Monday, December 5, 2011

The Speck

I have just finished looking at some photos of our solar system and those beyond. I'll probably return to these pictures again and again. One of the photographs was of a sunset on Mars - blue near the horizon and red above - the opposite of what we experience on earth - and it jolted me awake to the reality that a sunset here on earth means that our part of the world is tipping away from the sun and that the colors we see are our atmosphere - the dome we live under. Would it make a difference, I wonder, to our strife, if every human on the planet was required every day to acknowledge the reality of our position on this marble we call Earth? I personally find something reassuring about the idea of worlds infinite beyond our world; beyond our comprehension. It takes the pressure off, somehow.

Here in Maine the sky, so broad and unfettered, presents our position quite clearly for one with the will to notice. I am not sure this awareness can occur with any regularity for city dwellers who spend so much of their time in the bubbles of their cars, buses and trains and the sanctuaries of their neighborhoods and homes. It's not their fault - it's just not so easy to notice the heavens infinite when dodging oncoming traffic or traveling upwards in an elevator. Even in the suburbs construction intervenes. As a former city-dweller I remember the elaborate contortions necessary to witness sunrises and sunsets through and around neighboring houses, trees, and lamp posts. The world is a comfortable cocoon for most of us...predictable and familiar. Until we look out.

I get the same physical feeling from looking at photographs of deep space that I get from taking (or anticipating) an amusement park ride or an airplane journey - a swoop of pleasurable fear and a thump of adrenalin-induced pulse. I don't like heights but can't resist looking down on fly-overs at the strange patterns we humans make across our world and at the beautiful and even more mysterious patterns the world makes over itself. But while looking down produces those not unpleasant reactions, looking out produces those and something else I can't define - a feeling of connectedness and also disconnectedness with the universe that I find dizzying.

This feeling is what draws me out into the cold in the middle of the night to look at the stars. I know about dying suns, satellites, dead planets whose light is just reaching us, space junk reflecting sunlight, dust particles, meteors and comets so I can look at a clear night sky in two ways: as a glorious sprinkle of light - twinkle, twinkle - or as a space that enlarges as I watch - out and out and out forever. This last observation usually first inspires incalculable awe; then, tips into a feeling of unreality that sends me scurrying back to a warm bed.

And I don't like to think about that ball of fury that is the sun. At all.

But I love the realization that, as I walk along our road or sit on the couch or putter in the garden, I am at right-angles to the universe, held down firmly by gravity as the clouds and the boundless blue that curves over my world roils and rolls overhead and the earth turns in a majestic pirouette, lonely and beautiful.

A few days ago I set off early and as I turned into the road the rising sun struck a flash of light off some object up at the top of the hill. My mind flipped through possibilities: tail light-soda can-roof flashing blown down by the wind? As I got closer the light grew smaller but no less brilliant, raying up from the road like a star and finally resolving into a single crystal of salt among the showers the town road crew had spread out earlier over a skim of black ice. There it sat, a tiny cinder amid the universe: bright, beautiful, unique, significant. And therein lies the wonder.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Up from Bangor, leaving the gem-like coast behind – the faceted boulders, garnet blueberry fields, opalescent sea and sky – for the yellow-leaved hardwoods of the north. Through towns bustling, towns on the skids, towns that never got started, towns completely finished. Past and over the foaming Kenduskeag; passed by the lumbering logging trucks and signs advertising goods, new, used and long-moldering, for sale. Everything along the way is for sale: pumpkins, horses, cars, houses, hay, cider, apples, tires, plow trucks, lamb, fish, books, acreage, “crafts”, railroad ties, trailers, motorcycles. It’s a hardscrabble life along here.

The lake and surrounding mountains are everything. I hope the distressed frequently “lift up [their]eyes unto the hills” because that’s about all there is – all and everything. And the undulations of the lake. And the cloud shadows passing over, fingering the mountains with darkness and light.

