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Awanadjo Almanack - Issue 114

Blue Hill: the Town, the Bay, the Mountain

By Rob McCall
“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you want, but it fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!”
—Mark Twain

Dear Friends: With the showers of April the grass begins to turn green, and the apple trees start to show green tip. With luck we won’t be seeing frost for months ahead. Last year at this time I was raking and hauling brush when I noticed a swarm of insects circling close to the ground. They were furry black with yellow and orange on their backs. They hovered over several small holes in the ground, each surrounded by tiny grains of clay like an anthill. I’d never seen anything like this before. They looked like bees with homes in the ground. I went back to my work resolving to do some research at the end of the day.
green lizardIllustration by Candace Hutchinson
That evening I discovered to my amazement that these were “miner” or “digger” bees, of which there are some 900 varieties in Maine. They are the foremost wild pollinator in Maine and are largely responsible for our blueberry crop. The shock to me was that I had known nothing about digger bees; never heard of them; couldn’t remember ever seeing one before. Here was a whole realm of nature opened before my eyes for the first time at the advanced age of 66. And I thought I knew a little something about insects and the natural world. Ha! Likewise, perhaps you read last year about the six-foot-long, tree-climbing, fruit-eating monitor lizard discovered by herpetologists in the Philippines. This brightly colored creature, nearly as big as the famous Komodo dragon, was unknown to scientists. It has now received an official scientific classification, Varanus bitatawa, and will be written up in all the journals and be a scaly celebrity for a time. Of course, the locals knew it was there all along, but apparently nobody bothered to ask them: “Say, do you have any huge, brightly colored, tree-dwelling, fruit-eating lizards around here?” Rank opinion You might wonder how this lizard could go undiscovered for so long, but I don’t, because I just discovered digger bees for the first time in my life. Look, there are marvels and mysteries aplenty out there. We don’t know the half of it. The limits of our knowledge are far narrower than the limits of our conceit. We are more interested in what we think we know than in what we don’t, even though the unknown is so often far grander, more elegant, and more mysterious than the known. I’m not just talking about science here. There is so much we don’t know about our neighbors, our friends, our family members, and our leaders. Yet we go on ahead judging, criticizing, and condemning them with our sorely limited understanding. The bitter judgments of gossips and pundits become our sour daily bread, and we toast each other with the wine of their bile. Meanwhile, the whole world is starving for a taste of the humble bread of human compassion and the sweet milk of human kindness. Mysteries are revealed to the meek. Natural Events From the Almanack archives: The glorious days of spring, neither long nor short, neither hot nor cold, just as predicted in the almanacs. Cosmically, at least, the center holds. We humans are not always so predictable. Here’s a funny thing. I sometimes find myself agreeing with pundits of both the right and the left. One day I may read Ann Coulter and say, “You tell ’em, sister!” Next day I might listen to Al Franken and say, “Right on brother!” Is it strange to swing back and forth like this? Maybe not. Here’s why: There is a beautiful 170-year-old hand-wound clock in the church where I serve. It has a round, gilt frame and a swinging pendulum behind its white face, which is hand-painted with quirky Roman numerals. When the clock is balanced, it sounds an even “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock” like the beating of a healthy heart. When out of balance, there is an arrhythmia. Tipped to the left, it says, “tick-TOCK-tick-TOCK.” Tipped to the right, it says, “TICK-tock-TICK-tock.” Tipped too far to either side, it stops working altogether, just like the legislature or the Congress, and time stands still. Rank Opinion The lesson here is that lives, homes, nations, religions, and planets need balance. The pendulum must move back and forth in a gentle and orderly motion, and must always pass through the wide, quiet center, where for a time there’s no tick or tock, no left or right, where it points like a plumb line to the steady heart of the earth. You can’t be a militant centrist. This will disappoint extremists of both left and right who think centrism isn’t sexy. But, we’ve seen far too much militancy. Militants of the left gave us Stalin and Mao, who killed millions of innocents. Militants of the right gave us Hitler and Mussolini, who also killed millions. In the name of saving the world, all tried to stop the natural movement of the pendulum and hold back the orderly advance of the hands of history, with an incalculable cost in suffering. Yet, still the wounded earth turns around the plumb line at its center.
