Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

About ten days ago, Ben and I returned from a stay at our last best place in the world, Star Island.  Pretty much we’ve been going there since before we can remember, and so it’s been part of our individual and combined family traditions forever.  I first arrived there at the age of eighteen months;  Ben was conceived there, and we are pretty sure we met there when we were four years old.  Our older child, Emily, went when she was a preschooler for the first time — thus securing the same kind of memory that we both held in our heads — and Abby’s first trip came when she was about nine months old, for an open up weekend in May.

My father-in-law helped build many of the buildings on the island and had a huge (now, forgotten by many) role in reopening Star Island after the second world war.  My mother-in-law came along with the kids, helping wherever she could, and making sure that her children had a great experience on this rocky, remote (and, in the 1950s) very rustic island with few services, drinking water imported by boat from Portsmouth, and one ship-to-shore radio telephone.

Over the years, generations of our family have had the same experience, and have gone to Star Island to spend a summer or an extended period of time working on what we call The Rock.  You really can’t go unless you can deal with seagulls, a couple of showers a week only, no cars, no televisions or media save what you might get from the wireless networks that can be up or down, and boat service that is sometimes subject to weather and engine failure.

And yet, we all pretty much remember it as the best time of our lives.  Where else can you spend the summer with just under 100 other young adults in a naturally pristine setting, feeling completely away from the rest of the world, working hard, playing hard, and drinking in the salt air and the starlight?  The shooting stars are better seen from the grass in front of the Star Island summerhouse or near the summer house; the swimming’s better in Smuttynose cove; the lime rickeys taste like nowhere else when they come from the Star Island Snack Bar.  It’s just the way it is.

And now, Abby.  Our second child is in the middle of that unparalleled experience and she is having the summer she, and we, always dreamed of.  She’s the fourteenth member of our family to spend a summer this way, and from all reports, it’s as magical as it ever was, as amazing as we dreamed it would be.  She’s sailing, trying out new jobs and helping out her friends, sun tanning and swimming, spending long days both working hard and celebrating summer in the perfect New Hampshire sea air.  And how bad can life be if you get up in the morning, gaze out the window, and see a sunrise and sailboats that look like a Childe Hassam painting every day?  Hassam, along with John Greenleaf Whittier and many of the top writers and artists of their day, flocked to the Isles of Shoals in the summer.  And we are fortunate enough to know why.

Photo of Abby on Star Island

A life like no other: Abby on Star Island, 2013

Before she went to Star this summer, Abby worried (as she has a tendency to do).  About whether she would have friends.  About whether she would like it. About (I think) whether she would disappoint us if she didn’t, given her family pedigree with the place.  About six hours after she left the dock in Portsmouth, bound for Star, I got a text:  “Made friends :>) ” And that was the start of this magical summer…the same one we’ve had, the same one our older daughter, Emily, had, and the same one we hope for the next generation of Soule…my nephew, Gabriel, now five months old.

With ongoing care and love, Star Island has endured, with its fishing cottages — dating to the early nineteenth century — and the grand hotel, built in the mid-1800s, preserved and still open for business.  The harbor’s the same, the scarlett pimpernel still blooms in the rocks.  The stars are still gorgeous at night, the water clear and pure, and the air brisk and clean.  Life is still very, very good on Star Island, thank heaven and earth.

And Number Fourteen’s on The Rock, working hard and having the summer of her life.  These gifts — given and received again — keeps bringing us blessings to celebrate, and to share.

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It lasted only a moment, and was so fleeting a vision I wondered if I could believe my eyes.  But there they were – quietly walking out of the dark, four deer, crossing in front of me.  I had arrived at the home of a catering client in Concord, a lovely home adjacent to a pond, off a major road yet tucked in the woods.  My client was late getting to the house and I sat in my car to stay warm as I thought about what to do to track him down.

In the midst of my fretting, while talking to his executive assistant on the phone, it happened.  Softly, moving with caution and watchfulness, the beautiful animals were headed toward the conservation land across the road, no doubt.  I saw a couple of adults followed by juveniles with gentle spots on their bodies.  I stopped talking on the phone because I couldn’t speak — it was just one of those moments.

Every year, as we attend The Christmas Revels, a show which changes each year yet manages to weave tradition, history, holiday practices from centuries ago in far-off lands, and pagan celebrations, I wait for the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance to be performed.  It’s a required element for any Christmas Revels show, no matter where the show is done – in any of the nine cities across the US where there are Revels companies.  The dance was first done in a small village of Staffordshire, England, and dates back to the Middle Ages.  The music which the Revels uses is mysterious and ritualistic. The performers creep onto the stage, often lit by the moon, carrying antlers, carrying out their ancient movements.

