Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Moose

And that brings me to the moose. The lobster may be king of kitsch, but the moose isn’t far behind (although I haven’t seen any life-sized inflatable moose yet – I’m probably not moving in the right circles). And yet it is the perfect symbol for Maine: magnificent and shy, ugly and beautiful, memorable.

Whenever a moose is sighted in our area, a rare occasion, people flock to see it, as if it’s a Shroud of Turin, or Jesus on a pizza. We had one recently in Thomaston, during Thanksgiving week, up to her withers in a swamp, up to her eyeballs in photographs. (The only other sighting in our area that I can recall in the last 15 years was in Owls Head village, in the little pond across from the general store, well before the fame of the store's hamburgers brought the Volvo wagons to town. Well, there was also the mystical sighting in our own yard, I'm ashamed to admit, and I'm ashamed because the sighting was a supposed moose print in the garden, and the sighter was our real estate agent who pointed it out with some drama as we were considering buying the property. Somewhat later, I wondered if she had a certain implement in her trunk to seal deals with flatlanders.) It made me think again that the shy and quiet moose should be the symbol of Thanksgiving, not the bad-tempered turkey, for Thanksgiving is a holiday mellow and kind even though the Pilgrims weren't. The moose is already the state's animal, and keeps continued good health. There's still enough wilderness to sustain it, even apparently in Thomaston, and isn't the bounty and beauty of the land what we really give thanks for?

       Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Black bear

There are still more than 20,000 black bears in Maine, but you say the words “black bear” here and everyone thinks of the University of Maine athletic teams. That’s probably because, in contrast to many of Maine’s other mammals, bears are seldom seen. They seem to be the slow cousins of their more famous family members, the grizzly and the polar. They don’t pose provocatively on ice floes. They don’t pluck salmon out of mid-air. They’re a contradiction, and misunderstood. Are they ferocious or cuddly? Secretive or gregarious? They do have their strange points: animals with big teeth that mostly eat plants and berries; animals that hibernate for four or five months, during which they do not eat or drink or even eliminate waste; cubs that are born during hibernation and that feed entirely on milk from a mother’s already depleted body; mothers that don’t have a strong instinct to protect their cubs; females that stay close to home, males that range widely (as much as 100 square miles).

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Bugs

Alongside the birds fly the bugs. From the public point of view, bugs are the birds’ dark side. Not flashy, mostly invisible, mostly annoying, sometimes downright nasty. You have to be a special kind of scientist to specialize in bugs. And an indefatigable one: there are some 1 million species of insects and spiders in the world, with many more to discover; if you were a beetle specialist, you’d have 25,000 species from which to choose in North America alone. I expect we know very little of the ways that their world is crucial to ours, besides the obvious (pollinating bees, food for birds, scavenging, and clean-up); we seem to care only about those with pestilential qualities. Don’t you wonder if concerted study of the insect world will give us the strongest evidence yet of the mess we’ve made? Or don’t we want to know how they will inherit the earth after we’re done and gone?
     Maine’s bugs, however, are good at getting attention. The spruce budworm can lay waste to thousands of acres of forest, and the insecticide programs to contain it are very controversial, perhaps worse than the cure. A mosquito swarm can be so thick as to be comical. The deer fly must be the most useless creature on the face of the earth. Even in biotic terms I'm hard pressed to understand where the thing fits in except as a chance mutation, an evolutionary dead-end that happens to bedevil mammals in the woods. And the black fly? Well, it’s so bad that the only defense is to stick your tongue firmly in your cheek: call it “Maine’s state bird” and “Defender of the Wilderness”; join the Maine Blackfly Breeder’s Association (whose motto is “We breed ‘em, you feed ‘em”). In some places between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day you need to duct-tape your pant legs and don headgear with netting just to be outside. Unlike mosquitoes, who sample your blood with a dainty proboscis, the black fly scrapes away at your skin until it gets enough blood to be happy. Significant itching and pain ensue.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer:Bald eagles

Here on Penobscot Bay the bald eagle population is apparently growing rapidly. We wouldn't necessarily know, for a sighting over here on the west side of the bay (away from the islands where they wisely live) is rare, lasts maybe two seconds, and is the occasion for wild whoops and comical gyrations as we press noses against the windows to follow its flight out of sight. Its symbolism and mystery are still strong, stirring up both patriotism and nostalgia, a gut wish for some lost America.
It makes me think that people who love Maine are essentially conservative. We’re savers, we’d be completely for maintaining the status quo if most of it weren’t so awful. (I’m pleased to report in this regard that in late 2010, the discovery of an eagle’s nest scuttled, at least temporarily, the state’s plans to build a bypass around Wiscasset and its heroic traffic jams.) My dictionary says conservatism is “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” I’d agree completely if all this were nature-based. But political conservatives focus on institutions, not individuals, on the idea of a bald eagle and not the reality of its fierce and independent beauty. And the works of humans, our DDT and our mercury, are doubly dangerous: we nearly wiped out the eagles, and now that they are returning, we have somehow changed them. On their island fortresses, to which we have banished them, they are forsaking their traditional and difficult diet of live fish and are feasting on easier prey, the chicks and fledglings of the shore birds such as gulls and ducks and cormorants, and because one of those cormorant species of Penobscot Bay, the great cormorant, has so few members to begin with, it probably won’t last the decade.
     Are humans to interfere again? Who's going to win, a magnificent warlike raptor, the symbol of America, or a lowly black water bird? If you had to save one for democracy, which would it be? It’s an example of both our hubris and our interference that we have to ask such questions.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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