The final product of my semester long internship with Sebasticook Regional Land Trust. Thank you to everyone who helped with the making of this film, from providing lovely interviews to taking me along on your many adventures.
As the semester, my college career, and my internship with SRLT come to an end, I can’t help but acknowledge the bitter sweetness of it all. Like the fast waters of Sandy Stream, the last four years seem to have come and gone in a hurry. I’m sure I will always feel like I could have done more with my time here in Maine, but I’m comforted when I stop to think about all the adventures I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve been.
My time with SRLT has taught me a lot, not least of which is the importance of finding our place. Our place is where our history and future meet. It’s where our values are deeply rooted in the love of our land. It’s where our kids grow up and where we grow old. This semester I got to see this area through the eyes of its people and help portray what it is that makes this our place. I may be leaving Maine, but I know someday I’ll come back.
With that, I say thank you to everyone who helped me in my journey through the watershed. Your interviews, your adventures, your participation, and your support have made my last few months unforgettable.
I went off to college three years ago. Its 1,335 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to Unity College here in Maine and a good twenty hour drive by car. My mom called me after returning home from dropping me off. “Are you there, Starstuff?” she asked when I picked up.
My mom and I have star names for each other, our official handles for when we stay up late to see celestial shows from our backyard. Whether it’s the falling meteors of Perseid or the alignment of Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus, Starstuff and Stargeezer are ready and waiting. My name comes from Carl Sagan’s famous quote: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” My mom’s name is more tongue in cheek, but they both work for us. With our eyes adjusted to the dark, we became amateur astronomers and recruited as many fellow star gazers as we could find. We added my brothers and sisters (Starling, Starfish, Starsky, Stardust, Starboard, and Stardom) to the group and spent our nights stargazing.
My mom’s view in Florida is often limited by the city lights and coastal clouds, but she still sets her alarm for three in the morning so that we can look at the stars together. Up in Maine, I can see more stars than ever before. My voice shakes from the cold night air as I try to name constellations and announce every shooting star I see over the phone. I can see my breath while the humidity and bugs have her cursing under hers.
My freshman physics textbook tells me that light travels at a rate of approximately 300,000,000 meters per second. This means that if my mom stood in our front yard with a really bright flashlight, and if hypothetically, nothing stood in the way of its beam between her in Florida and me in Maine, it would take .0072 seconds to reach me. “Coming in loud and clear, Stargeezer,” I answered.
Every birthday for as long as I can remember, my mom has wished me another happy trip ‘round the sun. She says it with a tearful smile and a hug, as if she were actually sending me off for a yearlong trip. In raising us, she wanted to make sure that we kept our minds open and that we were always curious. Her quirky way of saying happy birthday was a challenge to see our place in a larger universe, a gentle reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
Copernicus first suggested that the sun was the center of our galaxy in 1543, when he wrote, “For who would place this lamp of a very beautiful temple in another or better place than this, from which it can illuminate everything at the same time?” Since then, his once blasphemous theory has moved from infamy to common knowledge as we realized our small place in the galaxy.
Around our dinner table, my younger sister asks why we aren’t see-through if we’re made of atoms that are mostly empty space. My brother weighs the pros and cons of being the first person sent to Mars as part of a reality TV show. My mom and I stumble through string theory and discuss our dessert options in parallel universes. I can’t help but wonder what dinner time conversations were like in the 1500’s and whether Copernicus’s theory was also sparked with a roll being thrown across the table. These are the questions I ponder when I look up, and just as Copernicus looked up at our brightest star and questioned the certainty of what was ‘known,’ perhaps I too could hit upon a new truth.
I would connect the dots in the night sky like one of my coloring book activities and became familiar with the stars, soon able to pick out Orion’s neighbor, Taurus, and other familiar landmarks of the sky. I would tell anyone who would listen about the names the stars had and how they were connected by invisible lines, like a fine thread that held them above us. I would tell them about Orion’s epic battles, how he was killed by Scorpius, and how now they reside on opposite ends of the sky—placed there by the Greeks who liked a happy ending.
I think about the authors of these stories, the people who, like me, found the easiest way to relate to the stars was through a narrative arc, rather than a mathematical one. In telling these stories about the stars, they were actually telling a story about themselves, using the stars to pass down their histories and battles, their dreams and beliefs. They created these stories to understand themselves as well as the lights above them, and as I find the constellations that they named, I become a part of these stories. Orion slowly passes overhead and I contemplate the many histories he has lived through and what his future stories will be. One day, I think, I might even describe his shield and sword as paper and pen to my kids and the story will continue.
