My Great Escape

The past two days have found me wandering on and off trail at John A Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell, where spring slowly emerges.

Yesterday’s journey, which began beside New Road, required me to climb up over the snow bank. If you go, don’t worry; I did my best to carve out steps for you.

Do, however, choose your footwear appropriately for I spent a lot of time creating post holes.

My intention was to locate timeless sights I can upload to a Google Map for at the Greater Lovell Land Trust we are working to create virtual hikes for those who can’t get onto the trails right now.

But there were other things that garnered my attention and I’m never one to pass by a White Pine personally decorated by the rain.

And then there was the beech leaf that arced in such a manner its veins mimicked rays of sunshine on a gloomy day.

Speckled Alder catkins poured forth with their own presentation of color as they added more cheer to the landscape.

And Trailing Arbutus (aka Mayflower) buds, like all others, provided a sign of hope that the future will arrive.

Beside Bradley Brook, an Eastern Hemlock held a raindrop-in-waiting, its gift from the sky soon to be transferred back to the place from whence it came.

The brook flowed forth with a rhythm all its own and I rejoiced in its gurgles, temporarily forgetting the world beyond.

Eventually I followed it back, giving thanks for all its meandering curves in hopes that we will all be able to continue to enjoy life around the bend.

Today dawned a new day, and a much brighter one at that, and so my truck made its way to the other trailhead along Farrington Pond Road. The parking lot wasn’t plowed this winter and so I tucked into the edge.

Lost in thought, the sight of a fruit still dangling on a Maple-leaf Viburnum pulled me back to reality.

One of my favorite places on this property isn’t along an actual trail, but rather its one folks can easily find on their own. I prefer to think of it as the secret garden.

It offers views of Sucker Brook Outlet feeding into Kezar Lake’s Northwest Cove. But even more than that, it offers layers and colors and teems with life. Today I startled two Wood Duck couples who quickly flew off “oweeking” all the way.

Life in the secret garden includes three beaver lodges that reflect the mountains beyond.

And flowers like this Rhodora, waiting for their chance to burst into color beyond understanding.

Back on the Blue Trail, I discovered one small feather, so light and delicate and fluffy, and yet barbed, the better for all of its kind to interlock and protect.

At a wet spot, the feather slipped from my mind and I marveled at the thin layer of ice that transformed the watery display.

Within the puddle, a broken Paper Birch trunk showed off the fact that even in death, life continues.

And then I met death. At first, I thought it was a scattering of more feathers.

That is, until I bent down and realized it was deer hair. Had the deer shed its winter coat?

That was my first thought until I spied this. Do you know what it is?

I hope I’m not disgusting you, but I found it fascinating. As best I could tell, it was the contents of the deer’s rumen or first stomach chamber.

And what exactly were the contents? Acorns. Can you see a few shells not quite digested?

Beside all of that was some scat filled with hair and a chunk of something.

And just beyond, more rumen offerings and then an even larger area of deer hair.

As best I could, I tried to piece together the story. Earlier on the trail i’d seen what I thought were bobcat prints until the behavior didn’t quite match for a bobcat wouldn’t follow the entire length of a trail and the presentation seemed to morph into coyote.

I searched high and low for a carcass, but found none. Nor any blood.

What I did find was more deer hair as if something had circled around a tree.

But the curious thing: there were lots of downed branches but none of them were broken. If a coyote had dragged a carcass, surely there would be blood and guts and broken branches. My wondering began to focus on a human. Some of the twigs were on top of the hair so the incident would have occurred at an earlier time? And perhaps all of this had been hidden by snow for a while? And then recent rain events obliterated some signs?

I may never know the answers, though I’ll return to look for more evidence. About a quarter mile away, I did find more proof that a coyote had dined on something quite hairy. It included a big chunk of bone.

For those wishing I’d get back to the prettier scenes, my tramp eventually took me to a lookout point, where the backdrop was provided by the Bald Face Mountains in Evans Notch.

And the foreground included another beaver lodge.

Eventually I turned around and followed the Green Trail out, stopping to pay reverence to a Bear Claw tree. With the scars being gray/black and at least a half inch wide, I’d say these were created more than seven years ago. In fact, I know that for I’ve been visiting that tree for far more than seven years. But . . . it never gets old.