And so it was with these live dancers that I saw in the woods last night…they quietly crept out of the shadows and, feeling safe enough to proceed, ventured forth in moon glow, toward ponds and meadows and bits of food, scarce in the winter cold.  It was a tiny moment of magic, and one that I will hold in my mind’s eye, for a very long while.

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Hurricane Irene — which hit the Boston area as a weakened, but still formidable Tropical Storm Irene — has moved out of this area leaving plenty of downed tree limbs, relatively minor flooding, and a lot of people who are holding Hurricane Parties to amuse themselves.  One can only hope that those folks are staying off the roads and refraining from drinking and driving, so that public safety officials don’t have to clean up DUI accidents as well as storm debris.

While some people are wondering what all the fuss was about, Ben and I were remembering the last storm to focus on the New England coast with real fury:  Hurricane Bob, which occurred twenty years ago, nearly to the day.  Bob made landfall on August 19 and continued into August 20, 1991.  We were living across town at the time, and our then-ten year old daughter, Emily, hunkered down with us while we did a family craft project by candlelight, listening occasionally to the battery-operated radio.  Later, Ben brought our camp stove out on the porch, and I cooked supper, which we ate with candles.  We all went to bed early (which we tend to do when camping – how much can you do when nightfall comes early?) and awoke the next morning to find the power back on.  While there was certainly tree damage, we felt that – like today – we had escaped the worst of it.

We were, at the time (as we have been today) more worried about our beloved Isles of Shoals and our friends who worked on Star Island.  The island manager at the time, Tony Codding (having evacuated all the conferees) had the genius idea of putting the iconic island historian, Fred McGill, on the radio telephone to answer the calls of the nervous parents of the summer workers (called Pelicans) who wanted to make sure their children were safe.  Star survived that blow, as we trust it will do this one, and late-summer conference center life will shortly resume on Star for those who seek a retreat and escape from the bustle of the ‘real’ world.

More than Hurricane Bob or Irene, though, I remember Hurricane Gloria.  Gloria, which occurred in September, 1985, made three landfalls, one of them in Connecticut, where I was living at the time.  I resided in Stony Creek, a hamlet of Branford, on the shoreline.  Stony Creek was one of those remarkable places…a town that felt like it had pulled off the Maine coast and plunked down on Long Island Sound.  Old-timers hung out on the docks, making disparaging remarks about the young, monied folk who moved into town.  Things moved slowly, and a nightly routine for me involved walking down to the dock, fishing pole in hand, to catch a few baby blues as darkness fell while catching up with the local gossip.

When Gloria hit, I was working part time for radio station WELI in New Haven, hosting an arts and entertainment show and participating as a reporter in special coverage events from time to time.  I was asked to go out and report on the storm from Stony Creek – an interesting place for ‘color’ coverage, given its shoreline location and low-lying areas.  Standing outside with my portable broadcast unit (remember, there were no cell phones at the time) I heard a huge roar of wind and then a crack behind me.  I turned to see an enormous tree limb land about eighteen inches from where I stood.  That did it:  I talked to the studio producer and said that I thought it better to go inside to the volunteer fire station, which was doubling as an emergency shelter, rather than further risk life and limb with any more live reports.

Gloria did more than $900 million in damage, and plenty of it was in Connecticut.  Power went out in Stony Creek for five days and our radio station offered non-stop coverage on food safety and spoilage, what stores were open for supplies, gas stations with power in the area, and more.  Talk radio can be an important lifeline in such situations, and I was glad to have the chance to contribute to such an effort – although stunned to have nearly been killed in the storm due to my own stupidity.  Hurricane Gloria, along with the late October, 1991 no-name storm on which the book “The Perfect Storm” was based, will always stand out in my mind as the strongest hurricanes I’ve weathered.

I’ve always loved the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy ‘sees’ her life passing before her eyes as the tornado hits, including Miss Gulch pedaling by on her bicycle.  During the height of Hurricane Irene, as with other such storms, I looked to the sky, watching birds struggling to take flight against the sheer force of nature, marveling at what nature can unleash to chasten us.  I view it as Mother Nature issuing yet another reminder about who’s really in charge.

