All posts by Laurie Graves

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

From the Water’s Edge

Unless the weather is very bad, each day the dog and I take a walk to the Narrows, which comprise two large and lovely ponds, the Upper and the Lower Narrows. In truth, both Narrows are big enough to be mistaken for lakes, and in some parts of the Lower Narrows, the water reaches a depth of one hundred feet.

The Narrows are about a quarter of a mile from the little house in the big woods, and sometimes it takes the dog and me over an hour to go there and come back home again. This is not a walk for exercise—for that I ride my bike—this is a walk for me to look and take pictures and for the dog to sniff and pee.

Why are people drawn to water? Is it because our bodies contain so much of it? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%.”  That’s a lot of water in one body.

Is it because we instinctively know that water is essential to life, and we are therefore attracted to lakes and rivers?

Whatever the case, many, many people feel the pull of water, and in Winthrop, essentially a bit of land surrounded by lakes and ponds, the population swells in the summer as people come to stay in camps and seasonal homes. The inland influx of people doesn’t compare to to the coast’s influx, but the population increase is noticeable to Winthrop’s merchants, and it really helps them get through the year.

Taking pictures of the Narrows while walking the dog is a tricky affair, and as I’ve noted previously, only a small camera will do. The retractable leash is locked short, and I hold it between my knees when I take pictures. In the winter, gloves must come off, and this further adds to the merry confusion.

Yesterday, I took the following two pictures on our walk:

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Here is a picture from today’s rainy walk. (This one’s for you, Shari Burke.)

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I’ve been thinking of doing a series of photos called From the Water’s Edge. Clif and I will be participating in a number of craft fairs this fall and winter, and I was thinking the Water’s Edge pictures could be framed and displayed all together on one of the stands Clif has built. Clif has some good water’s edge photos, too, and his could be added as well. Naturally, I would also make cards with the photos.

Often the edge of water—ponds, lakes, rivers, the ocean—is the most interesting place to take pictures. The angle combined with the shoreline plants, rocks, logs, and various other items make for good composition in a picture.

The edge is also a good place for a writer (and a photographer) to be, gazing outward, seeing the view from many angles.

 

Heading Toward Mid-August

We are heading toward mid-August, that sweetest, saddest time of the year when the crickets sing, and summer is winding down. Now it is dark at 8:00 p.m. rather than at 9:00, and to borrow from the writer Susan Cooper, the dark is rising. All around Winthrop, people are rushing to squeeze as much as they can out of the last weeks of summer.  Family and friends from away come to visit. Barbecues are planned. Ditto for bike rides, boat rides, hikes, and swimming.

Little Winthrop, population circa 6,200, has an action-packed weekend coming up. On Saturday, there will be the annual Winthrop Art Fair, and Clif and I have a spot selling photographs and cards. After the fair the Winthrop Rotary will host its annual Family Barbecue & Gumbo to End Hunger. (The proceeds go to various agencies, including the Winthrop Food Pantry.) Clif and I went the year before last, and the food was fantastic. If we’re not too zonked after the Art Fair, then we’ll go this year, too.

On Sunday, the Feather Lungs, a rock band, will be performing at lovely Norcross Point at 2:00 p.m., and featured on bass will be none other than our library director, Richard Fortin. Clif and I are hoping to go to that, too.

In my own backyard, the gardens are starting to look a little tattered, the way they always do this time of year. However, the flox are coming into bloom, and because I am so flower obsessed, I just had to take a picture of them.

IMG_6327I also caught a picture of this woodpecker, and although it is not what you would call a really good photo, it’s not too bad, given I took it with my little Cannon.

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My three main obsessions seem to be flowers, food, and birds, and the Narrows—and indeed nature—could be considered my muses. As always, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to live in Winthrop, with the glittering Narrows just down the road, flowers all around, and the backyard aflutter with birds and insects.

In the next few weeks, as August winds down, I’ll be trying to squeeze as much as I can out of this most lovely month.

