The Town, the Bays, the Mountains
—Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941
Summer for some is a time of lazy leisure, but for many others it’s the busiest time of the year. Among our kind, we think of busy farmers, gardeners, fishermen, carpenters, landscapers, construction workers of all kinds, and people in service jobs who work hard for people for whom summer is a time of leisure. All of these workers are running from pillar to post this time of year, although maybe a little less so than some years because of the pandemic.
Our winged friends are busy now, too, raising their young. The neighborhood crows are feeding their new fledglings, as are birds of many other kinds. All day long, the crows take the popcorn we throw out for them. They fill their beaks with it, fly to the watering trough and dip the corn in the water to soften it, then bring it to their young who wait with mouths open and heads back, even though they look nearly full-grown— like some teenagers we have known. For their part, these crow young have a lot to do, too. They are learning how to fly, how to converse in Crow, and how to find their way around the fields and woods while hawks circle overhead looking for something young and tender to eat.
The hummingbirds are constantly at their feeder, taking sweet nectar to their nestlings all day. Our six-legged cousins are active, too. Most insects winter over as eggs. This means that they have a short Maine summer to hatch, go through several stages of development to adulthood, and lay their own eggs before the weather gets cold again. Busy, busy, busy.
Field and forest report, July
The grasses and flowers of the field are also busy. They must grow to maturity, present blossoms that attract pollinators, then mature their seeds and send them off into the world some way, by bird or burr or squirrel before the snows come. Trees are maturing their fruit, and isn’t the recent rain just what is needed to make the apples nice and juicy? Blueberries, too. With a Maine growing season of just over four months, there is no time to lose. The pandemic seems to have accelerated a notable trend in agriculture country-wide. There is a greater interest in locally-grown vegetables and meat, and small farmers are hustling to keep up with it, adding to a trend that has seen local food production double in the U.S. in the last five years. We are fortunate in Maine to have more and more small farmers bringing good food to the market.
We tend to think of plants as being motionless unless blown by the wind or moved by some other outer force. Then maybe we happen to walk by a clump of daisies a few times and notice how their faces follow the sun across the sky. Or we watch the tall sunflowers in our garden do the same, turning, turning through the day, adoring their deity. Even slower is the movement of climbing plants in our gardens; pole beans, grape vines, morning glories. When we walk through the garden in the dewy morning, we notice that they are not holding the same position they were the night before. Time-lapse video shows them reaching longingly up and out in all directions, and then wrapping themselves around a twig or pole or arbor as they climb higher. These plant motions are slow and graceful, but they are most certainly movement.
For his whole life, Charles Darwin was fascinated by the motion of plants. His next to last volume was called The Power of Movement in Plants and published in 1880. Plants that move! What next? Plants that think? Plants that feel?
The many foggy mornings in our bays and inlets have provided a dramatic backdrop for the coastal day-sailor or kayaker adrift on the great sea. The last 20 years have seen a sharp increase in recreational small craft plying the waters, from kayaks to peapods to dories, many of them handmade. People who love going out on the water on their own are a particular breed, and many are acutely aware of the damage industrial society has inflicted on the seas and sea creatures. Many sailors and paddlers have widened their circle of compassion by calling for cleaning up the oceans and protecting the thousands of creatures who make the oceans their home.
Natural events, August
The dependable, predictable annual turning of the seasons can be comforting these days when so much else seems unpredictable. It’s a steadying reminder that there is a whole lot going on out there that is largely free and independent of our human foibles and follies. Now we see the Dog Days fade into the past for another year and the first few hints of fall begin to appear. As good as they are for ripening the squashes and tomatoes, your commentator is not a great fan of those hot, muggy days. When the temperature, the humidity, and your age are all over 75, a work day may consist of two hours of labor early and late and the rest of the day spent moving your chair around to catch a little breeze and some shade.
The hot weather also brings out our late summer companions, the crickets and grasshoppers. Crickets are especially endearing with their shiny armor as black as night and their plaintive tunes played deep in the grass. Are they sending messages to each other or just enjoying the music, as we do? Maine has several types of grasshoppers maturing about this time, too. Both of these little jumpers eat almost any organic matter, though grasshoppers tend to be vegetarian and crickets are omnivorous, eating other insects and even other crickets.
Field and forest report
The second wave of summer flowers, notably daisies and buttercups, now gives way to the next wave of Queen Anne’s lace, with tansy and shocking pink spikes of fireweed coming right along too. Fireweed gets its name for preferring burned-over areas, but once established a plot of these dramatic flowers will come back year after year in the same place, taking the breath away when suddenly seen around a corner in the trail.
Along the margins of the woods and into abandoned fields, meadowsweet and steeplebush raise the pink and white spires that give them their botanical name, Spirea. Soon we can expect to see goldenrod on every hand as summer nears its summit.
The shy Virginia rose is now in bloom; some call them rambling rose. Their single, pink blossoms with five smooth petals last only a day or two but their fragrance, compared to the smell of the showy hybrid roses in your garden, is like that of the finest wine compared to Welch’s grape juice. Look quickly or you will miss them.
Natural events II
One of the things you’ve got to love about the human race is how so many respond with instinctive compassion to animals in trouble. Over the past decade threats to honey bee and monarch butterfly populations have inspired Americans by the thousands to study, keep, and protect bees, and to plant milkweed in their gardens for the monarchs to feed upon. And sure enough, last summer we received reports of monarch sightings for the first time in many years. Bees are still in trouble, but action is being taken world-wide and you can help by planting bee-friendly flowers, buying local honey, and calling for the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides.
For the last several years in midsummer there have been reports of a jellyfish invasion in Maine with large numbers of these strange creatures floating close to shore. The Gulf of Maine is home to several species of jelly. The orange lion’s mane jelly can range from the size of a dinner plate to several feet in diameter. A specimen was recorded on Cape Cod in 1870 that was nearly eight feet in diameter with tentacles over 120 feet long, which may be the longest animal ever recorded—and the lion’s mane does sting. This is the stuff of nightmares. The sting is like that of a bee, or like a swarm of bees. They can be painful but rarely fatal to a healthy person. Remedies include vinegar and meat tenderizer. Serious stings should be seen by a doctor. The white cross jelly and the moon jelly both are just a few inches in diameter, nearly transparent, and don’t sting. To unexpectedly paddle or sail through a flotilla of these sea-borne creatures can be an unforgettable experience.
Here are animals so different from us as to seem entirely alien: no eyes, no faces, no legs or arms or feet, no fur or hair, no front or back and yet there they float silently and contentedly feeding on plankton and thinking not a thought, like some primitive and archaic idea from the mind of the Creator made flesh and set loose to swim for eons slowly and majestically through the deeps, sojourners like us on a watery planet.
Seedpod to carry around with you
From Anais Nin: “The dream was always running ahead of me. To catch up, to live for a moment in unison with it, that was the miracle.”
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 lives in Brooklin, Maine. This almanack is excerpted from his radio show on WERU FM, which can be streamed on weru.org.