The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In rural New England it’s a regular thing to see a few old kerosene lamps around in preparation for the next power outage. We’ve got some beauties. We also have old cross-cut saws, lanterns, a treadle sewing machine, a hand mill, a hand pump, and various other hand tools collected over the years in preparation for the time when the power just doesn’t come back on again. Many have such things all stored away in the barn or shed right where Grandpa left them. Hauling all of this stuff out of the barn and selling it to someone from Massachusetts who will put it on their front lawn or hang it on the wall in their den has been part of the Maine economy since, oh say, the French and Indian War.
It’s about having what you need when you need it. Just rummaging through my backpack I find matches, birch bark for tinder, a folding multi-tool, a lock-back knife, small binoculars, a magnifying glass, a tape measure, a comb, a can of sardines, a fork, and some Benadryl for bee sting. It all comes down to the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” which we learned in our early teens and have never forgotten.
Writ large, “Be Prepared” expresses itself in the survivalist and back-to-the-land movements, the members of which swoon over solar panels, windmills, hand pumps, and horsepower that uses real horses. “Be Prepared” is seen in the urge to find alternative sources of energy before the oil runs out. It is also seen in the apocalyptic fervor that sweeps the country more and more frequently in hard economic times like these. For example, note the radio prophet last year who predicted the end of the world for May 21 and then again for October 21, earning the distinction of getting it wrong twice in five months.
That date, by the way, was one day before the anniversary of the Great Disappointment of 1844, when self-styled prophet William Miller predicted the destruction of the earth by fire falling from heaven and the second coming of Christ, and it didn’t happen. Why anyone would consider this a disappointment is something to ponder.
Coming up next is the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012, when the finale will supposedly come with a giant tidal wave. That could be handy if fire is falling from heaven. It’s tough to know how to prepare for something like that. A multi-tool and a can of sardines probably won’t to do it.
Mountain report, early November
Awanadjo, the Algonquin name for Blue Hill, means “small misty mountain,” and so it is these days, with clouds hanging low over the summit on cloudy days and mists rising from the slopes at dawn on sunnier days. The mountain is busy with climbers this time of year, and since it is hunting season, blaze orange ought to be the fashion statement for all. A tragedy would help neither hunters nor non-hunters.
I started up Awanadjo on a frosty morning last year at this time to find several pick-up trucks and ATVs idling on the Morse field. Soon a helicopter came arching over the mountain. Talk about “Be prepared,” they were getting ready to change a handful of propane tanks that run the emergency generator for the cell-phone/TV/radio tower commercial complex that stands (on land declared forever wild!) near the summit. It took several hours and six men, one helicopter, two ATVs, two large fuel trucks, and several pick-ups to do the job. So be not dismayed. If the tidal wave is not more than 1,000 feet high, you’ll still be able to use your cell phone in the event that the wave or the fire falling from heaven should interrupt electrical service.
Seedpod to carry around with you
From Tom Lehrer: “Be prepared! And be careful not to do/Your good deeds when there’s no one watching you./If you’re looking for adventure of a new and different kind,/And you come across a Girl Scout who is similarly inclined,/Don’t be nervous, don’t be flustered, don’t be scared./Be prepared!”
Field and Forest report, mid November
The eastern larch, also known as tamarack—or “hackamatack” as it is called around here—is wearing its gorgeous autumn coat of burnt gold, enough to set the heart on fire when aglow in the afternoon sun. The name “tamarack” in Algonquin means “wood for snow shoes.” The tree’s roots are also used for ship’s knees.
Larches, along with the cypresses, are known as deciduous conifers because they lose their needles in the fall. Pine trees lose their needles in the fall, too, but we don’t notice it so much because they drop only last year’s needles and this year’s remain, so the trees stay ever green.
Mountain report, early December
The low angle of the December sun shadows the long grooves carved from northwest to southeast in the hard stony surface of the summit ages ago by the grinding of the glaciers. Bearing their burdens of megatons of boulders they scoured the tops off our mountains, then left their burdens behind at their retreat. Initials and dates carved on the summit a century or more ago now stand out starkly, Yankee petroglyphs.
Natural events, mid December
With some limited success winter tries to nudge fall out of the way with blustery winds and slushy snow mostly melting soon after it has fallen, as temperatures rise above freezing and the low, puny sun does the best it can. Shops in town look festive with seasonal decorations hung in hopes of bringing in some business in these lean times. Christmas parties and fairs and concerts are so abundant that it’s a rare night when something isn’t going on somewhere. And they wonder what we do here all winter.
Maybe the best news is how people are looking out for their neighbors who are encountering some difficulties. Countless gifts for children are being distributed, while church and town heating funds help with fuel and firewood, and the food pantry serves on average 200 households a week. Around here people try to look after their own. That’s one reason we like it here, it’s not just the scenery. If you are looking for the True Spirit of Christmas, you don’t have to look far; it lights the faces of friends and neighbors.
Some say the small-town, coastal-Maine way of life is doomed, and it’s just a matter of time until it goes the way of the great auk. People hear about the beauty and the quiet to be found in a small coastal town and they want some, so they buy a pricey piece of property on the water. They build the Most Beautiful House in the World there and live in it sometimes, but they may not join local lodges, churches, or fire departments, or send their kids to public schools. You may not see them at the market or at the post office or at town meetings. They rarely really pitch in to make the town work, but they expect the town to work for them. That’s the great danger. Of course, it’s a free country and people should be able to do whatever they want. But that’s when a small town starts to die.
