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Awanadjo Almanack - Issue 116

Blue Hill: the Town, the Bay, the Mountain

By Rob McCall
“Summer is a promissory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before
you know it, and due to be repaid next January.”
—Hal Borland

Dear Friends: At this time of year on the coast of Maine we feel the real heat of an old-fashioned summer, like the endless summers of childhood sliding so slowly away around mid-August on sinister notices of “Back-to-School” bargains at the 5&10, with sales on pencils, notebooks, and lunch boxes. The heat and humidity, with the occasional steamy thundershowers on simmering stones and streets, finally warm us like a sweaty summer sauna, driving out the accumulated chill of winters past, and draping distant ridges and hills in a warm fog ’til they seem so soft and far off. The last lone crystal of ice has melted from the marrow of our bones, and we are warmed all through. The water of the ponds feels like a bath. Even the water of the bays has less startling chill as it stings with salt every cut or scrape on the skin. We slow down, we swelter, and we love it. Field and forest report, early August Black-eyed Susies are showing their faces sunward in orangey swards in the fields. Queen Anne’s lace adds its delicate decoration. Shocking pink fireweed is blooming to the point of its steepled stalks and putting out its thin red seedpods below. Raspberries squish soft and sweet on the tongue, leaving seeds between the teeth to be teased out and eaten at our ease. Blackberries bulge. On blueberry barrens, rakers labor away, swinging their tines between lines of white twine. Apples are sizing up and, like us, showing some red on their sunny shoulders. In the morning, dewy, gossamer webs of Agelina nivea are spread out over the stubble now that the haying and mowing are nearly done.
MackrelIllustrations by Candace Hutchison (3)
Saltwater report, early August Just below the surface mackerel are fleeting and flashing silver flanks to the sun. Mackerel fishers line the docks and breakwaters, casting again and again. Gulls, terns, and cormorants throw back their heads as their catches slide slickly down their throats. Sandpipers and yellowlegs strut along the shores, raising their feet as on a hot sidewalk, then fly off all piping together in squadrons skimming over the waves. Sweet, hot, moist summer: Wondrous summer. Natural events, late August Stressed trees—like stressed people—are more susceptible to pest and disease damage. You may find the fall webworm at work on your wild cherry or other hardwoods. This hairy pest weaves a thin web over the tips of branches, unlike the eastern tent caterpillar, which makes a heavy web in the crotches of branches in the spring. The maple “tar-spot” fungus (genus Rhytisma) damages Norway maples all along the downeast coast, though some trees seem to be immune. I have seen two Norway maples so close together that their branches intermingle, one badly damaged by tar-spot and the other unblemished. Fortunately, most damage occurring this late in the season will not kill the tree, though it may weaken it somewhat. Most experts recommend no treatment for webworm, and none for tar-spot, other than raking up and burning the infected leaves. But you better check with the fire warden about that. Field and farm report, late August
It is a cheering comfort to see all the bright colors at our local farmer’s market—fine, fat, red tomatoes and peppers, deep-green cukes and light-green lettuce, fuzzy orange peaches and shiny apples. It’s also a comfort to see the bright, new faces there. A number of new farms have sprouted up here in our neck of the woods over the last five years or so—mostly younger folks with little children and a distinctly rural look to them. They are learning from the older farmers how to grow food in the hard conditions of Maine; though most old-timers would tell you that winters today are neither as long nor as harsh as in former days. The growing numbers of young farmers are a good omen for the future of our species on the rock-bound coast of Maine and elsewhere. It is even more of a comfort to see them all smiling as they pack up their wares at the market at the end of the day. Rank opinion “The old order changeth, making way for the new,” wrote Tennyson. As our old oil-based economy is shaken to its foundations and begins to crumble around us, the new economy is slowly building up to take its place. New farms spring up close to home. Windmills and tidal turbines turn out clean electricity. Alternative therapies, once scorned, now take their rightful place beside faltering pharmaceutical medicine. Seedpods to carry around with you From William Ruckelshaus: “Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.” And from Francis Bacon: “We cannot command Nature except by obeying her.”
Driving along the man-made roads in our man-made cars seeing the man-made buildings and power poles and mailboxes, we feel trapped in a cage of our own making.
Natural events, early September Like life, late summer has its joys and sorrows. One of the joys is cloud-watching. No earthly landscape can match the majestic cloudscape. Summer clouds are magic mountain ranges, heavenly Himalayas and Rockies, Adirondacks and Atlases. There are dinosaurs, dragons, walruses, and whales chasing titanic flying ships with billowing sails, rising higher than the eye can see, and floating over the far-distant horizons in a matter of moments. They shift their shapes before our eyes. The fierce dragon becomes a puppy; the flying fish an angel. The ethereal dimensions these clouds inhabit are too vast for even our wildest imaginings to grasp. They are the dreams of the heavens that make fruitful life on Earth. And back on Earth, one of the sorrows of summer is the common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia. It might just as well be called “Hatchu,” because that’s what we hear from hay-fever sufferers when it’s in bloom. HATCHU! HATCHU! Ragweed is a small roadside plant with filigreed leaves and tall, spiky stalks covered with green flowers no bigger than peppercorns. It is related to the sunflowers, though it resembles them not at all. If you live in town, I’ll bet you can find plenty of ragweed within a few feet of your back door. Its volumes of pollen are the scourge of the hay-feverish from mid to late August right up to frost. And though there are countless folk remedies and pharmaceuticals that claim to help, that first hard frost is the only sure remedy for the Hatchus. Farm report, late September The 2012 almanacs are on the newsstands by now. The two oldest and best known are the Farmer’s Almanac, published in Maine, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, published in New Hampshire. They may be keeping each other alive by the sheer determination of each to survive the other. This reminds me of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Adams always wanted to outlive Jefferson. Adams’s last words, uttered on July 4, 1826, were “Jefferson survives?” But Jefferson had died earlier on the same day, which was exactly 50 years after the day they had both signed the Declaration of Independence. Field and forest report, late September The colors are beginning to turn, with red maples starting to flame out and sugar maples going to orange and yellow. Fall migrations are under way, with geese heading south and the young of forest creatures moving to new territories and crossing the roads at night. Be alert, drivers. Keep your speed down and your eyes open while driving in the dark.

