Fledgling

photo-15

A killdeer mama stood sentry in my neighbor’s garden and beeped at the crows trolling for snacks nearby. I knew from long experience with our own killdeer (aka the shrieking birds) that she was protecting babies somewhere.

It wasn’t the dragging wing display  to distract predators, but rather more the “car alarm” version: Warning. You are too close. Back up.

Not that the crows paid any attention.

I recalled the many summers when killdeer have moved on to our lawn to raise their babies. They have a propensity, shall we say, to shriek at everything –and nothing. The first year I would get out of bed to see what was attacking them. Nothing. At least nothing I could see at 2 a.m. Damned shrieking birds.

I wandered down the road and, on my return, she was still there, still holding the high ground, a mound of weeds. The tableau was unchanged–crows still picked through the hay–but she was no longer beeping. Detente. Now I could also see two half-grown killdeer toddling around looking for bugs and worms. One to her right, the other to her left, foraging among the squash. She tried to watch them both and fretted. “Whoa, not so far,” she’d direct. Turning to the other:  “Come out where I can see you.”

She’d call them back with soft notes, but really there was little she could do but offer directions and warnings.

How I can relate.

I have been teaching my older son to drive, which closely approximates the mama-fledgling relationship. He’s almost ready to fly off, but not quite, and I sit sentry (trying not to white knuckle the grab bar) and try to direct, though there’s not a heck of a lot I can do when he’s behind the wheel.

So far he’s done fine, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see real and imagined threats just like the killdeer. And I’m just as helpless to do anything about them. Slow down, stop here, look before you change lanes, SLOW DOWN. A lot of the time I feel like I am trying to round up blowing leaves in the yard.

As I resumed my walk home, I noticed my neighbor’s cat sitting on their steps. One more threat–this one real–for mama killdeer to fret over. I think my neighbors will be in for a long night with the shrieking birds.

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It’s a Jungle Out There

This morning I sharpened my machete and hacked my way into the garden.

Just kidding. Sort of.

I was away for a week in the land of heat and humidity and felt grateful I wasn’t responsible for a garden down there. There’s a reason for the expression “grows like kudzu.”

While my son and I were on the Great 2015 Soccer Odyssey (2,321 miles), it turns out I should have been worrying a whole lot more about my Maine garden. I had left it dutifully weeded and mulched, but it rained a lot while I was gone. That coupled with a little sun was all it took to “encourage” the chickweed. It looked pretty much like my main crop.

Squinting, you can probably make out the peas, now blooming above the swaying weeds.

peas

Or the beets’ glossy leaves trying to rise above it all. The onions looked like they were trying to blend in like middle schoolers, which made for many cases of mistaken identity. Scallions anyone?

onions

On closer inspection, it wasn’t just chickweed that ran rampant, but crabgrass too. That called for sharp tools and a great deal of digging.

It wasn’t all fun with weeds, however. I picked Colorado potato beetles off the potatoes and discovered evil corn borers had moved in. I swear I am not growing potatoes next year. Which is exactly what I said last year.

This garden is a labor of love, with the emphasis on labor. After a round with the garden, I am always grateful I don’t depend on my handiwork to survive, though I’d be all set if I could live on chickweed.

Possessed

lupines

Witchety witchety witchety. A common yellowthroat stakes out his corner of the yard, which he’s sharing with a catbird. He has to compete with the crazy R2D2 song of the bobolink, a joyful racket in the fields front and back, while the occasional DING of a savannah sparrow, and the chittering of a goldfinch (balancing on a dandelion stem) punctuate the soundtrack. Cheery me cheerio is layered over by one of the many local robins. Tree swallows chatter, a song sparrow calls, and this is only what I can hear over the dishwasher at 7:30 p.m.

(I tried to upload a video so you could hear my bobolinks, but WordPress won’t let me. Click on the links below.)

Bobolinks

http://bit.ly/1T3pA2s

Common yellowthroat

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_yellowthroat/id

You should be here in the morning. Deafening is probably too strong a word, but it’s loud enough to wake me. The bobolinks go off around 4:30 followed in short order by the others. It’s an audio spectacle rivaled in my experience only by living in a little cabin at South Branch Pond in Baxter State Park. The birds there are those of the deep woods: veeries, winter wrens, black throated blue warblers, all insistent that I wake up, grab my binoculars, and head outside.

There are other birds here too: my neighbor’s barn swallows come by on strafing runs, while our resident tree swallows dip and swoop after the same bugs. There’s plenty for all as my black fly bites attest. Killdeer–the shrieking birds–screech in the fields, especially when the northern harriers are on the hunt.

Then there are the frogs–it starts in April with the quacking of wood frogs, followed by peepers, chuckling gray tree frogs, trilling American toads and the banjo twang of green frogs.

By late July the birdsong will have dried up like a vernal pool. This heady spring rush is so ephemeral that I feel a little like the birds: possessed. Compelled to take advantage of every second before the season’s over.

