Don’t overlook Baltimore

There are reasons it’s also known as Charm City. Or, as they say of neighboring D.C., it has Northern charm combined with Southern inefficiency. By the way, don’t blame me for that perspective.

USS Constellation, built in 1855, graces the Inner Harbor. (Photo via Wikimedia)
  1. Baseball great Babe Ruth was born here (1895) and poet Edgar Allan Poe died a drunk on its streets (1849).
  2. Speaking of baseball, the Camden Yard ballpark spurred the return of smaller professional arenas to central cities across the continent. Now, if the Birds could only fly higher than the Yankees or Red Sox in their division. They really are doomed in that association.
  3. Speaking of birds, the Baltimore Oriole got its name because its colors resembled those of the coat of arms of Maryland founder Lord Calvert. I have no idea about their religion, but he was an advocate of religious liberty.
  4. The port was second only to Ellis Island in the number of immigrant arrivals in the 19th century. And while the city sits below the Mason-Dixon line and has a Southern outlook, it also has a strong German presence and Northern connection strengthened by the Baltimore & Ohio train tracks.
  5. With his profits from those rails, Quaker Johns Hopkins founded the nation’s first research university in 1876. Today it and its related hospital and institutions are the state’s largest employer.
  6. The metro area is also home to McCormick spices. You can smell it in the humid spring air.
  7. The National Aquarium crowns the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor as a popular destination. The waterfront is also graced by the tall-masted USS Constellation of Civil War glory.
  8. American Methodism was founded in 1784 at the site of today’s Lovely Lane church. And a 1789 conference at Old Otterbein Church led to the formation of the United Brethren denomination of German-Americans (it merged in 1968 with the Methodists, giving them the “United” in today’s name). Also in 1789, the nation’s first Roman Catholic archdiocese was founded in the city; its cathedral was finished in 1821. It even produced a saint, I believe.
  9. A flag waving over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to the National Anthem, the one that was much in the air yesterday, but the music’s from a much older British drinking song. How ironic, especially since it challenges even the most professional singers.
  10. The city doesn’t show up in my fiction, despite my living in the inner city’s Bolton Hill and suburban Owings Mills for three years. Even if the place is so hot and humid you have to turn on your air conditioner on the same day you turn off your furnace. Or, as they say of neighboring Worshington, it’s built over a swamp you know.

Top zoos in North America

Yeah, yeah, I know the concerns about holding animals in captivity. But where else are kids going to learn about exotic fellow creatures? TV? They can’t smell them there. The circus? Few of us even live on farms anymore, and those dogs I see walked up and down the street are hardly exemplary of the animal kingdom. Frankly, they’re more spoiled than most children.

But I digress. Out of view, the best zoos are also places of serious research and attempts to keep gene pools alive.

Here are some of the best in North America:

  1. San Diego. It pioneered the open-air, cageless exhibits, for one thing, and is in a beautiful park, for another. So I’ve heard.
  2. St. Louis. More than 600 species on 90 acres, and you can get around via a mini-railroad.
  3. Omaha. Some of us remember it from a television series.
  4. Cincinnati. Includes a botanical garden, and for years it was also home to the summer opera, the nation’s second-oldest. Now that was an interesting mix.
  5. Bronx. It was the first with a zoo animal hospital and full-time veterinarian staff.
  6. Toronto. Features seven distinct zoogeographic regions – animals and relevant plants and climate displayed together.
  7. Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. One of the most diverse, and admission is free.
  8. Los Angeles. Founded in 1966, it’s one of the newer zoos in America and has zoomed in status.
  9. Columbus. Includes a notable aquarium, a manatee rescue and rehabilitation program, and Polar Frontier.
  10. Philadelphia. Also noted for its success with hard-to-breed-in-captivity species.

Honorable mentions to Miami, Fort Worth, Seattle, Brookfield and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, Houston, and Denver.