There are only old souls on the job—countless parents, teachers, healers, farmers, and tradesmen through the ages—laboring quietly with the Creator to keep the earth in balance.
Wild Speculation Can this central plumb line be a good measure of our works? Yes. There is abundant room in the center, between the extremes. Along the true plumb line, there is no right or left. There are no militants or extremists, no terrorists or crusaders, no celebrities or pundits, no heroes or saviors. There are only old souls on the job—countless parents, teachers, healers, farmers, and tradesmen through the ages—laboring quietly with the Creator to keep the earth in balance. Which side are you on? Maybe neither. Maybe you aren’t taking sides anymore. Maybe you’re satisfied at last to offer your true labor in that wide, quiet center that will always hold, while the extremes fall apart. Seedpods to Carry Around With You From Robert Frost: “A liberal is a man too broad minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” From Woodrow Wilson: “A conservative is a man who sits and thinks—mostly sits.” Field and Forest Report, Early May Spring continues to march double-time across the downeast landscape. The shadbush—also known as serviceberry, high-bush blueberry, June berry, and Saskatoon berry—is in bloom along the roadsides. So named because it blooms while the shad are running, the shadbush is a shrub or small tree with smooth, gray bark and five thin, white petals against a copper background. Its late summer berries look like blueberries but are less flavorful, though just as nutritious. In former times they were pounded with dried deer meat into pemmican. In the fields, bluets, blue violets, and white “dog-tooth” violets are in bloom, and dandelions are coming on in town. Along the roadsides the yellow coltsfoot, one of our earliest flowers, is going by with thick, white, seed heads, much like the dandelion. Beside them rise the primitive green stalks of the horsetail rush, also known as pot-rush for its gritty silicates useful for scrubbing pots. Early apples are showing some pink in their buds.
Hawk with fishIllustration by Candace Hutchinson
Mountain Report, Early May The blueberry barrens are bronze under an empty blue sky as I hike up to the west shoulder of Awanadjo—Blue Hill, or “Small Misty Mountain” in the Algonkian language. White buds and a few tiny, bell-shaped flowers dot the low glossy bushes; bumblebees nuzzle and bumble around near the ground. A hermit thrush flutes from the woods nearby, while the sparkling bay stretches off to the islands and the open ocean. Suddenly a great dark shadow runs along the ground, and I raise my eyes to see a silent osprey soaring from east to west on still wings. Memory turns to ospreys diving at me as I paddled too near their huge, stick-built nest in Conary Cove, or perching silent and ghostly on gray snags at Red Cove on Cobscook Bay. Like their slightly larger cousins, the bald eagles, ospreys were once few in number, due to the ravages of DDT. Now they inhabit every continent but Antarctica, circling and chirping over the waters, then folding their wings and dropping like a stone into the waves to rise with quivering fish in their talons. Natural Events, Mid May One apple tree looks pretty much like another; for most people it’s hard to tell them apart. It was so for me, too, until I had a natural born-again experience in an orchard 37 years ago last month, the day a crow showed me the dance of life and death. After that day, apple trees became the cherubim and seraphim of my earthly pilgrimage, and I began to recognize each distinct breed of tree by its shape and size, its flowers, its fruit, its twigs and bark. So it is with the dozen or so elderly apple trees in our little orchard, which I have tended over the past quarter century. The Wolf River varietal is large and spreading, as are its apples, yellow and red and abundant every other year, but poor keepers. Its blossoms are touched with pink, and its twigs are smooth with large nodes. Its spirit is one of generosity and sweetness. The yellow transparent is small and twisted, having lost several limbs. Its flowers are pure white, and its apples are early and yellow and also poor keepers. Its spirit is shy, but cordial. The crab apple is thin and bent, with much tiny, bright-red fruit good for jellies. Its spirit is sour and grudging, but faithful. And so it goes with all the trees, each with