in much cooler air now, and a very large cricket managed to sneak its way into the kitchen one day last week. It emerged in another room today, so I gently picked it up and redeposited it outside where it hopped away instantly. I hear its kind loudly now each night, one of the most familiar and comforting sounds of late summer. Its distinctive chatter, which it produces by rubbing its wings together, sometimes manages to transcend the other noises around here, coming at me from the grass beneath my bedroom window, and I find myself listening for it now at night when I manage to resist thoughts of those other things that should be consuming me but don't quite make it across the vast fields of my mind.

The end of August approaches, and right behind it, a month of beginnings and endings. Children will be returning to school, yellow buses will be rolling once again, corn fields will be shorn of their late gold, and early apples will spill from baskets at roadside stands. The seasonal shift is like an invisible wave that I have been riding now for several decades, and it is a journey I never tire of. This is the best part of the ride, when the air sweetens from the rich aroma of the season's fullness, the days shorten and the light reaches me from a different direction. For a few days, I'll see the sun rise through those trees across the street, and then one day, it won't be there. It will have slipped behind buildings and I'll miss its first peek above the urban horizon.

Through the still-green trees, this closest of morning stars scatters its brilliance among the branches through leaves more than willing to help split its light, and I find myself wishing quietly upon it as I would upon any other more distant orb as it reveals to me another new day.



Death of a Tree

As I write, the old dead tree out back is coming down. A crew stopped early this morning to ask if they could work on this side of the fence, so I gave them the landlord's phone number. Since they began slicing off the side branches, my eyes have remained glued to the multiple holes that several woodpeckers have called home since before I got here. My hope is that, by now, the birds have vacated the premises and have started canvassing for other digs. Yet, it isn't without some measure of sadness that I observe the drama unfolding before me, not unlike a bird's wings, one feather at a time. And I hope that the fact that I haven't heard the woodpeckers' characteristic cries indicates that they are nowhere near. I'm not sure if birds mourn disruption as much as humans do, if they decry having to part with familiar surroundings and be forced to adjust to new. Come to think of it, it's really not unlike what we go through when we leave beloved places behind.

Watching these birds go through the motions of building a nest, then bearing and raising their young, was actually one of the things that helped me through my own transition from wooded to urban living. I kept my field glasses near that back window so that I could be quick to see what they happened to be up to at any given time. That's how it is with birds. You've got to be quick to catch the special moments that are over all too soon, and it is this vigilance that eventually rewarded me with observing the newborn's beak finally poke out of the hole in search of food. This happened some time in late May or early June, and at which time both parents began flying themselves ragged each day to keep Junior fed, and it was only at night that the process stopped or slowed. As fate would have it, I got busy with other things and never did see the moment when the young 'un finally left the nest. I seriously doubt that any bird will come anywhere near that old tree while chainsaws rip through its ancient flesh, putting the final touches on its demise. It wasn't completely dead. There was still a lot of greenery at the bottom on the healthier branches. But it has apparently become someone else's bane, so down it is coming, with many many thuds, and, if I'm not mistaken, groans of protest.

Later, when I went back to the window, despite the fact that I knew what I'd see, it was still a shock to see that vast empty space where that tree had stood. I stared at the spot a long time, then closed my eyes and tried to envision its beginnings as a tiny seedling straining to make its presence known among what might have been those many years ago a thicket of other growth. Most trees with trunks that wide have seen many rings added to their girth, so I'm guessing this particular old timer had seen many moons grow full and wane and even more sunrises and sunsets. And while its bottom half was still struggling to survive in this world where it is every tree for itself, the top had become home to creatures that might not otherwise have taken up residence in such a place as this.

I accepted this tree's removal with a sort of resignation that is still seeking to find a space in my own thinking. My life has undergone a lot of change lately, and I'm not quite sure just how I feel about a lot of it. But I can say this: for a lover of trees, it's never easy to bid one farewell. I must once again choose how to feel, and this is what I've come up with...that I don't have to go very far to find renewed comfort in the fact that, for every tree that is dismembered and sacrificed for the sake of aesthetics, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of others awaiting my gaze and appreciation. And knowing trees and their ways, I wouldn't be at all surprised if, at some point and unbeknownst to most, a new seedling, or maybe even two, someday poked through the soil in that very spot and whispered, "I'm back."

