"You know what I really worry about?" a bearded naturalist/poet mused to me as he left the Notebook yesterday morning. "Dark skies. We're losing them."
He was referring to light pollution, the scourge of stargazing. Fortunately for those of us who live in Maine, our state has the least light pollution of any state east of the Mississippi. We're the only place along the East Coast where you can clearly see the Milky Way galaxy (of which the Earth is a part) with the naked eye. For all the attention given to Maine's other outdoor attractions, I think the night sky can be as striking as—and more mind-expanding than—any stretch of gorgeous rocky coast or pristine forest in this natural wonderland.
I'm not alone in that opinion. This week the Pine Tree State will celebrate our amazing view of the universe with two rival night-sky festivals. One is the Maine Starlight Festival, which runs from Sept. 23 until Oct. 2 and includes 53 events of all sorts (among them a talk by shuttle astronaut Rick Hauck) in 29 locations around the state. It's organized by astronomer and Island Astronomy Institute executive director Peter Lord, who has done major work to make Mainers aware of how they can illuminate their homes and businesses without sending light into the skies at night. Peter also has helped the park system and local chambers of commerce see that dark skies are a natural resource that can attract tourists.
You can buy this poster of the Maine Starlight Festival at www.starlightfestival.org. Your money will help support the event.
The other event, more local to this part of Maine, is the Acadia Night Sky Festival, scheduled for Sept. 22 to 26 on Mount Desert Island. Peter was involved in the launch of this festival three years ago but split from it to build a more statewide event. If you'd like to see a full schedule of activities for either one, click on: http://www.starlightfestival.org/MSF/Home_.html or http://www.acadianightskyfestival.com/
I should add that the night sky extravaganzas are just two of the wonderful events going on in this area over the next week or two. The Common Ground Fair, a three-day celebration of organic farming, environmental enlightenment, food and craft booths, cows, chickens, alpacas, home-canning contests and much more, will take place in the aptly named town of Unity from Sept. 23 to 25. It's one of our favorite events of the year. We get to see some of our friends and Naturalist's Notebook suppliers, from places like Highland Organics (http://www.organicblueberrytea.com/) and the Carrabassett Soap Company (http://www.goodkarmafarm.com/soap.html). Here's a link: http://www.mofga.org/TheFair/tabid/135/Default.aspx
And the Winner of Our Third Annual Sweet 16 Honey-Tasting Tournament Is...
...Washington Wild Red Huckleberry! The Huck defeated Italian Sunflower 52-38 to join Washington Fireweed (2009) and Maine Wild Raspberry (2010) in our hall of champions. Huckleberries are a big crop in the Northwest (they're the state fruit of Idaho) and come from the same plant family as blueberries, the Ericaceae family, whose members tends to like acidic soils and also include heather, azaleas and rhododendrons. To make huckleberry honey, beekeepers put their hives in the middle of huckleberry fields, so that the bees (almost) exclusively go to the huckleberry flowers for nectar and pollen.
In the old days, the word huckleberry—which today suggests a sort of goofball ("You huckleberry!")—was used very differently. "I'm your huckleberry" was a common slang phrase that meant, "I'm the right man for the job." It apparently was used regularly by Doc Holliday, among others. See the first 30 seconds of the clip below from the movie Tombstone:
Maybe we ought to borrow that as a new catch phrase for The Naturalist's Notebook. You interested in nature, science, art and the world? We're your huckleberry. In any case, we have a limited supply of the title-winning honey available for sale right now, so stop in before it's gone.
Our Trip to London
Pamelia and I will be spending part of October in England. I'm doing pre-Olympic work for Sports Illustrated but we'll also be taking time off and doing some Naturalist's Notebook exploring (about which you'll read in future blogs). One of the people we'll be seeing (as an audience member during a talk) is British zoologist/writer/photographer Mark Carwardine, whom we've been watching lately on the BBC nature mini-series Last Chance to See, with actor/author Stephen Fry. The shows are a follow-up to the book of the same name written in 1990 by Carwardine and the late, great Douglas Adams, on the subject of animals that are on the verge of extinction. Pamelia was so taken by the book that back in those days she would read aloud from it to dinner guests who came to her apartment in New York...a hint of The Naturalist's Notebook yet to come.
The subject of Last Chance to See BBC series is serious but the style is engaging and at moments very funny, usually thanks to the wry comments of Fry but in one case thanks to a rare, flightless parrot from New Zealand. Watch this:
Invention of the Week
And finally, I came across an oddball fact the other day. During this week in 1822, a strange but significant invention—America's first treadmill—was completed. It was built at the New York City prison and looked like a wide paddle wheel. Between eight and 16 prisoners at a time stepped up and up and up the boards of the wheel, keeping it turning as it powered a mill that ground up to 50 bushels of corn a day. The high level of fitness among these criminals may or may not have inspired the modern treadmill or stairmaster, but those prisoners certainly deserve a nod of acknowledgement from scientists as forerunners of the 20th century laboratory mouse.