Memorable hikes in my life

One of the blessings and saving graces of my youth was being a member of a rogue Boy Scout troop that included a big hike one weekend of each month and primitive camping on another. The two together introduced me to many essentials of the natural world and real life.

One consequence is that hiking has been a big delight in my life ever since, despite a 20-year gap at one point and the reality that my days of being able to hike a 25-mile stretch are long gone.

Here are a few memories I treasure.

  1. My first backpacking experience, from Clifton above Yellow Springs to Belmont in Dayton, Ohio. You couldn’t do that now, not with all the suburban sprawl and the ban on trekking along railroad lines post-9/11.
  2. The week we spent on the Appalachian Trail, ending at Roan High Knob in North Carolina/Tennessee when the rhododendron were in blossom. I had never seen them before. I was 12, with a 60-pound backpack. Funny, though, I haven’t backpacked since.
  3. A brace of Scouting trails we hiked in neighboring Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, earning a medal and sometimes a new scarf as a result. These included the Daniel Boone country around Lexington, the Lincoln country, even getting hopelessly lost in Brown County because some crucial trail markers had been shot up beyond recognition. Later, when I lived nearby, I realized the big lake now sat atop a road that had been paved with crushed geodes. Now that I’m thinking of it, in my return to the scene, I had a fine late-winter stroll through the same woods.
  4. Mount Washington, New Hampshire, ’74, introducing me to the amazing flowers of alpine terrain.
  5. Mount Rainier, Washington, multiple times from ’76-‘80. Though I never attempted the summit, I did make it up the permanent snowfields to Camp Muir twice. And the alpine terrain continued to dazzle me.
  6. Mount Stuart in the Enchanted Lakes wilderness area, Washington state. It was an early autumn outing. Again, I didn’t tackle the summit, though I was acquainted with the man who had been the first to make it to the top. The crisp late afternoon air abounded in cosmic rays.
  7. Mount Lafayette, New Hampshire, late ‘80s. Another mountain that reaches above the tree line.
  8. Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire, a decade ago. A more difficult climb than its altitude would suggest. But there are reasons the Indigenous people considered it sacred, even before the lovers’ leap story.
  9. Quoddy Head, Maine, three years ago. The day was foggy and wet, adding to the drama as we moved on the bluffs atop restless Fundy Bay water. The open peat bog and boardwalk added to the wonder. It was the first time since my initial encounter with Rainier that I’d felt so amazed by nature. It’s what convinced me to move to Eastport.
  10. Bold Coast, Lubec and Cutler, Maine, the past two years. Forget Acadia National Park. This is unspoiled and uncrowded. And for me, it’s now part of home.

Oh, gee, how can I not mention that crazy hike up the desert slope of the Yakima Canyon, Washington state, where I was among those to first to see the return of the bald eagle to the valley after a quarter century or more? I was looking down on an incredible wingspan and didn’t even know its species until later. It was still winter, ’77, and, because of the rattlesnakes, I wouldn’t have ventured into the landscape otherwise. It shows up in my novel Nearly Canaan.

Ten 19th century developments that greatly improved life where I live … and in much of the rest of the world

Some of these have already passed into oblivion, but they were still part of the transformation.

