Archive for September, 2013

To Every Thing, There Is a Higher Purpose

The last days of August were a flurry of activity as we prepared to leave Maine.  We would be returning to our home town for the month of Jewish holidays:  Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

I realized it was a week of “last chances” – – places to fish and swim; because upon our return in October it would be too cold to take a dip in the lake and fishing season would be over until ice fishing season began on January 1st (something I haven’t yet attempted).

I knew I wouldn’t have much luck fishing at Horseshoe Pond, but my rod and reel anyhow served only as an excuse to paddle my kayak around this beautiful place.  As its name indicates, it is shaped like the letter “U;” I paddled from one end to the other and back again.  I was the only one on the lake, alone in my thoughts on a warm and glorious day.

Horseshoe Pond

Horseshoe Pond (click to enlarge)  My house (not visible)  is just behind the middle hill in background.

I went for a walk with my dog near my house.  The foliage in the woods was so thick; yet despite the warm temperatures the air felt different, truly like the end of summer.  I noticed the sugar maples were just starting to turn, a few giving coy previews of the glories soon to come.

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Soon we passed the old West Stoneham one-room schoolhouse.  It was established in 1860 during Stoneham’s heyday, when the land was settled by farmers and loggers.  Shortly thereafter the population dwindled, victims of poor soil for farming; industrialization in the cities that offered better paying jobs; and the Spanish flu, which decimated entire families in this region.  Even though it was always small – – in 1880 the population was 475 souls – –  it’s hard to imagine our town as once bustling (the 2010 census indicated there are 237 residents, with a density of 7 residents per square mile). Yet in the late 1800s there were five such one-room schoolhouses spread throughout Stoneham.  Today the West Stoneham schoolhouse has been modernized somewhat and is used as someone’s summer cottage.

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The (former) West Stoneham one-room schoolhouse, ca. 1860

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Click to enlarge and see a closeup of W. Stoneham schoolhouse’s commemorative sign

On Friday morning, I decided to go fishing one last time at Virginia Lake.

While I was threading the worm onto the hook, I thought about how we humans tend to think of worms and bugs as the earth’s lowliest creatures.  Yet where would fish and birds (ergo us humans) be without them?  Although they may be an annoyance to humans, worms and insects clearly have a crucial purpose in life as part of the food chain and we would be lost without them.

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(It did not take long before the fish began biting. I caught seven: one was a yellow perch which is not a good eating fish; 2 were too small to keep; but four white perch were just the right size for our upcoming Shabbat dinner and lunch.)

While swatting mosquitoes back at home, the “bugs are beneficial” concept was further driven home by the arrival of the Bee Man.  He was there to harvest this year’s honey crop.  As noted in this article in the Portland Press Herald, this year’s honey crop was one of Maine’s all-time worst.  The Bee Man told me that he averages 1400 lbs of honey per year from his dozens of hives in bee yards spread over a 20 mile radius.  Last year he harvested 1700 lbs.  But this year, he will be lucky to get a meager 500 lbs.  The reason was mostly weather related:  bees prefer hot, sunny days, and 25 days out of 30 in June were rainy, with July and August not faring much better.  The bees were “thin,” he said, and not only could he not harvest whatever little amount of honey they had produced, he would have to add sugar cakes to the hives to feed them supplementally, lest they starve over the winter.

As I stood talking to Bee Man, I was busy swatting the bugs, and I pointed out that his bee suit was covered with gnats and mosquitoes.  “It’s about time!” he said with a smile.  “I’m telling you . . . something is going on.  Yours is the first place I’ve been to today that’s even had bugs!”  I frowned but Bee Man smiled.

“Usually when I empty the hives, I see a lot of ants.  This year I didn’t see any!  And if there aren’t ants, then there are earwigs.  But no earwigs this year, either.  Yep, definitely something is going on, and it’s not good.”  Translation:  pesticides have been introduced to some farms in Bee Man’s area.  True, there are fewer bugs, but the hives are in danger of colony collapse.  For Bee Man, bugs are a measuring stick for the health of his bees . . . and ourselves.

