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Winter Has Arrived

Overnight we received the first measurable snow of the winter.  I’d guess it’s about 7″.  The stuff really came down for a few hours.  I especially like the way the heavy snowfall dampens the sound of traffic on the road running past the farm.  After a while, the highway empties and the road noise of any stray slow moving vehicle is muffled.  I can almost imagine we live in the country and not beside what has become, in my lifetime, a major thoroughfare.

This may look chilly, and the ground beneath is frozen, but the air temperature is nearing 32F.  With a ten-day high of 38F forecast for today, it looks like the snow may be here to stay.  Next week the weather prognosticators call for more snow.  Several days of snow.  Yesterday my husband and I worked from mid-morning till near dark to finish all the little chores that must be done before snow arrives.  We sat, smugly content, and watched the white pile up.  Now I look forward to a long winter’s rest disturbed only by a few barn chores, some snow plowing and the occasional jaunt outside for cold weather exercise.

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Emerging Rocks

Periodically, rocks buried in the soil at our farm will come to the surface.  This is usually a very slow process aided by weather conditions.  It can take years, decades, or in the case of huge boulders, centuries for the rocks to be pushed out of the dirt.  After many years of mowing the fields and orchards, I have memorized the locations of all the rocks that jut from the surface enough to catch the mower blades.  Or, at least I thought I had.

In recent years new rocks have lifted their heads within just a few winters.  The piece of granite above is an example.  It measures about 3.5 ft x 2 ft and for most of my lifetime at the farm has been nearly submerged.  The stone is a piece from the cellar of a barn that stood on our property back in the 1800s.  Until recently I have been able to mow right over this chunk of granite.  Starting around four years ago, things changed.  I hit the thing with my mower blade.

Trying to mow a rock with a rotary mowing machine is not recommended.  I cringe whenever I hear that telltale ringing crunch of metal on stone.  Luckily, it is a rare occurrence since removing the mower blades for sharpening is a tedious, time-consuming task.  Yet, in the past few years I have caught several previously unknown rocks that have suddenly surfaced.  What is so quickly moving these buried chunks of mountaintop or ledge?  Most likely the power of ice.

Our weather here in central Maine has changed since I was young.  Even in the last ten years there have been noticeable shifts in patterns, something I’ve discussed in prior posts.  The current pattern involves much more rain in winter.  Storms that once would have been pounding Nor-easter blizzards now deluge us in rain.  The ground does not freeze as deeply as it once did so the water soaks in.  Since it is still Maine in winter, a heavy rainstorm in December is often followed by several days of below-zero F temperatures.  All that moisture runs down around and under the rocks in the ground and then freezes.

Freezing water expands with an irresistible power.  The ice crystals push the rocks higher and higher until they break the surface.  I believe the new warmth and excess rain are why rocks are appearing with such annoying regularity when I’m mowing.  And also why older rocks are rapidly working their way more completely from the earth.  As they pop to the surface, most of these stones can be loosened with the tractor bucket and moved out of the way.  The great chunk of granite above will require some effort with chains, pry bars and the tractor to get it out of the middle of a hayfield.  I’ll put that job on my To Do list.

Neanderthal Among Us

I’m a little bit Neanderthal

For Christmas my brother gave me a genetic test kit.  You send in a sample to a company and they determine your genetic heritage and health profile.  I carefully followed the directions and dutifully filled the sample tube with saliva.  It took me nearly five minutes to produce enough spit.  That was the most disagreeable part of the test.

Several weeks later the results were posted to my personal site online.  Most of the information was similar to my brother’s and, of course, 50% similar to my mother’s, both family members having completed earlier tests.

There were a couple surprises.  One is that there is no Native American DNA showing up on my father’s side.  The family lore holds that my dad was 1/64th Abanaki.  No such relationship was evident.  On the contrary, the only possible Native American blood came from my mother’s side, and it was merely a trace.  Most likely this DNA came into the family while my mother’s ancestors lived in the Ukraine during the middle of the 1800s.  Someone might have mated with a Russian of Siberian heritage.  My mother’s family is almost exclusively of German ancestry that moved to the Ukraine at the invitation of Catherine the Great, then onto the plains of America at the turn of the last century.  They were all farmers.

