Rainbows and Writing in Bass Harbor

Rainbows are a meteorological and optical phenomenon that can cause the most jaded person to leap from their chair and dash outside, camera in hand. The definition I like most is this simple one: a rainbow occurs when raindrops and sunshine meet in a particular way. This one, over Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, looks more like a painting. The day had been blustery, with a few squalls and hardly any sun. That bit of magic was a fine surprise; emblematic of our time away.

This trip to the Maine coast was not idyllic in the way we have come to expect. My one-bag packing job that seemed so sensible bit me when Delta sent it to Detroit instead of Bangor. It eventually arrived two days later, but in the meantime I continued to wear the Florida-style white cropped slacks I wore on the plane, plus a black undershirt and soft old flannel shirt courtesy of Buck. Luckily, I had put a pair of socks and jogging shoes into his duffel bag, and so was able to put my sandals aside and keep my feet warm.

There is a point in the life of an old house where it goes from charming to . . . something else. This was the year when the old cottage we’ve stayed in several times before turned a bit, like milk left too long in the fridge. You know that point where it’s not quite sour, and the non-squeamish will go ahead and pour it on their cereal.  (I am not that person). And yet. Had we not gone, would the breakthroughs we experienced have come for either of us?

Something about an old wing chair gives a person cover for their thoughts. I took 100 pages of my manuscript to work on, a copy of Brian Kiteley’s remarkably helpful book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, along with several outstanding books downloaded to my Kindle to work through, including Jerome Stern’s utterly wonderful Making Shapely Fiction and the vintage The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. Many people have sat in that dilapidated chair. The place on the arms where people clutch and tense their hands is threadbare, and the seat has been reinforced with a folded bed sheet. I bolstered both height and comfort with a pillow from one of the beds upstairs, and there I sat every morning to watch the big tides rise to cover nearly all the rocks, and ebb away again, exposing everything. I watched the sun rise or the rains come. And I read, studied, wrote, and thought. Buck worked mostly at the table. We broke only for rainbows, to marvel at a young eagle flying right in front of the picture window, or for a half-sandwich or cup of soup at midday, and smoked salmon tidbits with red onion and capers or some such treat in the evening.

I thought I was writing a quick-read, supermarket paperback kind of mind candy book. And maybe that’s what it will grow down to be. But of the two main characters, one has a near pathological fear of commitment and the other a near pathological need to connect and dread of loss. Emerging themes cover the waterfront: Who am I? Who can I trust? Why can’t things be simple? Why can’t good things stay the same? Some things can’t be fixed.

This is beginning to get interesting.

Furman

Buck and I saw the older model gun-metal bronze pick-up truck first. It sat between the path to Back Beach and the rocks Maine folk call a beach.  It is a beach, of course, just not the barefoot-friendly confectioner’s sugar I know in Pensacola. Some might call it a beach with character.

The old man wasn’t tall or short. He wore faded dark navy twill long-sleeved coveralls. He stood holding the rim of a barrel, staring inside.

We found a large boulder built for two and sat. We listened to the sussurant surf. We talked quietly.  I watched the old man pick up an armful of kelp. He moved slowly and dropped it in the barrel.  I saw him move from the line of seaweed to the barrel several times. Then he twisted the barrel over to the truck, put his arms around it, slung the barrel upward onto the tailgate, and pushed it into the truck bed beside a second one.

After awhile, our bottoms grew numb and cold from sitting on the round rock. We moved toward the water, picking our way carefully among the rocks, the broken urchins, the lone thick rubber glove, the mussel shells and bits of shattered light bulbs. We watched a great blue heron take up a place by a tidal pool with the stolid gulls and preening cormorants.

Approaching twilight brought no-seeums. We turned back toward the path to the main road and the cottage.

The old man had three plastic crates on the rocks. He filled each one with kelp, then trudged back and forth to the truck and dumped them into the second barrel. Just as we passed, he looked up and spoke. “It’s fertilizer.”

Buck and I stopped, turned back toward the man. The three of us converged at his truck.

“Lots of minerals in seaweed,” I said, admiring the glistening green-gold brimming from the full barrels.

Buck spoke to the man. “You use it for compost?”