The lowly insect  – – something so small and seemingly insignificant (not to mention annoying) – –  is in fact not inconsequential at all.  Everything, and I do mean everything that was created by G-d has purpose and meaning and is part of a Greater Plan, even if our small minds cannot grasp it.

Seen in this light, even a gnat can inspire us with awe.

It is said there is no such thing as an atheist farmer, because despite his best efforts, he is at the mercy of the forces of Nature, and he recognizes that ultimately his success is up to G-d.  May the New Year reignite our sense of awe and wonder and appreciation of all the good that has been bestowed upon us, and instill us with clarity to recognize Truth.

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The Country Life, ca. 1938

Several years ago I was on a camping trip in West Virginia and we got stuck in a storm.  Since it wasn’t pleasant staying in our water-logged tent, and we couldn’t do much in the way of hiking, we decided to go to “town” where there was an old warehouse that rented its space to a variety of antique and junk dealers.  Browsing, I figured I might as well have some reading material to take back to my tent, so I bought some old Life Magazines from the 1940s (which, thrillingly, pictured the LCI ships that my father had commanded in the South Pacific during WWII) and some Readers Digests from the 1930s which provided a fascinating read about various uprisings and aggressions by Soviets (the evils of communism and Stalin terror), Germans (the occupation and annexation of Austria) and the Japanese (horrific accounts of the Rape of Nanking) which had not yet been officially declared “war.”  While the writing style is “chatty” as only Readers Digest can be, the contrast between the quality of writing from those days and the present is shocking.  If you ever need proof we’ve dumbed ourselves down over the years, read the common man’s journal of the 1930s versus the present!

Included in the October 1938 issue (“$.25 a copy, $3 a year”) is an essay entitled”Week-End Pioneers” by Ralph Haley, originally condensed from The Forum.  Mr. Haley and his wife were dreamers living in New York City, who bought some land in New England which included a derelict, rotting farmhouse.  For the next seven years, he would travel there every weekend and holiday in a never-ending quest of blood, sweat and tears, “painting and scraping and carpentering and digging and still have nothing but a decrepit old house and a few uncertain vegetables.”   What, Mr. Haley asks, “is the driving urge behind us back-to-the-landers?”  He writes:

In most cases it is the idea that, with a few acres and some sort of habitation, one’s future is somehow more secure.  If you had to, you could raise vegetables, keep a cow, . . .  and some chickens, and cut your fuel.  You could “get along” like the pioneers, without money.

This might be termed the grand delusion.  For in the state of not having money, you can starve and freeze and die of appendicitis in the country quite as effectively as anywhere else.

. . . There are, nevertheless, compensations and genuine satisfactions to offset the illusions.  For one thing, you have more room in the country, and space inevitably brings an expansion of the spirit.  You are more of an individual here among the broad, quiet fields; you develop curious ambitions and skills, become mildly eccentric, and enjoy the process very much.

. . . Of course in the country there is water to be pumped, wood to cut and carry, the stove to be cleaned and intricately adjusted, the garbage to be buried.  None of these tasks is pleasant in itself; yet it is not a misstatement to say that pleasure comes from doing them.

In our urban existence we have few real “chores” left; but we make up for it in mental strain.   Household tasks in the country are hard on muscles but easy on the mind.  Somehow, substituting a certain amount of muscle strain for mental strain seems to add up to happier living.

That, after all, is the secret bewitchment of rustic living.  You work with simple understandable things, which you can master, or you deal with the great natural forces of sun and rain and wind, which no man can master and before which it is a joy to be humble.  In either case there is enjoyment and self-realization.

What was true about Mr. Haley’s experience in 1938 is still applicable today.  Even 75 years later, I guess certain things have not changed.

Happy Anniversary

Our 36th wedding anniversary was last month.  It’s a good thing our kids gave us a present, because otherwise neither my husband nor I would have remembered it.

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Our children bought us this hand-made challah board crafted from solid maple and walnut from an artisan in Montana.

