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Awanadjo Almanack - Issue 108

Most of Us Can’t Tell One Crow from Another

By Rob McCall
Awanadjo AlmanackIllustration by Sam Manning.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan; earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.
—Christina Rossetti

Dear Friends: It is said that the natives of the north have 100 names for snow. As winter continues unabated around here we have nearly that many names for snow, and not all of them good. Last year about this time, along came two gorgeous storms that dropped a rich new blanket of sparkling, powdered crystal that filled the hollows and covered the pocked surface of the old snow. The storm passed, followed by bright sun and deep blue skies. It was a wonder that snow could still be so beautiful. The tired old snow was dressed like a new bride. Every spruce looked like a snow queen or a winter gnome robed in ermine. The vaulting dome of the sky was an unbounded cobalt blue. The whole world wore the achingly bright colors of the spirit of Blue Jay: white, blue, and black. Becky and I climbed the mountain in lucid sunshine, crossing the tracks of fox, snowshoe hare, snowshoe person, and skunk as they wended their way up or down the slopes. No natural light on earth can be brighter than the sun off a new late-winter snow, illuminating everything from both above and below. In the morning when the sun rose over Acadia, its growing light filtered first through clouds, then sea smoke over the bay, then wood smoke over the village, then the icicles hanging from the eaves, then the swirling frost on the window. The light was fractured and fragmented until it glowed rose and warm orange across the floor.
Awanadjo Almanack March 2010Illustrations by Candice Hutchinson [3].
Natural and un-natural events, early February Last year we got a “Groundhog Thaw,” with the temperature above freezing for the first time in nearly six weeks. The ice was melting, so I got out the chopper to do some cheerful chipping along the sidewalk. When I was done I stood it up outside next to the kitchen door. Next day it was locked in ice. It’s funny how plus-25° F can feel like an Arctic chill in September and like a heat wave in February. Then, a couple of days later, it got close to plus-50° F, and we opened up the doors to let some fresh, moist air move through the house. Bird songs we hadn’t heard for months trilled from the treetops, and the ice on the bay began to turn milky white and soft around the edges as it buckled and heaved up with the full moon high tides. The blanket of snow started settling and evaporating into a floating mist mixed with wood smoke hanging over the village rooftops and shrouding the mountain in a soft gray cape. It may sound a little cruel to say that we had broken the back of winter, but, by heaven, it felt good. More natural and un-natural events Here’s a fascinating report from writer Kim Ridley of Brooklin:
A craving for a cheap green fix has driven me into Home Depot, where I rustle among the houseplants. My husband Tom beckons me. “There are birds in here,” he says. I follow him down the aisles and soon hear a chirp over my head. Perched over a display of work gloves is a house sparrow, a dun-colored denizen of city sidewalks. Two more flutter down and sit beside it, and a fourth lands on a bale of paper towels. One of the sparrows swoops over my head and lands behind me on the concrete floor to peck black sunflower seeds and millet that had spilled from the birdseed bags filling the shelves. These birds have found the Promised Land: plenty of food, and no hawks. I ask a salesperson about the sparrows. “Oh they live here all their lives,” she says. “They’re born in here, make nests and die in here. I had to put a fake owl up over the kitchen and bath display, because I can’t spend all my time cleaning it.” “Does the owl work?” I ask. “As long as I keep it dusted.” She informs me that the sparrows have learned to let themselves out when they need a drink of water or a dust bath or maybe just feel like perching in a tree. When they want out, they flutter in front of the motion detector that opens the doors to the plant nursery. It turns out that these house sparrows aren’t unique. These birds have set up housekeeping in other big-box stores around the industrialized world. But here’s the really amazing thing: from Maine to Virginia, England to Australia, and points between, house sparrow populations everywhere have learned the motion detector trick to let themselves in and out of their cavernous homes. In other words, it appears that each of these far-flung flocks has independently discovered how to use technology to their advantage. House sparrows live on six continents, which makes them the most widely distributed bird in the world. They were introduced from England to New York in 1850 to clean up a caterpillar infestation. Instead, they preferred to feed on seeds from horse manure on the streets. The sparrows have since spread across the nation. Everywhere humans go, house sparrows follow. Yet this ubiquitous bird is declining in some parts of the world. In England and Ireland, for example, house sparrow populations have dropped by 30 to 50 percent—a decline of up to 7 million birds—in the last 20 years. How much does this matter when so many more rare and beautiful birds are perched on the brink of disaster? The house sparrow’s decline may be alerting us to the consequences of everything from global warming to new avian diseases, notes the author and ecologist Sandra Steingraber, who writes, “The sparrow is the new canary.” I stand in the middle of the birdseed aisle at Home Depot watching the sparrows. Another shopper eyes me suspiciously when I smile at him and point up at the birds. I don’t care. I don’t care how common the sparrows are or how drab their plumage is. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, the sparrows give life and an incongruous charm to this impersonal place. They are survivors, and our lives are intertwined.