A Christmas message
Wouldn’t it be good to help the neighbors in the coming cold months and ease global warming by walking more, planning ahead for fewer car trips, and offering rides to others? Maybe you have an unused woodstove in the barn, or some extra firewood that could help someone keep warm. Think about a Christmas donation for emergencies to your church of choice, or helping out at your local food pantry or shelter. Sing carols in the shower and while driving. Put out extra bird seed. Toss your meat scraps to the gulls and crows. And—this’ll get me in trouble—forget shopping for awhile. Then you will have the true spirit of Christmas and of Old St. Nick, who never shopped, and is still fondly remembered by millions every year.
Natural and un-natural events, early January
Last year the fall and early winter were warmer than many could remember; in fact, it seemed unnatural. We had dandelions and delphiniums in bloom in early December, and others reported similar curiosities. By this time the cold began to set in; the kind of cold when chimney smoke goes straight up at daybreak and rhododendron leaves curl and hang limp and even the chickadees sound a mite chilly: “Gee, gee, geez it’s cold!” they say.
Where once the grass would caress the feet that trod upon it, now it crackles and scrapes. Where the ground once gave way and gently yielded under foot now it resists, squeaking and crunching as the icy tusks that push up through the frozen soil are shattered and crushed with each step.
Then, suddenly it warms up again for a few days, giving the orchardist some sleepless nights worrying about winter damage. Very cold nights followed by warm, sunny days can stress trees and split the bark from root to branch; many trees and shrubs can be injured this way. And of course, fluctuating temperatures get the old-timers talking uneasily about a “sick winter,” when diseases, colds, and flu flourish. Folk wisdom holds that it’s better when winter gets cold and stays cold. It’s the back and forth from one extreme to another that is troublesome.
This folk wisdom about the value of moderation dates back to ancient times. The Buddha called it the Middle Way. Confucius called it the Doctrine of the Mean. Greek philosophers called it the Golden Mean. Goldilocks called it “Not too hard, not too soft, but just right.”
We are living in an age of extremes in the affairs of both heaven and earth, weather and politics. Someone will say, “Ah, but extreme times call for extreme measures.” The old philosopher will respond, “To the contrary, extreme measures lead to extreme times.” Let it be our endeavor in the new year to speak softly when others shout, to speak clearly when others babble or are silent, to be neither rich nor poor, neither haughty nor fawning, neither reckless nor timid, to wander off the path neither to the left nor to the right but to keep steadily upon the middle way to happiness and peace. If Goldilocks can do it, how hard can it be?
More seedpods to carry around
From Thomas Paine: “A thing moderately good is not as good as it ought to be; moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.”
And from Petronius, the Roman author and courtier of the emperor Nero: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”
The truth of the matter is that most hunters are dedicated, knowledgeable, compassionate, ethical, and deeply decent. They see the deer hunt as an ancient and honorable way to bring good, healthy, organic meat home to be shared with those who need and love it. There is many a poor family that has been cheered by a haunch of deer or moose or a brace of waterfowl appearing on the doorstep. It is local and sustainable, contributes to the health of the ecosystem, and is far more compassionate than the factory farms from which most of us get our meat. Respect is due all around: for the hunter, for the non-hunter, but most of all for the elegant, the beautiful, the graceful white-tailed deer, spirit of the evergreen forest.
Natural and un-natural events, the story of a storm
The day dawned a muffled gray with a chill breath coming off the water. The dome of sky looked like weathered bone, the inside of a skull, as the damp, leading edge of a winter storm began to flow in from the North Atlantic, creeping into the harbor and under my coat and hat.
We filled the wood boxes and collected the snow shovels, idle since before Christmas. By late morning, a bit sooner than expected, powdery snow was dancing and swirling through the air. Soon it began frosting the cold, bare ground like confectioner’s sugar, only not so sweet. Finches, crows, and squirrels fed nervously on nuts and seeds in the yard, stocking up before the storm. “Snow that’s fine lasts a long time,” goes the old Maine saying, so—like the squirrels and finches—people hurried about their errands and jobs, hoping to get home early before the snow got too serious.
By noontime the snowflakes were large and sticky, flying sideways, and everything was covered with a blanket of white. The wind was blowing a gale from the east and hooting and huffing in the chimney. The plow trucks rumbled along the state highway through town several times each hour, but were unable to stay ahead of the storm; the roads were soon snow-covered. The ambulance came and went again and again, and I trudged down to the busy hospital ER to visit a lovely 85-year-old lady who was thanking the Lord that she ended up in a soft ditch and not wrapped around an immovable tree.
By mid-afternoon the daylight was getting dusky and the snow was easing up a little, but the gale blew on, swirling curling clouds of white through the air and forming drifts in the lee of the house. A mourning dove in its fluffy down coat sat stoically in the pear tree, nothing moving but its head as it surveyed the storm. As the sun sank softly into the snowy woods, everything—sky, snow, white houses, and woods—glowed for a moment with soft phosphorescence like the pearly gray of the dove’s breast. That’s the story of the first snow storm of the New Year.
The storm is at its most beautiful just before the snow stops falling, before the smooth, sculptured surface is broken by boot prints, pocked with clumps dumped from branches, pushed by plow trucks (God love ’em), splattered by speeding cars, or even marked with the myriad heart-shaped monograms of deer tracks. It is a fleeting moment, as though the world is holding its breath and its perfection at once, and it is soon gone.
That’s the almanack for this time. But don’t take it from us—we’re no experts. Go out and see for yourself.
Rob McCall is a journalist, naturalist, and fiddler, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, Maine UCC. This column derives from his weekly radio show on WERU, 89.9 FM, Blue Hill and 99.9 Bangor. Readers can contact him directly via e-mail: email@example.com or post a comment using the form below.