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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year-End Clean-Up

It seems very appropriate to spend a couple of the last hours of 2008 cleaning up a mess. The early winter storms on the coast left a number of trees down and Dave the tree guy - Owls Head's busiest man in December - finally got a chance just before Christmas to chainsaw the trunks into stove lengths. By arrangement that's all he did, leaving me the branches to haul to the gardens (now little evergreen igloos) and the cut logs to haul to the killing, I mean splitting, grounds next to the garage. I got the first of those two tasks mostly done today, at some cost to gloves and hair and jeans from sap. One tree had fallen right in the middle of a dense forest-lette of little firs, all about 6 feet high and fighting for sun and water in the space that the last round of fallen trees had opened. So I waded into their midst, pulling out branches and retrieving logs and generally aiding the survival of the firrest. In summer, with the mosquitoes and spiders and weeds and Bushes and God knows what mistakes of evolution lurking in the roots, the expedition would have been loathsome. In winter, such Southern nasties are gone and the scents are bracing and the wind off the water is bitingly fresh and January 20 just 3 weeks away. Very pleasant to work and sweat when it's 20 degrees.
One more slightly unpleasant task ahead - moving the logs in the wheelbarrow - and then the whole unprincipled mess will be cleaned up and the joy of splitting can begin. I would have liked to start the new year with the logs already hauled, but the postponement of pleasure can be pleasurable as well. If that is true, 2008 has postponed all pleasure for so long that 2009 will be a happy year indeed. There is nothing like the scent and sight of new wood opened to the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Real Winter

This picture is posted in honor of the way life used to be in December. I don't remember all these horrible ice storms and nasty southeasters bothering us in years past. (Well, there was Maine's Ice Storm of the Century in 1998.) We used to get just plain snow, and could count on skiing at Tanglewood on the Duck Trap River or skating on Hosmer Pond next to Ragged Mountain. After a big snowfall the air would be crisp and cold for days, i.e, it wouldn't rain 24 hours later. Poor precious fir trees! They're built for shoulders of light and airy snow, not 70 mph winds and the wet stuff that breaks their limbs and our backs.

And when we do have the possibility of a real snowstorm, like tomorrow maybe, everyone panics and floods their refrigerators with milk and cancels school hours before a flake has fallen.

These days snow on the coast is so unlikely that a local jeweler will refund any money you spend with him if it snows on Christmas Day. (Although he's probably got it hedged with collateralized frozen precipitation obligations.) And if we do get some, I'm sure the Global Warming gods (I picture them living in Miami, gleefully spewing clouds of smoke and CO2 from their Cuban cigars) will decree that a warm front must immediately follow, leaving us but a few hours to shovel and gambol and watch the dog disappear in the yard.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


What little snow we had was gone by the time I left Maine yesterday afternoon, courtesy of another southern storm that rattled the bay and spiked the thermometer to 52 degrees. It rained all the way home, sometimes as heavily as a summer thunderstorm. It's getting so we can have all four seasons in the space of a week. When our President-elect discusses change, he could include the weather.

Must everything in the 21st century be subject to dislocation, even the semi-precious brilliance of a Maine winter? You never know from day to day what to expect anymore, a pink slip, a restaurant bombing, a bad diagnosis, a fallen tree. The media is very good at this stuff and we fall for the way they sell news. I used to be good at un-media-ting as soon as we got to Owls Head; it's not so easy now. They're getting to me, and the only safe place is outside (splitting wood, hiking, staring at waves) or in books. In the middle of the night I'm getting quite accomplished at combining the two, a hike with Thoreau to Katahdin, for example, or a "mug-up" with Elisabeth Ogilvie on Criehaven. Tonight, however, it sounds like pleasant reveries in Maine will be impossible; the southern storm is changing to sleet and ice, and the wires may come down, and there will be cars in the ditch and sparkling trees across the road. Something halfway between summer and winter, an ice storm leaves the most brilliant of fantasies in its wake, and the most dangerous.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


