Friday, May 29, 2009

Polygala paucifolia

If Polygala paucifolia, the Fringed Milkwort, or Gaywing, was more than two inches tall and did not live only beneath certain giant white pine trees, it would be a very well known and popular garden flower.

Polygala is one of the most difficult wildflowers to photograph. They are hard to find and hard to see. The entire plant is barely two inches tall, with flowers about the size of a thumbnail. Except for the flower, there is almost no plant, which is why its species name is paucifolia, a paucity of foliage. Their tiny size, leaf shape and preferred growing spot at the base of large white pine trees gives them their informal name, "flowering wintergreen," although they are not related to the wintergreen.

What makes Polygala such an unusual deep woodland wildflower is the electric magenta color and comical but beautifully complex orchid-like form of their flowers. They are not related to orchids either. Most woodland wildflowers are muted and pale in color. But not Polygala paucifolia. Their flowers are an almost undescribable shade of purplish magenta.

This color is so odd and bright that most cameras cannot capture it. Do a Google Image search of Polygala paucifolia and nearly all the photos will show a bluish purple flower, much like a common violet, and nothing like the color of the actual plant. This is an artifact of the camera being fooled by the deep, selectively filtered sunlight coming down from the forest canopy to where Polygona lives. And voodoo.

Getting the photos above took me three days. Not because the plants were moving so fast, but because my camera (an Olympus C-750 digital) stubbornly refused to accurately capture the real color of the flowers. This was my first attempt on Saturday, May 23:

An okay close-up photo, except the color is totally wrong. Polygala is magenta, not bluish purple. All the photos I took on May 23 were like this. The camera seemed completely incapable of capturing the actual color of the flower. It's almost like I took a picture of a sunflower and it came out maroon. I was flummoxed.

So I did some research on the camera and learned about the magical concept called white balance. My camera is automatically set to "daylight," meaning that it calibrates white (and hence all colors) to what the human eye perceives as white in normal daylight. But then I remembered that in the woods, nearly all of the available light is filtered through a thick canopy of leaves. The only light that reaches the forest floor has already had removed from it all of the frequencies of light that the tree leaves above use to make food. In essence, the light that you see deep in the woods is far different from what you would see in a field, where nothing interrupts the sunlight as it travels from the Sun to your eyes.

So I discovered that my camera has a special function which lets you set the white balance within the exact light you are photographing in. You go to that function in the camera, take out a white piece of paper, hold it right in front of the camera and lock in on that and press the button. This re-calibrates "white" as the way white looks like in the actual light you are using.

So on Sunday, May 24, I shot all of the Polygala again, confident I had the problem licked.

Nope. Even using the approved white balance adjustment method, the flowers were still too purple from what my eye told me they were. Now I was really flummoxed. How can the color of this tiny flower be so elusive to a massively high tech camera using all of the latest, better than human eye circuitry?

As a last resort, I discovered a manual white balance setting on the camera, which lets you adjust the white balance from "more blue" to "more red" by just clicking a secret button. Since the flowers were coming out way too purple, ie. with way too more blue in the magenta than red, I notched the white balance two clicks into red. Even then, the flowers were still too bluish, and worse, the pine needles and foliage were now too yellowish and reddish.

So finally, I took the last set of photos, made on May 25 (Day 3 !!!) with manual white balance set two clicks into red, brought them into Photoshop and used the "Hue/Saturation" setting to manually tweak the Magenta setting about 15 points into red and away from Blue. Then I tweaked the yellow setting to get riid of the "sickly yellow" feel that is still present at the top photo of the set.

Then, and only then, did the color of the Polygala flowers start to look like they actually look when you see them with your eyes. And looking at them now, they are still not exactly right.

There is a lesson here. Never trust your camera. Your eyes do not lie. Your camera often does. Trust your eyes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Starflower -- Trientalis borealis

The starflower (Trientalis borealis) is a tiny woodland wildflower found in Maine and northern forests. It flowers here in Augusta, Maine in mid May, just as the giant trees above it put out their leaves and put the forest floor in shade. It blooms at the same time as Jack in the Pulpits and after the wood anenomes, trilliums and trout lilies have gone by.

