Right Place, Right Time … Right Whale!

An amazing discovery beyond our window on January 15, 2020!

The elusive North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis, which means “good, or true, whale of the ice”), one of the most endangered marine animals on the planet, swam right past our current abode in South Nags Head, North Carolina!

Behold his dolphin friend! We shot this photo from the shoreline in South Nags Head, North Carolina.

Once found in abundance, these magnificent creatures were hunted to the brink of extinction, and sadly, due to a number of factors—including water and noise pollution, entanglements, collisions with ships, and falling birth rates—their populations are desperately struggling to recover; by some estimates, there are only about four hundred North Atlantic right whales left on Earth.

Four hundred!

On the entire planet!

Not only is this tragic, it also underscores just how astounding it is that this gorgeous creature—a member of a species that can grow as long as a school bus, weigh up to seventy tons, and live close to one hundred years—swam right before our eyes in its natural environment, surrounded by playful dolphins, heading south to warmer waters.

Because North Atlantic right whales are so incredibly rare, marine and wildlife conservation organizations collect and analyze information about sightings to further inform their efforts. When we contacted the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Program about our sighting and shared our photographs, representatives from both agencies immediately and very excitedly confirmed that it was indeed this exceptionally endangered creature. Within just a few hours, our sighting was cataloged into the NOAA Right Whale Sighting Advisory System website, which provides detailed information about migratory patterns and confirmed accounts of these beautiful mammals’ whereabouts.

Based upon the photographs we took from our balcony vantage point and offered to conservationists, this right whale was identified by the unique callosities on his face—and as luck would have it, he has a well-documented history. According to representatives from the Northeast Right Whale Survey with NOAA Fisheries, he is a fourteen-year-old male named Salem, born off the coast of Florida in January 2006 to a mama whale named Silt (or “Miss Silt,” down here in the South, ha ha). 

We now know from further researching the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog—which compiles aerial photographs, field notes, and other documentation of the whales—that Salem traveled from his birthplace in Florida all the way to the Bay of Fundy (where he was repeatedly sighted between August and November 2006) and then back to Florida by December in his first year alone! Over the years, while frequenting his Florida birthplace and the Bay of Fundy, he has also been repeatedly sighted in Cape Cod BayMassachusetts Bay, the Great South Channel, Jeffrey’s Ledge, the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence,  and off the coast of Georgia. The distance between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the coast of Florida is approximately two thousand miles!

The following entries in the field notes for the Center for Coastal Studies further illustrate Salem’s travels and behaviors:

February 27, 2018: Salem’s first sighting in Cape Cod Bay was when he was a yearling in 2007, and since then has been seen here every year since with the exception of 2013!

March 12, 2018: This time he was indulging in unique behavior. He was continuously swimming on his side, slapping his pectoral flipper on the surface of the water and blowing bubbles under water. Such behavior is more common from humpbacks but getting to see some variation to the usual feeding behaviors seen in Cape Cod Bay was a treat. (See a Center for Coastal Studies’ aerial photo of his above-described behavior here.)

Salem has a friend named Fiddle with whom he sometimes pals around.

January 26, 2019: We were excited to identify the two individual right whales as EgNo 3617, Salem, and EgNo 1121, Fiddle. These are both mature males that often return to Cape Cod Bay to feed in the winter.

February 3, 2019: We kept our eyes peeled and ended up finding 3 other whales near him. Of these other three animals were Mantis, Tripelago’s 2017 calf, and Salem.

May 8, 2019: We found 13 right whales including #1204 and her calf, many juvenile animals that we have been seeing consistently over the past few weeks, and #3617 “Salem,” an adult male who we have not seen in Cape Cod Bay in a month.

For aerial photos of Salem, taken by wildlife conservationists and as provided via the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, please click here.

Did you know that whales capture carbon and thus limit the accumulation of greenhouse gases? Protecting whales protects the earth, which protects all of us!

We are passionate about environmental conservation, sustainable living, and responsible guardianship of the natural world. Please consider learning more about safeguarding our planet.

