Despite the gray days, there have been some consolations, and this purple finch is one of them. It’s nice to know that someone is enjoying lunch on the patio. As soon as the weather allows, I’ll be back to having lunch on the patio, too.
Another week of rain, and there is so much gardening to do. Knowing the rain was coming, I worked like a fiend on Monday, the only nice day of the week so far, and got most of my perennial beds uncovered from the brown winter leaves that blew into them last fall.
The thing about Maine, and perhaps northern New England, is this: Once it starts raining, it doesn’t have enough sense to stop. Yes, we need rain, and one rainy day is always welcome, especially this time of year. Two days are all right as well, but when the damp weather stretches on to three, four, or five days, then enough is enough. I know. I should be counting my blessings that I live in a state that has plenty of water. And mostly I do. But two weeks of rainy days, punctuated by a day or two of sun, can wear on a person.
Yesterday the rain stopped long enough—for the whole afternoon!—for the dog and I to go on a woods walk. It felt good to get out of the house, and the route I like best involves two long, steep hills. By the time I get to the top of the hills, my heart is beating fast, and I am slightly out of breath. Another bonus. Nature’s gym, as I like to say.
Even on a gray day, a woods walk is a sensory delight of sound and color. First, I was struck by the amazing bright green of the new leaves—color-crayon green, I call it—and the woods seemed lit from within. On one side of me, the Upper Narrows Pond was gray and placid yet slightly mysterious, a cool punctuation to that riot of green. All around came various sounds—the raucous, jungle bleat of the pileated woodpecker; the lonely yet lovely “where are you?” call of a loon; and the rushing sound of the streams as they bounded over rocks. I felt totally immersed in these sights and sounds. I was certainly in the moment.
Ahead and behind me, my dog, Liam, sniffed and left his mark. If I stopped too long to take pictures, he would bark at me. “Come on, let’s go.” But he was patient when I sat on a stump to just look and listen. I guess sitting, unlike standing, implies no movement.
Across from where I sat was a huge dark cavern made by the upended roots of a fallen tree. I started imagining what could be lurking beneath, an underground community of woodland sprites, with their own little busy lives and society. Or perhaps something more sinister, some kind of beast in its lair, a creature with red eyes and sharp teeth.
Time to go, I decided, and Liam concurred. We went up one of the big hills, out of the woods, and back to our snug, cluttered home. It was also time for tea—Earl Grey—and a snack—a few pretzels and an apple, bits of which I shared with Liam, who lay beside me on the couch. The orange cat was stretched out on my blanket-covered legs, and everything felt cozy and warm.
Gray days have their consolations, but I am certainly ready for a stretch of sunny days.
After a spell of very warm weather, which made everything green and hopeful, central Maine has had a stretch of gray, drizzly weather. Very discouraging for dogs and humans and disastrous for birds trying to feed their young. The flying insects lie low during chilly weather, and this means no food for baby birds. My friend Barbara Johnson often mentioned how hard this weather was on the young birds and how many of them didn’t make it if the gray drizzle continued too long.
My gardens desperately need tending, but I am reluctant to work in them when they are so damp, where I might run the risk of spreading disease. So what to do? Put on some sturdy shoes—I wish I had some wellies—and take to the woods.
Our house is surrounded by woods that are part of my town’s watershed. Those woods could never be called a deep forest, but they are lovely and green and have trails going through them. The trails edge the Upper and Lower Narrows Ponds, which, in fact, look more like lakes than ponds. The trails are far enough from the road so that my dog, Liam, can go off-leash and sniff and mark territory to his heart’s content.
Yesterday, we went on a woods walk, and even though the day was gray, there were things to see.
Everywhere there was water, and we had to cross several streams. Liam is not a water dog, and he always hesitates before getting his paws wet.
We were both happy when we came to a stream with a plank.
Into the forest we went, up a ridge that overlooked a ravine with a stream rushing through it. We tramped the woods for over an hour, and by the end, my feet were wet, and I was ready to head home for a cup of Earl Grey. But before we left the woods, there was one final treat—the ethereal song of a hermit thrush, a song I have not heard since last summer.
Spring is here, and despite the drizzle and the gray, it is most welcome.
I love animals and I have for as long as I can remember. Dogs are at the top of my list and so are horses, but not far behind come cats. I also like chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, and cows. Wild animals are a source of beauty and wonder for me, and I even have sympathy for the little creeping creatures that sometimes make their way into my house. Then there are birds, those fluttering beauties who grace the woods, the fields, and, best of all for me, my backyard.
Here’s a funny thing: I am quite claustrophobic, and I hate being squeezed in by people, which means when I go to the movies, I am not comfortable unless I sit in an aisle seat. However, I have no problem being squeezed by the dog and the cats, and often times, when I am reading on the couch, I’ll have a cat in my lap and a dog pressed up against me. Somehow, this feels cozy and comforting.
