Category Archives: Notes from the HInterland

Of Red Squirrels, Hummingbirds, and a Spirit Dog

Despite the cool nights and the occasional cool day, summer has come to Maine. In fact, as someone who has seen a lot of Maine summers, this, so far, has been an old-fashioned June with some rain, some sun, some warm days, some chilly ones. It is only during the past five years that Maine Junes have  become so warm. This June is a throwback to the old days, and it feels quite normal to me.

Rather than warm weather, summer in Maine is heralded by green in all its cool shades. Our backyard, indeed all of Winthrop, is enveloped by green—the leaves, the evergreens, the ferns.

Our patio is our summer living room, and Clif and I spend as much time there as we can. For much of the year, we are cooped up inside, and it is a relief to be outside, unencumbered by hats, coats, and gloves.

Yesterday, after doing yard work, we had our tea on the patio. A red squirrel, in a nearby tree, scolded us. I suspect the little creature wanted to raid the brown bird feeder, and we were too close for comfort.

“Have we ever bothered you?” I asked. “No, not once.”

With a twitch of the tail, the red squirrel continued to stare at me and chitter even louder.

To add to the backyard noise, hummingbirds whirred and chased each other away from the feeders. Occasionally, one of them even got something to eat.

A swallow tail butterfly fluttered by, too quick for me to get a picture. Best of all, the dragonflies have come, and the mosquito population has dropped noticeably.

This spring, I neglected to stake the tall irises, and they have drooped pathetically over neighboring plants—begonias, daylilies, and evening primroses.

Next year, I will try to do better, but even though the irises have fallen, they are still beautiful.

As I sat on the patio and listened and watched, the spirit of a black and white dog zoomed around the perimeter of the yard. Barking and racing, setting the boundaries.

Then the past and the present came together—the birds, the spirit dog, the flowers. So much happening on one little half acre.

Finally, I want to thank my blogging friends for all the kind words over the past two weeks, which have been hard for us. It is often difficult to know what to say when someone is grieving the loss of a beloved pet, or even worse, a family member or close friend. But simple words of sympathy really do help, even something as basic as “I am so sorry for your loss.”

Many, many thanks to you all.

 

 

Notes from the Hinterland: In Bloom and Unfurling

Although everything is late, spring has finally come to Maine. The hermit thrushes are back with their pan-pipe songs. Yesterday, I saw a hummingbird—time to put up the lovely red feeder Clif bought me for Christmas. It’s been sunny and warm enough for lunch on the patio, and mild enough, even, for an hour on the patio when Clif comes home from work. Best of all, the black flies, the scourge of the north, have yet to rear their ugly little heads. Dare I hope that this will be a sparse spring for black flies? I sure do!

In the garden, in the woods, by the road, flowers are blooming, and plants are unfurling. Here are a few pictures I recently took:

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Such a busy time of year. For the next few weeks I will be digging, planting, and, in general, grubbing in the yard. There is also a lot going at our library, with the expansion entering its public phase. (I’m a trustee and a volunteer.) There will be a kick-off celebration next week, and—surprise, surprise—I was the one to organize the food.

Busy or not, I’m still cooking dinner every night, of course. Clif and I hardly ever eat out, and I even have a recipe to share—chickpea cutlets—and another to experiment with—chili made with black bean “meat balls.” But these recipes will have to wait for either a rainy day or June.

In the meantime, here is a picture of the chickpea cutlets, adapted from a Mark Bittman recipe. My, my, they were tasty, if I do say so myself. A definite make-again dish.

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This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and at the little house in the big woods, there will be a waffle brunch, complete with home fries, fruit salad, and an egg dish. I’m told there will even be chocolate cupcakes for dessert.

Happy spring and Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Notes from the Hinterland: Slowing Down to Observe

img_5615Spring in Maine continues to be cold and gray. I am still wearing my winter garb—turtle neck, sweater, big corduroy shirt—and that is inside the house. Outside, I am even more bundled up.

Despite the recalcitrant weather, the grass is turning a bright green, and undeterred by cold, the perennials in my garden are bravely emerging from their winter sleep. However, I’ve heard that many farmers are behind in planting peas. The soil is just too cold for seeds to germinate.

But right on schedule, the maple flowers have started falling from the trees. Although May brings many delights that are much showier than this delicate flower, I’ll miss the cheerful red fringe on the maple trees in my backyard.

Until I took a picture of a maple flower and then cropped the photo, I had never really examined this little flower. I had never noticed the wave of stamens, the burst of petals, the lighter center. Instead, I had seen them the way an impressionist painter might, a welcome dab of red in a landscape just beginning to show color.