The most surprising revelation to me was the relatively high level of Neanderthal variation in my DNA.  The Neanderthals are often called a species of human that came out of Africa, moved into Europe and went extinct with the advance of modern humans.  Turns out that picture is not as clear as once supposed.  Neanderthal DNA seems to be turning up regularly in individuals of European descent.  My own DNA has 299 variants, greater than 81% of people who have been tested by this company.

Neanderthals can not have been a separate species from human or they would not have been able to interbreed and produce viable offspring.  Neanderthals were actual humans.  Research into their caves and burial sites is showing that these people were not the brutish, stupid cavemen once imagined.  They had sophisticated societies with weaponry and knowledge of animals and plants including medicinal plants.  They cared for their old and infirm.  When an individual died, the others provided a decent burial.  There is also evidence of cannibalism, so I guess not everyone was treated the same.  Perhaps they ate their enemies or their particularly venerated elders?

So DNA testing has shown that Neanderthals did not go extinct, they became us.  Many of us would not exist without their genes.  Somewhere in the dark and misty past, Neanderthals combined with what is considered modern humans to produce us; ultra-modern humans, I suppose.  Or perhaps we are merely glorified cavemen coping in the modern world we have constructed?

Debit Card Rip-Off

Photo: Ben Skirvin

Photo: Ben Skirvin Source

Yesterday morning someone stole one of our debit card numbers and tried to run up over $850 in charges on our PayPal account.  Imagine my surprise to find messages from PayPal in my email with all these charges!  Especially since I knew the charges weren’t mine.  The card they were made on was my husband’s, and he was at work, not running up charges online.

Here are all the charges as they show on our PayPal account.  Not sure why some appear more than once.  PayPal is often a mystery to me.

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So after the shock wore off and I could think straight, I called our bank.  The PayPal account is backed up by our checking account.  Since the first transaction wiped out the $94 balance I had in PayPal, all the charges should have gone directly to our bank.  Yet none of the charges had come through, they weren’t even pending.  Immediately I severed the link between the bank and PayPal.

Then I called PayPal and very quickly was connected with a helpful and sympathetic customer service person who canceled the card and the transactions.  They restored my $94 balance.  Phew!  Disaster averted, we hope.

Now comes the interesting part.  It just happens that my husband, Tim, never uses his PayPal debit card.  It’s been resting comfortably in his wallet for months.  For Christmas someone gave us a cash gift through PayPal.  On Monday, Tim decided to use the card at the local gas station.  He bought gasoline at the pump and also went in the store to pay for diesel for our tractor.  It surely is a lovely gift to have someone buy fuel for us!  We were very grateful.

We realized that since this card has not been used anywhere else, it may be possible to find the thief!  I called the local police today.  The gas pump receipt even gives the number of the pump used.  The police officer suspects someone placed a skimmer on the pump to steal credit card information.  Generally, people use their credit cards all over and it is hard to figure out where a theft occurred.  Luckily, Tim didn’t use his card anywhere else and we can pinpoint the theft to the gas station.

The police officer checked the gas pump and talked to the store owner.  There was no skimmer evident today.  But the card information was swiped Monday and the thefts happened yesterday.  Plenty of time for the thief to remove the evidence.  Tim said he didn’t see anything unusual about the card reader when he paid at the pump.  You insert the card into the pump to pay, there is nothing sticking out.  I’m not sure how the skimmer would work.  Maybe it just has to be in the proximity?  Tim’s debit card is the old kind without a chip, so I’m not sure how this skimming could have happened.

Now the police are going to subpoena the Galls and WalMart transaction records to try and find the individual who ran the charges.  The thefts were likely made online.  How this scam could work, I don’t know.  If you make an online purchase, the merchandise is not shipped until the charges clear and the items have to be sent to an address.  If the transaction is canceled, the item never ships.  Perhaps the thief hopes the activity won’t be caught until after shipment.

Maybe the police will work with the merchants to send something and try to catch anyone who collects the shipment.  That would be great!  Then the thief will be reading a sign like the one at the top of this post.  “Go to Jail, go directly to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”

If only people spent their energy getting and holding jobs instead of finding ways to rip others off.  Then they would have legitimate money of their own to spend.

 

 

Yule Traditions

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On this eve of the Winter Solstice, as I gaze at my newly erected Christmas tree, I consider the origins of some of the traditions that surround this time of the year.  For instance, the little elf-like Santa peeking from among the branches of the balsam is tied to the legend of Santa Claus and to the tradition of elves.