First of a Thousand (or a Million!) Miles … Or Love Letter to a Mountain

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

In our Spring & Summer 2017 issue of Quill & Ink, we announced that we have, after many years of dreaming about it, sold our lovely, cozy little home near Lake Champlain in northern Vermont and have embarked on an adventure of traveling to and living in new places and exploring distant horizons.

Later this fall, we will fulfill a decades-long dream of living an easy morning’s stroll from the ocean; until then, we find ourselves on this rather remote and beautiful land.

Our first stop on our journey is on what was Sara’s great-great-grandfather’s farm very near the Canadian border. Jay Peak—at 3,968 feet in elevation and said to boast the most snow in eastern North America—is just a few miles away on the skyline.

It once belonged to and was farmed by Sara’s great-great-grandfather and has remained within the family since that time. It is at an approximate elevation of 1,024 feet and is part of what are known as the Cold Hollow Mountains, which encompass important ecological landmarks across western New York, northern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and well into Canada, including southern Québec and all the way to the Maritime provinces, allowing for strong and diverse populations of moose, bobcats, bears, fishers, and many other magnificent members of our natural world. In fact, many species of birds have as much as 90 percent of their global population breeding in these mountains! The mountains also contribute to recreational and material industry—in fact, there is an active maple syrup operation on this old farm—as well as the clean air and water these pristine forests provide.

The road leading to our current home sweet home.

Iconic covered bridges straddle waterways all around us, some of which date back to 1883 and still enjoy regular use. They were designed for protection against heavy snowfalls and suitably fortified to withstand the demands of the heavy wagons and logging vehicles of yesteryear.

This prototypical structure, which has benefited from routine maintenance, originally linked the banks of the brook beneath it in 1883.

The covered bridge spans a sparkling waterfall, which spills into a pebbly, popular swimming hole.

At the site of this particular bridge once stood a creamery, which supported the forty-nine farms that graced our immediate surroundings once upon a bucolic time.

Mossy fingers stealthily curl around a ghostly hidden jewel slumbering in the forest.

As for the secluded mountain retreat nestled into the side of this mountain, it is airy and bright, boasting crisp, fresh spring water and a cozy woodstove. Wild fruit trees, berry bushes, and wildflowers ramble everywhere.

Chokecherries glow in the late-summer sun.

Wild blackberries surround us in August.

Wild apple trees offer their alms to the sweet deer who make their homes here.

Jewelweed, asters, and goldenrod nestle together in a glorious tangle of color.

It is generally blissfully quiet here—we are, after all, a nearly fifteen-minute drive from a paved road, even farther from a country store, and nearly an hour from a traffic light—providing a grand stage for the birdsong and serenading insects. In the deep blackness of night without a nearby streetlight or a neighbor’s lamplight, the stars sparkle like scattered snow in the sun. And when the stars melt away and the sun peeps over the ridge …

Sunrise over Jay Peak.

On warmer mornings, we linger over breakfasts and steaming cups of coffee on the sunlit porch overlooking the layers of mountains that stretch their toes nearly into Québec (we’re so far north that French radio stations reach us far better than any others).

And it isn’t just breakfast we enjoy out in the fresh air.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, tea, a glass of wine … it all goes well with the view.

Some of our little neighbors occasionally join us for a tasty meal on the porch.

Juniper the hummingbird loves to stop by for breakfast …

… and lunch.

And so does Phee the bee.

Colder mornings often begin with sipping our coffees and snuggling with our dogs around the lambent fire.

Even in mid-July, it gets nippy on this mountain. Murphy curls up contentedly in Sara’s arms, while Gili peers up sweetly.

It is a very special place, and spending time here and advocating for it and places like it supports our personal mission of environmental conservation, sustainable living, and responsible guardianship of the natural world.

For a woodstove, one must have plenty of wood. The trees comprising this woodpile were industriously felled, split, and stacked on this land by Sara’s father.

All told, there are nearly one hundred acres filled with history … and an active maple sugaring operation.

Stone walls stand proudly throughout fields and forests, some of them generations old. This one was crafted from the stones of the original foundation of a nineteenth-century farmhouse built on the property …

… and offers refuge to a reptilian tenant.

Verdant banks of ferns unfurl and stretch their tendrils upward in the forest’s filtered light.

Already, autumn is stealing in on tiptoe.

