Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So I’ll stop and look right past

I’m at the library in Mars Hill today, freezing my butt off because they have the air-conditioning on. It’s 69 degrees outside, people! That’s cooler than my grandma keeps her heat in winter! But I’m not complaining because they have high-speed internet, so for seven more brief minutes I have access to the world of art and civilization and celebrity gossip.

Today it’s a bit of good news, bad news. The good news is that aspects of the garden are flourishing. I can’t believe I managed to raise such gorgeous lettuce from seed. I have not been brave enough to eat it yet, although I’m convinced that tomorrow is the day. It’s not that I’m afraid, but more that I don’t want to kill it by too vigorous grazing, as I always do with my basil plants. But I want to be able to say I had farm-fresh lettuce, raised from seed, before the end of June.

In the bad news, I discovered an infestation of potato beetles in my squash yesterday. Argh. The anger. I can’t begin to explain it. I feel the same way as I do about the deer flies that persist in biting me on the butt through my yoga plants. Or maybe worse.

I’ve never been sold completely on the idea of organic gardening—I’ve spent enough time in the third world to know the advantages fertilizers have given to the poor, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to pee in a bucket and let it ferment in order to get phosphates in the soil rather than just letting a factory do that for me. Anyway. The jury is still out on that decision, but I’m having a much harder time making the decision to use pesticides. It just seems brutal, and reading that the pesticides my 1970s-era gardening book recommends also kill honeybees chills my heart.

Still, I can’t just watch my squash and cucumber plants shrivel up and die. More and more I understand the conundrum of the contemporary farmer. I don’t want to kill my bees or my birds, but I want those dastardly beetles gone. I’m investigating organic solutions, and in the meantime, crushing as many as I can between my fingers.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

God gave me style

Another unidentified flower

I distinctly remember the day I learned the meaning of the phrase “I like the cut of your jib.” Secret was anchored in Georgetown harbor, and we were hanging out with crew from two other boats—a duo of crazy western Australians and another couple, the female half of which was Native American and the male half of which was a treasure hunter. He bought a video camera to fasten to the front of his hull, and they were heading to the Ragged Islands, a chain of rugged coral outcroppings in a remote part of the Bahamas, famous because so many boats wrecked there. That’s the idea behind treasure hunting—you go to the places where the most boats have wrecked, which doesn’t seem like that brilliant of a strategy for one’s own boat. This same couple took a Boston Whaler across the Gulf Stream, so elements of their sanity may have been questionable.

She wove us a rainbow-bead dream-catcher to hang in our boat. It still hangs from the bulletin board of my Chattanooga office, and I remember them, and wonder if they ever made it past the Ragged Islands.

They had a Cal 33, designed by Gary Mull, the same dude who designed the Ranger 33s, which Secret was. Cals are slower boats, beamier, more for cruising than for racing, and I was jealous. Not only did their boat have standing head room for us tall people, but it had space. They had old-fashioned hanked-on foresails, which they bemoaned, but I was jealous of those, too. Our roller-furler was barely working at that point and hanked-on sails sounded so much easier.

Best yet, they had a blade jib. A sail shaped like a blade, 87 percent of their sail area—as sexy as it sounds. I said, almost without hearing myself, “I like the cut of your… jib.” I meant it, standing there, in front of someone’s jib, envying it.

I’ve been doing that with land lately, with weather. I love this little chunk of land carved out at the bottom of Snow Road. Bridgewater is the local town, with 700 residents, but the denizens of Snow Road like to claim that this city is a separate village altogether. Snow Settlement. Where people like to drink boxed wine and Mountain Dew, where you hear the neighbor shoot a couple of rounds of .22s on a Sunday afternoon, where free-range moose roam across the road, where you walk home using the fireflies to light y0ur way.

If there’s one thing that Snow Road has in spades, it’s snow. We had snow here about two weeks later than anyone else, and we get snow about two weeks earlier. Spending three days up at a lake made me feel like I was living in a separate micro-climate. There was actually sun. It shone. I got color in my face. My shoulders grew back their freckles.

Not only is this the road of snow, but the house is located at a little divot at the bottom of the road, where, even on these long summer days, shade begins at five pm. I have to go to the corner of the lawn to do a sunny sun salutation. The garden’s located at the edge of the beaver pond, so it gets the most light. It’d be the perfect situation for a house. If the house was in Alabama.

