Awanadjo Almanack — March/April 2023
Welcome Downeast—The Town, the Bays, the Mountains
March arrived with a roar by way of a snowstorm. While the wind blew and the lights flickered and the sound of breaking branches was heard on the wind, we were getting as much as three inches of snow an hour during the height of the storm. When it all died down there was at least a foot of heavy wet snow on the flat, and drifts higher than that in some places: A classic snow storm; and it was beautiful. After the storm, the sun began to break through and we heard the chickadee’s chant and the mourning dove’s doleful call, as they resumed their courting for another year. Speaking only for myself, I would have felt cheated if we hadn’t gotten at least one storm like this before spring comes waltzing in.
Natural events, March
Watching spring arrive is like watching a huge, lumbering, hungry polar bear who wants to devour you, being magically changed into a cute, scampering chipmunk who wants nothing more than to eat a peanut out of your hand. That is the sort of change that is coming upon us. No wonder Easter and other spring festivals come along now. We are living out the gradual victory of life over death.
The aching anticipation that we feel for the coming of spring is like that of a thirsty man for an ice-cold drink, or like a lost puppy for home, or like a lover for her beloved. It’s a favorite subject of great poets, but it is a feeling known by every creature. There is a time in the depths of winter when it is too painful to even think about spring for fear of losing the strength to go on. But that time is now past and we will be getting real tastes of spring, like stealing a strip of bacon while waiting for that big lumberjack breakfast to be served. And the beauty of it is that this feast will be served up for everyone who takes breath, rich or poor, high or low, great or small; from the eagle high above to the earthworm underground. It’s a universal banquet that feeds the soul, and blows our blues away.
Last week we saw a troop of starlings hopping single file along the narrow path to the compost looking for tiny patches of bare ground where there might be some sustenance. We’ve had reports of bluebirds in their grey winter plumage feeding on winterberries on Monhegan Island. This week they are showing up in their bright blue courting clothes right across the Benjamin River from our headquarters, and getting the royal treatment, too. Robins arrived in our neck of the woods last week as did dark-eyed juncos. Robins seem to be finding some worms out there, hard as that is to imagine. Juncos eat primarily weed seeds, of which they will find an abundant supply around here, weeds being a specialty of ours. Woodpeckers are tapping and red squirrels are chasing each other, both sure signs of spring. We have not seen a chipmunk yet; they are hibernators. Meanwhile, a convoy of Canada geese honked their way home.
Field and forest report
Lars Mytting, in his classic book Norwegian Wood, Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, covers the whole span and scope of heating with firewood in the Scandinavian countries. He begins with a story that long-time wood-burners will surely understand. The author’s neighbor is an old man with health problems who rarely ventures out of the house all winter except to get the mail. One day a load of wood is dumped in the old man’s yard. In Scandinavia, firewood is delivered in the spring. After a while, the old man comes slowly out of the house to look at the load of wood. Then he goes back in the house. Next day he comes out and stacks just a few pieces of wood, then back into the house again. Next day when the old man comes out, the author offers to help, but is kindly refused. Day by day the old man, stacks more and more wood until at long last the job is done, the wood-pile stands straight and true, and the old man is revived and rejuvenated for the season ahead. Robert Frost says that wood warms you twice; it can just as surely resurrect you a few times, too.
Natural events, April
April is the month of running water. It’s running through your downspouts, through your yard, through your cellar, and through rivers, brooks and streams to the sea. Working its way northward as Maine thaws out and the last ice breaks up, April is a liquid month and a liberating month as we are sprung from the prison of winter just as the rivers are released from their icy fetters. That giddy feeling we get on an April day may be just what the rivers and streams are feeling too, with water again stroking their banks, or what the maples are feeling with that sweet sap again coursing through their veins, or what the robins are feeling out a’worming with April showers running down their backs. They sing a joyful song when they see the rain clouds coming. April is a month of running water.
While the waters are running quick and fresh, winter-addled paddlers are pushing off into the torrent to race downstream avoiding rocks, shoals, eddies, huge standing waves, and other hazards while their hearts pound and their frigid fingers grasp the paddle in a death-grip all the while trying to prevent their own baptism by ice-cold water. Sound like fun? The grand-daddy of Maine canoe races is the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, this year running on April 15, 2023.