It was almost comically cold yesterday (9 at sunrise, struggled to 15 for a high by sunset). Once again I forgot to start out going north on the dog's walk, which meant facing the forehead-freezing fury of Canada's best winds on Ash Point Road. The walk possibly set a personal best - usually we are sniffing and detouring and turning around to gaze wistfully back (or see what's gaining on us) - well under 20 minutes for the loop. In the afternoon the three of us tried to think of a more sheltered place to exercise and eliminate; unfortunately, our geography was off, for Beaucaire Road in Camden is on the south and east sides of Lake Megunticook, and the lovely houses and stately trees did little to protect our collective noses and toeses from the northwest winds. It was a personal worst for that walk, the usual hour embarrassingly shrunk by a sprint for the warmth of the car after 20 minutes.

The cold made for wonderful views of the bay, however. Sunrise saw a flinty ocean and sharp racing clouds above the horizon and freezing sea fog below. Sunset was an astonishing palette of the BIV end of the spectrum. The cold made for fast and furious burning in the woodstove. It was most conducive to thankfulness. And it made for a wonderfully cozy evening of stir-fry and hot cocoa and a movie by the fire.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stop the Messes

Every winter the town of Rockport blocks off the undeveloped section of Beauchamp Point Road. A hill of dirt and a stop sign at either end do the trick. This stretch of coast, protected from development by the Rockport Conservation Commission, is lovely: the forested hills slope steeply down to the shore, and the shore is wild, with several ledges clearly designed for sunning and poking. The dog remembers those ledges and pulls on the leash to be liberated (fat chance).

The banning of cars in winter doesn't quite make sense, of course. There's almost no traffic, it's too cold for sitting on the rocks, tourists don't stroll on icy dirt roads. I can only think that the lawyers have spoken: the road is hilly, and slippery, and narrow, and there are no guard rails to catch Cadillacs in mid-spin.

The high-minded among us would ban cars in the summer, to preserve the illusion that this serene half-mile is not surrounded by hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate, and to make it a little more difficult to carry in picnics and leave messes. But that would raise the perennial problem of parking. The mansions on the south end would not be interested in a glut of cars on Mechanic Street (how would the lawn guys, the cooks, the maids get in?), and on the north end, the saltwater farm could make a strong case that cars are not a crop. Best leave the road open but unimproved, just bumpy and dirty enough to discourage the punters.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

First Snow

It wasn't much, just an inch or two, but it does qualify for the annals of wonderful things: all the positives so loved by us northern European types - clean, pure, white - and not yet any of the negatives - dirty, tiresome, icy, dangerous. I think it's also the contrasts we crave. Early snow is childhood innocence. It masks experienced greys and drab greens. It highlights the overwhelming sky, it etches the illimitable ocean. We like to think we can define the world in black and white, nature and development, good and evil. A view like this outlines us a little more clearly against the prospect of infinity.
Never mind that we don't really matter; that doesn't matter on a day like this. Ignore for the moment that this photo is taken from a paved road looking down on a green of the Megunticook Golf Club. It still makes me glad. (Although in the summer, the view contains beetling golf carts and large men in yellow slacks and slim women in Bermuda shorts - who are busy defining their own places in the cosmos, they imagine.) Snow is such an amazing contrast with, say, cornflowers, that not even the presence of uber-silly civilization can detract from the whole-nature, four-season view. And the sight of first snow makes it certain that I'll never give in to pre-packaged Florida.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Working Waterfront Covenant

A couple of weeks ago the new owners of the Ship to Shore wharf in Owls Head got wonderful news. (They had purchased the wharf on October 14, Black Friday, while both the stock market and lobster prices were in free-fall, and needed some!) Maine's Department of Marine Resources and the public trust Land for Maine's Future announced the state would buy a covenant to make sure that the property will always be used for fishing. The money comes from public bond programs to preserve shore access for fishermen, voted in by enlightened Mainers in 2005 and 2007.

