[gravityform id=3 name=Submityour stories]
My grandmother, Nora Thompson by birth, was married to Eugene Davis for a while. In the 1940 Census he is with his second wife living in Bremen, but noted on the census form that he is actually living on Hog Island and that his occupation is “Caretaker” at a “Nature Camp.” This has to be the Audubon Camp. I looked through all of the web site information including the document scanned in with typed pages of the early history of the Camp. His name does not appear anywhere. However, my sister found a photo of him online on the Osprey I, which I believe was one of the NAS boats. In that photo is a young man (probably a camper) named Sprunt who appears in a photo in the online archives as an instructor in later years. I am hoping there may be some record of Captain Davis (he was a sailor), perhaps a photo, in your archives. My mother, Mary Strong (nee Worthley) was a member of the Midcoast Maine Audubon Society. We lived in Jefferson and she grew up in Damariscotta. I believe she may have volunteered at Hog Island from time to time in the 1970’s or 1980’s. She passed away almost exactly 20 years ago (April 6) and was a great lover of birds. I got my start from her interest and from the bird cards that were in Red Rose Tea Bag boxes. I went on to get my Ph.D. in Wildlife Conservation at UMaine (loon study that also was featured on Wild Kingdom around 1984). I live in Wisconsin now and am close to the end of a long career with the US Forest Service. I am hoping you might be able to help me with any record you have of Captain Davis and that the Osprey I was indeed one of the NAS boats at the camp. Thank you.
Hello Paul, thanks for recounting the story of your grandmother and grandfather. It adds to the historical mosaic of Hog Island. I shall check our digital archive and also with Mid-Coast Audubon chapter and others to see if their are records about your grandfather. Your story is a wonderful insight to the those who helped make the camp what it is today. Osprey I was indeed one of Hog Island’s boats. I’ll certainly be in touch when and if I found out more. Thank you for sharing the story. Ah, Red Rose Tea Bags – who would have thought!
Good morning, and Happy Easter. Thank you for getting back to me and confirming that Osprey 1 was a HI boat. I will look forward to hearing any more about Eugene Davis if you are able to uncover anything. I’ll share with you a story I wrote about my mother, who was a Midcoast member and the love of birds we shared. The Red Rose Tea cards are a key component. How she loved birds and was proud to be a member of the Midcoast chapter. My high school English Teacher, Larry Murphy, was also a very active member. Here it is, an unpublished work to date. The arrival of the red-breasted grosbeaks not to far in the future.
The first rose-breasted grosbeak of spring arrived at my feeder today. Mister dressed in a black jacket with a white shirt and deep rose tie. Mrs. wore her traditional garb of drab brown and off white. He sang about how he so loves the warm weather and treetop perches and black oil sunflower seeds. Sitting atop the pole from which the feeders hang, he stretched to his tallest height and belted out verse after verse hoping all grosbeaks and humans would see and hear. She darted around furtively and quietly, in and out of the willow bush, to the suet feeder where she gorged herself on much needed fat, caring little of her figure or her audience. Not a peep from her, only menacing looks at other lady grosbeaks.
As always occurs when the first grosbeak of the year appears, I smell Red Rose Tea. I can’t tell if my mind smells it or my nose does or both. I think it is my mind, but my mind must tell my nose to imagine it for when I close my eyes and draw in deeply through my nostrils, I am in my mother’s kitchen, the cabinet drawer holding her tea bags open, fetching her one from the Red Rose box for her afternoon tea. I see the light blue and white box, the tea bags stacked neatly within, a red rose on the cover.
In my youth, Red Rose was a tea of the Canadian Maritime provinces and my home state of Maine. It was in every store and home of tea drinkers. My mother had a cup every day, usually in mid-afternoon and sometimes at supper, the water at boiling point as she submerged the tea bag to get just the right flavor. Red Rose was a favorite of mine and other children not for its taste, but for the treasures which came with every package. I grew up in the era of collectible cards and at the age of 10 waited breathlessly to open each new box my mother bought to see which Canadian/American songbird would have its image on the front of a small card with a description of its characteristics in English and French on the back.
I collected the cards gluing them into the paperback collecting book that year of 1967, all 48 as I recall, although that was a great deal of tea to be drunk, and there were no doubt duplicates which would have left me dismayed and hoping my mother would need three or four cups of tea a day so we could buy another box soon. The book sat on a bookshelf in my room shared with my younger brother. He collected fishing lures and bent nails; I went for bird cards and postage stamps, both of us happy with the variety and the story associated with each new item though neither of us truly understanding the other’s fascination with chosen collections.
I had seen a few of the birds on those cards, mostly from Mom’s kitchen window which looked out to the north toward the Camp Road and a narrow section of field separating us from the neighbor’s property, a line of tall old oaks, maples, ash, and basswoods along the fence line, elderberry bushes of some height surviving amongst them. Those elderberries attracted many birds in late summer, and us as well. From the top of a step ladder, I would pull the whippy top half of the twenty-foot slender tree to myself and jump off the ladder with it firmly grasped so the top branches were within reach of Mom on the ground who pulled off the juicy bunches of black berries and put them in a paper grocery bag. Those elderberries escaping the birds, but falling prey to us, ended up getting cooked and strained through a muslin bag to further succumb to heat, stirring, and evaporation before becoming jelly which I favored then and still do now on top of melted peanut butter on a lightly toasted English muffin.