The view from the mountain marinates the soul in a smoky sauce of equal parts awe, nostalgia, and sadness, with an added measure of peace.

Mountain report, late September Awanadjo—Blue Hill, “Small Misty Mountain” in the Algonkian language—looks the way a lot of us feel at this time of year. The hordes of tramping summer visitors are gone, and we and the mountain are a little weary and worn. Now school buses roll into the parking lots and laughing children pour out to explore the autumnal mountain’s mysteries and make memories that will last them their whole lives. As we started up the mountain with friends last year at this time, we found a Bangor Theological Seminary hat hanging on the signpost at the head of the trail. One of our party wore the hat to the East Cliffs and back, and then hung it again on the sign-post, feeling quite theological and spiritual the whole time. Wild speculation Might be good if our president, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, treasury chairman, federal reserve chairman, and our numerous candidates for public office were to don that hat one by one and climb the mountain on a beautiful fall day to survey the scene. Might give them a little less party spirit and a little more holy spirit. Might give them a little less heart for politics and a little more heart for people. Another seedpod to carry around with you From Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We are reformers in the spring and summer, but in autumn we stand by the old. Reformers in the morning, conservers at night.” Field and forest report, early October This is the time of year when hunting season begins—moose, deer (bow hunting only; later, firearms), bear, partridge, quail, wild turkey, among others. For hunters and non-hunters alike the appropriate fashion statement is blaze orange from head to toe, indoors and out. The sugar maples are already decked out in theirs. Unnatural events Perhaps you heard about the Maine hunter who was badly mauled last year by a 365-pound black bear on the first day of the season for hunting bear with dogs. According to the Bangor Daily News the hunting party was reportedly wondering just what could have caused the bear to attack so ferociously. Wild speculation I’m no expert, but perhaps being attacked by four men with eight baying hounds, and being shot several times with hunting rifles, could have set the bear off a little. It would me.