Basically, the state is buying development rights. It's depressing to think that's the only way to preserve these places (11 properties so far) from condos. But it's also exhilarating to know that an independent and colorful way of life will continue at least around here. Mr. Mason wants to expand both his wholesale and retail lobster business, and thus increase the number of boats unloading at his wharf. Can a clam and lobster shack be far behind? I hope so, I hope not.

There's an interesting sidelight to this story. Apparently, the Town has an easement on the wharf, a three-foot-wide right-of-way for the public to enjoy the waterfront. (We were on the wharf this summer and I'm glad to know that our trespasses will not come to trespass against us.) The deed runs out in a few years, and I predict a small battle. Mr. Mason sounds reasonably enlightened about his intentions (and his actions so far - cleaning up years of junk left by the "public" - speak louder than words), although I note that he is presently chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Just one example of the many great conservation programs in the state. Kudos to Maine and the wise people in it. And may I also say that I love the word covenant, implying that the laws of man might indeed be everlasting.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Darkness at Four

Still a couple of weeks to go before darkness is complete at the same time the markets close. I watch Little Island (about 500 yards offshore) until it's invisible, at 4:25. There are no lights on in the house, except the diodes on the router, the clock on the Bose, a flickering flame behind the sooty glass of the wood stove's doors, and the computer screen in front of me, my window to the world's bad news.

Other than the thrilling triumph of the President-elect, there's only gloom in the world. It's gotten so that I will not look at any news site between 9:30 and 4:00. And now serious winter is coming on. Maine has hard ones. I've been reading Lobster Coast by Colin Woodard - the privations and depradations that the people of this state have gone through the last 400 years are humbling: European wars spilled over here; disputes with Massachusetts abounded; British nobles and Boston businessmen claimed vast acreages over and over again; taxes and tolls and fees bedeviled the populace; sickness and Indians and starvation wiped out whole towns; lumber and salmon and ice and herring and granite and and lobster and lime boomed and busted; and the winters were real winters, deep, dark, long, unremittingly cold. At least they're not so cold outside anymore, but many Mainers will take small comfort in that this year, with no way to heat the house.

We all look forward to the winter solstice, time of pagan and Christian worship, when the balance might start to shift again, away from greed, towards hope.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Low-Tide Line

There's a new sign at the end of Ash Point. It's a tasteful one, with nice type and a little design. Even the four messages are kindly stated, something like: "End of town property. Private property deeded to the low-tide line. Picking of beach rocks prohibited. Be respectful."

I'm assuming the sign belongs to the ranch house to the right. The old couple must have moved out, or died, and the new owners are asserting their rights. Have they been having trouble with vandalizing, rock-napping, disrespectful tourists? It's not the work of the big Victorian to the left, prominently marked "Trails End" - it's for sale and doesn't appear inhabited or litigious.

Maine and Massachusetts, the old Puritan partners, are unique in allowing ownership of the inter-tidal zone. With the exception of "fishing, fowling, and navigation," all other activities can be prosecuted, including casual access. (Since almost all of the coast is privately owned, this presents problems for local folk working the sea, and folks from away seeking some peace.) So now, when I walk the gorgeous stretch of shore between Ash Point and Lucia Beach, should I carry rod and reel, shotgun, iPhone with GPS? When the dog and I sample the sights and smells below the embankment at Ash Point, do I pretend to be blind and claim she's my seeing eye poodle?

The rocks and stones around Ash Point are particularly wonderful so I can see the injunction against picking. I've described before (see September 8) the amazing variety of rock leading to Lucia Beach. Ash Point itself has the world's best collection of skipping stones; does that use now qualify for incarceration?

