Oh Christmas Tree

John Hanson and Jon Crane load the tree onto the truck for delivery.

John Hanson and Jon Crane load the tree onto the truck for delivery.

The only Christmas trees we have ever had in our house were cut in the woods out back. They always look bushier in the wild than inside. My husband, gracious man that he is, says he likes our trees because they do not block the light or view of the mountains from our living room window. I like them because they are natural, and because the annual expeditions into the woods with dogs, children, neighbors and handsaws, are always fun.

A big bushy beauty. Let's cut it down.

A big bushy beauty. Let’s cut it down.

Each year I proclaim, “This tree is the best we’ve ever had.” Even though the boughs bend down at the tips under the weight of our ornaments, we still are proud. Visitors make snide comments like: “Nice Charlie Brown Tree” or “Where did you find that, at the dump?” I do not mind. They are just jealous.

This year I had hoped to recycle a blow-down from that freaky November blizzard, which blew the tops off so many of our firs. Alas, those blow-downs  not only were looking dry, but also the branches had warped in weird directions from being on the ground so long. We had to find two trees, one for us and one for the neighbors. About a half-mile in we found the first one and quickly cut it, sending it home through the woods with the three boys (wondering if either the tree or the boys would make it in one piece). The second took more careful searching — a big beauty, tall and bushy. It was so big it required three adults to haul it out of the woods and load it onto our truck for delivery next door.

Proud lumbermen

Proud lumbermen

Are you kidding? This tree is too big!

Are you kidding? This tree is too big!

Today, I took the decorations and lights off our tree and put them away until next year. Handling each handmade ornament as I wrapped them and tucked them back into a box brought back memories of my children when they were little. My oldest son hopes to go away to school next year. Will he miss the annual hunt for a tree? Will I want to go out in the woods without him? No, we will wait until he gets home. This tree — green, sweet-smelling, natural and flawed like all of us — represents life, rebirth and hope. The adventure in the woods to find it is our family tradition.

A proud tree hunter and his dog and his truck

A proud tree hunter and his dog and his truck




First frost

The snow-covered green bushes on the left are tomato plants

The snow-covered green bushes on the left are tomato plants

Saturday I spent the day harvesting the last green tomatoes, a lone eggplant, peppers, and  a few stray cucumbers, including one that had wedged into the fence around my garden and grown into an orange balloon. I potted all my celery plants and the leeks in big tubs and hauled them into the garage where they will keep for most of the winter, and I put a row cover over the swiss chard.

The garden at its summer peak

The garden at its summer peak

Then Sunday we had our first frost at East Fork Road, Camden, and it was a doozy. An early winter storm dropped over a foot of wet snow. Usually the first frost is a beautiful sparkly thing that paints the garden a glittering silvery patina before killing everything it touches. This storm allowed no such transition. We went from green to white, just like that. I can still see a few shocked green tomato plants under the white mantle, wondering, perhaps, what happened.


When I went down to check Monday afternoon, after the sun came out and the temperature once again rose above freezing, I saw a tiny narrow path across the top of the snow made by the family of field mice that lives under one of my raised beds. Did this take them by surprise, too, forcing some rushed last minute provisioning from my garden?

What can you do with a cucumber like this, except turn it into art?

What can you do with a cucumber like this, except turn it into art?

Up in the house, thankfully, we were ready. As I write this I am sitting in front of my wood stove, warm and dry, dogs sleeping at my feet. The power has been out for two days, but we have a generator.


Bring it on, Winter, we’ve got front row seats.


Last Sail


Me taking Frolic for her last sail

Me taking Frolic for her last sail

Sitting in my office looking out at the harbor, deep blue with just the right amount of wind, sunny with enough clouds to make the sky interesting, I knew.  It was time for The Last Sail.

Crisp September days with their strong breezes and bright sun make for some of the best sailing of the year. But this also can be a time of strong storms and the weather can change on a dime. Deciding when to let go of summer and have your boat hauled can be tough. Pull it too early and you might miss another week of fabulous weather. Wait too long, though, and you can get stuck spending a sleepless night listening to the wind howl and worrying about what’s happening down in the harbor.

Heading out Camden Harbor

Heading out of Camden Harbor

This time I knew.

I had been spending my afternoons like the grasshopper, playing on the water, when I should have been thinking like the ant and getting ready for fall, and winter.

Putting off working in my garden in order to frolic on the boat meant a delay in digging up the sweet potatoes — some lucky field mouse had time to eat most of the crop before I got there. There were apples to pick; cucumbers to pickle, yet more tomatoes to can and the rest of the potatoes to dig.