Field and forest report, late February Hear the exuberant spring chant of a male cardinal rising undaunted in the falling snow. The seasonal increase in the length of daylight has set off his alarm clock. Love is already in the air, however faintly we may feel it. With the promise of warming weather, migrating mourning doves return two by two; their love calls can be heard echoing through the frozen branches. The distinct aroma of skunk is noticed here and there on warmer days.
Awanadjo Almanack Apple
Town report On my walk one day I took a pocket compass and—as a public service, no charge to the taxpayer—I checked the village weathervanes for their display of the cardinal points of the compass, N, S, E, and W. The most accurate appears to be the one on the American Legion Hall. The farthest off is the one on the Blue Hill Academy building, by about 25 degrees. The vanes on the Nathan Osgood house and the Wanning carriage house appear to be about 15 degrees off. This may sound like a small thing, but it could be a disaster for tourists and other wildlife trying to find their way to, say, Bar Harbor; they could end up in Wytopitlock. The two churches in town cleverly solve this problem by not showing the cardinal points at all, only the vane faithfully pointing into the wind. Orchard report, March With the snow cover disappearing, mud time is upon us and apple pruning is under way. Beginners, get yourself a decent hand pruning saw with a comfortable handle: under $30 at a good hardware store. Stay away from the folding type; they don’t last. Then, get Liberty Hyde Bailey’s pruning manual or go online for basic instructions. Some of the best pruning ladders are made by Peter Baldwin right in Waldo County. Remember, you don’t have to do all the pruning in one year. Best to take your time. One of the joys of living in the 1800 Theodore Stevens house called “Orchard Lodge” has been caring for the old fruit trees growing here. These trees have been our constant companions for more than 20 years. Knowing nothing about them at first, over time I determined that the original trees are standard old varieties: an early yellow transparent, a golden delicious, a McIntosh, two crab apples, and one unknown variety, possibly a Baldwin; there is also a pickling pear by the kitchen door. We have planted two semi-dwarfs: a golden delicious and a Harrel red, and some dwarf ornamentals. The great sovereign in the center of the orchard is a hardy Wolf River we estimate at a century old, standing 25 feet high and spreading nearly as broad. Every other year it bears bushels of large, clean apples, very good for pies and sauce, though not good keepers. Every year I have pruned these trees, keeping their tops down and training smaller branches so air and sun can reach leaves and fruit and keep them healthy. Daily year ’round we walk past these ancient trees and greet them as fast friends while they first show spring green, then bud out, then bloom to buzzing bees, then bear fruit, and finally drop everything and go to sleep through the winter. Every fall we take some fruit and invite others to help themselves. These trees are now family. But more, they are emblematic of the best that humans can do with Nature. They are like the ever-bearing Tree of Life praised in scriptures and songs of all cultures for thousands of years. We care for the Tree of Life and it cares for us. How does this work? In winter, eating one good apple provides enough energy for one man to prune one tree. That tree in turn may yield 100 to 500 or more good apples. In fall, eating two good apples provides enough energy to pick the fruit. The equation here is simple: In a year we spend three apples and receive 100 to 500. The lesson is also simple: Nature will provide generously for us from herself so long as we humans are willing to work with her. So we did for thousands of years. Yet, in just a few generations these ancient ways have been widely abandoned. Today, modern agriculture expends two to ten calories of fuel energy to produce only one calorie of food energy. It’s easy to see that we have lost the way. But, hey, an apple a day keeps the devil away. There are hundreds of old apple trees nearby. Care for them. There are scores of small farms nearby. Support them as though your life depends upon them. Because, most assuredly, one day soon it will. Seedpod to carry around with you “You don’t need a weather man,” sang Bob Dylan, “to know which way the wind blows.” Field and forest report, late March One night about this time last year a puny little fox wandered through our yard looking for the scraps we throw out by the garden. His coat was dingy and his tail was tattered. This year the crows sit grimly in the trees and wait for a little cracked corn to tide them over through blustering March. With heavy snow cover and cold weather, winter is hard for all creatures, great and small.' Meanwhile, Blue Hill village could just as well be called Blue Jay village these days. Their calls echo from the treetops, sometimes harsh, sometimes sweet and trilling. They strut around under the bird feeders like Napoleonic infantry with their blue tailcoats, white-and-black trim, and plume-crested heads. They rant and jeer at each other like soldiers on leave. Blue jays are related to crows and have similar habits, being intelligent and social, and liking shiny things. They are also known to use tools to help them gather food. Some dislike jays as nest-robbers, but the Cornell Ornithology Lab reports that fewer than one out of a hundred blue jays are found to have eggshells or young birds in their stomachs. Others hate them for their raucous chatter, but they are also capable of lovely, liquid songs at this season. Henry David Thoreau credited blue jays as the planters of our temperate forests, stashing thousands of acorns and other seeds that sprout and fill vacant lands with new hardwood seedlings. Starlings, red-wing blackbirds, and grackles are also returning to town, ganging under the feeders and singing sweetly from the treetops. These birds of differing feather will flock together for several more weeks until nesting begins and they pair off within their respective tribes for the spring and summer. They will not flock together again until the fall to prepare for their migration southward.