A sugar maple seemingly ablaze in early September.

And finally, an office.

Research indicates that fresh air increases oxygen levels, which in turn heightens concentration and focus—key components of a successful editorial enterprise.

If you have any thoughts to share, please let us know; we’d love to hear from you.

Stay tuned for our next chapter on this great traveling adventure, coming up soon!

The Conclusion Was Really Just the Beginning

If you have been following this little sustainable food series about a challenge we devised and undertook, you might be curious about what happened when our target goal date rolled around. And here it is:

Tomorrow is the first day after the challenge … and we will start our day with a cup of coffee. I will sink my teeth into the chocolate I’ve been fantasizing about for weeks. We’ll once again enjoy such delights as oatmeal and nuts and perhaps the occasional avocado or banana. We’re looking forward to once again using spices; even basic black pepper and cinnamon will seem to dramatically inspire our dishes. I just might crack into a bottle of wine bought on a recent trip to Virginia sometime soon.

But, to our surprise, the arrival of of this date does not feel like the saving grace we’d originally anticipated it to be, and we also don’t feel as though our time during the experiment was fraught with deprivation or that it was a miserable test of wills. This, too, has been a pleasant surprise. In fact, we plan to continue feeding ourselves very much in this same way indefinitely; while we will reincorporate some out-of-region offerings, we are committed to acquiring the majority of our food as we have done throughout this challenge. In fact, I already cannot imagine having to rely exclusively on grocery stores again, and I very much hope I never have to.

I have been so grateful for this experience and for everything I have learned.

Indeed, what resulted from the experiment was further commitment to the concept. While we will reincorporate a number of nutritional elements into our lives that were an impossibility during the challenge based on our geography, we have become ever more cognizant of the manner in which those reincorporated elements arrive to us. And indeed, we will continue to locally source as much of our food as we can, even through the winter at a biweekly (indoor) farmers’ market that primarily offers root vegetables lugged in from their storage places in barns and root cellars all over the region. We will continue to research and learn and experiment, and our interest in it has only grown. The challenge’s conclusion really wasn’t a conclusion at all … the conclusion was really just the beginning.

One might wonder why we chose to focus so much on food in our efforts to live more sustainably when there are a myriad of other avenues through which to explore sustainability—and the truth is that food is really only one aspect of it for us. Another area of considerable interest to us—and it certainly is not the only one—is that of small-space living, and luckily, there is growing interest in that very subject the world over, making the information about it all the more accessible.

We’ll save some of that for a future article.

Battle Wounds!

This post is republished nearly verbatim from the original.

Finding our supply of the best eggs in the universe once again depleted, we made the pilgrimage up to the Choiniere Family Farm to replenish our stock. Upon arrival, we discovered two dozen of the happy little miracles set aside for us, whereupon we met up with Guy in the barnyard, armed with basket in hand and trusty Scout wagging joyously at his side. “Let’s see if we can find another dozen for you,” Guy said, “and make it a little more worth your while.” He handed me the basket. “I’ll even let you collect them!”

Cheering, I excitedly pounced at the opportunity. Save my first up-close-and-personal experience with hens only a few short months earlier in a small coop in Central Virginia—which really didn’t even count because I didn’t find an egg—I’d never had the good fortune to forage for eggs fresh from the good little ladies who’d laid them. I’m not sure what I was expecting; I suppose I’d perhaps envisioned a cozy, bucolic scene in which soft and perhaps slightly snoozy hens—taking great pride in their important role in this entirely symbiotic relationship—would chirp a pleasant good morning to me as I gently reached beneath them and closed my hand tenderly around their eggs. Perhaps I’d thought I’d murmur soothingly to them, pat them on their little heads, thank them politely for the eggs, and stroll softly away with my basket swinging gaily from my forearm, stepping out into a breathtakingly sunny morning with the skies full of singing and swooping birds, the fragrance of sun-warmed hay perfuming the world. Tra-la-la-la.