It was time to move off the water.

The last sail is special. Time to savor the rustle of the water along the boat hull, the gentle clunk of rigging and the creak of wooden spars rubbing, turning, working. Relish the salt spray that leaves a rough crust on my cheeks and hair. Stretch my eyes out along the blue water, past where it meets the blue horizon and uncoil all those internal knotted lines. Then store it all in the memory bank.

Looking up at the mast and gaff mainsail

Looking up at the mast and gaff mainsail


Leaving the Camden Hills behind as Frolic and I sail in Penobscot Bay

Leaving the Camden Hills behind as Frolic and I sail in Penobscot Bay

Thankyou, Frolic, for all those great outings this year, for carrying me away from the mundane and into the blue. See you next spring.

Frolic is a Dark Harbor 17, built in the 1920s and restored in recent years by Artisan Boatworks.

Frolic is a Dark Harbor 17, built in the 1920s and restored in recent years by Artisan Boatworks.

Fall blooming

Some plants, like blueberries, grow faster after they have been pruned or burned. The stress forces a reaction — a frenetic, last-chance, all-out blooming. Fall has that affect on me. Each day of warm sun seems so extraordinary. Each sail out on the bay feels like the best ever.

A glorious hike up Maiden’s Cliff — do the lake and ocean sparkle brighter this time of year because they are closer to a sun that now sits lower on the horizon; Or is it the contrast to winter’s creeping shadow?

In my garden a week ago I found as many as eight large cucumbers a day and had picked so many tomatoes I’d run out of counter space in my kitchen to line them up on their way into the canner and freezer. Still, even though we’ve been eating gifts from the garden since June, a tomato warmed by the late September sun somehow tastes sweeter than one harvested in mid-August.

Winter hangs in my awareness this time of year, like the Camden hills, heavy and majestic.

Canadian geese flying south above our field screech the message that colder nights and eventually snow approach. I hear you. I hear you. I’m walking faster. I’m sailing harder. I’m soaking in the sun. I’m getting ready.



More Peas, Please


Back when I was a newspaper editor in Belfast, Maine, one of the more unusual aspects of my job was judging the newspaper’s pea contest. Each spring, the newspaper awarded a prize to the reader who grew the first “mess” of peas.

A recent college graduate from the city, I had no idea what a mess was, other than what my office looked like on a regular basis. Back in those days, you could not just turn on your computer and find instant answers. You had to do your research the more conventional way. Just what is a mess? I asked my colleagues, silently imagining gardens wildly strewn with errant peas and shells. Turns out a mess –- the word comes from a Middle English word for course of a meal — is enough peas to make a dinner. No one I asked knew just how many peas that would require.

This was serious business. Local pea growers were known to plant their peas with heat tape to accelerate the growth or to heat the soil with fresh manure – competitive gardening at its best. But no matter what they did, or when they planted, the peas seemed to be ready at the same time. There would be that day in mid-June when the newspaper phone would ring all day with people calling to let me know their peas were ripe. And I would drive out, up hills and down dirt roads to inspect, visiting each garden and interviewing each grower.


I think of those days often now that I have my own garden and rush in the early spring to plant my peas as soon as the ground has thawed enough for digging. But I’m not worried about winning contests; my goal is to have peas by July 4. Each year I tell my husband that next year I won’t plant peas; we’ll buy them instead. But each year I relent and into the ground they go.

Peas talk to me of summer, past and present. I’m entranced by the curling tendrils that seem to pull the lush green vines up the trellis, by the speed with which star like white flowers morph into succulent green pods. I love sitting outside in the light that seems to last forever this time of year and shelling the peas, eating one every now and then and feeding the husks to my dogs who greedily consume them. When I was a child I would shell peas with my grandfather who used to challenge me to find the pod with the most peas. His record was 11. That pod and its contents sat on his mantelpiece for at least a summer, faded, shriveled, but glorious in its bounty. The very first poem I learned as a child was about peas:

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes them taste quite funny;

But it keeps them on the knife.

We ate our first mess of peas tonight. I’m sure the farmers in Waldo County already have harvested many meals, but I’m happy. I beat the fourth by a few days and the peas were delicious.


Gone Gardening


This time of year the sun rises behind Mt. Battie and shines through my bedroom window right into my eyes, like a teleprompter telling me to get outside.

