The return of the alewives to the lakes where they were born is a time of celebration – for people and critters alike. While many of the rivers in Maine host the return of these once-abundant fish, the most dramatic migration happens in the hamlet of Damariscotta Mills. The old fish ladder was recently restored, and there is now a festival to welcome the human pilgrims who want to witness this ancient ritual.
Alewives are anadramous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, migrate to the sea as juveniles, and return to their birthplace to begin the cycle anew. Unlike salmon, the majority of alewives do not die after spawning, and return the following year. Also known as river herring, they were once plentiful all over New England. Dams and over-fishing have eliminated many runs, and some towns like Waldoboro are trying to restore their alewife populations.
Alewives are typically smoked, and it has been a long tradition to give a bushel of these oily fish to town widows. Some of the widows prize the taste while others will resell them to lobstermen for bait. Although these fish are 10 to 12 inches long, herring gulls will swallow them whole, then go back for more. Photographers from all over set up phalanxes of tripods and monster telephoto lenses for a chance at catching an osprey snagging a fish.
This year the run was exceptionally dramatic, and since the fish move up from the Great Salt Bay into Damariscotta Lake via the fish ladder, they are concentrated at this spot. The early spring kept the water warm, which encourage the fish to move out of the bay. The lupines were also in early and full bloom. May is typically the month the alewives return, and from July to October the juveniles will make their way to the sea.
This is what May 9 typically looks like in Damariscotta Mills
I was going to just give up, to surrender. The garden didn’t get “put to bed” properly before I left for Texas in mid-October, and spring came so early that the weeds were out of control when I returned. But after the first rush of irises, dame’s rockets, poppies, and wild mustard, I noticed the perennials and bulbs I nurtured last year pushing through the chaos. My protective instincts kicked in, and I started ripping out three-foot tall grasses and invasive flowers by the roots. Soon the lawn was lined with weed piles, which I let dry for a day or two and then ran the mower over them. Along with the cut grass they made a nice mulch for the blueberry patch and flower bed presided over by the totem Edmund.
Poor Edmund. I swapped him for an original hand-painted photograph, and I liked his beech face. I should have chosen a cedar totem, however, for he had been harboring carpenter ants which attracted pileated woodpeckers that fall, and apparently every fall since. His smile persists through the indignities, however, and with it he will eventually molder and crumble.
I have two acres, and like the greedy glutton I am, I kept adding flower beds and expanded the veggie garden since I moved in seven years ago. I lusted after peonies and poppies, delphinium and wisteria. I scattered sweet william seeds and transplanted home-grown foxglove. I added dwarf daylilies to the driveway island and spent $70 on five blueberry bushes that give me $5 worth of berries every year. I wanted Beauty and more Beauty. When finances became tight, I made do with seeds and a few seedlings from the high school horticulture program, and cuttings from my wintered-over geraniums. Besides I had most of the perennials I needed. Now all I needed to do is maintain all this Beauty.
Gardening isn’t for sissies. It’s for people who will get their knees black with dirt, and will go around for months with soil stuck under their fingernails. It’s for people who bang their foreheads on nails on an old fence post, and cut their hands bloody yet keep on pulling weeds. Gardening is for people who will scratch their arms tending roses and endure painful stabs pruning wicked barberry. And of course it’s for those who can tolerate mosquito and blackfly bites, squishing cucumber beetles, plucking plump hornworms off the tomatoes, and getting tangled in bird netting over the strawberries.
After the heartbreak of late blight ruining every tomato last year, I feared loving and losing again. But I bought a six-pack of the reliable Jet Star and one cherry heirloom tomato, willing to take the risk. No peas or spinach this year, and little of anything else that wasn’t already growing such as garlic, sage, Jerusalem artichoke, and my beloved strawberries. There’s the farmer’s market for the rest.
But my flowers, I can’t abandon. The early spring gave me my first baby peaches and wisteria blooms, and rambling roses more full of blooms than I ever thought possible! Even the rosa rugosa gets to keep its flowers, because the horrid Japanese beetles haven’t hatched yet. If you’ve ever seen all your rosebuds covered with the greedy little bastards, you know for sure gardening isn’t for sissies.
So here is what I do battle to protect, my little pretties, my babies, my darlings.
This is my sanctuary.