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What the U.S. Government can learn from Waldoboro

Waldoboro voters settled the municipal budget issues this week. As we know on the national level, one (or more) Tea Party voices can squelch governmental spending like a mouse in a trap. The same thing happened here in this idyllic mid-coast Maine village. Yes, even here.

The vote on November 5 was the third budget vote Waldoboro held this year after certain voices held up spending on the police department and finance and customer service budgets in June. A follow-up vote in September to “CR” a $106,000 reduction of anticipated state revenue sharing failed as well.

Waldoboro partially closed down. I never received my property tax assessment for 2014, for example. No furloughs, but we don’t have many employees either. Nonetheless, our town hit a budget bottleneck as sure as the U.S. government.

The big difference is that Waldoboro doesn’t have a House and Senate. We have a board of selectmen (as is, no women) and a budget committee. Most important, we have voters with a direct voice in governance. So when a rational proposal developed between the selectmen and the budget committee, voters could head to the Town Hall and be counted.

There were no close votes on any of the eight articles on the ballot. That’s right: 539 people beat out 288 to fund the Waldoboro Police Department with $586,884. And there was compromise — a $49,411 cut of a patrolman position.

With this vote, the town’s municipal budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 is $3,710,002. And, my tax bill is in the mail.

The lesson for Washington is simple: let the voters have more immediate say in the budget. The vast majority of citizens did not support the recent government shut down. If they could have cast a vote — it would have been a kick in the butt to restart.

As it happens, I’m now a consultant to the White House. I could tell the economists there a thing or two. But if my advice has nothing to do with editing or writing style, no one will listen. That’s the beauty of Waldoboro: People do listen.

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What Mainers think of Washington

Most people of the Pine State don’t really think about Washington. We have our own homegrown fiscal issues and enough local personalities — and personality — to create more than enough brinksmanship drama. Even the 5,000 people in the town of Waldoboro have yet to agree on a budget for this year. Shut down the town? No one would even notice.

The bikers in this picture frame the Marshall Point lighthouse near Port Clyde where Forest Gump reached the easternmost point in his cinematic run. These people who have gathered to memorialize a fallen biker don’t care about Obamacare since most of them have disregarded every level government for most of their lives. Debt limit is something that they face everyday at the gas station. Still, they rev up their motors and ride the roads.

Plenty of Maine voters are proud of Senator Susan Collins for pushing a solid plan that could give the White House a solid chunk of time to negotiate with Congress before the fiscal cliff is reached again. Yet more local pressing concerns headline the news. Shoemaker Cole-Haan is about to move a major operation in southern Maine to New Hampshire. Sure, federal workers are being furloughed in Maine; another business closing, however, is a permanent loss of jobs.

Television news right now is hardly competition for other reality TV shows that contain an element of surprise. Listening to House Speaker Boehner flanked by his GOP leadership talk about the stubborn White House is not unlike listening to the livestock whining for more oats. And the stubborn White House is so concerned with staying on message that the words take on a cackle.

Mainers are more inclined to talk about the perfect crescent moon than to consider when the shut down might end. Winter’s around the corner and there’s wood to split. We’ve got to fatten the pigs and turkeys for slaughter. Gardens need to be fully harvested before the heavy frost. People in Washington like to talk, but up here there’s work to be done.

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Wait, Watch, or Shoot?

My weapon is a Nikon SLR with a 200mm zoom. I’m a regular kayak-hunter, meandering through marshes and open water in search of wildlife to track. Playful seals are a real find and true game. Once they’re down and under, it’s a guess on where they may pop back up. I keep the camera poised in front of me and, sure enough, that gray whiskered nuzzle is staring me in the back. I try to follow my prey, paddling ever-so-gently, sneaking up, so slowly in my yellow kayak. I’m not a predator, but I like my trophies: the glossy digital images.

Yet, I’m starting to realize that there may be another way to approach these creatures of the wild. Binoculars. I went out the other day in the safari hat that I bought for Reid many years ago when we’d traveled to Africa. I also put the L.L. Bean binoculars around my neck, also purchased for Africa. Sitting on my bench with full view of the water, I watched a Sandpiper playing in the ripples of the incoming tide. But the sun deflected the poor image and I got bored quickly.

