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Awanadjo Almanack - Issue 119

Blue Hill: the Town, the Bay, the Mountain

By Rob McCall
Whan that Aprille with his shores soot The drought of Marche hath perched to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vert engendered is the flour… So priketh hem nature in hir corages, Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
—from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, late 14th century

Dear Friends: It is April, and Nature—unperturbed—is carefully, calmly, lovingly, and honestly doing what she has always done at this season since long before human folly. Nature remembers in eons, not in years. She cares little for our horrible history. As always, the red-winged blackbirds have returned to these parts with their thrilling liquid trilling, surpassing Mozart or Schubert. The finches and chickadees have chimed in with their delicate descant. The ravens soaring over the town and the mountain have added their gurgling alto to the chorus. The freed waters of the mill brook now take up the tenor part, and the tidal falls the bass. The downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers and the partridges begin drumming on dead trunks and logs their percussive accompaniment to this first movement of the symphony of spring.
Black BirdIllustrations by Candace Hutchison (3)
The vast open-air concert hall that is the North Woods is not as bleak as it was even a week ago. It is being decorated with subtle colors and arrangements that would make Martha Stewart weep. The sap is rising in the oaks and maples. The fine branches of the swamp maples are turning red against the gray as their buds push out. The bark of the red oaks is swelling to show stripes of dusty rose between the gray we have seen all winter. The dark wands of the pussy willows are dotted with spots of near-white as their soft catkins push forth during the warmth of the day. Rank opinion We enjoy an exquisitely long season of spring in these parts, from Groundhog Day in early February until the apples and lilacs come into bloom at the end of May, a good four months. But our great comfort is in the ageless familiarity of this recurring, synchronous symphony. Our souls are stirred by its opening notes, like Beethoven’s fifth symphony, reminding us of the whole composition that will perform itself in the months to come: this concerto, this oratorio that has been hailed by a thousand thousand generations, and no critic would dare deride. Maybe we cannot clearly see, as the ancients could, the Great Composer and Conductor directing this symphony from a podium high above. But we can still watch and hear the great organic earth orchestra faultlessly responding with ageless and matchless skill and dedication to the motions of the invisible baton in the invisible hand. We can still revere the Conductor and the performers of this music of the spheres. We can still teach our friends, our children, and our grandchildren to shake off the death dirge of Winter and sing the song of Spring. We can still join the band, take up our parched, pale, and paltry instruments, breathe the dust off of them, and blow our own Ode to Joy. Saltwater report, early April The water in the bay looks like hammered stainless steel these April days, reflecting the metallic gray of the sky, but every now and then a bright sun will transform the bay to cobalt blue set with millions of glittering diamonds almost too bright for the eye to behold.
Spring picks up speed as the leaves begin to break out on aspen, maples, wild cherries, lilacs, apples, and other fruit trees.
Mountain report, early April Our mountain, Awanadjo—Blue Hill, Small Misty Mountain in the Algonkian language—is first veiled in mist, then draped with tatters of fog rising from the hollows below, then wrapped in cloud so as to be invisible, then looming over the town like a great brown bear asleep. They say if you can see the top of the mountain it is not about to rain, but if the summit is covered in cloud, reach for your rain gear. Seedpod to carry around with you From E.B. White: “The first day of spring was once the time for taking the young virgins in the fields, there in dalliance to set an example of fertility for Nature to follow. Now, we just set the clocks an hour ahead and change the oil in the crankcase.”
Umbrella
Natural and un-natural events, mid April April showers it is, not just dribbling from the eaves, but pouring in exuberant streams and coursing happily through every brook, stream, and ditch, raising a chant to delight the heart. The sun is higher than in March and the air is warmer. The ground responds by quickly greening and the buds of trees and shrubs agree with swelling pastels peeking out of their shiny sheathes; a hint of silver in the apple buds, a hint of red in the swamp maples, and a hint of yellow in the forsythia promising splendor yet to come. April showers come in several varieties. Last year at this time it was the dreary, clammy sort borne on the east wind off the ocean, bringing the kind of damp cold that laughs at your coats and hats and blows right through into your bones with all the creeping chill of the deep northern seas. Rain driven by wind thundered on the roof and hammered on the east side of the house and carved meandering rivulets through winter’s mud and sand. Field and forest report, mid April A few stalwart songbirds have returned, including song sparrows, white-capped sparrows, and slate-colored juncos. But the great homecoming will wait until May, when more and more songs will fill the air as each day goes by. Yellow colt’s foot blooms in the ditches, and deer nibble down the green shoots of daylilies in the yard. Rank opinion As without, so within. While the long winter takes its toll on the soul, we lose our selves piece by piece. Our colors fade, our songs fall silent, our spirits sink, our souls shrivel. But spring returns, bringing the songbirds, the daffodils, and the crocuses like lost pieces of our personalities coming home once more to find their familiar places in our hearts. Day by day our missing parts are returned, and we are completed once again. Like the world around us, we are warmed and filled and giddy with the puddle-jumping joy of it. Natural and un-natural events, late April Now that the frost is out of the ground in most places, the creatures Aristotle called “the intestines of the earth” resume their ageless, essential work of soil-making. Tiny piles of dark, rich earthworm castings have begun to appear wherever there is bare ground. During heavy rains, earthworms scurry to the surface and robins sing their joyful rain-song in anticipation of a hearty meal. With cocked head and careful attention, crows, too, can be seen stalking the lowly earthworm after a rain. Charles Darwin, who devoted a lifetime of study and his last book to them, wrote, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures….Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.”
