Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The County

If the Down East coast is the tourist’s true heaven, then the St. John River Valley is a Mainer’s true heaven. Route 1, well-paved and maintained, allows comfortable access to the County. The great, rolling farms provide a reasonable income but hardly lavish. The fields are backed up by deep forests with plenty of game. The rivers and lakes provide fish and beauty. The distance from Massachusetts and New York prevents masses of tourists, and those that do come appreciate a simple waterfall, the sweep of potato and broccoli fields in browns and greens, the forthrightness of the houses perched on hilltops sans trees. Thousands of miles of snowmobile trails give purpose to winter. The French Acadian culture evokes a simpler way of life. It’s a place where people are both friendly and fiercely independent. Basically, as an innkeeper told us, it’s Canada. Some days I think there’s a lot to be said for emigration.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Wind power

I have come to be quite skeptical of the way wind power is being sold. I’ve come to agree with much of what Jonathan Carter, executive director of the Forest Ecology Network, now believes about mountaintop wind power, after decades of touting it:
No fossil-fuel power plant has ever been closed because of wind power, and probably never will, given the unreliability and intermittent nature of wind.
Indeed, reserve plants may need to be built to provide back-up if dependence on wind grows.
Fossil-fuel plants need to be cycled down when wind capacity is high, thus increasing their already poor efficiency ratings and actually increasing CO2 emission.
Mountaintops must be cleared of trees, roads built, power lines installed, thus removing carbon-sequestering forests and increasing emissions.
Electricity produced by wind costs 2-3 times as much as conventional power.
There are also huge subsidies from tax dollars, the main reason wind farms are being built today.
Wind farms produce a few temporary jobs but almost no permanent ones.
Home values drop in the vicinity of a turbine.
Ill effects of noise, low-frequency sound waves, and “shadow flicker,” and the economic impact on tourism, have not been completely studied.
Finally, what about esthetic values, not just for tourism and the effect on pristine mountains, but for themselves?  Is it worth it?
       Maine is exactly where we should be having the debate. Take Monhegan, for example, where gritty artists George Bellows and Edward Hopper might have enjoyed huge metal beasts but perhaps not more ethereal Jamie Wyeth and Rockwell Kent, where thousands of people seek tranquility and escape from electricity. How would the artists and nature lovers coming to this natural heaven on earth deal with an artificial thing standing 400 feet tall, gently roaring? Would they take their easels and money belts elsewhere? Or would they, we, all accept that this is the price of progress? Maine trades on its beauty and undefiled landscapes as much as anywhere on earth; are we just going to roll over to the demands of the grid? What few people question is the need for all these machines in the first place.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Down East Coast

The Down East coast is the true tourist’s true heaven: the dramatic setting of Eastport in the middle of Passamaquoddy Bay, islands Canadian and American all around; the lovely houses, clean waterfront, and culture of Lubec; the aching beauty of Quoddy Head State Park; the nether-world of the blueberry barrens; the peace of the Schoodic Peninsula. In Quoddy especially I feel re-born and washed clean of city life, for the cliffs are high, the surf roars, trees grow out of the granite, and little streams cross under the Coastal Trail and fall like lace to the shore. A side trail leads to a peat bog. Where everything on the wild shore seems oversized, the bog is quiet, petite, attenuated. The little trees are stunted, matching me both in height and in years. I go from being a dwarf to the firs and cliffs to being a giant to the pitcher plants. I fit in each case.

But I don’t have to make a living here. For people without outside money, the way of life is hard and full of contradictions. Like many port cities in Maine, Eastport is beautiful and gritty, unpretentious and decaying, slowly sinking since the failure of the Passamaquoddy Tidal Project in the 1930s. It tries to make up for the decline of shipbuilding and fishing by touting tourism and a bit of shipping. Lubec exists almost entirely on people and money from away, a set piece almost. The rugged, unpopulated Cutler coast is marred by a huge radar installation, a weird symbol of war on a pacific shore. Much of it is also conserved, not to mention off the tax rolls. Now that fishing is so unpredictable, Maine folks often scramble to make money, and some are reduced to gathering "wrinkles" (periwinkles or snails to you and me) for sale to Asian markets. But even this humble activity is threatened; seaweed farmers tend to rip up the rockweed indiscriminately, without regard to the wrinkles hiding underneath. The sea is a fact of life, not a movie back drop. An elegant B&B in Prospect Harbor looks out at the shuttered Stinson Seafood Plant, which was the last sardine cannery in the U.S. Tranquil Route 1 in Cherryfield turns into frantic Route 1 in Ellsworth just a few miles away. Tiny houses in Corea sit on million-dollar views of harbors and islands.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Moxie

     The very qualities that make humans admirable – courage, drive, energy, charisma – make our world vulnerable. The word that best describes that constellation of qualities is “moxie.” It seems emblematic to me. The word is derived from a commercial product (Moxie soda), invented by Augustin Thompson from Union, Maine; it was first sold as a patent medicine in 1876 in Lowell, Massachusetts, which by the middle of the 19th century had the country’s largest industrial complex, the Massachusetts Mills; in 1884 Thompson took advantage of the sugar craze and reformulated Moxie as a soft drink and thereupon gained it great popularity, presumably among the down-trodden immigrants of the industrial revolution; its advertising (“Moxie Man”) was powerful enough to bring a new word into the language; like so many local things it succumbed to the power of a multinational, in this case Coca-Cola. And now its popularity is limited to New England, mostly in Maine, which trades in icons and lost causes and illusions. And so the word seems to me to describe both the people of Maine and the dangers that surround us.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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