The Catbird Haunt

My house sits on a peninsula of sorts, the last house on the street.  There’s a gully behind the property with a small stream running through it.  This overgrown, marshy gully is the playground of woodchucks, squirrels, and the occasional deer.  I’ve seen a roving gang of raccoons passing through my yard on their way to the gully and places unknown.  There’s a lot of birds, too, and they start singing at about the same time the newspaper arrives.

This peninsula is wild and forlorn in its way, even though the busy highway is only about 300 yards from the house.

I’ve been aware of the birds since I moved in, hearing them in the morning or in the quiet times after dinner.  But I’m no bird watcher and it wasn’t until a friend visited and said “wow, you’ve got a lot of birds in your yard” that I began seeing individual birds and noticing their differences.

My awareness of their winged omnipresence has made the birds of my neighborhood excellent company during the many long, lonely hours I’ve spent in the garden this summer.  The goldfinches travel in pairs where they briefly perch in unlikely places like the long stems of tiger lilies and Echinacea.  The stems sway precariously against their slight weight and pressure; the birds seem to enjoy it, like a carnival ride.

It may very well have been the same goldfinches who broke a few branches of the volunteer sunflower tree.  I spotted one landing happily on a branch and the next day I found the snapped branch on the ground.  I staked the remaining branches to preserve the plant.

My favorite feathered friend is the grey catbird.  According to Stan Tekiela’s field guide, Birds of Maine, the catbird is a “secretive bird that the Chippewa Indians named Bird That Cries With Grief due to its raspy call.  The call sounds like the mewing of a house cat, hence the common name.  Frequently mimics other birds and rarely repeats the same phrases.”

One day I looked out the laundry room window and saw a cat bird peering in at me.

It’s a common phenomenon for grieving people to consider birds embodying the spirit of dead loved ones.  The naturalist Ernest Ingersoll, in his 1923 book Birds in Legend and Fable, wrote there was almost a universal belief that birds were visible spirits of the dead.

As I look out the kitchen window, I see a small grey bird in the blueberry bush.

“Catbird, is that you,” I ask.

In this long summer of grief, my haunting by the catbird has been a pleasant respite from sadder thoughts.

Posted in Weather and Seasons | Tagged , ,

Somewhere in Bucksport

Late yesterday afternoon a high school classmate stopped by my house with some money for his reunion tickets.  I hadn’t seen him in a long time and while he looked almost the same as when we graduated from high school, I didn’t recognize him at first.  We got caught up a bit, talked about all manner of things from legalized marijuana to historic houses.

He had lived in Stockton Springs, a small Waldo County town on the road to Bucksport.  I mentioned my recent visit to the area and my meandering about the neighborhood surrounding the public library.  The area is a marvel of historic houses.  Not all were in pristine condition, but most were intriguing.

I wish I had taken more pictures of this house.  The center chimney isn’t centered and that’s curious.

What is that sound?  Oh, damn.  I hear the responsibilities of the day creeping up the staircase.  Time’s up for imagining and dreaming about a peaceful life behind the Palladian window.

Posted in Lady Alone Traveler | Tagged ,

On the Peninsula

I promised my friend Jaxon I would work the word “hobo” into a blog post this week.  Yesterday morning, I woke up to the sound of ocean waves hitting the prehistoric rocks of the Schoodic peninsula and there were no hobos in sight.  There was only fog and the throaty hum of lobster boats heading out.

Along the roads in that world, blueberries grow.

Back here at home, there’s a Schoodic-like fog this morning.  It’s good for remembering and contemplating the time away.

In my travels, I found Louise Dickinson Rich’s 1958 book The Peninsula.  It begins with these sentences:

“Most of us, I suppose, at one time or another experience a longing for another way of life.  Suddenly our days and our energies seem to be expended on trivia.  We are overcome by a sense of being alien, of not belonging in the world in which we find ourselves, of being out of step with the times and out of sympathy with the attitudes that we encounter.  We are hungry for the fundamentals—for the satisfaction of wresting food from the stubborn earth, of raising our own rooftrees with our own hand, of combating successfully man’s implacable, hereditary foes, the wind and the weather.  We suffer a great nostalgia, which means a sickness to return home.”