Robins and blue jays we knew from frequency. Bluebirds and tree swallows we learned from binoculars trained on fence posts from which they sallied forth to chase flying insects invisible to our eyes. Eastern phoebes sang out their name and nested above our windows. Cardinals were rarely seen, but we knew when Mom spied one for she would gasp as if having seen a ghostly apparition, and hold her hand to to her heart to keep it from coming out of her chest, calling for us to come quickly to see. I was good with cardinals, but not to the gasping stage, perhaps because the “cardinals” from St. Louis were the nemesis of my Red Sox and never so much so as that year of 1967 when Yaz, Lonborg, Sparky, Petrocelli, “Hawk”, George Scott, and the rest were oh so close to a World Series win but Bob Gibson and the Redbirds were just too much. But for Mom, cardinals were it. She even bought red felt fabric and bits of black from which she stitched together ornamental cardinals filled with cotton. She gave them away as gifts to close friends and family and sold them for pin money. I still have one which I treasure as much as any keepsake worn from the years of moving, but as real as the Velveteen rabbit and all of its stuffed toy friends.
A rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeder or spied in the branch of the nearby black cherry tree produced no gasps, but was met with full attention especially to the melodious song the males would belt out with their heads turned to the heavens. Dad and I dug up that cherry tree down in the woods toward the cottage one spring. It was little more than a tall sapling at that time, but had developed an extensive and deep enough root system to leave us drenched in perspiration and straining at the old wooden wheelbarrow to get it to the edge of the lawn and field where we dug a large hole for it so that Mom’s birds would have another safe place from which to dart to the feeders and then back again to seek shelter. Many a grosbeak, oriole, redpoll, nuthatch, goldfinch, and woodpecker has visited that tree which still stands now some 50 years later providing the same service. I believe the rose-breated grosbeak was the first bird I matched between a Red Rose Tea card and the actual living and breathing feathered creature. It is the bird which I can credit my now lifelong fascination with birds and a desire to “collect” them by matching pictures and range maps in field guides to real life experiences.
I studied birds and mammals and plants and soils in college. I went on to further study them as I earned graduate degrees in wildlife ecology. I collected several hundred species into a “life list,” as birders call it, from Mexico to Canada and many places in between. In the mountains of Montana, the deserts of northern Mexico, endless bogs of northern Minnesota, wild lakes of Canada, rocky coast of Maine, hills and hollers of Missouri, and impoundments and marshes of Oklahoma. Each first sighting a memorable story, my first lifers of commonplace birds as exciting at those times as finally tracking down rarer species which may have taken decades.
Mom and I knew we had found kindred spirits in each other when it came to birds. While I was studying them for science, I mostly enjoyed simply looking at them, their great variety of shape and color and surrounding environments. Mom loved the same and we journeyed down the Bunker Hill Road to Damariscotta Mills in mid-winter when I was home on college break, a thermos of hot chocolate to share, our binoculars and field guides in hand. In the open water of that briny estuarine confluence of Damariscotta Lake and the river of the same name which rose and fell with the tides, we marveled at buffleheads, black ducks, and goldeneyes, and later in the Spring, home on break again, at hooded mergansers, my favorite duck. To the coast we ventured to spy eiders and scoters bobbing in the wintry swells of Pemaquid Point, occasionally a dovekie or two floating among them. To the lake in summer we watched loons dive and preen and carry their chicks on their backs. At home, we heard and then found yellow warblers and chestnut-sided warblers in a willow tree growing out of the rich manure fed soil of the “hole” where the dairy cows’ daily droppings had been hauled for decades.
I moved away for several years to Oklahoma and Texas where I saw a large number of new birds in a variety of common and spectacular settings. I wrote to Mom weekly and even sent an occasional narrated letter on tape detailing my adventures and always writing at length about the birds I had seen. I knew Mom looked them up in her field guide and enjoyed them as much from afar. She never envied me nor rued the fact that I was young and able to climb mountains, hike across deserts, and canoe long stretches of the Rio Grande while she was growing older, 43 years my senior, slowing down, and seeing only the same birds she had come to know.
I came home to Maine, busy with my graduate studies, coming home to Jefferson less and less and staying for fewer days. In May of one year, I came for the weekend, a pot of her famous spaghetti sauce and meatballs awaiting me. Pushed back from the dinner table, Dad retreating to his chair in the shed for a cigar before nightfall, I asked Mom if she had seen the woodcock as I had heard and watched a few at dusk just the week before. She surprised me by saying she had never seen a woodcock in her nearly 70 years. I realized then that her interest in birds had happened as she was busily raising four children and keeping a house well stocked and clean. And her habit of rising before dawn and going to her room before dusk had prevented her from simply crossing paths with this crepuscular citizen.