Many of our Christmas customs come from Europe, especially Scandinavia and Germany, although Italy also has a strong influence.  Most traditions pre-date Christianity.  Santa Claus harkens back to the Nordic belief in Odin, the bearded father of the gods, who had a sled pulled by his eight-legged horse, Sleipner, and who rode through the night during the time of the mid-winter festival bringing gifts of food to the needy.  Odin was also called Old Man Winter.  Dressed in a hooded fur coat and riding a giant white horse, he would visit homes during the festivities bearing gifts and good cheer.  Yule, which meant feast, was the name of the winter solstice festival.  It is easy to see why our modern Christmastime involves feasting and presents.

Children would put hay, candy and carrots in their footwear drying by the fireplace as treats to tempt Sleipner to stop so Odin would leave gifts.  This practice evolved into hanging stockings on the mantle to be filled with gifts.  Sleipner’s freakish eight legs changed over time into eight reindeer pulling a sleigh.

German and Italian folklore tells of good witches who rode brooms through the night during the mid-winter festival, stopping at each home to leave gifts for children.  The good witches represent the notion that women symbolize birth, the gift of life.  Thor and Saturn were also associated with the mid-winter time.  Thor, who rode a wagon pulled by two goats, aided the maiden sun goddess to escape from darkness.  At the solstice, people dressed as goats and went from house to house singing and acting out simple plays in exchange for food and drink.  The activity evolved into caroling.  In Scandinavia, a Yule goat is still part of Christmas.

The gradual loss of sunlight that occurs in the northern hemisphere led to many rites aimed at appeasing the gods and bringing back the sun.  The time was associated with death and rebirth.  Saturn, Roman god of the sun, was celebrated with Saturnalia during the shortened days.

Everywhere, people observed the vegetation die in the fall, and the Earth hibernate through the long, cold “death” of winter to be reborn with the greening of spring.  The idea that capricious gods could interfere with the process led to the need to appease and entreat, as did a requirement to support the gods associated with the sun and life.  With the coming of winter, excess livestock was slaughtered to save on fodder and provide meals.  The surplus of fresh meat encouraged feasting.  Some of this livestock sacrifice was dedicated to the gods to please them in an effort to ward off bad luck, evil, sickness and the dark.  Blood was a potent symbol of the sacrifice.

The red of blood paired with green provides our traditional Christmas season colors.  Green is strongly identified with life and its presence in the stark winter landscape was significant.  Evergreen trees, ivy and holly all symbolized the hope of lingering life holding on through the cold and dark, and new growth in the spring.  When people believed in the presence of spirits in plants, evergreen spirits were thought to be strong positive influences and wards against evil.  These plants were used to decorate, especially over windows and doors where negative entities could enter.  By bringing evergreens inside, people believed they brought good luck into the home.  During the mid-winter festival time, Norse people would decorate evergreen trees with food, clothes and tiny replicas of the gods to entice the tree spirits to remain during the dark, cold winter or encourage their return in the spring.  These beliefs carry on through Christmas trees and evergreen garlands.

Cutting an entire large tree and bringing it into the house to burn during the winter solstice festival also was an exercise meant to carry luck to the home.  The Yule log was lit from the remains of the previous year’s log.  It burned over the entire festival season that extended from the shortest day of the year until January 12th.  The unburned remains were carefully kept for next winter.

The notion that the sun died and was reborn during the shortest days of the year inspired many practices.  Rebirth was associated with women, just as the Norse and other cultures thought of the sun as a goddess.  Each year she was carried away to the dark lands and devoured by the wolf who lived there.  Yet, before she died she gave birth to a daughter, the new sun.  The period from the solstice to Jan 12 was a tenuous time for the new-born sun.  Her growth was supported with sacrifices and feasting.  By the middle of January, as the days become noticeably longer, it was safe to assume that the new sun would live, the earth would warm again and green would return.  To help inspire the young sun, wheels were built of sticks and evergreen boughs, lit on fire and rolled downhill.  The burning circle represented the orb of the sun and also the circle of life.  This was the inspiration for our modern wreaths.