We arrive at our beautiful inn, shown up to a paradox of a room right out of a 1930’s Hollywood parlor romance. At any moment I expect Rosalind Russell to swan in – all dark lipstick and fingernails – hair perfectly coiffed and wearing a frock (never a “dress) of some glittering, silky, clinging material. Outside the lumber trucks rumble by.

This part of northern interior Maine was more prosperous in the days of the rusticators and Big Lumber. Evidence of this is all around – the fantastic, now faltering wooden confections that were the lakeside mountain houses, the rock-ribbed Masonic hall and this inn, a lordly mansion with its terraces and cannons. Here the Maine dichotomy is writ large.

Rusticators are mostly gone - hunters remain. They were always here of course, but now they tear up the woods in ATV’s instead of trotting in on horseback or tramping in on foot. There was an elegance and gracefulness to the past that has been largely lost. Weekend warriors have taken over the woods and lakes.

This is a rough part of the state. As with the coast, there is cold granite under the lush flowerbeds and, at this time of year, a biting wind off the lake that reminds me how bitter is the winter here. But it’s beautiful, beautiful. Run away, moose. The hunters are here, but they won’t stay forever and you can go back to your gentle, placid ways.

We feel as if we are in the back of beyond. We’re unfamiliar with this area and, although we live in a pretty remote part of the state, this feels even more separate because of its strangeness to us. I couldn’t live in this wilderness but I understand the powerful pull. Along the coast we have hills and distant glimpses of what we are pleased to call mountains; here are true mountains, magnificent and craggy, changing during the day from gray to blue to slate to purple. The movement of clouds over their sides and slopes is endlessly mesmerizing. On fine afternoons a band of light outlines the peaks with a frill of gold. In the woods the smallest detail stops me along the path: a scarlet leaf on the forest floor, a fist of springy moss, a tiny whorl of some small water plant caught in a cleft of submerged stone. These minutiae bespeak some tremendous otherness, so removed from our usual experience, so profound. I derive a deep sense of comfort from knowing it’s all here: the light bright across the tops of the trees, the ruffled brilliance of hardwoods against the pines, juncos rising up in flocks from the side of the road, the moose and her calf standing among the birches, the yellow leaves in the yellow light, the impossible blue of the lake, the lace of clouds. It’s all so reassuring somehow. It will all be here forever - at least that’s how it seems; a flow of life, separate from our human strum und drang, that all goes on in spite of us, thank goodness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Going to Seed

This late summer I have spent a lot of time cloud-watching (riding the mower over the lawn is an excellent way to do this and still be useful, I have found). For the past few days we have been watching a lordly progression of fog banks and the build-up of clouds. From high up on the mainland hills the fog can be seen concentrated over the Reach. Huge peaks build sharply where the coasting moisture collides with the warm air over the water and shreds on the wind passing through the towers and cables of the bridge. Last evening, piles of thundercloud, backlit by a westering sun, billowed over thinning cotton-wool blown in from the water. The promised thunderstorm never materialized, but instead feathered off to the north and south of us, surrounding, but not touching our little island.

Today, slow-moving cumulus shrouds the mountains across the water. The tide is out and gulls skate the bumpy mudflats that widen out against the toothed crescent of the causeway. Cars hush across from island to island; engine noise muffled by the southeast-tending breeze.

Where the tree line of the mainland meets gentle undulations of cloud, a thin whisper of white light appears; it's clearing over the northeast islands and we are wound in a cloudy scarf that leaves an opening over our neighborhood for blue sky and late, buttery sun to pour in.

In the garden, bumblebees, still stupefied by last evening's damp and sudden dip in temperature, spread their wings in the sun or cling to the undersides of the leaves of bee balm, lily, phlox and rose. We're slowly leaving the too-green phase of summer when even a gray day intensifies the color of the grass, trees, garden and fields. The punctuation of Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susan, sunflowers is a relief amid all that green as much as the holly, cardinals, and mailbox flags are against the unbounded white of winter.

Already the early morning air feels like fall and crickets pulse in the grass. Already the gardens seem too full: overburdened. Tomatoes come in their usual rush, beans and beets, cucumbers and the last of the peas clamor to be picked and threaten to bolt. In the afternoons when the breeze comes up off the water it brings with it the damp sting of winter.

