Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yoda and the Woodpile

Little House Behind the Backwoods part 2----Lessons From the Woodpile.

After doing all of the things I wrote about yesterday in part 1, it occurred to me that at no point during the day did I have a worrisome or negative thought. I didn't fret about getting older and having no hair, teeth or health insurance, I didn't stress about my bank balances, and I didn't give the socio-economic-political condition of the planet a second thought. All that passed through my mind over the last couple of days was doing each task efficiently through to its' completion and then moving on to the next chore. And when I went to bed I was happy and content with myself and the world around me. Which made me wonder......did our grandparents and great-grandparents have time to be depressed? What did they do in a world before anti-depressants were advertised as regularly as shampoo and modes of transportation?

Except for four population centers, Maine is about 95% rural and has been since long before it became a state in 1820. Up until the outbreak of WWII most of Maine's economy was based on agriculture and sea harvesting. A typical day for the average man of the house would begin by getting up while it was still dark, feeding the livestock, milking the cows if he had any and they almost always did, go into the fields and work 'til lunchtime after which he returned to the fields until the sun began to set and he headed home for a hardy supper. Once he'd eaten he go out to feed the livestock and milk the cows again before turning in for the night. During and between the planting and harvesting seasons he was also responsible for cutting wood for heating and cooking, building and repairing anything that needed it, maintaining all tools and 'machinery' if he were fortunate enough to own any, and when time allowed, be a husband, father, and child of God. A typical day for the average woman of the house began pretty much the same way. Up before the sun to load and light the stove to cook the breakfast that would sustain the menfolk until lunchtime. After washing the pots and dishes and before gathering the eggs and separating the cream from the milk, she'd begin the arduous process of laundry--hauling water--cold for work clothes and nearly boiled for under garments, bed linens, and 'store bought for Sunday' items. Soaking and boiling, agitating over a wash board in lye soap, rinsing and wringing, then hung out to dry. Since this took a great deal of time to accomplish she usually did it in shifts so she could also prepare lunch and dinner--cleaning and peeling vegetables from the garden she tended herself, roasting, baking, seasoning, and stirring. Pots and dishes scrubbed it's back to the next phase of the laundry--but not before giving the house an overall sweeping and tidying. A wee bit of ironing some of the clothes that have dried with a two-pound pyramid shaped wood stove heated chunk of metal and a lot of elbow grease. Somewhere in the midst of all this activity was the occasional need to play referee or nurse to squabbling children. Depending on the time of year she may be busy canning, pickling, and putting up preserves. A well stocked larder and root cellar was the pride and measuring stick of every woman. In the evenings after clearing away and scouring pots and dishes from supper, she took up her needle and thread and attended to the never-empty mending basket while listening to her husband's account of his day and plans for tomorrow. It's getting late and kerosene is dear so off to bed they went.

Everything was done by hand then. There were no washers and dryers, no electric stoves or microwaves, no dishwashers, no coffee makers or food processors. No refrigerators or freezers. Indoor plumbing was a luxury that city folk had. Few people could afford tractors so they either hitched up a horse or pulled the plow and carts themselves. They also harvested produce by hand and the sweat of their brows. They used scythes and rakes to mow and bail hay for the cattle and other livestock for the winter. The 'simple life' was never simple, it was a lot of hard, back breaking, muscle ripping work. They didn't give much thought to wondering who they were or why they were there. They were who they were where they were. It was called life and they lived it the best they could. Some made out better than others but the cycle of life kept on turning and everyone had a shot at being a success at least once in a while. These were our ancestors of only a few generations back and they are worthy of our remembrance and appreciation. Not to mention our respect for what they endured and achieved.

Somehow I just can't imagine that anyone had time to be depressed. And even if they were they didn't have the time to dwell on it. I'm sure they had their share of alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide. I've read plenty of historical novels and biographic accounts. What I'm discovering about me-myself lately is that when I'm in the thick of physically involved labour outside in the brisk Autumn air, I feel completely disinclined to inventory grievances or problems--real or hypothetical. Could be the air, could be exhaustion. Whoever said a job well done need never be done again didn't work with nature or much of anything else come to think of it.

I've finished all the clearing, pruning, chopping and stacking I needed to. I kind of dread not having more to do for fear I'll go back to being a curmudgeon. Then again, next to skiing and ice-fishing, being a curmudgeon is one of Maine's favourite winter past-times. If there's a prize, I'm a contender.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Earning a Good Night's Sleep

What follows is the first installment from my "Little House Behind the Back Woods" series.

Nothing compares to going to bed after a long and productive day of intense physical labour in the great wide open Maine outdoors. I have been diligently striving to reclaim parts of the yard that 26 years of my absence has allowed to 'go native'. For those of you who know me personally the concept of my doing ANYTHING physically taxing is cause for mild amusement if not an outright guffaw. Now picture me dressed in beat-up jeans, a long sleeved undershirt layered beneath a flannel over shirt. Completing the ensemble are a pair of above-the-ankle work boots, a pair of heavy leather work gloves and to top it all off......wait for it............a baseball cap! Returning to Maine has completely changed my life---and lifestyle. If anyone had shown me a picture of what I'd look like in October back in May while I was still in Texas I'd probably have canceled the moving van. Once I'd stopped laughing that is.