Just as the winter solstice is associated with rebirth, it also has strong connotations of death.  The people of old believed the long, dark winter nights were the time when souls of the ancestors were able to return.  They joined with other spirits on Earth and roamed the night, sometimes causing mischief or bringing bad luck or death, especially to those who had acted badly during the year.  The ancestral spirits were associated with elves.  The elf symbolized the soul.  During mid-winter an abundance of elves could be expected.  Offerings were left for the elves to make them happy so they would behave and not cause trouble.  November 1st was once called the Elf Sacrifice, a time to provide valuable gifts to appease the ancestors as they began their time among the living.  The Elf Sacrifice marked the beginning of the countdown to Yule. From these ancient beliefs comes the idea that Santa and the elves are watching children to see if they have been naughty or nice.  Good children are rewarded and naughty ones are punished.

So many layers of tradition over millenia have led to our modern Christmas customs.  The ancient practice of giving gifts has evolved to the modern horror of commercialism.  Before the turkey is even on the Thanksgiving table, merchants now begin their frenzied appeal to buy, buy, buy!  The annual gift glut beneath the tree may be the end product of thousands of years of winter solstice celebrations, but it does not have to mark Christmas unless we let it be so.

Blue Hill Region Maine

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View of Blue Hill harbor from near the summit of Blue Hill Mountain

This past September my husband and I rented a primitive forest cabin and  spent a weekend Down East exploring the Blue Hill region.  This area encompasses the small monadnock mountain of Blue Hill (elevation 934 ft) and the surrounding large peninsula jutting into the Atlantic sandwiched between Penobscot Bay and Mt. Desert Island.
There are several small towns on this peninsula including Blue Hill, Surry and Castine.  Crossing the impressive old bridge over Eggemoggin Reach takes you to Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle, two very beautiful islands, and the towns of Deer Isle and Stonington.  There is also Cape Rosier, on the Castine side of the peninsula, where we stayed near the hamlet of Harborside.

Little cabin in the woods

Little cabin in the woods

Solar boat shower and secluded luxury outhouse (hidden in the trees in the background)

Solar boat shower and secluded luxury outhouse (hidden in the trees in the background)

This part of Maine lies just off the major byways of Rtes 1 and 3 that each year carry millions of tourists to Acadia National Park and points farther east.  The turn-off to the peninsula flashes by quickly at 65 mph.  As a result, the area around Blue Hill remains more like the old-time country Maine increasingly vanishing from the Maine coast.  So much of the seaside region has been taken over by the tourist trade with traffic, seafood restaurants, strip businesses, fast food, endless motels and big box stores.  Mainers tend to avoid these congested areas, especially in summer.  Maybe I shouldn’t even let people in on the quaint charm of the Blue Hill region for fear of development!

Tim and I enjoy a roughing-it vacation occasionally.  This cottage was not as rough as our usual tent accommodation.  There was no cell phone signal, electricity or running water, yet we were quite cozy.  We had propane for cooking and heating water, fresh drinking water hauled in five gallon jugs, a solar boat shower which we made more comfortable with added hot water, a real bed and a commodious outhouse just a short walk away among the trees.  Not bad at all.  And early to bed means early to rise.  With all that morning time, we had plenty of chances for exploration.

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View from the top of Backwoods Mt.

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Steep trail up Backwoods Mt.

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Luxuriant beds of moss in Holbrook Island Preserve

Directly across the road from the driveway to our cottage lay Holbrook Island Wildlife Sanctuary, more than 1200 acres of pristine forest, ponds, marsh, small mountains and sea shore maintained by the State of Maine.  Threaded with walking trails, and featuring extinct volcano mountains for challenging climbs to gorgeous views, the Sanctuary teems with animals.  We even saw a bobcat, standing right beside the road.  Maybe it was the official park bobcat earning its living, who knows?  We climbed Backwoods Mt, one of the old volcanoes, and spotted plenty of obsidian-like lava spit out when the site was a bubbling cauldron of molten rock.  The paths were quite steep in places.

This section of the Maine coast abounds in reversing falls.  The phenomenon of a reversing fall occurs when the incoming tide pushes the water level higher than the body of water emptying into the ocean.  The rocky stream that drops brackish water to the sea during most of the day suddenly become inundated.  The strong flow of the tide pushing against the almost-as-strong stream creates whirlpools and standing waves.  The sound of rushing water tells of the violent struggle of the currents.  We watched three of the falls:  Goose Falls, Bagaduce Falls and an unnamed falls on the shore near our cabin.  We were able to walk to this last falls and enjoy a close-up of the tumultuous waters.

