You can’t go far in New England without running across the stonewalls that demarcate the old field boundaries of the area’s agricultural past. The edge of my house lot lies along the stonewall border of an abandoned farm. By turns, the land behind me was cropland, pasture, and at last, an orchard.
The rock boundaries are one of the defining traits of New England. It’s a history of people trying to feed themselves, make a living on the land by whatever means, and finally move off for better land in the West or greater opportunity in the city.
I’ve understood the situation’s dynamics since I came from New York City to New England. But gardening on the top of a hill heaped up by glaciers gave me an intimate understanding of the old New England saying that its soil yields a crop of rock every year. Creating a relatively rock-free garden was the labor of years.
We’ve found creative ways of incorporating all the rock, mini-boulders, and gravel we’ve removed. All that glacial debitage forms a hillock and even small stonewalls. The stonewalls we created are a minor reflection of the larger one at the back of our lot. The larger one was built as early settlers attempted to get the stoney soil to yield food, and ours was created for the same purpose.
Climate change may alter our human impact on the land, but New England will always be rock until the epochs grind it into soil, something I am incapable of doing.
You don’t have to go far in my area of New England to find old mills along the rivers. Water power propelled the early industrial revolution in this country, and the remains – old mills, mill races, and parts of old turbines dot the landscapes of our towns and cities. The world procured its cotton and wool fabrics from us. The mills were built to take the pounding of the heavy looms and seem to have shrugged off years of neglect to emerge more recently as condos, offices, light manufacturing, and artist lofts.
It’s been called prejudice, but it’s loathing, and nothing is unreasoning or illogical about it. I came by the loathing step by step, day by day, and experience by experience. I do not attempt to hide my feelings in the tiny interstices of my mind. So what is it that creates such an active distaste? It’s a tourist restaurant fish chowder.
The subject came up just the last night. My daughter mentioned chowder, and I rolled off the restaurants within a hundred and fifty-mile radius with an acceptable offering to the gods of cod. Ten. I admit there may be more but, regrettably, right here in New England a decent fish chowder is not ubiquitous. I have seen scores of so-called restaurants that serve a watery concoction of fish juice, milk, and fish scraps.
Incredibly some visitors to New England have complained to me about their “dis-epitomable” experiences at famous Boston restaurants. One of these locations is a chain. The “chowder” comes frozen in large plastic bags that are warmed in hot water before serving. How do I know? I met one of their former cooks ( my oldest son).
finding myself, unavoidably, in one of these locations I avoid tiffs by ordering safer items – hamburgers. A good chowder is thick. A small prominence of cod sits in the middle like a seamount rising from the briny ocean. The fish is fresh, not reconstituted by injection or thawed out.
OK, I better stop now before I start in on the crackers, good halibut stew, finnan haddie, or delicious grilled haddock. I haven’t even covered the traditional fishhead in a chowder, cod cheeks, or tongues. So please don’t get me going! This weekend I know exactly where I am going to eat.
I sealed Pint XXV shut last night, and that marked the close of another sapping season for the little sugarbush behind our house. Just a bit over three gallons of syrup, enough for family needs. This morning the dog, cat, and I went out to survey the slow opening of spring in our tiny woodland garden. Hepatica, still not quite in bloom, trout lily slowly emerging from last fall’s leaves. The opening of the maple buds and chorus of peepers marked the end of sapping, while the slow progress of the plants that we call spring ephemerals began the opening of the next phase of spring.
After the cat gets settled into her spot in my greenhouse workshop, and the dog wanders off to harass some early chipmunks, I settle down to woodcarving while listening to the radio.
My friends from points south look at me like I’m crazed. ” Ice Out comin’ soon!” Huh? “Ice out!” The look I get is one of pure pity. Those crazed New Englanders…so depressed by their winter that they’ll seize on any slight sign of spring. OK, it is true that south of New England, they don’t get excited at tiny flowers in the brown woodlands. Their lush southern springs explode with green and colored blooms—they kind of smile condescendingly at our northern spring. But that’s because they haven’t been to a full-tilt boogie Ice Out Party. It is true. Here in New England, spring can be a bit dour. So we have to make up for it. What is an ice-out party? Lots of hard cider, local beer, friends and neighbors, and an icy pond where the ice has finally broken up. Mind you, I said, broken up, not disappeared. After enough cider and beer, dancing, and food, some fool begins to strip and runs out to the pond. The proper technique is to holler at the top of your lungs and take the plunge. Once one is in the water the lemmings, I mean other party-goers, discard parkas, anoraks, and other winter accouterments and begin to frolic like polar bears. The rest of us stay warm by a fire and cheer them on. If this is done right, sometimes at about two AM, the local police or constabulary show up and disparage the public nudity and general rowdiness. The following day everyone feels braced for the last several lousy weeks of New England spring before things finally warm-up, and everyone can put away their heavy woolens and L.L.Bean jackets. New England Spring – it ain’t for the faint of heart. And you thought Mardi Gras was wild!
For many years the middle of February meant trotting off into the woods south of Boston for an annual winter hike in the snow. It was an Applachian Mountain Club event called the Soupe de Poisson. Billed as a stroll through the Blue Hills to build an appetite for the Soupe that followed at Ponkapog Campground, the route was circuitous and always featured some beautiful views from the heights and some dramatic passages through still woods. The woods were quiet except for the sounds of wind and occasional bunches of Chickadees chattering at us. Being that it was February, the dates of the walks tended to turn out to be frosty. But the ground underneath varied from bare to soaked or snow-packed.