When the frost leaves the ground it turns the soil into something resembling chocolate pudding—a sticky, gooey mess. I recall getting a big old International tractor stuck in a well-known muddy spot at the end of a row in an orchard on the farm where I was employed. This mud hole was well-known, but not to me at the time, as I was new on the job. I walked shyly a quarter mile back to the barn and got a smaller 4-wheel drive John Deere tractor, then drove back to the orchard. I promptly got that one stuck too. After another humiliating walk I got the big old farm truck and a very long chain and another man to help and by dint of great effort we pulled everything back onto solid ground. Needless to say, that mud hole was then well-known to me and I never got stuck there again.
Field and forest report
Pussy willows are the humble bearers of what may be the first wild blossoms of the season, and what strange flowers they are: just a bundle of silky gray fluff with no petals, no round golden center, no bright colors, all emerging from hard, shiny buds, when it is still frosty at night. The reveal comes later when those cuddly kitties are covered with golden pollen. There are a number of kinds of wild willow (genus Salix) found in Maine, mostly growing close to slow-moving water. Willow is full of the liquid spirit of April. One year we kept the pussy willow stalks in water until they rooted. I stuck one in a wet spot out back and it sprouted and thrived there, giving us pussy willows every April for years. The First People used red willow bark as a natural aspirin; the bark was peeled off and dried and steeped to make tea. Very effective. The old timers also knew how to make a willow whistle with a short piece of a willow stalk and a pocket knife.
Another April blooming wildflower is Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfar), which looks like a dandelion, but is more closely related to the asters. Coltsfoot is often found along roadsides rising on short leafless stems. The large heart-shaped leaves, which give the plant its name, come along later in the season.
Since long before Chaucer’s pilgrims set out in April to make their pilgrimage to Canterbury, spring has been a time to travel. The cold months of foul weather have passed, the days are lengthening, and the songs of birds are heard in the land. When I was still a teenager, a group of us felt the surge of spring and took up President Kennedy’s challenge to hike 50 miles for fitness. Wearing my Sunday shoes I made 46 miles by nightfall, but could not get another mile out of my poor blistered feet.
Thirty years later a group of us walked to Bangor in the footsteps of Blue Hill’s Rev. Jonathan Fisher. We covered 36 miles over two days and enjoyed ourselves so much that we did it again the following year, and the year after. On that pilgrimage we encountered every kind of weather: warm, chilly, sunny, cloudy, rain, sleet, and snow. The fragrances of the awakening Earth, the pent-up energy of a long winter, and the intoxication of spring fever make for a giddy exhilaration, and put a bounce in the step and a song in the heart. And so it has been since the dawn of time—the vernal urge to ramble blooms in the human heart.
Natural events, late April
Our town, way out on a peninsula nearly surrounded by cold ocean waters, loves its daffodils. Members of the Narcissus family and originally from Holland, they seem to be everywhere these days, bright yellow with a heady perfume, at once sweet and musky, wafting on the westerly winds, trumpeting the good news that it’s mud-time again. They adorn flower beds, peek out from along stone walls, and spring up randomly in front yards. Never mind if your house is aging and needs paint, you can still plant daffodils to cheer yourself and any pilgrims passing by.
Farther out of town the red maples (Acer rubrum) are in bloom. Also called “swamp maple” because it doesn’t mind if its feet get wet, it makes fine firewood and will sprout vigorously from the stump when cut, thus assuring more firewood for time to come. It splits easily and has a sweet smell. But it is especially prized right now for its ravishing red flowers. From a distance the red maples look as if a rosy veil has been thrown over them. But up close… Oh my! You can find pictures of the tiny flowers but, I beg you, go out and see them for real with the songs of birds and brooks and the smell of wet earth all around!
Seedpods to carry around
From John Muir: “When you try to move anything in Nature, you soon find it is connected to everything else.”
From William Cullen Bryant: “There is no glory in star or blossom till looked upon by loving eye: there is no fragrance in April breezes till breathed with joy as they wander by.”
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. humble & obd’nt servant,
Rob McCall lives in Brooklin, Maine. This almanack is excerpted from his radio show on WERU FM, which can be streamed on weru.org.