The maple flower is a reminder for me to slow down, to look closely at what surrounds me. All too often I rush through my days, checking off one chore after another: Vacuum, make bread, tidy the kitchen, work in the garden, do laundry, write, type the minutes for the last library trustee meeting, bike to the food pantry to volunteer. Chores certainly need to be done, but there must be some kind of balance between doing and looking. Listening and smelling should also be added to looking. Perhaps a better word would be noticing. Or observing.

After all, what kind of life do we have if we are so busy doing that we never take the time to notice, to observe?  Whether you live in a suburb, in a city, or in the countryside, there is always something to notice—the changing of seasons; nature, even in cities; the weather; sun and rain and clouds and sky; other people; buildings; animals. There is so much to observe, wherever you are.

Best of all, you don’t have to have a lot of money to observe closely. This is something the greedy financiers, who have grabbed and ruined so much, cannot take away from us. Despite how much actual money you might or might not have, a life spent observing, looking, and noticing is a rich one.

I’m thinking it might be time to buy a magnifying glass, so that I can look even more closely at the little marvels all around me.

 

 

 

 

What a Difference A Week Can Make

Last week, the little house in the big woods was snowbound, with only the barest hint of bare ground in the backyard. While the front yard still has plenty of snow, the backyard has made real progress and now has more bare ground than snow. And all in one week!

Not anyone's idea of beauty, but to me it looks just grand
Not anyone’s idea of beauty, but to me it looks just grand

Yesterday morning, I hung clothes on the line for the first time this season, and there was a thin layer of packed ice around the clothes line. It was so slippery that I wished I had worn my grippers. I didn’t fall, but I had to be very careful as I hung the laundry. But in the afternoon, when I took in the laundry, the ice had completely melted. It almost felt like time-lapse photography in real time.

One of my favorite signs of spring---laundry on the line
One of my favorite signs of spring—laundry on the line

There is much to do in the backyard, but it is still too mucky for a real clean-up. I love this time of year—working outside in the warm sun. It beats anything I can do inside, and that includes cooking or writing and most certainly cleaning.

I've had this sage plant for 3 years. Will I get another year out if it?
I’ve had this sage plant for 3 years. Will I get another year out if it?
Brave little irises
Brave little irises

Even though it is much warmer now than it has been since, say, October, it is still cool enough for soup and probably will be until June. This is Maine, after all. And soup—tomato chickpea—is what we will have for supper tonight.

From the four Cornish hen carcasses left over from our anniversary meal, I made a stock in the usual way—with water, onion, garlic, peppercorns, and salt. After the stock had simmered for several hours, I let it cool overnight in the refrigerator so that I could skim off the fat. In addition, I soaked 2 cups of dried chickpeas overnight and cooked them in the morning. Into the slow-cooker went the stock, the chickpeas, and a 28-ounce can of tomato puree. Since I had a lot of the tomato stock, I coarsely chopped 6 carrots and 4 ribs of celery and sauteed them with olive oil, adding 3 cloves of garlic for the last minute or so. After the vegetables were soft, I added them to the slow-cooker and let everything bubble for four hours.

Because the Cornish hens had been so wonderfully spiced, I did not need to use additional spicing in the soup. Otherwise, I would have added some rosemary and perhaps some oregano. Tonight, I’ll  cook some pasta, which we can add to the bottom of our soup bowls. We have found that pasta put directly into the soup swells and swells until the pasta is quite unappealing. So now we add pasta directly to our bowls and ladle hot soup on top.

This made a huge batch of soup. Clif and I will eat it for several nights, and I’ll freeze the rest for that happy, busy day when there’s too much going on outside to fuss in the kitchen.

And just for something a little extra, here’s a spring song, courtesy of Sesame Street.

An Anniversary Meal—Cornish Hens, Baked Potatoes, Corn, and a Dessert that Must Not Be Named

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CDs—the dessert that must not be named

In our family, whenever there is a special event, the tradition is to cook a special meal. We all love to celebrate with food—no surprise there—and by cooking at home, we can have something especially tasty yet still be frugal. Our anniversary was last month, but because of the various schedules, Shannon and Mike couldn’t get together with us until yesterday.

We had planned to go to Shannon and Mike’s home in South Portland, but for our anniversary they bought us a special gift—a new rug for our living room—that needed to be transported in their larger car. Our little Honda Fit can hold quite a bit, but there was no way it could haul that rug along with a driver, one passenger, and a dog.

Now, Clif and I are a very thrifty couple. When we buy something, either new or second hand, we squeeze every bit of use out of that item. So it was with our living room rug, which we bought thirty years ago at Sears. I loved that red rug with its oriental design, and it was incredibly sturdy, withstanding kids, pets, and lots of company over the years. But all things have a lifespan, and so it was with this rug, which had become frayed, worn, and thin in many spots.