That's how it is with trees.


In the Hollis Woods

I have the great fortune for the next couple of weeks of house-sitting for my friend. Her property lies at the edge of a vast wooded area in Hollis, and it is here that I am once more able to enjoy the peace, quiet and serenity that are so crucial to my own survival. I sit on the screened porch and listen to the buzz of late summer insects plying the air with their song. Birds titter from nearby trees, tree toads trill from their clandestine places, and the setting sun casts long deep distinct shadows between the tall ancient pines that were here long before my friend and her late husband bought this wondrous place. Returning to the porch after getting myself a cool drink, I notice a large dark shape perched on a branch not 40 feet away. I realize instantly that it’s an owl. I creep back inside to get binoculars, but in what little daylight is left, I am not able to see many details, only that it has small horns and that its feathers are dark brown and mottled with white.

The owl sits there for some time, turning its head this way and that, and I know it is fully aware of my presence. Yet there it remains, vigilant for whatever lurks in the tall grasses below it. As I move to another part of the house to get a better view, it takes off, glides close to the ground, soars up into the branches of another more distant tree, and vanishes from my sight. After closing the place up and leaving a few windows open to let the cooler air in, I spend a pleasant night, lulled to sleep by sounds that are possible only in such places, only in such woods as these.

This is, and has always been, a magical place, from my friends' first tentative days here in their tiny cabin nearly 30 years ago to the present time when my friend now lives alone in what was to have been their dream home, a magnificent place of cathedral ceilings and breathtaking views that her husband would enjoy for only a short time. The phoebes know nothing of this, however, and each year, they return to their same nests under the big back deck, their tail feathers bobbing as they perch on a planter pole or low branch. The crows that guard this place have done so for ages and will continue to do so, insensible of the human drama going on in the space beneath them.

A thunderstorm comes over this place early on another afternoon, and the rain comes down hard and insistent as I sit writing. Despite the humidity, which has once again reached unpleasant proportions, I take my book out with me to the screened-in porch to sit out the storm. Mediocre by summer storm standards, it is nonetheless pleasant to feel its effects as the air changes. The rain falls steadily and the earth gives up her rich scent as the drops penetrate her dried and brittle shell. I sit out there until it passes then go back inside. I must leave in awhile to get back to my real world for another day or so, then it will back here for another few days to let nature have her way with me.

Such places as these are destinations along the journeys of our lives, oases toward which we yearn and that we spend our days struggling to achieve. But might it not be the journey there from which we learn our most valuable lessons? Might it not be the unexpected sights along the way that make the journey worthwhile? For all destinations become resting places after awhile, and there is always the danger that we may become complacent and think that there is nothing else to see or experience.

After leaving one wood and being given the gift of enjoying another, albeit for a preciously short time, I know now that each step I've taken since then has led me here, storing up the wonder and enchantment for me along the way. This is another culmination of sorts along my journey, another fleeting moment in time during which all that matters to me has come together in yet another wooded spot in a place that feels very familiar and right.

Any place that engages us the way this place does me sings of beginnings and births, of fulfillment's and endings, of secrets and things left to be discovered and felt. One layer of emotion curls back to reveal another deeper one, for that is what the woods do for us. They make us look into ourselves to search for the common ground that we share with all that is out there. To love where we are, no matter how humble or remote or forgotten, makes it home, and that is what this wooded place is to me at this very moment-home.


Straining to Hear

Despite the noise and the chaos here, nature makes herself seen, heard and felt. And whether she welcomes the instrusion or not, I have once again insinuated myself into her workings and persist in moving ever deeper into the heart of her many mysteries. From the wild vine that sways in the breeze outside my bedroom window to the remnants of last night's rain dripping from the roof and tapping just certain leaves, she makes her presence known to me.

Early in the morning, I strain toward the all-too-brief silences between the cars and trucks that disturb what would otherwise be a blessed calm of the sort that once was most likely the norm here along this road that runs along the river. And in between the hissings of rubber spinning endlessly on asphalt and the grinding of gears as large trucks downshift toward the town center, I hear the songs of creatures who insist on being heard no matter what. Birdsong comes to me at sunrise, the generic crow's call and the cardinal's bell-like melody, assuring me that all is well at least in their part of the world.