There’s no time today for writing more about the land of rocks that fall from the sky, ship captains, and Daughters of the American Revolution.

The latter, from my introduction to them, certainly do not fall in the category of hobos.

Posted in Lady Alone Traveler | Tagged , ,

On the Cutting Room Floor

On this year’s summer solstice, I attended a “farm-to-table dinner” at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.  Apparently, “farm-to-table” is a “movement” that began somewhere in California in the early days of the 21st century.

A June, 2015, Vanity Fair article by Corby Kummer suggested the “movement” was poisoned and it was time to end it.

I don’t pay much attention to waxing and waning food trends.  I feel sorry for men and women whose finicky palates are so jaded they cannot briefly enjoy the beauty and delight of a plate of fresh peas served al fresco summer after summer.

With such an attitude, I may never win a James Beard Journalism Award.

Nevertheless, Graze at Pineland Farms, now in its fifth summer, was lovely and delicious.  I covered it for the Sun Journal and my article will run in this Sunday’s “B” section.  I managed to interview a number of interesting food lovers during the social hour and sat at a table of delightful men and women, some of whom did consider themselves “foodies” upon questioning.  Due to the space limitations of the paper, some of these interviews ended up on the cutting room floor.

I enjoyed meeting the Black Tie Company’s owner, Christine Weber.  Black Tie has been in the catering business for 30 years and Weber said putting on a five-course dinner under a tent was not a difficult task for her chef and staff.  She said “in 30 years, we’ve seen everything.”  She said the task of cooking outside was like going camping and forgetting a can opener.  Weber says the average camper asks themselves “how can we open this can” while the Black Tie team are “the ones who can figure out how to do it.”

Naturally, I asked Weber about my own entertaining nemesis, Martha Stewart.  Weber said Stewart’s 1982 book Entertaining was the first book she read on the topic.  She said it was a helpful volume as she launched her business and described Stewart as a consummate expert across all areas of entertaining.

What most impressed me about Weber was her passion for her business.  She described how she’d diversified into different catering areas over the years to grow the business and move it beyond the seasonal, weekend driven model.  She saw this as a way to hire people who could work for her year-round and by doing so, she could have a loyal and passionate staff.  She is relentless about attention to fine details and wants her customers to have a memorable experience.

My interactions with a number of Black Tie staff during the writing of my article confirmed Weber’s focus was successful.  My e-mails received a same-day response.  The staff I met at the event were helpful and pleasant and more importantly, extremely polite and professional.

One of the guests at my table, an admitted foodie who had recently eaten at Erin French’s exclusive and forever-booked Lost Kitchen in Freedom, missed one of the passed hors d’oeuvres.  A bacon, egg, and cheese slider on a biscuit with tomato jam.  She motioned for a server and asked if there were any left.  In less than three minutes, everyone at my table was enjoying this breakfast-like conglomeration, elevated to cocktail party darling by its diminutive size and a bit of jam.

And yes, if you were wondering, the food was very good.  Executive Chef Avery Richter, with Black Tie since 2013, dished up heaping plates full of delicious, course after course.  Hot food was hot, cold food was cold.

The next Graze at Pineland dinner is on Wednesday, July 26.  There will be three additional dinners on various Wednesdays through October 4.  Each dinner also features libations from a local brewery and live, farm-to-table appropriate music.

Bon Appetit!

Posted in Cooking and Food | Tagged , , , , ,

Fireworks and Fireflies

Yesterday was Independence Day, or the Fourth of July.  Fireworks are legal in Maine now and there were a variety of “do it yourself” firework shows around town.  Some I could see from my porch and others I could hear.  While manufactured pyrotechnics lit up the sky over the trees, fireflies sparkled here and there along the road.  My street was occasionally animated by crackles and booms from the Summer Street area of town; periods of silence and darkness were accompanied by crickets and the steady pulsing flicker of fireflies

In the garden, a volunteer sunflower grows.  While this particular Helianthus is an annual, occasionally a dropped seed will survive the winter and grow the following season.  This one is the branching variety, meaning it will bear numerous flowers instead of one large flower head.  It’s a green explosion and I’m anxious to see the bloom’s type and color.  Sunflowers are August’s garden fireworks.

I like fireworks, both manufactured and natural.  According to Wikipedia, fireworks were invented in China during the 7th century.  I guess that means they’re nothing new under the sun.

