To borrow a line from Monty Python, “Now for something completely different.”
Hold onto your hats (how’s that for an anachronism) for my recommendation of Ed Robinson’s non-fiction book, Nature Notes from Maine (https://amzn.to/3Gzrq9r). I can hear you now. “Are you kidding?” Actually, I’m not. I’m a novelist but I recognize a great non-fiction book when I see it. And Ed’s book is nothing less than marvelous. Okay, I wrote the Foreword and it’s included below. Ed and I started out as biotech guys and while I began to write fiction (see www.DavidHirshberg.com — yes, a plug, I’m not ashamed to say), Ed went for non-fiction. If you buy his book, all profits go to the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, so you’ll be doing a good deed.
To entice you to read the Foreword, I’ve included a couple of the stunning photos from the book.
Foreword to Nature Notes from Maine
Deer, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, turkeys, chipmunks and woodchucks often parade through the woods surrounding our house, while ducks laze in the pond. Raccoons are much less frequent guests, I’m sorry to say, having been decimated years ago by a plague of rabies. The rare sighting of one now conjures up as much excitement as the wanderings of a lonely bear, which happens occasionally when one of them follows a stream flowing from the north.
Our dogs prance in the backyard along the fence, trying to spot one of their wild friends, who’ve come to understand that our pets are contained within an area, which usually results in a staring contest until the dogs get bored and continue their business of playing ball, while their undomesticated pals resume the search for food.
The foxes—ruby red and playful—come closer to the house each year, seeming to tease the dogs, making forays into their territory, then sprinting away to jump the fence and sit on the other side, as nonchalant as they can be. You think only coyotes are wily? In our neck of the woods, vulpes vulpes reigns supreme, apparently knowing that they have special status; after all, the local high school is named Fox Lane.
I’m fortunate to be a witness to this wild animal activity, especially since we live just 45 miles north of Manhattan. Walking in the nearby Mianus River Gorge or Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, my wife and I have chance encounters with our animal neighbors, who’ve come to accept us in the same manner we express: mutual admiration but let’s keep a respectful distance.
It’s no wonder that I live in this neighborhood. From the time I was three years old, I’ve been a ‘Mainiac,’ albeit limited to the summers. My nursery school teacher had a summer home on Swan’s Island, a ferry ride from Bar Harbor. Although I was the youngest child, I had some freedom to roam beyond the yard by myself, and with the older kids, had permission to go and do what we wanted.
I distinctly remember skipping stones to the closest lobster traps and throwing rocks at the buoys bobbing in the cove. Observing seals sunbathing on rocky crags that jutted up from the ocean; we clapped our hands and made seal sounds. They stared at us. Waving to some lobstermen wearing bright yellow slicker coveralls and to some guys on a small fishing boat who all waved back. Listening to the older kids debate whether we would die if we ate what looked like wild blueberries; they decided it was worth the risk. They weren’t very sweet but we couldn’t get them down fast enough. Out on one of the many promontories we found wild strawberries and mushrooms which were as good as anything Mrs. Duesnap made for lunch.
I recall finding a small stream where we took off all our clothes except our underpants and made like beavers, creating dams and bridges with the rocks from the bottom. Afterwards, we dried off in the late afternoon sun, counting birds and finding faces of people we knew in the clouds. These are my childhood’s most precious memories.
Ed Robinson has managed to take me back to those days, with his remarkably informative and visually stunning book that should be a must read, even for those who’ve never been to Maine or for whom a wild animal is a pesty rattus that’s never welcome in a city apartment. For while the locale is our most picturesque northeastern state, his work is a triumph that is universal in nature—a combination of journalism, diary, gallery, and teaching guide that serves as a model for how to make a reader more knowledgeable about the Earth that we share with our non-human neighbors: land animals, fish, birds, insects, and flora.
It’s all done with such panache and humor!
About the larches: “Concoctions of larch bark and roots were used to treat wounds, frostbite, arthritis, even hemorrhoids – no need for Preparation H!”
“No herring gull will win a singing contest with your favorite song bird.”
“Yes, a duck loved me, and I loved her.”
And linger on the chapter names, perfected to dovetail with the subject matter. Tell me Warts and All isn’t a wonderful name for a chapter on toads and One Good Tern… doesn’t put a smile on your face as you read about these little birds swooping down to scarf up some baitfish.
You can picture them in your mind as well as observe the beautiful photos on the pages. My favorites are the handsome cougar with the penetrating green and yellow eyes, the flying squirrel that’s perfectly camouflaged against the bark of a tree, the ruffled grouse emerging from some aspens, the Atlantic puffin pair touching bills (so remarkable you’d think it was photoshopped), and the black bear cub, sound asleep, wedged between the trunk and a branch. Altogether, these are the perfect complements to an immensely enjoyable reading experience, as you can suspend disbelief, sitting in your armchair by a roaring blaze in the fireplace, inserting yourself into one of the stories.
While you’re reading about a particular animal or fish, your learning is enhanced by the artful insertion of what a playwright would call an aside, five of my favorites being:
“Who knew that flying squirrels do not actually fly, of course, but rather they glide. That’s not what I remember from watching The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends.
How many of us could identify the huge pile of oyster shells known as “The Glidden Midden near Damariscotta (which) dates back 2,500 years and measures 30 feet tall by 150 feet long.”
Remember US Air flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River in 2009? Ed does, and reminds us that, “…Captain Sullenberger was unable to avoid a flock of migrating Canada geese.”
And I had no idea how the racoon got its name. “The first European settlers learned that Native Americans respected the raccoon, known in the Algonquin language as “ahrah-koon-em.”
And finally, one of my favorite riffs that give an elegant historical framework—something you don’t expect to get in a book of this genre: “Going back to pre-colonial days, native people used staghorn sumac in a variety of ways. They ate the young shoots as a lightly sweet treat, stripping off the outer bark before chewing. The leaves and bark on mature stems have a high concentration of tannin, which was used as a dye or for leather processing. The dried leaves and berries were mixed with herbs, then blended with tobacco as a way to stretch out supplies of a valued product that was often scarce in the wilderness. Because the stems have a soft pithy center that is easily removed, they were used to make pipes.”
What’s especially appealing about the writing (beyond its clarity and precision) is that Ed puts himself into the narrative. The first-person personal is such a superior form to the third-person reportage that others have used. You’re anxious with Ed and his friend Andy when a large predator is outside their tent. You can’t wait to find out what is the ‘ghost’ animal he spots from the river walking along the shoreline.
The book ends with a satisfying few pages that could qualify for an environmental essay, without any tongue lashing or shaming for our less-than-perfect conservational behavior. Whatresonated with me were Ed’s calls-to-action, especially the following: “Rather than maintaining turf to your property boundaries, consider allowing the edges to grow into a natural bufferzone…”
I closed the book with a sense of satisfaction, not just because I learned a lot, but because wehad decided over the years to reduce the size of our back lawn and let the woods reclaim this territory for itself. Maybe that’s why the deer, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, turkeys, chipmunks and woodchucks parade through the woods surrounding our house. Perhaps that’s an unconscious thank you from our animal friends.
I guess I’m still a ‘Mainiac’ at heart. You’ll be one, too, after you read this book.