Our forgetfulness marking epic occasions is legendary, so neither of us takes offense about forgotten birthdays, anniversaries, etc.  We do try to remember our grandchildren’s and children’s special days, but some celebrate on the Hebrew date and others celebrate on the English date (lunar vs. Gregorian calendar) so it gets pretty confusing and just plain hopeless.  Don’t tell me computer calendars are reliable – – first you have to enter the information.

I’ve never been big on presents:  if I see something I like for someone I love, I simply buy it and give it .  Usually this does not coincide with that person’s birthday or anniversary or graduation or whatever.  Ok, I’m not a sentimentalist.  But mostly when I do give something to someone, it’s on the mark.

One year I was absolutely determined to remember our wedding anniversary.  All day long a loud subconscious voice kept yelling in my ear, “ANNIVERSARY!  ANNIVERSARY!” but as the day went on, the voice got softer and softer until I could no longer hear it at all.  At 5 pm my husband called to say he would be home late and that’s when I realized, “#$%! I forgot to buy a card for our anniversary!”  (Yes, I’m sorry to say, a card is as imaginative as I got.)

Quickly I ran to the car and drove to Wal Mart, and bought a “Happy Anniversary” card.  Breathless, I raced home, hoping only that I would beat my husband home from work.

He came home a few minutes after I did.  I was pretty surprised when he greeted me with, “Happy Anniversary!” and handed me a card (okay, so neither of us are terribly original or creative when celebrations are thrust upon us).

“You remembered!” I said, smiling.  I handed him my card.

We opened our cards at the same time.

They were the same card!

“I was on my way home from work,” my husband explained, “and I realized, ‘sheesh! I forgot our anniversary!’  So I quickly got off the freeway and went to the Wal Mart and picked out this card.”

We must have missed each other by only a few minutes!

I guess, thirty-six nearly forgotten years later, that’s what you call “bashert.”

The Mailbox

It’s taken four years, but we are finally the proud owners of a mailbox.

The horizontal side of the pole sticks out 10'.  The vertical part is 7' high because 5' additional feet are buried underground!

The horizontal side of the pole sticks out 10′. The vertical part is 7′ high because 5′ additional feet are buried underground!  In the foreground near the road is the overgrown culvert, which is a steep ditch and makes it impossible for the mail delivery truck to get close enough to a mailbox.  The mail delivery person never leaves the delivery truck; instead they perform all sorts of contortions to put the mail into the mailbox by reaching over and through the truck window.  It’s simply  too cold in winter to leave the delivery truck.

Until now, we have traveled 8 miles to our rural post office every time we wanted to get our mail from a rented post office box.  I really didn’t mind at first, because I liked Heidi, our postmaster, very much and enjoyed speaking with her each time I’d get the mail.  I learned all sorts of stuff from her – – not just the goings-on of our town and its residents, but she was a great reference for “where can I find . . . ?” and “where can I buy . . . ?” and “how does one . . . ?” plus she was great at recommending tradesmen, doctors  – – you name it.

Then the US Post Office, in its efforts to save money, started making all sorts of cutbacks, which included shuffling hours and clerks and routes.  Heidi was transferred to another post office, and we got Lili in her place – – another lovely person.  But then 3 months later Lili was given the axe and then it was Wendy.  But Wendy lived 1 hour 20 minutes away and the drive in the winter at 5 a.m. wasn’t practical, so then we got Debbie.  But then the Post Office decided that our little branch wasn’t busy enough, so they cut the hours to 4 hours a day – from 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m and 2:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.  These hours proved hugely inconvenient for us, and by now I didn’t even know who the clerks were, they were changed so frequently.

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I pasted lots of red and white reflective tape on the box and the pole so the snowplow guy can’t say he “couldn’t see it” while plowing at night. Mailboxes are commonly knocked down by snow plows in Maine. If this happens, you can’t dig a new hole until Spring because the ground is frozen solid!

If you are reading this blog from a large city, you are probably wondering what difference it makes who my postmaster is.  Because we go back and forth from Maine to our hometown, our mail is always in a state of getting forwarded or held.  With our local rural post office,  you can simply call and ask if you got anything important, and they will not only tell you what’s sitting in your box, they will offer to send it to wherever else you happen to be.  If you are expecting a package and you let them know, they will be excited for you when it comes.  A rural postmaster looks out for his customers.