The Tiger lily is another fireworks-like flower, bursting with color and spirit in time for the Moxie Festival.  Here in the three villages of Lisbon, along with Tiger lilies, we’ll have Moxie fireworks on Friday evening.

Contrary to myth and meme, the festival is shaping up to be outstanding.

It will be absent the “unofficial mayor of Moxieville,” Frank Anicetti.  Anicetti, a local icon, died this past May.  As Moxie maniacs know, Anicetti did not open his store for 2016’s celebrations, strategically retiring amid much fanfare just days before the festival.  Interestingly, Anicetti alluded to his departure from the Moxie scene as early as 2014, when he was interviewed by writer James Sullivan for an article featured in The Boston Globe’s July 10, 2014 business section.  That year, longtime festival coordinator Sue Conroy died just weeks before the Moxie began flowing.  Sullivan wrote “her passing triggered more speculation about the future of the festival, which has weathered recurring scrutiny as it threatens to outgrow the town.”  Anicetti told Sullivan in an interview “there are things happening this year.”

Anicetti was a storyteller, that’s for sure.  In spite of “things happening” the 2014 Moxie Festival was very good.  The weather was perfect, crowds thronged the shabby streets  of town, and the talented Lakeside Lutheran marching band was just one attraction that pleased visitors and locals alike.

The 2017 festival’s theme is “Moxie Salutes the Red, White & Blue.”  Retired US Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills will be the parade’s grand marshal.  Mills, a quadruple amputee who survived an IED explosion while on active duty in Afghanistan, will also have a booth downtown during the festival.  Parade Chair Gina Mason says the parade will “probably be the biggest we’ve ever had.”  The criteria for parade excellence, as many know, is whether or not one can smoke two cigars during the event.  At least that’s the criteria former Moxie Festival organizer Noyes Lawrence uses.  “Two stogie parades” measure up.  I asked Mason if this year’s parade would be a “two stogie” event.

“You be the judge,” she said.  “Bring at least a couple.”

And the Moxie Store?  Anicetti sold it early in 2017 to an enterprising team of locals who completely gutted it and repurposed what Globe writer Sullivan described in 2014 as a “ramshackle store” with “bananas in the window and a selection of old-fashioned candy hanging on peg hooks.”  Tony and Tracy Austin, or Lisbon Pride, LLC, have accomplished much in the 60-plus days they’ve owned the real estate, converting it into a pub called “Frank’s.”  When I ride my bicycle to the post office, I look at this miracle with wonder.  The building itself, never much architecturally, has shaped up into a small town work of art.

Not too shabby anymore.

If you’re planning a visit the sleepy little town along the Androscoggin River for fireworks, fireflies, or Moxie, you be the judge of all these things.  And don’t forget your stogies.

Posted in You've Got Moxie! | Tagged ,

Deconstructing Ugly

I was very busy last week.  I spent my free time in an old building, dusting and decluttering a collection of archival artifacts.  I went to a “farm to table” dinner and talked to more than a few foodies.  I chased stories for the Sun Journal‘s Basilica series and I had the distinct pleasure of walking with an old friend, talking about beauty.  As I sit here composing this post, I’m untangling some ugly green metallic string I bought 20 years ago.

Behold the beautiful dish of whipped butter.

Gaze upon the simple ceramic ramekin, the workhorse of the restaurant world.  Imagine the soft, rich goodness of the butter, extended and enhanced by whipping with chives.  Meditate upon the simplicity of the purple flower, adorning this delicious creation.

It was so beautiful I took a picture of it.

Today, it’s not easy to label things as “beautiful” or “ugly.”  I’m not suggesting it is always one or the other.  Sometimes there are gray areas of simplicity, utility, and form which transcend labeling.  Consider the plain coffee mug, which provides the early morning jolt and is then whisked lovingly into the dishwasher.  It is not ugly or beautiful.  It is purposeful.

Although it’s not politically correct to label things, we all know something beautiful when we see it.  (Notice I said “politically correct” and not “polite.”  There is a difference here as well.)

Yesterday, I found my copy of The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr.  Wharton, a lover of the beautiful, once described the exterior of her Newport house, Land’s End, as “incurably ugly.”

