The Squirrel’s Favorite Holiday

I’m guessing that squirrels prefer Halloween and Thanksgiving over all other holidays. That’s because squirrels have a taste for pumpkin — especially older, softer pumpkin. Over the last few days, the little fellow shown in the photo above and his furry pals have been ravenously devouring the pumpkins that were placed at Schiller Park as decorations. I’m not sure if the squirrels gnaw through the shell to get at the pumpkin seeds, or whether they like the inner flesh, but this guy was stuffing himself to get ready for the winter in that inimitable, hyper-alert, squirrel-like way.

If you’ve got pumpkins and want to be environmentally sensitive about disposing of them, put them out in your back yard where your neighborhood squirrels can get at them. They’ll thank you, and take care of recycling.

In Caterpillar Country

I ran across lots of critters in my work in the yard yesterday. Spiders and beetles were out in force, and I also encountered this striking white and black caterpillar crawling on an old birch tree stump.  

My rule in the garden is to look — and photograph, where warranted — but don’t touch.  I let the creatures go their own way unimpeded.  In this instance, that turned out to be a wise policy, because according to the ever-useful University of Maine Cooperative Extension website this particular caterpillar is a Hickory Tussock caterpillar, and those white hairy tufts can cause a powerful and very itchy rash, especially for kids who can’t resist picking up things like caterpillars.  The U of Maine also cautions people to be careful not to come in contact with them when raking leaves in the fall.

The Hickory Tussock caterpillar loves hardwood trees, like birch trees, and will be spinning its cocoon in the near future, using leaf debris and its own white hairs.  The caterpillars then produce tiger moths, which are pretty common up here.

Spider Season

The spiders of Stonington— industrious creatures that they are—have been busy these days. Every morning the grass spiders have left dozens of their distinctive funnel webs at various locations on the ground and between the flowers of our flower beds. And other spiders, not to be outdone, have left more traditional radial webs on the eaves and railings, as well as the occasional plant.

The spider activity seems to increase as the temperatures cool, and their handiwork is even more noticeable on dewy mornings. Part of my daily activity involves knocking webs off the flowers, which otherwise would look totally mummified and covered in dried leaves and other debris in a few days. And walking just about anywhere poses a risk of stumbling into stray spiderwebbed filaments.

In fact, if you wanted to adopt a scary natural Halloween look, you’d just let the spiders spin their webs undisturbed. By the time Halloween rolled around you’d have a creepy, cobwebbed house and grounds suitable for a slasher flick.

Our Lupine Seed Harvest

In Maine, we love our lupine flowers, which seem to grow everywhere — even by the side of the road, without any tending.  We have three beautiful lupines right in front of our house, and I’m interested in trying to grow lupines elsewhere on our property.  But if you want to harvest lupine seeds and grow lupines, you need to work at it.

Later in the summer, the lupine flowers are replaced by lupine seed pods, which look like hairy pea pods.  (This is not surprising, because lupines are a part of the bean family of plants.)  If you want to harvest the seeds, you need to wait until the seed pods dry out and you can hear the seeds rattling around in the pod.  Then you patiently open the pods one by one, free the seeds from the pod, drop the seeds into a storage container — in our case, a coffee cup — and then wait to plant the seeds until the end of the season.  If you plant them too early, they’ll be found and consumed by birds and the other hungry critters of Maine.  The lupine seeds then need to experience multiple weeks of cold weather before they germinate and new plants can grow.

Unfortunately, I waited too long to do the seed harvest from the plants in the front of the house.  By the time I checked them, most of the pods had already burst open and dropped their seeds — and lupine seeds are incredibly tiny and heavy, so I wasn’t going to be able to find and retrieve them from the ground.  However, I found some unopened pods, and we retrieved some additional pods from plants along the roadway.  With the help of Dr. Science and the GV Jogger, who pitched in with us and enjoyed the simple pleasures of pod opening and seed retrieval, we’ve now collected several hundred of the small black seeds, which I will try to plant this fall. 

According to the Mainers, you should try to position the lupine seeds in areas where there isn’t much competition from other plants.  In addition, lupines seem to prefer rocky soil — and we’ve got plenty of that.  I’ve got several locations in mind where I would love to see some lupine plants take root.  I’ll be hoping that some of the seeds avoid the foraging of our neighborhood birds and animals, so that next spring we’ve got a serious lupine bloom on our hands.

Fern Fun

When we first started coming to Maine, I was amazed to find that it had fern-filled forests (try saying that three times fast).  I had always associated ferns with warm, wet climates a lot closer to the equator, but that was clearly wrong.  Ferns thrive throughout Maine and are found pretty much everywhere — including outcroppings of ferns at multiple locations in our down yard, one of which is shown in this photo.

