Category Archives: Maine

Once upon a Vernal Pool

Late at night, I listen to the peepers in the vernal pool down in my woods. During a vernal pool monitoring project run by the University of Maine at Orono in 2009, I learned that most wood frogs leave a vernal pool at the northeastern point of the pool and head for uplands, where they spend the summer. But a few less successful frogs go in the wrong direction. I wondered what happens to those frogs. It seemed like a riddle that prompted answering…

Yet another challenge recently there has been a lot of discussion about proposed legislative changes to protection for significant vernal pools in Maine. Many experts testified at an April 25th hearing in Augusta on the importance of vernal pool protections. They achieved their goal and the committee voted to keep the state’s vernal pool protection laws, which have been in place since 2006. For a fact sheet on Vernal Pool Regulation in Maine, see http://www.nae.usace.army.mil/reg/VernalPoolRegulationMaineFAQ.pdf For more information about the University of Maine’s Vernal Pool Project, visit:http://www.umaine.edu/vernalpools/

The vernal pool in my woods inspired this poem about a wayward wood frog named Wren.

Once upon a Vernal Pool

Once upon a midnight clearing
April rains had ceased to fall
A lonely loon far off called dearly
Wood frogs, from a vernal pool,
Carefully crawled.

Most had spawned, left the pool
Heading northeast to uplands
Except for Wren, the little fool,
A wood frog who lived for wetlands.

Little Wren, so full of cheer,
Chirped into the late May nights
When all of her friends disappeared,
She hopped to it, setting her sights

On a stream she crossed in floods
That Big Night. Fast water trailed
Down through the thick woods
And Wren climbed aboard a stick
With trembling leaves, she sailed.

To read full poem, click here.

Save the Eels – New Book by Trout Illustrator, James Prosek

Growing up on a lake in Maine, my brother and I liked to lean over the end of the dock, shine a flashlight into the water on summer nights and lure the eels. They’d swim over to the beam, poke their heads out of the water and kiss the flashlight. I used to feel them slip passed my legs when I swam at night. They felt slippery because eels cover their bodies with a layer of mucous. But over the years, I’ve encountered fewer eels in the lake. Their population has decreased. In lakes and streams and rivers all over the world, eels are disappearing.

In the 1880s, the New York Times claimed that the eels in the St. Lawrence River were abundant; the population could never be diminished. Freshwater eels are the only fish that spends its adult life in freshwater and then returns to oceans—namely the dark Sargasso Sea, to spawn and then die. Juvenile (elver) eels travel up streams and tributaries of the Mississippi River and migrate into other freshwaters—lakes, wetlands, ponds—where they live until they reach maturity. For some eels, this can take many years, even 100 years. Once they reach reproductive maturity, they migrate back down the streams and rivers to the ocean, back to the Sargasso Sea, to spawn. They don’t come back. This is because eels go into their silver stage of development and their whole system degenerates. Their reproduction cycle has a “will self-destruct” button after they spawn. Unfortunately, nowadays eels are increasingly threatened by destruction of habitat caused by coastal development and construction of dams as well as overfishing. In the last 20 years, the population has been diminished by possibly as much as 99%. (FWS)

FWS released a status review of the American eel in 2007 which showed that while the eel population has decreased in some areas, the overall world population was not endangered. The eel was not added to the Endangered Species list. “Overfishing and hydropower turbines continue to impact eels in some regions, such as Lake Ontario and Chesapeake Bay, although these factors do not fully explain the reduced number of eels migrating up the Saint Lawrence Seaway and into Lake Ontario,” explained FWS biologist Heather Bell on the 2007 report.http://www.greenenvironmentnews.com/Environment/Wildlife/Endangered+Species+
Act+Protection+for+American+Eel+Not+Needed For more information on the American eel and the FWS research on considering it for protection, go to:http://www.fws.gov/northeast/newsroom/eels.html FWS mapped a model of eel habitat in 2001:http://www.fws.gov/r5gomp/gom/habitatstudy/metadata/American_eel_model.htm

Meanwhile, one man is calling for eel conservation. Check out this article by James Prosek, on Yale’s Environment 360 blog: “A Steady, Steep Decline for the Lowly, Uncharismatic Eel”http://e360.yale.edu/feature/a_steady_steep_decline_for_the_lowly_uncharismatic_
eel/2316/