What a refreshing time that must have been, to say it like it was and have no fear of social media reprisal, job loss, and shaming.  I often wonder what Edith Wharton would say if she were time-traveled into 2017.  Would she boldly tell it like it is and address the “incurably ugly” things all around us?  According to Jonathan Franzen’s 2012 New Yorker article written in celebration of Wharton’s 150th birthday, Wharton was “hostile to the rawness and noise and vulgarity of America…she was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella.”

Franzen made the mistake, early in his essay, of writing “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”

This sentence, early in the article, unleashed a furor of op-ed pieces.  You can search the internet yourself and see things like “Jonathan Franzen is a sexist!” and “Jonathan Franzen is a pig.”  Perhaps, somewhere in the lower intestinal tract of the internet, someone even said “Jonathan Franzen is literally Adolph Hitler.”

I have a 1994 illustrated biography of Edith Wharton, written by Eleanor Dwight.  I’ve looked at its portraits and candid photographs of Wharton; the formal images are limited.  Many are blurry.  Edith Wharton was plain; she was not celebrated for her looks.  She was celebrated for her writing.  Franzen celebrated her writing in his article, too, but I don’t know how many critics read beyond his faux pas.

I’ve read four of Wharton’s novels.  I enjoyed them and would read them again, time being of no consequence.  I’ve referenced and skimmed The Decoration of Houses, but reading it completely now is important as I contemplate my summer historic house visits.  Wharton’s volume kicks aside other nightstand books by Henry Beston and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Ugly, isn’t it?

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Echoes of Maine

In February of 2016, I took a trip to Aroostook County.  It was a whirlwind tour and I absorbed as much of the County as I could in the 48 hours I spent in that remote part of Maine.  In a card shop somewhere along the way, I picked up a copy of Echoes magazine.  Billing itself as “The Northern Maine Journal of Rural Culture,” it was edited and published quarterly by Kathryn Olmstead.

Olmstead, a transplant from Michigan, is a former associate professor and dean of journalism at the University of Maine at Orono.  She taught a class called “Newspaper Design” that I took my senior year at the stein-raising state university.  I am not sure how Olmstead got from Orono to Caribou, but she began editing and publishing Echoes in 1988.

The magazine is well-designed, thoughtfully composed, and carefully edited.  It’s not flashy, trendy, or slippery shiny like other magazines of Maine.  It features poetry, photography, fiction, and regular columns.  Its purpose, in part, is as follows:

“…the magazine focuses on positive values rooted in the past that have relevance for the present and the future.  Echoes suggests that knowledge of rural experiences can help us live in modern society – that there is permanence in the midst of change and value in remembering our roots.  Echoes is a portrait of home, whether home is a place or a time, a memory of the past or a vision of the future.”

When I returned home from the County, I subscribed to the magazine.

Yesterday, I got a photocopied letter from Kathryn Olmstead, announcing the upcoming issue of Echoes would be its last.  Olmstead wrote:

“Despite the enthusiasm of Echoes readers and our genuine pleasure in giving voice and visibility to writers, artists and photographers since 1988, the realities of the marketplace have finally forced us to cease publication.”

Although I don’t know Olmstead personally, all the visible evidence of her work in the magazine and her articles for the Bangor Daily News suggest she is not impulsive.  Her writing is steady and solid; if that’s any sign of her character, I imagine she’s been considering the “realities of the marketplace” for more than one or two quarterly issues.

Subscribers’ remaining issues will be fulfilled with monthly copies of Maine magazine, published by the Maine Media Collective.  Maine magazine, from my skimming of it, covers the north and easterly corners of the state as regularly as Down East magazine.

You know, endings and conclusions are difficult.  As a writer, I always struggle when I get to the end of a blog post, a newspaper feature, or even a personal letter.  Sometimes, I don’t have enough information or expertise to reach a conclusion.  Other times, I think my conclusions are wrong, based on a lack of information or expertise (see previous sentence).  My feedback loop makes for lousy endings.

Nevertheless, please don’t mistake my silence for a lack of thought, emotion, and opinion.

It’s the first day of summer here in Maine…radishes, ripening blueberries, and rose Campion flowers are in abundance as I contemplate the soon-to-arrive last issue of Echoes.

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