The new branch hours were more than inconvenient – – they also affected our Fed Ex and UPS deliveries.  Those companies would often deliver to us via the post office, where we’d pick up our parcels.  Their routes from the city meant they arrived sometime between noon – 1 p.m. daily.  But since the post office was closed at that time, they couldn’t drop off the packages there, and the post office had no interest in creating some sort of secure drop box for their deliveries.

Besides the expense of the rented post office box, there was the cost of gas.  The 16-mile round trip, at $3.75 a gallon, meant I was paying almost $2 each time I went to check on the mail.

But getting a mailbox was no simple matter.

Our local Post Office was willing to deliver the mail if we’d put a mailbox at the bottom of the driveway, at the street.  Unfortunately, however, there is a culvert (drainage ditch) on either side of the driveway, so there was nowhere to put a mailbox because the mail truck couldn’t pull up to a mailbox without the vehicle falling into a ditch.

Our difficult set-up is in no way unique.  So I began paying attention to rural mailboxes whenever I’d go out for a drive.  I saw right away that even if I could place a mailbox on a post, it would be at the mercy of the snowplow, and snowplow drivers are notoriously careless about knocking down mailboxes.    The best design for our situation would be a very, very long, extended pole, with a mailbox hanging from the pole by chains.

It took me nearly a year to find someone who could create this design at a reasonable price, but Jeremiah Johnson is a welder who was up to the task.  I showed him a pencil sketch, told him what I wanted, and a few days later he brought the 10′ x 12′ L-shaped pole that he had welded for us.  It was HUGE.  Of the side that was twelve feet high, 5′ had to be sunk into the ground.  It had to be sunk that deep due to the frost line.  I also knew that I needed to get that hole dug before it got too cold and the ground froze.  I called a local excavator, but he was busy.  I called a handyman and he said he’d do it, but he wasn’t quite sure when.

Three weeks later, we still did not have a mailbox hole dug.  But luck was on our side.  The road maintenance excavation crew happened to swing by our street.  Their job was to clean out and replace culverts that drained into the bog known as Little Pond across the street.  They brought huge monster trucks and bulldozers to dig up our road, put in new culverts, cover it with gravel and smooth it down with asphalt.  They also  re-dug the ditches on either side of our driveway.  They were happy to dig my mailbox hole for a little proffered cash on the side.  And so we now had a 5′ feet deep hole at the bottom of our driveway.

Next I bought two 50 lb bags of “Quikcrete” – –  a fast-setting concrete mix – – and my husband and I filled the 5′ hole with a combination of Quikcrete, gravel, and dirt.  I put plenty of reflective red and white stickers on both the pole and the mailbox, so our snowplow guy won’t hit it (but at least the mailbox will swing on the chains instead of snapping off a post if it does get hit).

It is pretty nice not having to drive to the post office to get my mail, although I still go occasionally to buy stamps, send a package, or catch up on town news with the latest postmaster.

“That’s Fishing!”

Every fisherman has his “the one that got away” story and now I have mine.

My husband and I took our daughter and her children to Virginia Lake for a day of swimming and kayaking.  It’s only a few miles from our house, yet the great thing about it is that it’s in a remote, not-so-easy-to-get-to location.  Few people besides locals even know of its existence, despite its presence on any map of Maine.  Much of the land around the lake was owned by the Diamond Match Company, but they relinquished their hold to the Forest Service and it was designated as conservation land.  The few cabins around the lake were similarly sold to the US Forest Service and the cabins were either physically removed from the land or allowed to decay to the point of no return.  There is one “holdout” – a wealthy family from Maryland who owns a sprawling, rustic yet luxurious lodge/family compound there — but they are the only residents amidst hundreds of acres of timber and mountains along Virginia Lake, and they are there only during the summer.  Whenever I kayak there, I  almost always have the entire lake to myself, with the exception of Common Loons.  Their haunting cry is both ethereal and mystical; there is nothing quite like the magic and privilege of hearing and experiencing their amazing sound.