When we’re looking for shooting stars together, Stargeezer and I laugh about the small trails of light that seem to elude us at the periphery of our vision. “Stargeezer, did you see that one!?” I exclaim in a voice that tells her there actually wasn’t anything to see. She pretends to be disappointed. “No, I must have missed it, Starstuff.” “It was the best one I’ve ever seen, but don’t worry; I’ll find you another one.” Sometimes I do find another one, a real one that we can both see, but shooting stars are fleeting, mere seconds of light as a small piece of meteor burns in the atmosphere. They come and go, sometimes leaving you to wonder if you ever saw them at all. “Just keep looking up, Starstuff,” she says. And I do. I keep looking up so that I don’t miss them, so that I don’t miss her, so that I don’t miss the stories of the stars.
Look up tonight and you may be able to see the Lyrid meteor shower, visible this week, April 17th-25th, in the night sky. As it peaks on the 22nd, you should be able to see around 20 meteors per hour. It’s the perfect opportunity to recruit new stargazers.
With the recent wind storms we’ve had, I thought it would be fitting to acknowledge the upside of going wherever the wind takes you.
Whether you’re a world traveler or a neighborhood wanderer, there’s a lot to be said for taking each moment as it comes and enjoying it all along the way. I recently went on a small snowshoe hike with Jim Reed and learned this lesson all over again.
After one of our many snowstorms, the snow was waist deep along the trail. Though the snowshoes helped, the one on my left foot had a bum strap and intermittently fell off, something I only noticed after walking quite a ways without it and having to double back and retrieve it. Despite this, we trekked on, confidently placing confidence markers along the Hills-to-Sea trail. As we approached a thicket of birch trees, we soon realized that the recent storm hid the trail markers and had bent the tree tops over, causing a maze of branches that we had to duck and weave through.
Things weren’t turning out the way we had planned, but when we stopped to look around, it was hard to complain. The snow was shining brilliantly and the sky above was clear. Each line of each branch was delicately outlined in white and despite causing some of our problems, the snow also helped by pointing us back the way we came. We followed our tracks out and decided to come back another day, all the while laughing at our day’s follies.
I think it’s important to keep days like this in mind. I had a great hike and am glad I went. Sometimes the wind is rough, but where it takes you more than makes up for it in the end.
Sebasticook Regional Land Trust is now part of the letterboxing community! We’ll soon be rolling out a series of hand carved stamps at our various preserves to highlight all there is to discover out there. Not sure what letterboxing is? Read on to find out and learn how you can get started finding unique pieces of art while enjoying nature and community all at the same time.
Letterboxing (named after the English term for “mailbox”) is not a new activity. You can trace its origin back to 1854 in Dartmoor England, and a Victorian man who first placed his calling card in a glass bottle in Cranmere Pool. The idea was simple: anyone who came across the bottle and its message could also leave their calling card and a postcard that the next finder could then sign and mail back to them. In a series of exchanges that were never face to face, people were able to collect calling cards and receive secret correspondences. Soon, clues to the expanding number of boxes were kept at the local pubs and people from all over stopped by to get them. From this modest start, letterboxing has grown, spreading worldwide and changing a bit in the process.
Today, Tupperware containers, film canisters, and anything else waterproof and inconspicuous can be used as a letterbox. The typical items found in a letterbox include a small logbook, a stamp, and sometimes an ink pad and pen. Letterbox searchers also carry their own stamp, logbook, ink, and pen. When they find the box, they stamp the box’s logbook with their stamp, sign their own, unique trail name next to it, and typically include the date, their hometown, and a short comment or anecdote about the find. They then take the box’s stamp and stamp it into their own logbook, again writing down the date, location, and anything they want to remember about the find, along with the planter’s trail name and the box name. When they’re done “stamping in,” both their logbook and the planter’s logbook have been stamped and each now has a small, artistic record of the visit.
Letterboxing North America, the hub of letterboxing activity on this side of the pond, currently lists 41,031 letterboxes planted in the United States alone, and that’s only those that are registered on this one site, for this one country. Take into account its worldwide appeal and the fact that some letterboxers never plant a box, preferring instead to just find them, and this hybrid between sport, hobby, and puzzle seems to have exploded in just the past few decades.
Jeff McFarland, a 46-year-old who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, came across letterboxing about sixteen years ago in an in-flight magazine article that described the hobby’s origin in Dartmoor. “My first thought was that I should take a vacation to Dartmoor and find some letterboxes,” said McFarland. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford that.” So instead, he decided to look a little closer to home. McFarland went to the internet in search of more information and, after finding the Letterboxing North America site, (www.letterbox.org) it wasn’t long before he was thinking of where he could plant his first letterbox.
