Living in Place: Part One—the Case for Staying Close to Home

Notes from the Hinterland

In my last post, I wrote about Clif’s birthday and our bike ride from Hallowell to Richmond and then back again, a trip of about 20 miles. We rode along the Kennebec River, which, as I have noted before, is not mighty but is beautiful nonetheless. I also included pictures.

In the comment section, our friend Kate wrote, “What a beautiful part of the world to live in and live in it, you and Clif do, with such honor and joy and love.”

What a wonderful comment! And it gave me the idea for this post, the notion of living in place, of being totally immersed in the area in which you live, and then loving that area, warts and all.

Naturally, qualifiers are in order. Some places are harder to love than other places—poor, war-torn countries where just getting through the day is a struggle; countries with repressive governments; countries with nonexistent social services; countries where education is not a right for all children. In such places, people often want to get out, and for good reason.

However, in the United States, a significant number of us are lucky enough to live in communities that are safe and at least have some social services. (Yes, I know that there are exceptions here as well, and I will get into this in a future post.) We have public education that is open to all children, not just the privileged few who can afford it. As for food…while food insecurity is an issue for some people, for many, many people, even those living on a modest income, the issue is not eating too much rather than not having enough to eat. Hence, our obesity epidemic.

My crystal ball is no more accurate than the next person’s, but in the upcoming years, we, as a country and as a planet, are likely to face some significant challenges as a result of climate change and energy costs. In Maine, gas for the car is nearly $4 a gallon, and I do think it’s safe to say that the days of cheap gas are over. At the same time, the world is getting warmer, climate change is here, and this means that even if we can afford higher gas prices, we should limit the driving we do. Everyone who owns a car, and I mean everyone—environmentalists do not get a pass on this—is part of the problem.

Now, staying close to home by choice does not sound like the most exiting way to live. We are a restless species. We like to see what’s around the next bend, so to speak, and there is no denying that travel can be very broadening.  Yet in an increasing hot world with finite resources, staying close home is what most of us should do most of the time. Sorry, but barring a Mr. Fusion that runs on garbage and can be strapped to a car, that’s just the way it is. Another qualifier: Visiting with family and friends gets a pass, but even then, we should make every effort to visit them in as sustainable a way as possible.

So how do we make a rich, rewarding life for ourselves if we stay close to home most of the time? Here is where I return to Kate’s comment: By living in our communities with honor, love, and joy, by becoming immersed in where we live, by noticing all that is around us, by becoming involved in civic events, which even the smallest, most rural communities have. So many good things could happen to this country, to this world, if we began to cherish our communities—the people, the plants, the animals, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the fields. If you live in an urban setting, this can even include the sidewalks and the pavement. I was born in a small city, and as a young child, I have a vivid memory of going to the market. Under a canopy, there were crates of fruit on the sidewalk. It had just rained, and the smell of wet pavement mingled with the smell of peaches and melons. For me, it was the smell of summer, and I loved that smell. In fact, I still do on the occasions that I am by a city market when it rains.

In my next post, I will write about my area—Winthrop, Augusta, and central Maine—and I hope these posts get you thinking about your area and ways that you can become immersed in it.

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Another Birthday Ride

The birthday boy resting

My husband, Clif’s, birthday was yesterday, and he took off the day from work in the hopes of going on another bike ride if the weather cooperated. The weather did indeed cooperate, and we decided to ride again along the Kennebec River from Hallowell to Richmond, but this time just to the town line, making this a trip of about 20 miles rather than the 30 miles we rode on my birthday. And what to do after the ride? Why, go to the Red Barn for some of their delicious fried food.

For my birthday, I wrote quite a bit about the ride from Hallowell to Richmond, so I won’t go too much into it here except to add that on the way back, we stopped at Reny’s in Gardiner for a little shopping—blue jeans for Clif, a shirt for me, and chocolate chips for cookies for some special Scorpios who will be having birthdays in the next couple of months. Knowing we were going to stop at Reny’s, Clif and I had come prepared with a knapsack, and between that and our bike packs, we had plenty of room. What fun to combine things and do errands on our bikes!

When we returned to our car in the parking lot in Hallowell in late afternoon, the sun was at a slant. The river was as smooth and as placid as a lake, and the reflection of trees shimmered on the calm surface. Not far from the parking lot, 5 ducks skimmed across the water and lifted off, flying down the river until they disappeared. Clif packed the bikes into the car, and talking about our ride and some of the scenes we loved best, off we went to the Red Barn, where we ate with the hearty appetite of those who had truly earned their supper.