On a trip south lighthouse-hopping last weekend I overheard a woman, obviously from a warmer clime, ask a museum docent what the "little tomato-shaped things" were on the bushes outside. Of course they were rose hips, the bright inevitable harbingers of fall in New England. All around us seeds are swirling at this time of year. Vivid thistle heads have gone fuzzy and gray, the foamy white blossoms of hawthorn have fallen away to reveal carmine haws, holly-red beads pop out along the branches of the winterberries, and the fountains of red-orange drupes cluster on branches of mountain ash. The road to the water is crunchy with fallen cones, some still green, others showering the path with translucent seeds, and along the deer track goldenrod and milkweed send up clouds of fluff into the air.

In the vegetable garden, unpicked lettuce and radishes raise spires of blossoms aloft, pole beans fatten and and sunflowers lift speckled faces up to the hungry birds.

Soon every living thing will be busy. We will tighten up the house: add insulation, replace windows, weather-strip doors, lay in firewood. The birds will become frantic at the feeder and fight over scraps of bread in the yard. Bees will burrow in the throats of late-blooming delphinium and foxgloves, gather busily in the hearts of the last of the roses and crowd out the butterflies in the grape-like clusters of the buddelias. In the evening the deer already gather warily in the back field eating and eating the sweet, green grass. We'll all soon be in a hurry to harvest, preserve, protect, and gather in and the seeds will swirl out, out, out into the thinning air.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


It has to be a pretty hot day for a Mainer to think of swimming. Yesterday was one such, and we went to the beach. Our beach is a crescent of rough sand along the causeway facing south to the islands and beyond. To the left and in the center are barbarous canes lifting the most sweetly fragrant rugosas, to the right are piles of granite and sea-rounded rock.

Parents and children were putting tentative toes into the water, wading in the shallows and a few of the braver ones, swimming. I noticed how pale were these northern beach goers. Nowhere here the broiled coconut scent redolent of the seashore where I grew up.

Along that Jersey shore, summer is one long warm sunny day of nicely baked ease, softness, drinks from coolers, glittering jellyfish, snatches of music from the boardwalk, sleek seagulls and sleeker lifeguards. There is a rule-straight horizon where the beach meets water and water meets sky. Speedboats and jet skis plume along heedless of swimmers who venture too far out. Chubby toddlers pat the sand or nap in the shade of gently flapping beach umbrellas. Mothers read and doze, fathers run into the water and belly flop like ten-year-olds, teenagers and college kids preen and roast or sleep off the previous night in the shade of the ticket booth. A build up of bundled cloud over the water allows plenty of time to gather beach chairs, towels and sand toys and get home ahead of a thunderstorm. In the evening, the warmth of afternoon sun is still trapped beneath the wide blue sands and the scent of the hushing surf mingles with the taffy-cotton-candy-ice-cream-warm creosote smell of the boards.

Here in Maine beach-going is all tang and spice – no sugar sand, no Tiki bars, no cotton candy – just flinty stones and beach glass, blue-purple mussel shells, and cold wavelets lapping seaweed.

On wide, mid-Atlantic beaches there is ample room for retreat when the tide turns landward. Here the tide will not only catch you out but cut you off. Firm-appearing sands become quagmires, invitingly soft sand hides nail-studded timbers, remnants of lobster crates, driftwood splinters, dried crab claws and other sea-wrack.

Our beaches are small and hard, coves mostly, like crooks of elbows surrounded by a scrim of soil-on-rock where wildflowers bob. Often our only companions are deer flies, snakelike coils of kelp and the unearthly and amorphous inhabitants of tide pools.

You can’t laze the day away on these sandy outcrops. Even on the warmest days the breeze raises goosebumps on unprotected skin and sweatshirts and blanketed legs are the preferred beach cover ups. After midday we’re grateful for a rough blanket around our shoulders. Here, there’s an atmosphere of alertness; the air is charged with ozone, breezes shift and bite, and crisp white sails slice the space between the saw-tooth profiles of the islands. Instead of calliope music there is birdsong and the crying of gulls.