Humans are a noisy species, arguably the noisiest in all of nature. Just yesterday, I stopped at a store where a portable compressor sitting in the back of a truck was running full-bore. Several people stood not far from it talking, or rather shouting, to make themselves heard to each other above its din. As if that hadn't been enough to push the decibel level beyond any healthy limits, not to mention my own level of tolerance, two all-terrain vehicles pulled up and sat idling near the gas pumps for some time. The humid August air quickly filled with the smell of exhaust, and I could not exit that scene quickly enough.

Availing myself of nature's gifts, particularly the way in which she insists upon silence in all of her processes, has not always been easy since I left the woods a few months ago. But I remain ever vigilant of her presense in the random places, and I still do not allow my gaze to wander very far from her green respites that exist simply as backdrops here for the trappings of the human experience. This enables me to be privy at times to the sight of a hummingbird harvesting nectar from the flowers in a neighboring yard and to appreciate the weeds that insist on growing up through the cracks in the back-porch steps. If I honor that flurry that catches at the corner of my eye and turn toward it, I might see a flock of female house finches scratching at the dirt in the back yard or a chipmunk perched on top of a wide fence post surveying the limited landscape. I am grateful for the single sunflower that emerged unannounced from seed scattered by the birds beneath the feeder, and I make it a point to go outside if I so much as hear the sound of a leaf rustling in the wind. I look often to the skies here and am rewarded with spectacular cloud formations and glorious sunrises and sunsets. While none of these experiences come close to providing me with the deep sense of kinship with nature I once enjoyed, they are nonethless reminders of what is still out there for me to savor if I remember to stop, look and listen.

At this point in my life, I'd be fooling myself to think there is any chance that I will ever again find myself wrapped in nature's arms on a wooded hillside. So I wear her like a charm on my wrist now and keep her tucked in close to my heart. And wherever I go, I leave myself open to her ministrations, be they in the form of a stroll along a hiking trail or a climb along a rocky beach head. Fortunately for me, she is never far away, and she never fails to hear my cries for help.


Again, Trees

Trees are wondrous things, and I often take them for granted. Caught up in my daily preoccupations, I often rush by them without giving them a second glance, focused as I am on matters at hand, most of which, truth be known, I can't do very much about.

I often drive along with my left arm hanging out the open car window, and I have acquired quite a prominent farmer's tan that way. It's particularly dark this year, considering all the rambling I've done in search of fodder for this column and the photos to accompany them. One day, oblivious to the sun's intensity, and forgetting the weather forecaster's warning that the ultraviolet factor was dangerously high that day, the tender skin on my arm just above the elbow was burned and required several applications of that blessedly soothing concoction known as aloe gel. Despite my sunburn, it was along one stretch of Route 5 in Saco that I was reminded that afternoon of what a blessing trees are, especially on hot cloudless days.

From the intersection of routes 5 and 35 in Dayton to the Waterboro town line several miles west, the woods alternately deepen and thin on either side of the road. My arm becomes a sensing device of sorts as it picks up the changes in temperature that occur between the wooded areas and sections where the tree line is farther back from the road and more open sky appears. Along one particularly dense wooded stretch, the temperature dropped by a good 10 degrees, and my arm was actually chilled. Then, when the tree canopy opened up again to allow the sun through, it got decidedly warmer. I tested the theory all the way to Waterboro where the road widens and the trees no longer join together closely enough over the road to alter the temperature until the turnoff to Shaker Hill on route 202 in Alfred.

The coolness that trees impart is due to several factors beyond their ability to provide us with shade. Trees are natural air conditioners that operate exclusively on solar power to chill the air around us and keep it chilled for long periods of time. This is where water, good old H-Two-0, comes into play, much as it does inside an electrically-powered air conditioner. Trees take in hundreds of gallons of water from the soil each day through their roots. This water travels to every part of the tree to keep it hydrated and to assist with the production of food in that amazing process known as photosynthesis.

