Sunday, January 8, 2017

SPENDING WINTER IN THE SOUTH?

Twenty-six degrees outside. Winds out of the North at 15 mph. Icy rain. Wilted ginger leaves on the large plant beside the drive. We can always tell how severe the winter has been by the death of the ginger plant; the leaves curl up in protest against unusual Louisiana weather. We leave Sewanee, Tennessee every year in late October, migrating to Louisiana in anticipation of warm winters. And here we are, looking out at silver-topped roofs gleaming with frost and at a drooping ginger plant.

Fortunately, the ginger is easily resurrected. We often throw its dead leaves into the coulee behind the house, and when we return the following year, they have become themselves again. This year, a resurrected plant by the drive had overtaken our neighbor's fence by the time we arrived in late October. It is (was) such a beautiful proliferation we named the apartment beside our house "The Ginger House."

We also planted three orange trees that have been draped with white sheets for three days now and are either smothered or near death. I get up in the night and frighten myself by looking out the window at shrouded plants. I'm accustomed to seeing frozen vegetation and late snows many times when I return to Sewanee in early spring, but winter scenes here have become almost an outrage. I suppose this kind of weather drives Eastern snowbirds to lower climes like Florida. Friend Vickie's family lives in a town called Frostproof because temps there have been kind to family orange groves most winters.

I think of the winter I spent in Limestone, Maine, a town near the border of New Brunswick, Canada — of a night when the temps dipped to 52 below zero and broke the block of an old station wagon we left parked outside because we didn't have access to a garage or carport...of the heat supplied by an ancient oil stove in the living room, and a bathroom sans heat of any kind...of snow piled as high as telephone wires beside the farm road that led to our apartment. In my memorabilia I have a picture of me, fresh from the dry heat of El Paso, Texas, hanging out the washing in a Maine November, the washing stiffening as I attached each clothes pin to the line... of living on Aroostook County potatoes the entire winter, not just because they were accessible but because Army pay didn't cover sumptuous meals...of winds that howled under the eaves of an old farmhouse and swept in through the cracks of a makeshift stairwell leading from the outside to our upstairs apartment.

I often wondered why people chose to live in that remote part of the country. When people think of Maine, they usually visualize its jagged coast, the hub of fishing and tourist industries. The famous environmentalist Rachel Carson spent many summers in Maine as she was attracted to the plants and animals on the Maine coast, which she wrote about in her first book entitled The Edge of the Sea. It was based on the many hours she spent observing tide pools along the Maine seashore. Artists Andrew Wyeth, John Sargent, and Winslow Homer produced colorful seascapes while working on their art in Maine. Interestingly, about 900 years ago, pale-skinned Norsemen with blonde hair landed in a rocky inlet of Maine and frequented the coast for 300 years. They attempted to establish a colony but their demise has been attributed to disease or raids by Abenaki or Wabanaki Indians.

In my novel, The Maine Event, I included scenes about the northernmost community of Madawaska on the St. John River, a town that schedules an annual Acadian Festival celebrating with food and music much like we do in south Louisiana. Two of my favorite authors were inspired by life in Maine: Sarah Orne Jewett who wrote that she was proud "to have been made of Berwick dust" (Berwick, Maine)...of the love of friend for friend and the kindness of neighbor to neighbor in this beloved town..." and E.B. White, the famous essayist I admire who spent summers in North Brooklin on Penobscot Bay, Maine.

From the not-so-warm South today to memories of Maine's north woods, I might as well be in an Arctic museum or at the foot of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, but I'm probably safer here in New Iberia, Louisiana where 72-degree days are forecast for next week.




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