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Bagaduce Reversing Falls

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Reversing falls near our cabin, the water is flowing backward, up the channel of the brackish stream

b15We took a walk along the shore of the Sanctuary near a spot named Indian Bar.  This area was once inhabited by Penobscots of the Abanaki Nation.  They are gone, yet the name lingers.  A small schooner slipped through the still waters of the harbor in the early mist.

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Summit of Blue Hill Mt from a highland field

b11b6After all this fun, the climb up Blue Hill Mt might have seemed a little anti-climactic, but not at all.  We saved this hike for the last day of vacation.  There are several paths up the mountain.  We chose a moderately difficult climb that was a shorter route than easier ways.b9  The mountain trails are maintained by a community-based trust for the enjoyment of all.  A cell tower has been installed at the summit, detracting from the beauty, but helping the locals stay connected.  Getting a signal in this region is challenging, even with the tower.

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Blue Hill Fairgrounds

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Mountains of Acadia

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Blue Hill harbor

The climb was steep and littered with rocks.  As we neared the top, vistas would suddenly open.  There is a nice view of Blue Hill harbor and the mountains of Acadia National Park.  The Blue Hill Fair was just wrapping up for the year.  The emptying fairgrounds far below brought a fleeting nostalgia for cotton candy and agricultural exhibits.

b5At the summit, wide sheets of bare rock reveal the geologic formation of the hill.  Tortuously folded layers of seabed were turned to metamorphic rock by volcanic action as they were thrust up to form the elevation.  The maintenance trail is used by technicians on ATVs to service the cell tower.  It makes an easy, gradual descent for old knees.b12
Our time in the Blue Hill region was fleeting. Going off-grid is so relaxing, once you get over the urge to check your email and social media messages. Soft candle-lit evenings, the bliss of a warm outdoor shower, enjoying a camp stove-cooked dinner eaten to the sound of crickets and night birds reminds one that the best joys in life are simple and quiet.

Time to Abolish the Electoral College

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A nice, calming photo to help me reach tranquility.

The 2016 Presidential election results are nearly counted and the outcome appears to be that Clinton won the popular vote, yet Trump is President thanks to the Electoral College process.  While I was not enthralled by either candidate, I did decide to vote for the first female president and what I believed to be the sane candidate.  No matter which way the vote went, it feels intrinsically wrong that the winner of a simple majority of the popular vote does not become the chief executive.

If the final tally of this election holds Clinton as the winner of the popular vote, she will be the fifth person in our history to enjoy a majority of the voters’ approval yet not gain the highest elected office in the land.  The last time this occurred was in 2000 when Gore fell to Bush.  It was not right then and it is still not right today.

In a democracy, for better or for worse, the majority is supposed to rule.  To see the people’s chosen candidate thrown down inspires voter apathy, not to mention disgust.  The new President enters office with the knowledge he or she does not enjoy the support of a majority of the voters in the country.  I find it hard to consider such an official to be a legitimate representative of my country.  It is time for the Electoral College in the United States to go the way of other out-dated concepts removed by constitutional amendments.

Amending the Constitution is no small matter.  The process requires an act of Congress, no less, or two-thirds of the states may call for a convention to propose an amendment.  The amendment passes when the legislatures of three-fourths of the states in the nation vote to approve.  Such a task seems insurmountable, yet it has been accomplished numerous times.  The Congress actually proposed an amendment to do away with the Electoral College in 1969.  The proposal passed the House, but not the Senate.  It would have allowed direct election of the President and Vice-President with a run-off vote if no candidate received more than 40% of the vote.

The State of Maine, where I live, just approved on Nov. 8, citizen initiative legislation that creates a ranked voting system.  Because our last few gubernatorial elections have been split by three candidates, the resulting governor did not receive a simple majority approval.  Maine wants her top elected official, and federal congressional members, to derive authority via the support of a majority of her voters.  Each voter selects a first, second, third, etc, choice.  If there is no majority winner, the candidate who receives the least votes is eliminated and those votes go to the second choice on each voter’s ballot. The rounds of voting continue until a majority winner emerges.  In this manner, voters need attend only one election to select a clear winner in a close three-way race.

Ranked voting would also work for the Presidential race where there are three or more strong candidates.  This method is easier to understand and fairer than the rules and outcomes of the Electoral College.

Guess it’s time for me to start agitating my Congresspeople for an amendment.  If millions around the country did the same thing, we could have direct election of our President and Vice President.  Perhaps we would even feel our vote meant something since the person we elected would get to take office.