On nice days, like today, I trek uphill to R.’s place. He’s the neighbor that lives in a bus, and I sit out on the bus’s attached hardwood deck until the last glimmer of sun disappears from the top of the hill.

I’m not complaining. I refuse to complain about the weather. I’m just noting that a road on the wrong side of the only hill in 500 square miles, on the lowest ground on that road, in the county that I theorize has the worst weather in the continental United States (Perhaps barring parts of northern North Dakota—someone look it up for me? Please? Someone who has internet?), makes for some cloudy, dreary days, even in June.

So. Whoever you are, wherever you live (unless perhaps you live in North Dakota). I like the cut of your jib.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On the living room floor

These are the golden, dreamy days of summer, when light stretches until ten o'clock at night, when even the black flies are dazed for what passes as heat, when the loons call over the lake and the moon rises low and yellow. These are the days that make me realize why people live in Maine. Maybe. I just spent three days at a Little Madawaska Lake with friends, fishing, kayaking, reading, and sitting in the sun.

And now, so soon, the days are getting shorter again. If there's one thing Aroostook County forces me to realize, it's how fleeting are the days of summer. I spent as many minutes as possible outside today, even if it was just wandering around barefoot in the grass. Even weeding leeks is exquisite joy if I can have sun on my shoulders. Rain's forecast for all of this weekend, but I'm going to appreciate every seventy-degree day I get.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Everything is free

Sunset over potato fields

Another job on my list of ideas from the Bahamas was Emerald Bay, a resort in Exuma. I had several resorts on my job list, mainly in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, places where a bilingual American may have been able to slip her foot in the door. It’s funny to imagine now the alternate life I could be living—as a receptionist at a posh hotel, bumming around with fellow expats at night, rowing home by dinghy to my home in the cluttered harbor. It sounds so sexy, and yet I know I wouldn’t trade the life I have now for that one.

No matter where I am, working for some big corporation, even one in an exotic beachfront locale, makes me miserable. I’ve known that for years, since about when I started working. What makes me happy is living for myself, working for myself, being completely dependent on my own whims and wits and laziness for survival. I sit at a desk most of the day here, in Aroostook County, but it’s my own desk and my own choice.

When I was working in a cubicle, on some days, bad days, I could actually feel each useless second slip by, as if each one tinkled as it passed, dropping into the glass hourglass of my life. I could feel my body spreading wide, dying beneath me. I was getting paid for each of those seconds, a pretty hefty wage at that, when I think about how much I earn now, but it didn’t matter. I was a whore—I was selling each moment of my time, when time is all I have.

So. I could get a big job with a corporation here. Big telemarketing firms have outposts in Maine. There are hunting lodges and convention centers here, the Maine equivalent of resorts, not to mention doctors’ offices and restaurants. Or I could continue to carve out a hardscrabble life for myself on my own—seeing what I can grown and can and preserve, picking up odd jobs here and there—maybe cutting Christmas trees again this year or harvesting potatoes this fall, maybe making wreathes out of northern Maine red crap (my favorite unidentified plant up here), catching an occasional communication consulting job on the internet. Because the less I have, the less I need.

Here’s a song for today, from Gillian Welch:

Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay

I can get a tip jar
Gas up the car
Try to make a little change
Down at the bar
I can get a straight job
I done it before
Never mind you’re working hard
It’s who I’m working for

Every day I wake up
Humming a song
But I don’t need to run around
I just stay home
Sing a little love song
My love and myself
If there’s something that you want to hear
You can sing it yourself

Because everything is free now
That’s what I said
No one’s gotta listen to
The words in my head
Someone hit the big score
I figured it out
And we’re gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay

Friday, June 17, 2011


I drove thirty miles to the big city today for an electric bug repellent device that I have no guarantee will work. I’m not sure about its environmental impact, either, but these things are driving me crazy. The joke in Maine is that there are four seasons: winter, winter, winter, and black fly season, and we’re hardcore into black fly season as of June. I’m not complaining, but I am declaring nuclear war.

There are all these techniques, like BTi, a kind of bacterial organic biocide that you dunk in the beaver creek. But it sounds awful. Better for me to breath in the electric biocides than all the poor little peepers. I’ve still been managing my two-mile walk every day, but I leave in a good mood and come back in a bad one, covered in bites, even with the Deep Woods Deet.