I suppose it’s ridiculous but nonetheless entirely true that, before that morning, it had never occurred to me that the hens would not exactly be overjoyed to relinquish the eggs for which they’d worked so hard—and that, as a result, there was the potential for something of a battle of wills between both parties who wanted said eggs. As I gigglingly approached my first hen and began reaching forward, I was dismayed when she looked me right in the eye and screeched menacingly. I snapped my hand back and blinked bleakly at Guy. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “Will she bite me?” (How ludicrous to use the word bite regarding a creature devoid of teeth.)

Guy chuckled. “She’s feeling you out,” he said. “She’s trying to see who’s in charge. If you’re calm and in control, she won’t peck you.”

Tentatively, I reached forward again. The chicken screamed. I snapped my hand back. “Are you sure?”

Guy assured me, “Even if she pecks you, it won’t hurt. Once she realizes that she can’t scare you, she’ll stop.”

I stood there staring down this virtually defenseless five-pound creature and realized that my knees were quaking. I laughed incredulously at my own cowardice; it was suddenly inconceivable to me that I felt fear in the face of this little feathery lady armed only with a beak, a shrilly voice, and defiance. I squared my shoulders and plunged in, quavering, “Excuse me, little lady!” And she pecked me!

In the epic egg gatherer-versus-mighty-chicken battle, the egg gatherer emerged victorious … but not unscathed …
In the epic egg gatherer-versus-mighty-chicken battle, the egg gatherer emerged victorious … but not unscathed …

Miss it the first time? Look more closely. Gathering eggs is not for the faint of heart!
Miss it the first time? Look more closely. Gathering eggs is not for the faint of heart!

In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses at length the importance of becoming a part of the life cycle of the foods one eats, including the less enjoyable aspects of food acquisition, such as participating in the slaughter of animals if one chooses to eat them. Given that so much of what we as a society typically eat is purchased in vast, refrigerated commercial spaces, already portioned out, attractively packaged and cleverly marketed, it is virtually impossible for the average consumer to identify with all of the vast effort involved on the part of every single person engaged in the production of food—and particularly high-quality, wholesome food. It occurred to me as I jerked back my pecked finger and examined the broken skin with some degree of shock that, every time I’ve purchased eggs from the Choinieres or from any family farm, someone had to go out and brave these feisty little ladies for me. All I’ve had to do is hand over the money and continue on my merry way. I’m not the one out there caring for these animals, seeing to their needs throughout their lives and then seeing to their final needs after their lives have ended—every bit of it in a humane, responsible, respectful way. I’m not the one who’s under assault from vigilant and protective creatures when I’m trying to take from them something very personal and precious. Investing energy and intent in some of these behind-the-scenes aspects of food is allowing me to become infinitely more cognizant of my role in this cycle, as well, and it affords me sharper clarity into the widespread and varied impacts of the decisions I make with regard to how I feed myself and the amount of respect with which I regard my food—and those who produce it—and how it arrives on my plate. It is both truly gratifying and deeply humbling. I realize just how much more I have to learn. I realize just how much I have always taken good food for granted.

I trudged from hen to hen, gingerly groping beneath them to see what I could find, sometimes getting pecked and sometimes not. When at last we’d managed to find another dozen, we headed back to pack them up and put them in the car. I proudly showed off my first-ever farm-begotten battle wound to Guy, feeling somewhat more worldly for having acquired it and having a smug and vainglorious sense that I now possessed insider knowledge about life on the farm.

Guy then displayed his forearm, deeply grooved and scarred over with angry red slash marks. “These are from the meat birds two weeks ago,” he said of the scars. “They really put up a fight!”

Not a day has passed during this exploration when I haven’t learned a valuable lesson and when I haven’t gained an even greater perspective and a deeper appreciation for the true art that is farming … and gardening … and foraging … and food preservation. Not a day has gone by when I haven’t felt even more grateful for people like the Choinieres and all of the wonderful people we have met who champion efforts to care for their animals and their gardens and the earth and themselves … and all of us.

Beauty in Simplicity

Years ago, I edited CIBOan Italian cookbook that regaled the simplistic approach to meal preparation. At the time, we were flexing our culinary muscles, so to speak, often spending hours laboring over a single, highly complex dish, experimenting with exotic, difficult-to-find ingredients, specialized tools and equipment, and unforgiving preparation techniques. We made some exquisite-looking dishes, to be sure, and we often had fun doing it, but after a while, the mere thought of preparing something—especially on a punishingly hot summer day—was discouraging. Enter the days of nibbling and grazing, which—while certainly a fine and probably healthy way to nourish oneself, particularly with foods like seeds and fresh crudités—became fairly uninspiring after a while. Food consumption became perfunctory.

