Last night I finished A Year in the Maine Woods by Bernd Heinrich. The author, who is a professor at the University of Vermont, took a sabbatical to live in his cabin in the Maine woods for a year and explore all that was around him through the seasons.
When my oldest son was about four years old, curious about everything and on my last nerve, I would send him outside with a pail and tell him to come back when he had filled it. By the time he had his pail full, I would have had a cup of tea, have put the younger kids down for a nap and be ready to explore his bucket with him. There were always great natural treasures in his bucket--snake skins, ectoskeletons, flowers, egg shells, unusual leaves and sometimes something alive. We had a 24-hour observation period on the live specimens, although I remember one time we could not identify the creature and ended up keeping it an extra day so that we could take it to the local University and have a biology professor take a look at it with us--we got some strange looks that day but finally found one willing to indulge a four year old and his mom.
A Year in the Maine Woods is like spending a year exploring what was in the pail. Bernd makes discoveries everywhere and they are fascinating to read about. He details the cocoon of a moth that he found in a viburnum bush near the brook by describing the imprint of the moth on the pupal skin left behind. He eats grubs and ants in the fall and the spring to test whether or not they are sweet with the antifreeze glycerol. He brings a group of students to research and live in his cabin for a few weeks--he teaches them to observe and discover with every step they take and as a reward whips up a meal of fried mice for them. One of my favorite observations is of a red squirrel in the late winter running from sugar maple to sugar maple, making bite marks into the branches and then returning days later to eat the maple sugar left behind after the sap had run from the wounds and evaporated.
In one of my favorite chapters, Bernd sets out for a run on a logging road. As he jogs down the road, he sees a moose lumbering toward him and he quickly climbs a maple tree. He observes the moose for a while as it casually travels toward the tree and then stops beneath it. As Bernd heads back to his cabin he decides to stop in at his closest neighbors' home to tell them about the moose.
"That called for a beer or two, and a supper of fresh corn, while sitting around the fire outside. Ron said, 'I wonder what the rich folks are doing tonight.'"
The area in which the book takes place is within about 15 miles of where I live, making it all the more enjoyable. The Farmington Diner where Bernd often retreats for coffee, eggs and companionship is about to be torn down to make way for a Rite-Aid.
Mt. Bald which he mentions several times has been recently logged over but still stands proudly over Wilson Lake.
It's impossible to read Bernd Heinrich without falling in love with golden-crowned kinglets and ravens. I have yet to find a kinglet, although I am constantly vigilant when in the spruce-fir forests in the winter. But the ravens are everywhere and whenever I see a pair or a group of juveniles, soaring and diving and perching I think about Goliath and White Feather and Jack and wonder if I am watching the descendants of one that I met through the pages of a book.
The books ends with this wonderful paragraph.
"Like the indigo bunting and the phoebe that live here, I've traveled widely. I've lived in California, Africa, New Guinea, South America, and the High Arctic. But I've come back to the hills of western Maine. These are my favorite haunts, because this is home, where the subtle matters, and the spectacular distracts."