I can remember when fiddleheads (the immature fronds of ostrich fern, Pteretis pensylvanica) were vastly more popular than they are today. That was before supermarkets carried such a wide variety of fresh vegetables. I believe that today, most people are so used to buying food that they look at foraged foods as quaint--perhaps unnecessary.
Also, the socio-economic makeup of Maine has changed dramatically. In past years, the average income was considerably less, and many people lived close to the land. Rural areas were truly rural, and things like fiddleheads, dandelions and other wild plants were eagerly sought after. Today, most folks don’t have time to poke around wet areas and streamsides, looking for potable vegetables.
I remember when you couldn’t go to town in May, but what someone would ask, “Did you get your fiddleheads yet?” Indeed, the person to pick that first mess of fiddleheads did much to enlarge his or her status in the community. It was assumed, and rightly so, that most everyone liked fiddleheads.
I still make those early-season trips, hoping beyond hope to find those first, small, tightly-packed ferns sticking up from the ground. And now, when I pick my first fiddleheads, there is nobody to tell about it. Nobody cares. But perhaps, just maybe, someone still cares. Maybe that someone is you.
I’m referring to wild, edible plants, the kind that foragers seek in spring. Each plant breaks ground, grows and matures according to a pre-set timetable. Each in its own time and nothing can change that.
In other words, dandelions always present themselves well ahead of ostrich fern fiddleheads and jewelweed always reaches its prime just after fiddleheads. Never, ever, will we see jewelweed ahead of dandelions, for instance. The problem this year, though, is that even dandelions are late because of the damp, cold weather. And until dandelions prevail, the other plants must wait in line, as it were.
In a normal year, this late-arriving spring would cause some consternation. This year, though, is anything but normal. Maine remains in an enforced lockdown, with stores and restaurants shuttered, movie theaters closed and people of faith constrained from worshiping together. We are allowed to participate in outdoor activities as long as we stay well apart from one another, and foraging ranks as a permitted activity.
The problem is, there is little to forage. By late April and early May, we should have a lengthy list of wild goodies to harvest. However, cold and frequent snow have conspired to slow plant’s metabolisms, thus retarding their growth until conditions improve.
Here’s another troublesome thing about this dearth of wild, edible plants. I grow my own vegetables and can and freeze them. But my homegrown produce from last year has almost run out. Normally, I would make a seamless transition from canned and frozen to fresh-picked, wild foods. By now, totally wild meals would be the order of the day. That hasn’t happened yet, due to lingering winter conditions.
Sure, fresh vegetables are available from the store. I always balked at commercially-grown produce, though. Mostly, things such as lettuce, cucumbers and green beans are well past their peak by the time they reach supermarket shelves. Besides that, who knows what kinds of pesticides were used in growing them? Also, watching people pick up vegetables, inspect them and then put them back on the shelf, always made me uncomfortable. What might those people have on their hands? Do I really want to eat what they just pawed over? The answer is a resounding, “No.”
That’s why wild, edible plants are so important.
Soon, things will and must change. May could see a continuation of the current weather pattern. Even so, the sun grows higher with each passing day and in that we place our hope for an end to cold temperatures and snow showers.
When the change finally occurs, I wager that we’ll be like colts let out of the barn for the first time in spring. As soon as we can go afield, minus heavy clothes and gloves, all will be forgotten.
So take heart. Though spring eludes us at the moment, the end draws near. We’ve weathered similar conditions in the past and we’ll weather the current situation too.
First are Tom turkeys, gobbling madly to their prospective mates. The turkey utters his spiel in a long string of high-pitched notes that descend at the end. This lasts until well into mid-morning.
Imagine trying to sleep with a dozen or so turkeys just outside your bedroom window. It’s nearly impossible. I need to remind myself to go to bed extra-early now, to make up for lost sleep in the morning.
Next, are the various woodpeckers. Male woodpeckers drum on anything that will resonate, in order to attract and hopefully, impress a mate. The ice storm of 1998 did much to create drumming trees, too. Dead poplars and half-dead maples resonate nicely, much to the woodpecker’s delight.
Some sounds are less intrusive, even pleasant. Wood frogs, what I consider the true harbinger of spring, lend their staccato, quacking sound to still afternoon and evenings. Spring peepers, thousands of them, make a high-pitched din that quickly lulls the listener.
Canada geese fly past early and late in the day, and during migration, at night. Just one pair of geese can make an awful racket. But unlike turkeys and woodpeckers, the geese soon pass, and are as soon forgotten.
Yet, I wonder if it is what I hope it is. Speculation will not suffice, not when the road I must negotiate each day is nearly impassable. This requires a quick jog out to the main road, to see if my dream has indeed come true.