Decent binoculars could give me the vantage point I need to really observe these fascinating species as they do the hunting. Once I’m mowing them down in my kayak, a bird with a mind is only planning escape. So the question becomes: Do I get a better zoom lens for my camera or better binocular to better observe what birds I’m watching?

I told a visiting friend the other day with total confidence that the bird zipping around the trees was a Night Heron. We were out for an afternoon kayak up the Medomak River. His wise wife — a true birder and a real pal — joined us a few minutes later and proclaimed that the birds I’d been calling Night Herons were in fact Kingfishers.

With binoculars, I could really identify birds. I could sit on my bench with my safari hat tied under my chin and my bird guide beside me. As time goes on, I could keep a notebook of what I see and where. When my eyesight starts to fade, I could get binoculars with viewers that flip up to allow for thick spectacles. Eventually I’d get a walking stick too.

Or, I could keep paddling. Me in my yellow kayak in the water, chasing the slope of wings, the call of the wild. What does it matter what I’m following if I won’t be able to see it anyway, as time goes on.



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Where Have all the Seals Gone?

Harbor seals start playing in Sampson Cove just about the time that Spring settles in, the skies turn foamy blue, and horseshoe crabs begin their annual love fest. Those curious whiskered faces signal that winter is behind us. We can stop stacking wood; have some fun. One of them popped up during my first swim in June. I shivered and he splashed.

They stay close for a time. Like periscopes on constant alert of enemy movement, the full blubbery breadth of their being remains hidden in sea while eyes blare forward. I’ve also watched them dive in with the tail fin fluttering. No grace but a lot of charm. They might be mistaken for lobster buoys, but no seal will stay in one place bobbing. Playful, on one side of the kayak; then the other.

But I haven’t seen any seals since a ferry ride to Monhegan Island nearly two weeks ago. A pup hung on the rocks, another swam nearby. I’ve asked Mainers, “When do the seals leave?” They shake their heads. “They just head out.” And they become a summer memory in August.

Seals follow the food, of course. Lots of watery species are migrating in the colder streams of the ocean right about now. Rather than seals, my summer neighbors are trailing their kids on floats from motor boats. The water is warm enough for even my summer house guests.

August is tame compared to other months in Maine. Still, I wonder about those seals. What is it in the colder waters that keeps them moving out?

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Summer Crowds

Who doesn’t want to visit Maine in the summer? Many southerners come this way, even to Waldoboro, which is not a destination in any tourist guide. It’s not the people who crowd me in, however. My meadow on Sampson Cove is teeming with new life and the encroaching ferns and wildflowers. I can barely beat back the growth to get to the water. And noise — the birds, red squirrels, frogs have voices like bad opera singers doing scales.

I forget during the winter how this property becomes possessed when the temperatures warm. I’m merely the caretaker. The hummingbirds remind when to change their sugar water and the birds plow into the screens until I refill the bird feeders. As for the family of red squirrels that was, they claimed territory in the blue bird house and set off alarms if anyone trespassed. The ribbon snake has taken over my garden, and the turkeys have the new shoots on the other side of the ledges.

The dogs love our visitors, preferably spreadeagled under their paws. Oscar hasn’t learned yet that a smote bird will not get up for another round of play. He carries it in his mouth until he figures the creature should wake up. When a human friend of mine arrived yesterday, I had to explain why the little feet hung from my Labrador’s cheeks.

This is a wet spring. We are beyond green. Anything that can pop from the ground and fight for space is doing exactly that. I have found spreading Iris in the middle of tall grasses and Columbine blooms trying to oust the Rhododendron. The struggle for space is everywhere. There’s no room for tourists.