So, how does someone who loves animals so much eat them? Especially the ones who live miserable lives on factory farms, which are not only bad for the animals but are also bad for the environment? I’ve asked myself this over the years, and I have come to the conclusion that I am a very queasy carnivore who has more than once considered becoming a vegetarian. As a result of this questioning, last year my husband, Clif, and I resolved to eat mostly vegetarian, with meat added once or twice a week for a treat. We would, however, continue to eat some dairy and eggs.
I am happy to report that we stuck to our resolution, and our meat consumption went down tremendously over the year. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has been a tremendous help as have my Moosewood cookbooks. In the process, Clif and I discovered what we really already knew: There are so many wonderful vegetarian things to eat, and this variety means we don’t miss meat—at least not too much. But we both like meat—there’s no point in denying this—and we enjoyed our twice-a-week meat indulgences.
However, even this reduced meat consumption still made me queasy, and not long ago, I asked myself the question: What would you be willing to kill to eat?
I started at the bottom with clams, which I have happily dug without one twinge of conscience, and scallops, mussels, and other bivalves fall into the same category. Shrimp are a little higher up, but it would not bother me to catch and eat them. The next level includes crabs, lobsters, and fish, and here things become a little more equivocal. I’ve cooked lobster and have eaten fish that I’ve caught. I don’t enjoy the process, but I can and have done it. What about chicken? No. I’ve seen my father kill them, and I didn’t want any part of the process. Sheep, goats, cows, rabbits? Not unless I was literally starving to death.
After reviewing what I would be willing to kill to eat, I came to the next question: Is it ethical to eat food you wouldn’t be willing to kill yourself? For me, the answer has come to be no. If I’m not willing to kill it, then I shouldn’t eat it, even though I have for many years. My love and sympathy for animals stop me from going too far up the food chain when it comes to killing.
The time had come, I decided, to go to the next level, to only eat and cook what I would be willing to harvest or kill—mostly vegetarian with the occasional fish, bivalve, or crustacean added for variety. I discussed this with Clif, and he was willing to go along with this scheme, albeit not quite as completely as I am. For example, when eating out, Clif might still order a meat dish, but he said he would be perfectly happy to eat this way at home. Fair enough. We all have to make our own decisions.
I want to conclude by noting that even with this new eating regime, I don’t plan on applying for sainthood anytime soon. I still have plenty of gray areas in my life. The cats and dog eat food with meat, and that’s just the way it goes. They are carnivores. I still plan to eat eggs and dairy. The eggs come from Farmer Kev, whose chickens live nice lives, and the dairy is either organic and/or local. And, yes, I realize that to keep the eggs and dairy coming, some killing is often involved, however indirectly. But I just can’t give eggs and dairy up yet.
So onward I go, thinking about food as well as cooking and eating it. Will I ever become a vegan? Only time will tell.
Thanks, yet again, to Nan and her blog, Letters from a Hill Farm, for introducing me to the books of Gladys Taber, who lived and wrote at Stillmeadow, an old farmhouse in Connecticut. The book I am reading, Stillmeadow Daybook, was published in 1955 by J. B. Lippincott Company, and in it Taber chronicles each month of the year on her farm. She starts with April, which is a good place to begin when gardening is central to your life. In her forward Taber writes, “There is something about the task of preparing vegetables that gives a woman a reflective mood. I wondered how many tons of potatoes I had pared since we put our roots down here in these forty acres of stony Connecticut soil.”
Taber loved the white farm house, built in 1690, from the moment she saw it: “[W]ith its steeply pitched roof, little windows with bubbly glass, and worn lintel, I knew I belonged to it.” But how Taber came to own this house and live there is a little unconventional. Taber, her husband, and her daughter were living in New York City as were Taber’s good friend Jill, her husband, and two children. Both families wanted a house in the country, “a week-end place where we could have outdoor living in peace…where vacations and holidays could be, we felt, very economical.”
So the two families pitched their fortunes together, bought the house, and, amazingly enough, they all got exactly what they wanted. As the children in both families grew and went to “various schools and colleges,” Stillmeadow was the home they could come back to. Even more amazing, over the years, the friendship between the two families didn’t fray with the tensions that must inevitably come with joint ownership. According to the book’s forward, when both Gladys and Jill became widows, they decided to live together at Stillmeadow, which became their “refuge and a haven.” Jill and Gladys had gardens where they raised all their vegetables, and they raised dogs as well. At one point they had thirty-six cocker spaniels, although in Stillmeadow Daybook, they are down to eight cocker spaniels and one Irish setter.
