friends

Last weekend my partner and I took our first camping trip of the year in Green Ridge State Forest. It was our first time staying at this camping area (we had originally intended to return to the magical Big Run State Park/Savage River State Forest we went to last September, about an hour west of Green Ridge, but it was supposed to be much colder there). Despite cool temperatures and some rain, we were able to enjoy fishing, hiking, a midday hammock nap, off-roading in my tiny but surprisingly adventurous Kia hatchback, and wildlife viewings.

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Polly the Kia got a well-deserved wash and vacuum after this excursion.

We paid for campsite use at the headquarters ($10/night), where two very lovely middle-aged women talked with us and helped us choose a site based on our interests and lack of four-wheel drive. We ended up at campsite #4, the north-most site in the forest and a short drive to some nice fishing spots, although if we ever return, we’ll opt for one of the more remote, forested sites farther south.

The first thing I did after unloading the car and setting up camp was walk the perimeter of the site to observe the nearby land, plants, and small creatures. Under a grove of pine trees, I found an eastern (red-spotted) newt. I had just recalled the other day how my cousins, sister, and I used to find dozens and dozens of eastern newts (although we always called them salamanders) in my grandmother’s yard growing up, until one day we couldn’t find them anymore. I hadn’t seen one in years. But there it was, hanging out in a bed of fallen pine needles, as adorable as ever.

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A small friend

This boded well. The following day, it was sunnier and warmer, so we hiked the Twin Oaks Trail (the purple trail) and looped back around on the Pine Lick Trail (blue), four miles in all. We stopped for lunch where the trail fords a stream, skipped some rocks, and kept going. The loop is described as a moderate hike; there were many ups and downs, but it was never too steep in any one place. At the steepest ascent, my partner saw a small creature scurry across the trail onto a tree. “That was a fast toad.” But it wasn’t a toad – it was a lizard! I’ve never seen a lizard before in the States, having spent the majority of my life in New England. With some research, we determined it to be a female eastern fence lizard and this location to be about the northern-most habitat where you can find them. She was much too quick for us to get her picture.

Here are a couple other small friends I found:

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A gray moth, enjoying the woodland view
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Found this friend drying its wings after some rain
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Whatever the heck these are

We saw many fish swimming in the stocked pond down the road. A whippoorwill sang off and on all night. But the biggest friend of all that we saw that weekend was an American black bear.

It was about 9:00 in the morning, and we were drinking our coffee but hadn’t pulled out the food for breakfast yet – we of course keep all tasty smelling things secured in the car. Suddenly my partner tells me in a serious voice to get to the car. About twenty yards away at the perimeter of our site, a young bear was watching us from the trees. We backed slowly towards the car, talking loudly at the bear (as you’re supposed to do; but it makes you feel like a fool!), hoping it would lose interest. “Hey, bear! Go away, bear! Please leave us alone!” It circled to another part of the site, never getting any closer, just observing our setup. After about five or ten minutes, it lumbered back into the woods.

We didn’t see it again, although we were extra careful with our food and trash for the rest of the time. Both of our phones were dead (and in the tent), so there’s no photographic evidence of our curious Ursus. My hypothesis is that it smelled our coffee and wanted some, too. Coffee is, after all, hard to come by in the forest.

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Needed more tinder… worked on my third attempt
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Fishing spot. If only it was warmer, I would’ve loved to swim!
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Bluets
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Just hangin’ out
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Campsite moonlight
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2017 Camping Trip #1 complete!

horseweed

We all know the old saying. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But when my sister and I were kids, money grew on weeds.

In the summers, on the border of our neighbors’ yard and ours, past the swing set, behind the willow tree, and between Threepinederoga and my mom’s garden, tall, bright green weeds grew. The stalks were covered radially with three- or four-inch oblong leaves that were slightly fuzzy, somewhat floppy, and perfect specimens for make-believe currency.

I never knew what they were called; I never cared until I wanted to blog about it. A cursory web search has suggested the terms “marestail” and “horseweed” and Conyza canadensis, although I can’t verify this with my diminishing visual memory of the plant.

What I do remember distinctly about the moneyplant is the smell it would give off when you tore bills from that primitive ATM. The smell was earthy, sharp, and very, very green. It was so delightfully pungent that I used to rip the leaves up after I was done “paying” with them just so I could smell it again.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did regularly tear up different leaves from around the yard to investigate their odor. The moneyplant is just one of many whose properties I discovered. For example, there was a small, feathery weed you could find low in the grass that smelled minty (but wasn’t mint). Did you know that the shredded leaf of a checkerberry plant smells exactly like its berries taste? You’d be surprised at what you find when you dabble in botany.

But I completely forgot about the scent of the moneyplant until I started cooking for myself a few years ago.

It happened when I was chopping parsley. Olfactory memory is strange because you almost never can identify the origin of the nostalgia at first. This is just normal fresh parsley, so why have I been transported to a childhood summer? After wracking my brain I finally remembered the moneyplant. If that weed really was C. canadensis, I can find no indication that it’s related to parsley (although American Indians did use it as an herb and apparently when dried it tastes like tarragon). However, the memory is reawakened every single time I chop parsley, so I figure there might be something to it. I can’t think of another olfactory trigger that affects me like this does or that conjures as specific and unadulterated a memory.

The money of my childhood and the money of my adulthood bear only a few similarities. For one, I used to keep a stash of moneyplant bills, and I still hoard my money today. (What are banks but professionally-tended hoards of money?) The bills are still green, but I wouldn’t recommend tearing them up and huffing the pieces anymore. Adult money’s harder to come by, but worth more. It can make you more comfortable but not more happy. The memory of the moneyplant’s aroma, on the other hand, offers no material comfort whatsoever, but every time I chop parsley, I smile. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but as it turns out, happiness just might.

fourteen

Suspended, supine,
Inches above earth, dangling
Pendulous suspense

*       *       *

For Christmas this year, and for the sanity of the adults involved, we decided to buy my nephews presents as usual but draw names for each other. My dad was the lucky soul who drew me, and he won the day by getting me exactly what I most wanted: a camping hammock.