A view of the Kennebec from a rise near Richmond
A rail bridge over a stream
Laurie and the bikes in front of Reny’s
Chips and fried chicken at the Red Barn

 

Some Fall Thoughts about Health and Diet

Fall is here, and today the sky is so achingly blue that all I want to do is sit on my patio and stare upwards. Naturally, busy homemaker and writer that I am, I have far too many chores to sit on the patio for very long. But what beauty! To add to this, the leaves are just beginning to change, and the trees, tinged with orange and red, are coming into their glory. The apples, squash, and pumpkins are ready to be harvested and made into crisps and pies and soup. Then there is the blaze of fall flowers—the mums—that mimic the leaves. Let’s just say that September is one fine month in Maine.

Yet September also has a bittersweet quality. The hummingbirds have left on their long migration, and although we can still hear loons calling, especially at night as we sit around the fire, soon the loons will be gone, too. My husband, Clif, and I like to ride our bikes every night—weather permitting—and this will also be becoming to an end as the weather gets chillier and night comes earlier. But for the short term, we both bundle up and go out as soon as he gets home from work. We have lights on our bikes, both front and back, and now we must use them for the last bit of our bike ride down the dark Narrows Pond Road to our home.

We live in a small town, and although we are not the only bikers—and definitely not the fastest—we are certainly dedicated, using our bikes for transportation as well as for pleasure and exercise. Even when I have use of the car, I often bike to meetings and events in town, which is only a mile away. Good for the environment, good for the body, and also, I like to believe, a good example. I want people to see me on my bike, going to the library, to the Flaky Tart, to Becky’s Second Time Around. I want them to think, “Wow, look at that one. She’s no spring chicken, but she sure can bike.” Our town is small enough so that people know me and notice me, and I hope eventually some of them might even say, “If she can do it, then so can I.”

On a personal level, biking is so good for a person that it really is a shame we are not more of a biking country. We are way behind northern Europe when it comes to bike lanes, bike racks, and other bike-friendly infrastructure that really makes a difference. Cars are our primary mode of transportation, and, as an incredibly obese nation, it shows. We drive, drive, drive everywhere, collectively putting on more weight with each passing year. And it’s not bad enough that adults are more obese than ever—our children are also more obese than they ever have been. After all, why not? Children emulate adults, and what do many adults do? Drive everywhere and sit on their backsides during their free time.

Now, exercise is not a panacea. People who are fit can still get sick, but the quality of life is striking when you compare those who are in shape with those who are not. I see it in my own husband, who will soon be 61 and can bike 30 miles without feeling as though he is going to drop the next day. On a recent check-up, Clif’s found out that he had lost seven pounds, his blood sugar had dropped, and so had his cholesterol.

“Exercise and diet really matter,” his doctor said.

Yes, they do, and to go along with the exercise, my husband and I eat really well, too. We have treats, but we have them in moderation, and much of our diet is organic and plant-based. Again, no panacea, but certainly a great help.

As my friend Kate has put it, “We must do what we can.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

Thank You, Farmer Kev: Stocking Up for the Winter

Today is the last day of summer as according to my calendar, tomorrow is the first day of autumn. With the bright sunny days and cool nights, it already feels like autumn, and I understand that last night there was frost in some parts of Maine.

But not at our little house in the big woods, where the frost comes late. The annuals are still in bloom, the herbs look suitably perky, and the last of the tomatoes—the wonderful Juliette—are waiting to be picked. I am hoping we get another few weeks before the frost hits our yard.

Nevertheless, the harvest is in full swing in central Maine, and on Sunday, I went to Farmer Kev’s house to pick up vegetables to store for the winter—50 pounds of potatoes and 20 pounds of squash. I also bought 12 pounds of carrots, 8 pounds of Roma tomatoes, and a big bag of green peppers, which we will use fresh until they look as though they might be going, at which point we will freeze them.

As I was chatting with Farmer Kev, he said, “Grab a pumpkin, no charge, so that you can have a fall decoration. And how about some zinnias?” Again, no charge. Yes and yes and thank you so much, Farmer Kev, for the wonderful, fresh organic vegetables sold at an incredibly good price. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have Farmer Kev.

This year, Farmer Kev will be a senior at the University of Maine at Orono.

“What will you do next year?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Farmer Kev answered. “I want to find some land in the area so that I can have my own farm.”