Nor does the sight of ice as it turns anything into a pleasing-to-my-eyes work of art.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to sneak away and even though I had a work project on my mind, these trails have been my greatest escape so far. May you also find escapes of your own making.

Tales of the Trees

“Can you meet on Wednesday morning for a hike?”

“Yes, where and when?”

After a few notes sent back and forth, the decision was made: Sawyer Mountain in Limington, Maine, at 10:00am. Though we were coming from opposite directions, somehow we timed it just right and both pulled into the parking area on Route 117 at 9:47. I’m never on time. She’s never late.

For at least the first half mile or more of our four mile hike, we talked non-stop, barely taking the time to notice our surroundings for so much catching up did we have to do. But then . . . two old Red Oaks growing upon a ledge with rock tripe and spring green moss between made us stop and pay reverence.

And because we stopped, we began to notice others who deserved our deep respect for we recalled a hike years ago upon the Ledges Trail of Pleasant Mountain, a place where this species also grows. It was there that we were first introduced to it and it is there that our minds always take us back to the first moment of meeting: Hophornbeam with its lovely thin, shaggy strands of vertical strips.

A quick scan of the bare ground and we found the seed structure (hops) for which is was named.

Crossing through one of many stonewalls, I followed my dear friend, for she was leading the way today.

And she told me that it was places like this pasture and the walls that surrounded it that made her think of me upon her previous tramps in this place. Just imagine: In 1815, Ebenezer Walker let his livestock graze the high pasture. We don’t know when such farm activity ended, but the trees that have filled in the space probably only have stories passed on by their ancestors to tell of times past for rather on the youthful side did they seem.

Still, there were others that showed their age and inner workings.

Like wise sages, they pointed out their idiosyncrasies and by their whorled inner branches we knew their names: White Pine.

Shortly after meeting the pine, we came upon another sight that reminded us of another day. It was along a stone wall at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve that the two of us first realized the offerings of such.

A look up and we knew the tree had been visited by a Pileated Woodpecker in the past tense and present.

And because of our GLLT experience all those moons ago (we really can’t remember how many moons, but it’s been many), we knew to look through the debris on the ground. As is often the case, we were rewarded with the tubular bird scat filled with insect body parts.

Further on, a burl upon a Yellow Birch invited us to curtsy. And in looking at that, my friend spied something else nearby.

A bear claw tree. Ah, another memory was evoked . . . the time we led a bear walk for the GLLT upon the Bishops Cardinal Trail. Only one participant joined us and we got rather carried away with our bear evidence sightings.

That participant didn’t come back for a while and we feared we’d scared her off, but I’ve since learned otherwise. Her job and her family occupied much of her time and now she comes to events when she can.

And by all the opened beech nut husks, we knew that last summer had been a mast year for such nuts and we hoped that meant a great supply of nutrition for Ursus americanus.

Then there was the tree with the hieroglyphics that resembled a treasure map. Really though, they represented trails followed by various bark beetles that bored through the wood. Each pattern represents a different species, and a place where eggs were laid and the larvae ate their way through the tunnels.

We were almost to the end of our hike when another group of trees begged our awe for so white were they that we could have been easily fooled. It seemed that in Tom Sawyer fashion, these trees had been painted . . . with Whitewash Lichen. It’s a crustose lichen that looks like . . . whitewash.

With our vehicles in sight, we spotted one more to bow before, for by the colors, lines, and cracks of its dead inner bark we saw sculpted art.

And stepping back a few feet, we noticed several faces.

The most obvious whispered tales to all who would listen. Tales of the land upon which we’d hiked. Tales of the people whose pastures and foundations and gravestones we encountered. Tales of the issues between the land trust that owns the property and the current residents.

If we listen to the trees, we might hear the stories of the canopy as reflected in the bubbles and the gurgling water. Trees can talk; we just need to pay more attention.

P.S. Thank you, Joan, for sharing the trail and a brain with me today. The trees evoked so many memories and helped us make new ones.

LOVE ME, love me: Three state park gems in a row

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you: Maine that is. And more specifically, its state parks. To that end, my guy and I have been traveling at a snail’s pace since we began this journey a year ago,. In 2019, we checked two off the list. But today . . . the number finally more than doubled.