Well, I doubt I'll change my pleasures. I'm a fellow ITZ owner, after all, and upon apprehension will coolly say, "You can walk on mine if I can walk on yours."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Undoubtedly de-limbing is not a word but it's descriptive of my first awkward encounter with a chainsaw. In preparation, I had read the instructions, oh, maybe nine or ten times and eventually got the beast going in spite of the uncertainties of the choke. In the course of 90 minutes, I only stalled out twice, stopped for gas once, stopped for aching back once. Besides the branches, I even cut three logs off the top end of the trunk, just for the experience, you know. Probably did it all wrong....
The tree had fallen in mostly open leaching field and so it was relatively easy to get at; I won't attempt the one in front messily embraced by other trees. The experts are coming in a few days and I'll be sure to get some pointers from the safety of the house. They will "chunk up" the trees. I will haul and split, neither of which involve motors or loud noise. Tomorrow being another day, maybe I'll chew a few of the larger limbs for kindling, and then happily return the resistible force to my friend.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Trees Once Again

We got an email from our neighbors in Maine last Wednesday, saying that the 70 mph winds of a tremendous storm on Tuesday night had blown down several trees. At first I panicked, thinking from the description she meant the perfect fir trees directly in our view of the bay and clinging to the edge of the bank. It's only a matter of time, I know, but their loss would have been heart-rending, and I'd just as soon preserve life as long as possible. I called Kathleen on the phone and discovered the icons were safe, that firs on either side of the property had fallen, the one on the north caving in to erosion and gale winds and nearly horizontal, the other on the south still mostly propped by its neighbors. This in addition to a large, nearly dead pine stricken down across our leaching field in back.
By the time I got to Owls Head last night, it was too dark to see, and even in the morning, from the safety of the house, things didn't look so bad. I had to get up close to see the problem: how big the fallen trees actually are and how many others are groaning under the weight. Another tree has markedly increased the angle of its lean (toward the house!). When they fell, the trees tilted up circles of dirt with their roots and it's a little alarming to see how shallow the roots are, how such little horizontality produces such great verticality. I was just as happy to have been in Massachusetts during the storm, not listening to crashes, not waiting for the branch through the window, not worrying about the thinness of topsoil on this hard granite coast.
Tomorrow: the chain saw.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Only a few days left in deer hunting season. Mia and I have been careless this year on our walks, not wearing our orange collars and red "No Fear" caps. Occasionally, we hear gunshots but they're faint and far away, or are the gates of dumptrucks slamming shut. As we walk through the woods lining Bayview I do imagine a bullet zinging past my head, and I stand in my everyday garb, LL Bean shell and jeans and righteous indignation, yelling at the hunter, "A blue deer?" Mia imagines too, sniffing the trails cutting across the road and conjuring something out of those smells. I give her credit for associating the smells with the animals seen so often this summer, although I shouldn't anthropomorphize.

And I shouldn't anthropomorphize about the deer either, but I can't imagine killing one. They are incredibly beautiful, and the picture of grace, and their sense of smell puts our little poodle's to shame. I've read that hunters go to huge lengths to disguise their own human smell, even rubbing out footsteps in the leaves. I guess during hunting season their prey is extra wary, or understand the calendar, because Harry the Hunter could have had his fill right here if they act in November as they did this summer, crossing and re-crossing the roads, annihilating our flowers, marching their fawns. I haven't seen any this week; like any overmatched army, they must retreat in the face of war.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trees Again

OK, I'm becoming slightly obsessed.
Not so bad as Baron Wormser, who in his book The Road Washes Out in Spring took the cake. He had an excuse, since his house in the middle of nowhere, where he lived for 25 years, had no furnace or electricity but did have three wood stoves, thus eating up innumerable hours (and trees) in felling them, cutting them into chunks, dragging the chunks to his house, cutting them into stove sizes, splitting them, stacking them, drying them, carrying them into the house, burning them. And yet had time for a wondering walk every day among them.
Since we must consume, it's good to have such partners. Adjectives ranging from scrub to magnificent describe them. They are uncursed by locomotion, leaving restlessness to the animal world, breathing in what we breathe out from our exertions. They sacrifice themselves, living to dead, trunk to board, bark to compost, branch to bow, twig to arrow. We over-use them at our peril. At this rate Siberia will soon be a desert just from feeding China.
Our next-door neighbors recently cut down a nice stand of birches near the shore to construct a new septic system. Irrationally (after all, my own house has a leaching field where there were once trees), I want to get out my tape measure and see if it's set back 25 feet from the water as the law requires. They have the perfect right, of course; but was there no other way, and can we use only fallen or hollowed trees for firewood and please, how long before technology can make tables and floors from something else as beautiful as oak?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

