South Branch Pond

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The Pond.

I can’t imagine a more toxic campaign season than the current one, so it was with great relief this summer that we made like Louise Dickinson Rich and took to the woods.

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We don’t really need the excuse of a hate-fest to unplug. Every year we make the trek to South Branch Pond for a chance to let it all go, relive our glory days, and stare down those two roads in a yellow wood. We lived here once and were creatures of the forest, but cast ourselves out of Eden in misguided pursuit of the American Dream. That and we found it taxing to live with feet in two worlds and drive the hours between them.

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So we left. But part of us didn’t, or we carry it with us. This visit was particularly poignant because we ran into a former ranger we hadn’t seen in years and it made me long anew for that sense of connection we found with our north end crew all those (18) years ago. We knew it was rare even then.

But we go back each summer with our children who put their phones down without even complaining. It’s one of those ironies that we actually gain a great deal from doing without, “without” being a relative term. We are without the time-wasting distraction of social media, which we exchange for paddling on a still pond at sunset, accompanied by the rattle of a kingfisher. We gain drinking tea at sunrise as the light shimmers off the pond and warms the rocks on shore and snakes stick their tongues out to taste the new day. We gain cliff jumping and hypothermic dips in icy mountain streams. We make do with gas lights and headlamps, but we gain stars in a black sky undiluted by city light. We gain frogs, warblers, and bears (if we’re lucky) and secret swimming holes accessed only by bushwhacking. We remember to be glad to eat what we have and not to waste drinking water. When we get home, we appreciate the dishwasher and washer/dryer, not to mention hot showers, flush toilets, and a real mattress.

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The bunkhouse.

Returning home doesn’t make me eager to hop in the car and do the 1001 things on my Summer Bucket List.  What I wish is that I was still at the pond, knitting or reading on the bunkhouse porch. I wish I were floating in the pond watching mama merganser with her six chicks or surveying the shoreline for purple fringed orchids or that I was up N. Traveler picking blueberries. I especially wish that was all I needed to think about.

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But our modern lives are not like this. I need to attend to the work that makes this trip possible. And this is one of the greatest gifts: I find on my return that I can. I can think and I can plan and I can pick up my load with greater ease than before I left.

Apparently still in South Branch mode, I wandered out to my garden shortly after 6 a.m. to check on my beans. I weeded and thinned the brussels sprouts while I was out there. The soil was dry as dust, so I got the sprinkler going. I took care of my friend’s chickens and ducks and found that it was only 9:15 with a whole day ahead. I didn’t wonder for a minute how I’d fill it.

 

 

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Cape Cod Part Two

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It turns out you can go home again, sort of, as long as you don’t expect it to be the same. As long as you see it through your kids’ eyes and are comfortable walking in your own footsteps.

At least that’s how it seemed to me this week on Cape Cod. We made our pilgrimage to Crosby Lane and I floated in the warm, clear bay. For a few blissful minutes the intervening years vanished and I still had some purchase on this place. I grieved the loss of our cabins and celebrated introducing a new generation to the tidepools. I visited the fiddler crabs in the marsh, where an osprey platform now stands.

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Fiddler crab defending its burrow.

Million dollar houses gape through openings in the woods at the back of the salt marsh  where once the bobwhites roamed the pine-oak forest. Cape bobwhites are scarce these days and I wasn’t surprised by their absence. On the beach, though, new birds have appeared (or returned). There are now piping plovers where there were none in the 60s and 70s.

Path through the dunes.

Path through the dunes. See the houses at the rear of the marsh?

 

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The path (once a road) in front of where the cabins stood. The saltmarsh is to the right, the beach to the left through the dunes.

The Crosby Mansion (once a girls’ weight loss camp) looks lovely all restored. Part of the former camp’s grounds are now the overflow lot for the beach. The sound of reveille still hangs in the air in my memory, though no one else can hear it over the tinny ice cream truck  in the town parking lot.

