Welcome Downeast — Issue 161
The Town, the Bays, the Mountains
—Frances W. Wile, 1879-1939
Traveling through Blacks Woods we were left breathless at the deep yellows and glowing golds. The bright red leaves of the maples have gone by, and the pastel greens of the ashes too. But the golden leaves of oaks and beeches still hold on to soak up the light of the sun and shout it back out exuberantly. As the leaves from the hardwoods fall in the forest, mosses, lichens, and fungi enjoy their brief time in the light. They live in the shadows of their taller cousins all summer long, but now they have their moment of glory. Recent rains have added to their fall feast as they stretch and grow for a few brief days before the frosts stop them cold at last.
Wild turkeys are especially fond of red oak forests for the acorn crop and we have plenty of red oaks here in the Pine Tree State. We have a flock of 20 or more turkeys in West Brooklin busy foraging. Meanwhile, hackmatacks are turning to autumn gold, so striking against a blue sky it can take your breath away. They are preparing to lose their needles. Spruce and fir tend to grow ramrod straight, but hackmatacks like to grow a little curvy and sinuous, more like a dancer than a soldier.
Dandelions and yellow hawkweed were still blooming in sunny places this past week, still smiling despite an occasional frosting on the grass some of these mornings.
Natural events, November
November is the season for nuts—I’m referring to tree nuts here—and I feel it my duty to warn followers of this Almanack that nuts in general and acorns in particular, can be dangerous and that all due caution should be exercised around them. I speak from experience. One November years ago I was driving up Tenney Hill in my old truck with all deliberate speed (which means there was a line of cars behind me) and as I passed Virginia Whitney’s house I heard what sounded like gunshots very close by. I was picturing bullet holes in my truck, like Bonnie and Clyde, and wondering why usually mild-mannered Virginia would be shooting at me.
I pulled to the side of the road—much to the delight of drivers behind me—and stepped out onto a carpet of acorns on the pavement, very nearly falling as the acorns rolled under my feet. I grabbed hold of the door handle to steady myself and happened to notice some acorns rolling around in the back of the truck. Gradually the fog between my ears cleared and I realized that the “gunshots” had been acorns falling on the roof of my truck, and Virginia was quite innocent. Death and disaster avoided for the time being, I climbed back in the old truck and headed blissfully on my way.
Nevertheless, there are other ways acorns can be dangerous. Squirrels cut and drop acorn-laden branches from the oak trees so as not to have to climb the tree every time they want an acorn. These can hit you on the head and cause injury. Furthermore, wild turkeys, black bears, and even wild boars love acorns. You could walk out of your house and be attacked by a browsing wild boar or bear. There’s more: A heavy crop of acorns feeds more squirrels, chipmunks, rats, which in turn feed more hawks, owls, eagles, foxes, coyotes, and bears. Yikes!
So, fair warning, acorns can be dangerous. But remember they can also be amusing. An acorn cap can be turned into a terrific whistle, or sent whizzing like a frisbee with a snap of the fingers. And how many tea sets for fairy houses have been made from acorns, and how many pretend tobacco pipes?
Field and forest report
Acorns aside, the Maine woods also produce beechnuts, butternuts, and hazelnuts by the bushel. Right now, hibernating animals, particularly black bears, are fattening up on these fat and protein-laden morsels to get them through the long winter sleep ahead. White-tailed deer also browse on nuts this time of year and will even clean up all the fallen buckeyes under a horse chestnut tree, nuts which are shunned by most other animals because of their esculin, a poison. Despite the name, horses should not eat horse chestnuts, nor should sheep. Beechnuts and hazelnuts are favored by black bears, and they will consume bushels of them in the fall. And in every nut left behind, there is a forest waiting to come forth.
In her beautiful vision, Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, saw the whole Creation in a hazelnut held in her hand. In his brilliant mind, Stephen Hawking, the modern astrophysicist, wrote The Universe in a Nutshell, trying to capture the whole majestic sweep of the cosmos in just 224 pages. For centuries, mystics and scientists were often at odds, but as the 21st century opens out before us, they are coming together in ways not seen before, finding that “the original cosmic seed from which our universe sprang is a tiny nut,” to quote one Hawking website. They agree that the whole is found in each part and each part represents the whole; that the universe is metaphorical as well as mathematical; and that awe, wonder, humility and thankfulness are gateways to seeing it all.
Natural events, December
On a recent gray day the local turkey posse strutted across the road and browsed around under the Bartlett pear tree—lots of free frozen fruit there. The big birds looked huge and dark and prehistoric against the snow, all their subtle colors dampened by the black, white, and gray around them. They pushed aside the snow with their huge feet and pecked off pieces of pear with their heads tapping like feathered hammers on the ground, and they made satisfied sounds deep down in their long throats. On a bleak day there was something companionable about their presence in our dooryard.
As the days grow shorter still and the seasonal blues and blahs burrow in our souls, any engagement with other free, living things, unconnected to cell phones, smart phones, tablets, tweets, blue teeth, face books, or instant grams can be refreshing and renewing. It’s easy to get onto the Web these days, and just as easy to get terribly, totally entangled in it. It’s been demonstrated and proven time and again that a real walk in the real world—preferably the real and WILD world—is a foolproof, sure cure for what ails us. I know, we’ve all heard this before, but hearing is no good unless we’re doing it too. If the season gets us down, get up and get out. That’s the best medicine.
Field and forest report
It’s good to bring hand pruners or garden shears on such a walk. While we are out there breathing the fresh air and imbibing the elegance of the Creation, there are some things we can do to dress up the season. Cut some winterberry, Ilex verticillata, along the roadside for its bright red berries. You can pick off any leaves that still cling. This is Maine’s native holly and its bright red berries are well-loved by many birds. Fear not, a light pruning will make the bushes more fruitful.
Then maybe cut a few tips of balsam fir, Abies balsamea. If it is growing close to the road, you are doing the town a favor by keeping it cut back. Winterberry and balsam together can be fashioned into swags or wreathes for the door, or fragrant table arrangements. Their green and red stand for the survival of the plant and animal kingdoms through the coming months.
Also, birch bark can be collected to make simple cards or ornaments by trimming up pieces and scribing little messages on them, like “The light shines in the darkness” or “Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.” Leftover shreds of bark can be used to start the fire or mixed with some dried and crumbled sweet fern and cedar and burned as an unforgettable incense when company comes, or any old time.
These all make nice gifts too. All this from a fine holiday walk.
Seedpod to carry around with you
From Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’”
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. humble & obd’nt servant,
Rob McCall splits his time between way downeast on Moose Island and Brooklin, Maine. This almanack is excerpted from his weekly radio show, which can be heard on WERU FM (89.9 in Blue Hill, 99.9 in Bangor) and streamed live via www.weru.org. Share your acorn survival story with Rob at email@example.com.