The Fresh Air Fund

I am pictured here with my sister (left), two Fresh Air Fund children (right) and two neighbors (front left and center front).

In the summer of 1877, a  particularly virulent tuberculosis epidemic swept through New York City’s tenement buildings.  Mycobacterium tuberculosis spread rapidly through the sputum released in the coughs and sneezes of the sick, most of whom were children.

That same summer, Willard Parsons was a young clergyman whose first assignment after graduation from the Union Theological Seminar in New York was to minister to a rural Pennsylvania community located a few miles west of the NY-PA border.

At the time of this epidemic, fresh air was considered a cure for many respiratory ailments.  (Consider that Maine became a state in 1820, the Civil War ended in 1865, x-rays were discovered in 1895 and penicillin was discovered in 1928.)  As the story goes, Parsons was on a horseback ride in the countryside when he realized that his parishioners could offer NYC’s sick children exactly what the doctor ordered – fresh air.  From the pulpit of the Sherman Mission Chapel, Parsons urged his congregation to open their homes and give these children the opportunity to experience the wide open beauty of a countryside in the full bloom of summer.

That summer nine children left New York City and stayed with families in Sherman, Pennsylvania. Today, over 1.8 million children have stepped off hot city pavement and onto buses headed for volunteer families on the East Coast and Southern Canada. (There is also a Fresh Air Fund camp 60 miles north of NYC in the Town of Fishkill, NY.)

Roughly 25 years ago, my parents opened our home to a Fresh Air Fund child.  Our neighbors, who were an extended family in practice (and remain so in my heart today) did the same.  Blond hair, blue eyes, black hair, brown eyes.  Families are made from love, not biology.  When this picture was taken in the early 1990s, both my parents and my “next-door parents” had already opened their hearts and homes to non-biological children.  For years people found the most terribly intrusive and awkward ways of asking about this.  How sad, even if they were just being curious.  I hope it isn’t the same today for rainbow families – and I mean any damn kind of rainbow that makes a family. Missing from the picture is my older brother with his light red hair; older brothers do not typically run around with a gaggle of girls.)

For several years both my nuclear family and my next door family invited Fresh Air Fund children into our homes.  My Family Next Door owned a piece of heaven on a quiet pond an hour away, and because they were brave and kind in equal parts they would take all of us to camp to swim, canoe, catch crayfish and sail.

You might note that I appear to be bossing the other children around.  For anyone who knows me this will not be a surprise.  My sister stands in the shadow on the left, probably wondering how to make a quick get away.  Missing from the photo is the oldest of my two Next Door Sisters.  She probably had already made a run for it.

I remember the great hesitation with which our host child approached camping.  I also distinctly recall her swatting something edible (strawberry? pea pod?) from the hand of one of the Maine natives in our group, yelling “Cucka” for emphasis.  Not an unreasonable reaction at all, if you consider her viewpoint.

For most of us, exposure to sunshine and fresh air provides significant benefits to our mental and physical health.  Additionally, numerous scientific studies link urban living to higher stress levels.  (I can’t imagine why.)  Factor in the poverty that these children live with and you can quickly see how a few weeks away from the heat and chaos of New York City would be welcome.  (But imagine the courage it takes for a young child to board a bus and head into the woods to live with strangers for a few weeks.)

The next time you enjoy a lungful of Maine’s fresh air remember how lucky you are. But know this: even if we took every vehicle off Maine’s roads we would still have air pollution problems, since wind patterns carry pollution to us from coal plants in the Midwest and the more densely populated portions of the eastern seaboard.

How to keep the air breathable for future generations?  Take a look at tips from the United States Environmental Protection Agency on how you can help curb air pollution:

While certainly better than the air in New York City, Maine’s air quality is far from perfect. If you have respiratory ailments or care for the young, old or ill, you can check Maine’s air quality forecasts on the DEP’s Air Quality page:

Walk in the Woods

Go, walk in the quiet woods.  Hold you lover’s hand, or slip among the trees by yourself.  Put on your yoga pants and go with your best friend.  Take a child you love, and maybe another who needs to be loved, and teach them to marvel at the wonder of pine scented air and a hush that wraps around tree trunks and tickles their spines.

Wear ripped jeans and old sneakers.  Or Under Armor and LL Bean.  The trees won’t know the difference.  Just get out and go. Tired bones?  Busy day?  Not an “outdoors person?”  Hate the bugs?  Got a show to watch?  Go anyway.  Breathe deeply.

