My Maine island is a total loss where agribusiness is concerned. I may as well face that fact before the hopes of spring arise. Nothing will grow on this island except trees, and I've finally choked down my regret and become resigned to the proposition that I'll never look a sunflower in the face or watch the first exciting surge of yellow come to a green tomato. I'm still holding out some hope - we were all once full of faith - that my Colorado raspberries will come through any summer now, but up to the moment of writing this report, they have shown no hint of bearing any berries or even of a lessening of their hostility. My daughter brought them from Colorado, three healthy plants, and found a nice spot in the sun where she felt they would never know that the Rocky Mountains were not on the other side of the island. It is obvious now, four years later, that they know exactly where they are and that they don't care for the setup at all. They have grown about two inches in four years, which to my way of thinking is foot-dragging of the worst kind. Last summer two stunted green berries appeared; and although I kept the bowl handy, neither of them ever ripened. Last fall when I was spreading spruce slash around to protect things from the frost and snow, I noticed that the raspberry leaves had turned a sickly shade of bluish red. I don't know what that means, and I'm afraid to ask.
My neighbor, who knows more about what grows in the soil and in the sea than anybody I know, advises me to forget about the raspberries, but thinks I will have a pleasant surprise next spring where lupine is concerned. I've tried twice to seed lupine, with no results at all, so last summer I set out several lupine plants which a friend of mine in Camden had dug up from her garden. The lupine feel at home in the coastal climate, and they show no disposition to be sulky and resentful over the transfer, such as some plants that I know. Lupine - historically the first flower to bloom after the glacier melts - is a magnificent thing, and success with lupine would go a long way to ease my embarrassment over the failure with raspberries.
My only success, after twelve years scratching around in unresponsive soil, has been with basil, which I prize highly because it is the foundation of pesto, the second-finest pasta dish in the world. As basil plants go, they were a total failure until a lady playwright who lives on Martha's Vineyard asked me why I didn't plant them in large boxes filled with soil from the mainland. There was magic in the suggestion; from the start they strived with such vigor that I was having pesto three or four times a week, just trying to keep my head above water, so to speak. Now, on a rainy day in midsummer I imagine I can smell the basil even when I go outside the cove in a boat, but sober reflection forces me to concede it could be any one of a dozen aromatic plants spilling their fragrance on the afternoon breeze.
My daughter, who is practical to a degree clearly beyond my grasp, has lectured me patiently on what she calls "environmental concord." Palm trees withstand hurricanes, she explains, because the fronds offer no resistance to wind; a Maine birch would go down in the first tropical gale. The bottom line, she continues, is to plant only those things on the island that are in harmonious relationship with the climate. When I ask her about the unhappy raspberries from Colorado, she shrugs the question off. "That's a controlled experiment," she says, "and, besides, their future still lies ahead." I'm a literary man and I could have delivered a short lecture on that future-lies-ahead remark, but I also value a harmonious relationship within the family and I let it pass. But a few days later I went over to a narrow strip of land between the cove and the open sea and dug up some wild sweet peas, which I brought back and set out around the sauna. Knowing very little about environmental concord, they succumbed immediately. The prosecution rests.
The plants native to the island which delight me the most are the lady's slippers, which come out after the last snow melts and which bloom through the early part of June. In my opinion, there is no ornament anywhere lovelier that the mauve blossom of the lady's slipper, standing shyly and alone on the forest floor. I take a census of lady's slippers every June, one far more thorough and painstaking than any census ever conducted by the federal government, just to determine where I stand. For the past five years I have counted twelve of the plants, which seems to suggest a fairly stable population level. I lost one two years ago, a real beauty, but one which stubbornly insisted upon coming up every year in the middle of the path leading to the dock. In desperation I tried to move it to an isolated end of the island, but I think it was DOA. I watered it and kept up a cheerful bedside manner, but it remained limp on the ground and in a few days it turned brown, which I correctly diagnosed as the end.
My neighbor came over one day last summer and solemnly proclaimed that aside from lupine, my only hope was bulbs. "They'll grow anywhere," he said, looking critically at a handful of soil he had scooped up. "Maybe even here." I didn't have the heart to tell him about the fifty dollar's worth of bulbs that had been buried there twelve years ago and which had never been heard from. Or the fact that my hopes for flowers were now interred as deeply as the bulbs.
Excerpted by permission from One Man's Island published by Down East Books.