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Last night we drove in from nearly a week on the Ile d’Orleans, a lovely island in the St. Lawrence River opposite Quebec City.  This was the fourth time we had been on the island, the last time four years ago when – very suddenly — we found ourselves not going to Star Island and determined to spend a week somewhere that would be interesting, relaxing, and in sight of water.  Last time, we stayed in an apartment rented by a lovely Quebec couple, Lyse and Gus Droin, but the other times we’ve come, we’ve camped, and we love it.

So we made another camping reservation with Camping Orleans, acquired roof racks for the Prius to save on gas, pulled out our gas lantern and cooking stove, and packed off.  We knew that it was likely to be the last big family vacation with Abby before she graduates from high school next year, and we wanted to make it a good one.

It was.  My family laughs at me for turning rhapsodic after we cross the Canadian border and locate ourselves in some charming area – usually, either Quebec or the Maritimes.  I love the absence of obnoxious billboards, the politeness, the signs in French first and then English (or only French), the charming villages, and — on Ile d’Orleans — the simply remarkable produce that is there for the asking. My foodie friends will start nodding their heads and perhaps, drooling, as I continue.

Ile d’Orleans is known as the garden of Quebec, for good reason.  The island’s rich soil and temperate climate support farming on most of the island.  Here, strawberries aren’t just around for a few weeks, nor do they have hollow white cores.  They grow, sweet and delicious and juicy, all summer long, joined by blueberries and raspberries and currants.  So literally, every 50 yards or so, another stand has the signs up:  “Fraises.”  “Framboises.”  “Bleuets.”  Our objective is to buy early and often, and eat these goodies all the time, accompanied in the evening by chocolate from the St. Petronille township’s Choclaterie de l’Isle d’Orleans,which is also terrific.  We found potatoes, squash, tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuce, garlic, leeks, onions, kale, all along the roadside at small stands, all over the island.  And we delighted in these goodies.

But there was more:  fabulous homemade breads and pastries, freshly butchered lamb and duck and foie gras and bacon, really fresh eggs, pates, and of course, maple syrup.  We also enjoyed Charlevoix cheese — a kind of cross between camembert and brie — and another — the first cheese made in North America — from Les Fromages de l’Isle d’Orleans, which you could wash down, if you wished, with biere d’epinette (spruce beer, and no thanks, I passed on that one).  We also returned home with samples of the other alcoholic beverages made on the island:  award-winning rose wine, along with Kir (an aperitif), ice cider, and ice wine from the Vignoble Isle de Bacchus, one of many vineyards and orchards on the island.

Lest you think we came home having gained tons of weight on the trip, we did not.  There are beautiful paths for bicycling and walking, swimming to enjoy, and walks to Montmorency Falls and through the Centre-Ville of Quebec, not far away.  For those who treasure locally-sourced food and want to see local farming endure and prosper, Ile d’Orleans is worth a visit.  For those who are fans of North American history and want to visit the site where battles on the Plains of Abraham were planned from across the St. Lawrence, this is your island.  If you love to paint or draw and want beautiful sights to inspire you, from nearly any direction, come to this place and be inspired. And for those who wish they were in France but just can’t make it but want the charm and the language close at hand, drive north for a day, and it’s yours.

I love coming home, but there are so many reasons to fall in love with our neighbor country to the north.  Life is slower there, and hard, but — I dearly hope — rewarding.  While we love using our high school and college French — and you really do need it on the Ile d’Orleans, along with a French-English dictionary — for the most part, people are very patient as you work to explain, en francais, what it is you’re wanting to do or buy.

I’ve just come home again, but long to return.  And, as the official Quebec motto says, “Je me souviens.”

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Finally, we know what it takes to knock the seamy, scuzzy antics of Charlie Sheen out of the headlines:  a one-two-three punch of a horrific earthquake, devastating tsunami, and unimaginable nuclear crisis in Japan.  I don’t believe in hell (or heaven, for that matter) but if there was one, it would be defined as what the Japanese people are experiencing now.  How could it be that a people who were bombed in the 1940s, whose family members were sickened from radiation poisoning or burned from the nuclear bombs that dropped on their countryside more than a generation ago, now have to live through the danger of radiation poisoning and death once again?

The nobility and quiet perseverance of the Japanese, which has been exhibited on the airwaves day after day, suggests that these people have reacted to this unspeakable set of disasters with more calm, dignity, and fortitude than most of us can begin to imagine.  The old Yiddish story, which tells us of a man who is dissatisfied with his little house — crowded with family, neighbors, and chickens —  ends with the reminder, “remember, if you think things are bad, they could always be worse!”