State O' Maine

I'm reading State O' Maine, Louise Dickinson Rich's informal history of the state. Among other goals I've wanted to understand something of the crazy-quilt pattern of English and French and Indian and American interactions in Maine in the years before the Revolution. You walk around Castine, for example, and the little historical markers try to be helpful but the number of raids and battles are bewildering and allegiances change every hundred yards. Oh, and the Dutch seem to have been involved there too.

The problem, I discover, is that the various colonial wars lasted nearly a century, from the late 1600s to nearly the Revolutionary War. No wonder it's appalling; if we're outraged by four years in Iraq, imagine 85. In Maine, the Spanish and the Dutch got their licks in, but mostly it was the Brits and their colonies and their Indians allies against the French's same. So Europeans settling in Maine basically lived in fear from the beginning, from outright deprivation in the early part of the 17th century to rebels and redcoats and scalpers and pirates for decades later on. In a way it was the battleground between British Massachusetts and French Canada, and since Maine was the colony of a colony until breaking free of Massachusetts in 1820 (not ever entirely, more's the pity), its loyalties generally lay with the Crown of England, at the peril of their own crowns.

I don't know the motivation of the artist who carved this head. We found it in Belfast (another enduring name in the annals of fear) outside a shop, in a small colony of similar totems. I'd like to think she was mourning the terrible quandaries of the Passamaquoddies and the Abenakis who populated this land, who succumbed to the religion of the French and the commerce of the English, who killed and were killed intestate, who never became Americans. And yet can tell us white people in our white SUVs so much of nobility in the face of paradise lost.

Friday, November 21, 2008


We used to be able to count on beds of snow to protect the gardens. Now leaves fill in the spaces left by global warming, which means, of course, that double-handling is required, once to rake them up and carry them to the gardens in the fall, once to rake them off the garden and carry them to the woods in the spring.
I've just finished putting five of the six little babies to bed (forgot about the newish one behind the garage, the one I myself planted with alternating hostas and lilies divided and transplanted in a showy utilitarianism, if not originality). The others were constructed by this house's former owners, beautifully and sturdily, and we have tended them, reasonably and sporadically, with bursts of energy in the spring and fall, and with, every once in a while in the summer, flashes of enthusiastic insight and dashes to the Green Thumb for species that might do a little better in the thin spot near the driveway or bloom longer than two years or be less tasty to the deer. The seventh "garden" is actually a wooden flowerbed cleverly concealing the septic holding tank, has no perennials, doesn't need the blanket of leaves, does allow an annual burst of creativity.

The birch-and-maple-and-needle blanket apparently does help, although I marvel that these fragile wonders can survive the harsh winters at all. If we dressed them in flannel sheets and down comforters and fleece blankets, would they bloom twice as long, grow twice as high? Or should we just wait for climate change to improve our gardening skills?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oak Leaves

I'm not sure that it's possible there were more leaves this year than last, but it certainly seemed so as we raked on Monday. It also seemed that they fell earlier than usual; it's not even Thanksgiving and the oak trees are bare. Usually, there are leaves rattling in the wind like little skeletons well into December. But the extra work was good for our aging muscles, now embarrassingly sore.
Raking leaves in Massachusetts is a chore, in Maine a pleasure (almost) that I'll be enjoying later in the week. The day will be bright and cold and crisp, the ocean glittering and bare of lobster pots, the gulls mewling, and the dog obnoxious (the rake is her personal play thing). There's not that much to rake either, a few yellowed birch leaves, a showering of pine and spruce and fir needles, a few cones, and the gardens to put to bed for the winter, so I can start after lunch and often just stand and daydream in the sun and still not run out of time in the short day.
And there are no oak trees: I imagine they can't survive the storms and the poor shallow soil and the bedrock and probably were all burned for firewood long ago anyway. Big oak trees thrive in old stable communities and ancient protected forests. Their roots must go deep. They stand and protect us. They make us think of immortality.
Life on the ocean's edge is much more ephemeral, no illusions of stability in the ceaseless tides and winds, and isn't it wonderful to realize that we are so fragile and small and so much a part of, not conquerors of, indifferent Nature?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Massachusetts Hall