After spending time on the University of North Florida’s trail system and enjoying the hiking experience it offered, McFarland decided that UNF provided the perfect location for his first plant: “Since there are a lot of cypress trees on the UNF trails, I photocopied an outline of a bald cypress tree from my Audubon Guide to North American trees, and carved my first stamp.”
Ask letterbox planters why they hide boxes where they do, and you’ll get different answers. Some use the plant as a way to show finders a particularly nice area or to teach them about a certain subject. Others use it to commemorate a particular person or event. Whatever the reason, there is one common thread—they want to share.
The experience of letterboxing is a unique one; you can go on hikes in national parks or take guided tours through historical areas, but how often do you get the chance to explore an area following in someone else’s footsteps, being led by the story of their clue, whether it’s based on their favorite views or their favorite secret locations? By sharing their clues, letterboxers are sharing an experience.
Letterboxing may seem like an impersonal activity at first glance. You rarely ever see fellow letterboxers face to face or even learn their real names. However, once you become involved, you realize that calling it impersonal couldn’t be further from the truth. In today’s age, more and more people are using technology and new social media as stand-ins for face to face relationships. Letterboxing, as secretive as it is, is in some ways more personal than these screen based interactions. After finding several boxes, you start to recognize trail names and stamps. The comments you read start to show the thread of a conversation or tell stories of the people who write them. This communication method, albeit antiquated, builds communities and relationships that are rooted in places, memories, and collections. So what does this offer a younger generation stuck online? “I think we may reach a critical point where the younger generation will yearn for a few more organic activities,” says McFarland. He views letterboxing as a possible bridge between the old and the new, using sites like Letterboxing North America’s online appeal and easy clue sharing capabilities to attract people to this outdoor adventure that has them making real world connections. “Technology does not interfere. It just provides a home for the clues, like the Dartmoor pubs.”
Back then, you might have been limited by whether or not you could get into a pub, but nowadays, this hobby is for everyone. Letterbox locations range from strenuous hikes to mere steps off the road, allowing everyone, even kids or the physically impaired, to join in. As I become more involved in letterboxing, I see that the personalities of letterboxers vary, too. There are those who are in it for the hunt and those in it for art. Some exclusively plant and find out in nature, while others prefer a more urban exploration. There are also different levels of involvement. Whether you’re a casual letterboxer, only finding boxes if they practically find you, or an avid searcher, out on the prowl, you can still count yourself as a member.
One planter I’ve talked to goes by the trail name “Zess the Tree Hugger,” and in her six years of letterboxing, she has planted 133 letterboxes. The number of boxes she’s found is somewhere between 1700 and 1800, and with that staggering amount, I can’t blame her for not knowing the exact number. “There has to be some value in the place—at least to me—that I can share with others,” Zess said when I asked her why she plants boxes where she does.
This is why people letterbox--for the boxes, the clues, the stamps, but also for the stories and the connections. With people like Jeff and Zess planting, there will always be more to discover-- you need only be up for an adventure.
To get started on your own letterboxing adventure, visit www.letterbox.org. There you’ll find beginner tips, tools of the trade, and a searchable database of clues from all over. With a trail name, stamp, and log book, you’ll be ready to start your first find.
You can also join us on April 5th, 10am-11:30 at the SRLT office, 93 Main Street Unity, to carve your own stamp! For more information, call 948-3766 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The tracks we leave can be of two kinds:
There are those that are temporary, the ones left in soft mud or fresh snow. I make a lot of these; we all do, in our day to day lives, as we travel from here to there and back again. They tell us where we’ve been and sometimes we follow them to tell us where we’re going. They are tiny records of a time and place, showing movement while also being still.
But there are also those that stick with us. Instead of getting left behind physically in the earth, these tracks serve as an internal travel log of our adventures. They are how we remember all those times and places, all those trails and hills.
This is what I kept in mind as I walked through the snow last weekend. I wanted to leave as many tracks as possible, in the snow and in my memory, and what better place to do it than here?
It’s easy to forget to see beauty in the common. Today, a crow flew overhead with its familiar cawing and I was reminded of this.
As I await spring’s return and the birds that come with it, I often forget to appreciate the sturdy, ever-present birds that, like me, spend the winter up in Maine instead of flying south for warmer weather. If you ask me, the American Crow, the largest of the song birds, deserves a second look. For instance, did you know that Waterville is home to a roost fit for Hitchcock?