Prosek’s new book is titled, Eels – An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish. According to a New York Times review, Eels is more than a “fish book.” It is an “impassioned defense of nature itself, rescued from the tired rhetoric of 1970s-style environmentalism by good, honest shoe-leather reporting.” Prosek takes the reader to eel haunts around the world: a river in the Catskills of New York; the traditional Maori eeling grounds of New Zealand; and an odd little volcanic island…http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/books/review/Greenberg-t.html Prosek previously won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the 17th-century author of The Compleat Angler. Prosek’s watercolor paintings of fish first appeared in his book, Trout: an Illustrated History http://www.amazon.com/Trout-Illustrated-History-James-Prosek/dp/067944453X

In the U.S., most people have a general dislike for eels. But in other parts of the world, eels are treated with respect, having a place in ancient myths and sacred beliefs, for example, in New Zealand. Scotland just published its first eel conservation management plan in 2010. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/marine/Salmon-Trout-Coarse/eelsNorway passed new laws that assign fishing quotas, lowering the allowable number of eels caught starting in 2010. http://marinesciencetoday.com/2009/07/03/norway-helps-endangered-european-eels-conservation/ Scientists in England are also calling attention to the problem of eels vanishing from the Thames River.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/conservation/7046249/Eels-vanishing-from-River-Thames-scientists-warn.html

Also check out a related article in the Orion Magazine:http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5610

Related video: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/audio-video/item/orion_original_video_eel_water_rock_man/

Related link: New York Department of Environmental Conservation led an eel conservation project this year (2010): http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/49580.html

Additionally, check out the photos of “tame eels” eating crackers in this album:http://www.thewildernesslodge.org/biche_images.htm

Living with Less and an Island Love Story

Lately there have been a lot of stories about the “new” minimalist movement. American homes are getting smaller. Couples are downsizing and getting rid of 80% of their stuff and adopting a minimalist lifestyle http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/
08/portland_couples_extreme_downs.html
 The Small Home Movement has replaced the desire for “McMansions” and come at a time when many people can’t afford a big home. Jay Shafer founded his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company on the notion that people really only need 89 square feet to accommodate a two-person household. By downsizing this dramatically, he eliminated his debt and now lives more simply. His house designs range in plans from 65-835 square feet, a lot smaller than the average American home.http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/ He’s not alone. Others are promoting the same idea. Tiny House Blog http://tinyhouseblog.com/ Not So Big Househttp://www.notsobighouse.com/

The trendy minimalist movement reminds me of the back-to-landers of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. City dwellers, driven by a desire to lead a better, simpler life, migrated to rural areas, including islands off the coast of Maine. But this wasn’t a new thing in the 1960s. It’s been a recurring phenomenon over the centuries, according to the poet Gary Snyder. Homesteading is another name for it. Urban problems such as the energy crisis, water pollution, lack of environmental protection for the natural landscape—these were the issues that prompted the “back-to-landers” of the 1960s and ‘70s to leave the city in search of a pure lifestyle and to work the land. Often this required fetching water from a stream or pond, or digging a well, and growing food.

Helen and Scott Nearing are two of the most recognized “back-to-landers.” They lived on a rural farm in Vermont until 1952, when they settled their “Forest Farm” in Maine. The couple authored a number of books on what they called, “the good life.” The Good Life Center in Harborside, Maine carries on their mission. http://www.goodlife.org/

My favorite love story played out on a beautiful Maine island called Placentia. Arthur and Nan Kellam, an aviation engineer (who worked in Wisconsin http://www.allbusiness.com/environment-natural-resources/ecology/14528751-1.html) and his wife, moved from California in 1949 and settled on the 500 acre island. They built a house in a little clearing and left love notes for one another every time they separated for the day—to explore different parts of their beloved island. Placentia Island has a number of ephemeral streams, seeps and forested wetlands, mainly Spruce fir and sphagnum moss, with wild chanterelle mushrooms and cherry trees.

Art built a great bandstand overlooking the sea, for his wife, a romantic spot. He also had another little building he called his “retreat,” which had ingenious Murphy-style furniture, when folded out one way, became a table; when adjusted, became a bookshelf or storage. The Kellams had two wells, one near the house and one near the bandstand.  They didn’t have running water, electricity or any convenience that the mainlanders enjoyed. They grew vegetables in their garden. They rowed their dory to the nearby Great Gott Island for supplies like kerosene.  Sometimes friends, including the Rockefellers, brought fresh milk and oranges, but the Kellams sustained their private life together on very little from the outside world. Fog encircled the island on most days, preventing casual visits from neighboring islanders.http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/13/garden/living-to-the-power-of-two.html?pagewanted=all

This past spring author Peter Blanchard III published a book about the Kellams entitled,We Were an Island http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/143608.html partly based on Nan’s writings and unfinished book that she started with her husband. She described in her journal that they had searched for a place, an island that would fulfill their “dream of peace.”