Ferns are part of a plant group called Pteridophytes, which is one of the oldest plant groups in the world.  They first emerged about 300 million years ago, which is why you often see colossal ferns depicted in illustrations of dinosaurs.  Ferns thrived during the warm, wet age of the dinosaurs, but they are also suited to wetter places like Maine because moisture is essential to their reproductive process.  Having no flowers or pollen for helpful bees to spread, they depend on the exchange of spores to reproduce.  There are lots of different species of ferns in Maine, including several clearly different varieties. with different kinds of fronds, in our yard.  I think our largest plants, like the ones shown in the photo, are “ostrich ferns,” which emerge as little fiddleheads, but distinguishing between the species requires an expertise and attention to subtle differences that I just don’t have

I like the look of ferns and am happy to have them in our yard.  They grow in clumps that wave lazily in the breeze blowing in from the harbor, and present with lots of different shades of green depending on the angle of the sunlight.  They’re a lot more attractive than the weeds that would be growing there otherwise, and they are hardy plants that really don’t require much care after they have taken root.  I’m trying to help a little patch that has started up in one rocky, out of the way part of the yard, and basically I’m just going to water it and circle it with stones to protect it from the weedwhacker. 

I also like ferns because deer apparently don’t care for them.  The ever-hungry neighborhood deer might gnaw the tops off every flower that is ready to bloom, but they leave the ferns alone.  Ferns . . . those, I think I can safely grow.

The Fog Bank Lurks

The fog bank is out there.  You can see it on the water, lurking and looming, just beyond the little island in the middle of the harbor.  The fog bank is so thick that it totally obscures all but the highest hilltop on Isle au Haut, wiping it clean from the photo.

It’s been pretty foggy here for the last few days, and for the native Midwesterner the speed — and seeming perverseness — of the fog movement is breathtaking.  You might see fog in the distance, and the next thing you know it has barged into town and your bare skin is covered in moisture.  On other days, the fog might wait out on the horizon, keeping its own counsel and deciding if, and when, to roll in and blanket the sun.  And on other days, the fog is simply gone, and you can see for miles out into the harbor without a hint of fog to be seen anywhere.

Dr. Science would tell you that fog is a natural condition caused by a process called advection, when warm, moist air passes over a cooler surface — in this case, the bracing waters of the Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the islands in the bay — and water vapor in the air condenses to form water droplets that make the fog opaque.  That’s a very scientific explanation, but it doesn’t quite capture the almost human, unpredictable qualities of fog.

Because we know the fog is out there . . . waiting. 

Our Blue Feathered Friend

Our cottage in Maine is built into a steep granite hillside that tumbles down into the western end of the Stonington Harbor.  As a result, our deck is at the treetop level of the pine trees, birch trees, and even a buckeye tree planted on the the hillside down below.

59859171-480pxThat means that we get a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of the birds that call Greenhead peninsula home.  And because we are on a coastline, there are lots of birds, and an interesting mix of different species at that.  We get seagulls coasting in on the ocean breezes that land nimbly on our tiny chimney, cawing crows and ravens that add a touch of noise to the foggy mornings, an occasional hawk, wrens and sparrows and chimney swifts, robins forever hunting for insects and worms in the downyard area, and gray doves that like to take a dip in the waters of the little creek that runs down the hillside.

But our favorite feathered friends are the brilliant blue jays that swoop in on the updrafts and like to perch in the trees right at our deck level, so we can get a good look at them.  They are beautiful birds, with their bright blue plumage standing out from the green leaves of the trees, and instantly recognizable both for their color and for their distinctive tuft of feathers on the crown of their heads.  The blue jays move briskly from tree to tree, apparently scouting for something with their lightning quick, quirky nods and other head movements, and then they are gone in a flash of blue across the landscape.

An elevated deck that allows you to do some casual bird-watching is a nice feature at the end of a warm summer day.

The Red Badge Of Gardening

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge Of Courage, a great story about a boy who comes of age and makes some discoveries about himself while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.  The “red badge” refers to a bullet wound received during a battle.

63df9dab3e7af1dc1379ec62f02a86ebI’ve got a few red badges of my own — from gardening.  Except my red badges don’t reflect bullet wounds, thank goodness!  Instead, they spring from bug bites, nicks, rashes, scratches, welts, thorn punctures, and other minor wounds inflicted while digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, clipping off and carting off dead branches, levering out and lugging off rocks, roots, and tree stumps to clear the ground, and doing the other things that gardeners do.  Oh, yeah . . . and a decent sunburn, too.