It is comforting to know how many yearn for a closer walk with Nature.

Mountain report, mid October The view from the mountain marinates the soul in a smoky sauce of equal parts awe, nostalgia, and sadness, with an added measure of peace. The colors of the birch, ash, maple, and oak in the chilly white October light bring whirling visions of those we knew in autumns past tumbling through our memories like glowing leaves torn from the trees by the north wind. Driving along the man-made roads in our man-made cars seeing the man-made buildings and power poles and mailboxes, we feel trapped in a cage of our own making. But seen from the mountain those man-made devices disappear into small, rough spots in the vast expanse of forest stretching away to the north, south, and west all the way to the horizon, lost under a spreading quilt of orange, red, and brown being slowly drawn over the land as it prepares for a long and peaceful sleep. Saltwater report While whirring wind turbines disturb dreams elsewhere, we hear about progress in tidal-turbine development for the generation of electricity. This proven design might remind you of huge old-fashioned reel mowers anchored to the bottom of tidal channels to generate clean power silently and invisibly on both the ebb and flow of the tidal current. Eastport is a great place to start, but there are many other tidal channels along the coast that might be suitable too, from Bath to Bucksport to Blue Hill Bay to Taunton Bay.
Field and forest report, late October We have flocks of finches at our feeders these days. The fall mushrooms are still springing up everywhere with astonishing variety, while the grass continues to grow, and white and purple fall asters flourish along with butter & eggs and other hardies not bothered by frost. The shocking red of burning bush in yards and gardens, and blueberry and huckle­berry leaves in the fields and fencerows, is brighter than any hue mere mortals have yet concocted, and sears the eye with its splendor. The sweet perfume of wood smoke now greets us mornings and evenings as the frost comes more often and the breath of on-coming winter is in the air. Natural events, autumn Those of you who have followed the Awanadjo Almanack for the last several years will remember that it is a continuing story of trying to feel at home in Nature and breaking down the wall of hostility toward the rest of Creation. Your commentator has had some successes at this calling, and some resounding failures, often in the same day. Butterflies or dragonflies sporting in the clear air can send him into fits of ecstasy, while a nest of yellow jackets can send him for the hornet spray. Wildflowers in grassy fields will find him charmed and delighted, while the same in his front lawn will find him riding over them with his Cub Cadet. A chipmunk under the birdfeeder will set him to clucking, but a mouse in the silverware drawer will set him to setting a trap. He may never see a poem as lovely as a tree, but he will never see his woodshed empty come fall, either. “Child of earth, yet full of yearning, mixture strange of good and ill,” goes the hymn by Curtis Beach. Meanwhile, I have witnessed unmistakable overtures toward me by other creatures when they feel safe enough: The crow that calls “Hello” when it hears a human voice; the chickadee that takes seeds from your hand; the red squirrel that scolds you for walking in the woods; the dog that reads your thoughts; the dragonfly that lands whirring on your shirt and turns its strange face toward yours. These are the few brave creatures that are breaching the wall from their side, just as we are from ours. The wall still stands, but the gate is ajar, and passage back and forth is easier now. It is heartening to hear from you—as I do all through the year—about your similar struggles in living on and from and with the earth in some measure of harmony. It is comforting to know how many yearn for a closer walk with Nature, a calm and earthly frame, and how many are finding it. Do send your comments to me via the form at the end of this column. More seedpods to carry around From Robert Browning: “Autumn wins you best by this its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay.” And from John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace, as I have seen in one autumnal face.” 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 a journalist, naturalist, fiddler, and for the past 22 years, has been pastor of The First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, Maine, UCC. Readers can contact him directly via e-mail: or post a comment using the form below.

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