“Yes,” the man said, “The soil here is thin, so you have to . . .”

“Amend it.” I thought this sentence, not realizing I had spoken aloud.

He nodded. “Yes. Amend it.”  He took his time with the word, as though it was one he liked, but hadn’t heard for a long time.

A bug landed on the man’s forehead. Buck said, “There’s a mosquito on your forehead,” and reached as if to brush it away.

The man waved it from his face. “That’s the least of my problems, but thank you.” He and Buck were like old dogs greeting one another. “Where are you folks from?”

“Pensacola, Florida,” Buck said.

“I played football once in Tallahassee at Florida State University. It was hot. The humidity made everything wet. We lost.” He almost smiled.

He was on the South Carolina team at Furman University in 1956. I tried to identify the man’s accent, or rather lack of one. He told us he and his wife had come to this “godforsaken island” from North Georgia, up near Chattanooga, Tennessee. They planned to stay for a little while, maybe two years. He smiled this time, a pretty good one that revealed the young man.

“That was forty years ago. We raised all our kids here. It was a good place for kids. Great schools. Safe.”

“That’s no small thing in this world,” I said.

He had a penetrating way of looking at a person. He nodded. “Yes, that’s true.”

We three talked about nearby Flying Mountain and Echo Lake.

Another mosquito landed on the man’s temple. Buck reached out in a gesture full of a sort of masculine tenderness. The man inclined his head. Buck pressed the mosquito against the man’s skin with the palm of his hand and killed it. Buck looked at the smear of the man’s blood on his hand.

“Thank you,” the man said.

“I’m afraid I bloodied your hair,” Buck said, then wiped his hand slowly, almost a pat, on the front shoulder of the man’s worn coveralls. “Blood brothers,” Buck said. They chuckled.

“Yes,” the old man said.

We stood together without speaking for several seconds. The man spoke first. “Well, I guess I’ll finish my work.”

We pivoted to find our way home in the gathering dusk.

August Walk-About in the Longleaf Woods

The honey bee crawled in a circular motion around the ruby heart of this Man-of-the-Earth flower until he emerged, slow, heavy, his pollen baskets full.

It has been so long since I walked the forest fire lines, our woods have forgotten me. Networks of vines, roots, fallen trees and monsoon-like rains have eliminated any trace of footprints I may have left from years of walking from the house into the woods, my two-mile circuit a labyrinthine mantra. Selective forgetting is a good thing.

Standing water from the daily rains has been here so long I believe we could grow rice in this low spot on the fire line road.

I tread lightly at 7:30 this morning. No one, not bird, nor reptile, nor four-legged creature, nor sun-facing green-eye is expecting me to show up on this, one of the steamiest August days in memory.

Bright Balduinas stick their heads up from wind-tossed twigs.

Everything goes about its business like children do before they become awareness of parental observation, and I, too, am free to speak to no one, to poke about, to squish in my sodden, tick trefoil– covered old jogging shoes. When I was a child, we simply called those sticktights by their common name, beggar-lice.

Something has been nibbling on this ‘shroom.

The very woods themselves exuded the earthy scent of fungi. I crept into a copse of young pines to get a better look at a colony of reindeer moss. The mushroom smell there in that damp ground was so naturally strong that it seemed a primordial soup, seeping up from the ground or poured on my hair.

One of my favorite spots is a sandy depression that has become a small hollowed out space with a ledge overhanging it. It is always damp, and surrounded by hat pins, wild bachelor’s buttons, pink sundews and other bog-loving plants. Sometimes it is merely damp. Other times, like today, there is a miniature waterfall. I saw it teeming with tadpoles once, and hope to see that sight again. The sight made me feel incongruously privileged  — I guess, because the fact that I saw those changelings was strictly an accident of timing. I came back the next morning. They were gone.

I walked with a cross-body pouch containing my cell-phone, tissues, sun glasses to trade for my clear ones, two peppermints and my Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol. The grass was high in spots, it’s prime rattlesnake season, several coyotes together might decide I looked like breakfast, and one is never wise to blindly tip-toe through the wildflowers, discounting the possibility of  a two-legged wandering opportunist (a rare, but potentially lethal creature).