If Stillmeadow Daybook were only about country living—cooking, family, and food—then that would certainly be enough. To me, these are subjects that never grow old. But Taber, a writer and a creative writing teacher, had other things on her mind, too. Her thoughts about poetry—Keats was a favorite—world peace, literature, and other larger subjects are folded into the homely details of life at Stillmeadow, and they bring depth to this charming book. Here is Taber’s take on fiction: “I think novels and short stories will probably be around as long as men can read at all. And there is a great satisfaction to a writer in creating characters which no amount of good reporting could duplicate. I venture to say also that great fiction illuminates life in a way no other form can do.”
Another thing that impressed me was how much of a foodie Taber was, especially as we tend to think of the 1950s as a grim culinary era in the United States. Taber’s concern with fresh, local food seems amazingly contemporary. “Economics is too complex for me. But I have instincts about supply and demand which I believe in. And I shall always feel a carrot next door is better than a carrot from Ames, Iowa, all things being equal.”
We baby boomers tend to feel sorry for women who came of age before the 1960s, those poor, unliberated things who spent day after frustrating day cooped up in their little houses with their little children, eating Spam sandwiches. While it is true that before the 1960s, the opportunities for women were far more limited than they are now, it is not true that all those pre-1960s women were bubble brains on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And it is arrogant of my generation to think this way. When I read As Always, Julia, the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, I was struck by what a rich life of the mind these women had. The same was true for Gladys and her friend Jill, and that life of the mind brought a spark to even the most mundane chores, from peeling potatoes to making current jelly. The best thing about the life of the mind is that it can be lived anywhere that there are books and magazines, even on a farm in Connecticut, even in a little house in Winthrop, Maine.
The copy of Stillmeadow Daybook I am reading came from Lithgow Public Library as an interlibrary loan book. However, a quick look on Amazon.com showed me that while Stillmeadow Daybook is no longer in print, it can be purchased used at a reasonable price. I also expect that library sales and second-hand shops might be a good place to find Stillmeadow Daybook as well as any of the other numerous books that Taber wrote.
I am looking forward to reading more of Gladys Taber, and I will certainly be looking for her books at various summer book sales.
Again, many thanks, Nan, for introducing me to Gladys Taber.
Another gray day in the neighborhood. Too wet to work in the gardens, even though they really need attention. What to do but take photos of the wet beauty in the backyard?
The irises are just starting to bloom. I love their vibrant purple.
Some Jack-in-the-pulpits seeded themselves—with a little bird help, perhaps?—in the way back. I’m amazed that our dog, Liam, hasn’t trampled them, and I’m hoping he doesn’t.
Ms. Watson is inspecting the garden. I try to discourage her from taking a bite out of the plants, but you know how it is with cats. They pretty much do as they please.
Everyone at the little house in the big woods is hoping the sun will soon come out!
This morning I caught sight of them as I sat at my desk, which is by a window. My neighbors, Cheryl and Denny, were returning from their morning walk in the woods that go behind our houses, and with them, as always, were their two gleaming black Labs, Megan and Heidi. How majestic those two dogs looked as they passed my house. Somehow, Megan and Heidi manage to be sturdy and serene at the same time—at least on their walks—and it seems to me that their theme song should be Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
I know this is a food blog, but now that I am on the subject of dogs, there is no help for it. There must be a bit about dogs before moving on to bread.
Megan and Heidi were both adult dogs when we got our dog, Liam, as a puppy. From the very first, they both loved Liam, who was perhaps even more foolish and excitable than most puppies. Megan and Heidi would let Liam jump and bite and carry on, which he did with fevered abandon. Those dogs were models of patience and a wonderful example for we humans in dealing with our own young.
Often the “girls,” as I have come to call Megan and Heidi, would crouch down lower so that Liam could interact even better with them. And Megan, especially, would nuzzle Liam’s fuzzy little neck. It really was a joy to see these two Labs interact with our puppy.
As Liam grew, in body if not in mind, his relationship with Megan and Heidi changed. The girls began to set limits, letting Liam know that his pesky, jumping ways, while appropriate for a puppy, were no longer appropriate for a growing dog. Heidi, in particular, with growls and snaps (but never bites!), instructed Liam to mind his manners.
Liam is friendly but willful, and it took him a while to learn this lesson, but learn it he did. Now, when he meets Megan and Heidi on the road, he is properly enthusiastic, happy to see them, but no longer pesky and annoying. He leaps into the air as they approach—all four paws leave the ground—but he doesn’t jump on them.
How could I not give bread to the owners of such fine dogs, each possessing a huge dose of doggy wisdom? I also want to add that Cheryl and Denny, energetic dog lovers, are the perfect owners of Labs, which tend to be pretty energetic themselves. There are daily walks in the woods as well as water excursions and hikes when the weather allows.
Those dogs have a good life, and it was a real pleasure to give bread to such good neighbors.
Note: This was yet another week where Shannon did not get bread. I believe this is week three of no bread for Shannon. A decided trend.