That said, getting to Virginia Lake with an entire family in tow is a rather complicated affair.  There is a fairly decent dirt road to the primitive boat launch which is surrounded by brush and scrub and woods; but to get to the side of the lake where there is a small cove and sandy beach is something else altogether.  The dirt road leading there is completely washed out, and only with great difficulty can even a 4×4 manage the axle-smashing, suspension-ruining flooded, rocky ruts along the way.  Usually it’s much easier to park in the brush and walk the remaining .3 mile to the beach, but besides the mosquitoes and blackflies along the so-called path, there are towels, snacks, drinks, sunscreen, and all the required paraphernalia associated with a family gathering that must also be carried in.  There are no bathrooms and no trash cans, so any trash one generates must be carried back out to the car at the end of the day, to be disposed of at a later date.   Picture, if you will, the vast quantity of stuff required when you realize that my daughter has seven children, ages 15 months to 12 years old!

So why bother?  Well, due to laws of modesty, Orthodox Jews do not participate in sunbathing or swimming in a mixed-gender situation unless it is with their own family, and opportunities within this scenario are rare.  Virginia Lake, due to its isolation and inconvenience, provides plenty of privacy.  But even more than that, it is exceptionally pristine and beautiful and a true wilderness experience.  Also, because it is rarely visited, the fishing is terrific.

By the time we got everyone piled into two cars filled to the brim with everything we’d need, I’d lost count of all the items on my checklist and only hoped we hadn’t forgotten anything too important.  After several exhausting trips shlepping stuff from the car, I realized I had forgotten my fishing net at home.  That didn’t stop me from fishing, however!

The kids loved kayaking and even the three-year-old enjoyed paddling in the shallow waters by the shore (we stood in the water next to the kayak to ensure he wouldn’t capsize or be in danger, and of course they wore life jackets).

Two of the grandkids kayaking on Virginia Lake

Two of the grandkids kayaking on Virginia Lake

Fooling around and having fun on Virginia Lake

Fooling around and having fun on Virginia Lake.  Even the little 3-year-old blondie (3rd from the right, crouching down in the boat) got to have “solo” time paddling the kayak. (click to enlarge)

I love this picture because it so well captures the pure joy and fun of the day.

I love this picture because it so well captures the pure joy and fun of the day.

Eventually they all had enough and now it was my turn!  I paddled out to my favorite area on the lake where the fish always seem to bite.  I wasn’t sure my fishing rod would even work, since the day before I had propped it up along the wall next to the window, and someone had absent-mindedly slammed the window shut – – right on the rod, snapping off the end.  So here I was, with this crazy, shortened rod, with a sharp rough piece sticking out at the end, attempting to catch something.

Within 30 seconds of putting the worm on the hook and casting the line, I didn’t feel a nibble — I felt a CHOMP.  I had never felt anything quite like it before.  Usually the fish just nibble at the worm gently, until their noshing gets the best of them and they take a fatal bite and become hooked.  Sometimes they are crafty – they nibble carefully enough to release the worm from the hook without their getting caught and then I’m minus both worm and fish.  But immediately I knew that whatever had taken that CHOMP, it was BIG, and it wasn’t fooling around – all it took was one bite and that worm was history.

Encouraged, I put another worm on the hook and waited.  Within a minute, I hooked a fish and began to reel it in.  It was pretty powerful, and my already-broken rod was nearly doubled in half as I struggled to pull it in.  Suddenly, there it was:  the largest trout I had ever seen!  Twenty-one inches and enough to feed five people.  (I knew its length because I have a tape measure glued on to the side of the kayak, to ensure I don’t take a fish too small for the legal minimum.)  Despite my attempts to grab it, I was unsuccessful, and that’s when I realized that without the forgotten net, I was helpless.