The only problem with getting a hammock for Christmas is that there’s still a lot of winter to wait through before you can use it. But, thanks to the temperate nature of the mid-Atlantic, my own temperance soon paid off, and I was able to set up my present last weekend during a hiking trip my partner and I took on Sugarloaf Mountain.

If you don’t have a hammock, get one. You can easily find inexpensive ones that do the job well; no need to get a super fancy one. Then all you have to do is learn a good knot or two, let tension and gravity do the rest, and you’ll be swinging in paradise in under five minutes.

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Relaxing before the place swarmed with teenagers
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Until next time!

eleven

Sharp scissors scraping
Endlessly to make blazing
Christmas ribbon curls

*      *       *

Christmas at my grandmother’s house was an over-the-top, magical miracle for us grandkids (my adult family would perhaps agree with only the first descriptor). You cannot even dream of the number of Christmas-themed stuffed animals and nutcrackers that littered the house. I have yet to see as many presents addressed to me sitting under a tree as I did for many years as a child, nor have I helped wrap as many.

You see, Nanny loved to cook and decorate and shop for her family, securing a line of brilliant hostesses behind her, but she tended to take on more than she could carry. So, she would employ her young granddaughters in the wrapping of all the gifts she hadn’t quite gotten to by the time Christmas night rolled around. We would sit together on the big bed in the Red Bedroom (so called after the solid scarlet hue of the 70s-style full carpeting in those quarters), surrounded by gifts, paper, and ribbons, and we would get to work.

It occurs to me now that this must have been a thought-through strategy. I’m pretty sure she always wrapped our presents first, so that when she ran out of time for wrapping, only the boys’ gifts were left, and we could finish the job without spoiling our own surprises.

Nanny’s big claim to fame is ribbon curls. Each present had dozens and dozens of ribbon curls, and there were dozens and dozens of presents, so you do the math. She taught us at a very early age how to do it, carefully tying many ribbon pieces of different colors in a crisscross pattern, and then one-by-one sliding the blade of a pair of scissors along the bottom of each piece, until you were left with an explosion of shiny, colorful curlicues – often dwarfing the present underneath.

With so many beautifully wrapped presents (and, let’s be honest, some badly wrapped ones done by a few eight year olds), perhaps the most striking thing about the whole event was not the sheer number of packages, but the love, beauty, and detail put into the wrapping itself.

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A present for me, beautifully wrapped by my father – although, according to Nanny’s standards, still lacking in the bow department?

aloud

When I was in middle school, my youth group signed up for a four hour shift to ring the Salvation Army bell outside the local Walmart one December night. It was particularly bitter that evening – in the teens – and so we took turns singing carols outside and running into the store to warm up for a few minutes. My parents bought us all mitten warmer packets from inside.

Despite having been in choruses and choir productions from the earliest age, no one had ever told me explicitly that you are not supposed to sing in the cold, for danger of injuring your vocal cords. I didn’t imagine that the singing term “to warm-up” might actually mean to warm up your vocal cords (something which is near impossible to do if with every breath you’re sucking in frigid northern air).

After four hours of hoarsely projecting Christmas songs at the top of my lungs (according to my logic, so as to have the greatest effect on the generosity of shoppers entering and exiting the store), I fully expected to suffer mild laryngitis the following day. What I did not expect was that my voice would still be suffering negative effects over a decade later.

Once the initial discomfort was over, a few months later, my main complaint was that my voice – speaking and singing – got tired very quickly. Words would thicken and stick in my tonsils. Reading even short things aloud became difficult. I could start out singing strong and clearly, but after about one song a hoarseness and fatigue would creep into my voice. This was not for lack of practice. I regularly participated in my school chorus, choral productions at church, and the church band on Sundays. I never had any medical confirmation of a condition, as it was only a persistent annoyance and frustration, but I knew that something had changed that night, for the worse.

Fastforward several years. Being an aunt is one of my greatest joys. Although I don’t get to see my nephews more than two or three times a year, time spent with them is very precious to me. I would do pretty much anything for them, but one thing that used to make me cringe during my visits was story time. They would request me to read book after book, and my voice would get smaller and grainier with every page. I dreaded when they brought out the books, because I knew I would have to curtail this important developmental activity. I wanted nothing more than to read aloud to them for hours (reading was pretty much the only way I could get these little boys to cuddle with me for a good amount of time), but my voice would not cooperate. I admit I was relieved (and impressed!) when the older one started reading for himself.

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The littler one, “reading”
Only in the last few months have I noticed a marked improvement in my voice endurance. When I found out that my partner had never read Roald Dahl’s BFG as a child, it could not stand. Seeing this as a huge oversight in his education, I began to read it aloud to him, voices and all. I was surprised to find that, after a little warming up, my voice performed much better than I had expected and than historically it had. I drank a lot of water throughout, but I could easily make it through a whole chapter without my voice feeling too strained to continue.

Encouraged by this and by the fact that my partner only fell asleep a couple of times during the reading, reading aloud has become a hobby of ours, and an excellent alternative to watching TV. We are currently rereading A Wrinkle in Time together (honestly, slow going because I keep falling asleep to his calming intonations), and I imagine we’ll even one day emerge into adult fiction.

In the meantime, this hobby is good practice for when I see my nephews over New Year’s.

supermoon

The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.

Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.

In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.

One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.

This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.

Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)

On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.

A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.