I visited the house in 1999, just a few years before Nan passed away. Inside the house, it is easy to picture how everything had its place; they each had their spot for sitting, a single desk, stacks of TIME magazine (so they kept up on current events!) It inspired the poem, “If I Were an Island,” which was published on the New Maine Times.  The Nature Conservancy manages the uninhabited Placentia Island. The only way to visit the island is to sign up to volunteer to work in one of TNC’s nature preserves—with Placentia Island, a nesting site for bald eagles, being on the list for September 2010: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/maine/volunteer/art24384.html

Follow the Maine Birding Trail

Growing up in Maine, I took for granted that I lived in the “vacation” state. My brother and I were lucky to get to go hiking, camping, fishing, exploring and swimming each summer—the sorts of things that some kids from other parts of the country only got to do in Maine during their all-too short summer vacations. The Maine Birding Trail brochure highlights many of my favorite places from childhood. My mother pushed me in a stroller at Kettle Cove and Pine Point,where I fought the gulls for my steamed clams. On some kind of leash built for toddlers, I climbed Bradbury Mountain with my parents and looked through binoculars at osprey nests. As a little girl, I watched sparrows and egrets with my elementary school classmates in canoes at Scarborough Marsh. I lost my raincoat. I ran with the sandpipers along Popham Beach. Our family ventured out on boats a lot, too, to islands, where I liked to spot bald eagles. But my favorite—my token bird—was always the Great Blue Heron, who appeared wherever I waded into saltwater: the Great Salt Bay Farm in Damariscotta is still a favorite spot for my family to walk today. For a link to the draft Maine Birding Trail brochure, go to:http://www.mainebirdingtrail.com/Draft_Brochure.pdf  For other information about Maine birding and the areas mentioned in this blog post, visit: http://www.mainebirdingtrail.com/Brochure.html

What is a Fairy House?

A fairy house, or gnome home, is a small structure built in the woods, usually found at the base of a tree, or in lower branches, alongside a mossy tree stump, or driftwood on a beach. Building materials include natural and found things from the woods, but sometimes people add common household items, such as a button, a bottle cork, a piece of string. It is a 100+ year tradition in Maine, especially along the coast and on the islands. But fairy houses can be found throughout the country, and in other countries. In Maine the tradition dates back to the early 1900s, when many island communities had working farms. Traveling schoolteachers from Massachusetts brought folk tales involving fairies that inspired islanders—children and adults alike—to build gnome homes to attract fairies in order to watch over the livestock and children during Maine winters. A fairy house traditionally included a tiny altar with a small offering, such as a coin, to pay the fairies to help the farmers; if there was a particularly harsh winter, and children or livestock died, the more superstitious islanders blamed the fairies.

Over the decades, fairy houses—whether to allow them, for instance, has been a controversy on some Maine islands, including Monhegan. (Wall Street Journal covered this story in 1999, along with several Maine newspapers). I have found fairy houses on over 60 of Maine’s islands, and have built them over the years in many “secret” locations throughout Maine. Every mother I met on the islands I visited believed that her children originated the fairy house idea but this is actually a centuries old tradition in some parts of the world. I have also witnessed as competitive parents stabilized their kids’ gnome homes with hot glue guns, duct tape and staples. In this case, the structure was really built in a workshop at home, then transplanted to the base of a tree. Generally, fairy houses are not permanent structures; they last until the end of summer or fall, then disintegrate during a typical rainstorm. In places where there are anti-fairy house forces, such as groups of people called, “Stompers,” sometimes the gnome home lasts only until it is discovered, which is why it is important to build anonymously, minimally and somewhere hidden. In other communities, fairy houses are enjoyed and even maintained by people—or gnomes—who can say for sure—and can last decades.

This week I helped teach local fourth-graders how to build “eco-friendly” fairy houses in Black Brook Preserve here in Windham, Maine. I’ve developed worksheets and taught elementary school kids how to think about fairy houses, or gnome homes, in an eco-friendly way. In fact, I became a sort of expert in the topic after completing a year-long project at College of the Atlantic. I visited over 25 Maine islands and researched the fairy house tradition on the Maine coast, and then wrote my college senior thesis on the ecological, political and historical aspects of the long-held tradition.