Awanadjo Almanack March 2010
Market report While we are still in the process of cleaning up after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, your commentator naturally wants to cut through the doom and gloom a little. My mother-in-law, well over 90 years old, once said to me, “Rob, the good thing about the Depression was that people looked after each other.” If any good can come of the current crisis, this may be it: that the spirit of neighborliness is revived. In our town there’s free soup at the Congo Church sponsored by the food pantry and the co-op. Many of our towns and churches now have heating funds to help keep everyone warm. There is not much worse than the thought that your neighbors may be shivering. Of course, the Tree of Life food pantry is doing a brisk business serving up to 200 households a week with groceries, and many more with good used clothes. The goal is to insure that no one on our peninsula needs to be cold or hungry. Last year South Portland changed its ordinances to allow people to keep a few hens in their backyards, as was common before WWII. This results in exchanges of eggs and information about chickens, not to mention plenty of hands-on learning for children. And the chickens are endlessly entertaining. Our daughter’s family has hens, and we bring home several dozen of the best eggs every time we visit. Never mind “Survivor” and other “reality shows” on TV. There’s an actual reality show going on all around us, and we all can be survivors if we’ll look after each other. Last year, feeling the first flush of spring fever, I did my part for the economy. I went out, got a loan from the bank next door, and bought a new used pick-up at a decent price in Ellsworth. Next thing I knew, the stock market went up for the longest stretch in months. Your turn to help jump-start the economy. From the bookshelf Those who love our small coastal towns will appreciate Maine Street: Faces and Stories from a Small Town, by Patrisha McLean. Becky and I both read it cover to cover within a day of receiving it. The interviews are poignant and powerful, and the portraits are stunning. It reminded me about what I love about this place even at the ugliest time of the year. Thanks, Pat, for this stirring testimony to the wisdom and true beauty of our neighbors. Natural Events, Mid September Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, is a familiar climbing vine with rich yellow-and-orange berries that cling fast after the leaves have fallen. It is beloved by flower arrangers and crafters everywhere for making wreathes and other fall decorations. The berries are also beloved by starlings and bluejays, who devour them and then spread the seeds far and wide through their droppings. The vine grows vigorously and climbs aggressively up trees of every kind. Its thick foliage can block the sun from a host tree, and its strong stem can strangle its host to the point that the host is weakened and finally dies. Most agree that bittersweet is an invasive species that should be controlled to maintain the health of local plant life. This can be done by cutting the vine as near to the ground as possible, as often as necessary. Field and Forest Report, Mid September Cooler nights are arriving, with some full-moon frost in the north and mountains bringing red, yellow, and orange to the leaves. Early apples are coming in, including gravensteins with their tart taste and soft flesh, perfect for applesauce. It looks like a short crop in our little orchard this year, but you’re welcome to them. The last monarch butterflies of the season are winging their way southwesterly over land and water to wintering grounds in California and Mexico. The fall warblers are stopping to rest on their southward journeys, too, as Canada geese are gathering in the fields to chat awhile before their departure. Acorns are falling and bouncing off our heads as we walk along under the mighty oaks. And see the profusion of white and purple asters coming into bloom along roadsides and in un-mowed fields, announcing the arrival of autumn. Field and Forest Report, Late September Wild blackberries are still ripe in certain places, large and juicy due to the wet weather. What a rare and delightful explosion of flavor on the tongue, and you can chew on the seeds all day. More seedpods to carry around with you From Charles Dickens: “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold; when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade.” And from St. Francis: “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” That’s the almanack for this time. But don’t take it from us—we’re no experts. Go out and see for yourself.
Yr. mst. hmble & obd’nt servant,
Rob McCall

Rob McCall is the minister of the First Congregational Church, Blue Hill, Maine. This almanack is excerpted from transcripts of his weekly radio show, which can be heard on WERU, 89.9 FM Blue Hill and 102.9 FM Bangor, and streamed live via Readers can contact him directly via e-mail:

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