Our journey began with lunch at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth. Shout out to several local businesses and friends: Pam and Justin Ward of Bridgton Books for the book bag in which we packed today’s picnic, Sierra Sunshine Simpson for the bee’s wax wrap that kept our sandwiches fresh, Fly Away Farm for the sourdough wheat bread and grape jam that enhanced our Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches, and my sister for the chocolate-covered McVitie’s digestive biscuits that rounded out the meal.

Lunch completed, we began to look around and right beside the picnic table grew ever-hairy Staghorn Sumac twigs with heart-shaped leaf scars surrounding new buds. What’s not to love?

At last we headed off onto the trails. Do you see what I see? Or rather, do you not see what I don’t see? Snow. Back home, it’s quite deep, but along the coast, it seemed to be non-existent.

Eventually the trail led to the Atlantic Ocean and the infamous rocky coast of Maine. It’s really my mom’s rocky coast of Maine for she was always in search of such. Having grown up in Connecticut like she did, I understand her fascination.

My limited understanding of geological folds created by heat and pressure during the mountain-building process was enhanced by crashing waves.

Within the complexity of the geological formations was another with its own history written throughout its structure.

Sunburst lichen, foliose to umbilicate, spreading extensively, yet loosely attached, smooth to somewhat wrinkled, featured a complex organism that arose from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of fungi in a mutualistic relationship that included yeast in the mix. How’s that for a simple life form?

Step by step, one amazing feature after another made itself known, including a quartz vein cutting a quartzite bed.

Eventually we came a rock that could have been a sculpture of a bald eagle. Or perhaps a story written that still needed to be deciphered.

We continued to walk along the edge, enjoying the action of the waves as juxtaposed beside the prehistoric rocks. Part of the splendor, in fact, a major part, included the color. Our western Maine eyes don’t mind the blues and browns and greens and whites of winter, but beheld the beauty and bounty that was the splendor of this winter day.

We stood in wonder as the waves moved in, met the rock with splashes high and lo, and then retreated.

At last we walked higher ground, but still noted buckets of wonder as waves interacted with rocks to the southwest.

Beside the well-worn path we walked, others who have known this way from one generation to the next offered their winter forms, such as this Queen Anne’s Lace.

The woody form of Evening Primrose also greeted us in the midday midst.

Bulbous and colorful, yet equally full of flavor (so noted in days of yore by my father) and vitamins , rose hips offered their own take of winter.

I soon learned as we stepped away from the coastline that we weren’t the only soles who wandered the area. A vole had traveled in the subnivean layer between the ground’s surface and snow that had been–leaving its telltale tunnel.

After we circled about the edge of the 41-acre property, we headed “inland” toward the reason for its special upkeep as a state park. Once upon a time this had been a prime piece of land that offered a protective layer to Portland’s port. While a battery had been constructed, with clear points of view and contact, as well as enemy protection, no guns had ever been fired.

About a tenth or two down the road, a mini harbor provides protection for any who travel the fingered coast of Maine.

Because it offered smaller rocks among its mix, I asked my guy to look for hearts. Seek and ye shall find.

Seaweed and seashells added to the array and provided another colorful hue to this mid-winter day.

Across the harbor from our stance stood one of the two former lighthouses for which the area was known.

No longer in use, its light warned ocean farers of the rocky coast. Life has changed since its day of service, but as we stood nearby we could hear the toll of its well-revered friend, a bell buoy.

In the opposite direction of the lighthouse, the folded rocks bespoke their ancient form.

Beside such, we could feel the bend and imagine the creation.

Stepping atop, we looked back and took in the landscape.

And then we moved on, stepping out toward a beach whose shape rendered its name.

Walking upon its much softer coastal offering, we noted artistic “trees” that appeared to be deer hiding in the sandy forest.

And then there was the moss-colored seaweed making us think of the Emerald Isle miles and miles beyond.

After crossing from the seaweed-covered rocks to an upland piece, we then stepped down toward the water again where red sand greeted us and if your imagination is in as full gear as ours was, you may see a heart within the sandy artwork.

In places where water flowed over rock faces, we rejoiced in the interface of ripples upon ridges.

