Archive for August, 2012

The art of sardine cans at the Maine State Museum.

At either end of a line connecting greater Augusta with greater Waterville, Maine are two museums that perfectly book-ended my two weeks in the state. For both, I have Wayne Curtis’ Insider’s Guide to thank, and thus the East Kingston Public Library from whence I borrowed the book. In his section on the Maine State Museum, Curtis writes that it shouldn’tbe off the beaten path, since it’s right next to the statehouse in Augusta, but for some reason, few Mainers know about it, and basically no “from-away”ers. This makes for a very quiet and unhurried museum visit. Only a handful of other people were there the day we went. Perhaps it’s the forbidding, gray concrete exterior with “Library Archive Museum” in easily missed lettering. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that Augusta is no bustling metropolis, nor a major tourist destination. In any case, we had it basically to ourselves.

The museum covers all things Maine, from sardine canning, to archaeology, to lobstering and woolen mills. It’s four floors of beautifully curated exhibits, artifacts, and life-size dioramas with mannequins that look just on the verge of coming alive (this unnerved Malcolm deeply). The recreated carpenter’s shop looks like he only just stepped out, with flakes of wood strewn across the floor and tools lying on the workbench. A waterwheel in the basement churns away as the river flows past, and that wheel in turn spins gears all the way up through the four floors to replica work floors of a sawmill and the loom room of a cloth factory. The mechanism is visible on every floor through plexiglass. It’s all quite remarkable. The natural history galleries are marvelous, including the very popular and macabre taxidermic heads of two bull moose with antlers locked in their final, fatal combat (they were discovered that way, dead of dehydration and the brutal efficiencies of natural selection.)
For a museum of this caliber, it is scandalously inexpensive: $2.00 for adults, $1.00 for children over 6. So you’ve no excuse. Except perhaps that you never go to Augusta. But perhaps you should, if only for this museum.

At the other end of the Augusta-Waterville axis in Hinckley, Maine, is a strange and wondrous place called the LC Bates Museum. Dark, moody, and almost gothic in its atmosphere, it is a natural history collection of arsenic-dusted animals gunned down for science in the style of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Housed in a 1903 building that retains all of its period feel, this collection has very nearly supplanted Harvard’s Museum in my grim, morbid heart. Another absolute steal, admission is a mere $3.00 per adult. Though, you should be forewarned, the building is unheated in winter, which I can only imagine adds to the general ambience of this fantastic place. After emerging from the museum into the dazzling light of day, my mother and I both felt we had somehow fallen through a rabbit hole into a parallel universe. This sensation was enhanced by our subsequent visit to an enormous antique barn in the middle of nowhere (at least by our Massachusetts born standards). But that is a story for another time.

Sign on a locked door in the basement of the LC Bates Museum. How can one not love this place?

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Gone fishing

Sunrise over Great Pond, and the pilot at the tiller.

On vacation, I get up every morning far earlier than I ever would on a workday back home. On vacation, my eyes snap open at 5:45 when the light must slant into the window at just the right angle. I get up and tread downstairs in the rented cabin to make coffee and wolf down cereal. My dad is already up, reading and sipping his decaf, waiting for me to get ready. And then, we’re off to fish. We only fish for these two weeks of vacation. For some reason, neither of us ever fishes at home. But on vacation, we’re out plying the waters of the lakes of central or southern Maine, and long ago, on Ossipee in New Hampshire. The boat is a different one (though no fancier) from those days when I fished with him as a kid, but the motor is the same Evinrude Fisherman that he and my uncle Bill gave their father for Christmas one year–an epic gift it took the two boys a long time to save up for.

We’re not great at fishing, a fact that I find amusing, and that my father finds mildly pride-damaging and aggravating. He watches the Bass Masters fly across the lake in their super fast boats while we plod along in his tin can one and fish with worms, even though we read that serious fisherman use the mysterious “tube jig” to catch all manner of monster fish. He tends to be convinced that everyone is catching more and bigger fish than we are. But I can assure you, it’s not because they get up any earlier. At 6am, with the sun low in the sky, the lake is nothing like it is at 3pm when the jet skiers and wake boarders command it. We drift around the little islands and submerged rocks, cursing as our lines get snagged, or a stupid little fish swallows the hook requiring a modest surgical procedure to retrieve it. Mostly, our company is the ospreys and the eagles and the kingfishers. Once in a while, an otter or a fox leaps around on the shoreline rocks. My father makes his usual terrible jokes, or concocts weird theories about mysterious ridge dwelling peoples he swears he sees in the trees from the boat. Thus, our conversations have changed little since I was nine, though I am less credulous now, and we don’t practice my multiplication tables as much.