The flower of the starflower is about the size of your index fingernail. The flower stem is thinner than a paper clip. The flower and stem wave an inch or two over the flattened star of leaves like a kite string and its tiny white kite. Even the slightest breath of air in the woods set them to waving. Bees are too big to land on them. Instead, starflowers are pollinated by tiny woodland ants and wasps and midges. To them, a 3 inch high starflower is like an apple tree. And all of this happens below an 80 foot high red oak or white pine or ash tree.

To really see the starflower you have to lie down on the forest floor, put your chin in the leaves, and look at it as you would a small but brilliant gemstone, or the smooth and polished rock a child proudly brings you from the surf line at the beach.

Like so much in life, seeing and appreciating the starflower depends on adjusting your height, and from that, your perspective.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hockomock Swamp, South Easton, Massachusetts. What it is like to die there.

Punch a person from Easton in the face and the blood that drips from their nose will have been drunk at least once by a mosquito from the Hockomock Swamp.

On September 3, 2003 I got up at dawn and drove down Washington Street four miles from Unionville to the Easton/Raynham line and crawled through an endless thicket of clethra and red maple to the old cinder railroad bed the MBTA wants to use to wreck the heart of the Hockomock. On this hot and sunny September day, the Hockomock was so dry that the hummocks of sphagnum around the highbush blueberry roots were like fluffy hotel pillows. You could sleep on them.

I thought about what Jack and Anne Marie Kent said to us swamp stomping little kooks at Wheaton Farm Day Camp in 1972 about the Easton legend of the Wampanoags using sphagnum moss as diapers.

After an hour of crawling, I reached the old railroad bed and then an open glade to a well-made and new deer stand in a big hemlock tree on a small island in the swamp, almost to the Easton Rotten Gum Club and then I turned back, chased by one septillion mosquitoes as the sun got to noon.

There are no paths in the Hockomock's heart. Even the deer get lost. What trails exist on the edges peter out as the higher ground sags into the swamp proper. It is automatic you will get lost, especially on a cloudy day when you cannot use the sun for direction. Due to the high ilmenite content of the glaciomarine clay that underlies the deepest parts of the swamp, GPS units give unreliable directional readings.

Getting lost in the Hock can kill you. There are no directions, no maps, no signs, no bearings, no paths, no trails. The Hockomock doesn't care about you. You could be crying and crawling in circles under briars on your hands and knees and be just a few feet from a faint deer trail that leads you back to higher ground, but you will never know it. And this is in the dry season, when the Hockomock is at its most kind and gentle. When the Swamp is dank, dark and wet, which is most of the time, there are no dry spots. Imagine 6,000 acres of dark, still water and every inch alive with writhing, wriggling, squiggling larval mosquitoes. Imagine them hatching out by the thousands every second and starving for human blood. And you are the only human. And you are lost. Imagine 500 female mosquitoes landing on you every second needing your blood to make eggs, even as you slap the 500 already on you. Imagine this until you are a lump of bloody welts and your eyes are swollen shut. Imagine it is dark, you are too weak to walk and you try to bury yourself in the stinking, cement-like mud that surrounds you. Imagine the last sound you ever hear is the whine of a dozen mosquitoes inside your middle ear canal as you try to breathe.


What fascinates me about the Hockomock is how it cannot be defined. I went into the Hock on Sept. 3, 2003 under ideal conditions -- extremely dry weather, end of the mosquito season -- but was still chased out by a billion of the buggers. As it neared noon, I would kill 30 mosquitoes on my calf and in a few seconds another 30 would land. I had to run and could not even think of setting up the camera tripod to take footage. Just walking slowly would invite a horde of them to land on my face, arms and legs. I purposely chose the most ridiculously difficult route in: straight west from Route 138 at the Easton/Raynham line into the red maple swamp. This route requires you to crawl. But it was dry, so crawling was an option.

