Category Archives: Maine

Maine’s Spring Rebirth

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[Ramps! At Eastways!]

It’s a cold, gray Sunday morning on the Maine coast. Spring comes sloooooowly here. In the garden, the peonies have yet to break through the soil (though, to their credit, the lilies are off to the races). Trees are bare. But underfoot, around the yard, vibrant clumps of green leaves, sprung fully-formed from the last of the snowmelt: ramps! Turns out our property is awash in them — here they are coming up around the ledges amongst still-dormant clumps of bayberry, and there they are underneath the pine trees marking the line between our house and the neighbors to the east.

I’m amused to no end that, after years of anti-hyping these first green edibles of spring on Eater, there’s ramps aplenty just steps from our front porch. Yesterday, inspired, I pulled bunches of them from the patches under the pine trees. Cleaned and sauteed on the stove, they made a perfect side dish for my brother’s and my dinner of grilled steak and baked potato. This morning, my mind races — scrambled eggs with ramps? Spaghetti with ramps? All of the above?

The (re?)discovery of ramps on our property adds a new wrinkle to the seasonal cycle of our time in Maine. I blogged last fall about the rhythms of the seasons in a house that we close up in the midst of the baseball postseason on Columbus Day then reopen every April soon after opening day at Fenway. My brother and I arrived here Friday night for the first time this year, and we’ve spent most of the weekend rearranging furniture, scrubbing down surfaces blessed by winter visits from tiny mice, and starting the work of bringing the yard and gardens alive by picking up the biggest and most obvious of the endless supply of fallen branches. Water, miraculously turned on an hour before we arrived on Friday, leaks from a faucet near the garden. My brother’s to-do list grows, and we’ll be lucky to get through most of it by June.

Life has been upside-down lately — a better topic for conversation than blog posts — so this annual rebirth, the unfolding of spring, arrives on the calendar at a much-needed moment. With it, the physical act of reopening the house, of restoring order, carries with it a promise that the wheel will turn, and that everything will be okay. And it will, and will be. But first, there is work to be done.

Closed for the Season

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My family’s house in Maine, called Eastways, has been in our family since 1944. It’s still very much the same house it was then, when it was already somewhere around 60 years old: a big old rambling shingle-style house, architect unknown, perched far enough from the sea to escape the waves but not so far as to elude the salt air, which is of course why we love the place as we do. It’s a house where my father spent all his summers growing up, as my brother and I did, too, and hopefully our children too someday.

Eastways, built as a summer cottage in the parlance of the times (and, later, of Richard Ekstract), isn’t winterized. The house literally stands on old tree trunks, teetering as if the next breeze will blow it over, though it’s actually solid as a rock. It’s got a water heater and furnace in the dirt-floored basement, which is open to the elements except for the wooden slats that enclose the house’s bottom — and which the furnace and heater share with a fresh cord of wood stacked by my brother a few weeks ago.

The furnace blows hot air through three vents in the first floor only, with the rest of the house’s heat coming from two fireplaces on the first floor and one in the master bedroom on the second floor. This setup works wonderfully in the middle of summer when sometimes the Maine air is so damp that a fire is called for, as well as in early October when the wind is crisp and the air cool and a roaring blaze turns the whole house cozy.

But Eastways lacks insulation, and the water main runs along the surface of the ground. Which means that before the first hard frost comes, the water must be drained — toilets emptied, sinks too. And the whole house shut down.

For our family, Columbus Day Weekend is always the weekend of putting the Maine house to bed for the winter. This means draining the water from the pipes but also cutting down the perennial garden, stacking the porch furniture in the telephone room, and mothballing (literally) the beds and sofas and chairs. Those and a thousand other tasks that my brother and I used to bitch and gripe about but now get done automatically.

We’ve snuck the occasional winter weekend in the house over the years. When I was young, we did one Christmas there, keeping huge fires stoked in the fireplaces, closing off all unused rooms, filling pots of water at our neighbor’s house, then sleeping under three comforters and waking up with the water glass on the side table frozen into ice. All part of the fun. But not the kind of thing you can or want to do on a regular basis.

This summer, for the first time awhile, we started thinking about making upgrades to the house. Most of the changes would be unsexy but long overdue. Parts of the electrical system still run on knob and tube (Wikipedia: “an early standardized method of electrical wiring in buildings, in common use in North America from about 1880 to the 1930s”). The roof needs replacing. The foundation needs shoring up. Etc.

As part of these conversations, an old question arose: should we winterize Eastways? There’s a certain logic to it, especially if we’re gearing up to do all this associated work as well. It’s a conversation that we haven’t yet finished as a family. But the contractor who came and took a look at the place last month who seemed to get it best told us, “If you wanted to winterize the place, you’d be better off tearing it down. But of course you’re not going to do that.” Which, he’s right. We’re not.

I think the odds favor us not winterizing the house. For me, the ritual of opening the house in the middle of April, when the lawn is wet and bright green and the air raw, then closing it down in October, when the long-finished peony leaves have turned red along the flowerbeds and the final monarch butterflies fly through the yard, is intrinsic to my entire love of the house, and Maine itself.

This season is now over. We wait for the spring to come and the cycle to begin again.

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An end-of-summer week in Maine would not be complete—or, really, even worthwhile—without the glory that is Maine lowbush blueberries. They bruise too easily to ship, go bad in about 48 hours anyway, and can be found at farmstands here for about a month. Evidence alone to believe in a loving God.

Cordwood

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Before enlightenment, wash dishes, stack wood.
After enlightenment, wash dishes, stack wood.

Still in Maine after a week (and gorgeous weekend) here. Accomplishment: cordwood now stacked under the house. (Co-producer credit to special guest star Chris Stewart.)

Wet Weekend

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Wet weekend in Maine, though we missed the brunt of the rain that pounded areas south and west of us. (SPS certainly didn’t escape.) More photos via the new Flickr badge at right. Photo credit for awesome shoreline pic of me above: Mom Steele.

Life just got a a whole lot better: “JetBlue Airways Corp. said Thursday that it would begin service to Portland, Maine, the latest expansion from its hub at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Queens-based airline plans to offer four flights daily beginning May 23, with fares ranging from $59 to $129 each way.”