Water molecules are composed of hydrogen and oxygen. In a complex process, the sun stimulates the hydrogen molecules that are utilized during the food production process, while the oxygen is given off through the leaves. Any excess water not used during the production of the sugars necessary to a tree's survival is also released in yet another process known as transpiration, which closely resembles what we call perspiration, or the process by which our own bodies produce water, or sweat, to keep us cool. So not only do trees intercept the sun's damaging rays, they also keep us cool with the water they release into the air around them. This cooling ability increases exponentially depending upon the number of trees in any given area. Thus, the denser the forest, the chillier it will be, because the air around and between the trees is saturated with cool water.

Trees also do not retain heat in the general sense. Thus, once the sun sets, they and the air around them cool almost immediately as opposed to the asphalt and concrete that weave their way through cities and towns and that store the heat long after sundown. This is a welcome effect during the winter, but it quickly becomes the bane of city dwellers during the hottest times of the year, especially in places where there is little or no vegetation.

The next time you are out of an evening, notice how much cooler it is in the more wooded areas as opposed to the city streets. Take note of the decided chill in the air in places where the treetops join hands, if you will, to do what they were designed to do which is to naturally and efficiently keep us cool and refreshed and all without our having to flip a single switch.



If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. ~Henry David Thoreau

History books recount the tales of how the world's great cities took shape, how men with vision came in and swept whole sections of countryside clean of vegetation and wildlife in the name of progress. In other cases, the sprawl happened gradually, with cities extending their reach until it was impossible to even guess at what had been there before. In both cases, architects, engineers and builders painted over nature's great canvas, obliterating her work for all time in places such as New York City, Chicago and Boston. Yes, the city planners incorporated parks and other green places in their sprawling cities for residents to enjoy. But there is no question that nature has taken a back seat in many areas of this country, and one is hard-pressed to find her in any but the least-populated places.

Thanks to citizen resistance to sprawl and development, nature maintains her hold on the vast spaces that exist between the smaller towns and among the great swatches of terrain that divide them. Two years ago, the residents of Shapleigh voted against a company that had plans to test, tap and sell the town's water, thus ensuring that no bottling plant, such as the one that now takes up a huge area on the Killock Pond Road in Hollis, would suddenly pop up on their own pristine land. To economists and others who insist on placing a dollar value on everything, this translated into lost jobs and lower revenues. But to naturalists and others who appreciate nature's presence, it was no small victory. For to drive through Shapleigh is to pass through a place of incredible beauty, from its gently rolling hills to its densely wooded areas. How sad it would have been to disturb that land for the purpose of extracting the very water that makes its lush existence possible.

Those who choose to live in small towns and villages do so from personal choice or, in some cases, because they've been there all their lives and it just never occurs to them to live anywhere else. There is an inherent sense of freedom in such places, where nature exists close by as a constant reminder that boundaries are a human convention and that no such concept exists naturally in woods and fields. Again, the open areas are preserved and left to their own devices, imparting to small settlements an aura of non-intrusiveness and resignation. Nature rules, and those who live in such places do so out of deference to her and with great respect for her processes. The appearance of wildlife in a rural back yard is an everyday occurrence in many small towns and is never an intrusion. There is an intrinsic acceptance among a populace that has learned to live in harmony with its wild neighbors that involves never forgetting who was here first.

It's always a pleasure to drive through the smaller towns and villages that dot the landscape away from the larger metropolitan areas. I never tire of seeing the family farms, weathered outbuildings, apple orchards and vast gardens coexisting with other modest homesteads and small businesses that know their place in the scheme of things and that keep the local humble economy going. The eye travels easily across such landscapes that offer few, if any, detractions to their flowing harmony. For mercifully, the human touch has been gentle and respectful in these places where nature's imprint is still the deepest.


Summer in York County

Roaming the York County countryside means seeing fields shorn of their tall grasses and corn standing knee-high right about now. Raspberries are filling out on their canes, and blueberries are ripening a little more each day. Birds linger longer on tree branches, particularly among the flowering varieties whose blossoms have given way to yet another year's-worth of seeds. It's July, the seventh month, which means that we are over half-way through yet another year. The heat rests heavily on the land, and the sun shines down more intensely than it will at any other time.