Up close and beyond, the scenery and the scents filled the innermost recesses of our souls.

And the artwork of those who had come before touched our whimsical sides.

After we’d reached the southwestern edge and turned back, the reason for this state park’s name became most obvious: Crescent Beach.

Walking back, we continued our quest for the shape of a heart. I found one in the suds of the retreating tide.

At exactly the same moment, my guy found one in a more rounded form among the stone offerings.

And then a gull captured our attention. He appeared to have found a hamburger roll upon which to dine.

For a few minutes he played with his meal, perhaps softening its texture in the low water.

When he finally did partake of his meal, he swallowed it all in one piece and if you look carefully at his neck, you may see the bulge on its way down.

Our third and final park of the day, for so are they closely located along the roads of Cape Elizabeth here in Maine, was Kettle Cove. Of course, it’s located between the other two, but we saved it for last.

On another day we’ll revisit it and take a look at the tidal pools that it offers, but the sun was growing low in the sky when we arrived and so our journey was on the rather quick side and didn’t do it the true honor it should receive.

In the end, however, we were thrilled with the opportunity to explore three state parks in our quest to get to know Maine better. Today’s LOVE ME, love me tour included Two Lights State Park, Crescent Beach State Park, and Kettle Cove State Park–three gems in a row.

wondermyway turns 5

Five years ago today I turned from taking a hundred million photos on each tramp to taking a hundred million photos and writing about them.

Typically, on the anniversary I scan the past year’s posts and choose one from each month, providing a photo to represent it, with a brief (or not so brief) comment and link to the full read.

But . . . because this is a milestone I never imagined reaching (posts: 733; views: 76,793; visitors: 44371; followers: 578), I thought I’d take the time to thank you, the readers, for wandering through the wonders with me

THANK YOU

This afternoon I decided to step back into my happy place where the journey began on February 21, 2015. I had no idea back then what I might write about, but I was so excited, and a wee bit anxious, no, I was wicked anxious (don’t you love that Maine descriptor?) to share the little things with others.

It felt a bit egotistical to invite people along, but I took the first step and so many others have followed.

Over these five years, I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and greet new ones through this effort.

Please know that typically it is late in the day when I sit down to write a post, first having spent at least a few hours tramping (“You’re stating the obvious, Mom,” my sons would say if they actually read this; nor does my guy just so you know–those of you who comment to him about something that you read may have noticed his bewildered look; and then he realizes you must follow the blog), more time downloading photos in hopes of finding a few key ones to use, and then figuring out what the story is and how to tell it.

As I wander, whether alone or with you, the first draft often forms in my head, but by the time I stomp the snow or mud or pine sap off my boots, it shakes loose and disappears. I trust, however, that whatever phrase I thought was brilliant in the field will flash back through my mind at some point. Does it? Perhaps, but I’ll never know because that first draft doesn’t get recorded.

Writing is a process, one that I’ve forever enjoyed, but what you read is only part of the whole picture. Because it’s late in the day, as I said earlier, and I’m tired, I make mistakes, which I don’t always catch before I publish. For those who are email followers, or those who quickly read one of my “stories” just after I’ve posted it to social media, please forgive me. You see what I consider draft 2 without any further edits. Laurie LaMountain, the editor of Lake Living magazine, for which I’ve worked since 2006, knows full well that draft 3 is not the final from me. Sometimes it takes 18 drafts before I’m ready to go to print, and even then I know that when I turn the page to one of my articles, I’ll cringe with frustration for I missed something.

Thank you to all of you who catch my grammatical errors and gently let me know. I love having you along to share the journey.

And thank you to those who do the same when my identification or explanation is not quite correct. As in, it’s downright wrong. I appreciate your engagement.

Thank you to all of you for reading this long story and so many others that I’ve written. I know some of you just scan the photos, and I can’t say I blame you.

For me, wondermyway is a diary that I can look back upon to recall all the amazing sights and insights the natural world has shared with me. I’m happy to be able to share that with so many others–to invite you into this part of my life.

Thank you also to those of you who, because of the blog, have bestowed gifts upon me from books and calendars to ornaments, pillows, wrist warmers, scat, feathers, and even a camera on loan for an extended period of time when mine went kerplunk into the water.

