Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On the Importance of Picking Blueberries

Every summer I pick blueberries. There are people you can bring berry picking and those you can't. Some people just "get" it. It's the outdoors, or the tradition, or they are the food of the gods, or it's just what's done. It's important that they get it. But why is it so important? I think blueberry picking is like some kind of portal to my bloodline. Like it represents part of who I am, and is one of my few definable team pennants that I can wave.

I think about my Maine grandparents whenever I pick blueberries. They lived by the ocean and worked at the shipyard and then moved to a mobile home on a small mountain. Grampa would hide out in his corner office of the garage and carve birds and go on several days long "hunting" trips. I'm under the impression he never really shot anything; he just took advantage of the concept to wander in the woods for days.

"Mama and I are goin' out," my grampa announced one afternoon when I was staying with them as a kid. "If you see a man walking through here," he waved toward the hilltop, "then you call the police. Unless he has a gun. Then he's all right." (He really didn't know I would grow up and move to big cities. )

I was a kid with a few questions, and they were full of answers and rules to live by. Never, ever, pick the corn until the water's boiling, my grandmother said. Put your wrists in the ocean first to take the edge off of the cold. Be sure to peel the tomatoes for the salad. And of course you go blueberrying at the end of the summer. One day I went picking with my mother, my grandmother, and her mother (who lived on a farm nearby) all packed in my Grammie's bright orange VW bug that she drove like a race car. The four generations returned home to eat required bowls of blueberries and Ritz crackers in fresh milk. "Blueberriescrackers'n'milk" was said as one word. It was what you do. I remember being horrified later to find a tick on my underpants.

I think I was less than seven years old on my first canoe camping trip with my grandparents. I remember bragging to my parents later about how I had paddled in the front of the boat for three hours! one day. My grandparents' friends had come along and brought a screen and projector and showed slides. I slept in a tent and felt the happiness of just being out in the world. We hiked mountains together and there was always a picnic once the adults made it to the top. Grammie would unpack homemade cookies she had always stacked safely in a Pringles can.

Sometimes in the summer we'd get extended relatives together at the shore and there would always be pork shoulder, barbecue potato chips, and cheap seventies cola. I could spend hours looking for tiny pieces of seaglass "gems" with my grandfather and his brother-in-law, Brownie.

In the fall while my grandmother was making relishes and pickles, my grandfather took me hiking near the mountain house. We'd look for old foundations and find the old houses' trash pits, digging up ancient bottles from old remedies and bone buttons.

Even when they lived by the shore, he told me the names of all the birds and trees, and his opinions of them. When a Baltimore Oriole made a long stocking nest in their yard, I went home to Massachusetts and meticulously painted a model of the bird in black, white and VW orange.

My favorites stories were of the cabin they once had in the North Woods. Both my grandfathers had built their summer cabins, and I spent weeks each summer at my dad's family's place in New Hampshire, but I never got to see this mythical place in Maine. Instead we'd sit in front of their mobile home by their His and Her gardens looking out across an old orchard at the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and they'd tell me about watching a moose swim all the way to an island across the lake through clouds of no-see-ums. We'd laugh and eat shrimp dip on Fritos and later have lobster.

Not long after they passed away, I escaped from my high tech career and stayed a week in a decaying Maine camp, in a desolate town in northern Aroostook County with two convenience stores and a hotel that catered to fishermen. My boyfriend and I drove the abandoned logging roads, and saw bear in the new forests where potato fields failed.

While boating along the shores of some public lands, we discovered a row of abandoned cabins, each carefully wallpapered in birch bark anchored in the corners with scrolling twigs. It was silent except for the sudden splashes of Kingfishers. I closed my eyes and imagined the families taking the train north from the cities to ferry across the lake from the dance halls and excitement of town to these cabins… getting together to watch moose and trade fish stories in front of the biggest stone fireplace in the state of Maine, by then reduced to a pile of stones in the long grass. Today it's been revamped into lodgings again for fishermen. (It's in the book I wrote about New England Cabins & Cottages, that I dedicated to my Maine Grampa.)

And today I feel like my times are so different, and yet while my grandparents and my mom and my uncle Brownie are all dead, my brother and I are still here and those folks would be having a good chuckle over how similar we are. And until he was no longer able, my dad still picked blueberries with me, and still provides the buckets when he can. "The nut doesn't fall far from the tree," he'd say.

My brother, my husband and I picked blueberries last weekend with two friends we'd just visited at their family's cabin in Northern Maine. I went home and contemplated whether my pickles were sealed properly and how I was going to make jewelry from some beach glass and ceramic shards while he went home and worked on sculptures involving trees and old farm equipment like a couple of nuts.

