The essence of the whole caper

THE fiddlehead string is now something like 35 years long, and once again I have made the traditional vernal visit to the St. George River for a supply. This time, there is a new twang to the string, although I came home as usual with enough of the ferns to give us a fresh feed and a supply to freeze for the rest of the year. The tightly curled sprouts of the ostrich fern, suggesting the scroll on a violin, must be harvested before they uncurl to make a frond, and here in Maine, as well as in some other Northern states and the Maritime Provinces, we esteem them somewhat as a fetish, giving them a folk value equal to that of any ancient pagan ritual in celebration of Maying. Fiddleheads bring us away from everything else, back into the woods for renewal and quiet. Our St. George River was first examined by George Waymouth in 1605, when he was looking for a good location to set up the first English settlement in New England. James Rosier, the scribe of the Waymouth expedition, was baffled by the beauty of the St. George -- ``Our Captaine discovered up a great river trending along into the maine about forty miles, the beauty and goodness whereof I cannot by relation sufficiently demonstrate . . . the farther we went, the more pleasing it was to every man, alluring us still with expectation of better.''

In less glowing words, the St. George River rises in Quantabacook Pond and flows 42 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Villages and farm homes have intruded since the days of Rosier, but the upper flowage of the river retains an illusion of deep wilderness. Roads do run up the valley on both sides, but traffic keeps its distance as friends Dick and Betty and I come down each year in a canoe, pausing when we spy sprouting fiddlehead ferns. We carry lunches for a nooning at a certain favorite spot, drawing up the canoe onto a sandspit and hoping a random trout may leap to amuse us. Now and then we can hear a distant chain saw, or a tractor tilling, and sometimes a truck loaded with pulpwood will grind up a grade. But for the most part we are by ourselves, and that is the essence of the whole fiddlehead caper.

We see considerable evidence of beavers. Bank beavers: They burrow into the riverbank and make neither houses nor dams. As we glide along, we can see their slides -- places where, if surprised while cutting food, they can chute to safety in the water. They also use their slides to skid their cuttings. But this year we found something brand new -- a beaver dam across a brook feeding into the river, and a huge beaver house that, I would guess, is three-family size: the first evidence of pond beavers we had seen in numerous trips down. It is a good sign. Beavers are the original ecologists and preservationists, and I've always said I would rather have a pair of beavers working for me than all the wildlife biologists, even if assisted by the Corps of Army Engineers. A good part of our north country was laid out by beavers, holding back water to make our lakes and ponds, improving the fisheries, aiding other wildlife, and keeping things green. Pond beavers, that is -- the bank beavers, no. So we back-watered and admired, and felt pleasure that some friendly beavers had come to improve the fiddleheading and all else.

Then, continuing, we came upon another house -- a human dwelling. New, with the dooryard just bulldozed, and trees and bushes cut down to the shore. We'd noticed, and had been wondering about, little strips of red cloth tied to trees and bushes along the river's edge, and now we had our answer. Those red strips were surveyors' witnesses, marking lot lines. The woodland along several miles of the St. George has been set off into building lots, and this spanking-new home is prelude to -- what? ``At least it's an attractive house,'' Betty said, and I was moved to quote something Ed Smith used to say frequently: ``I don't like to see moccasin prints in the woods except my own.'' So I can report that there are two new houses on the upper reaches of the St. George. If, another spring-time, there is further news, you'll be the first to know.

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