No, I am not asking for more gifts; I just want to say that I am often surprised to know that what I shared or time I spent with you touched you as much as it did me.

As a parting gift, today, for helping me celebrate this fifth anniversary, let me share one post that I thought stood out this past year.

Do you remember The Secrets of Life Found Among the Dead?

Each journey has offered refresher courses and new learnings and I appreciate that you let me share them.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I celebrate the wonder that has been revealed on so many wanders thus far.

Again, thank you.

From Lovell to Lewiston, Naturally

This morning dawned as all do, but not all are quite so pristine. As I drove to Lovell I gave thanks that I’d be able to explore with a friend as we completed a reconnaissance mission before leading a wetland hike next weekend.

My friend Alice brought along her friend, Diana, and we tried to bee-line to Bradley Brook and the wetland beyond, but there were so many things to stop of us in our tracks, including the numerous prints of white-tailed deer and an occasional squirrel. Plus beech buds and marcescent leaves and . . . and . . . and. If I share all now, you won’t need to join us on February 8 and we really want you to come.

Eventually we reached the brook and were wowed by the colors and textures it offered.

As the brook flowed so did the ice form and its variation bespoke the water’s varying ways.

It was beside the brook that another local resident revealed its name by the prints it had made. We welcomed conditions that have been a bit on the warmer side of late (it wasn’t exactly warm when we began this morning, but these prints were made a night or two ago and actually showed some details or clues that led to identity). Do you see the baby hand in the upper left-hand print? And the diagonal orientation of one foot ahead of the other?

We continued following the raccoon and the brook toward the wetland of our destination, but paused again and again to rejoice in the presentation before us, including the tree that formed a triangle in reality and shadow.

At last we arrived at our destination, curious about the possibilities it offered. Though the temp was on the chilly side and we’ve had some really cold days this winter, we’ve also had some with much milder temps and so we watched our footing because none of us wanted to break through.

It’s a place where animal tracks intersect with nature’s lines and shadows grow long, whether arced or straight.

While we focused on the offerings, Alice and I gave thanks for Diana’s questions, which helped us consider how and what to share with participants who join us next weekend. Male and female catkins? Oh my.

Eventually we found our way back to the brook, and if it seems like I’ve failed to show you all that we saw, it’s only because I don’t want to give away any treasures we want to share. Did I mention that Alice and I are leading a walk for the Greater Lovell Land Trust on February 8th at 9:30am.

We noted an ice bridge that crossed the brook, but it was thin and no critters had yet taken advantage of its structure. Next weekend, however, we’ll check again.

At the old yellow birch we paused before turning away from the brook, but really, don’t you just want to spend some time in this landscape? Listening to the babble of the water and calls of the chickadees and nuthatches? It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few moments and let the forest refill the innermost recesses of your lungs.

And then to look for lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Alice teased me because I love to pour water upon it and watch as it magically turns bright green. The main photobiont is a green alga, and when water hits it it immediately photosynthesizes and goes from dull and dry to vibrant and pliable. It’s also a type of cyanolichen, meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When it falls to the ground and decomposes into the forest floor, it contributes its nitrogen reserve to the soil.

Eventually our time in Lovell came to an end and within the hour I drove to Lewiston for another meeting with some like-minded friends.

The plan was for me to deliver sets of tree cookies to Cheryl Ring and Sue Kistenmacher, two of four co-coordinators for the Maine Master Naturalist class now taking place in Waterville. After filling Cheryl’s car with boxes of bark, we headed off for a walk in the woods of Lewiston.

Within moments, we found ourselves admiring the red in the bark of a red oak and Cheryl went forth to honor it for announcing its name.

Red maple also announced itself, though in a completely different manner. It’s the only tree in Maine that suffers from bullseye target canker which creates . . . a bullseye shape or circular plates caused by a fungus.

With these two notorious birders, we spent a lot of time looking up and saw chickadees, nuthatches, crows, a downy woodpecker, heard a pileated, and the icing on the cake: two brown creepers upon the tree trunks.

But . . . we also spent time looking down and the footprints beside our feet amazed us.