Along these lines, I have also recently been considering how proximity and exposure play into what we see in the land we live on. How can we become so familiar with an area and still find new reasons to explore, to question, to wonder? I don’t know that I have the answer, but I think whoever does probably looks closely while also seeing the big picture. They probably look forward to questions more than answers and see every day as a field trip out into the world. They probably see every snowfall as the reworking of a familiar theme, but never assume the ending will be the same. They probably share new experiences with those that follow in their footsteps… and when they see a crow, they probably stop to admire.
It’s 8 o’clock on a cold Saturday morning at Unity College and a slick of ice rests on top of the feet of snow that have accumulated this season. Between Maplewood and the Cottages, a set of footprints leads off into the woods of Sugar Bush trail. They end at the bright green painted doors of the Sugar Shack, the words, “Unity Sugar Makers,” displayed over the entrance.
The Sugar Shack is a modest wooden structure with a dirt floor and open ceiling, allowing the vast amounts of steam produced during the boiling process to escape. It’s no more than 120 square feet and yet the shack has held up to 30 sugar makers at once within its four walls.
Tin buckets totaling close to 100 are stacked high in the corners. On a shelf sit glass bottles, waiting to be filled with the end product, Unity’s own “Sugar Makers Syrup.”
Yes, it is the beginning of the sugaring season, which typically runs from the end of February into early April, and that means that the campus’s sugar makers have been busy cleaning buckets and lids. Donning club jackets that read, “I’d Tap That,” they form a bucket brigade, loading dirty buckets out and clean ones in.
Above freezing temperatures in the day and below at night is the prime weather pattern to get sap flowing in the tapped sugar maples. Over the next month, the club hopes for just that. Then, things get steamy as the fire is stoked and the process of boiling in the Sugar Shack begins.
Once bottled in containers, the syrup is destined for Unity’s 19th annual Pancake Breakfast, to be held on Earth day in the Student Center. There, it will be shared with students, staff, and even prospective students.
Each year, the Sugar Makers Club works toward this goal, hoping to have some syrup left over to split amongst its members—a small reward, but worth it. However, with 40 gallons of sap needed to make 1 gallon of syrup, they have a lot of waiting to do first.
The hard work of dragging sleds full of sap through Unity’s trails may deter some, but to the members of Unity’s sweetest club, it’s all part of the experience.
With fresh snow on the ground, people from all over Maine participated in the Great Maine Outdoor Weekend over the past few days. A project started by the Maine Outdoor Coalition, the weekend is full of events put on by outdoor organizations, land trusts, and companies all with the goal to get people out and playing.
Here at Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, we planned a snowshoe and cross country skiing trip around and on Pleasant Lake. The day’s weather was perfect and once we made it onto the snow mobile trails, the woods were full of laughter, discussion, and sharing. From stories of snakes in the pond to wood duck box sleuthing, we took advantage of the great company and the great snow.
There were also plenty of ice fishers out on the pond for free fishing weekend. Flags were a little slow, but that didn’t stop the bundled masses from sharing fish stories. One ice fisher told me that he’s just in it for the flags, but that he’s heard rumor of salmon in Unity Pond. With that, his flag jumped up and his young daughter was slung over his shoulder as he shuffled towards it. Together they reeled in a small perch, watched it in their hands, and let it slide back under the ice.
These are the stories that are a part of what makes Maine great. Yes, there are the fish stories with fish as big as my arm and epic battles against the beast beneath the surface, but there are also ones like this—about a man who's lived here his whole life, the pond that his daughter swims and fishes in, and a flag that signals a catch and so much more.
This past weekend brought some beautiful weather and the perfect opportunity to enjoy the watershed. I decided to go out with some friends and explore Jim Reed’s Preserve as they did work for Unity College’s Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study (HEMS).
As we followed a stream down a path, we eventually came to the edge of Freedom Pond, iced over and eerily beautiful. I took a moment to lie down in the middle of the pond with my ear to the ice. I could hear the water underneath and the distant sound of ice fishers just barely visible.
It struck me that it’s easy to hold your breath waiting for spring and the new life it brings, but we shouldn’t forget to enjoy the life of winter, as well. It’s something the people here have embraced with open arms and ice fishing gear a plenty, and with Punxsutawney Phil’s official meteorological report in, it’s good to see that we’re ready for more.
So, with that, I say, “Here’s to six more weeks of winter, warm company in the cold, and, of course, some good fishing!”