All posts by Laurie Graves

I write about nature, food, the environment, home, family, community, and people.

Louise Dickinson Rich: The Virtue of Being Useful

IMG_7289Lately, thanks to my friend Mary Jane, I have been on a binge of reading Louise Dickinson Rich, whose We Took to the Woods was a back-to- the-land anthem well before the 1970s, when the movement became a trend in Maine. (And what a welcome trend it was. Thanks to all the young people who moved here in the 1970s, we have a flourishing organic gardening community that nurtures young farmers.)

In We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich wrote a meandering but lively account of living in the backwoods of Maine with her husband Ralph Rich. Conditions were basic—no running water, no electricity—and money was often tight as Rich and her husband scrambled to earn a living through writing and various jobs associated with the backwoods. What comes through in We Took to the Woods is not only a zest for life but also a great desire to be useful.  Living as she did, with her husband and children, Rich felt that she was essential to the well being of her family, that her work and effort, along with that of husband’s, kept the little family afloat.

After reading We Took to the Woods, I wanted to learn more about Louise Dickinson Rich. Therefore, I turned to Alice Arlen’s biography of Rich—She Took to the Woods—where Arlen not only writes about Rich’s life but also includes some of the author’s essays and letters.

Louise Dickinson Rich lived a long life—she died when she was eighty-seven—and in a letter to her friend Hortense, she writes movingly about one of the greatest losses that comes with old age. That is, of not being useful anymore. “Growing old is not easy, I have found. I, too, have twinges of regret when Dinah [Rich’s daughter] and her family take off on an expedition leaving me home alone….Alice [Rich’s sister] and I were talking the other day and both agreed that one of the hardest things about being old is that one feels so useless, with nothing to offer. But I guess that nothing can be done about that except to try to learn to adjust and accept gracefully. Which—for me at least—is damned difficult.”

Being useful, much like the freedom to be weird, sounds like faint praise. There are so many other things we could be: beautiful, kind, rich, athletic, artistic, good with our hands, a good cook. If someone said, “Laurie, you are so useful,” I might first wonder if the speaker was being ironic and then wonder if that was the nicest thing that could be said about me.

But if we think about it a little more, it doesn’t take long to realize that while being useful might be a modest, homely virtue, it is indeed a  virtue. When a person is useful it means she is contributing something essential to home, work, or community. She is needed. Her usefulness means the work gets done and because of this there is less chaos, less stress. Being useful often means you can work as part of a team, where even more can be accomplished, especially if others on the team are also useful. (Unfortunately, I have had the misfortune of working on committees with people who, to put it mildly, were not useful. It was a real misery.)

Being useful also brings meaning to a life. I am convinced that one of the reasons why teenagers in this country have such a hard time is that they are not useful, and they know it. They are stuck in a sort of limbo—no longer a child, not yet an adult—with no sense of purpose to order their days. The very rich can have this problem, too, with day after boring day stretching ahead of them.  Is it any wonder that drugs and alcohol are often used to relieve the tedium?

So lets hear it for being useful, and may we be useful for as long as we can.




An Anniversary Trip to Portland, Where We Walked on the Beach and Ate Mussels

IMG_7942On Thursday, Clif and I will celebrate our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. Yikes! We certainly have been married for a lot of years.  To celebrate, on Monday Shannon and Mike invited us over to their home for a dinner of mussels, crusty bread, and salad.

A trip to Portland usually means a trip to Trader Joe’s, where I stock up on such things as cruelty-free laundry detergent, shampoo, and toothpaste. Because it was a Monday afternoon, the store was fairly quiet, which meant we finished our shopping sooner than we had anticipated. We had over an hour before we were supposed to be at Mike and Shannon’s. Although I knew we could stop by anytime, I also know how inconvenient it can be for guests—even family—to arrive early and interrupt the hustle and flow of getting ready.

“Why not go to Crescent Beach for a walk?” Clif suggested.

Why not, indeed? The day was reasonably warm, the sun was shining—at least some of the time—and wonder of wonders, it wasn’t snowing. For me, unless the weather is terrible, a walk on the beach is always a good thing.