At the end of the trail was Ponkapog Campground, an Appalachian Mountain Club facility that featured year-round camping. In later years the Soupe was served in the camp lodge building. Ably made by volunteers varied slightly from year to year but was always welcome at the end of a chilly day in the woods. After becoming a regular at the event, I always felt a feeling of homecoming when the campground finally came into view. I hiked steadily over the years with a small group of hikers, and the Soupe was a sort of rendezvous for many of us as the winter rounded out. Before we hit the trail on our round of regular hikes and mountain climbing trips, it was a perfect opportunity to hug old friends and plan future mayhem at Mount Katahdin. For the most part, we hadn’t seen each other since fall, and the Soupe was an excellent opportunity to catch up and talk about spring hikes and trips.
Towards the end of my participation, the Soupe had been an annual event for over fifty years. Like many regular repeating rituals, its start had been very irregular. Ron Gower had been a weekend custodian at “Ponky” for years. Sometime during his tenure, he began to have a February gathering of friends and hikers at his cabin for old fashioned fish chowder. One year a regular brought his fiance along. The young French woman was interested in what she was about to eat and was unfamiliar with the term chowder. Ron explained that it was a fish soup, and she exclaimed, ” Oh, Soupe de Poisson!” After that, the event became the Soupe de Poisson. Wags in the group soon reduced that to just the “soup” or the “poison soup.” Originally the Soupe had been prepared over an open fire in front of Ron’s cabin. The little clearing could get jammed with snowshoers, cross country skiers, and hikers. In earlier times, you brought your cup and spoon. A small contribution, usually a dollar, was collected to defray the feast’s cost, which in my time included luscious brownies. Now, I have to add here that Ron informed me of two things early on in our acquaintance. Correctly, a chowder referred to the pot the soup was made in ( preferably cast iron), and all authentic chowders have a fish head in them – getting an eye in your bowl is considered lucky. In later years though, I never recall a cod head in the pot, nor the shriek of surprise that a cod eyeball can scare up from the uninitiated. To the best of my knowledge, somewhere around year sixty, the event slipped away. Gone, but not forgotten on a frosty middle of February as I put on my snowshoes and allow the chickadees to chatter at the invader in their woods and recall a cheery fire and warm gathering in the woods.
A botanist assured me once that even here in New England, some flower is in bloom in every month of the year. Even in February. As if to prove the point, she pointed to a scraggly bit of chickweed struggling alongside a foundation. Sure enough, there were a few tiny white blossoms. I have not found anything blooming in my snow-covered lot this February; if my snowdrops are blooming, it’s under twenty inches of snow where I can not appreciate them. But my body assures me that the annual homecoming of spring is near. I wake up earlier as more light comes in the window. The days last longer.
Every year about the middle of the month, the date varies; I tap my maple trees for their rising sap. It’s not time yet, but my supplies are outside the shop waiting for me to sterilize them. As soon as the daytime and nighttime temperatures seem favorable, I’ll take the drill, spiles, buckets, and hose out and tap the trees. Every day I’ll be boiling sap and testing the sweet product. I think I do it as much to pace the coming of spring as to enjoy the maple syrup.
I was standing watching the waves roll in at Rockport. Last night had been stormy, and the waves were long rollers sweeping in from the Atlantic. From where I stood, there was no land between Europe and me. That much water is both exciting and daunting. For me, fall starts with the shift of prevailing winds out of the soft southwesterly of summer into more unsettled patterns. It’s a season of change. For the landlocked, the features they notice most are the cooler evenings and leaves turning. But I’d maintain that the grey waters, persistent lines of rolling waves, and the wet spume are better markers. Now is the best time to walk the tide line. Following the storm, tides bring in kelp, driftwood, sea glass, and old wreckage bits. All are on display. The worn bits of sea glass provide proof that given time, the sea will wear everything down. Find a warm berth in some shoreside cafe, get a mug of coffee, and watch the inevitable.
I learned about berry bowls my first fall in Maine. Some friends invited me to go searching for the makings. Berry bowls, I asked “is it alcoholic?” No, it was a large clear jar or brandy snifter filled with reminders of the outdoors that you would take indoors to the ill. Especially in the winter, they served as reminders of more pleasant times during the summer. A berry bowl would preferably contain different types of moss and evergreen plants. Especially favored for the arrangements were teaberry ( gaultheria procumbens), bearberry ( arstostaphylos uva ursi), partridge berry ( mitchella repens), or cranberries. These plants are favored for their with their bright red berries. The moss and plants would be moistened and arranged in the bowl. The top of the bowl, snifter, or jar would be covered with something clear, like a plastic wrap, to slow moisture loss. In a sunny window, a berry bowl would last the entire winter. There were as many variations on the theme as there were people who made them. Some people added variety to the bowl with bits of lichen-covered twigs. I make a berry bowl in this large snifter every fall. In the one pictured here are teaberry, princess pine, and a bit of cranberry. I used an assortment of mosses for different greens. The stone is for contrast with the living components. Some years I’ve added sundews ( hard to keep going inside) and small pitcher plants. If you try this, remember that you want the berry bowl moist, but not soaking, and it does need a sunny spot; don’t leave it sealed tight in the sun. If you don’t have an area of your own to gather from many of the listed items, are available online. Please don’t go picking in the woodlands. In many places, laws prohibit the gathering of wild and native plants.
I make one or more every fall, and they serve to remind me of old friends and good times. In January and February, they serve as reminders that spring is coming.