Winters in Stonington can be harsh, and spring comes later than it does in the Midwest. But it does arrive . . . eventually.
One sure sign of spring is the emergence of the fiddleheads. Our down yard is fiddlehead territory, with lots of ferns growing among the rocks. They get wiped out during the long winter, but they are hardy plants that are used to the cold, wet, windy conditions. When spring growing season is upon us, these little fiddleheads shoot up from last year’s dead debris. Soon they will unfurl like flags to expose their fronds, and then the ferns will grow like crazy. By mid-June we’ll have ferns and their bright green colors dappling every nook and cranny of the down yard.
When the fiddleheads come forth, it’s time to start planting your flowers.
Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.
It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.
Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.
I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.
My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
That 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.
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.
I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.