And there I see Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and every other mythical, benevolent being, all wrapped up in one, in the form of a bearded man driving a big, yellow road grader. The road grader has come. Rejoice and be glad. This guy is from the government, and he is here to help.
This particular stream lies in a pastoral setting. Fields bound it, and hedgerows divide the fields from the stream. Here’s an account of my time there on a day in May. I began fishing and while Mayflies were absent from the water, I knew what kind of flies would, or should be hatching and acted accordingly. My guess was correct, because trout bit madly, one after another.
After having my fill of catching fish, it was time to head home. A pair of bobolinks caught my attention. These were perched atop some of last year’s goldenrod stalks. It had been a while since I saw a bobolink, so these were a real treat.
I smelled a familiar fragrance, and looked around for the source. It was honeysuckle, some of the first of the year to bloom.
I got back to my car and lo and behold, found a Mayfly inside, exactly the kind that I had expected to see on the stream. I let the fly out, and it went on its way none the worse for wear.
I passed another stream on the way home, and couldn’t resist stopping and taking a few casts. The trout did not cooperate, but I noticed a lush stand of wild mint, what I generically call, “brook mint.” This I picked and stuffed in my pocket so that I could enjoy the fragrance as I fished. I made a mental note to return later in summer, when the mint is taller. When I got home, I noticed that blossoms on some of the apple trees out back had opened up into flowers. And so ended my stolen day of bliss.
But that seems to me nothing more than wishful thinking, since what bird, knowing that a driving Nor’easter was in the offing, would come to Maine now, rather than waiting for the storm to subside?
Besides that, phoebes are flycatchers, meaning that they subside upon flying insects, mostly caught on the wing. But insects do not fly about during Nor’easters.
Personally, I don’t think phoebes have the sense that God gave a pump handle. They relentlessly continue to build their mud nests above the trim on my back door, despite me removing it on a regular basis. Phoebes don’t learn from past errors.
While I enjoy watching phoebes catch mosquitoes, blackflies and other nuisance insects, I resent the mess they make. Bird splatter on my car windshield and on garden tools and machines stored in my shed do not make predispose me toward these messy birds.
And yet, phoebes have a disarming way about them. How can anyone not smile when watching a phoebe on a fencepost, twitching its tail up and down in a rhythmical motion? The arrival of the phoebe marks the official beginning of spring, at least for me.
Here’s something about another familiar animal that we humans credit with having a kind of innate intelligence that doesn’t really exist. Beavers, those ubiquitous dam builders, have an inbred knowledge of how to build stick dams. That’s a fact that no one can dispute. But after that, beavers don’t know how to pour water out of a boot with instructions written on the heel. We call beavers, “nature’s engineers,” a well-deserved title as per their dam-building skills. But after that, the toothy mammals put an end to any anthropomorphic meanderings.
For instance, most of us have seen where beavers have felled trees, trees that they would later peel and cut into sections. We quite naturally assume that beavers are skilled woodcutters. But in reality they are not. Beavers have not a clue where a tree will fall.
As proof, those who spend time around wetlands and beaver ponds can testify to finding dead beavers, crushed by the tree they cut. Sorry to shatter any romantic notions regarding beavers, but they really don’t have any sense of reasoning.
This is like the beloved, pet dog, who the loving owner says is, “almost human.” Well, Fido is “almost human,” until he rolls on a fresh cow patty or dead and decomposing chicken. The worst of it is, the dog thinks it has done some admirable thing, as evidenced by it grinning and happily wagging its tail.
Don’t get me wrong. I love our birds, fish and critters. But at the same time, I am familiar enough with them to not assign qualities that they don’t possess. That’s just the reality of it.
The commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has opened the fishing season on rivers, streams and brooks early. This went into effect on Friday, March 20.
The department is to be congratulated on this thoughtful move. It has allowed Mainers who, being pent up in their homes with no place to go, to get out away from others and go fishing.
This idea of having the opening day on April 1 is purely based upon tradition rather than any biological reason. Fisheries managers whom I have spoken with over the years always tell me the same thing; “it’s tradition.”
To that end I will continue arguing for a push-back on the opening day. We Maine anglers deserve that much.
Besides that, the opening-day tradition has long fallen by the wayside. The number of serious stream anglers has decreased considerably over the last few decades. This is directly attributable to people having more disposable income. Whereas once, few people owned boats and at that, these were smallish watercraft, in the 12- to 14-foot range, today most serious anglers own larger boats.