But the beach, despite being public and more crowded, is still the beach. The sand is powdery, the dune grass and beach roses release their scent in the heat. The hermit crabs (and spider crabs and leopard spotted crabs) still roam the tidepools. My kids roamed too, exclaiming over their finds in the timeless way of all Cape kids. They found a horseshoe crab way out (the tide goes out for a mile) and a squid, something I never saw as a child.

A horseshoe crab that washed up. The kids found a live one way out.

A horseshoe crab that washed up. The kids found a live one way out.

I sank my feet in the sand along paths through the grass out to what were once cabin sites and the road in front of the cabins. I pictured coming back to the cabin for lunch–rinsing my feet in the bucket and coming in to make a sandwich. If I closed my eyes, I could see the cabin in the evening, illuminated by lamplight after sunset.

But the cabins are gone. (Camping at Nickerson during a gypsy moth infestation made me really miss the cabins, but that’s another story.) Part of the jetty is gone too, perhaps to keep the beach from eroding. I couldn’t sit on the way-out rock where the waves slapped at high tide, so I sat on a new rock, and isn’t that a perfect metaphor for trying to recapture the past? It’s a little weird to picture yourself as a child and adult in the same place and time, as E.B.White noted in “Once More to the Lake.” But there I was and am. Once More to the Beach?

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Here’s what I discovered during this sojourn: I have the power to turn back time. My childhood exists a mere four hours from my house–at least a sketchy semblance of it. Fortunately, though, I don’t need to make the trip again any time soon. For now, it’s good to know some of my remembered Cape is still there and that when I get the urge to visit, I can always cross the bridge.

Kestrels

The house is silent on a hot and breezy evening. 7 p.m. and the sun beats on our front porch, the dog stretched full length and snoozing on the warm boards. He doesn’t seem to mind the heat, at least when he’s wet from his pool (and guarding the feeder from red squirrels).

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After a busy weekend, I am savoring the silence: just me, the wind in the trees, a goldfinch twittering. But what’s that? The bluebird on the lacrosse goal breaks the peace: predator at 1 o’clock. A kestrel has just touched down on the wires. Usually the birds scatter when predators show up (a northern harrier and a broad winged hawk have been regulars), but the bluebird doesn’t flinch for the kestrel. He holds his ground and chatters his warning. The kestrel, so far, has been more interested in mice and snakes than songbirds, despite its old nickname “sparrowhawk.”

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Kestrels are little falcons, the smallest of the genus– about half the size of their more famous peregrine cousins.  They hunt from perches and but also by hovering–kiting–over fields. In Maine we have kestrels, peregrines and a third falcon, the merlin.

The bluebirds should be grateful they need not contend with merlins here. They are bird specialists who zoom like fighter jets through the trees to take their prey.

The bluebird is not consoled by this and is relentless in its alarm, the brave little sentinel. But the kestrel is used to getting yelled at. Last night a robin perched on the wire and shrieked at him for at least a half hour. Getting yelled at by a bluebird is a little like being tickled.

Tonight, though, the kestrel stops my heart when it drops from the wire, swooping towards the lacrosse goal. Has the bluebird run out of luck –and him with a second brood in the nest box? Not this time. The kestrel is after an insect in the grass and returns to the wire to dine. I can only assume the bluebird is furious–its calls increase in speed and volume. Picking up on the bluebird’s distress, a scolding catbird joins in and there is no longer peace or silence in the kingdom. We are in full alarm.

The kestrel finishes its snack and decides to head home, down the hill to the old farm building where there is a convenient hole. Just one more thing that sets kestrels apart from other falcons. They live in open country, but are cavity nesters like the bluebirds. See, even though a kestrel could probably take a bluebird, they have more in common than they think.

Except it doesn’t work that way in the natural world. No one will be singing kumbaya and holding hands. Because if the kestrel were really desperate (and that day may come–there also are babies in the nest), there could be bluebird on the menu. And that is why the bluebird raises its alarm, bravely, foolishly holding its ground.