So I bird from bed, in the car, by bike. Yesterday I saw a killdeer sitting on eggs on a school roof, a bluebird singing his heart out, a killdeer family with a tiny baby dressed just like them. I heard redstarts and northern parula and watched a couple of bobolink settle into a little grass triangle–all that was left of a vast hayfield turned under by the plow. Habitat lost.

Tonight the gray tree frogs are tuning up in the wetland across the field. Someday I’ll measure the decibels, but let’s just say it’s a frog concert. I wouldn’t be the neighbor who complains, though. After a long, quiet winter, the band is finally playing my song.

It All Begins With Onions

seeds1

Spring requires a leap of faith most years, but this year it might just require an ice axe. Yesterday was the vernal equinox, so happy spring everyone. But seriously: does it look like spring out there? Are there any signs that would encourage seed starting, apple tree pruning, or maple tapping?

Well, there is one: the extra light. Yes, despite the temps–and the forecast calls for subzero, potentially record-setting cold Sunday or Monday–we really are gaining on it. “It” being spring and summer, which I believe are buried under the two feet of snow still drifted around our yard. We have added 3 hours and 15 minutes more light since the winter solstice. Hurrah.

So yesterday–hey it’s spring–we dutifully pruned one apple tree, thought about tapping the maples, and came inside. The maples will wait til the latest round of arctic cold passes. The sap won’t be running anyway.

Inside I demonstrated my faith by starting my first seeds. It all begins with onions. I dug out my neatly organized box and found the Red Bulls, Redwings, and the Rossa di Milanos. I found the Prisma shallots too, but saved the leeks for another day. I am alliumed out for the moment.

seeds

I retrieved my stash of hoarded, recycled plastic clamshell salad containers and proceeded to plant. Garden season 2015 has officially begun here at Windy Ridge.

future onions

Future onions. Trust me, they’re in there.

Seed trays

Free mini-greenhouses.

Today the dog is sitting on the snowbank in front of the house, and the snowbanks along the road are black, but decorated with fresh white snow from this week’s blowing and drifting. If the skiing were better, I might be more patient, but it’s crusty out there. The only dubious signs of spring are bare patches on the lawn, though we get those in winter as well, courtesy of yard-scouring arctic winds. And I just noticed something: it’s snowing again.

Jaspersnowbanks

Spring eventually will get here. It will. But it won’t be today.

Two Porcupine Ski

Skiing

We have epic snow. This is not news to anyone who has been following New England weather. And some might use another word for it. But not me. I like snow, which is good because there is more than three feet of beautiful white powder mounded everywhere, blanketing our fields and woods, burying noise and busy-ness.

The woods are lovely, white and deep so I slapped on my skis and glided into them the other day. The papery beech leaves shivered on their branches. My skis schussed quietly, sometimes sinking, sometimes gliding. Snow rendered everything smooth and polished like river stones.

photo 1-6

Tracks

But what have we here? A track cut across my bucolic path.

It looked like the tire treads from a wheeled vehicle, but it was on top of the snow. And it led right to a tree. Hmm. What could it be?

Discarded on the snow were a wreath’s worth of hemlock tips.

hemlock tips

Only one critter leaves that calling card.

porcupine

Yup, a quill pig. There he was enjoying a balsam fir snack.

I observed him for a while, then continued on my way into deeper woods where I found another spot littered with evergreen tips and sure enough, another porcupine up a tree. Deer tracks criss-crossed my trail and I was surprised they didn’t sink in further. Snowshoe hare seem to have established highways. I was hoping to find a ruffed grouse hunkered down in a personal igloo, but no luck.

Eventually, I turned back as I was losing light and it looked like – what else? – snow. And sure enough, it did, for most of three days, softly and gently, not disrupting life too much (we went skiing, we went to school). But it piled up. The roof needed shoveling and the driveway snowblowing. But that just meant the piles were all the deeper for this:

Roof jumping screenshot

Get Out of Dodge

St. Michael's

My older son and I were in the car the other night, as we often are, and it was quiet for a moment. I sometimes resent all the schlepping and chauffering even though I knew it would come to this because we live in rural Maine. I had hoped it wouldn’t be every day, all the damned time. However. That’s where we also have our best conversations, as many parents of teenagers will tell you. And the end of the schlepping is in sight, a year out, when the lad turns 16. It’s surprisingly bittersweet, as are so many things about watching your kids grow up.

So there we were enjoying a moment of silence on a dark street heading to a friend’s house.

“It’ll be good to get out of Dodge,” I say quietly, thinking of our upcoming Thanksgiving trip to New Jersey. It’s been a hard fall here.

“What?” my son asks. “What’s Dodge?”

“What do you mean ‘What’s Dodge?’ It’s an expression.” I find myself saying this often. Both sons think I make up all kinds of sayings, like “settle your feathers” and “six of one, half a dozen of another.” (“Six of what?” this son once asked before he’d had a chance to think about it.)  I’m creative, but I can’t take credit.

“What does it mean?” my son repeated.