My father’s father, my Grampy, to whom was gifted that Evinrude Fisherman, was a prickly sort of man. He was not a warm and approachable sort of grandfather. But he did like to hear how it had gone when we came back from our fishing trips when I was a kid. It’s his expression, “Nary a nibble,” that I still use for a particularly bad outing, and this vacation, I learned another. My dad had a fish on the line, got impatient, and jerked the rod up too soon. Exasperated, he said in the low, flat tone that denotes an imitation of his father, “You did everything wrong on that one.”

Our accustomed seats: just as it was in 1989.

With such a patriarch, it should come as no surprise that we’re not an effusive family, or very demonstrative of our feelings. We tend to conduct serious conversations in longhand, by letter. But that’s progress anyway. At least we can say it somehow. And that’s why I find myself writing this very public blog post to say what I could not manage to say in two weeks of mornings on the lake. It’s what I think he knows, but that I’d hate to never have made sure about. It’s that these trips mean more to me than I ever admit. And I’m old enough now to know that I’m mortal, and he’s mortal, and there won’t always be another year. And when there isn’t, I will be utterly bereft. So with the boat tucked away in my yard for another year’s rest, I mean this as an open letter to you, Dad. You didn’t do everything wrong on this one after all. You mostly got just about all of it right.

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New Englanders may be known for their taciturn, Yankee ways, but this reserve apparently does not extend to the printed medium of signs. Beyond the usual incomprehensible tangle of route signs (see below), there is an element of high specificity and verbosity that I find common to Maine.
I’ve been doing a lot of running while vacationing here in the Belgrade Lakes region of the state, and there’s no better way to encounter a slice of real life in a place than to travel on foot. Yesterday, on a 12 mile jog around the lake, I saw a handwritten sign leaning against someone’s mailbox post reading, “I will purchase all your unwanted metal.” There’s something intimately contractual about such a sign.

Road signs in Gray, Maine. Uh, what?

As I ran along a dirt road the other day, I came upon another hand painted sign, this one, rather unexpectedly, in French. My French being rudimentary on a good day, I was able to get only a rough sense of its meaning. Not responsible beyond this…point? Bridge? There was no bridge in sight, just a dirt road winding off through the woods. Uncertain who this not-responsible party was, or what the consequences of passing beyond this bridge/point might be, I decided it was safer to plunge off the road onto a trace of a trail through the woods, and into a warren of intersecting fire roads, creepy driveways to ramshackle cabins, and deer trails.

But  my favorite sign here in central Maine so far was this professionally made one hanging between two trees by the side of the road: Dripping with bitterness and bile, this sign touched me with its irony. After all, we live in this great country where you can put up any sign you like, whether it’s weird, offensive, or creepy, and no secret government agency will hunt you down and disappear you. It’s our great good fortune not to have any real experience with tyranny, so that we imagine it in every action of the local town government. Even granting a measure of hyperbole, “tyranny?” But, nonetheless, I’m a civil libertarian, so I support every sign maker and sign poster’s right to speech. And it’s true, tyranny lives. I just don’t think it owns lakefront property on McGrath Pond.

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I dislike the term “nature walk.” I dislike it just as I dislike “play dates.” I like actually playing, I like nature, and I like walks. But artificial, planned, structured interactions with people, or with the non-human world very often do humans a disservice. I’m no great naturalist, nor a great scientist, but I can generally be relied upon to know the names of the things in the woods. When I was seventeen, the thing I wanted most was a good pair of binoculars (the Bushnells I shelled out $300 for then are still my only pair), and in college, I found my ultimate dream job: running an environmental camp for elementary and middle school kids.

Somehow, I came to know the names of things in English and Latin, to teaching biology, to loving the living world so much that astronomy was of little interest to me, transfixed as I was by the teeming life on this planet. But how did I get there? My parents are not crunchy granola hippies, by any stretch.  There was no designated “nature time,” and we didn’t go camping. But like most kids of my demographic, I played outside a lot. And while playing outside does not make every kid a naturalist, nor eventually an environmentalist, it’s generally a prerequisite. Ask your own favorite bird geek, nature nerd, or outdoorsy camping sort, and you will generally find that they roamed the woods and fields as kids, bringing home so many animals that their house rules often came to read “No snakes in the house” and “No more dead birds in the freezer.”

House rules aside (and there’s no limit to the number of dead birds permitted in MY freezer), kids have got to play outside, with equal parts “play” and “outside”. With the rise of helicopter parenting, parental paranoia and competitive preschools, it seems like kids’ outdoor time is shifting toward the scheduled, structured “nature walk” with a trained professional. These are wonderful things, and you can learn a lot from a Park Ranger, or an Audubon naturalist. But doing only such walks is like giving your kids a grammar workbook before you’ve ever read Dr. Seuss. They have to love it first, and learn it after. I didn’t know I was falling in love with biology as a kid. I collected birds’ nests, and taught myself basic taxidermy. I caught minnows in traps, and crayfish with nets, and pinned beetles to a corkboard. Consumptive, participatory, immersive nature. I didn’t see a line between myself and the environment; it was my own native habitat. As I got older, I started to care what happened to it. But I never thought of humans on one side and the environment on the other. One assailant, one victim.