I feel a little guilty though – I just don't feel like I have the proper Maine accent to enthuse over "Blueberriescrackers'n'milk" but I did have some berries on Cheerios, which is pretty close. We all used email to report the ticks we'd removed. This weekend I'll be down the street from my grandparents house where I sat eating berries with my great grandmother. My inlaws have retired to Maine, and if I have kids, they'll get to visit their grandparents in the very same shore town I first knew as Grammie and Grampa's. Granted, it's a nine times bigger house and the town is known these days for its outlet stores, but I'll take it. Each time I drive up there I pass the Dairy Queen where my Grampa would sometimes let me get a highly illicit cone, and it makes me smile.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Meet my son, Blastoplast

Okay, I was pretty set on naming my first kid Doctor, but I think I might have to change it to Blastoplast. I mean Doctor gave them the instant title of respect from their first kindergarten roll call onward -- no med school tution required... but Blastoplast. That gives the kid more options. Blast, kid Superhero, and D.J. Blastoplast, for example. Maybe I'll just change my name to Blastoplastany. Rock on.

Did you know that a woman gives consent for what she wants done with the extra fertilized embryos left over from in vitro? Our leader just took control of those 400,000 frozen fertilized blastoplasts in this country that were donated by women for use in stem cell research.

Apparently these simple groupings of cells that have been mingling for a few days are human lives, which is the only explanation of the mental functions of our president. I've passed clots that could have been a better president, I know it.

Choice is not yours any longer, ladies, and you know what comes next. Get your wire hangers ready, because your life is no longer as important as that of a blastoplast. See, that lends even more evidence to why this could be a name of some importance. (I wonder if we could get Bush beaten to a pulp finally by making him a t-shirt that says Miscarriage is Murder.)

Of course if these cells aren't thrown away for not being used in research, never mind being thrown away in the process of research, a lot of those frozen embryos lack identification papers and so will probably lose their rights protecting them against self-incrimination and to ready access to counsel.

And who knows if they have the ability to grow into weapons of mass destruction. I mean, they are super mutable cells -- they might touch rings and yell FORM OF. . . A TERRORIST! (Why is it that with all the options, one of the Wonder Twins was always something lame like FORM OF. . . (anticipation mounting) AN ICE CROWBAR!"?) Of course if these new political detainees are female they'll lose their rights over their own bodies. But if they are black, all is forgiven because right now the Republicans want to be friends. Really, they mean it this time. It has nothing to do with Barack Obama or anything.

Yeah. They really mean it. Just like Bush is really concerned that someone might lose their job if we control pollution and live another couple of centuries. Of course maybe he's secretly a genius – maybe he thinks that when the planet gets hot enough it will melt the embryos and incubate them, thus providing the country with 400,000 laboratory immigrants who are proud to be Americans.

That must be it.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Castle in the Sky

Dear Jim,

Another hike without you, yet your voice remains strong in my head. It's all the exuberance you taught me, how you would marvel at the world around you, and share it, and take time to let it move you and consider it. I've never known another soul like you.

Ted and I had slightly different ideas of where to leave your ashes according to your wishes, but we picked a nice spot. It's like a private turret in a mountain castle, overlooking the ridge where you dodged death in a lightening storm once. I think you'll really like the view, and especially the storms.

We built a cairn with rocks from the area, a few brought up especially for it, including one from your garden that Susan chose. From the other side of the "turret" we could see the pond where she and two other friends had a manageable flat hike.

Nine of us that made it up to the heights with you on Ted's back in your old red backpack. I bet you never imagined that kind of turn out when you told us we could bring anyone who wanted to come. It was a very hot and humid day.

We kept in contact with those below by walkie talkie and then turned it off as we readied your resting spot. Then together we faced the pond and whooped down to them, and magically. . . they whooped back. We could hear each other across a couple of miles. A small hawk circled in the wind.

Ted and I released your ashes over the edge and on the cairn. I hope to visit with you there in the coming years and tell you about my life and ask you some questions. I sure wish I could share it with you for real, but you gave me so much in the 15 years we did share, and I am so grateful.

I cruised down the mountain by myself, and I had a thousand selfish sad thoughts, all related to how much I missed you. I waited awhile at a cross path until a couple more comrades were down and we took a detour and sat in the pond before meeting up with the rest of the crew as they all gathered. We went to dinner together and toasted you. And by doing that we celebrated knowing each other.

