Meditations on the summers of childhood

By Kristen Lindquist | Jul 05, 2009

More than any other time of year, summer makes me nostalgic. Even though I grew up in Maine where true summer lasts two, maybe three months if we’re very lucky, childhood summers — especially the long stretches I spent with my grandparents on their saltwater farm in Lincolnville — seemed endless as I look back now.

When I was 6 my mother presciently brought home from a school book fair several books now well-worn and still close at hand: "The Golden Nature Guide to Seashores" (published in 1955) and "The Beachcomber’s Book" (1970) by Bernice Kohn. On a trip to New Brunswick a few years later, another beloved book was added to my collection: V.A. Gillett’s "In Fields and Woods," published in Canada the year I was born. With these three books, I felt equipped to identify everything on my grandparents’ beach and surrounding woods. With this knowledge I felt I had power. I knew what I was dealing with, what was dangerous, what wasn’t. Among the beach stones and the green tapestry of the woods, I learned to recognize and name my friends.

It was important to me, for instance, to understand that white dog whelks drilled into other living mollusks and ate them. But the common periwinkle, the little gray snails found all over the rocks, ate algae, and, according to the Golden Guide, are “seldom eaten in this country” — which signaled to me that someone somewhere did eat them. Inspired by my guide, one summer that someone was me, though it took much effort with a lobster pick for small (but tasty) reward. Mussels, which we ate often long before they were fashionable in restaurants, were a much more satisfying creature to collect for the dinner table. And something in me still feels a small thrill when I discover on a beach a pocket of little yellow moon snails. These shells were special finds, precious jewels with which we carefully crafted necklaces.

My sister and I used to build stone houses on my grandparents’ cobble beach. Lincolnville Beach was the only sandy beach we knew nearby, so rocky shores were what we were used to. My grandmother told us that rocks were alive, and we believed her as we watched the constellations of stones shift and slide with each storm. We pocketed smooth stones with lucky white rings, and always kept a look out for the occasional “fossil rock” covered with imprints of shells that looked like miniature scallops. These got lugged up to the house for public display.

We were free to roam anywhere on the beach, in the woods, or in the hayfield where the sheep grazed. We knew the property lines and had free range within them. No one worried that we were going to drown or otherwise harm ourselves, and other than some scars on our legs from barnacles, we emerged into adulthood unscathed.

I used to set up logs and stone walls along the paths in the woods and spend hours pretending I was a horse, running my own steeplechase. Looking at what children do with their time now, that all seems very naïve, almost archaic. But for me, it led to my love of running, a sport I participated in through college and still enjoy even now. Nothing takes me back to those summer days of childhood more than a good run on a woods trail where I can leap over roots and puddles, pad along soft stretches of pine needles, feel the earth beneath my feet as I silently note to myself the trailside plants and birds singing overhead. I name them to myself still, the old habit of wanting to identify everything — to locate myself within the familiar — still with me.

In the summer woods I was interested not so much by flowers as by berries. The berries marked “poisonous” in "In Fields and Woods" fascinated my natural morbid childhood curiosity. My favorite poisonous berry is still Clintonia or blue bead lily, the big bright blue berry that is a true gem of the coastal forests. I also learned from that book about edible berries beyond the familiar ones.

Both wintergreen and bunchberry berries are very small, but I couldn’t resist the allure of their shiny red color, and also feeling like I was making use of some secret knowledge when I ate them. Wintergreen berries taste faintly minty and sweet, and bunchberries, though mealy, also have a subtle taste if you eat a handful at once. I was reminded of this last summer when working at the blueberry pick on Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport. A little boy asked me what the red berries were among the blueberries. I told him they were bunchberries, and with his mother’s permission, he tried one. Fifteen minutes later, he came up to proudly show me that his whole berry bucket was full of bunchberries. I completely understood his motives.

Plants with other hidden qualities were also noted. My grandmother, who carded, dyed, hand-spun, and then wove or knit the wool from her own sheep, would often point out plants that could be used as natural dyes. The best one was goldthread, an unassuming little wildflower that grows close to the ground, but has a bright gold root. I loved to dig one up just enough to show people that amazing color, then cover it back up so that it wouldn’t die.

When I was a kid, we weren’t allowed to watch television during the daytime. We weren’t allowed to use the word “bored.” I hoarded field guides and eventually learned to track down birds, which became one of my life’s passions. One of the first birds I ever identified was a cedar waxwing; I can still picture it perched on the sheep fence at the back of the garden, still hear its gentle lisping call. I snuck up on it and got close enough to see its little crest, black mask, and the red feather tips like drops of sealing wax, like the red of bunchberries.

My sister now photographs nature, walking in the Bangor Forest almost every day with her dog and her camera. I like to think that my work in conservation and her interest in nature photography were inspired by our days running wild at my grandparents’ farm. I can only hope that children somewhere still do such things, that they aren’t all held captive indoors by video games and computers. I know that I plan to teach my niece about periwinkles and bunchberries when she is old enough. She turns 3 this month and likes to pretend she’s a princess. I secretly hope that when she’s older, she’ll become a horse, and that I will still have the knees to be able to run behind her through the woods.
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