And people with larger boats seek larger fish, which explains the current lack of participation for brook and stream fishing. Those of a certain age may well recall when, during April school vacation week, every stream crossing would have two or three bicycles leaning against the bridge. Children loved to fish and when given the opportunity, took to the brooks and streams in droves. I recall purposely avoiding the places where the children liked to fish, figuring that I can get out any time, but the youngsters are bound to remain in school. My feeling was just to let them have their fun, with no competition from me.
Today, though, children are more, “sophisticated.” Indoor entertainment, mostly computer-based activities, have largely supplanted the urge to get outdoors and go fishing. It’s a sad commentary, and one that will probably never change. As for older children, me for example, walking along a bubbling brook, probing each riffle and undercut bank for hidden trout, still has its appeal. To that end, I went out last Friday and caught my limit of native brook trout. These I took home and lovingly cared for. Then I had them for supper, no cornmeal, no flour, just a bit of salt. The flesh of these speckled jewels is the most delicate of any fish. You cannot buy such as this from the grocery store. Instead, you must get out and catch them yourself.
So thank you Fish & Wildlife commissioner Camuso. She and Governor Mills have done a kind and good thing for anxious Mainers. The department has also moved to allow those without fishing licenses to go afield until the end of April, another thoughtful move in this time of worry and strife.
Stay safe and healthy. And if the desire animates you, get out and catch some trout from our countless brooks and streams. Good luck.
Today, March 21, the first day of spring, dawned clear and cold. Frozen maple sap in my containers dashes my hopes for some fresh, maple syrup. But the worst is the road. Oh, that awful road that I live on.
In past years, this rural road had little traffic. Perhaps a half-dozen or so vehicles would pass by during the course of a day, sometimes nowhere near that many. That’s because development had not yet reared its ugly head. Now, with houses springing up like mushrooms on a September morning, the amount of road use has greatly increased. But the number of hours spent on road maintenance has remained
This has changed the yearly ritual of driving down a muddy, rutted road, to driving down a road filled with potholes. In this case, the area of potholes is far greater than the area of level road. I prefer ruts...at least you could get a running start and kind of “swish” through them. Once in a while you would slue from side-to-side, but that was kind of fun.
Now, with the road little more than a greatly-magnified corncob, it is impossible to drive fast enough for the speedometer to register. At the slow crawl required for the vehicle to remain intact, it looks like you are going zero miles per hour.
Part of the problem is that many parts of the road were once corduroyed. That is, logs were placed side-by-side. These would sort of fl oat on the soft ground through which the road led. Then, at one point, the logs were covered with gravel, to kind of smooth things out. That was more than fifty years ago, but still, the outline of the corduroy becomes apparent on occasion, such as in early spring. Sometimes a loose log or a portion of a log will work its way to the surface, causing terrible discomfort
to all concerned. The old-time plague of mud and ruts quickly dissipated when things dried out. But the new enemy of hundreds of thousands of sharp-edged potholes just worsens, defeated only when the road grader finally arrives.
So now, it takes a major need to inspire me to leave the house. If I can possibly do without something, I will do without it. I’m situated so that either way I turn upon leaving my driveway, I am compelled to negotiate a virtual minefield of deep potholes. I am marooned on my own property, an unwilling hostage of an overused, poorly-maintained road.
While spring hasn’t officially arrived, it has sent its emissaries to cheer us.
Chickadees have changed their call to a raspy, “fee-bee,” something they do every spring just ahead of mating season.
A flock of Canada geese flew over last week, another indicator of coming warmer weather.
Lastly, large flocks of robins are in evidence all over, including in my yard and on my crabapple tree. There, these members of the thrush family pick the tiny, red crabapples that have made it through the winter. And instead of being “resident” robins, the kind that spend winters on the coast, these are present in sufficient numbers to tell me that they are true migrants, the red-red robins of spring.
So there we have it. We’ll certainly see more cold weather and even some snow, but it means nothing. Spring stands at our doorstep and there’s no turning back.
Much of my life was spent in denying the truth that change is inevitable. But as much as I have fought it, change has become even more pronounced.
These and similar examples of change rank as nothing but the natural cycle of things and can not be considered either good or bad.
Other kinds of change, though, have a more sinister character.
Deforestation in the form of “liquidation cuts” makes me cringe. This is often done because someone plans on putting their property up for sale, trying to reap all the financial benefit possible in the process.
Woodcutting for the sake of sustainable harvest is a good thing. But as a friend once said: “In northern Maine they cut trees and grow trees. In southern Maine they cut trees and grow houses.”
That practice is creeping northward. So when you notice that someone has cut every tree down to those the diameter of a coffee can, you can rest assured that the place is going on the market soon. In the case of a large woodlot, liquidation cutting serves as a prelude to subdividing the land.
