As February can be set apart as the ideal month to research the family tree, so August remains Maine's sweetest page on the calendar. I'm thinking of sea lavender and shedders, about which we down-easters speak softly of in the hearing of summercaters and keep the glad tidings to ourselves as much as we can.
One of the happy chores of my tidal year is to wander down to the shore as July becomes August and clip a sprig of sea lavender for Lois. Lois is the owner of a stoutly taxed bit of our Maine coast, but she lives in Maryland and circumstances keep her from coming this way to inspect her property. Thus, the postman comes to remind her of how she ``lives short'' down there and can't step out to pick her own nosegay. Lois isn't much on letters, so we get her Christmas card and it always starts, ``Meant to write when my lavender came, but....''
Sea lavender is a dainty, wispy bloom that grows at the high-tide mark, amongst the windrow of wrack. Down Muscongus Bay, we have a Wrack Island, which is a state sanctuary because of eider duck, gull, and blue heron nests. You mustn't go ashore. Folks from away think wrack is how to pronounce wreck in Muscongeese. I think it was our one-time postmaster, Carlton Simmons, who thought up a bit of history to suit the visitors, and according to him a ship from the Spanish Armada got twisted in her bearings and was wracked on Wrack Island.
Sea wrack, washed in these days, gets mixed up with civilized additives and plastic oil bottles, but this doesn't deter the sea lavender, which thrusts through every July to gladden the citizens. Look on any State-of-Maine mantel. The tiny florets, pale purple, dry to everlasting, and thus linger to brighten winter's days. Seasonal visitors gather lavender, too, and we see them coming up from the shore with sizeable bouquets and satisfied smiles.
The range of the lavender is Newfoundland to Florida, and it seems to thrive even if closely harvested by Mainers and visitors.
The flower book I have was published in 1909 by Grosset and Dunlap, and says sea lavender is also called sea thrift, marsh marigold, and other names, some Latin. We just say lavender. It is the Maine August flower, delicate and lovely, said by Mr. Grosset and Mr. Dunlap to harmonize the color scheme of the sea and the sky with the sandy shores.
The shedder, as something August, is another story. A shedder is a lobster. When a newly arrived lobster takes on the obligations of life, just out of the egg, he is too small to be seen without a microscope and too buoyant to sink in the water so that gulls, fish hawks, and other marine creatures can't eat him.
Biologists know that millions never make it. So his first need is to grow a shell heavy enough to take him to a safe depth. Lobsters grow only during their ``molt,'' which is when they shed their shell and move into the new one that has formed. The period between molts is known as a stage, and a baby lobster will go through some seven stages before it is ready to do business. It continues to shed and assume a new shell at intervals as long as it lives.
A lobster in the market size will do his shedding along in sea lavender time. If a lobster evades the fisherman's trap, he may attain 45 or 50 pounds and molt much less often. Such a lobster cannot be taken legally in Maine waters.
All right, so as August checks in and the sea lavender thrives, the celebrated Maine lobsters come in two styles - the hard-shell and the shedder. The hard-shell still has his old coat - his carapace, and he has grown into it so he fits all around. His old shell has weathered every tempest, defying the restaurant's nutcrackers and the rocks along the beach. The down-Mainer doesn't go out of his way to explain this to all the tourists in their Winnebagos, possibly because he plans to eat the shedders himself.
Just the other day, our son and his wife communicated in this style: ``Being August, shedders * in season. If you can persuade Harlan to favor us, get a supply and we'll be there Friday noon.''
Harlan is a lobster buyer at our hah-b'h. ``I got an order for some shedders,'' I told Harlan, and he offered the thought that now was the accepted time. ``Never be sweeter'n right this minute,'' he said. Sometimes Harlan talks like that if he notices tourists are listening, but he doesn't overdo it.
One time years ago, another of our lobster buyers got cozy with some summercaters and things didn't turn our so well. A fellow came in in a tailored sun-suit and asked if he could buy a half-dozen lobsters, and without thinking the dealer said, ``Shedders?'' Fellow said he didn't know - ``What's a shedder?'' So the dealer explained, and then he decided to have a little fun, and when the tourist said he'd try the shedders, our dealer said, ``Shedders it is - do you want boy lobsters or girl lobsters?''
``Does it make any difference?''
``Certainly does - depends on what you plan to do with them.''
``Then you want boy lobsters. But never make a lobster stew with boy lobsters. Always get girl lobsters. Big difference. Girl lobsters run sweeter and don't cook away.''
That ran all through the summer colony, and as Mr. Delano said it, it must be so! He ought to know! The other dealers went along with Hank Delano's whimsy, and for some time we had a rash of harborside dramatics as the dealers made great show of settling the gender of their lobsters.