Thursday, January 8, 2015

Big Day on the Shore

7:00 - minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit, thick sea smoke on the water
9:00 - walk with dog lasts 5 minutes, still minus 5
11:30 - bald eagle flies back and forth for several minutes a few yards offshore, seagull follows doggedly
1:45 - walk with dog lasts 10 minutes, now plus 5 degrees
2:00 - fox walks across the yard, jumps on bench, leaps at birds in bush (must be desperate), birds budge the minimum, fox heads on down the shore and out of sight
2:05 - catch up on email trail in which literary agent, having seen wife's recently published story in Natural Bridge, wants to know if she's got a novel going
2:30 - monstrous tanker out on the Bay
2:45 - another fox crosses the yard and disappears down the shore
4:30 - dusk, sea smoke thins but has persisted all day, daytime high reaches a balmy plus 7

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Maine Gazetteer: Rest

When I’m not in a Maine state of mind, when I can’t rest, when some worry over children or money pesters, I look at my own version of the Bible, Delorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.  Compared to Thoreau’s The Maine Woods it is slightly less venerable (yearly editions, mine’s the 28th, published in 2005) but just as evocative. Baby boomers of a particular stripe get dreamy just from its covers: the front cover showing the familiar southwest-to-northeast slant of the state, following the Appalachian mountains, starkly completely topologically green except where bluely penetrated by the lakes (which also slant as if escaping the urban centers), no words showing on the map, no roads, the borders - not just the Gulf of Maine but even and especially where New Hampshire and Quebec and New Brunswick ought to be - surrounded by the same blue as the lakes, all in all a perfect island hovering in the harried mind; and the back cover the same shape but now a road map in white surrounded by that blissful blue, broken into 70 grids starting at Kittery and ending in Canada, recording the gruesome divisions and tracks of civilization. Inside, there’s beautiful detail of hills and lakes and contour lines, and best of all the red gazetteer icons scattered like nuggets in a stream. And you see one, the star in a circle or the egret outlined in swamp grass, and you page back to Unique Natural Areas Including Gorges, Eskers, Caves, Estuaries, Reversing Falls, Cliffs, or Nature Preserves Including Foot Trails, to read the brief description of Ripogenus Falls or Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and dream a little about a world gone by, what might have been, what still is, barely, what can be.
That great green bulk of land symbolizes anti-progress to me, anti-puritanism. It is far beyond pleasure; it is my inspiring Genius, like the Greeks used to believe. It makes me both bigger and smaller than myself: bigger because I can at least imagine immortality, if not touch it, and smaller because I know my place in the world. I’ve gone to the woods, and then, having to leave them, feel an almost inexpressible sense of sadness. Leaving Greenville after our days near Moosehead, at the very edge of wilderness, I put the Atlas in the back seat. It’s no longer necessary for the familiar way back home. For a few days I felt caught up in beauty, lost in the infinite, worshipping. I’m accepted, not for what I am, or do, or represent, but merely because I live. Then I return to civilization and the bad side of religion returns, the judging, the insecurity, the hate. I look at the Atlas, at the wonder of Acadia, for example, and imagine its glories. Yet right next door, there’s the Bar Harbor build-up, and even on the least developed part of Acadia, across Frenchmen’s Bay on the Schoodic Peninsula, I’ve read of an “eco-resort” (I think that means the developers throw in a nature center amidst the tennis courts and condos) being planned for its doorstep. Is this the future of our land, a bit of woods or shore surrounded by excrescence? Will the Great North Woods end up in pieces, islands of forest unconnected to others, protected if only temporarily, surrounded in neon like a Gatlinburg, Tennessee, vacation mansions crowding right up to the borders?
I have to put down the Atlas, then, and grieve, and remonstrate all over again. I should be contributing more, time and money; I should have worked in and gotten my living from nature; I should have understood the early restlessness of my life, I should have known that endless moves and inattention destroy the sense of place.
But the driving Puritanism that founded this country, the Calvinism that I trace through my own Dutch ancestry back some 500 years to John Calvin, this Burden that Americans carry whether they know it or not, has an upside. Even though we may believe that the world is doomed, we must also take heart in Calvinism’s basic ambition: you can’t get into heaven on your own, yet you have to act as if you could; even though we are full of original sin, we have to pretend we aren’t and do good deeds. To me this means that at the very least people must give time and money, write screeds, recycle carbon, live quietly, go to the woods, dream of the woods. For me (to paraphrase Lao-Tzu) a single step begins with the journey of a thousand miles.
Maine is hardly the perfect place. It is poor. Too many children get lousy educations. If you don’t like winter, don’t live here. Much of the cultural world is fostered by flatlanders, people from away. But all of us – lobstermen, travelers, artists, Moms-and-Pops, vacationers - still need a place to rest. That’s what Maine offers, in the tolerance of its people, the dangerous beauties of its wilderness, and the harmonies of daily living.
Landscape will perform its wonders on us humans if we’d only let it. So let it be.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
Kindle                    Smashwords                        Nook 