 

Cellar Envy

Saturday was a whirlwind of a day where I got up, got dressed, went to the transfer station, stopped at Farmer Kev’s stand for, among other things, red potatoes, went to Hannaford, came home, met Shannon’s new dog, Somara, made a salad with with roasted beets, roasted walnuts, feta, dried cranberries, and romaine, went to a picnic to meet darling baby (and she is a darling!), came home to thankfully discover that the three dogs—Somara, Holly, and Liam—left alone had been as good as can be, brought raspberry bars and other items to the library event at the high school, and came home to fix an anniversary meal for Shannon and Mike. Phew! I was bushed by the time it was all over.

Now, you would think Sunday would have been a day of rest for us, but it was not. Next Saturday is the Winthrop Art Fair, and Clif and I—of Hinterland Photography—will be there selling cards and framed photos. There was—and still is—much to do.

Our friends Dawna and Jim generously agreed to let us use their canopy, and yesterday afternoon we went to their house to fetch it. While we were there, Dawna showed us the little studio she has set up in her cellar. Dawna is an accomplished photographer, and she especially likes still life photography, which to my way of thinking is a difficult form. On the face of it, it seems that nothing could be easier than throwing a few things together—say, a vase with flowers and some rocks—and taking a picture of them. The objects don’t move. The light doesn’t change. But go ahead and try it and see what you get. Every bit of background clutter can find its way into a still life, and while the light doesn’t change, normal lighting in a house tends to be either too dark or too bright. I’ve tried many times to get a good still life picture on our dining room table, and most of the time I’ve failed.

In her cellar, Dawna has a big screen for a backdrop, and she has various lamps and flashes for lighting.  The secret, I think, to taking a good still life is that there has to be a lot of control in the surrounding environment. (Sometimes, of course, you can get lucky and stumble onto a situation where the light is gorgeous, and the display is pleasing. But those times are the exceptions rather than the rule.)

As Dawna showed us her little studio in her cellar, I looked around. The floor was painted and very clean. Everything was stacked neatly on shelves or tucked away in drawers. There was not a cobweb in sight. The same was true for Jim’s side of the cellar, where he keeps his big saw and tools. For Jim, too, is not only an accomplished photographer, but he is also very handy.

Readers, I am not ashamed to admit it. I had cellar envy. The cellar at the little house in the big woods is cluttered and cobwebby. The shelves are either rusted metal or sagging chipboard, and they are just begging to be  replaced. And the floor, well, let’s not talk about the floor. Alas, Clif and I are not as neat and tidy and organized as Jim and Dawna.

Ah, well! We admire it others, that’s for sure, and we do what we can to stem the tide of uncontrolled clutter and cobwebs. But at best it’s a draw.

 

A Finest Kind of Day for Mundane Chores

Finally, on the eighth day of August, we have weather that is so sunny, fine, and dry—hot but not too hot—that it makes you glad you are in Maine and nowhere else. The past two two days have been rumbly, rainy days, clearing the way, apparently, for this glorious weather, which is supposed to be with us for the entire weekend.

Just seeing the bright, blue sky energized me, and a good thing, too, because the weekend is full of busy plans—a picnic where I get to meet a darling baby for the first time; a bake sale for the library addition; and a meal to celebrate Shannon and Mike’s fourth wedding anniversary.

Yesterday, I felt dragged down by all these plans, but today, by gum, I am raring to go. And in keeping with this fine day, we had a delivery of wood, five cords, and that alone would have been enough to lift my spirits. Yes, stacking and hauling wood is hard work, but it means we will be toasty this winter, and we won’t be facing $600 a month heating bills, as we did last winter. (And that was with the thermostat set at 60 degrees.)

Oh, you wood pile!
Oh, you wood pile!

As I happily surveyed the wood, I glanced at the front yard, which seemed suitably perky on this lovely day. (It helps that at a distance I couldn’t see the holes and shredded leaves left by the munching slugs and snails.)