On Saturday, we rolled up the rug and brought it to the transfer station, and it was a bittersweet moment. I was sorry to see this old friend go, but I have to admit I was excited to be getting a new rug. (So excited that I forgot about a special dessert Shannon was bringing. Very uncharacteristic of me, and more about this later.) When you don’t get many new things, you really appreciate it when you do. And that’s the way it way should be. Between mindless consumerism and the life of of a monk there is a balance.

The new rug—shades of tan with a dark, almost Celtic border—looks oh so nice in our living room. Today, Clif and I have periodically taken a break from our work to admire it. We will have this rug for many, many years, and if it wears as well as the previous rug, it could possibly be our last living room rug. (Funny to think that way, but Clif and I have reached an age where this might be the case.)

For our anniversary meal, Shannon prepared one of the the dishes I love best—Cornish hens with a lemon, herb, and butter mixture tucked under the skin. The hens were moist and flavorful and because they were small, all of the meat was suffused with the herb butter mixture. We had baked potatoes, corn, and sour dough bread to accompany the hens.

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Then there was dessert, which Shannon bought from Little Bigs in South Portland. The pastries are called CDs, short for “Cease and Desist,” and they are fried croissants dusted with cinnamon and sugar and cut into squares. The CDs have a hole, and they bear a striking resemblance to an insanely popular New York dessert that apparently must not be named. Hence “Cease and Desist.”  The CDs were crisp on the outside, flaky but not dry, and we promptly munched them down. Good as the CDs were—and they were very good indeed—I must admit that I remain loyal to donuts, one of my favorite desserts. But what fun to try something new that has become a craze in New York City and is now a craze in Portland. CDs have become so popular that Shannon had to order them three or four weeks in advance.

A visit from the kids, a new rug, Cornish hens, and CDs. All in all, a terrific day.

 

 

Spring is Coming…

Yesterday, as I was returning from a walk with the dog, my neighbor, who was walking her own dogs, stopped to talk to me at the end of my driveway.

“I think you have the coldest yard on this road,” she said, looking at all the snow.

I couldn’t deny it. Here is a picture—taken this morning—of our yard:

img_5491By the end of the month, the snow should be gone, but it has a long way to go.

Never mind! Yesterday, I took an absolutely delightful walk. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I needed neither hat nor gloves. I walked in a sort of a bliss, letting the dog lead the way. He took me down Highland Avenue and around Highland Heights. Blue sky, blue sky, blue sky with the sun warm on my face.

Here are some pictures I took, proof that after this long, hard winter, spring really is coming.

Rushing water by the side of the road
Rushing water by the side of the road
Tree starting to bud
Tree starting to bud
Robin on a lawn. (Not our yard!)
Robin on a lawn. (Not our yard!)

This last picture is not particularly a sign of spring, but I’ll include it anyway.

Shadow Dog
Shadow Dog

The Last Day of March: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Mess

To borrow from the meteorologist Lou McNally—also known as Altitude Lou—March came in like a lion and went out like a mess. At the little house in the big woods, it is sleeting outside. The road is thick with slush, and there is a layer of ice on our car. What a trickster March is, and it couldn’t resist one last icy prank before giving way to April, which I hope will bring better weather. After all, the snow in our yard is bound to melt sometime before July.

Here is what our yard looks like this morning:

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There will be plenty of scraping if I do errands, as planned, this afternoon.

In the interest of being fair to March, that long, long, temperamental month, I have to admit it does have its moments of beauty, if you know where to look. The following pictures were taken a few days ago, when the sun was shining, and it was relatively warm, say 45 or so.

An ice shack on the Upper Narrows Pond
An ice shack on the Upper Narrows Pond
Open water on the Lower Narrows Pond
Open water on the Lower Narrows Pond
In the woods
In the woods
Leaves and snow
Leaves and snow

Nevertheless, I am certainly ready for April.

March Marches On

img_5409Another Day in March. This morning, the thermometer read zero, and there is frost on the windows. Another storm is blowing up the coast, and although there are small patches of blue in the sky, there are plenty of hazy clouds to indicate bad weather is coming. The prediction is that the storm will be mostly coastal, and I am hopeful that central Maine will be spared the worst. Even better would be for the storm to be entirely coastal, as in completely out to sea, but I suppose that is too much to hope for.

On the stove, there are chicken bones simmering with garlic, peppercorns, a bay leaf, salt, and an onion studded with a few cloves. After it has simmered for several hours, the broth will be strained and then go into the slow-cooker to be combined with drippings from a chicken meal we had on Sunday, when I put sweet potatoes under a whole chicken sprinkled with garlic and herbs. When the broth and drippings have simmered for a bit, I will blend the leftover sweet potatoes into the resultant stock and add leftover chicken. Noodles will be cooked separately to add at the last minute, and Clif and I will have some warm soup on this cold March night. I’ll either make biscuit muffins or bran muffins to go with the soup.