Illegitimi non carborundum. That’s all I can say about the suckers. I’ve seen some mosquitoes in my day: the Sierra Nevada after snowmelt, the Florida Everglades at the wrong time of year, Thailand. But Maine swamp may do me in.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The walls of red wing

This weekend I threw a big party, my first up here. I made fried chicken, coleslaw, and potato salad, all my grandma’s recipes, plus a Greek pasta salad, from the other side. In my ideal life, I imagine myself with a close circle of intelligent, creative, erudite friends, whom I greet on the lawn with a tray full of cocktails and witty repartee. I’m not saying I’m there yet, but Saturday night was the northern Maine equivalent, and it felt fantastic.

There’s something about being in a place, being consistently in the same place, that allows one to build community. Maybe this fact is obvious, goes without saying. It certainly must for most people. But for me the concept is still exotic, alien. I’m not good at staying in one place. I’m still not convinced I’m staying here. But it’s amazing how after a couple of months I can begin to gather around myself like-minded individuals for sangria and bonfires.

And today: writing, yoga, computer games on the evil new/old Sega Genesis, and then a walk through the back of the land, where a butterfly hit me in the face, where the road is still swamped out from rain and ankle-deep in water, where I wrestled a log across the washout and ended up with a slug attached to my nether-parts, but where I feel like I’m doing the business of really living. Then home, for leftover chicken and a view of the beavers in my binoculars, frolicking across the pond. Those are some giant beavers that live over there. Seriously. Giant. They’re like whales with big teeth.

I could complain about the weather. It’s been into the forties again tonight. I could complain about the garden, about how the spinach is already, mysteriously, going to seed, how we haven’t managed to get manure for the second garden, about how frustratingly slow progress on my book is going, but instead I feel the presence of very real joy, filling me up and overflowing. I am choosing to live here. I am choosing to take my own life in my hands and live by faith, and how does it repay me? With real, effervescent happiness.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Don’t have my drawing book

The lion farm

William was a guy we met in Exuma, a painter who hung out at the bar at Peace and Plenty, the hotel where we docked our dinghy, stole fresh water, and bought internet. We hoped that we could get some work from him. I have it in my little notebook, although it seems like it must have been a pretty dim possibility. We must have been hard up for prospects to put him on the list.

On the boat, we lived off fish, coconuts, and a 50-pound bag of rice, like Alexander Supertramp. I bought my first 50-pound bag of potatoes this week, Aroostook County potatoes, for $12. How long will that last? A long time, I’m hoping, but one never knows. How long would a bag of potatoes last me, if that was the only thing I had? The first thing I’d add would be a couple of chickens for eggs, but it’s when I begin thinking that way that I wonder about my financial security.

I don’t have a whole lot of expenses up here. I have to pay the electric bill, buy potatoes. And neither of those are essential, if eventually I install a solar panel and grow my own. But I still have to find away to pay for sundries. To replace parts. To buy seedlings and seed and peat moss.

How am I going to pay for expenses on an ongoing basis? That’s the challenge for those trying to live off the land. I could take a part-time job at a convenience store, or find something that pays more in the big city, thirty miles away. I could make and bottle my own hot sauce, if all the pper plants pull through. What I really want is to sell a story, but in order to do that I have to have a story that’s finished. I continue to push forward with writing every day, even on the days when it’s like digging a ditch.

I know it’s a long shot. Writers eat food that costs 24 cents a pound. Or less, if possible.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

You gotta go where you wanna go

Sky over the field before the storm

Working on the garden today, I decided that the next logical step is buying seedlings. I’ve been frustrated by its lack of progress, and it’s mainly because I missed the entire month of May, a month that would have been spent sprouting things. I didn’t anticipate my grandparents dying, a extended trip to Michigan. I’m now a month behind.

So we drove to a local greenhouse and bought $60 of seedlings—twenty six-packs and 120+ plants. A lot of money for me, but I spend probably half of that a week on produce at the grocery store. Fresh vegetables are a high priority.

This afternoon K. planted half of the new seedlings in the garden. This evening, severe thunderstorms swept through Aroostook County, bringing with them silver-dollar sized hail and a single tornado sighting. Fantastic. I’m hoping ce n’est pas grave, as they say in France and New Brunswick, that it’s not grave, that the winds and rain will toughen up the tomatoes and peppers and force them to take root in their new home.