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This afternoon, I’ll be roasting some of Farmer Kev’s beets to go on the salad I’m bringing to the picnic. (The salad also will have lettuce,  feta cheese, roasted walnuts, and a homemade vinaigrette.) After the beets are roasted, I’ll be making raspberry squares for the library bake sale.

Shopping for Shannon and Mike’s anniversary meal will have to wait until Clif comes home from work tonight, and I can use the car. The anniversary meal menu: Fruit, nuts, and grilled bread for appetizers; red potatoes, corn on the cob, and grilled steak for the main meal; and cake for dessert.

Here are some lines, written by my friend Burni, who sends regular dispatches from Down East, and they express exactly how I feel. Today she plans to go to the dump, pick green beans, and scrub the attic floor: “You know me well enough by now that you shouldn’t be shocked to learn that mundane as these tasks might appear, I find today’s prospects very pleasing. So I’m easy to please. ”

That, to me, is the secret to a happy life—enjoying mundane tasks. Because let’s face it, most of us have days filled with mundane tasks, and if we don’t take some kind of pleasure in them, then life is very dreary indeed.

Last but certainly not least—in keeping with the notion of enjoying mundane chores—it is a great day for hanging laundry, which I did earlier. What a pleasure to see the laundry flapping on the line as it dries in the warm breeze.

 

August 6, 2014: A Rumbling Kind of Day

Suspicions confirmed. The loon was too far away for me to get a good shot with my little Cannon.
Suspicions confirmed. The loon was too far away for me to get a good shot with my little Cannon.

Yesterday was a rumbling kind of day, with blue sky alternating with dark clouds and rain. In between rumbles, the dog and I walked to the Narrows. On the Upper Narrows, quite close to shore, I saw a loon. I took a picture of it, but I didn’t have any great hopes that the picture would turn out well. Although the loon was not far from shore, it still seemed too far away for my little Cannon.

Once again, I chafed at my camera’s limitations, and I longed for a better camera with a proper telephoto lens. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have brought such a camera—which would be bigger and heavier than my little Cannon—on my walk. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle both it and the dog. So under the circumstances, it was foolish to wish for a better camera. Nevertheless,  I wished anyway.

On the Lower Narrows, a cracked branch with some orange leaves dipped over the water.

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In a small boat, two young men were fishing.

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Between my creaky knees and the dog’s desire to sniff and pee, our progress was slow. It took us well over a half hour to go a half mile. Never mind. With the Narrows glimmering and rippling on either side of the road, who wants to go fast anyway?

The beautiful Lower Narrows
The beautiful Lower Narrows

 

The Library Addition Will Be Coming Soon!

img_4201Last night, the Winthrop Town Council gave its official approval for the bid of the construction of the Bailey Library addition. Hooray, hooray! Work will begin in the next month or two.

To say I am thrilled does not adequately describe how I feel. Along with many other hard-working volunteers, I’ve been working on this project for several years. We all firmly believe that Winthrop will benefit greatly from having a larger library. The current one is stuffed full with books, and it is so cramped for space that it is difficult to hold events at the library. Whenever I go to Bailey, it is busy, busy, busy, thus disproving the notion that in this age of electronic reading devices, libraries are a thing of the past. Not in Winthrop they aren’t! And if they are relevant in Winthrop—which is a macaroni and cheese kind of town—then they are relevant everywhere.

This project has had its ups and downs, and most of the problems have revolved around money. Winthrop, like many other Maine towns, has suffered during the recession, and unfortunately the state government made the situation worse by cutting the amount of revenue it gave to the town.  Understandably, there was great concern in Winthrop about the cost of this project and whether taxpayers would be footing the bill.  The campaign team spent a great deal of time reassuring the community that the money for the addition would come from donations and grants.