I'm not a big fan of hot weather, so when I do venture out, I try to get as early a start as I can. Driving along with all the windows down, I bask in the still-cool morning air that, by noon, will feel more like the heat pouring from an oven. On hot days, even the trees seem weighed down by it, their leaves barely moving in the moisture-laden air moving in from the south and the west, completely resigned to the elements that constitute summer in southern Maine.

Much has been written of late about conservation and the actions of many dedicated individuals geared toward protecting unspoiled land for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. While their efforts are indeed commendable, it occurs to me that conservation can take different forms and that it can be deliberate or simply the result of of land being left undisturbed for many years. The long swaths of open field and meadow that I see in my many travels illustrate what I like to call passive conservation. Such acreage emerges from beneath the snows each spring, sprouts a full component of grass that is eventually cut back to ground level. That is about as much as ever happens to such land, and year after year, it is wisely left in nature's domain. The hay or straw harvested from these lands fills many needs, but such undisturbed lands provide another benefit as well by enhancing the countryside and making a lot of lovely scenery possible. Visual beauty, as well as the survival of relatively untouched places, are indeed valuable components of conservation, passive or otherwise, that sometimes get lost in the shuffle of providing areas for people to enjoy in other ways.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to those landowners who quietly, and without much ado, leave large portions of their land in nature's care. Because of them, we have many places to escape to in this part of the world where life's busy-ness and the wilderness live in close proximity to each other. And although much of this land is private and, in some cases, posted against trespassers, I feel that just having it to look at as I drive by or stop along a road somewhere to enjoy is a gift.

I sometimes park my car and walk along the by-ways that border such properties, camera in hand, always on the lookout for that special something that would be missed if I'd just passed by without a second glance. From such a limited vantage point, I am still able to gaze out upon rolling pastures and deep into dense woods where the leaves split the sunlight into glimmering beams. I can gaze down from a bridge into flowing water or look up at clouds that break up a rich blue sky above a field of golden grasses bending in the breeze, thankful always to those wise landowners who know that, when nature is given full rein, nothing short of the spectacular will do.


Songs of the Past

Every so often in my ramblings, I come upon a place that sings particularly loudly of the past. Along with trying to be more attentive to the details in my surroundings that are overlooked during a cursory glance, I also try to discern what a particular area might have looked like before progress, if you will, forever altered its profile.

It might be something about a stand of trees or the way the land dips before being cut off by a paved road. It is also sometimes simply in how a ray of sunlight is interrupted in a spot where it shouldn't be by something that just doesn't seem to belong there. I've come across certain markings in forgotten places, ancient remnants of other times, other lives. Chunks of granite blocks poking up through grass and weeds or the sad remains of what was once a fence that delineated property boundaries, crumbling now and making its way, molecule by minute molecule, back to the earth from which it came.

I noticed, one day last week, a long row of tall regal old pine trees lining one side of a road in Arundel. As I drove slowly past, I wondered at how that tract of land might have looked a century or more ago before a road even appeared there. Oh, there might have been some sort of trail or way to negotiate the area, as most rural roads were once nothing more than paths before the advent of the automobile or lanes composed of pairs of ruts worn by wagon wheels. As more and more of them were widened, graded and paved, the landscapes abutting them changed forever, leaving us now to wonder at what might have been lost in the process; and it's always a comfort to come across an area that appears to be relatively untouched by human hands or affected in some way by the human touch.

I chatted yesterday with several ladies who live in Springvale, and they shared their memories of living in the area. Dorothea, or Thea, as she is fondly called, who is in her nineties and has spent her entire life in the Oak Street area of Springvale, remembered when "all the streets were dirt roads," and "you could walk along the railroad tracks to get to Deering Pond." Peg and Cora, originally from the town of Alfred, playfully reminisced about Mouse Lane, a narrow road that branches off from the Kennebunk Road and whose name has always amused them. "The Kennebunk Road was dirt," said Peg, and added that Mouse Lane was also just a "small and curvy dirt road." Peg also reminisced about the many wildflowers that, as a young girl, she saw growing there. Cora said that Lady Slippers and Lily of the Valley grew everywhere. The ladies collectively spoke of other flowers that grew wild at every turn-Queen Anne's Lace, Oxeye Daisies, Indian Paintbrush, and wild strawberries. "Wild strawberries grew everywhere," Peg said. Thea also shared her memory of a time when elm trees were familiar sights along the streets of Sanford and Springvale. "You should have seen them on Oak Street," she said. "Their tops met over the road."