  1. Window screening. Maine is loaded with black flies and mosquitos. Somebody still had to go outdoors, though.
  2. Steamships. Not just allowing you to get away or back, but conveying the mail, especially. Think Internet and email for comparison. Remember, Eastport was a major port, including the exportation of canned sardines.
  3. Railroads. Ditto for mail and newspapers. As well as exporting goods to market. Or deliveries back. (Think Amazon.)
  4. Canning. Home canning, of course, but also grocery stores. Out-of-season food options suddenly exploded. Winter wasn’t mostly beans. Not that we’re so fond of it now that we have frozen food choices. But sardine canning also became the economic powerhouse of Eastport.
  5. Sanitation. Let’s start with antiseptics and move on to indoor plumbing as well as the rotary washing machine. Nowadays, that also means the clothes dryer and dishwasher.
  6. Electrical lighting. Especially in those truncated winter nights we have up here.
  7. Linotype. I used to live in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill, where its inventor resided. Daily newspapers and cheap books became commonplace.
  8. Telephone. Did any other invention save more steps? Or do more to relieve loneliness?
  9. Sound recordings. You no longer had to be a musician to have decent music any time you desired.
  10. Automobile. John William Lambert invented the first practical American gasoline automobile in 1891 in southwest Ohio and later moved his operations to Anderson, Indiana. I remember visiting a friend and seeing an old car with an impressive Lambert name in brass across the radiator sitting at an open garage door. “Ann,” said I, “is that car any relation to you?” She replied that her grandfather used to make them but otherwise conveyed no knowledge that he had been so prominent a figure.

And let’s not forget toilet paper to our roll of advances.

Popular fish caught around Eastport

And not all of it’s meant for human consumption. Some of it’s used for bait, usually for lobsters.

  1. Along the coast we have mackerel. It’s a small fish and oily, one that doesn’t keep well, but cooked promptly or smoked for storing, it’s a lot like salmon. For sports fishing here, seems everybody’s catching ‘em, sometimes six on a line. Some folks even trade buckets of them for lobster.
  2. Alewife. Migrates from the sea late every spring. Another small fish that needs to be cooked promptly or pickled for canning. Also used as prime lobster bait.
  3. Herring. A century ago, these were the basis of Maine’s sardine industry.
  4. Smelt. They’re small, often dip-netted, and can be pan fried and eaten whole. Pacific Northwest Natives called them candlefish, for their oil. Around here, they often show up on the line when casting for mackerel.
  5. Flounder. The species includes fluke, and they like to hang out around pilings and docks – the kinds of places where many folks fish.
  6. Halibut. Now we’re getting to the kinds of fish you might recognize on a restaurant menu or at the grocery.
  7. Haddock. Ditto.
  8. Turning to freshwater, we have several species of trout.
  9. And bass. or perch.
  10. Plus landlocked salmon. Migratory salmon are off-limits, however.

Clamming is also big when the tide’s out. Not that they’re actually fish.

Some common fears

  1. Intimacy. Oh, my, this could lead to another Tendrils. You know, the ways we feel vulnerable.
  2. Poverty. This one even gets twisted up in white superiority and racism, if you look really closely.
  3. Being pulled over while driving. Though it’s unlikely to be a death sentence for me.
  4. Lawsuits. Which can lead to poverty, above.
  5. Being held up or robbed. Well, that can be like a lawsuit plus potential violence.
  6. Rejection. Which also leads back to intimacy, above.
  7. Shame. Well, usually shame is linked to something you’re born with, but it still connects with fear, along with its first-cousin, guilt – arising from something you did bad, really bad.
  8. Hunger. Not that most Americans actually go without food long, but just watch their reactions when they have to fast or go more than two or three hours without a nibble.
  9. Debilitating illness or physical handicap. Blindness, deafness, dementia, for starters. Or falling off a ladder at my age.
  10. Dying as a failure. You know, without achieving something big to advance mankind. Or just plain going to Hell.

Do these all involve pain?

What would you add to the list?

Regarding those photogenic cute puffins

Photo by OscarV055 via Wikimedia Commons

The distinctive seafaring bird is on any serious bird-watcher’s bucket list. Here are some things to know.