Earlier this week husband and I took our girls to Jamie’s Pond Wildlife Management Area, an 840-acre property that is publicly owned and managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. There is no entry fee, and the public is welcome to boat, fish, hike, bird watch and more. We “discovered” this tranquil hideaway at least five years ago and we go there perhaps a dozen times each year. We select hiking locations and times strategically, as we much prefer peace and privacy. We found that there this week, with no company on the trails expect birds singing from above and deer flies darting in from all sides. I dragged my camera along, hoping to spot the owl that I’d heard on our last visit, but no luck.

Today husband and I slipped away from our girls (we told them we had to work and that their best friend would come at noon as usual) and then we zipped to husband’s favorite haunt from the time in our lives when we lived south of the Gardiner toll booth. Bradbury State Park in Pownal, Maine is only an hour from where we live now, though it used to be ten minutes away from a condo that we called home in Freeport.  An admission fee of $4 per adult (Maine resident price) gives you access to hiking and biking trails, horseback riding trails, camping and scenic overlooks.  Bradbury, one of Maine’s five original state parks, offers over 730-acres to explore. Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry manages the park (and quite nicely, I might say, as the staff has always been friendly and helpful and the park is well-maintained.)

We took the boundary trail and reveled in the silence.  Sure, there was occasional bird song, and even still more occasional child-song, but mostly it was just us, and the trees.  Tall, tall trees stretching up the side of a 500 foot (smallish) mountain shaped by a glacier in the last ice age.  All of the steep cliffs and bluffs on Bradbury face southeast, the direction the glacier moved on its way toward the Gulf of Maine. Today’s cooler temperatures kept most of the biting insects away, and for that we were thankful. I ignore the deer flies for as long as I can but eventually start swatting at my head and the air in a futile effort to kill my tormentors. At best I manage to tangle them into my hair, while my husband dispatches deer flies using a technique that is part ninja, part ballerina, and entirely successful.

Check out Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands website for more information on all of the ways that you can get outside and enjoy Maine:




Ondatra zibethicus (Or, Mr. Muskrat)

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Each day is an opportunity to learn something – about yourself, or the world, or somebody else – but really these are all one and they same, aren’t they?  On the lake, I listen and I watch and I wait.  I’m learning to hear with my heart, and to piece together the puzzle of daily interaction that happens in this amazing ecosystem.

Twice this evening I was drawn out of the house and down to the water’s edge by a desire to understand why our resident loon pair was being so vocal.  I found no immediate or obvious source of distress.  Typically certain loon calls indicate a circling bird of prey, but I saw nothing of the sort on either trip down to the water.  My first trip down was brief – twenty minutes that passed as quickly as a single breath.  (You know you are meant to do something when you have mosquitos in your ear, weird moths all over your body, an ant dragging a spider carcass across your shoulder, sun in your eyes, painfully-full bladder, husband tapping his toes, dogs neglected….and still you can spend hours at it and feel like you have only just begun.)

On my second trip down I had an entire hour to myself.  What joy!  I quickly paddled across the inlet and around “Small Island,” which is privately owned and little used.  Small Island is the location of the osprey nest that I have been watching for several months.  On the back side of this island there are several “Tiny Islands” – owned by none other than all creatures great and small.  I’ve known for several weeks now that the animal I had taken to be a beaver (I never claimed to be an animal identification expert) lived among the shallows of this area of the lake.  While I was busy shooting ducks and birds, a splash in the water gave away this critter’s presence.  I was so excited to have an opportunity to try to capture some shots of this speedy brown swimmer – who as it turns out is a muskrat, not a beaver.

I saw him (her?) disappear under a bank, so I decided to at least photograph the spot where he disappeared.  When several red-winged blackbirds glided to a near-by branch with red leaves I decided I’d capture a few shots, since the red on the leaves and the red on the wings was impossible to ignore.


To my great surprise, the muskrat decided he’d finally seen enough of me and my blue kayak to know I was not going to eat him, so out he swam from his hiding spot.  He shimmied right back onto this log and commenced to chew on his branch.  After several minutes he did a diver’s jump and flop into the water – what startled him? – and disappeared.  How satisfying to have this little fellow decide I’m not such a bother after all.