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Fiddlehead Foraging

Kayaking through fresh-water rivers and ponds in search of the young coiled fronds of the ostrich fern is a rite of spring in Maine. Often, it’s the first time I put my kayak in for the season and still chilly enough to warrant heavy sweaters and boots. Yesterday’s sun hid behind threatening clouds as we headed out in the late afternoon. The hearty group under the auspices of the Medomak Valley Land Trust created a caravan of kayaks and canoes setting out from the Waldoboro Town Hall and heading toward the Medomak Pond.

Rough winds on the large pond nearly capsized my small kayak. For solo canoes, it took rocks to keep the boat from tipping off the waves. Yet we made it to a northern neck of the Medomak River, where the water runs fresh. It was a mixed group. One man said he’d been foraging for fiddleheads for 60 years; others didn’t have a clue on what to find.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads, not to be confused with other ferns, are about an inch in diameter, with a brown papery scale-like covering and a distinctive “U”-shaped groove on the inside of the stem. Finding them takes examining between stinky growths of skunk weed. They emerge in clusters of about three to twelve. It’s important to only pick some, so as not to kill the plant.

I managed to find a “breathable” bagful yesterday before the cold winds sent me paddling back. What will I do with them? Spring Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Fiddlehead Ferns, I believe.

Chilled to the bone, and wet, I made it home as the rain came with a roar. I would have built a fire in the woodstove, except that Jason and Craig had come earlier in the day to install my brand new woodstove. It looks nearly exactly like the last one, a Vermont Casting, except that it’s two decades newer and all the pieces work. However, before I can get a blaze roaring, I have to “season” it. That means, building fires only in integrals of 100 degrees of heat. I’ll get the stove to 100 degrees, and then let it cool; then 200, cool; on up to 600 degrees and the cooling.

The month of May is an odd time to be breaking in a new woodstove. But in Maine, you don’t know that winter is over until people start planning for the next.

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Friendship Maine

Waldoboro is an open hand that cups the mouth of the Medomak River and reaches out toward blueberry patches, farmland, and where the Medomak flows into Musgongus Bay. Friendship is a neighboring town closer to the ocean where lobster boats nearly outnumber cars.

But this isn’t a blog on geography. It’s about friendship, lower case but important.

Natural beauty is something you see prominently throughout this mid coast area. Friendships don’t sparkle in sun-dappled water or advertise in loud loon screams. They are something fused quietly by long winters and the organic nature of companionship. The friends I have here are special, each in their own way, and in what it takes to know them.

I’m lucky. Over many geographies, I’ve developed wonderful friendships and have maintained these valuable connections across oceans, over time, despite death, and enhanced by the growth in what we share. Here in Waldoboro, friendships are painted in primary colors. We help each other, share garden bounty, give of our time and energy.

We collect at the Narrow’s Tavern on Tuesday nights when the music is live and say anything that is on our minds. Most of us are women and we’re bawdy.

We also do things like chip in to buy a friend a new stove when the old one fizzled out, meet on Saturdays to clear underbrush out of someone’s garden, often cook enough dinner for the group, babysit dogs, mix up a batch of Cosmos, and invite the lot of us up to her camp in Rangeley to ski.

I’ve treasured getting to know people here. Hearing their stories, and telling my own.

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Spring Planting with Oscar

Don’t get me wrong, Spring is a serious season in Maine. As neighbors recently said, gardening is sport in Massachusetts; it’s sustenance in Maine. Nearly every land-owning Mainer plans this month for a way to keep food on the table: whether by planting tomatoes for canning or getting young chicks for egg laying.

This is my third spring with a garden in Maine, and I’ve managed to expand each year. Last year there were fava bean dips, fabulous salads with beets, garlic that lasted until winter, and funny cucumbers that tasted sweet inside the yellow skin. This year I have a cold frame, full already with seedlings. I’ve considered chicks, even lambs, but I have Oscar and Emma. Enough for critters.

Yesterday’s sunshine provided high enough temperatures–nearly 60–to start putting some of my seedlings in the garden. I started with the lettuce and Arugula. Emma sat high on the deck, watching, a look of supreme superiority on her face. You’re working and I’m not. Oscar, however, kept his nose over my shoulder. Watcha doin’, watcha doin’.