I think gardening is fun, but it isn’t the bucolic, pastoral experience you might suppose.  Plants have defense mechanisms, and so do the insects that live on and around them.  Pesky weeds and overgrown wild rose bushes and raspberry bushes are happy to give you a scratch or two while you are removing them from their patch of ground, and Maine is home to some ferocious biting insects.  During this time of year, the biting insect brigade is led by the Maine black fly, as well as the mosquito and horse fly.  The black flies apparently can bite through the hide of a moose, so I’m an easy target.  And after suffering the indignity of a bite, you’ve got several days of itchiness to remind you that you’ve invaded the black fly’s territory.

I look at my arms and survey my backyard battle scars, and realize I’ve probably got more marks than I’ve had at any time since I was a kid and summertime was spent outside all day long.  My red badges of gardening are just the price you pay for a little outdoor activity, but boy — I could do without those maddening black flies.

Tiered Up

My gardening challenge this weekend: figuring out what to do with an area of tumbledown rocks and boulders that abruptly drop about eight feet in height from top to bottom. My plan is to try to use the enormous rocks and the drastic change in height to establish tiers dropping down the slope like the steps of a staircase. The tiers will then become beds where I can plant flowers and attempt to replant some of the lupines, rose bushes, and ferns that have sprung up in some of our other garden beds.

So far I’ve placed some smaller rocks to define the outlines of the tiers, using the big rocks as immovable borders, and have started shoveling dirt into the newly created spaces to form the beds. This weekend I hope to complete the bed formation and do the rose bush and fern replants. The weather is supposed to be nice, so I should have two full days for the work.

This is the kind of project I really like. There’s a creativity element to it, some problem-solving and design challenges, a physical labor component, and then finally a chance to see if an experiment succeeds or fails. I’m looking forward to getting to it.

At Quarantine’s End

Some time ago, earlier in the coronavirus crisis, Maine’s Governor imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all “non-essential” people entering the state. We’re deemed non-essential — which delivers a severe blow to my sense of self-worth, incidentally — so we’ve been complying with the order and have kept to the footprint of our little place for the last fortnight. We understand and respect why the Governor issued the order, and we want our neighbors here to see that we do. It’s important for “summer people” like us to acknowledge and abide by the sensitivities of the year-round residents.

Some time last night the quarantine period ended, so this morning I seized the opportunity and took an early walk to experience the newfound freedom and get some fresh air. It’s hard to overstate what a pleasure it is to stretch your legs and get some exercise after two weeks of being cooped up, and to see some different scenery, too. I enjoyed the flowers, the abandoned boats, the deep whiffs of harbor air, and just about everything I saw.

You can’t fully appreciate the simple pleasures of a walk until you’ve been deprived of one for days on end.

Ocean Bound?

We’re going to do some doing spring cleaning today, and when I got out our cleaning supplies I did a double-take at the Windex bottle. Does anyone else read “ocean bound plastic” to mean plastic bound for the ocean, as I originally did? Instead, it apparently is supposed to mean that the bottle is made of plastic taken from the ocean — which is a novel usage of “bound” in my experience.

Regardless of the proper use of “bound,” if I were a manufacturer of products that come in plastic bottles, I’m not sure I’d be reminding people of how much plastic ends up polluting the oceans, in any case.

An Introduction To The World Of Letterboxing

On our recent visit to the Edgar M. Tennis Preserve on Deer Isle, Russell, Betty and I not only had our first exposure to the tremendous scenic beauty found on the Preserve, but I also had my first exposure to the world of letterboxing.

Letterboxing, according to the Urban Dictionary, is an interesting combination of hiking, orienteering, travel, and sharing adventure with fellow hikers.  The goal in the letterboxing world is to find waterproof letterboxes that are kept in scenic places like the Tennis Preserve — some of which are harder to find than others.  When you find the letterbox, you’re supposed to leave a message, stamp the message book in the letterbox, and also stamp your own letterboxing book so you can keep a record of all the letterboxes you’ve visited.  Not being aware of the world of letterboxing, or that the Tennis Preserve had a letterbox, I didn’t have a letterboxing book with me when we came across the Tennis Preserve letterbox, so I couldn’t stamp my own book.  We did, however, leave a message and used the cool shell stamp to record our visit to the letterbox.  Fortunately for us, the Tennis letterbox wasn’t hard to find, either.

It was fun to thumb through the Tennis Preserve letterbox notebook to see how had visited — we were surprised to learn that somebody had been there before us on the day of our visit, even though we were hiking early in the morning — and I think letterboxing would be an enjoyable, and very healthy, hobby.  Any pastime that gets you out of the indoor world and into the fresh air in places like the Tennis Preserve has got to be beneficial, both physically and mentally.  And the stamps are pretty cool, too.