I see a lot of well-meaning nature educators starting kids on the doom and gloom way too early. Sure, kids can learn about recycling, alternative energy, and riding bikes instead of driving. But if you want them to really care, you’ve got to let them play. Let them go off the trail, climb trees, collect old wasps’ nests and giant mushrooms. Let them keep pill bugs in a jar, or race frogs, or go fishing, or (gasp!) even hunting. They will come to environmentalism in their own time, once they love what it is that needs saving.

I got in trouble once while I was running that environmental camp–we used to hang around by a swampy pond and catch turtles and frogs. Then the kids discovered that if they waded in and stood for a while, they would come out with leeches attached to their legs. Even the most difficult and taciturn 12 year old boys came alive at this. We’d pull the leeches off and watch them in a tray of water for a while. But then word reached the parents and I had to officially shut down Leechbaiting. But I didn’t stop the kids from wading, and what can I do if a few unexpected leeches swim by? After all, who am I to stand in the way of children, released into where they belong.

Getting kids to have a natural, easy relationship with the wild world can come about in innumerable ways. But at either end of that spectrum are people, often well-meaning, who get in the way. At one end, the indoors people, who see nature as dirty, risky, dangerous, and threatening. They tell kids not to touch all that dirty nature with their clean hands. At the other end, the more misanthropic environmentalists who see humans as dirty, risky, dangerous, and threatening. They tell kids  not to touch all that precious nature with their dirty hands. We need to find the broad middle ground, respecting the right limits of our activity, and limiting the harm we might do, while still letting them really play. I hear all the time that we should not disturb any living thing unless it’s “necessary.” Let the kids climb, run, race frogs and catch fish; it is necessary. In fact, it’s our only hope.

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We Courchesnes do a lot of hiking, walking and trekking. We have long since left behind the brief but golden years of baby in backpack, wherein we could move at our accustomed pace with a mostly sleeping infant/toddler lolling in the carrier. Now, we are in the slow moving, adjusted expectations phase of hiking with preschoolers. We no longer do much summiting of mountains, and we rarely exceed a 1 mile per hour average pace. So, as the pleasures of the hike shift from quiet, solitude, and reflection, to fart jokes, 20 questions, and singing repetitive songs, one gradually comes to terms with one’s altered existence.

873, 945 bottles of root beer on the wall…

Now, when we hike, we seek out flatter terrain, and aim to have a physical reward at the end. Kids are not overawed by panoramic vistas, but they’ll hike pretty well if there’s a swimming hole at the end. Or really excellent snacks. And while grown-ups on their own will pensively plod along, enjoying the sensations of the walk, kids generally need a good deal of distraction to make it all the way through the hike. Here are the main ones we use:

1) Epic stories of the Toad King. When hiking in the close, fecund woods of New Hampshire, one often finds tangles of roots overtopped with thick mats of moss. These are obviously the palaces of the narcissistic and arrogant, though benevolent Toad King. He maintains summer palaces, winter palaces, and often gets himself into trouble through hubris and ineptitude. He has attempted kayaking, luge, and gold mining. He has died several times, but always comes back to life. The good thing about the Toad King is that we see a lot of toads around here, so the boys get to do a lot of royalty watching.

2) Participatory fiction. One person gives the first line of a story, and then all members of the party take turns adding to it. A typical Courchesne story:

Mom: “Once there was a half salamander half vulture who was dissatisfied with his life.”

Dad: “So he sent away for a self-help video from the home shopping network.”

Malcolm: “But instead he got lasers and a Yeti.”

Simon: “And then vampires came out of the woods and… KILLED them ALL!”

100% of the time, Simon ends the story on his turn with “and KILLED them ALL!” But maybe you will have more success.

3) Riddles and 20 questions. We mostly do 20 questions since my kids are a little young for true riddles. But I gave them a riddle that started out, “Lucy and Bill were found dead in a pool of water. What happened?” Malcolm sort of got it, but from then on, Simon would periodically adopt a creepy whisper and say, “Lucy and Bill…were found dead in a forest.” Or, “Lucy and Bill were found dead in the ocean.” Hilarious. Maybe eventually we’ll get beyond this, though with a mother like me, it’s unlikely that these children will grow LESS morbid with time.

The Toad King’s family mausoleum/root cellar.

When these fail, we sing 999,999 bottles of root beer on the wall. So much for silence and pensive contemplation. At the end of our hikes, I sometimes feel mentally wiped out, but physically still pining for my pre-child rambles in the mountains. And then, my boys, who had been shrilly whining non-stop, will suddenly say, “I loved that hike.” And I’m a goner for sure.


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