I haven’t heard hail, but it continues to rain. The thunder makes Shadow pant in fear. It’s so frustrating, so nerve-wracking. I’m beginning to understand so much that I never did before, about the nature of farming—how it’s a process of constant existential faith. Crops are forever at the mercy of environmental forces. So much, everything, depends on the weather.

All of the progress that we’ve made in our modern era has been to eliminate that dependence, to erase it entirely. We can buy peaches at the grocery store no matter the season, enjoy sushi in restaurants no matter the tide, go tanning whether the sun shines or the rain falls. It’s so much more than that, though. It’s that the weather has absolutely no moral relevance to us. Unless a hurricane or blizzard hits, outside affects us not at all.

Here I sit, at the edge of the wilderness, clinging to the forecast by my fingernails. If there’s one thing I desire, it’s that constant existential crisis, that doubt and fear and hope and faith that mean I’m really living. If I can get that from hail and some cabbage plants, then I’m doing something right.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Younger faces, distant places

Beaver pond (view from my office)

I’m sitting at my desk, writing by hand in a notebook, as I did on my boat. It feels a bit like a boat here, a single-wide trailer on the edge of the wilderness, looking out on a beaver pond. Two moose sightings last week, plus two in one day when we went fishing with a friend from Caribou. My brother-in-law asked if I was watching ABC tonight.

I said, “No, I don’t get ABC. I’m watching Boston beat the Canucks in hockey, because I get Canadian TV.”

He said, “Don’t worry, just go to and watch…”

“I don’t get internet,” I said.

“What are you, in 1910?” he asked.

Not really, but it feels like it some days. I get dial-up, which means no video and that I write things offline and then upload them by super-slow copper phone line. Probably from 1910. As I did on the boat, with my G3 iBook and the little solar panel that kept it charged.

I keep thinking about when I assisted in the recoring of Secret’s deck. When we bought her, the balsa core between her plywood decks was soggy with water, and I played first mate as we stripped it down, bought marine-grade plywood, cut plywood, relaid chopped glass and epoxy resin, sanded everything down… It felt like the process took an absolute eternity, but recoring the deck was a fundamental, part of the structural core of the boat, one of the things that had to be taken care of first.

I’m in that stage with my soil right now, wrestling with it, trying to give it the structural strength it needs. Each endless truckload of horse crap loaded into the garden feel like it just dissolves into clay-ey rocky dirt nothingness. A whole truckload, and it’s gone. I know it takes years. Years. I’m hoping the process only feels eternal, like the deck recore of yore.

Part of it is accepting that the garden is playing second fiddle to my writing, and it’s never going to get my full attention. I had that problem on the boat, too. In order to stay sane, I have priorities, and the things that are the most important come first. New in the garden as of today are: turnips, turnip greens. Popping their heads up are radish seedlings, that came from a three-year-old Family Dollar seed packet. Twenty cents!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Bridgewater, Maine

Closeup of stitches

One of the things I’ve been immersing myself in since returning to Maine is afghan double crochet, a project started by my mother when I was still in utero. It’s such an old-fashioned stitch that I couldn’t even identify it when I started working. I had a friend familiar with crochet do research in her books until finally she found something that looked similar and taught it to me. I’ve been doing some knitting lately, but haven’t crocheted since I was a child.

My mom had planned a quilt with alternating brown and cream panels, on which she was to applique a floral pattern, long since lost. I’m working on the second brown panel, with two skeins of circa 1970s yarn in the corner of my office. I don’t know what I’ll applique, but having the same fabric move through my hands that moved through her hands makes me feel connected to her. Her stitches are much better than mine. Much more regular. There are whole patches where I’ve constricted the grain of the cloth (is that the right word?) and others where it bags, loose pieces of yarn sagging out.

Still, connecting to the physical reality of fabric, of yarn, makes me feel like I’m really living in the world of things instead of the world of ideas. It allows me a fluidity of thought that few other things can match. Maybe weeding, sometimes. Or chopping vegetables.

Also shoveling horse crap. We’ve put two truckloads into the garden since I’ve been back, and nothing makes me feel more like an old-fashioned farmhand than that. I’m sporting my grandfather’s old garden pants as I shovel, and manure on my hands during the day and yarn through my fingers at night make me feel like I’m really living. In the garden so far are: onions, leeks, peas, radishes, spinach, and lettuce. Nothing is doing great except the onions. In the glass room are basil, oregano, dill, and peppers. Keep your fingers crossed. One of these days my green thumb is going to sprout.