March 11, 2010

fascinating stuff


— By

Staff Writer

If you're driving along the midcoast and see a man on a bike paused by the side of the road, looking intently at some tree or flower, chances are it's Kerry Hardy.

Hardy is a modern Renaissance man, one who moves easily back and forth between knowledge of forestry, gardening, history, farming, language and the environment. He is well known in the Rockland area for going everywhere on his bike so that he doesn't miss anything.

That kind of all-encompassing curiosity pervades Hardy's new book, ''Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki'' (Down East Books, $21.95), an accessible dissertation on the lives of the original native Mainers.

Published this month, it's the kind of book where readers learn things they didn't know they wanted to know, such as the fact that the Wabanaki called the June moon the ''Seals on Water Moon.'' Or that in Nova Scotia in 1760, a good spring beaver skin would buy you 2½ gallons of molasses, 30 pounds of flour or 2 gallons of rum.

Hardy spent three years of intensive research on the book, a lot of it poring over documents written in the original 17th-century French. Yes, Hardy can speak French, dress a deer, write for Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, talk for hours about the genetics of lupines, draw detailed historical maps, take photographs, sketch native plants and fish, track down word origins, and prepare roadkill. To eat.

Hardy, 53, grew up in Lincolnville and credits his idyllic childhood in rural Maine for his ability to immerse himself in a variety of subjects and think in different ways. He has owned his own landscape design business and served as the executive director of the Merryspring Nature Park in Camden.

He is currently creating an ''edible landscape'' on the grounds of Farmers Fare in Rockland, which is expected to open sometime around Labor Day.

Hardy lives in Rockland with his wife, Kristina King, and their family. In September, they will be moving to Arizona for two years so King can take a job as a nurse practitioner on a Hopi Indian reservation.

''It will be hard for a Maine boy to figure out what to do with himself out there,'' Hardy said, ''but as long as I have a bicycle and a computer, I'm pretty happy.''

Hardy recently spoke with the Maine Sunday Telegram about his life and his new book.

Q: You're known for riding your bike everywhere. Is that because you want to save energy or because you want to be able to stop and look at plants?

A: It was purely an economic and family logistic sort of thing when I started my bike commuting, but it very quickly gets under your skin, and all sorts of other good things start happening. Everything from picking up roadkill and bringing it home and just feeling better, and the tons of botanizing that I do from it. It all worked well with my life, so it grew on me very quickly, and I haven't missed cars at all, really.

Q: I was actually going to take this opportunity to ask you if you really do pick up roadkill, because I've heard that from a lot of people.

A: Yes, it's very true.

Q: Why do you do that?

A: It's better meat than what's available from the big American meat system. By the time you have teenagers, it's worth doing just for the shock and horror value that it causes them. I grew up deer hunting, you know, and getting the occasional rabbit and stuff like that, so wild game always tasted good. I do have some standards. I don't stop for skunk or anything. I have shown up at the workplace with turkey feet sticking up out the back of my backpack.

Q: I imagine you probably embarrassed your kids more than most parents.

A: Yep, that's still going on. But the bottom line on the bike or the lifestyle in general is that if one weren't a little bit outside the pale, you wouldn't be able to see things through a lens that was different enough. But when there are three or four things that are different about one's outlook, then you can look at old material and see some interesting new things sometimes. So if I just drove through the coastal landscape, I wouldn't see nearly as much of it. I wouldn't understand how it works nearly as well, whether you're talking about just plants or ecology in general, all the critters.

It's also great thinking time on the bike. A lot of epiphanies come to me when I'm just kind of grinding away. It was a big part of what prepared me to write the book, I think.

Q: In the book, you also credit your parents with giving you the kind of childhood you needed to write a book like this.

A: Where I grew up, with 15,000 acres of Camden Hills State Park in my backyard or whatever it is, (I could) literally just forge right out the back door and go off in the state park for as long as I wanted. That kind of freedom and that kind of range as a kid really prepares you to do a lot more as you get older. I think you have a broader base to build on of experience, at least when you're writing about the natural world.

I tried Boy Scouts and rejected it almost immediately, because it was far too tame compared to the freedom that I had just on my own. The thought that a grownup needed to certify me for firemaking or stuff like that, that was the stuff I'd been doing since I was 8 or 9, you know. I had a rowboat or a canoe at my disposal a quarter-mile away on Megunticook Lake, which is just a beautiful, beautiful spot.

I really just needed to let (my parents) know the general part of town I'd be in and when I might be home, and that was all it took. In terms of creating a broad base of familiarity with the natural world that you then build on as you go up through the educational system, I just think that that setting was ideal for someone to prepare to write a book like this.

Q: You did all of the illustrations yourself. Is art something you picked up as a child as well?

A: From the time I was old enough to pick up a pencil, I was drawing and making maps. I could draw all 50 states on an Etch-a-Sketch. It was just one of those things. Making maps was fun to me.

Q: You go into a lot of detail in the book about the plants and animals the Wabanaki used in their daily lives for both food and for healing. Did you try out some of these out yourself?

A: I know a lot more about the way they used some of the medicinal plants than I thought was proper to include in the book. I consider it to be their proprietary information, and it's theirs to release when they want to. Some of the recipes, like cooking up ground nuts and all that stuff, I've done. And I didn't need Indians to tell me that raccoon and woodchuck are good to eat, I'll put it that way.

Q: Did learning about the Wabanaki and their relationship to the land make you look at the landscape any differently?

A: Their use of fire was quite an eye opener. That was an important thing. Their reliance on nut trees -- learning that really changed the way I look at the landscape. I can look at the modern landscape and contrast it with what I'm reading about what Champlain saw, and say, ''Wow, it has changed a lot.'' Just from the natural processes of the land, once you basically uproot one culture and their way with the land and another one moves in, there are huge changes in the plant cover on the land. So when Indian burning stopped, things started changing in the forest. If you could snap your fingers and be standing in Rockland 400 years ago, you wouldn't recognize it from the plants around you.

Q: Was there anything really surprising you learned that you didn't know before?

A: The realization that, basically, the roads we travel today were all determined by beavers. That was an eye opener, and the fact that ultimately beavers are responsible for Augusta being our state capital and things like that. There were gross-scale realizations like that that were important, but probably even more fun are the really small-scale things -- one word that you finally unlock it and you say, ''Oh, so that's what this place name is about,'' because 400 years ago there were a lot of this one particular edible bulb that was harvested here. It's just fun to really know where something came from.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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