And in Japan, we see, on every news report, what worse looks like.  While Alan Paton’s remarkable 1948 book (which explored the evils of apartheid in South Africa) offered up the title for my reflection, his prose offers us a glimpse of the anguish and conflict that I suspect many of the citizens of Japan are feeling:

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

Our complex world struggles with finding ways to provide energy that will not increase the high levels of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants which threaten to choke us all.  And yet nuclear energy has its own risks, supposedly well-managed…except in the face of disasters that knock out power and destroy power facilities.  Now, in addition to the warnings that people stay indoors or evacuate affected areas of the country near the damaged nuclear reactors, reports of dangerously high radiation levels in the Japanese food supply are emerging, and people around the world are ready to hand over absurdly high amounts of money for a stash of iodine pills to ward off the threat of radiation poisoning.  The world economy has been damaged, as Toyota and other major corporations remain closed (and the lack of supply of goods from Japan makes it way down the line to corporations around the world, forcing them to close as well).  And — not the least of the concerns — the death toll in Japan has now passed 8,000 and is expected to exceed 10,000, and beautiful seaside towns and cities have been wiped off the map.

For every time that I think, “I wish I had…” or “Why can’t I…”, I think of what the Japanese in areas like Sendai must be enduring.  This reminder of the fragility of our existence, the nobility of people brought to their knees by the shaking earth, overpowering waves, and the failures of technology, jars all of us who whine about our troubles into understanding — at least at a surface level — what pure hell looks like.

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I was supposed to be on Star Island this weekend, but Hurricane Earl’s appearance has changed our plans and so we remain in Lexington, waiting to see what will blow in over the next twelve to eighteen hours.  It’s hard to imagine that big storm while it’s still relatively clear, partly sunny and warm, but sure enough, a still-dangerous storm is churning its way up the east coast.

Hurricane Carol – which hit the northeast coast in 1954 – is a storm that my husband, Ben, remembers as a very small child.  His family was visiting relatives who had a beach cottage on Chalker Beach in Connecticut.  Warning systems were not what we have now, and Ben’s dad loaded the whole family – including the dog – into the station wagon to ride out the storm.  The roads were blocked with falling trees and power lines, and they ended up sitting in a parking lot for hours.  When they returned to the beach house, Ben’s dad remembers that the place had been flooded, and they found the silver drawer in the refrigerator…lots of damage and much to clean out.

As a graduate student in Boston in 1976, I had a summer job running the box office of the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.  I’d also decided that I really needed glamour in my life, and gotten fancy porcelain fingernails – long and red and lovely – applied.  That was fine until the hurricane warnings went up for Hurricane Belle, with predictions of a serious hit to the Boston area.  My apartment looked right out on the Charles River, and the night that the storm was to hit, with businesses closing down all over the city, I went home to make preparations.  There I was, with my fancy fingers, trying to tape the windows in the apartment to stop them from shattering in the event of hurricane-force wind gusts, or worse.  As I struggled to do practical things like fill the bathtub with water, put batteries in flashlights, and so on, I decided those fancy fingernails had to go.  I ripped them off in hot water – I still remember the pain – but felt free, afterward, to continue on with my preparations for a storm that never did really come.

Some years later, I lived in Stony Creek, CT, an idyllic place that was mostly like a piece of Maine dropped into Long Island Sound.  In 1938, the hurricane that did enormous amounts of damage to the northeast coast also managed to tear up the Connecticut shoreline, including Stony Creek’s Thimble Islands.  Forecasting wasn’t what it is now, of course.

In 1985, I was doing reporting for WELI Radio in New Haven when Hurricane Gloria hit.  Reporters were dispatched to different locations, and I was told to report from Stony Creek.  Microphone in hand, I stood  near the railroad bridge with the wind wailing around me, providing details of flooding and people who had gone into the fire station for emergency shelter.  Suddenly, behind me, there was a loud crack and boom.  A huge tree limb had come down, perhaps two feet away from me.  If I’d been a little closer, it would have gotten me and the results would not have been pretty.  After that, my reporting moved inside, thought not before I stood there and had the wonder of watching the eye of the storm pass overhead…a remarkable sight.  Stony Creek and the surrounding area lost power for five days in the aftermath of Gloria.

