Industrial Arts: A reply to ‘How’s your winter been?’

Eva Murray: Island winter — weather, food, and the owls

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 12:15pm

A few out-of-state friends have asked how things are going. I enjoy this time of year, but they don’t believe me. 

I don’t like the cold rain we are getting as I write (and yes, that was actually thunder, for sure, in January; the aviation weather confirmed convective activity, plus the neighbors heard it, too). But hopefully it’ll be sunny and below freezing again soon, and if the wind doesn’t blow, I’ll call that a very fine stretch of weather. I don’t care if it’s 40 below zero; if the wind isn’t blowing, it’s not a bad day. Even better if the mud freezes hard again.

There is a myth of long-standing that winter is too long. My reality is quite the opposite; there is hardly enough time after the Christmas rush before “things get busy around here,” as we say.

Should I ever have reason to become one of those people who goes away for part of the year, I hope I might be healthy enough to stay on Matinicus Island for the loneliest part of the winter.

A population of a couple dozen makes a fine neighborhood when most of them have skills and tools and four-wheel-drive, and are at least 51 percent of the time happy to be here, mostly.

Some of us work hard (even if we do sleep late) with six or eight sources of employment. A few hunker down and keep to themselves, and not many are foaming at the mouth at any particular given moment (although there is generally somebody taking their turn. They invariably end up at the post office.)

The old days — say, 30 years ago here, which is my old days — were less happy times.

More islanders, particularly women, were here all winter because they were stuck, and frequent were the acts of larceny and vandalism brought about by boredom, money troubles, cabin fever, rotgut, bullying, depression, dead truck batteries, and general dyspepsia.

These days, more people who want off this rock can just leave. The majority has shifted in favor of the here-by-choice, which makes all the difference in the world. 

Another myth to bust, by the way, is about wintertime transportation being the problem. It is only the problem if one wishes frequent and convenient passage by vessel. Conditions are as likely to be “flyable”—our own favorite weather word — in the winter as in the summer. Snow, icing conditions, and Force 10 gales definitely should keep small airplanes on the ground, but we don’t get those five-day stretches of fog in the winter, so that’s something.

If you want to cross the bay but don’t like to fly, or you don’t think it’s an island unless you arrive by sea (a bit of sentimental ooze I can only scratch my head about, but some people definitely think that way) or, like some, you are simply cheap and are looking for a free ride, the fact is no, there aren’t many boat rides this time of year.  

For what it’s worth, in 31 years, the longest I have ever been genuinely stuck here, when nobody could go either way by boat or plane in sickness or in health was six days, and that was in late May of 2005. I remember the year because it was our daughter’s 13th birthday.

My family had $700 worth of tickets to the U-2 concert in Boston and we did not get there. That is how our children grew up, and I suspect it has served them well. It should be noted that 2005 was the year of Hurricane Katrina, and a record year for the sheer number of named Atlantic storms.

Late May was just before the storm season technically started, and our experience was certainly no hurricane, but Matinicus was well and truly cut off by weather. Thankfully, the only one who should have left on account of medical need was a dog, and she survived. Don’t give me any lip about the time of year: it was Memorial Day.

Some winters I have written more about happy excuses for community gathering, be it movie night in the one-room school or Waitangi Day or an impromptu celebration of Chinese New Year off the stern deck of the Sunbeam when somebody remembered they had a few packs of leftover firecrackers on the shelf.

A few of us more low-intensity partiers did gather at Kim and Gary’s on New Year’s Eve intending it an early night, until Speedy Delivery showed up unexpectedly with a mighty platter of fried scallops and such, so we were obligated to tuck in and relish a second supper. 

The Snowy Owl—actually, two Snowy Owls—have been keeping us entertained on the south end. We hope they are eating a good many rats and mice as there are plenty of those this year.

Seeing a Snowy Owl is a privilege, to us, and a great pleasure as they are iconic, majestic, somewhat rare, and drop-dead gorgeous. Of course, that opinion is not necessarily shared by all.

A few weeks ago I flew to Portland and heard the airport’s taped aviation weather statement mention, after providing wind and altimeter and similar information, to “watch for Snowy Owls at the airport.” They’d just as soon the owls shoved off and found somewhere else to be iconic and gorgeous.

I have ordered a few boxes of Thin Mints from a Girl Scout but the transaction does not involve me chatting with said girl at my door. I correspond online through an adult in her household, mail a check to the mainland, and at some point get a call from the air service that cookies have been dropped off with the electrical parts and UPS and FedEx and prescriptions and forgotten car keys and starter motors and strange parcels containing bottles of rum at the Penobscot Island Air dispatch desk. 

These days, we make a lot of soup. I spent decades of my life not making chicken soup because, basically, I was ignorantly short-sighted and not looking beyond a common and insipid yellow broth flavored by carrots and celery. I am completely uninterested in boiled carrots or celery in any form. However, with a wood stove hammering away merrily all winter it seems illogical, and in terms of straight British Thermal Units, shamefully impractical, not to take up soup-making as a hobby.

Once I began making chicken soup with large quantities of brown mushrooms sautéed in butter, onions by the armload, home-grown garlic, ginger root, and lovingly saved roast-chicken pan drippings I cannot get enough of the stuff. The racks of two turkeys, left from two Christmas parties, makes a fine mess of starter broth, and the fuel to boil them is free for the taking if you’ve got a chainsaw and a truck.

This is the time of year for ordering cookies and making soup and looking for Snowy Owls, yes, but it is also the time of year for doing the taxes. I don’t think those electronic tax-filing programs quite grok the world of the multiplexing freelancer, with a pile of Schedule C’s, so I do ours with pencil and paper. Supposedly nobody does that any more. 

On Valentine’s Day we each thought we’d make something sweet and chocolatey for the other, but not needing two simultaneous extravagances, we teamed up. He baked the cake (with two sticks of butter), I made the frosting (with two sticks of butter) and some goofy little chocolate hearts, and we immediately realized we’d better give a couple of slices to the postmaster and the meter reader and folks like that or we’d eat the whole thing in a day and regret it.

That, dear ones, is “pound o’ butter cake,” I kid you not, and Martha Stewart in all her starched glory could not produce a more delicious Valentine.


Eva Murray lives on Matinicus