The great news I got yesterday from a sports medicine doc who diagnosed a partially torn rotator cuff in one shoulder and a bruised and angry one in the other, then injected cortisone and sent me off with a prescription for physical therapy, lightened my step. Maybe that doesn’t sound like such fine news, but when the alternative diagnosis was degenerative osteoarthritis of the shoulder, I came away a relieved and happy woman, ready to do the necessary to re-hab my wings.  We’ve rejoined our local health club starting October 1, which coincides with our homecoming from a return visit to the Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. The club has yoga classes now, in addition to the usual machines, weights and other classes. I have this dream of being lithe at 98. A yoga practice is a seed I intend to sprout and grow.

I returned to the house, sweaty and content. Buck was gearing up for the day. Granddaughter Andie was snoozing upstairs. I shucked my wet clothes, donned an old, seldom-used bathing suit, and plunged into the rain-cold water.

Just Life

It’s Thursday night, I think. Buck and I got back home to Pensacola last night. We made our way from Maggie Valley to Asheville and turned west on I-26 toward Columbia, South Carolina, where we picked up I-95 South to Savannah. I’d love to say we lingered in Savannah’s old town over a romantic dinner and walked along the river, but that would be a lie. Instead, we ducked sheets of rain and dodged wind gusts until about 5 o’clock. We found a bed and a delivery veggie pizza in a Hampton Inn at a motel city called Gateway South on the Jacksonville side of Savannah. Buck, dear soul, found a liquor store and bought me a fine bottle of single malt Scotch sippin’ whiskey to celebrate the eve of my 61st birthday. I didn’t hurt it too bad, though, anticipating the next day’s fasting for our annual Mayo Clinic wellness physicals.

We spent the evening talking about the romantic journey of our history together. We talked about our Maggie Valley stay, the visits with friends, the nice people we crossed trail with, how sweet it was to stay at the  “Awesome View” cottage, managed by Carolina Vacations, and how superb it was to live for two weeks in a Smoky Mountains’ rain forest garden.

I came away determined to garden again, despite arthritis that cramps my hands and shoulders, despite hungry deer that eat up all the proceeds.

Images of these perfect blooms will stay with me all through the heat of our Pensacola summer. We’ll be hunkered down here in the air-conditioned destination resort until September, when we’ll head to Bernard, Maine on Bass Harbor, back to the fabulously rustic “Captain’s Quarters” owned by the very dear golf croquet champion Jeanne Fernald. Got a note from Jeanne today, and she tells me there is still vacancy in July and August at Captain’s.  Shoot me a note if you’re interested and I’ll tell you all about it. We have stayed there at least three times in the past. Great place  — has its own lobster dock, and isn’t far from Acadia National Park.

This sweet little flower is on a vine I spotted this morning on an early walk down to our very own Longleaf Preserve gate. Early morning’s are the time to walk, while the air is still fragrant and cool. Our doc at Mayo said we should keep on keepin’ on, that our formula, whatever it is, is working. We’re apparently poster kids for the older set. Heh.

I’ve been talking to and writing back and forth with my brothers and sisters. Sweet wondrous folk, dear to my heart. Hard to think of old age, separation, illness and, you know. You know. The part I don’t want to think about. None of us do.

Our good friend, Betty Hunter, brought us a bottle of Pear Gorgonzola salad dressing when she and Jim came to see us in Maggie. I used some today to dress a salad of butter lettuce, Carolina Gold smoked turkey chunks, walnuts, red onion slivers, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Just about the best stuff I ever put in my mouth. Ooh, it was good.

Ain’t it pretty? Sockeye salmon in a teriyaki sauce with brown rice, baby spinach and wok-grilled red peppers and onions. Who says healthy eating is some kind of sacrificial act?

And doing a lazy backstroke in the cool blue open air pool surrounded by tall Longleaf pines, singing mocking birds,  flights of swallows,  the high drone of a circling helicopter, and the drifting perfume of vining honeysuckle, can you tell me that it really does get any better than this?

Blueberry Bliss

This old lost post from Mary Beth's kitchen pulls me back to the Little Island House. Kim and Charlene rented out the top floor,too, then, and it was filled with plants and wonderful books.