In 1991, having relocated to the Boston area, I got to experience Hurricane Bob, which was projected to make a huge hit on the Massachusetts coastline.  This is noted as the last ‘big’ hurricane to hit this area, at least until Earl.  When Bob hit, the electricity went out and we amused ourselves by playing board games, making cards with our extensive rubber stamp collection, having real ‘family time’ as candles burned, and we made dinner on our camp stove on the porch.  We called Star Island to see how our friends were doing, and spoke on the phone with the iconic Fred McGill, island historian and patriarch, who had been asked to man the phone to provide calm and reassurance to the nervous parents of employees (the Pelicans) still on the island.  Star escaped serious damage;  Martha’s Vineyard, however, was clobbered and when we went camping there later in the summer, the damage was sobering.

And now there’s Hurricane Earl, barreling up the coast past the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and threatening Nantucket and Cape Cod.  The governor and the state emergency management team have put every possible precaution in place, and the likelihood is that this storm will be one that comes close, but doesn’t pound the Massachusetts coast – with the possible exception of Nantucket – with its full force.

Aside from those who remember the Hurricane of ’38, most folks who reside in the northeastern part of the US probably haven’t experienced anything close to the kind of horror and disruption of life that those who live in the Gulf Coast area have survived, more than once. Last week, the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was observed with music, flowers thrown in the river, with prayers and remembrance and solemnity.  I thought about those who I’ve come to know who call the Gulf Coast home, knowing that their life has not returned to normal in the Gulf Coast region.  It has gone on…different from what it was.  Still, these remarkable people have endured and many have made a commitment to come back to the region they call home.

We all long for a place called home…whether it’s in Louisiana or Mississippi, on Cape Cod, or on Star Island.  And while we wait for the eye of the storm to pass over, we pray for the calm that we hope will follow.  Peaceful, without loss of life or property.  May it be so.

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Some of us who are a certain age remember the Eddie Albert/Eva Gabor sitcom which aired from 1965 to 1971, called “Green Acres.”  In it, a New York City couple decide to run off to the country and take up life on a farm.  Hilarity ensued as they tried to figure out how to run a tractor, cook, and breathe in that clean country air.

For a few days, a tiny part of that country life is mine, for I’ve run away to northern Vermont …to the lovely home of our friends, Rod and Sally, that has no TV, some patchy internet access, iffy cellular service, and a view out the front window that can take your breath away.

Although I have lived most of my life in suburban or urban areas and for a long time have resided just west of Boston, I love life in a setting that takes me this far away.  True, I can’t jump on the “T” to go to a Red Sox game or go shopping at a large mall (not that I really like that).  But here I can go to the Vermont Lake Monsters Class A baseball game, as I did last night, and get a reserved seat for $8.00.  For no extra fee, Champ the Lake Monster mascot, dances on top of the dugout with the kids and between innings, children dressed as ketchup and mustard bottles run around the bases to see who gets to the hot dog the fastest.  It is small town America at its best.

Here there are winding country roads with poplars, evergreens, and birches waving in the breeze.  And while there’s no TV, I’ve had a pretty good show out those windows:  wild turkeys walking around in the yard, two pre-adolescent white-tail deer and rabbits playing in the field, monarch butterflies and a hummingbird, all fluttering around.  At night, standing on the steps of the house, I look out to Lake Champlain and later, in the dark, I can stand in the front yard and see the Milky Way with definition that you just don’t get in an urban area.

Pretty damn nice.  Farmers set up stands along the roads, and when there’s an offer of “fresh chicken – 24 hours notice,” you know it’s because the chicken you buy will really be fresh and local, just like the eggs and the squash and corn.  The water comes from the lake, the neighbors are far away, the grocery store takes 1/2 hour to get to, and time moves more slowly than at home.

The feeling I get when I come here is similar to the one I had as a child, visiting my grandparents in New York state.  Life allows me a chance, here, to slow down and savor what I see and hear, to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells (organic as they may be, with a farm every 1/2 mile or so).  It is a good life here, marked by the simple pleasures of a Maple Creamee (maple soft-serve ice cream) bought from the local orchard and farm store, or a canoe rented from the Sand Bar State Park that also offers swimming and kayaking at a discount.

Last night I fell asleep listening to the peepers in the pond in the back yard, and I awakened to the sun streaming in the window and illuminating the fields that stretch down, past a stand of trees, to the lake.  I love these Green Acres, and bless the ways in which they offer me, and my family, a chance to pause from the life we usually lead, and just breathe.

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