“Great idea!” I said.

Crescent Beach is one of my favorite beaches. It isn’t grand and doesn’t have the broad sweep of, say, Popham. But except for one Inn, tucked discreetly away from the beach, it is undeveloped.  No condos crowd the sand. No board walk.  No hot dog stands. No honky-tonk. Instead, there are rocks, sky, sand, flats, and water. Just the way I like a beach to be.


On Crescent Beach Clif and Liam ranged ahead, while I walked by the water’s edge and looked for pretty shells, rocks, and sea glass. Especially on an anniversary walk, I like to bring home something from the sea.

Clif and Liam on the beach
Clif and Liam on the beach


After our walk, we headed to Mike and Shannon’s, where we had delectable mussels, crusty bread, and an herb salad. I ate too much but it was so good.


In honor of our anniversary, Shannon and Mike made a donation to Good Shepherd Food Bank, which does so much to help alleviate food insecurity in Maine.

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned how that on an anniversary walk, I like to bring home something from the sea. On yesterday’s walk, I was lucky enough to find a sand dollar and a piece of sea glass.

A lovely reminder of a lovely day.


March Doldrums

Last Wednesday, I made granola bars, and I forgot to add salt. I also forgot to turn down the oven after I roasted the oats. On Saturday, I made chocolate cream pie in honor of pie day, and I didn’t add enough sugar or cornstarch. Clif has been sick, and the dog is so restless that he constantly runs down the cellar stairs so that he can wait by the bulkhead, which leads to the backyard. I let him out, and a few minutes later, he barks to come in.

I chalk it all up to the March doldrums. Yesterday, here was the view from my front porch.


More snow. Enough to shovel. Enough to make the road a mucky mess, yet again.

However—and I always like to look on the bright side whenever I can—even though they were overcooked and didn’t have any salt in them, Clif loved the granola bars. I was able to salvage the chocolate cream pie by adding more sugar, and Clif is feeling a little better. (Liam, on the other hand, still longs to be outside.)

March marches on, as it always does. But we are half way through.

April is just around the corner, and in Maine, it is definitely not the cruelest month. Not by a long shot.

The Freedom To Be Weird

IMG_7931Several years ago, an acquaintance called and asked me if I would be willing to take a short poll about Winthrop. I said yes. He asked me several questions and ended with the big one, “What is it you like best about Winthrop?”

I thought for a few minutes. “What I like best about Winthrop is that you can be as weird as you want to be, and as long as you don’t hurt anyone, nobody bothers you.”

The man laughed. For reasons that I won’t go into, he knew exactly what I meant.

Now, I realize this sounds like faint praise that perhaps doesn’t acknowledge Winthrop’s other fine features: its lakes, its woods, its library, its schools. It is also a safe town with a responsible and pragmatic police department. These are all important things.

But the freedom to be as weird as you want to be is a very great freedom indeed. This means you never have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses. Or anybody else for that matter. If you wear scummy jeans to Hannaford or to Rite Aid or to the library, nobody gives you a look that indicates you should have thought twice before stepping out of the house. You can drive an old car. You can bike all over town, and people think it’s cool. Heck, you can even ride your bike through the drive-through at the Credit Union, and the teller will smile at you. (I mention the this because unfortunately, Winthrop is not a biking community where such transactions are taken for granted.)

Another biking story. One day, I rode my bike in the rain to the Winthrop Food Pantry, where I was volunteering. When I got there, I was a little dishevelled, and I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and fluffed up my hair. Unfortunately, I did not look at my backside until I got home, where I discovered  a line of mud that went from my butt all the way up my back from where the rear tire had splattered me. Nobody said a word. Nobody even gave me a funny look. They just came along with me to select their food.

Do you make bread and crackers? Good for you. Do you buy most of your clothes at thrift shops? So what. Are you a liberal black man in this mostly white and somewhat conservative town? Then you just might get elected to the State House of Representatives.