White Birch And Birds

There is a white birch tree growing from the rocks at one corner of our side yard. It’s a beautiful tree — who doesn’t have a soft spot for trees with white bark? — but it’s unfortunately lacking any avian occupants.

Stonington is home to lots of birds; in the morning you hear their many different calls. In hopes that one of the birds might call the birch tree home, I put up a nifty birdhouse that a good friend got us as a Maine housewarming gift on the birch tree. it’s freshly painted, has a solid roof, and is in a safe neighborhood. Now we’ll just keep our fingers crossed that a discerning bird will decide it’s their dream house.

Shucking Small Shampoos And Soaps

The bottom drawer of the vanity in our bathroom has a pretty good collection of hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hand lotion, and mouthwash I’ve brought home from business trips over the years.  Now the New York Times is reporting that the days of tiny hotel bottles of shampoo may be ending.

According to the Times, the little shampoo bottles are the focus of efforts by the large hotel chains, and lawmakers in states like California, to reduce plastic waste.  A bill working its way through the California legislature would outlaw the tiny bottles, and some hotel chains are already moving to refillable dispensers instead.  (Of course, the Times being what it is, it quotes “home organizers” who can explain to high-brow readers that some of us in the hoi polloi bring the elfin bottles home to use, and who can tsk-tsk at the unseemly clutter they create.)

The Times article suggests that some people bring the tiny bottles home as souvenirs of place they’ve stayed.  That’s not my impetus — I do it because I’m cheap about stuff like that.  It’s not like my grizzled mop needs high-end shampoos and conditioners; I’ll use whatever.  If I can bring home bottles of shampoo and soaps so that I don’t have to buy them myself, why not do so?  I haven’t bought shampoo in years.  It’s a small savings, I know, but I figure that all of that penny-pinching will allow Kish and me to enjoy a few extra “Early Bird Special” dinners after we’re retired.

I’ve stayed at hotels with the new wall-mounted soap and shampoo dispensers.  They’re fine, of course, although they definitely do have a more institutional feel to them — like you’re staying at the Hotel Kabul youth hostel rather than at a nice hotel.  Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of reducing the plastic waste that is clogging the oceans and landfills, and those tiny bottles seem like a good place to start.  I’m sure I’ll get used to the dispensers.  Besides, I only use small dollops of the shampoo to work my hair into a good lather, so with the collection of tiny bottles we’ve got in the bottom drawer I’m covered for a good long while.

 

TMI, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago today, the “incident” at Three Mile Island Generating Station in eastern Pennsylvania occurred.  Due to a series of small-scale mishaps with cooling systems, the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor heated up to alarming temperatures and suffered a partial core meltdown. Fortunately, the overheated radioactive material itself was contained in the core and did not escape to the environment.

towers-1979The concern then turned to what to do radioactive gases that had been generated.  For days, “Three Mile Island’ dominated the news, with news reports always featuring the forbidding cooling towers venting steam in the background.  Ultimately, some of the gases were trapped in tanks, but other gases were vented to the atmosphere after migrating through a series of filters that were supposed to trap the most dangerous radioactive elements.  Residents were instructed to stay indoors, with the windows in their homes closed, but there was great concern that exposure to the gases could cause all kind of health issues.  People panicked, and thousands of frightened people fled the area.  It was one of the first instances of major federal government communications failure in the modern era.  Eventually, President Carter visited the site to let the general public know that the situation was under control — but by then the perceptual damage had been done.

It took about a month until the engineers at the site had the coolant systems under control, but the aftermath of TMI lasted for years.  There was significant litigation about the possible health effects of the incident, although authorities eventually concluded that the only significant exposure was experienced by four employees at the TMI plant.  Concerns about widespread birth defects and the development of radiation-related illnesses turned out to be unfounded.  In the meantime, clean-up operations lasted for almost 15 years and cost nearly a billion dollars.

TMI was the worst nuclear incident on U.S. soil.  In terms of its health effects, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Chernobyl incident, and many people now living in America either weren’t around when it happened or have forgotten about it.  But TMI has had one lasting impact that is undeniable — since it occurred, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States, and every time one is considered, the grainy black and white photos of the TMI cooling towers with steam rising from them get displayed.

But as America increasingly focuses on lessening its carbon footprint and relying on renewable energy sources, nuclear power is cited more and more frequently as something that has to be considered as part of the solution.  Technology has changed a lot, and for the better, since 1979, and people also have come to realize that nuclear power offers some significant environmental advantages over other forms of power generation that are dependent upon fossil fuels.

Maybe now it is time to let TMI and those scary photos of cooling towers fade into the past, and take a fresh look at nuclear power without being hamstrung by 40-year-old fears.