As it happens, I am back on the land of my birth and the American roots of my family history and find that I am embracing it far more and far faster than I thought I would. The past two days have been devoted to clearing under brush, trimming dead branches from the immediate forest surrounding the house and the fine art of firewood. Yes, firewood. Along with the clearing and pruning there were several trees that needed to come down having long since died. I have laid them to rest, dismembered their limbs, chopped up the trunks and then split the chunks into hearth sized morsels. From about 8am to dusk (around 6 pm). The undergrowth must first be cut, then hauled into the open, gathered, secured, and hauled again to its final resting place in a field beyond the tree line. Same goes for the pruned branches. The metric ass-load of leaves found their way there last week. When it becomes too dark for me to see what I'm doing I go inside, eat a hearty dinner (which I put into the crock pot at 7 am that morning) followed by some needlework and then off to bed. Oh, the absolute bliss of laying down in a bed with line-dried linens and falling into a deep, restful sleep having ruminated about all that had been accomplished and planning out tomorrows itinerary. Up the next morning at 6 am--after a cup of coffee, a few cigarettes. and two Alleve I'm good to go.

There's an art to stacking firewood. I now have a stack that is four feet high and fifteen feet long. That's a lot of chopping, splitting, and stacking. If anyone has ever seen the PBS series "Colonial House" you have a good idea what I'm talking about. I would like to think I've done something extraordinary but the truth is it's what everyone here does to keep warm and survive the winter. Heating oil is a very dear commodity in these parts so it has to be supplemented with alternative fuel ie wood. I am really appreciating what all of our forebears had to do before someone invented flipping a switch. I am also appreciating what hard physical work does for one's mind and self esteem. I have several thoughts on that subject which I'll share tomorrow. It's amazing what one can learn from a wood pile.

Until tomorrow I leave you with a blessing--may your axe hold its' edge til the last tree's felled.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Keep Your Mud To Yourself--Free the Rainbow

I have been avoiding this blog installment for several weeks. A couple of my Gentle Readers asked for more information about some things I said in my very first installment. Specifically about my comment that I support 'civil unions' and oppose 'gay marriage'. The other question was about my Celtic/Buddhist spiritual leanings. I have avoided responding to these queries because I'd prefer to leave politics and religion out of my blog--there are plenty of them that cover nothing but. However, since I asked folks for subject topics it is only appropriate that I honour their requests.

Let me state here and now that what follows are MY opinions and I do not expect anyone to agree or advocate what I think. I'll try to clarify my viewpoint on the whole 'gay marriage' issue today. Religion will have to wait for another time--after I install the bullet-proof glass in all the exterior windows.

What do I have against 'gay marriage'? In a word: semantics. Any time you throw a defining word in front of a subject it dispels the entire notion of equality--which is the whole point of the drive for recognition. Marriage is marriage regardless of who comprises the couple. Perhaps we should begin with my definitions of the subjects. Civil unions are comprised of any two people of whatever gender combination entering into a committed relationship that is recognized by local, state, and federal laws. It includes all the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of conventional marriage. This means that either spouse has the right of survivorship to inherit an estate, have binding input where healthcare and custodial decisions are concerned, and receive compensation from insurance companies and retirement funds. Yes, 'civil union' sounds very much like conventional 'marriage'. The difference between the two is that 'gay marriage' really frightens and pisses off Conservatives, Hard-Line Christians, and Conservative Hard-Line Christians. Apparently they believe that 'marriage' belongs to them exclusively on religious and moral grounds and to allow their fellow citizens who happen to be gay (many of them equally religious) the right to marry will just muddy the water and turn 'marriage' into a farce. Sorry, but a 50% divorce rate and multiple marriages punctuated by infidelity within the heterosexual population pretty much takes care of the 'farce' department. I am not opposed to the institution--just the term. If you put the word gay in front of marriage it automatically negates the equality just as putting the word 'mixed' in front of marriage did 40 years ago. Somehow 'mixed marriage' just wasn't on the same level as 'same-race' marriage. And yet, today, married people of differing ethnicities are equally protected under the law in this country provided they are of opposite genders. I believe that any two people of legal age who truly love one another and think they have a shot at making their relationship work should be allowed to join in a legally recognized commitment. Regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. To badly paraphrase our most cherished national documents: All men (human beings) are created equal and have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one or group has the right to deny their fellow humans privileges that they freely enjoy themselves. It's not about religion or religious beliefs. It's about equality and civil rights. Separation of Church and State. Call it whatever you want to, it comes down to fairness and common decency between all law-abiding tax paying citizens of this nation.

Gay people have come a long way since Stonewall. Soap operas, prime-time television, even their own cable networks have brought them into the mainstream. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear. We always fear what we don't understand. Or choose not to understand. Rather than spending millions on campaign ads for and against the issue, marching and protesting pro and con the subject, we'd all be better off focusing our resources and energy on dispelling fear of the unknown by working toward understanding what's truly at stake here. The equal right to love.