But good farm land is hard to find, and it is expensive. Still, Farmer Kev didn’t appear to be discouraged, and I think he remains optimistic that eventually he will get land for his own farm. We chatted for a bit, and I said, “Have fun your senior year, but not too much fun. You do need to study a bit, too.”

Farmer Kev just laughed.

Next year, you can bet that I’ll be joining Farmer Kev’s CSA again and will do so for as long as he stays in the area. And may he stay here and farm for many, many years.

The Inch-By-Inch Garden at Winthrop Grade School

On the edge of the Winthrop Grade School, on a piece of land that gets full sun, is the Inch-By-Inch Garden, a little patch started four years ago by Karen Toothaker, Margy Burns Knight, and Tom Sturtevant. As I ride my bike, I pass the garden nearly every day, and I have watched the garden expand over the years.

“The first year, the seventh graders planted radishes and lettuce,” Margy told me. “And this year we have beans, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and sunflowers. We told the children that we’ll get beans if there is no frost.”

A very good lesson on the vagaries of Mother Nature.

Margy gives garden talks to some of the grade school classes, and “the whole garden revolves around literature” as she finds books about various aspects of gardening for the children to read. Margy hopes to add flowering bulbs and blueberry bushes, the latter, of course, being a perfect match with Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. Kuplink, Kuplank, Kuplunk.

Steve, Margy’s husband, has a worm farm in their basement, and he gave a show-and-tell worm farm talk to some very enthusiastic second graders, who were apparently thrilled by the worms.

Various members of the community have tended the garden in the summer, when school is not in session. Weeks were allotted, weeding and watering were done, and the garden has thrived.

“Next year, we’ll put in 5 more rows,” Margy said. “Inch-By-Inch. The name of our garden comes from a Dave Mallet song.”

I’ve come to love this little garden, modest but getting bigger each season. May it continue to grow and flourish.

Beans in the Inch-By-Inch Garden

 

 

30 at 55

The Kennebec River, not mighty but still beautiful

Last Saturday was my birthday, and to celebrate, my husband, Clif, and I decided to go on a long bike ride, from Hallowell to Richmond and then back again. Round trip, it was about 30 miles.

The day started out gray and there were even a few sprinkles, but by noon the sky had cleared, the sun was out, and the temperature—about 70 degrees—was perfect for bike riding. Clif loaded the bikes in the car, and we headed to Hallowell to pick up the rail trail, which would take us as far as Gardiner, about 5 miles away.

Clif and me, at the beginning of our ride

The rail trail was sheer bliss. What a relief it was to be able to ride on a route where we didn’t have to worry about the cars. All through Maine, I wish there were many trails like the rail trail . True, we had to watch out for pedestrians, but that was not a problem at all. We duly slowed down when we approached pedestrians, and we let them know we were going by on their left.

On the rail trail, we crunched over dry leaves—a reminder that fall has arrived—and to our left, the Kennebec River shimmered in the bright sunlight. Narrow and placid, at least in central Maine, the Kennebec River cannot be called mighty, but it is beautiful, and we would follow the river all the way to Richmond. What is it about water that draws us so? Mountains might have grandeur and deserts their stark beauty, but some elemental part of us seems to respond to water, to love it, to want to be near it.

We stopped in Gardiner—the end of the rail trail—for lunch and had peanut butter sandwiches, Goldfish crackers, and a cookie. Clif and I discussed how the DOT (Department of Transportation) should not essentially be the DOC (Department of Cars), that it should include and accommodate various modes of transportation—from bikes to trains to walking. And while there is plenty of room for improvement, it was heartening to see new sidewalks in Farmingdale, on busy Route 201, going right into Gardiner. So progress has been made, but as is so often the case, it is slow and uneven. (I’m thinking of my terror rides up Pelton Hill, where there are no bike lanes, and the traffic zooms by at 50 miles an hour. “Terror” is not too strong a word to use.)

Lunch on the rail trail

From there, we rode through town to South Gardiner, which with its flat roads and paved breakdown lanes, is another biker’s delight. We left the main road twice to go on two quiet side routes that followed the river and, as a bonus, bypassed two huge hills. We rode past broad fields and plenty of pointed firs. One dog, a border collie, rushed at us, but he didn’t leave his yard, and as Clif put it, “He’s all bark.” Our kind of dog. A little farther on, another dog, a huge Newfoundland, watched serenely as we rode by, and we didn’t hear as much as a soft yip.