Cora lamented the disrespect for natural beauty that she sees everywhere in the form of litter and trash. "I don't know why people do that," she said. "It's awful. Empty cans and cups are just thrown on the ground. They just don't care." Thea added that she admires the efforts of local conservationists to preserve the wild places in Sanford and Springvale for future generations to enjoy; and Peg wistfully mentioned how her parents had taken steps to formally preserve some of their land, but that subsequent owners had removed the protections that they had put into place.

Talking with seniors gives us a rare glimpse into the past, when life was slower and, they all agreed, less complicated. Through their eyes, we can travel back in time and imagine what the busy streets we now take for granted looked like as dirt roads, how trees, fields and wildflowers dominated the landscape, and what it was like to travel everywhere on foot or in a horse-drawn wagon.

The ladies all agreed that nature was much more visible back then and played a much greater role in their everyday lives. I truly enjoyed my trip down Memory Lane with them, from Thea recalling how farmers built walls from the rocks they coaxed from the soil as they cleared the land, many of which are still there today, to Cora fondly remembering the garden her family grew that helped put food on the table during lean times. As the conversation was winding down, Peg thought a moment and, with the characteristic twinkle in her eyes, spoke of spending a lot of time outside as a child. "We were always outside doing something," she said, then added with a chuckle,"and sometimes, believe it or not, even getting into some sort of mischief!"


Down Rabbit Holes

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.~Lewis Carroll, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

It sometimes takes a bit of poking around to find visual inspiration in this part of the state. Aside from the heavily forested areas, patches of so-called wilderness do occur quite dramatically between developed areas or in other spots where one wouldn't think to find such beauty and serenity. I found another such place the other day during my ramblings and stopped to do some exploring on foot, as driving by in a vehicle usually doesn't do justice to such tucked-away spots.

This place sits nestled in a low gully at the eastern end of the Deering Ridge Road where it connects to Route 109 in Shapleigh, just past the Springvale town line. The road dips dramatically from the sharp left turn off 109, and water appears in the form of a fast-moving stream on one side of a small bridge overpass and courses toward a more open expanse of calmer water on the other. Driving by there of an evening, when temperatures up in that neck of the woods are decidedly cooler, I've often seen fly fishermen standing thigh-deep in the water on the calmer side, while other fishermen try their luck on the upper end where the water flows swiftly from an outlet in a granite wall farther up.

The western section of the sluice, which I gauged to measure roughly 25 feet wide, is channelled in on both sides by solid low walls of granite blocks, and the tree canopy is virtually closed over it, making for a very shaded area. A narrow rocky path leads down from the road's shoulder to the water's edge, and from there, one can stand and observe the river travel away into the distance beneath the small bridge. Vegetation grows thickly on either side and along another longer path that winds its way along the upper side of the stream. It was in that direction that a young couple and their baby headed that sunny day, he loaded down with fishing gear and she carrying the child and what appeared to be a picnic cooler.

Across the road on the calmer side of the stream, the river opens into a more pastoral idyllic landscape, surrounded on all sides by thick stands of trees and lower growth whose reflections lend a distinct note of lushness to the scene. The sun was high and cast short shadows, and the water's surface broke into a million gems at its touch. Birds sang from high up in the trees, but aside from the traffic on the main road, it was a quiet and peaceful experience.

A friend asked me recently how I find such places at these, and I told her that those few I've caught out of the corner of my eye as I drive past have caused me to rethink my driving habits. Now, unless I'm bound for a particular destination and pressed for time, I make myself slow down now so as not to miss these treasures. I take the occasional "road not taken" to see where it will lead, and if I don't have a sense of where I'll end up, I simply turn around and go back with the intention of researching the area more thoroughly before paying it another visit. Or, if it's a particularly nice day, I simply decide on a particular route and negotiate it slowly so as not to miss something striking or deserving of more attention.

There is so much to see out there in the most unexpected places, and there is so much happening in the tiny spaces, in the worlds within worlds, that we miss in our eagerness to get to wherever it is we are going. Nature's processes are so intricate and fascinating, and only those who make a study of them realize just how specialized and complex they all are.