  1. They don’t make muffins, contrary to the children’s ditty.
  2. Apart from their nesting time on North Atlantic or Pacific cliffs, they spend all their life at sea, resting on the waves when they’re not flying. They’re essentially an arctic bird, though they come south to breed. Considering where I’m living, maybe I’ll take the boat tour and see some, too, if the outings aren’t already booked solid.
  3. These birds can dive underwater for a full minute and are fabulous swimmers.
  4. As a group, they’re a colony, a puffinry, a circus, a burrow, a gathering, or – get this – an improbability.
  5. They’re quite social, with one colony in Iceland reported to have more than a million nests.
  6. They can flap their wings in a blur of 400 times a minute, reaching a flying speed of 55 miles an hour. At least they’ll evade cops with radar guns.
  7. Two opponents in flight can lock beaks and then beat at each other with their wings and feet. OK, that’s ugly but still impressive.
  8. They generally stay with the same mate for life, returning to the same burrow nest.
  9. Sometimes they’re called Sea Parrots or Clowns of the Sea.
  10. A puffin’s beak changes color during the year.


Other red barns out there

Somehow, a red barn is iconic. Little wonder I latched onto it in naming this blog. My posts have already mentioned Tuttle’s and Red’s Shoe Barn in Dover, New Hampshire, and the Red Barn Motel in Millbridge, Maine.

As for others? Not all of them are on farms.

  1. There’s the fast-food restaurant chain that originated in Springfield, Ohio.
  2. A market and deli in South Burlington, Vermont.
  3. A feed and pet store in the San Fernando Valley of California.
  4. A flea market in Bradenton, Florida.
  5. A home décor store in Wisconsin.
  6. A convention center in Adams County, Ohio.
  7. A trailer dealership in Texas and New Mexico.
  8. A medical marijuana producer and dispensary in New Mexico.
  9. Amish in Maine, who not only allow them but make them their bright signature color while keeping the houses plain white.
  10. And let’s not overlook Tom Waits, singing “There was a murder in the red barn” as the chorus.

America’s largest cities in 1790

Working on a big history project, both my own and in some discussions with a good friend who’s immersed in writing a book that’s all his, has had me reflecting on the growth of America. Just where was the economic and political power centered? The findings can be rather surprising.

  1. New York City (33,131 population). That’s all? It’s about the size of Dover, New Hampshire, or Bangor, Maine. Places we’d call small cities or towns.
  2. Philadelphia (28,522). As you’ll see, that’s a bit misleading, but still small by today’s standards.
  3. Boston (18,320). Well, it was also surrounded by some thriving towns, especially along the Charles River and around the harbor.
  4. Charleston, S.C. (16,359). So this was the belle of the South and diversely sophisticated, too?
  5. Baltimore (13,503). Less than half the size of Philadelphia.
  6. Northern Liberties Township, Pa. (9,913). Of course, had these suburbs been included with Philadelphia, the influence of the City of Brotherly Love would be more apparent.
  7. Salem, Mass. (7,921). Here’s where the New England picture changes and winds up taking up half of the Top Ten list.
  8. Newport, R.I. (6,716). Harbors were key factors for cities.
  9. Providence, R.I. (6,380). As I was saying?
  10. Marblehead, Mass. (5,661). One of three Bay State cities named for a single governor, as the saying goes. Peabody and Athol rounded out the honor.

Fact: Only two cities have ever held the distinction of most populous in the United States. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was Philadelphia. But by the time of the first Census, 1790, New York had taken the top spot, a rank it’s held ever since.

Signs that the Summer People are about to descend

  1. First boat on a trailer bouncing down the street. Usually soon followed by another.
  2. Lights on in a seasonal second-home.
  3. Double the number of cars at the IGA from what’s been normal.
  4. Rain rather than snow.
  5. More than one vehicle parked overnight at the motel. And then international flags flying from its deck.
  6. Out-of-state licenses plates from other than a random New Hampshire or Massachusetts or Virginia vehicle. Beginning with Iowa, Wisconsin, Tennessee, but soon followed by Oregon, California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Ohio. Somehow, Florida doesn’t flood in initially.
  7. A change in the quality of daylight, from bright crisp to buttery.
  8. The first Mercedes in town since October. Or BMW, Audi, or Volvo.
  9. Green grass and dandelions.
  10. Somebody actually moving within one of the seasonally closed stores or galleries downtown.