When I dug, he stuck his paws in the soil and toiled with me. Except, I didn’t want his help. He smelled each seedling. Stole my garden gloves. Pulled my hat off.

Convinced finally that I didn’t want him there, Oscar decided to dig elsewhere. He worked furiously for nearly a half hour without stopping. His butt was in the air most of the time. Then he stopped and looked at me. Dinner yet?

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Waldoboro’s Borderline Hippies

I was called a “borderline hippie” today while snowshoeing through woods in Waldoboro. My companion admitted that she too represents that not-quite-but-maybe character type born in the protest era of the last century. Unlike my younger companion, I came of age in the sixties and feel an allegiance to the word. As we plodded through the snow and talked, I realized that a definition for the modern-day equivalent of a hippie has become ambiguous.

Many believe that Waldoboro is hippie-dom. The town is full of older artistic types who wear colorful clothes, raise animals, garden organically, act on land conservation, and enjoy singing sea shanties at the local tavern. While many enclaves of mid-coast Maine are spattered with large estates and caretakers, Waldoboro enjoys more of a year-round population who take care of themselves as best they can.

To me, the modern-day hippie has grown into his/her self. We’re not rebellious or actively protesting. We haven’t dropped out. The keyword now is “values.” People who choose to live in this picturesque watershed do so because they value the land and water more than they value the ambitious urban life that may provide higher-paying work and a slicker lifestyle. We are living the politics we once espoused.

Are we back in the garden? There’s no escaping the harsh news of these times, and the growing inequality between the have and have nots. I’m not living off the grid. I simply moved to Waldoboro because I became tired of the work-a-day life in Washington. But I do find myself interacting with people and making choices during each day that square up with my preferences, or my many-decades-old sense that a better world requires nicer values.

My snowshoe companion was probably correct. In my case, there should be a “borderline” qualifier to the word that denotes someone who has distanced themselves from the mainstream. I’m part of society. There are many things that I’d like to see change, especially in the social policy arena. I’m still actively writing/editing on the subject.

Yet, I’ve dramatically simplified my life over the past few years. And as each notch loosens, I like people more and value the importance of this rural lifestyle.

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Blizzard Lace

Whatever we will call this blizzard in history, it has blown into Sampson Cove with a ferocity I haven’t seen since lions on a kill in Kenya. I have taken to my lace as the winds kick up the snow, doors suddenly open, snow oozes through screens and windows, Oscar whines, and the fire stretches on to a new log. Why lace? The slow precision of the silk-angora yarn strand on my most narrow needles dances with a grace that quiets my entire being.

The pattern allows for no errors. Each stitch requires concentration and careful twisting with the needle tip. It is totally in my control; this raging storm is not.

Perhaps mannered women in ornate drawing rooms also made their lace in very quiet rebellion to men and their onerous conversations. Lace goes well with Sherry. In a few hours, my lace will go well with a scotch.

My lace scarf will be an elegant throw around my neck in any season, long after this storm is memory. The colors are blues and greens, with a pink that weaves through with a tender edge. My needles pick up the stitches and put them exactly where they are supposed to go. I count. Each row must be an exact number of stitches; I can increase/decrease if necessary but to a minute degree. I’ve already ripped out rows when I have somehow lost the pattern. I can find it again.

This storm has no pattern. It began so gently yesterday and gave the woods a much-needed white washing. I took the dogs through the trees when the snow was only a canopy. Now it has become cavernous in places and leaves some areas oddly bare. I had to create a tunnel through my yard so that the dogs would have a place to relieve themselves.

I measure my lace by quarters of the inch; the storm has come by the foot. Three feet easily in some parts of my property. I can’t imagine what the water is like right now since it is much further than I could go in such wind and sideways snow. My lace is so fine that it ripples.

This is not knitting. Doing the lace pattern draws me into the space between my needles. I don’t hear Oscar barking. I don’t hear the howling wind.

Come spring, I’ll have a graceful scarf to throw around and around my neck. My bulbs will be in full bloom by then. And we’ll laugh about this storm.

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