I love this early morning time in the garden, checking on seedlings and weeding. Too early in the year for many pests and diseases, everything looks green and hopeful. The growing plants with their different shapes and shades — spiky garlic, rounded swiss chard, stubby broccoli — bring visual order to my life. A distant woodpecker’s gentle rhythmic beat, the wind in the trees, the murmur of birds going about their business soothes my brain.

It’s a momentary feeling, but the effect is long lasting. Solving problems here is as simple as pulling unwanted grass shoots from between the rows of beets. The hardest decision is whether to let the freelance dill grow among the rows of leeks, or to remove it.

Living in the moment is therapeutic. The essayist Montaigne described it well: “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling elsewhere, I lead them back again to the walk, the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, to myself.



Fiddling Around


Those who like to forage in the woods know mid-May marks the time for fiddleheads. These delectable green coils emerge from the ground and grow up into what most people know as ostrich ferns. The key is to harvest them just as they start to reach for the sky. I have looked all over the woods behind my house and have found only one small patch, so when my friend Bridget asked if I’d like to go with her to her special spot somewhere in Searsmont, I jumped at the chance. Most foragers keep their special places secret, but Bridget is a wonderfully generous person and does not play by the same rules as most people. She gave me a pound of fiddleheads a few years ago when I admired her harvest in a Facebook photo—really one of my best Facebook moments ever.

We agreed to meet at 5:45 a.m. and I was to bring a backpack lined with a plastic bag, a small bucket for picking, drinking water and my boots. She picked me up and off we went into the wilds of Waldo County, down a dirt road past several old farmhouses, before finally parking by a big stream, donning our backpacks and setting off on a faint path into the woods. Bridget says this spot is known to many fiddlehead foragers and that she also often meets people fishing along this stream, which runs into a larger river. But she seems confident we’ll find plenty of ferns today.

The running water provides a steady background to cheerful bird songs and the squish of our feet on the wet ground. The trees have only just begun to leaf out. Instead silvery, lichen-laced trunks stand out in the early light. We soon come to the largest patch of trout lilies I’ve ever seen. Their mottled white and olive-green leaves cover the ground, giving way here and there to tall, fuzzy ferns (not fiddleheads) and a few yellow, trumpet-shaped blooms.


As we walk Bridget tells me fiddleheads are finicky, preferring sandy soil near running water. She learned about fiddleheads from her mother growing up in Aroostook County.


The first patch we find have grown past the fiddlehead stage into two-foot tall ferns. Full grown they can stand up to five feet high. Fiddleheads, so-called because they look like the curved scroll on the end of a violin, must be harvested just as they emerge from their crowns. That’s when their fronds remain tucked into tight coils. Bridget often knows she has found a patch when she steps on the bumpy crowns, one distinctive feature of these ferns. Other identifying characteristics of fiddleheads include their smooth, deep u-shaped stems and a papery brown covering on the coils. I’ve read enough about the ferns to know the importance of proper identification. Eating the wrong ferns can make you sick, as can eating an under-cooked fiddlehead. Bridget says she boils them for at least 15 minutes. This is really important because fiddleheads contain some kind of bacteria or chemical that merely sautéing in a pan does not kill. Food scientists have not identified the cause of the problem, according to University of Maine Professor of Food Safety Dr. Jason Bolton.

“We just know that cooking for a fair amount of time destroys whatever it is,” he says.

Properly steamed or boiled, fiddleheads taste like a combination of fresh grass and asparagus, like Maine woods in the spring. I usually boil them and then sauté them in oil. This year I might also try pickling. My mother’s friend, Peggy, says fiddleheads are carcinogenic. But Bolton says the cancer-causing ferns are some other type. He also told me potatoes contain some kind of carcinogen. But I’ll write about that some other time.

The next patch we find contains loads of perfect fiddleheads and we pick until the sun comes out and black flies arrive. I have been careful to harvest only a few fronds from each plant, figuring that will help promote the health of the fern, although it’s clear many of these fiddleheads are just the first set of shoots. We also have to pick around slightly brown fiddleheads that have been nipped by a frost earlier in the week. Eventually we fill our packs and head back.

When we get back home, I realize the picking was the easy part. Cleaning off the papery coverings requires much soaking and rinsing in the sink. Bridget says she likes to use an air compressor to blow the husks off, but it rained yesterday and these fiddleheads are damp so that won’t work.


I fill my big sink and get to work. As I’m cleaning, my husband comes home and looks at the pile of green. “You’re crazy,” he says as I tell him my haul weighed in at 15 pounds. He quickly adds, “That’s why I married you.”

All is well at my house. And tonight for dinner? Fiddleheads with pasta and sausage. Tomorrow? Fiddleheads again, maybe.