By the time we had our kick-off celebration this May, it was obvious that most of the fears had been quelled and that there was huge support for the addition.  Since then, the project has taken on a happy momentum as one milestone after another has been reached, with the latest being the bid approval by the town council. They didn’t even need to discuss it, and the motion passed without discussion.

On a personal note, I have to add that I can’t imagine what I would do without the library. Our modest budget does not allow for the purchase of many books, but thanks to the Bailey Library and interlibrary loan, my intellectual life is well nourished. From the library, I get a steady supply of books and DVDs, ten or more every month. Some of the books I read from beginning to end. With others I only read a few chapters before deciding the book is not for me. The library gives me the freedom to do this, to take a chance on a book, to sample it before deciding whether I want to finish the book.

I know there are many others in town who are like me—readers on a modest budget. They are one of the reasons why I have worked so hard on this project (although admittedly not as hard as some people have).

Then there is my rather high-blown concept of libraries—that they are a force for good, that they represent everything that is fine about our species. Libraries encourage thought, speculation, creativity, and freedom. They are a town or city’s most precious asset, and they are open to all residents. Repressive regimes almost always target libraries, and sometimes they are literally burnt to the ground. Then there are the brave souls who anticipate this and hide most of the books before the terrible deed can be done.

Anyway, long live libraries in general and Bailey Library in specific!

 

 

Farewell, July!

IMG_6243July is leaving us, and even though some of the days were too hot and humid, I am sorry to see the month end. As we edge into August, night is coming sooner and brings with it a certain chill. The crickets have begun singing, and I even saw an orange-tinged leaf in the backyard.

But Farmer Kev is now bringing us string beans and new potatoes, which Clif and I eat greedily, almost all of them in one sitting. Soon Farmer Kev will be bringing corn and melons and tomatoes, so there is much to anticipate.

But still! One more month of beautiful summer. One more month of hummingbirds. A little longer for the loons on the Narrows. I am not sure when the hermit thrushes leave. I’ll listen this year and note when I can no longer hear their ethereal song.

In the meantime, the flowers are still abloom, and I can’t stop taking pictures of them. Summer hasn’t left us yet.

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Can Everyone Have Forty Acres?

I read a blog called Ben Hewett written by, well, Ben Hewett. He and his wife, Penny, live, farm, and raise their two sons on forty acres of land in Vermont. Hewett’s blog chronicles his rural life, and he does a fair amount of philosophizing as well. Hewett has a strong writing voice, firm and vibrant, that keeps this writer reading.

Sometimes I agree with Hewett, but often I don’t, and this sets in motion a one-sided discussion where I reflect on what he has written. In truth, that is one of the reasons I read his blog because in my solo arguments with Hewett’s take on things, I clarify my own thoughts.

In his latest post, “Something to Chew on,” Hewett writes about poverty and the notion that poor people need more money. On the one hand, Hewett does realize that in our current society, people do need a certain amount of money, but he perceives that the real problem is “that these families simply don’t have the resources to prosper outside the moneyed economy. They don’t have access to land.”

In the piece, Hewett also notes that last year his family officially went below the poverty line, but they do not consider themselves poor because they raise so much of what they need, which is a bit unusual today, but not so much when I was growing up. “We can live this way because we have land and because on that land, we have cultivated both the soil and our skills.”

In one sense, Hewett is right. Being able to produce much of what you eat certainly means you do not have to spend as much money at the store. Hewett and his wife work hard, as do their sons, and they have created a healthy, satisfying life for themselves, even though they are officially poor.

But does this mean that his own solution—farming on forty acres of land—is the catch-all solution for everyone in Vermont, in this country, in this world? It can’t be. There isn’t enough arable land for everyone to have his or her own forty-acre spread. There are simply too many of us on this planet.

According to the World Bank, there are .51 hectares of arable land per person in the United States. This comes to a little over an acre per person. In theory, all families could have between two and four acres on which to grow things, but that wouldn’t leave any arable land for forests or wildlife  or crops that require space. Or livestock.