Cape Cod

Mom and us-Cape

When I was growing up, we were regulars at Hopkins Cottages in East Brewster on Cape Cod from at least 1967 right through the end in the 80s. For two weeks nearly every August we breathed the salt air-dune grass-beach rose scent of freedom and wide open spaces. We ran feral on the soft corduroy sandbars, let hermit crabs skitter across our hands, built sandcastles, walked out a mile at low tide to see giant hermit crabs, swam in water warmed by sun-baked sandbars when the tide came in.

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One of the cabins.

 

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Corduroy sandbar.

We’d wake to reveille from one of the nearby camps, listen to bob-whites, and walk up Crosby Lane to Cobies for soft-serve chocolate ice cream on hot afternoons. At least once each visit, we’d drive over to Nauset Beach to swim in bone-chilling waves, slide on the Truro dunes, or swim in Brewster’s kettle ponds. We’d have chowder and pie at a church supper in Wellfleet, and go to the movies on rainy days. We read a lot, and played hearts at the little table in dim lamplight. Sometimes if we had a rainy stretch, we’d even turn on the gas heater–quite a thrill for a kid from New Jersey who had sweated through summer.

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My sister (right) and me.

Most days I’d wander out into the salt marsh to spy on the fiddler crabs scuttling through a trickle of water in the bottom of a ditch. They’d hold their big claw before them like a medieval shield and sidle around each other in rush hour traffic. Would they topple over? If I so much as blinked, they’d dart back towards their burrows. I spent hours watching them, first solo, then with my brother, and I have often wondered why I didn’t become a biologist.

They say you can’t go home again, but we’re going to try – again. It won’t actually be our first family visit. Once, when the kids were three and five, we stayed briefly at a house in Woods Hole just within striking distance. One day we made a bee line to Crosby Landing.

When we stepped out of the car in the town parking lot, I did what I always do upon arrival: inhale. One whiff of beach rose-sand-dune grass- salt water–alone or in any combination–makes me 10 again with a whole Cape day ahead of me.

I shepherded the boys onto the sand and saw the ocean had rearranged the tidepools, but that was to be expected. As the boys scampered, I led them into a pool to find hermit crabs to race across our hands. We wandered further out and I looked down and saw giant hermit crabs–descendants of my old friends?–in enormous barnacle-crusted shells. I exclaimed, admiring them, showing them to the boys, when I drew the attention of two women.

One asked to see the crabs. I thought she just wanted to look at them as we did. But before I could stop her, she shook the little crabs right out of their shells and confiscated their houses.

“How could you do that?” I managed through mingled shock and anger. As usual, I couldn’t think of what to say. If I ever meet a genie, that will surely be one of my three wishes, to say the right thing in the moment.

“What, you don’t eat fish?” the woman sneered. As if that somehow justified taking the little crab’s house. “He’ll find another shell.”

“Not that big,” I said.  Ever since, I have pictured shaking the woman out of her house–and then taking the house. But of course I haven’t, and I’m counting on karma to make this right, which it may have already. My boys are 14 and 16 now.

I haven’t been back since. At first I was too mad–horrified that anyone could value another creature’s life so little, that these people were allowed on my beach, and that they’d sullied its introduction to my boys. This place that had been a refuge, where I’d spent the happiest weeks of my childhood, was now tainted. And my kids would never really know what I loved about it. To them it was just a beach –and the people weren’t that nice.

If I needed confirmation that you can’t go home again, that was it. I had been to the Cape in my 20s and it was never quite right–the traffic made going anywhere life threatening and I couldn’t stay in the little cabins.

The cabins, built of World War II surplus material, were never what you’d call robust. Years of minimal maintenance and abundant weather had taken a toll. In the 80s they were briefly offered for sale, then torn down, and the property transferred to the public.

Though the cabins are gone, the beach and salt marsh–miraculously–are still there, protected by the state of Massachusetts and the town of East Brewster.