What I notice most, now reviewing this video footage, is how quiet it is. The Hockomock is one of the only quiet places left in eastern Massachusetts. The sounds of the Hockomock are, to me, as precious as the sights. The sounds of the mid day, late summer crickets and (what else?) unidentifiable insect sounds are the backdrop -- the blue sky -- to what it means to have grown up around and in the Hockomock. These were the sounds we heard hiding from the Easton cops as they searched with flashlights for us and our beer at any one of many dirt roads and turn-outs. The endless cricket rhythm is like a night light.

What is also striking about the Hock is that every square inch is occupied by a plant. Aside from the 37 octillion mosquitoes and deerflies landing on your head every second, entering the Hockomock is to enter a place completely occupied and ruled over by plants. Everything you see, touch, step on, trip on and over is a plant. The peat in the Hockomock is over 40 feet deep. There are no rocks. You are walking on 40 feet of plants. 12,000 years of plants. The only non-plant elements are you, the mosquitoes and the sky.

Don't Knock the Hock.

Respect it.

The Hockomock is our cradle.

The sphagnum is our pillow.

The cedars are our great great grandparents.

There is a spot in the Hockomock near the Raynham Dog Track which has a grove of Atlantic White Cedars that are close to 500 years old. They are huge. It is nearly impossible to reach them, except by crawling for a hundred yards on your knees and hands in cold Moxie-colored water and muck and being bitten by one billion mosquitos. This is probably the only reason why these mammoth cedars still exist: nobody has yet to get close enough to them to kill them.

They are truly beautiful. Each of these cedars creates its own little island and plant ecosystem in the swamp.

Next time, I will take you there.

If I get there.

UPDATE 1: I believe the large daisy-like yellow flowers in the video are Helianthus strumosus or a close relative. Given how far they are into the Hockomock I am assuming they are native. If anyone knows otherwise, please shout at info "@"

UPDATE 2: Since this was filmed and written, there has been a sighting of the Bormonderlandster behind the grassed-in kennels at Raynham Dog Track. Broken branches, tree limbs and bloody scratch tickets suggest it went toward the deepest part of the Hockomock, or Ryan Iron Works, or Landy's Market, or the Great American Pub. Or all three. More details as they emerge.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Maine House Makes Gay Marriage Legal: A Memoriam for Charles Howard

For those of us who lived in Bangor, Maine in 1984 when a 23-year-old man named Charlie Howard was murdered and thrown into Kenduskeag Stream for the crime of being gay, the 89-57 vote by the Maine Legislature to legalize gay marriage has special meaning. Here is a photo of Charlie not long before he was killed. He was just a normal 23-year-old New England kid.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Charles Howard. As Jake Chambers said in Stephen King's The Waste Lands, "Go on, there are other worlds than this." Charlie, I hope you are well in the world you now live.

I was a sophomore at the University of Maine at Orono when Charlie Howard was murdered on July 7, 1984.

At that time, I did not know anyone who was out about being gay. My friend Frank Harding was diligent in covering Charlie's death for the Maine Campus, the daily newspaper of the University of Maine, where we both toiled. Frank's reporting was better than the Bangor Daily News' coverage. Through Frank's reporting I learned who Charlie Howard was and the grisly details of how and why he was murdered. Here is a succinct account:

On the night of Saturday, July 7, 1984, Charles O. “Charlie” Howard was walking through downtown Bangor with his friend Roy Ogden, having spent the evening at their church’s potluck supper. Charlie, who was openly gay, had recently moved to Bangor from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he grew up.

Three teenagers in a car drew close to the pair, shouted homophobic slurs and eventually left their vehicle. The teens attacked Charlie, throwing him to the ground. When Roy Ogden ran for help, the assailants threw Charlie over a nearby bridge railing, even as he screamed that he could not swim.

Charlie Howard drowned in Kenduskeag Stream, twenty feet below. He was 23 years old.

When Charlie Howard was murdered for being gay, much of the Bangor community desperately tried to sweep his murder under the rug and, in the alternate, to blame him for his own murder. A non-closeted homosexual did not fit into the Bangor Chamber of Commerce self image. If Charlie Howard had not been so "flamboyantly gay," (the phrase the newspapers fixatedly used), those poor innocent teenagers who beat him to a pulp and killed him would not have been forced to beat him to a pulp and kill him. The bridge in downtown Bangor over Kenduskeag Stream where Charlie Howard was thrown to his death quickly became known to area high school kids as "Chuck-A-Homo Bridge." Good times were had by all.