Thank you, I love you, and maybe I'll see you down the trail.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Pick a Peck of Pickles

In case you were wondering. . . half a bushel of cucumbers makes around THIRTY pints of pickles. Hopefully. If we did it right. Whew. That was hard on a tiny kitchen.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Recipe Request: In a Pickle

Help, does anyone have a good pickle recipe??


East and North

Been busy the last couple of weeks. Got to go up to Maine…way Down East and then up the woods. Talked glenn into stopping at one of my favorite places, Liberty Tool, then to the coast.

We traveled Route 1 up, east of Acadia, winding around small towns and berry bogs, stopping to eat crab and lobster and collect fresh strawberries and pies. We stopped by Gouldsboro for a visit at Darthia Farm where they produce amazing food, preserves, and novels. We camped by an inlet and ate nearly an entire pie while playing cards. I think the only thing that stopped us from eating the whole pie was that we eventually donned mosquito nets.

The next day we collected food at farmer's markets to bring to visit our friends' cabin, then stopped at one of my favorite beaches in Machiasport. It is called Jasper Beach and is covered in amazing, tumbled smooth rocks. We visited the falls and then headed to Eastport.

We stopped at Rayes, the famous old mustard mill and peeped in on the 4th of July festivities downtown, where a big Navy ship was in port and kids were screaming on inflatable slides. We ate smoked salmon from a vendor and examined pictures of Old Sow, the giant whirlpool off the town (biggest in the western hemisphere), then we hopped back in the car.

We stopped briefly to see Cobscook Bay and talked about the 20 foot tides in the area. Later we stopped again in a storm as we took pictures of a double rainbow connecting Canada and the US over the St. Croix River. Then we were off to Forest City, where our friends met us in a little runabout and took us over to the island they partly own in East Grand Lake. The next morning we went back and got our kayaks so we could paddle (internationally!) around and look at the wildlife on this relatively unspoiled lake.

It was a wonderful stay with some of our favorite people in a rustic cabin with no electricity and a propane powered refrigerator. Early morning bracing swims, eating, relaxing on the porch, stomping around the island alone carefully watching and listening to the world, and playing in the lake. . .it was wonderful. At night I could hear the water, chortling loons, and the squeaking bats in the rafters. I could have moved right in, it was relaxing in all the right ways. Except for the large mosquito population this year.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Blog Grenade

I do not belong to a religion. Please get over it. Please stop explaining to me why kids need to go to church to learn morals or have answers in the world and then complimenting me for having a great capacity for independent thought.

I far prefer people who ask questions than follow prescribed answers. It's one thing to want your kid to get cultural history or community or even to force a conveniently matching viewpoint to your own on them. But I've heard this bit about morals coming only from church too often lately. Even from friends who are thinking of having kids who don't attend church themselves.

Where does this come from? Are you hoping your kid will stop asking you pesky hard questions and instead say their questions in their heads with their eyes closed? Do you want them to not to begin sentences with WHY? Good luck.

By the way, my first trip to the principal's office was in first grade when I encountered a girl talking about "God," a completely foreign concept that sounded nuttier to me than believing Santa had the same handwriting as my mom. I asked her why this, and why that, and tried to understand until she burst into tears.

Do you think your kids are listening intently to sermons to learn how to act in the world? Newsflash: They are learning from your actions. Sending them to church for a couple of hours a week isn't teaching them to navigate their world. You are. Don't use religion as an excuse for your own personal failings. There are lots of options. Like being okay with not having all the answers so that your kids are, too. Or …like birth control.

Living is hard. Living with other people is hard. Our stifling society teaches us that if we just don't address important, extremely normal parts of life and buy all the right products then everyone can pretend they're happy. Why do Christians often seem to need to ask me "but what will you tell your child about death?" Are those of us without a religion supposed to keep our thoughts on this subject a secret? No one told me.

There are many reasons people turn to prescribed religions. I think there are a lot of reasons you might want your kids to share this with you. But if you presume it's the only place to learn morals, then you are assuming I am immoral. So you probably shouldn't provoke me then, right? Especially since you won't know what to expect from someone whose allegiance has not been pledged to anything you can Google. . . .


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Baby Bat!

We were playing a game by candlelight in an island cabin in northern Maine last night when this squeaking baby bat (about 1" -- that crack is just the space between the fireplace and the flooring) fell from the ceiling. We scooped it gently onto a paper plate and transferred it up on a ledge on the stepped chimney. Suddenly its mom swooped down, scooped him up in her wing like it was a pouch and crawled up the entire chimney that way until she had her baby safely upside down in the rafters again!