Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Thoreau

Since 1936 Maine’s license plate slogan has been “Vacationland,” but people have been coming to Maine since long before that to fulfill spiritual or psychological needs unmet in cities and plains. I imagine one could blame Thoreau, even though he was hardly a marketing success in his lifetime. The first edition of The Maine Woods in 1854 compiled three magazine essays – “Ktaadn,” “Chesuncook,” and “The Allagash and East Branch” – into a book printed by Ticknor and Fields in Boston and published mostly at his own expense. (He said about his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “I have 900 volumes in my library, 700 of which I wrote myself.”) The second edition was published in 1864, shortly after his death, as a tribute from his friends. And after his lifetime? He’s achieved the closest possible definition of immortality outside of the impossible religious one.
His books by now are famous and have influenced millions, but it’s in the Journals that I started to understand why he’s so inspirational. I’ve dipped into them and am dumbfounded by the discipline, if not by the language. For nearly every day of his life since his 20s, Thoreau recorded several pages of painstaking and quixotic notes and drawings of the worlds – fields, forests, rivers, mountains; birds, flowers, weeds, mammals; Concord, Cape Cod, Katahdin, Olympus - around him. From there the essays spring, ornate and passionate. And the books, just collections of his essays, perhaps his feeble attempt at fame in his lifetime, were ironically un-saleable. His undying genius lay in the daily discipline of the word.
I found as I read The Maine Woods that inspiration is not necessarily in the text. It’s not so spell-binding a book that you have to put it down every once in a while and hug it to your chest in selfish, goose-bumpy loneliness. For modern readers Thoreau is a mixed blessing. Often he indulges in long stretches of the densely particular, pages and pages of arcane description of portages, for example, and then jumps precipitously to long flights of the grandiose, including a great deal of obscure mythology. Half of the second essay in the book, "Chesuncook," seems to be devoted to the moose, a magnificent animal to be sure, but not in the same league as Agamemnon. He is fascinated by his Indian guides, but there’s that modicum of 19th century condescension. The language tends to be flowery, except for the occasional terse and passionate epigram.
       It doesn’t matter: it’s the idea of Thoreau that’s so compelling - the romantic view of Walden and Maine, the passion for observation and writing, the aphorisms, reliance on self and (occasionally, humbly) on his famous friends and patrons, the commitment to art and nature and science all at once. He is superlative, the perfect embodiment of the ancient Greek and Roman concept of a Genius or Daimon guiding each person, the most brilliant attempt to make the connections between nature and spirit, the bravest resolve to make a sojourn away from pettiness, to live the way life should be no matter where you live it. He is so unself-conscious as to say in the Journal, “I felt a positive yearning towards one bush this afternoon. There was a match for me at last. I fell in love with a shrub oak."  That’s the vision that brings millions of people to Maine, to capture as much or as little of it as their other lives can stand.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Amish

There is one current example of an “invasion” by foreigners that is both welcome and inspiring. In 2009, the Amish started moving into the area around Unity and buying farms. They’ve come from various places in the Midwest and Canada, and even a few from the other two towns in Maine that boast them, Smyrna and Easton in Aroostook County. Unity seems the perfect place for Amish, including its name: lovely, rolling countryside with good soil and plenty of water; friendly, tolerant people; Unity College and its heavy focus on environmental studies. Any people who completely eschew electricity in their houses are environmentalists at their very core.
I've often wondered about the relationship between religion and conservation. Humans are enjoined to be good stewards, and it should be a natural fit, but so often those who believe in the Bible forget the one in favor of the other, dominion over the earth, etc, etc. There is a movement to revive the relationship, but in today's fractured and splintering world, I can't see that the religious right will ever take the earth seriously again.
Religion aside, the life of the Amish is very compelling. They believe in books. They grow organic food. They make wonderful furniture. They build windmills to run their compressed-air engines, or charge battery packs. Family care is paramount. A sign in one of their houses in Unity reads: "To be content with little is hard, to be content with much is impossible.’’
       Lifestyle aside, the religion of the Amish is not very compelling, mostly I suppose because it's similar to the dark Calvinist tradition in which I was raised. But the Amish have managed to bring light into the gloom. They've done what few can accomplish - marry word and deed.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: African-Americans

Then there was the shameful case of Malaga Island, formerly known as Negro Island. (As many as nine islands off the Maine coast have been named Negro, most now whitewashed to Anglo-Saxon names like Curtis, which sits just off tourist-conscious Camden, and which is named after the founder of the ultimate white-bread magazine The Saturday Evening Post.) Blacks had lived in the Casco Bay area for most of the 19th century, and one of their “settlements” in the mid-part of the century was a tiny island just a hundred yards off the Phippsburg peninsula. Soon enough, in the view of the whites, Malaga became “degenerate” and an eyesore (what with colorful mixed marriages, disregard of churches and schools, and the flagrant use of alcohol and tea, never mind that except for race, it resembled any number of poor white fishing communities of cussed Mainers) and not suitable for tourism, which by the turn of the century was in full pursuit of rich New Yorkers and Bostonians. The hubbub grew. Neither nearest town, Phippsburg to the east nor Harpswell to the west, wanted to take responsibility, so the Malaga-ites became wards of the state in 1905. Some white do-gooders started a school. Yet, in 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted (a Democrat) visited and took public offense (or was he up for re-election?); by 1912 all of Malaga’s buildings were razed, the bodies in the cemetery dug up and re-buried on the mainland, the few remaining living people transported to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, and the island deserted and desolate. It still is, for it is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with a Cabot and a Rockefeller on its Board, to “preserve its unique history.”
     So the Gilded Age came shamefully apart in Maine. But, perversely, for most of the 19th century Maine could also be proud of its accomplishments on race. John Brown Russwurm, the founder in 1827 of the country’s first black newspaper, New York’s Freedom Journal, was a Bowdoin College graduate (and the third black college graduate in the country). Bates College was founded in 1855 by abolitionists. There were some 70 stations on the Underground Railway in the state. A co-founder of Howard University was Oliver Otis Howard, Bowdoin Class of 1850. It could be said that the Civil War actually started in Brunswick, for Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote most of Uncle Tom’s Cabin there. And in the War itself, Maine sent more men to fight (as a percentage of population) than any other state but Massachusetts.


Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Immigrants and the Klan

The Wabanaki were hardly the only group suffering white Anglo-Protestant prejudice. Like all of the Northeast states, Maine attracted French-Canadian immigrants to its textile mills and logging camps. Being generally poor and staunchly Catholic, they stirred up the usual xenophobic sentiments and were ruthlessly discriminated against and, especially in the public schools, stripped of language and culture in a cruel assimilation. Only in the very northernmost reaches of Aroostook County, where some of the “Acadians” settled after the British kicked them out of Canada, does the French language and culture survive to any degree. Irish immigrants also arrived in the 19th century, and while language assimilation wasn’t a problem, being poor and Catholic was. By 1900 Maine was 40% Catholic, and this led to a political and social backlash in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was successful in several Maine towns, and the state became infamous for several instances of bigotry.
     For one thing, the Maine Klan had some 20,000 members by the 1920s, more than most Southern states, and had the distinction of holding the Klan’s first daytime march anywhere. They didn’t persecute the blacks (there weren’t enough here to bother with) but fed on hate of French Canadians, who had emigrated in large numbers from Quebec, presumably stealing jobs from white Protestant men.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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