Charles Howard's brutal and senseless murder by three teenagers was a wake up call to a lot of people my age (I was 19). It made me grow up real fast. To see that level of hate and violence in small town Maine, in our own town, was shocking. And to see the community rally around and defend the murderers and vilify the man who was murdered, was spine chilling. Stephen King thought so too. He lives just up the hill from the killing site and, like the rest of us, had to endure the endless screeds of hate and bile during that hot summer in 1984. Stephen King accurately describes the murder of Charlie Howard in his book, "It."

In hindsight, we should not have been surprised by Charlie Howard being murdered in Bangor for being gay, because this hate was there all the time. We all knew it was there. We just deliberately chose not to see it. It's easy when you're not gay.

The 89-57 vote in the Maine Legislature means that we in Maine, as a state, have taken a great and belated leap forward since that summer night in 1984 when Charlie Howard was chased and beaten and thrown over the Kenduskeag Stream bridge to drown and die. For the crime of being gay.

In July of 1990, when I lived in a pink house on Curve Street in Bangor, I wrote a song about the spot on Kenduskeag Stream where Charlie Howard was killed. It is not about his death, but it gives a flavor for the place, which is in many ways, a sacred place.

Kenduskeag Stream is the Penobscot name
For eel spearing river
But the City of Bangor has cut it into two slivers.
One's got a lot of current
The other's got a lot of slack
The tide comes up both and pushes the freshwater back.
At low tide it's shallow, just a couple feet deep.
Clear green water coming down from Corinth and Garland way.
Flowing over shopping carts, broken bottles and hardened clay.

UPDATE 1: Since I wrote this last night, a friend of Charles Howard provided the following personal information, which I am deeply grateful for:

I'm glad that Charlie is not forgotten, and not just because his story is heartbreaking and his death a tragedy.

My home state - like many places - was unforgiving for gay people, especially out gay people, back in the day. Charlie paid the ultimate price for being true to himself, and the thought of it strikes a special kind of fear and sadness in my heart because it so easily might have been anyone.

In fact, it could very easily have been my big brother.

See, my brother was good friends with Charlie Howard - had known him for years (we lived near Portsmouth & the Seacoast gay community was pretty small). My brother was a couple years older than Charlie; I was a couple years younger. Like Charlie, my brother came out when he was fairly young, at a time when there was precious little support for such a thing. Growing up, I heard plenty of "war stories" involving abuse and gay bashing and ignorant homophobic acts, and I saw a lot of unnecessary cruelty directed at my kind, decent, never-hurt-a-fly brother and his friends, including Charlie. I was P-Flag before P-Flag was cool.

So when I heard about Charlie's death a few years later, I was horrified and profoundly sad, but not completely shocked. At the time, I was living in the UK, but had spent the previous couple of years in Orono; my brother had also moved north, to run a B&B, so he was connected to the Bangor gay community at the time. I remember the hurt and sadness and anger in my brother's voice as he told me what had happened to Charlie. It was all so pointless.

I can only hope that today's vote is a signal that things are finally, at long last, starting to change. I'm going to send my brother an email, and mention the vote and this diary, because he'd want to know that someone remembered his friend.

UPDATE 2: On May 6, 2009 Maine Governor John Elias Baldacci, himself a native of Bangor, signed Maine's gay marriage law at 12:30 p.m., almost as soon as he received the law from its final vote in the Maine Senate. Gov. Baldacci's statement was short and eloquent. He said, "I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage." As my wife Lori said this evening, Baldacci correctly framed the issue as "separate is inherently unequal."

Saturday, May 02, 2009

My Baby Horsechestnut Tree

Three years ago, I found this horsechestnut seedling growing next to the garage. It was about 4 inches tall and had been planted by a squirrel the previous fall.

I transplanted the seedling to the sunniest corner of the yard. This is now the third spring it has come to leaf in its new spot.

It is now 1 foot tall. It will grow to be 80 feet tall.