its own distinctive arboreality, alike yet distinct. Also alike are apple trees’ seasonal cycles. In spring as they emerge from their winter sleep, they show first what is called “green tip,” then quarter- or half-inch green, as the buds emerge. Then they show “mouse’s ear,” when tiny leaves pull away to show tightly bunched flower buds. Then it’s “tight cluster,” “early pink,” “late pink,” “popcorn,” “bloom,” and at last “petal-fall.” Last year at this time my apple angels were at pink to bloom, a little ahead of most years, but not alarmingly so; when I walked through the orchard I could feel their excitement. I could almost hear the rushing of sap, the creaking of swelling bark, the bursting of buds into blossom like ten thousand tiny umbrellas opening. I could sense the subtle impulses moving among their mingling roots like synapses while they chattered soundlessly with each other about how exquisitely good it all felt, don’t the bees tickle, and wasn’t that last rain shower just utter bliss? After being nearly dead for months, these ancient oracles were as awake and alive as they had ever been, shouting silent songs of praise and thanksgiving to the sky, wanting nothing more from life than that very moment. Field and Forest Report, Late May
LupineIllustration by Candace Hutchinson
The lupine, with its deep purple to lavender to blue to pink to ivory flowers, is in lush bloom along roadsides as it is each year from Asia to the Americas. The trademark Texas bluebonnet is a type of lupine; other types are enjoyed as a vegetable in Egypt and Lebanon. In Maine, the lupine generates distinctly mixed opinions. For some it is the quintessential symbol of spring: it welcomes rusticators back to their seasonal homes and spawns local lupine festivals up and down the coast. For others it is a noxious, invasive weed that threatens native plants, spurring eradication campaigns in Acadia National Park and other public lands. One man’s weed is another’s wildflower. Let’s look at both opinions. On the up side, the lupine shows strikingly elegant displays on its long flower stalks, spicing the air with its peppery aroma, feeding the bees with pollen, and delighting children of all ages with memories of Miss Rumphius. Being a legume, lupine improves the poor soils it prefers by fixing nitrogen in its deep roots. This tends to put the lupine out of business over time as other plants move in to take advantage of the improved fertility. Over the past 25 years I have watched abandoned blueberry fields go to lupine and then to grasses and other wildflowers in a natural progression. Many gardeners can testify to the difficulty of getting lupine started in an already healthy ecosystem. It prefers soil disturbed by such human activities as clearing, erosion, and construction. Further, the term “invasive species” ignores the fact that nearly all species now in Maine are non-indigenous, since the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago leaving only bare rock and till behind. Any list of so-called non-indigenous species in Maine must therefore include not just milfoil, Russian olive, purple loosestrife, and lupine, but also apples, lilacs, forsythia, dandelions, daisies, hawkweed or “Indian paintbrush,” corn, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, and just about everything in our gardens… not to forget dogs, cats, horses, and, of course, white people of European descent, some of whom are now trying to stomp out the lupine. In fact, it would be practically impossible to compile a list of species that did not come to Maine from somewhere else. We are all immigrants and sojourners. Now, to the down side of the lupine: Come to think of it, try as I may, I can find nothing about the lupine that justifies its destruction. Rank opinion Today’s invasive species will likely be tomorrow’s honored member of the living community. More Seedpods to Carry Around With You From E.J. Salisbury: “We can in fact only define a weed…in terms of the well-known definition of dirt—as matter out of place. What we call a weed is in fact merely a plant growing where we do not want it.” And from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” 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, fiddler, and long-time pastor of the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, Maine, UCC. Readers can contact him directly via e-mail: awanadjoalmanack@gmail.com or post a comment using the form below.