Another important lesson learned as a result of the food challenge was a reminder of the primary message in that Italian cookbook I’d edited: food doesn’t have to be complicated or ridiculously time consuming to be scrumptious and good for you. With very fresh ingredients picked at their prime and a little creative inspiration, a seemingly ordinary tomato can transform into unsurpassed splendor. A dish of berries can be utterly divine. Cauliflower and a couple of other ingredients can create a dish that is truly out of this world. Recently, we were introduced to the merits of the saltimobocca produced by Agricola Farm, which is a simple concoction of two cuts of pork and bay leaves. It is almost beyond belief that anything that simple can taste that good. Black beans raised by Quill Hill Farm rolled in homemade tortillas made with nothing more than masa harina, water, and a pinch of salt and sprinkled with our own garden-grown cilantro and jalepeno peppers make an out-of-this world taco. Preserving “freshness” (the quotation marks are mine, because really, how fresh is a tortilla made months ago?) need not require cellulose gum, propionic acid, benzoic acid, phosphoric acid, guar gum, and amylase; just sit down and mindfully enjoy it as soon as it’s made. Mmm … fresh food.

That lesson has been refreshing, because indeed, we really do enjoy the ceremony and the good fortune of being able to prepare and then sit down to a wonderful meal, and remembering that the meal need not require superior culinary ability, costly equipment or ingredients, or even a flair for the avant-garde in vision or technique has been a welcomed gift.

Fresh tomatillo salsa omelet with new potatoes and scallions, served with a simple cup of blueberries
Fresh tomatillo salsa omelet with new potatoes and scallions, served with a simple cup of blueberries

Food is nourishment, and it is right to celebrate it. It is a great blessing to have access to an abundance of fresh, healthy food, and it is right to afford its consumption—preferably with good companionship—the proper respect it deserves. One of the best ways to do that, I’ve found, is to champion simple, wholesome ingredients for their own uniqueness and for their contributions to a meal rather than scramble to find ways to overcomplicate them. Truly good food needs nothing to make it shine; good food shines all on its own.

More Lessons from Food

One of the values that we definitely gained from last year’s food sourcing experience is a very great reverence for our food. While I wouldn’t exactly say that we had limited food, it is accurate to say that the project put in place certain parameters within which we acquired the foods we ate, and as such, ruining an aspect of a meal through improper preparation was a much bigger deal than it would have been otherwise; we couldn’t just go buy replacement ingredients, for example, any time we liked. If we burned something—or oversalted something, or dropped something—we were out of luck until the next time we could meet up with the farmer to get more—and that’s assuming the farmer even had more the next time we saw him or her. Eating locally and seasonally meant that we could only get that which was currently being produced and sold at market.

We deeply appreciated the opportunity to become much more grateful for what we had available to us. The challenge provided sharper clarity for us around the food security issues experienced by so many. Historically, it had been relatively easy to pay little heed to droughts and floods and early freezes and blights and countless other challenges faced by those who produce our food. During the challenge, considering that some of the foods we would normally have been able to incorporate into our meals were not making it to market because of prolonged inclement weather, it was far more apparent just how challenging it often is to coax food from the earth … and why it is so critically important to do what we can to protect the earth. Viewed from the perspective that to care for the earth is to care for ourselves, it seems so fundamentally obvious an idea that it’s difficult to surmise how we as a species ever managed to stray from it to begin with.

Every day is a gift … every bite is a gift.

Visiting farms and becoming acquainted with the families who run them and gaining a greater appreciation for their operation can be an eye-opening and even life-changing experience, and that was another truly transformative component of the challenge. I can say for certain that, as a result of this years-long journey of exploring and seeking out greater insight into the origins of the food we eat and the manner in which it arrives on our plates, I have grown infinitely closer to nature and to that which nourishes us. We have developed unique friendships and widespread camaraderie with many people we would otherwise not likely have had the grand opportunity to meet. We feel appreciably more grateful for good food and for our ability to acquire it from the amazing people who coax it from their environment.