We decided that there was no time like the present, a warm early spring day, so we bundled up for the impending chill of evening, Mom buttoning her coat to her chin, a scarf tied around her head, grabbing a pair of wool gloves, and pulling on that same worn pair of field boots from L.L. Bean she had owned since I could remember. Across the old pasture we strode, Mom clutching to my arm to avoid twisting an ankle in the irregular surface from decades of cows crisscrossing it, searching for the clover patches, depositing piles of dung, and bucolically chewing their cuds. To the stone wall marking the end of our property and through a gap in it we kids had used for years to get to the old field of the neighbors. There, the pasture had gone ungrazed for at least forty years and was growing in with small popple trees, field pine, and shrubs. As the light faded, we found a low granite outcrop to sit on and waited. The witching hour descended and we lost touch with everything but the moment. Then, the harsh nasal “peent” call of the American woodcock, a male on the ground not far away, on the other side of a six foot tall white pine growing unfettered in the field, destined to become a heavily branched widely spreading tree. More peent calls and I imagined the plump male treading in place while he called, spinning counter-clockwise slowly while female woodcock listened and watched from the woods’ edge. “Watch the sky”, I whispered as the peents stopped and were replaced by whistling woodcock wings flying in wide, but steadily smaller arcs until reaching its zenith, the whistling suddenly stopped, and a shadowy shape fell out of the sky, outstretched wings like small parachutes, tilting side to side in descent for a soft landing at precisely the spot of launch from which another nasal peent was issued almost immediately.
I heard my mother gasp. It was the “cardinal” gasp. Her fingers dug into my arm. I could sense her smiling without actually being able to see it. We watched again and again until our house seemed too distant and the path there too dark. Arm in arm we retraced our steps, through the gap in the stone wall and up through the field of timothy, vetch, and clover to the warmth and familiarity of that house we called home which had been built over a hundred years earlier. Mom had a new bird on her life list, one better than any exotic species I had found in far places, one as authentic and New England as her, one hidden under the cover of darkness for decades but to be unknown no more.
I have watched the early evening mating dance of the American woodcock hundreds of time since that night. With each of four children, I have hiked into our fields in Maine, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri just before dusk and found a dry place to sit near a small tree or rock. With them, as the male ascended in flight his spiral staircase, we have moved quickly to a spot near his launch pad and sat motionless holding our breath awaiting his descent. When luck and our power of camouflage has been on our side, he has returned to the same spot sometimes so close to us we can feel the rush of air as he flaps once just before hitting the ground. “The woodcock almost flew up my nose!” they have each yelled to their mother upon our return from an hour afield.
These birds we have – at our feeders, in the shrubs and trees, flying overhead – we either know or ignore. I see them everywhere, pausing from yard work to look skyward in spring and fall as migrating swans, geese, and Sandhill cranes pass over, stopping the car to identify early arriving ducks on lakes with slivers of open water in early Spring, and looking out my own kitchen window at songbirds and woodpeckers visiting the feeders. I have come to realize that my love affair with birds could have easily been just the opposite but for a box of tea, Red Rose Tea, the orange pekoe variety, not found everywhere. With 48 different cards in 1967, my life changed, for the better I think. And for the rose-breasted grosbeak being on one of them and a frequent visitor to my mother’s feeder out that low window in a century-old Maine house in the rural environs of Lincoln County, a heart and mind was captured the year the Red Sox almost won it all and made “The Impossible Dream” a reality.
I never bothered to look at the French translation on the cards in 1967, that language as foreign to me as a big city. Many, many years later, I found the old paperback book in which the cards were affixed. The glue, aged and dry, let the card pull away easily. Behind it, on the back of the card, “rose-breasted grosbeak” in English. And below it in French, “cardinal a poitrine rose.” Cardinal. My cardinal. The one that makes me gasp and remember each spring the smell of Red Rose Tea in my mother’s kitchen and how I came to love birds.
Paul, This is indeed a touching story about a humble tea bag, a resplendent Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a young boy, his mother, , the arrival of spring and the beginning of a life-long career. Thank you so much for sharing this intimate and memorable story. Now I will forever combine Red-Rose Tea with Red-breasted Grosbeak!
Thank you. It would be privilege for me to honor my mother’s volunteer time with MCA with a sharing of that story. And please remind your members of what they know to be true, that out of humble moments and simple experiences like those at that old farmstead on Bunker Hill Road in Jefferson or at classes on Hog Island, inspiration occurs, and from that the next generation of conservationists appear, who will be needed more than ever in the coming decades.
I thought I left a reply, but it apparently did not take. Thank you for the rapid response and for confirming that the Osprey 1 was a NAS vessel used at HI. I will look forward to hear if there is any more archival material about Eugene Davis. I wrote a short story about my mother’s and my love of birds and how Red Rose Tea influenced that. It can be seen on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/notes/2629884040591553/
She was a proud member of the Midcoast Maine Audubon Chapter until her death 20 years ago today.
Paul, I shall share your touching story with the board of Mid-Coast Audubon; some may remember your mother.
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