I credit this live and let live philosophy, which can be found in many other towns in Maine, to our Yankee heritage, which encourages a high tolerance for eccentric—aka weird—behavior.  Again, as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you are free to be as unconventional as you want to be.

In Frugalwoods, a blog I follow, Mrs. Frugalwoods wrote about how she has had to work through worrying about what other people think and about living up to societal expectations. Because of this, nothing she did was ever good enough, and she writes, “I was stressed, anxious, preoccupied with doing ‘the right thing,’ and out of touch with who I really am and what actually makes me happy. I wasted so much time, energy, and creativity worrying about what people might or might not be judging me for.” At the ripe old age of thirty-one, Mrs. Frugalwoods has made much progress with this ultimately self-defeating attitude.

Mrs. and Mr. Frugalwoods are considering a move to Vermont, another Yankee state that has a high tolerance for eccentricity. The Frugalwoods dub themselves as “frugal weirdos,” and I’ve no doubt that Vermont will let them be as weird as they want to be.

Just as Maine would.



Signs of Spring

Another walk without hat or gloves.

On the side of the road, next to the hard, dirty snow, the water has begun to flow in little rivulets.


Up above, a hint of buds.


And, as always, the crow flies.


More light, more warmth, more melting. Spring is eight days away.

Not Flowing Yet

Yesterday, the dog and I went for a walk to see if Mike was tapping the maple trees. Not yet, although the taps are in place.


On Monday when I spoke to his wife, Claire, she told me that it is still too cold for the sap to flow. Right now there is just the barest trickle.

Soon, very soon, it should be warm enough for the sap to flow. On yesterday’s walk, I became so warm that I actually had to take off my jacket and cinch it around my waist. There the jacket stayed until I got home, where I discovered the temperature had reached fifty degrees. That’s a first for this year. No wonder I was warm. Also, I have decided I no longer need to wear jeans over leggings when I go out. The jeans alone will do just fine.

On the walk, I noticed a few other things:

A robin in a tree.


The beech trees still haven’t shed last year’s leaves.


The beauty of a bare birch against a blue sky.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but in Maine, March is not the most photogenic month. Unless you look up. Then you can see the sky and feel the warm sun on your face.

Good lessons for getting through what can be a dismal month.

Coyote Tail

IMG_7865Last Friday, the dog and I walked to the Narrows on a windy afternoon. I heard a flag pole rattling, which reminded me of the Police’s “King of Pain.” There were lots of people ice fishing on the Narrows, and trucks were parked along the causeway. The dog and I had to brush against the trucks as we passed. Otherwise, we would have been in the middle of the road. Because I had to walk so close, I couldn’t help noticing that in one truck, a full coyote’s tail hung from the rear view mirror.

As a lover of all creatures canid, it pained me to see that tail, to think of how that beautiful animal was no longer running through the forest, possibly in the woods behind my house. Naturally, this is all speculation. Who knows where that coyote was killed?

But why kill a coyote? Why kill a bear for that matter? Or any other animal that you are not going to eat? On the way back home, I reflected on hobbits, who never hunted for sport. If only humans would follow their example.

I thought with sorrow about the coyote tail for the rest of the day, and I have come to the conclusion that the older I get, the softer I have become. Why this should be, I don’t know. It seems to me that age should harden us to the cruel ways of the world, but somehow, at least with me, it hasn’t.

When I was eight, my family moved to North Vassalboro, a small rural town outside of Waterville. Our house was on the edge of the town and the countryside. Many people had gardens, and some had cows as well. Back then, animals were killed regularly and without much thought. If a raccoon came into the barn, my father shot it. If our neighbors had too many kittens, they were shot. We had chickens, and I saw my father kill them. While I didn’t necessary like all this killing, it seemed to me a fact of life.

Even though I still live in a rural town, I have moved away from this killing, both directly and indirectly. Our diet is mostly plant based. We occasionally eat chicken—every other week or so—and once in a while we eat fish. But mostly it’s vegetables, with some dairy and eggs.

I suppose the urge to hunt, to be a predator, is a part of our ancient heritage. It still runs strong in some people. But where does it end? Raccoons, kittens, chickens, coyotes, other people, the land, the water, the planet. Does killing ripple ever outward?