While the stock is simmering, there will be a walk in the woods with the dog. There is still plenty of snow in central Maine, and the trail we walk on is packed hard by snowmobiles. It doesn’t feel like spring at all. It still feels like winter. But the days are getting longer, and the birds have begun their spring songs. I tell myself this as I bundle up in my heaviest coat and put on my hat and my heaviest gloves.

In the woods, at the end of the trail, are sap buckets. Unfortunately, it has been too cold for much of a harvest. Nevertheless, those buckets are a cheering presence at the end of what has been a long, hard winter.

Surely warmer weather is just around the corner. Surely spring is coming. Surely sometime before July, the snow will be gone from the yard of the little house in the big woods.

 

A Potluck Filled with Creativity as Well as Good Food

Last Friday, Clif and I went to our friends Margy and Steve’s house for one of their snappy potlucks, which often have themes. This particular potluck was held not only to celebrate January’s full moon—the Wolf Moon—but also to celebrate Priscilla Jenkins’s years of service on the Winthrop Town Council.

There were about 15 of us in Margy and Steve’s large kitchen and dining room, made cozy and warm by a fire in the wood stove. I brought homemade crackers as well as cranberry chutney—also homemade—mixed with a red pepper jelly made by a friend of a friend. The chutney and red pepper jelly was spread on top of softened cream cheese that, in turn, was spread on the crackers. (Not too bad, if I do say so myself.) There were also quiches, salads, and the most delicious lentil soup—made by Ginny Geyer—I have ever eaten. The soup had ham, which gave it a lovely smoky taste—and homemade noodles. The soup’s smoky taste reminded me of the pea soup that Franco-Americans are so famous for. I had two bowls full, and I could have eaten more, except that I knew what was for dessert—Patty Engdahl’s homemade carrot cake, made in honor of Priscilla.

But before the cake was cut, a rather amazing thing happened—various people listed events that they were involved with and might be of interest to others at the potluck. Margy went first with PechaKucha Night in Waterville, Maine, on January 24 at 7:20 p.m. at the Hathaway Creative Center. For those unfamiliar with PechaKucha, here is Waterville Public Library’s description: “PechaKucha is a creative networking event for the entire community featuring diverse presenters faced with the same dynamic challenge: telling a compelling story in 20×20 (20 images showing for 20 seconds per image).” Winthrop’s very own Patrice Putman will be one of the presenters, and she will talk about her recent trips to Africa to help eradicate polio.

Margy also announced that a revised, updated edition of her book Talking Walls has been published, and there will be a launch party for the book at the First Friday Art Walk in Portland on February 7, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Mainly Frames. Talking Walls is a lovely, poetic children’s book that explores some of the great walls in various countries and the stories those walls tell. (I have this book in mind for a certain little beloved baby who came into this world a few days ago.)

Clif went next, speaking about the Cinema Exploration film series that will be running every other Saturday from now through March at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. (Clif and I are on the steering committee of the film series.) On January 25, the Georgian movie In Bloom will be shown, and it’s a harrowing but moving look at being a young woman in a country that was once a part of the Soviet Union.

Since he had an audience, Clif also took the opportunity to promote his own photography exhibit—Portals: The Mystery of Windows and Doors. The exhibit will be at Railroad Square in Waterville sometime the end of February, either the 20 or 27. (When I know the exact date, I’ll let readers know.)

Finally, Rita Moran told of the play—Doubt—that the Monmouth Community Players will be performing at Cumston Hall in Monmouth, Maine, from January 24 through February 2. The tickets are very reasonably priced—$10 for seniors and students and $12 for adults.

“Wow!” Margy said, when everyone was done. “No cabin fever in Winthrop!” No, indeed. This just goes to show how even small, rural towns can have plenty of creativity.

Then there was cake as we celebrated Priscilla’s 6 years of service on the town council. We applauded her, we made an acrostic with her first name, and we dubbed her Queen of Winthrop, at least for that day.

Many thanks, Priscilla!

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Liam’s Birthday

img_5065Today, our dog, Liam, is nine years old. Happy birthday, Liam! In the works are a few special treats and a nice long walk.

Even at nine, Liam is still a fast runner and light of foot. This summer, when Clif’s coworkers came over for a barbecue and saw Liam for the first time, they couldn’t believe what a “mature” dog he was.

I remember bringing Liam home as a puppy and how he hid under the table because he was scared. I remember him sitting in the kitchen and his head going back and forth as he watched the pendulum on the clock. I remember him cuddled across Shannon’s chest as she sat on the couch.

Liam, may you be light of foot for many, many more years.