Let me be clear. I do not begrudge Hewett and his family their forty acres. I am only saying that it is not sustainable for everyone to have this. In fact, it isn’t sustainable for everyone to only have his or her own acre.

Then there is a the matter of temperament.  We are not all the same. Not everyone is suited to be a farmer, and to work at something that doesn’t suit you is a misery.  Some people are keen to teach or be librarians, to be nurses or doctors, to be social workers, to make jewelry, to perform, to dance, to paint, to write code, even to work in a restaurant. The list goes on.

So in principle I agree with Hewett that becoming more self-reliant—cooking, growing your own food, knitting, sewing, home repairs—is a good thing. But I also believe that there are no substitutions for economic justice, for a living wage, for fair taxation, for social services, for all the things that truly do lift people out of poverty.

 

A Summer Evening in Late July

Bee Balm
Bee Balm

Last Saturday, the evening was as fine as only an evening can be in Maine in late July. It was warm, but not too warm. Clif had just mowed the lawn, and the backyard was filled with the wonderful smell of newly cut grass. I puttered in my gardens, pulling a few weeds, nipping spent flowers. Landing on the blue bird bath, a gold finch first fluttered in the water and then drank.

We had invited our friends Paul and Judy over for homemade raspberry ice cream, and when they arrived, I asked, “Outside or in?”

“Outside,” came the prompt answer.

The better to admire the bee balm and the daylilies as we sipped iced tea and ate homemade ice cream.

“I really like those daylilies with the red center and the pink surround,” Paul said.

Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras Parade

The lilies—Mardi Gras Parade—are indeed lovely little flowers.

“Would you like to have some?” I asked. “They need to be divided. I’ll give you some next year, if  you like.”

“I’ll put it on the calendar, so I can remember,” Judy said.

“And don’t hesitate to remind me,” I said. “I never mind being reminded.”

Judy laughed and said she would.

As we ate, hummingbirds came to the feeder and the bee balm for their evening meal. Dusk settled over the backyard and with it came the dampness. We all agreed it was time to go inside for some hot tea, but how good it had been to sit outside on the patio as we talked, ate ice cream, and looked at birds and flowers.

July, When Fecundity Peaks

IMG_6223In Maine, where the seasons are so sharply defined, each month has its own special characteristic, and for July it is fecundity. I was reminded of this yesterday when the dog and I took a walk to the Narrows Pond. Around my head buzzed tiny flies. Larger but still small insects dotted the water. Up and down they went, in some kind of dizzying dance, and occasionally a fish rippled the surface. Dragon flies darted in unison over the Narrows, over the purple flowers of a water plant whose name I don’t know.

All around me is life, life, life, with the insects, plants, and creatures taking full advantage of this warm time. Flowers are in bloom, along the roads and in gardens. Tiny cucumbers are ready to be harvested. Fledglings have begun leaving the nest, and in our backyard at one of the feeders, I have observed what looked like one adult woodpecker feeding another adult.  I am certain this is not the case, but rather a parent still feeding “junior,” who is not quite ready for independence.

Yesterday two crows hopped around the backyard, one crow feeding, the other crow following with its mouth wide open. The feeding crow did not oblige, figuring, perhaps, that it was time for this junior to strike out on its own.

July. One day it is brutally hot and humid, but then a storm comes and clears the air. Sometimes, the windows stay open at night, and sometimes they must be closed. The days are still long enough so that Clif and I can easily go for a bike ride when he comes home from work.

We are edging into buzzing August, one of my favorite months of the year, when the humidity leaves, and fine, dry weather settles over the state, giving tourists the illusion that they have somehow wandered into the Mediterranean.  Even the light seems more golden, more luminous.

We Mainers know better, but we, too, bask in the illusion, preferring not to look ahead to the long dark and cold.  And in late July, with the promise of August just around the corner, the life cycle seems in full swing, filling my senses with its promise and heartbreak.