Something else that was particularly fun and adventurous about the challenge was that we found that our process for food planning and preparation was entirely flipped on its head; where we traditionally planned a dinner menu or a variety of meals, wrote a shopping list, and then went out to stores in search of the necessary ingredients, we found ourselves anticipatorily scoping out our choices at a wide variety of farmers’ markets, collecting what struck our fancy, merrily lugging home our booty, and planning meals around what we’d selected. It broadened our horizons, stretched our creativity, and gave us a sense of humor and a greater sense of spontaneity. What sometimes felt akin to drudgery in the past simply became a happy culinary adventure. We learned a great deal—about what grows around here, about what’s in season at what time of year, about what some farmers recommend we do with certain ingredients. We tried foods like kohlrabi, chantrelle mushrooms, honeycomb, wild ginger and wild leek, and sour cherries that we’d never seen anywhere before, and as such, we had the incredible opportunity to introduce new options into our diet.

Still hungry? The next course is coming up soon …

The July Challenge Reprise

Difficult as it may be to believe, it has already been nearly a year to the day since the start of our sustainable eating challenge first chronicled in the blog Happy Simple Little Life, the jist of which was to only consume what we could grow and/or what we could procure directly from those who locally and organically produced it in what we could reasonably determine was an ethically and responsible way. Though the idea seemed a novel one when first it occurred to me, in fact, such challenges are routinely undertaken not only locally but also all around the country and around the world.

As was described in Happy Little Simple Life, the motivations for the experiment were many and were also an attempt to learn a great deal more about many things about which we’ve long been interested and somewhat conflicted. We hoped to gain a greater appreciation and understanding about a lot of issues and subjects as a result of this project, writing about them in addition to chronicling the project on a more visceral level—namely, the food, and perhaps the recipes, the challenges, and the surprises.

On a fundamental level, though, the primary motivations for the experiment included, in no particular order:

  • becoming better organic gardeners;
  • expanding our knowledge of new foods and of creative food preparation;
  • increasing our sense of self-reliance;
  • more fully appreciating the impact of our consumptive habits from physical, psychological, environmental, social, and political perspectives and reducing those impacts accordingly;
  • analyzing its potential impact on our overall health and wellness;
  • increasing our mindfulness of and gratitude for nutritious food and also understanding and appreciating more fully just how much we take for granted in these and in other areas of our lives;
  • increasing our quantity and quality of social interaction; and
  • learning what else we want to learn more about.

Implications of food transportation? Implications of manual production versus large-scale mechanization? Treatment of production employees? Treatment of and impact upon animals, insects, and the environment as a result of various models of food production? The costs of fresh versus processed food? Food safety and regulatory issues? Corporate control and widespread manipulation of the global food supply? Genetically modified organisms? Nutritional challenges and benefits of various models of food production?

Food has become, at least for many, the fourth taboo subject (joining the ranks of religion, politics, and sports) in many circles. What, how, and why a person chooses to eat—frequently subjected to a myriad of religious, social, physical, psychological, economic, and political forces—is often astoundingly complex and the cause of feverish debate. The ways in which we nourish—or abuse—our bodies with the foods we consume are deeply personal and are often sources for ridicule and judgment, and conflicting research, resources, and opinions about this vast subject—not to mention varying availability of foods—often serve only to compound the problem. Dizzyingly prolific and seemingly infinite information—and misinformation—about food and the endless impacts and implications of its production, transportation, and consumption creates a situation in which making decisions about food is often complicated, confusing, and cause for considerable inner, interpersonal, societal, and even global conflict. This is especially disconcerting considering that food has, at its very essence, the roots of physical and social nourishment; we need it to survive on a basic biological level, and societal structures have traditionally been strengthened by its collective production and consumption. It has historically been deeply associated with nurturing and celebration and hospitality. How has the issue of food—something so fundamentally important and so conceptually basic—become an issue of such ubiquitous contention and angst?

So what were some of our lessons learned through the challenge?

And would we do it again?

Stay tuned for another installment, coming soon.