Without the cabins, I can’t recreate my summers, but I can camp at Nickerson State Park, which is almost close enough. So that is what we’ll do this summer: pitch our tent in the sand and pines, hop on our bikes, and take a spin down memory lane.

They say you can’t go home again and I know it’s true. But I’m going to try anyway.

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Tide coming in. Time to sail.

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Sunset. The next more beautiful than the last.

 

 

 

Ski Season?

When I wrote the post below, it seemed like winter might finally be here. But even as our southern neighbors got buried, our snow shrunk in proportion. No ice shacks on the lake this year, though a few brave folks haul their traps out in sleds. The ice is 8-10 inches thick; usually it’s about 18 inches this time of year and people drive out in their trucks.

Can you see the ice fishermen way out there? No ice shacks this year.

Can you see the ice fishermen way out there? No ice shacks this year.

We are very short of snow.

We are very short of snow.

But there was a day, maybe a week or two ago, when we had Winter.

We woke to the pinging of sleet this morning, but the temperature dropped and the world quieted as it changed to snow. Sifting steadily down, it piled up and we threw on our skis.

Out the back door, across the road, we glided through our neighbor’s field, and into the woods. At first the cold northwest wind made us hurry, but when we reached the shelter of trees, we slowed and looked around. The beauty of the stark monochrome of winter is a cliche, but a deserving one: the bare trees with their white frosting really are beautiful. A green wax day.

We came to a stream crossing and took in the running water framed by jagged snow-topped ice–reminding me for some reason of layered toffee. Gingerly, we clattered across in a place where the ice stretched fully over the stream.

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On the other side is another neighbor’s trail system, wide paths rolled with a snow machine. We can ski a mile to the nearest road on his system, all without a trail fee or the mosquito whine of our snowsledding friends.

The quiet might be the thing we like best. When we stop, we hear the wind in the trees, a flock of chickadees foraging in the tops of a white pine, and the snowplow, distantly. All the while the snow falls, attempting to erase our tracks.

We turn around when we come to a house (at least two miles through the woods) and begin the journey back. It’s ever so slightly uphill most of the way, and by the time we come to the fields again, I have unzipped.

We ski through a patch of sensitive fern seedstalks, past brittle empty milkweed pods that rattle, past little round seedheads that look like coriander, but aren’t. We’ve seen plenty of deer prints, a porcupine trail, a ruffed grouse track, ubiquitous turkey footprints, snowshoe hare. Even though we feel alone out here, we aren’t.

As we came back out into our neighbor’s field, the wind now at our backs, we trudged towards home thinking of bowls of hot beef stew. And still the snow fell cold and silent, sealing us in winter, if only briefly.

 

 

It’s Still All About Apples

applesA few weeks ago we were all about pies – apple, pumpkin, pretty much anything in or on a crust. But Thanksgiving came and went and Christmas muscled in to shove pies right out of the oven. Then it was all chocolate reindeer and cookies.

Now New Year’s has gone and we’re supposed to be working on our new, perfect selves. And by perfect selves, they mean perfect pie crust, right? Because I still have a garage full of apples.

I have spent years trying not to entomb perfectly good fruit inside tooth-breaking shells. I think, finally, I am gaining on it. Not that my crusts near my mother’s light, flaky perfection, but the tooth-breaking days seem to be over.

I am a liberal arts baker – you won’t find me leveling the tops of any measuring cups – which I realize might have extended my quest for crust nirvana. But I do believe in a good math ratio. And this is the one you need for crust: three parts flour to two parts fat to one part water (aka Michael Ruhlman’s 3-2-1 pie crust). I like that so much better than a cup of flour plus one tablespoon. Who does that? Wait. I know. I try not to bake around them.

It’s also about keeping the butter cold. Crisco adds a certain level of insurance, but I am trying to wean myself off of that hydrogenated mayhem and achieve flakiness with butter alone. Many a blog and cookbook promise it can be done.