Yellow Flower
Field and forest report, late April In winter there are few smells in the great out-of-doors. Wood smoke is fine, but tell me, what is the aroma of snow and ice? Now that April is well along, the earthy odor of dirt is back. And brook water with its leafy acidic tang. And saltwater with its sweet maritime perfume. And gassy clam flats. A rich smorgasbord of scents presents itself to our senses. Once our sense of smell has been reawakened, then we can begin to imagine again the delectable aromas of daffodils, lilacs, apple blossoms, Rugosa roses, and sun on fallen pine needles, all yet to come as this season unfolds. Another seedpod to carry around with you From Margaret Atwood: “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” Field and forest report, early May Forsythia is coming into bloom now, as are the red maples with their dazzling carmine-colored blossoms, fully as spectacular as any garden flower but so much smaller. Take a hand lens out with you and study the red-maple bloom. Aspen catkins are falling, and their small, translucent leaves are appearing. Lilac bud-clusters are emerging, though still covered. Hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, and jonquils are blooming in warm, sunny places, bringing their reliable, perennial cheer to a damp downeast spring. Mountain report, early May From the east cliffs of Awanadjo the forest stretches off as far as the eye can see in all directions except southeast; there we see only water. The woods are beginning to take on a little color; pink for stands of swamp maple, pale green for aspen, yellow for willow. Town report, early May We’re hard at work getting winter’s sand raked back into the street, where the road commissioner and crew can sweep it up. Yards are being raked, flowerbeds uncovered, shrubs trimmed. Work has begun on the town wharf and potholes are being patched. We hasten to complete what was left incomplete and to fix what was broken. Natural events, mid May Spring picks up speed as the leaves begin to break out on aspen, maples, wild cherries, lilacs, apples, and other fruit trees. White ash trees are now decorated with clusters of dark-purple blossoms. Dandelions smile in fields and lawns as honeybees and bumblebees visit hungrily. Bluets and violets twinkle in the meadows, and the leaves of lupine are the size of a child’s hand, with a clear drop of water in the center. Baby blue forget-me-nots are springing up in shady places. Catbirds and hummingbirds are back, and we greet them like old friends returning. Gardeners are working feverishly to beat the blackflies. “Sow what?” says Old Grumpy. “Sow yourself!” we answer back. Mountain report, mid May Small brooks and streams still chatter down the sides of Awanadjo and her head is wreathed in cloud most mornings. In vernal pools in the Wisdom Woods cloudy globs of salamander eggs float just below the surface. Turkey vultures circle silently along the cliffs, scanning the ground beneath for their next meal; fresh or not, it matters not. Their feathers are dark brown to black and their heads are small, featherless, and red. Unlike other birds, these scavengers locate their food mostly by smell, not sight. On six-foot wings raised in a slight V with pinions like fingers, their soaring flight is elegant to behold, though many of this bird’s other habits are decidedly not. Field and forest report, late May Wild cherry and shadbush are in petal fall, and their tiny green fruits are beginning to shape up. Wild strawberries are in bloom, with small, white, five-petalled flowers and three oval saw-toothed green leaves contrasting with their red stems and runners: a beautiful plant preparing a sublime fruit. I can think of nothing that compares to the taste of wild strawberries when they finally come ripe around the middle of June in these parts. Now is a good time to find your wild strawberry patch while the flowers are so visible. But remember, these places are often well-guarded secrets, passed down from mother to daughter, and you may be treading on someone’s ancestral claim. If you are going on private property, you’d best have permission. Blueberries, too, are coming into bloom. Traditionally, these belonged not to the landowner but to the forager. It was legal to take them on another’s land, just as it was legal to take deer this way. In Maine, blueberries were taken out of the public realm and made the legal property of the landowner back in the 19th century, making possible the blueberry industry, and raising the question: “Who owns the earth and its bounty?” Rank opinion Virtually all spiritual traditions acknowledge that the Earth does not belong to man, but to the Creator, and that we are simply its tenants and caretakers. We hold the land at the pleasure of its true Owner to use it righteously and for the benefit of all. If we abuse it, it will be taken from us and given to others who will care for it. Mountain report, late May One day about this time last year I started up the mountain quite early in the morning in heavy fog dripping from the trees. At the first rest stop my heart was pounding, but at a nice even pace. Suddenly it seemed to speed up. Faster, faster, faster it thumped as though it might explode. I had visions of dropping dead in my tracks and making a nice breakfast for the turkey buzzards until I realized that what I was hearing was not my heart, but a partridge drumming on a log in the woods a little higher up the mountain. I breathed a sigh of relief. The buzzards will have to wait. A final seedpod to carry around with you From Frank Zappa: “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice—there are other possibilities: one is paperwork, another is nostalgia.” That’s the almanack for this time. But don’t take it from us—we’re no experts. Go out and see for yourself.
Yr. mst. hmble & obd’nt servant,
Rob McCall


Rob McCall is a journalist, naturalist, and fiddler, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, Maine UCC. This column derives from his weekly radio show on WERU, 89.9 FM, Blue Hill and 99.9 Bangor. Readers can contact him directly via e-mail: awanadjoalmanack@gmail.com or post a comment using the form below.