“It means ‘get out of town,’ ” I supplied. “It’s from the wild west, I think, when people wanted to or had to get out of Dodge City, Kansas.”

“Oh.” A moment of silence while he mulled this over. “Why don’t you just say, ‘Get out of town’?”

That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as envisioning our family riding hell for leather out onto the prairie and away from all our cares and worries. As the days ticked towards Thanksgiving, I was barely able to stay focused at work, aware of a simmering excitement about “getting out of Dodge.” It didn’t even matter that our destination in this case was New Jersey. Of all places.

Now, I have a fond nostalgia for the Garden State. I was born there, lived in an amazing planned community called Radburn until I was 10, and returned there on a regular basis into my teens, if not 20s, many times for Thanksgiving. I know that not all–or even most–of Jersey is what you see from the New Jersey Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway. Even though most is crowded suburbia, in some parts of New Jersey, it turns out, there is still farmland and open space. And that’s where we were heading, if we could only get through Massachusetts. (It turns out every living soul in Boston also wanted out in advance of a nor’easter and traffic was insane. No galloping down the Mass Pike for us. Or anyone.)

St. Michael's barnOur friends live near Princeton in a house that abuts acres of open fields. Their neighbor keeps sheep. Conservation land laced with hiking trails and active farmland make up a good portion of the landscape. It actually looks a little like the view from my house, minus Sugarloaf and Saddleback in the distance, and with the almost always audible hum of distant traffic.

But it’s not home and that’s also its beauty, at least this time. Our friends graciously put up with us for four days while we watched it snow, rain, then snow some more, resulting in a sugar frosting that made us all think, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” never mind Thanksgiving. We walked for miles in the rain-snow mix, returning soaked to cups of hot tea and cooking. We laughed, we ate, we read, the kids all played Risk and Monopoly, and skated at a rink. It was lovely.

Meanwhile back home, a foot of heavy, wet snow knocked out power to more than 100,000 addresses in Maine and 220,000 in New Hampshire where the rest of my family was supposed to gather. I felt for them, for all the folks with scrambled plans and no turkey instead of festive gatherings. I was also grateful: we’d been able to get out of Dodge and lift off the yoke for a few days–the yoke of work and responsibility and bills, of lingering grief.

Now that we’re home again and the darkness of early winter tightens around us, we can draw on the memory of our escape, no wild gallop across the prairie, but an escape nonetheless. The yoke will still be there on Monday waiting to be lifted, but at least now, for awhile anyway, it won’t be so heavy.

Apples and Pears

pears

My neighbor’s lawn is now a rolling green expanse unmarred by anything so inconvenient as an apple tree. At a time when everyone else seems to be ripping out their lawns to plant food, they are reaching for suburbia. It’s already starting to be hard to remember when part of that lawn was a paddock that held a horse and some cows. And that right next to the paddock, next to the road, was an apple tree grafted to two varieties, red and russet, loaded with fine, sweet fruit each fall.

I try not to look when I drive by and I’m almost over it. Really. Especially since I discovered something I should have noticed 10 years ago when we moved here: another neighbor’s epic orchard. These neighbors once were dairy farmers, the 10th generation to work their  land. They had stopped farming about 10 years before we showed up, but the infrastructure is still there, waiting, I think, for another farm family. At least that’s what I hope.

My neighbor’s father also was an orchardist and planted at least 100  trees on their property–apples, yes, and pears too. But he passed away about five years ago at the ripe old age of 94 and even before then no one had really tended the trees. He supplied scion wood for unusual varieties to Fedco, a growers cooperative. He was part of our little town’s rich orcharding history, which includes apples invented here, apples shipped all over, apples pressed into cider hard and sweet.  I was too shy to introduce myself, but of course I wish I had, because he might have taught me to make cider or shared the orchard map with me.

This fall, without the fabulous red apples to fill my garage, I asked if I could pick in their remaining orchard. “Oh we haven’t sprayed,” my neighbor Clint said. “They’re no good. But go ahead.” It turns out they’re just fine, many of them, even though the trees are in desperate need of pruning. And there’s a pear tree, a massive old thing covered in fruit that with just a little encouragement would be big and even more plentiful.  I have no idea what most of the varieties are: there’s a russet, and lots of red apples, a golden delicious which might have supplied the scion wood for my own tree. I’m not sure I want to tell Clint about this bounty, though he surely knows.

Why did it take me 10 years to realize how very rich we are here? The other day on an unusually warm afternoon, I hiked down in my green wellies to explore and pick. I savored the sun and smell of fruit in the longish grass, the chip notes of migrating songbirds, the trees that give even when we ignore them. Every time I reached for one pear, three more rained down, a cascade of fruit, firm but perfectly ripe, sugary sweet beyond their bosc-like skins.

I’m glad I discovered this before it’s lost, before the farm slips out of the family and I no longer have access or the land is cleared for houses. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that because I swear I can hear whispers while I pick, voices coming down through history to tell what this place meant and what it could be again.