“Help me!” I shouted to my husband on the distant shore.  “Please!  Paddle out and help me nab this fish!”  Alas, amidst the gleeful sounds of the children playing in the sand and the water,  they couldn’t hear my cries.  I was afraid the squirming trout, fighting for its life, would unhook itself, but it did something even more surprising:  it snapped the ten-pound line, and with the hook still in its mouth, it plopped back into Virginia Lake and swam far, far away.

How I mourned!  I felt terrible:  not only did I lose what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime catch, I was now guilty of a terrible cruelty:  a fish was destined to live – – and probably soon die – – with a hook imbedded in its mouth.

One of my children once asked me, “Doesn’t it gross you out to eat something you have had to kill?  Wouldn’t you just rather buy a fish in the market?”

It’s a surprisingly deep question.  Most people I’ve spoken with love fishing for the sake of fishing.  Most of the time, they don’t even keep what they catch – – they throw it back into the water. 

But the only fish I throw back into the water are those that are too small to eat.  I regard the entire fishing process as somewhat cruel, from the worm’s impalement and subsequent squirms on the hook; to the fish being caught by its mouth by a hook, struggling to free itself and then to breathe its last breaths out of water – – no, I don’t really see this as “fun” or as “sport.”  The only justification I can find in it is if it serves a purpose:  food to nourish me.  It is a profound and grave experience to truly realize first hand the process of where your food comes from.  I think if most people had to kill their own chickens or cows rather than buy a piece of meat wrapped unrecognizably in plastic packaging at the supermarket, that most would become vegetarians.  In order to live, one has to destroy.  It’s important, I think, to experience that (unpleasant!) connection, to not take it for granted or become desensitized:  ulitmately, to make it holy.  (That’s another reason Orthodox Jews make blessings over every item of food we eat.  We are not only thanking G-d for providing us sustenance, we are attempting a paradigm shift:  eating to live instead of living to eat.)

Disheartened, I could not stop thinking about that fish.

The next day I went to the town dump to dispose of our trash.  The fellow who runs the dump is a typical rural “Mainuh:”  very taciturn; a man of few words; wary of people who are “from away.”  In the four years I’ve lived here, he has only grunted in acknowledgement of my hellos.  Even when I bake him cookies every year during holiday season, he purses his lips and only nods his head once in appreciation.  But in my experience, Mainers love to give advice if asked.  And so I gathered my courage and said,

“Excuse me . . . can I ask you a question?”

He grunted.

” . . . About fishing?” I continued.

He stopped.

“You see, I’m new to fishing.  I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But I  want to learn more.  I was wondering if you could tell me what I did wrong.”

I proceeded to tell him my story of the one that got away.  He was all ears, and his eyes lit up as my story unfolded.  He seemed a bit impressed that the trout had snapped a ten-pound line.  When I got to the end he said two words:

“That’s fishing!”

At first I didn’t get it.  So he proceeded to tell me his own “the one that got away” story, and it was rather embarrassing:

He was out fishing on a local lake with his buddy, the owner of a nearby convenience store.  They were trolling for fish (gliding slowly in the boat) with four rods dangling from the boat.  The boat had three rod-holders; the fourth rod was simply propped up against the side of the boat.

“. . . And wouldn’t you know it!  The one worm the fish goes for is attached to the rod that’s not in the rod-holder!  It took us by complete surprise!  And suddenly, I’m just sitting there like a dummy watching it;  the entire rod and reel flips over my head, off the boat, and is carried into the lake lock, stock and barrel by that fish!  I was just so surprised, and it happened so quickly, I couldn’t move fast enough.  And that was the end of that!  The rod, the reel – the whole thing – gone!  And that’s fishing!”

And then I got it.

We think we’re in control.  That’s the beauty of fishing:  its us humans, supposedly of superior intelligence, versus the fish.  And we should win, every time.  Sometimes we do  – – and sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes it’s because of skill, sometimes it’s because of luck – –  or lack thereof.  But ultimately, the joke is on us.  Fishing is humbling, because a small creature with no brainpower mostly outwits us.  We like to think we are in control:  in control of the fish, in control of our lives – – but we’re not. 

“That’s fishing.”

That’s life.

What powerful mussar the trash dump guy gave me, right before Rosh HaShana.