I love its human character.

Plant Some Ferns in Your Yard

The most beautiful part of spring for me is watching ferns emerge from the ground. Their form when they sprout is like a ballet dancer coming out of a crouch.

Ferns are incredibly ancient plants, far older than flowering plants. They reproduce by spores and runners, not by seeds, and they do not flower or make fruit.

I am now transplanting ferns from the woods and swamps and rills near our house into the yard. Most have transplanted well.

Terraced Garden with Raised Beds

While lots of plants do well on steep slopes, most vegetables do not. Vegetables need rich, loose and deep soil, which washes away and falls away on steep slopes.

Our street in Augusta, Maine goes up and down a long steep river valley. Each house lot is terraced like a staircase. A seven foot high earthen berm separates our house from the house above us and the house below us.

The challenge is how to use these steep earthen berms for vegetable gardening. Our solution is to make terraced gardens with raised beds.

The three raised beds in the top photo are built with eight foot long 2 x 12s for the front plates and stacked 4 x 4s for the sides. Construction details are here. Each bed goes about four feet deep into the slope. The front and sides are secured with pointed 2 x 4s driven about a foot into the soil. Keeping all the dimensions plumb and level is not important to the plants, but makes the whole thing look better.

Filling the 12 inch deep raised beds with soil is easy. Chisel into the berm with a shovel and drag the soil with an iron rake into the raised bed until you fill it. This creates a level planting and growing surface where there used to be a steep slope. If you can, supplement this soil with the best compost you can get and mix it all in.

The advantages of raised beds are numerous, but in our central Maine climate, they are essential to growing heat loving, long season plants like peppers and heirloom tomatoes.

Raised beds help keep the soil temperature higher in the spring and early summer, which tomatoes and peppers need, and keep the soil around the roots from becoming waterlogged. Building raised beds is like building hills for corn, which the Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts helped to invent. During the spring and early summer, a hill of heaped soil will get warmer in the day and stay warmer at night compared to the flat dirt around it. This is critical for germination and early growth of corn, but also tomatoes and peppers, which really need warm soil.

The secret to a terraced, raised bed garden is to fill the beds with the best soil you can get. We use free leaf compost from the City of Augusta, Maine's recycling facility up the street. We call it "the dump." If your town or city does not recycle leaves and let people use them as compost you should ask them to start doing it. It's the key in the lock.

Also, because you walk around the raised beds, not on and in them, the soil does not become compacted and the developing root systems are not crushed by your footfalls. As I learned from my dad, the most important part of a plant is underneath your feet.

Here are the raised terrace beds from the viewpoint of the giant silver maple tree in our yard, May 2009.

Raised Bed Gardening

This is the easiest way I have found to build a raised bed.

This design uses two ten foot long 2 x 12s and one four foot long 4 x 4.

Cut the 4 x 4 into four 12 inch pieces.

Cut each 2 x 12 in half.

Stand up the 2 x 12 sections on your lawn in a square, using bricks to keep them upright. Put a piece of the 4x4 into each corner and nail the 2 x 12s to the 4 x 4 post with regular 16D spikes, three on a side.

Do all four corners. Keep everything straight and neat.

Fill with manure and compost.

Plant stuff in it.

This design is solid and resists splitting and warping. It is easy and fast to cut and nail together.

It also creates perfectly sized beverage stands for when you need refreshment while harvesting your monstrous raised bed vegetables.

Study: Fox News Viewers are Stupid.

It is good that scientific studies are still conducted on stuff that is intuitively obvious:

A new study by the Pew Research Study shows that viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report have the highest knowledge of national and international affairs, while Fox News viewers rank nearly dead last [...]

The results about Fox News echo findings of previous surveys. In 2003, University of Maryland researchers studied the public’s belief in three false claims — that Iraq possessed WMD, that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and that there was international support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The researchers stated, "The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions." Fox News viewers were "three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions."

Fox News is to willful stupidity as a TV show called "The Girl Who you Stalk and Follow Around at Night Is Just Waiting for You To Break Into Her House so She Can Do You" is to creepy stalkers.