This year’s epic apple harvest has provided ample practice material–for cakes, pies, cider hard and sweet, apple chips, apple sauce made from an esoteric collection of oddly named heirhooms: Blue Pearmain, Winter Banana, Northern Spy, Baldwin, Westfield-Seek-No-Further, Black Oxford, Twenty Ounce, Belle de Boskoop, Zabergau Reinette.

Then there are the apples in the garage – a whole tree’s worth of golden delicious. That means the race is on.  We have no basement or root cellar to store them in, so they’ll be mush if we don’t get moving. If I weren’t a snow lover, I would say that was one more reason to love our warm December.

They're not pretty on the outside any more, but they're still good for baking. Not only was this year's crop the biggest, it was also the best quality. No bugs, no scab, and no spray.

They’re not pretty on the outside any more, but they’re still good for baking. Not only was this year’s crop the biggest, it was also the best quality. No bugs, no scab, and no spray.

We have made a gallant effort to preserve the bounty. Our freezer is filled with peeled and sliced fruit. We have given apples away by the bag full. Yet we still we have apples.

So if you’re looking for me anytime in the next few weeks, chances are I’ll be peeling apples at the kitchen counter. My peeler blade may be worn out before I find the bottom of the apple boxes, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Not apple, but any pie is good pie.

Not apple, but any pie is good pie.

 

 

 

 

Frog Rescue

This fellow either cut through the corn and hay or crossed the road to find our bean patch. Hope it likes Mexican bean beetles because that's what we're serving.

This peeper probably came from a vernal pool across the corn and hay to find our bean patch. Hope it likes Mexican bean beetles because that’s what we’re serving.

The windshield wipers whap back and forth as I drive home on a warm late-summer evening. It’s only 8 p.m., but already middle-of-the-night dark. The rain has slowed to a drizzle when my headlights catch something on the road. It hops and I swerve.

They don’t teach you this in driver’s ed, how to avoid migrating frogs on warm, wet nights. Unfortunately many drivers don’t avoid them – carnage I can attest to from my morning bike rides. But I do, or at least try.

It takes a ridiculous amount of time to drive the five miles from the highway to our house. It seems like frogs are everywhere, hard to distinguish from rain drops hitting the road.

In spring some frogs and salamanders cross the roads in a Big Night. When the weather warms enough to melt their vernal pools and there’s a good soaking rain, they set out for their home ponds from where they wintered. That’s usually in a log or on a forest floor wrapped in leaf litter. Unfortunately, there’s often a road in the way.*

Likewise In late summer and fall, frogs take advantage of wet weather to reverse their steps. They return to autumn hunting grounds and winter quarters, which again often requires that jaunt across the road.

When I pull in the driveway, I call for my son and we grab raincoats and wellies and headlamps: we’re going out on frog rescue. Our lights illuminate several wood frogs hopping across our road, which is a little odd because the nearest vernal pool is at least 1/4 mile. away They have traversed an entire field of hay and corn to get here.

We sneak up and encourage them to keep moving. If there’s a car, we pick them up to hurry it along.

Here in central Maine most of the frogs out on the roads are wood frogs and spring peepers. There might be the occasional green, pickerel or leopard frog, but they are aquatic species and don’t like to be far from water. If they’re on the move it’s usually to disperse to other ponds. (Wood frogs and peepers are classified as terrestrial frogs because they actually spend most of their time in the woods. Who knew.)

Tonight, frogs are not the only creatures out and about. Bats are foraging too, swooping low over the road for moths and mosquitoes as they make their way to wintering caves. We’re glad to see them after a summer’s absence–ours seem to have vanished just like everyone else’s. In fact Maine has lost 90 percent of its bat population to white nose fungus, according to Maine Audubon.

For a few minutes we stand in the road and watch as they zoom around and among us. It’s nice to be out with the bats and frogs as we say goodbye to summer. Like these creatures, we’ll also need to hunker down for what’s next.

*Some communities have Big Night events to help safeguard those crossings. Some have even installed tunnels to encourage amphibians and turtles to cross underground.