Restraint is a word most of us don’t like. It implies a Puritanical, joyless approach to the world. But with so many of us on this planet, if ever there were a need for restraint, it is now.

Until the ice goes out on the Narrows and the fishing stops, I think I’ll walk the other way, to where the trees will soon be tapped for maple syrup. That way, there will be no brooding all day about an animal that once ran in the woods and whose tail is now used for decoration.



Not Quite Spring

Beautiful March sky

Yesterday, the dog and I took a walk to see if Mike—of Mike’s Maple Sugar House—had started tapping the maple trees not far from our home. It feels like maple syrup weather. The days are relatively mild—in the thirties and forties—and the nights are cool—twenty or a little below.

Up the road we went. The snow is still deep, but it has begun pulling back from the road, leaving a sandy mess that collects on the dog’s paws. As we left the woods and came to the fields, I heard a male cardinal singing his spring song. To me, it seemed a little early to be setting up housekeeping, but I suppose the cardinal was just thinking ahead, perhaps trying to get a jump on other male cardinals. A lovely song on a day so warm I didn’t need to wear a hat.

The snow has pulled away from the road
The snow has pulled away from the road

Liam and I rounded the corner, and one neighbor was visiting another neighbor in his driveway. The visiting man called out, “The weather’s getting pretty warm. Soon you’ll be on your bike.”

“I can’t wait,” I replied. “It’s been a long winter.” In the driveway was a snowmobile in a trailer. “But maybe not so long for you with your snowmobile,” I said to the owner.

The owner shook his head. “Nah. It’s getting old. I’m ready for spring.”

As are we all in central Maine. Nodding, I smiled and continued on my way. When I came to one of the spots where Mike taps the trees, I saw that there were no buckets collecting sap. Maybe next week.

Liam and I walked back home. In the apple trees by Cheryl and Denny’s house I saw a robin, and again I heard the male cardinal singing his song.

The apple tree sans robin
The apple tree sans robin

It’s not quite spring, but soon, soon, it will come.




Why Don’t Americans Eat Healthier Food?

IMG_7863Among foodies, there is a lot of hand-wringing about how Americans eat. The general feeling is that we eat too much of the wrong kind of food, which in turn makes us fat and unhealthy. Alas, there is some truth to this. We are an overweight country, with an increasingly large number of children suffering from obesity and diabetes. As anybody who shops regularly at a supermarket can attest, many of the aisles are filled with food that should only be considered treats to be eaten sparingly as they do little to nourish our bodies. (I also want to point out that there are good things to eat, too—fruit, cheese, vegetables, rice, rolled oats, beans. Somebody must be eating these things or the stores wouldn’t stock them.)

In addition, Americans are often chided for how little money they are willing to spend on food.  In Treehugger, Margaret Badore writes, “According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 6.7 percent of consumer expenditure went towards food in 2013. Compare that to 9.3 percent in the United Kingdom, 13 percent in South Korea, 15.7 percent in Brazil, 26.1 percent in China, and 29.6 percent in India.” (I keep close track of our household expenditures, and Clif and I spend 13 percent on food. I guess we’re above average in that sense.)

As someone who is, ahem, food obsessed, I think about these things, too. Why are we such a fat nation? Why don’t we spend more on food? Why don’t we eat better? We know better, and this is true for those who struggle with poverty as well as for more affluent folks. For many years, I volunteered at our local food pantry, and how grateful the recipients were when fresh fruit and vegetables were available.

First, let’s consider cost.  We have a government that subsidizes what has come to be known as Big Ag, those mega companies with their mega farms that grow vegetables—corn, soy, and wheat—that are not meant to be eaten in their original state but are instead processed with sugar, salt, and fat and many ingredients that are unpronounceable.  This type of food is highly profitable, and many people have a huge appetite for it.  (I don’t exempt myself from this group of people. If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit I have a weakness for Double Stuf Oreos.)

Nevertheless, despite the Big Ag subsidies and the relatively low cost of food, many Americans feel financially stretched, and cutting back on how much is spent on groceries is one way to trim a budget.