A field along the way

Eventually we came to Richmond, which has a splendid little park complete with restrooms, a wonderful amenity when you are biking. We sat by the river and admired the view—Swan Island, an old metal bridge—and all too soon it was time to head back to Hallowell.

The view from the park in Richmond

We dawdled a bit along the way, until we realized that we were running a little late. We had arranged to meet our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike, at the Liberal Cup in Hallowell, and it was time to stop dawdling. Pedal, pedal, pedal back through South Gardiner, to Gardiner, and onto the rail trail. We were 15 minutes late, which is not too bad, and Shannon and Mike were waiting for us at the Cup.

Let’s just say that after a long bike ride, fish and chips and a cup of cheddar soup tasted pretty darned good, to borrow a phrase from Clif. Then, it was back to our house for cake, ice cream, and presents, which we had around the fire pit.

The title of this piece refers, of course, to the number of miles we rode and to my age. Both Clif and I are so pleased and grateful that we are able to ride this distance at our ages—Clif will soon be 61. Never for one minute do we take our health for granted. We know all too well that life is unpredictable and that bad luck can strike anyone. However, right now, we are both more than able to ride 30 miles on our bike in a day. And the best thing is that the very next day, we went on an 11-mile ride and felt just fine.

I can’t think of a better way to have celebrated my 55th birthday. Well, that’s not quite true. If only our daughter Dee could have joined us. Nevertheless, it was a splendid day.

The Somerset Grist Mill

On Saturday, September 8th, a misty morning, my husband, Clif, and I drove to Skowhegan, about an hour from where we live, to the grand opening of the Somerset Grist Mill, a $1.5 million dollar project that has been in the works for just three years. The road was shiny and dark, and as we went up and down hills, we rode past fields as bright a green in September as they were in June. This central Maine region, where the Kennebec River flows, is a fertile part of Maine. Also, once there were many mills in Skowhegan, mills where my grandparents worked, but most of the mills have closed—New Balance is the happy exception. So in a way, the Somerset Grist Mill combines two historical strengths of this region—the mills and agriculture.

Skowhegan, a county seat, has a reputation for being a depressed area, where many people receive state and federal aid. Yet in the parking lot next to the grist mill was a farmers’ market with 20 vendors or so, and business was brisk. In this market, I felt an energy and an exuberance that, if carried forward, could balance and perhaps even lessen the hard times of this mill town.

The grist mill, owned by business partners Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz, is in what was once the sprawling Somerset County Jail, which was built in 1897 and is in downtown Skowhegan, within walking distance of a cinema, a bakery, and other shops. Lambke and Scholz bought the jail for $65,000, and at the grand opening, we learned that the height of the jail was one of its chief features—gravity could be used to bring grain to the various machines.

The tour started at 10:00, and there must have been at least 100 people waiting by the wooden doors. In fact, there were so many of us that the group had to be split in half, and even then, it was still crowded. As with the farmers’ market, there was a feeling of energy and exuberance.

Before the tour, Lambke gave a brief history of the mill, of how the idea sprang from the 2007 Kneading Conference, held in Skowhegan at the end of July. There were no commercial grist mills in central Maine, and the feeling was that a grist mill would be a place that would bring bakers and wood-fired oven makers together with grain growers. Perhaps even more important, the grist mill would encourage the rebuilding of a grain-growing economy that was once so vital to this area.

In addition, the old county jail was big enough to house other businesses, ones that would be in keeping with the grist mill’s philosophy of the importance of local businesses and local economies. Already, there were a yarn shop, a pottery studio, a café, a place where people pick up their CSA deliveries, and the Tech Spot, where teenagers help older folks become more comfortable using computers.

Then the tour began, where we duly admired the various machines—most of them old and bought second hand but one of them brand new, made in Austria with such beautiful blond wood that it almost looked like a work of art. We learned that enough Maine farmers were growing various grains—wheat, oats, and rye, to name a few—that the mill would have no trouble remaining open during the winter.

The finished products will be sold at the grist mill as well as at various stores around the state. So Maine readers, keep your eyes open for flour and other grains that have been ground at the Somerset Grist Mill. Buy these products whenever you can. As I have noted in a previous piece, with climate change and its disruptions, Maine might once again become a breadbasket, and we can only be thankful that people such as Lambke and Scholz had the foresight to open a grist mill right now, in Skowhegan, Maine.

(Click on any of the pictures below to see the pictures as an onscreen slide show)

 

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