It's hard to describe the sensation of swimming in our deep blue. It isn't hard to imagine ice crystals forming on the raised arm of the swimmer who attempts even a brief crawl along the shore. Standing in the shallows, where little silvery fish and transparent lobster fry dart around toes, can produce an aching numbness that reaches high above submerged ankles. Maine swimmers go forth, breathless and wary, respectful and slightly overwhelmed by beauty, strangeness, cold, more likely to return home wind burnt than sun burnt and grateful for the fireplace. After a plunge from an island ledge I pop up gasping for breath, skin prickling, heart racing. Diving into ice-cold champagne might have the same effect.

When the sun breaks through the clouds it’s like a blessing.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Yesterday I spent an hour or so with a friend who has been sick most of the winter. Cold after cold have made her tired and fretful; her latest bout with bronchitis left her depressed and debilitated. But our conversation was pleasant and I left her believing that she was finally on the mend. On the way home over potholes and frost heaves, I realized that we are all more or less in a state of convalescence after a winter of endless snowstorms, ice, frost, cold and mud. Our cars are battered and dirty, our floors are tracked with gravely boot prints, our gloves are missing, our animals are stir crazy, and our tempers are thin.

The week we had of spring-like weather teased us out of doors into yards where melting snow revealed the detritus of the season past - discarded Christmas trees, layers of birdseed under the feeders, bits of plastic and paper frozen to the ground and twigs, branches, leaves, cones, and bark shorn from the trees in wintery blasts off the ocean.

Today I raked the flower beds revealing crocuses, scilla, little red fists of rhubarb, pale fingers of daffodils and iris. The warm day brought out swarms of insects and the earth softened in the sun. I took my lunch outside and sat in the sun trap in a corner of the house, turned up my face to the sky and pretended it was June.

The spring that I was three, my father was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease he probably picked up while serving in the Marines during World War II. He was sent to a sanatorium to recuperate. The hospital was not far from where we lived with my grandparents, but it was long enough for me to fall asleep on the way there and I would emerge from my uncle's car rubbing my eyes and cranky.

My father and his fellow sufferers, most of them also veterans, lived in a kind of barracks, unheated and bare bones, in the midst of what must have at one time been an arboretum, filled by then with overgrown cedar trees. We weren't allowed inside but my father could come out and visit with us in a patio area filled with benches and Adirondack chairs. It was the fashion then to dress little girls in cotton dresses year round. My little woolen Best & Company coat kept my arms and torso warm but my bare legs were always cold and I wanted to be indoors. To warm me up, and to provide my parents with some quiet time together, my uncle and grandmother would take me for a walk among the trees and it is the memory of those trees that comes back to me on thin spring days like this one.

There must have been quite a variety of cedars in that parklike place, but I loved the golden ones the best. I called them fairy trees and would make my uncle and grandmother join hands with me and dance around them just like the illustration on the cover of my picture book of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Fir Tree". When we all tired of the game, they would go off to sit with my mother and father and I would wander alone through that miniature forest, brushing the trees with my hands and telling myself stories, hunting for treasures - pinecones, feathers, pretty stones - under the fluffy branches, and feeling the spring sun on my head and shoulders.

After months of austere living, cold baths and colder nights on outdoor sleeping porches - the protocol then for the tubercular - my father came home cured. I don't know if I regretted the loss of my fairy forest or if I even realized I would never go back there except in memory. But in memory I can feel the warmth of that quiet enclosed space and see the sun on golden branches.

Along our road the pussy willows are silvery against the sky. The woodcock and killdeer are courting in the woods. At night the moon is a white disk, un-haloed and bright. There is a softness to the silhouettes of the trees and the alders are reddening. The roads will flatten out, the ice will leave the lakes and streams, the deer will leave the fastness of the woods and venture down to the ocean again and the lengthening days lift our mood, inspire garden dreams, give us hope, make us well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


We're caught tight in snow and ice; it's so cold, -10 this morning. As an early riser I get to appreciate just how snowbound we are, before the first pass of the plow, before the first shadow of smoke from the chimney across the road, before the reluctant fading of the moon.