And why do Americans feel so financially stretched? Unlike most European countries, our government has been pretty stingy when it comes to subsidizing health care, transportation, higher education, childcare and affordable housing. These things take a huge chunk out of our budgets, to the point where there is often little left over for much of anything else. (I do want to note that Obamacare has mitigated much of the misery caused by lack of health insurance—I know a woman, pre-Obamacare, who lost her house because she had to choose between paying for cancer medication and her mortgage. She chose life.)

However, money isn’t the only way Americans feel stretched. We also feel stretched for time, and I expect this also has a big effect on how we eat. In most families, both parents work outside the home. They rush to get the children to school or daycare, they rush to work, and then they rush to get back home to their children, who might be involved with sports or other activities. We live in a rush, rush society where we always feel harried, where we barely have time to comb our hair much less prepare a home-cooked meal. And this is true for parents at every economic level.

To add to this harried feeling, Americans have fewer vacations than Europeans—the French pretty much take off the whole month of August. Indeed, many Americans—those who work in low-paying service sector jobs—don’t have any vacation time at all. The same applies for maternity leave and sick time.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many Americans feel stressed? Is it any wonder that so many people turn to fast food for both convenience and comfort? There it is, dinner in a box or in a bucket, with very little preparation required. After a long day of rushing, how soothing it is to eat that salty fried chicken or burgers and fries, washed down with a shake.

I have an immodest proposal. Actually, I have two immodest proposals. First, let’s take some of the money we use to prop up Big Ag, and instead use it to help small farms and to subsidize services that are for the common good—health care, affordable housing, public transportation, childcare, higher education. If people felt less pinched financially , then they just might be willing to spend more money on food.

Second, let’s give Americans more vacation time, more time away from work, more maternity and sick leave. If they felt less pinched for time, then they might actually find the energy to serve more home-cooked meals.

I am not optimistic that my immodest proposals will be implemented anytime soon. There is too much big money dependent on keeping things just the way they are. However, who knows what might happen if we spent more money on the common good and gave people more time off?

Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have such an obesity problem.






A Wall of Dirty Snow, a Flash of Red

When I look out my front window, this is what I see:

IMG_7843Across the road, a wall o’snow, mixed with dirt, sand, and gravel. Not exactly the most beautiful sight, that’s for sure, but oh so typical of early March in Maine.

Still, I’m not complaining. All right, maybe I’m complaining a little bit. Nevertheless, despite the ugliness of the landscape, there are things to be glad about. The zero degree weather has given way to twenty, thirty, and even forty degrees. Yesterday, it was so warm—comparatively speaking—that when I went out to play ball with Liam, I didn’t even need a hat. I was perfectly fine without one.

There is also a softening in the air, which I can actually smell. Very cold weather has a particular smell, as does warmer weather. I noticed this on Monday, the second day of March. I was in the backyard, and I just stood there, breathing in this softening. (Later, when there is mud, the backyard won’t smell quite as good.) In the afternoon when I did errands, I spoke to various people about this softening smell, and they didn’t look at me as though I were crazy.  Instead, they nodded and said they had noticed it, too.

Even though we are still buried with snow at the little house in the big woods, and even though the snow has lost its glitter and fluff, a good change is coming. It doesn’t get dark now until 6:00 p.m., and on Sunday daylight savings time begins, which means the dark won’t come until 7:00 p.m. For me, early darkness feels oppressive, confining, and the longer days are a sweet relief. I don’t mind losing an hour to get extra light at the end of the day. Not at all.

As a contrast to the view out front, here is what I saw when I looked out back yesterday:


A flash of red, a male cardinal, an infrequent visitor as cardinals prefer a more open landscape. How wonderful it was to have him in my backyard. I just wish I had gotten a better shot of him with my little camera. For a good picture of him, I need a sunny day, and on clear days, I will be on the lookout for this little beauty.

So, in front—a wall of dirty snow. In back—a flash of red. Ugliness and beauty sit close to each other. I accept one and rejoice in the other.