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Wilderness

But enough of the practical, the political. There are reasons far beyond these to preserve the wilderness, and they can address the troubling chasm in our lives: between reality and intent, between compromise and purity, between living responsibly and living fanatically – the old problem of the gap between works and faith. How do I justify my cars, my houses, my consumption of carbon? Even if I try to distill and reduce my way of life a bit, I still out-burn almost everyone on earth. How do we live in a world so obviously destructive?
I won’t go so far as to say the future of our species is at stake. If we do manage to exterminate ourselves, the end will come from apocalypse, nuclear or religious, not these relatively (in geologic scale) gradual insults to our planet. Barring apocalypse, humans will adapt and survive. I believe the science-fiction writers, even the dystopian dyspeptics, who make a point of showing ala Star Trek that we’re human in spite of the gadgets, the aliens and the shiny, impervious surfaces that may indeed one day cover every inch of Earth. We will suffer and survive.
But our adaptation, both as a species and as individuals, could be so much more rewarding if we just look into and value our beautiful natural world. It might even change the course of our burning. One must always hope.
Just look at what a strange life we have, to live so differently from nature (which we praise) and so similar to it (which we deny). I sit in a living room or an office, and the walls are man-made barriers, and the carpeting is an artificial cocoon, and I’m either trapped, or protected, you choose. I choose to believe that I’m more trapped than protected, and I choose the trees outside the windows, their branches reaching into imagination, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth,.
      And that is what national parks represent to me – imagination. Not for nothing are they called “America’s Best Idea.” The reality of a wilderness should be enough, but for many, perhaps most, people it is far away, frightening, even boring and irrelevant to the business of being a cultured, social being. Yet I believe that everyone should have or even needs the chance to explore the beauty of wilderness. I agree with Thoreau when he said, “You cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature.”  I also know that this is a radical view, unsuitable for the majority. But even if most people will not or do not need to explore nature, I submit that the idea of wilderness is just as important as its reality, even for the most determinedly urban of persons. To know that some wild land survives, even though one has never seen it, connects us to something greater than ourselves, in the way religion used to. An immersion in wilderness, even if it’s just a reverie in a diner, allows us the peace of mind to accept death.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer

Kindle                    Smashwords                        Nook  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Great North Woods

It is in these Great North Woods, the third part of northern Maine, the last undeveloped and unprotected land east of the Rockies, the famous 10 million acres, that the fantasist can find his true heaven. Not necessarily physically find it, but ideally, spiritually. I’ve done somewhat more than most people to explore the woods: driving the Stud Mill, Golden and Greenville logging roads; hiking a bit in Baxter State Park; driving Route 201 through The Forks and Jackman to Quebec. I’ve done somewhat more than most to channel Thoreau: following the Penobscot River, and its East and West Branches, (by car) for a while; climbing Mt. Kineo in Moosehead Lake; touching on Ambajejus and Chesuncook Lakes. But I’ve done nothing about the real wilderness: fishing camps accessible only by seaplane; canoe trips on the rivers that flow north, the Allagash and the St. John; interviews with loggers in the deep woods; moose hunts; being completely alone. It may not be necessary. The knowledge that the Great North Woods still exists, remote and inaccessible and untouched and in a natural state of growth and decay, life and death, without human intervention; the satisfaction that I’ve experienced just enough of it; the hope that it survives for others to experience just enough; all that is sufficient to inspire ordinary life, in Maine or in Manhattan.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
Kindle                    Smashwords                        Nook