It was the orientation of prints always presented on a diagonal with five tear-drop shaped toes and in a bounding pattern that first heard us exclaiming.

Taking measurements and noting all the details, while using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder book and David Brown’s Trackards, we nailed it. Fisher. (I just have to say this: not a fisher cat. It’s not in the feline family; it’s a weasel.)

As we followed the fisher tracks we met another traveler of these woods. It threw us off at first because its pattern led us astray. But we followed the track for a bit and examined the prints until we found a few that helped us make a positive ID.

We’d considered fox, but none of the measurements matched up and we were pretty sure we were seeing five toes rather than four and then we knew the creator. The second raccoon of my day.

As it happened we followed both the fisher and raccoon and noticed that while the raccoon walked by the pine trees, the fisher’s prints were visible on one side and then on the other in a way that was not humanly or fisherly possible, unless the mammal climbed the tree and jumped off the other side.

And planted a solid landing–like any great gymnast.

How great it was to stand there and note where the fisher and raccoon tracks had intersected–both overnight perhaps, but for as far as we had traveled no interaction had taken place.

We did, however, find an area that explained why the fisher was on the hunt: a hillside filled with squirrel middens. This spot offered more squirrel middens than I’ve seen all winter.

A midden is a garbage pile. The red squirrel finds a high spot, either the lay of the land, a rock, tree stump, or branch, upon which to “eat” a white pine cone like an ear of corn. The squirrel pulls off each scale on the cone and munches on the tiny pine nuts, discarding the inedible parts.

Each pine scale holds two pine nuts with attached wings or samaras–think maple seed with its wing. If you look closely at the inside of the pine cone scale, you can see the shape of the samaras and seeds.

Just before we turned back on our afternoon journey, we discovered a coyote track and gave thanks that we were in a city space that provided an incredible sanctuary for the mammals and birds.

My thanks began in the morning when I spent time exploring the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell with Maine Master Naturalist Alice and her friend Diane.

And it concluded with the afternoon spent with Maine Master Naturalists Cheryl and Sue at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston.

From Lovell to Lewiston, naturally with naturalists. Thanks be.

Lighting The Way

It felt like months had passed since our paths had crossed, but finally the stars aligned as they say, and my friend Marita and I found time for a hike this afternoon. Our chosen destination: Mount Tom in Fryeburg, Maine.

Within the foundation at the start of the trail the snow outlined the stones. In other seasons, these structures blend in with the landscape but on this day they were highlighted and we could almost imagine the stories of yore.

Lines intersected and wood interrupted, much as we’ve raised our children both together and independently.

Higher up, again the snow showed off the details in a way that might normally blend in and remain invisible. It all seemed so symmetrical and then in the debris below–a much more random design reflecting the course our paths have taken.

At the edge of the ledges we noted edges. Rounded and straight, interwoven as our families have been with variation along the way.

As we followed the path made by others we caught up on each other’s lives and shared a few memories of the past for ours is a journey that began long before we actually knew each other since we are from the same hometown.

Occasionally, the trail offered shades other than snow white and gray granite; a glimpse into the future was featured by the evergreen leaves of Trailing Arbutus, aka Mayflower. What will our future hold? A continued friendship we know.

We know not what the future holds, but revel in the possibilities as indicated by fresh Pileated Woodpecker holes.

And when scat happens, we’ll be there–to examine it, decipher it, and help each other through it, or at least listen and offer comments of reassurance and consideration.

Two and a half miles later we reached the summit where the contrast of sky and landscape pleased our eyes and gave us our bearings.

And a view of Little Mountain to the far left and the long ridge of Pleasant Mountain pointed to the hometown we have shared for over thirty years, almost twice the time of the place where we grew up but still have some ties.

Our stay at the top wasn’t long for we wanted to descend before daylight gave way to night.

At last we returned to the foundation where our journey had begun and again admired the stones and their placement.

Lighting the way had been the glory of the January light, but really there was more: friendship, understanding, similarities, differences, and hearts that may sometimes turn sideways, but always love.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this in 2016, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

s-barn

He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-waiting-for-santa

And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-tree-hole

Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-cocoon

Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes something like this . . .

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The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

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Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

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A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

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Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

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The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

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To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

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Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

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Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

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One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bear for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.