Nowadays, houses spring up like mushrooms after a September rain. Places where once people like me hunted, fished, foraged and communed with nature become someone’s backyard in less time than it takes to tell about it.
In the end, the character of a community becomes completely changed. New people move in, people who never knew old Mr. Peavey who lived in the ramshackle house atop Peavy Hill, people who have no idea that the place where they built their houses was once a milk stop on a long-forgotten railroad. People who never knew and don’t care to learn about place names and how those names were acquired.
My point is not to criticize any person, persons, group of persons or anything of the sort. Instead, I bemoan the loss of a simpler culture, one that fostered me and was always kind to me.
Here are some examples of how things went in simpler times.
When someone caught a 12-inch or bigger brook trout, it became the talk of the neighborhood. Ditto for a buck deer. In fact, a common practice for country people on a Sunday afternoon was to drive around and stop in where a deer was hanging. The visit was to congratulate the successful hunter. That was just kind of nice. Today, few display their deer because of growing anti-hunting sentiment.
The first person to pick a mess of fiddleheads was always a celebrity, although that fame was short-lived.
When someone drove too far to the right during mud season and became stuck in the mire, there was never a need to call for a tow truck because sooner or later someone would come by and would hook a chain to your vehicle’s frame and pull you out. And never would one of these good Samaritans accept a dime for their service.
I once got stuck on a back road. In less than ten minutes, a man came by with a team of horses and, “twitched” me out. He wouldn’t accept any money and instead, was only too glad to help.
Back then, April vacation meant seeing two or more bicycles pulled up at every stream crossing. Youngsters loved to fish and this was their week-long opportunity to get out in spring and fish for native brook trout. Today, computers and video games have largely supplanted such endeavors. And instead of seeing school children on their Schwinns, we see adults, mostly clad in brilliantly colored, skin-tight raiment. Kids don’t ride bikes much anymore.
The white perch run was always a huge, community event, even more popular than public suppers. White perch, a tasty fish that finds itself equally at home in fresh or salt water, spawn in spring and typically run up from a lake or pond into some shallow river to spawn.
Best fishing occurred in late afternoon and early evening, which worked out well for working folks. When the run was at its hottest, every bridge and stream crossing saw hoards of anglers, good-naturedly jostling for a place to stand and cast for hungry perch.
It was a carnival-type atmosphere but despite that, I never saw anyone become irritated or mad. It was all just good, clean fun.
I could go on. But there’s really no need to.
None of what I have listed really matters much in the long run. Wishing for things to return to the ways of the past is time misspent. Like the Plains Indians partaking of the Ghost Dance, where they thought if they danced hard and long enough, the buffalo would return and the white man would move away, there is not a single thing we can do to co-opt change.
“Progress,” that’s what they call it.
But as Hank Williams famously said, “Memory is one gift of God that time cannot erase.”
And so I live in the present and have hope for the future, while relishing the past. That, it seems, is a healthy attitude.
As a wild plant enthusiast, winter stands as a downtime with few redeeming qualities. But there are five things I like about winter. These are:
Okay, these sound redundant. But when cooped up inside with no place to go and nothing to do except feed the woodstove, redundancy becomes the norm.
By now, you see that I really don’t care much for winter, despite the deceptive title for this blog entry. I just did that to gain your attention. But now, since we are nearing mid-February, the light at the end of the cold, dark tunnel has begun to shine. Soon, we’ll see tangible signs of spring.
So coltsfoot really stands as the plant world’s truest harbinger of spring.
In another sign of spring, a friend told me that yesterday, he saw a flock of Canada geese flying north. It’s easy to assume that these are returning from the south but that’s just not so. It can’t be, because our lakes and ponds are all frozen solid. These geese must be going from one protected Penobscot Bay harbor to another. The real deal will happen soon, though, and it’s only a matter of weeks before we will see those long, ragged ‘Vs’ of migrating geese and hear their echo-chamber chorus of honking.
And despite snow, freezing rain and cold temperatures, the sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day. Soon, the deep slant of the winter sun will give way to our star casting a more direct light, not so offensive to drivers and more conducive to starting new plants on windowsills.
For me at least, winter takes a beating when people begin calling and asking me to do wild-plant presentations come spring. Just discussing spring, wild plants and an end to winter sets my spirit soaring.
Finally, and there’s no denying it, we are on the downslope, winter has passed its prime and spring, with every wonderful thing that accompanies it, will soon arrive. Now that’s what I really like about winter.
An avid writer and naturalist, Tom writes four regular columns and a multitude of features. He wrote a long running award winning column "Waldo County Outdoors" and a garden column for Courier Publications