On the trail of the goose and the fern

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THE text for this morning's parable comes from the restaurant report in our Free Press, the county giveaway, page 22, which offers this valuable information about dining out: ``Each establishment has its own uniqueness though some are more unique than others.'' This, Betty and Dick and I decided, is rather like our annual May-time venture by canoe down the St. George River in search of the succulent fiddlehead. By no means a changing story -- I have been faithful with it here for at least 30 years -- each passage does have its unique moment. This time we saw a pair of Canada geese, and what is far more important -- they saw us!

I notice the fiddlehead fern has accumulated fame. Three decades ago when I first told of foraging for them, people wrote to ask what I was talking about. I was talking about the springtime shoots of the ostrich fern, which make a delightful green if taken in infancy. Growing in swamps and along streams, fiddleheads require some search and seizure, and going for them is definitely a part of our vernal rites. The ostrich fern has a fairly wide range in the Northeast but has long been pretty much a special delicacy in the Maritime Provinces and Maine. In the beginning, fiddleheads didn't travel, but were for those who went, fetched, and boiled close to the table.

But now fiddleheads are harvested for the markets and can be had frozen or tinned from processors. I noticed this newspaper lately had an article on fiddle-heads, offering several recipes and suggesting wider distribution than heretofore.

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However, there is still that uniqueness about a dish of fiddleheads served the same day they are picked, given the help of a dollop of butter and a dash of vinegar. The fiddlehead gets its name because the tip of the emerging shoot is tightly curled to suggest the scroll on the neck of a violin. Once again Dick and Betty and I got our usual supply and what our two households didn't eat that night, we tucked into the freezers for future attention.

And the geese. We had gathered our ferns and were drifting with the current. The St. George is a fine canoe river. In the bow, I kept an eye out for rocks, and in the stern Dick was able to miss some of them. Betty, 'midships, had only to ride. When handled by two such deft rivermen, a canoe passes silently, and in the silence I heard Dick whisper, but not loud enough so I understood. Betty, in turn, whispered to me, and the message was ``Back water!''

Looking for rocks, I had been paying no attention to fauna, but paying little heed to rocks, Dick had seen a pair of Canada geese. By the time we backed, the geese had moved behind a clump of skunk cabbage and their bodies were hidden, but there were the two necks and heads extended high to gaze at us.

I lifted my paddle carefully to leave Dick in command of the craft and he slowly brought it about so the skunk cabbage no longer hid the birds. The Canada goose is not a small one. The length is about a yard. Standing on tippy-toe to look over the skunk cabbage, these birds were in extended dressage so nobody ever had a better view of the Canada goose. But now the pair realized the canoe had moved so they were exposed, and they stepped over to be hidden again -- only their heads up to look at us.

The book says the Canada goose formerly bred southerly, sometimes, but ``formerly'' doesn't mean now -- it entered my head that people likely wouldn't believe that we found a pair nesting on the St. George, in Maine.

These birds were in definite possession of their property -- a good two miles or more by foot from the nearest house. They had not considered a canoe, and the way they stared at us suggested they didn't believe things either.

We watched for some time, Dick deftly holding the canoe against the current, and so did they. When he lifted his paddle and the canoe moved on down, Dick said, ``Now that's what I call unique!''

We saw some other wildlife. A whistler, many teeterbirds, a couple of pairs of wood duck, and 187,005,537,963 blackflies. Blackflies go with fid-dleheads. They take your mind off other miseries and serve their purpose. But not one of us slapped a hand about our ears all the time the geese were watching us.

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