Even at this hour on a Sunday morning cars busily ply the causeway that connects us to our sister island. I always wonder where people are going to or coming from so early and in such cold. Activity seems at odds with reality, for we are all deep in hibernation mode. Dogs sleep and sleep, moving during the day with the splash of sun that makes its way across the floor, snuggling up to the woodstove at night. Cats spend the nights as unmoving bundles at the foot of our bed disappearing during the day to closets and crannies that hold the heat. Just watching the animals makes me want to sleep the winter away too.

When we do go out, the cold either beats up or beats out the color from our faces; lungs burn with the cold, eyes water. We have to gear up just to fetch the mail from the box down our long driveway, which has turned into a glossy river of ice. Out on the Reach, the rocks are cellophaned with ice, in the field the firs bend to the ground with ice, ice lines the eaves and barricades the back door.

But oh, the stars - trembling at night like crystal ear-bobs against the deep blue black. The moon is a crisp wafer, the shadows of the trees are long and sharp as penciled lines across the snow.

Now, at dawn, steaming vapor - pink and gold - floats up from the water to touch the shreds of higher clouds over the islands. An eerie reflection on the frozen bay mirrors the brightening sky a full hour before the sun pops above the distant hills.

Five am and it's a silent world without birds, without walkers along the road or dogs in yards. We're all holding our breath, waiting for the first "drip, drip" from the eaves.

On the table a spray of paperwhites is in full bloom.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The trees are bent to the ground in a lather of snow. All day yesterday the snow came down in thick, fat flakes coating the weather side of everything with the whitest white. Today in the thin sunshine the effect is all brilliance and dazzle. As we shovel walkways and scrape car windows it's hard to concentrate on the work at hand for looking at the reflected early morning sun - a bright yellow slash on the east facing snow-coated trees - or across the broad, flat, perfectly smooth sea of white that is the horse pasture. Our early afternoon ride across the causeway to the "big island" reveals glimpses of island trees speckled with dollops of snow, rocks iced with it, beaches covered in it; the sea, in contrast, hard and blue as sapphire; the sky a domed robin's egg.

At this time of year color stands out like a beacon: the red of the ribbon on a bedraggled Christmas wreath, the bright blue of a fishing buoy, the orange traffic cones marking the potholes, the flags snapping on their poles. It's too early in the winter to be starved for color, but that will come. I remember one snowy early spring when I had had enough of staring out the kitchen window at hillocks of snow and the dark, unending row of firs behind the house. Turning away from the bleak panorama of yard and wood I noticed a flash of yellow. Out by the stone wall two daffodils were blooming. I resisted the urge to plow out to pick them and stood and stared at that patch of yellow for a long time.

We get so used to the monochrome of winter that color sometimes feels like an assault on the senses. We have to gently lead ourselves into the psychedelic splendor of approaching spring with cuttings of pale forsythia in a vase, a pot of pink cyclamen on the windowsill or the greenish, creamy glow of an emerging narcissus. And with garden catalogs...which at this time of year fill the mailbox with hope and promise.

Long before the advent of June buyer's remorse (why did we buy six kinds of tomato seeds?) we begin to build the perfect garden in our minds. Mine is filled with sweet peas, nasturtiums, cleome, violets, and roses. Nothing I could nurture in summer could ever approach the Secret Garden garden I create every winter in my head. And it's labor-free. No scratches and scrapes from thorny canes, no dirt under my fingernails, no backache, no sweat. It's all there, perfect in it's un-perfection, a seraglio of color and scent. There might be one day during the summer when I achieve my dream. I might even have a minute to sit on a real bench and appreciate it...but then I will notice the weedy patch by the lilies, or the dandelion in the grass. No, this dream garden is what feeds my soul in the depth of winter.

Our dreams, after all, are what keep us moving toward some vision of perfection. That they sometimes come bound in glossy paper and stuffed into our mailboxes is just one of life's many ironies...and blessings.