Perhaps then the waters would begin to clear when everyone stopped throwing mud into it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Windex vs The Environment

It's my mother's fault. I am not attempting to shirk responsibility or point the finger unjustly. I unabashedly declare that it is my mother's fault for two reasons that were beyond my control. The first reason is that at a very early age she taught me how to wash windows correctly and thoroughly; initiating me into the mysteries of all the ways and means of achieving a streak-free shine. I cannot reveal them here because I'd have to kill you--thus eliminating at least one precious gentle reader. The second reason is that my mother is an obsessive creature of habits and traditions that date back to the Garden of Eden when Eve installed the first thermal paned window giving her an ideal view down the garden path to her apple orchard. Apparently it is an unwritten Maine tradition to wash one's windows (at the very least) twice a year. Once in the Spring sometime around Easter as part of the annual Spring Cleaning Ritual--which lasts throughout summer. The second is in the Autumn sometime after Labor Day and before Thanksgiving. Today was that day. Unfortunately my mother doesn't subscribe to my theory that less than perfectly clean windows is actually a good thing. It cuts down on harmful ultra-violet radiation and serves as a natural sunscreen. She points out that since the sun's rays are now slanting away from us it's important to clean the windows to extract the most amount of light possible in order to continue cleaning everything else. So, with all appropriate utensils in hand I proceeded into the afternoon sunshine (43 degrees) and set to work. After I had completed all the outside surfaces I came inside to finish the job. Once completed I sat and marveled at my accomplishment and accepted my mother's praise humbly. To reward myself I picked up the novel I'm reading--the biography of Bess of Hardwicke--and settled into my comfy chair.

At one point--and I don't know why--eye strain or butt numbness--I looked up and out of the window. Something in the air outside over the clearing behind the house was getting larger and seemed to be approaching quickly. I was transfixed. After a second or so I began to think it was a single engine aircraft skimming over the tree tops. Then I saw the ever-so-slight twitch of the wing tips. From then on it was all in slow motion. This perfectly formed flying machine coming directly at me at 60 miles an hour. The intent golden beady eyes fixed on it's prey. The landing gear consisting of two sets of three inch talons. And the incredible thud resounding both inside and outside of the house. Scarlet, my Bastet look-alike black cat, had been sleeping unseen (at least by me) on the windowsill behind the buffet and in front of the window. She was now ascending straight up to become one with the ceiling. My mother exclaimed from another room and I jumped up to extricate Scarlet from the curtain rod she had attached herself to. I told mother what had happened and went outside to investigate. There on the ground beneath the window was the largest goshawk I'd ever seen. OK, it was the only goshawk I'd ever seen that close. And he was still alive. And he didn't look as though he was in any way amused or impressed with my window cleaning abilities. He'd been denied Scarlet for lunch and he was giving me the once over as a suitable menu substitute. It became apparent he had injured one of his wings and one of his legs. How it is he didn't break his neck is beyond me. I went back inside and called the wild animal rescue people. They're more accustomed to rescuing moose who've wandered into bogs or bear that have wandered into homes. They came within the hour because I told them it was a bald eagle. I lied to them and I'm sorry but I really didn't want this fabulous creature to fall victim to the bobcats or coyotes that regularly patrol the area of our house. The rescue people were very sympathetic to the goshawk and to my 'ignorance'. They patiently pointed out (in the dulcet tones one employs in speaking to a four-year-old) that the colouring was all wrong and that an eagle's wingspan is much wider than this birds four foot spread. Hey, when this thing is coming at you that fast and has lunch in his eyes and ginsu knives for feet it's a bloody Boeing 747 alright, buddy?

I will give my mother credit for selecting shatter-proof glass when she had the new windows installed three years ago. Otherwise I'd still be picking shards out of the carpet. Now I just have to figure out how I'm going to pay for Scarlet's PTSD therapy. I am so tempted to go outside and throw dirt at the windows and reaffirm my case for being less aggressive on this whole cleanliness issue in consideration of wildlife conservation. That will have to wait until after I've hung out the next load of laundry and finish raking leaves. Maine is gorgeous the year round but especially in the Autumn. The fun never stops. Between falling leaves and descending pterodactyls life is an endless adventure.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Autumnal Rapture and a Poem

Maine is at the zenith of her beauty during this time of year. During the day she's wrapped in a cloak covered in amber and ruby, citrine and topaz, garnet and gold. The landscape dazzles against a sapphire sky. At night she's all black velvet and diamonds. It is good to be home again.

What follows is a little something that came to me after taking a star-studded stroll last night. I can't say I had anything particular in mind as I wrote it down. I certainly didn't feel as dark as the poem turned out. Must be the Stephen King effect on Maine in October. I think it's in the water.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Irony

The stars
are made of all
we wish for--
the wants, desires
from all nations, faiths,
and generations--
that are beyond our owning.

They glitter,
shine and sparkle--leading us on
teasing, taunting,
reminding us what it is
to be human.

we gaze skyward
seeking fulfillment from
their pulsing indifference--
like them, bright and burning.

No empathy emanates from the stars.