Just the other day, I happened to glance out through one of my living room windows that overlooks the long side porch that I share with my neighbor and that is just mere feet away from the busy street. There sat a chipmunk, leaning back on its hind legs, taking in its surrounding. Within a few seconds it was gone, startled most likely by some sound or activity close by. I was surprised to see it in this environment, and when I went outside later, I noticed the characteristic hole in the dirt under the back porch steps. I realized immediately that I'd found the chipmunk's home or at least the doorway to it.

Nature's greatest gifts to us are the doorways, or the rabbit holes, if you will, through which she shows us wondrous things and that simply await our curiosity. And all it takes to discover them is losing ourselves in the moment and not giving a single thought to how we will ever get back...



The Nature of the Sea

The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea. ~Isak Dinesen

No catalog of nature's wonders would be complete without mention of that element that covers roughly 71 per cent of the earth's surface-the ocean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphetic Administration (NOAA), that percentage contains 97 per cent of the planet's entire water supply and is home to nearly half of all the species of living things on earth. And like all of  earth's other wonders, it doesn't come to us. We go to it to enjoy what is has to offer from the recreational to the aesthetic, from the adventurous to the poetic.

It's been my own observation that the sea, like all else in nature, is never static. It is always moving, changing, altering itself as it shapes, not only the shoreline's characteristics but all that exists along its ever-shifting boundaries. Years of its washing over rocks wears them gradually away, resculpts them, alters their hues and their textures much as rainfall erodes hillsides and imbues them with new complexions as time goes by. Nature, the great reconstructive surgeon, is ever at work reshaping the marine landscape so that it, like so much else around us, never looks the same two days in a row. Blink, and what you just saw you will never see again. Such is the great mass of moving water that lures us to it for reasons as varied as we are.

While the wooded places display their energy more subtly and in much slower fashion, the sea exhibits hers openly and unabashedly. Calm one day, in an uproar the next, it defies our hold over it and never fails to remind us of its power and ability to reduce our lives to debris in a very short time. As yet another aspect of nature's insistent presence among us, we have no choice but to stand in awe of it, respect its awesome power, and allow it full access into areas where it has proven fruitless to try to stop it.

On a smaller scale, the sea provides us with so much pleasure. From wading in its frigid waters to scavenging for the myriad forms of life which it deposits along the shoreline, it never disappoints. For what bored child cannot have his or her focus shifted and held by simply walking along the sand gathering stones, bits of wood or glass polished smooth by the sea's movement or wading in tidal pools in search of those small creatures who scuttle under rocks at our approach?

We flock to the shore to relax and are drawn to its majesty during storms. We gaze out at the full moon's reflection across the rippling waves and marvel at the feats of surfers who enter into a particularly intimate dance with them. We take boats out and cast fishing lines into the depths, and we here along the Maine coast think of the sea as a natural part of our lives. For those of us who live in some degree of proximity to it, it has always been there and will always be there. Its tides will continue to answer to the moon's pull, and its waves will still form to an intensity dictated by wind and weather.

Many years ago, I went with my family often to Fortunes Rocks, and it is still my favorite spot in York County along the Atlantic coastline. Facing the open ocean, the bracing cold waters are still my favorite way to cool off, and I try to get down there as often as I can. Back then, I'd always wander off to my favorite perch on the rock outcropping that juts out into the tide. I'd get out there as far as I could go and sit for hours, or at least until my father would start shouting and waving to me to return before the tide came back in and made that impossible. There was nothing about the experience that I didn't love...the smell of the seaweed baking in the sun, the water lapping at the lowest rocks, and the seagulls bobbing on the waves in the distance. And of course, the walk to and from the outcropping was always a joy as well, the air crisp and clean and invigorating even on the hottest days, for only during the rarest heat waves is true relief not to be found close to the water on that beach.

The sea is where it all began, and I like to think that all else around us, wood, field and flower, are extensions of its magnanimity. Of course, that's just me waxing sentimental again about the big wondrous world around us that we simply call nature. That tree across the street really is a part of the process, for at some point this summer, moisture will exit its leaves into the atmosphere and fall as rain on the land where it will drain into a river and eventually make its way to the sea in one great cycle that never ceases to amaze.