Renting a cottage on Maine's Mount Desert Island is one room in my own personal heaven. Stay in Kim and Charlene Strauss's The Little Island House or Jeanne Fernald's The Captain's Quarters in Bass Harbor for a special experience. Enjoy your morning coffee with warm sourdough and Blueberry Bliss jam, surrounded by dahlias, morning glories, rose hedges, and sweet peas clambering over old, stacked lobster traps, while you watch the extraordinary tides ebb and flow. The Little Island House actually becomes an island during high tide. Pure magic.

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The Little Island House

Bass Harbor, Maine

 

There will be plenty of time for lobsters and sweet corn after a day of hiking in the Acadia National Park. But on the first night, do yourself a favor. Find a big cast iron skillet — don't worry — I think it's a rule: they have to have one in a Maine coast cottage rental (along with a lobster pot) — and roast a chicken while you watch the sun set over Bass Harbor.

Rest the bird on thickly sliced Vidalia onions — available at Sawyer's Market in nearby Southwest Harbor — and stuff it with a large bunch of fresh thyme, an entire head of garlic sliced crosswise in half, a little salt and pepper and a whole lemon, cut in half. Season the outside and rub in some olive oil, then bake at 425 for about 1 1/2 hours. This recipe is based on Ina Garten's recipe for Perfect Roast Chicken from her marvelous book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

Meanwhile, find another oven-going pan, toss some whole new potatoes with the freshest carrots you can find and a little olive oil; roast them for the last 40 minutes.

While the chicken is roasting, head outside with good whiskey, some warm whole grain bread, one of many excellent local Cheddars, and hopefully a romantic companion. Find a good spot on the rocks to sit and watch the tide come in, the gulls, the cormorants with their wings outstretched in the wind, the lights and steam rising from lobster pots at Thurston's Lobster Pound across the way, and just gleam for sheer joy in the moment.

Southwest Harbor, Maine

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Southwest Harbor, Maine

July, 1990

The morning after we closed the sale of Aladdin Communications, Buck and I flew to Maine. We spent a week on a remote blueberry farm, and then drove along the coast, where we found Mount Desert Island and fell in love with the place. We didn’t stay in Bar Harbor, but went to the quieter side, with its lovely fishing villages and harbors. That first visit was the beginning of a continuing love affair with this part of the world.

Sunday Morning Musings

The adolescent-looking doe and her spotted baby fawn stood at the edge of the gravel road to the house just at dusk yesterday.  They watched as I opened the gate, drove in, then got out to close the gate behind me.  By the time I reached for my camera across the seat, they had melted into the woods.

Lovely sight. It's that time of year here, when  fawns are dropping, huge banana spiders hang in their substantial webs across the fireline roads, and amethyst asters mix with spiky goldenrod and the startlingly purple American Beauty Berries (French mulberries).

We have only been home since Tuesday night and will be gone again Wednesday morning. We'll be near Jasper, Georgia in a house atop Sanderlin Mountain for a few nights, and then continue to Waynesville, North Carolina to visit with our old friends in Rice Cove (the Beaverdam Community in Canton), hike the Smoky Mountains and osmose some of that high mountain inspiration.

I awoke this morning to the news that Bernard, Maine, where Buck and I were hiking exactly one week ago, is under a tropical storm watch (of all things).  Hurricane Kyle is expected to move into the Gulf of Maine today. 

In case you have the good fortune to visit the Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine, there is a book I highly recommend:

IMG_1557It was written by Tom St. Germain and published by Parkman Publications in Bar Harbor, Maine.

It's the best hiking guide I have used. We have handwritten notes in it going back to 1993.

Just as we were leaving the rental house in Bernard on Bass Harbor, one of the owners, Tom, arrived with two of his pups. Tom is originally from California, but has been in Maine long enough to be considered a local. He is a retired high school teacher, a kayaker, surfer, distance hiker and a writer.

His love for the Maine woods and waters shines through his words and gestures. He and his wife, Leslie, have a great place here, even without the fabulous view.

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IMG_1577  Bass Harbor from the retreat 

Well, we've washed our hiking shorts, tshirts and socks, and are ready to hit the road again on Wednesday!  Words and pictures to follow. . . .hope you all have a great week, too.