The oldest building on the campus of Bowdoin College is Massachusetts Hall, indeed the only one when the college was founded in 1794 with just a few young religious boys as students. It was naturally so-named; Maine was a district of Massachussetts until 1820, and Governor Sam Adams of Massachusetts chartered the college, naming it after another Massachusetts governor whose son was a prime benefactor (some things haven't changed). The ties are still strong; almost 25% of the school's students come from Massachusetts.

I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne when I see Massachusetts Hall. He arrived on campus in 1821, and I like to think that the emancipation of Maine meant the emancipation of that Puritanical Salem boy. Did Maine stimulate his imagination? Did Maine's freedom and beauty make him a writer? Of course, it's one thing to live in Maine when you're a young man, quite another to do so when you're much older. But you can be re-born at any age.
My daughter Kate is now a senior at Bowdoin. When she was a freshman, she took a seminar in the Hall, in the very classroom Hawthorne did. As she prepares to leave Maine next spring, I know she will tackle life with Hawthorne's passion and energy, and perhaps without his suffering, and will think of her father trying to do the same.

Friday, November 7, 2008

More red berries

They're not exactly the luscious raspberries of July, but these winterberries (I think that's what the plant is) of November taste as good in the eye as raspberries do in the mouth. We need the relief from the browns and greys of the winter woods; the red sweaters and yellow caps and the little orange collar for the dog that we put on for our walks are against hunters, not depression. We thirst for every bit of natural color.

It's a hard season coming up. At the solstice only a third of the day is lit. People who make their living from the land and the sea and the tourists can't. Many will fall short of food, medical care, clothing because of the cost of oil and propane. Many will lose their jobs in the aftermath of the greed-fest of the last years. Cold is only enjoyable when you know you can escape it. Ice is beautiful on lakes, in cocktails, under hockey teams, and doesn't particularly please as a carpet for the driveway. Have I mentioned sleet and downed power lines?

But for these fortunate enough, late fall and winter are also invigorating. Those splashes of red and orange in the wetlands are a triumph against pettiness. A snowfall makes you feel ten years old again, and snowshoes prolong the illusion. The fir trees sparkle in the sun. On a really cold morning, steam rises off the ocean as if the water were breathing in cozy hibernation. And nothing defines cozy like a drink and a snack and a spouse around the wood stove.

I wonder what the winterberries taste like. Bittersweet?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Black and White

How wonderful what happened yesterday! I listened to Obama's speech from Grant Park, half-drunk on the words and the hope and a single-malt too far. Like Michelle Obama, I'm proud to be an American for the first time in a very long while, decades, and I don't have to back-track as she did. Children of the 60s have a hard enough time with disillusionment, and in my case, it was exacerbated by my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer and as an employee of European companies for 20 years. No more apologies and embarassment and shame now - we just might be returning to a government of compassion and peace, and leaving one of greed and war. He's just one man, but how resolute, how steady, how principled - God protect him.

And completely wonderful that Maine, the whitest state in the Union, voted so strongly (58-40) for a black man. And voted a Republican woman, Susan Collins, back to the Senate 61-39, and a Democratic woman, Chellie Pingree, to the US House 55-45. Race and sex will always matter in politics, but the chance that they will reduce in importance to, say, religion or education or eloquence or integrity, just another factor in a personality, is greatly enhanced by the stunning events of November 4, 2008.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Route 1

For whatever reason (OK, the main reason was that we didn't have the dog with us to make extra car time so loathsome), we decided, after Sunday-brunching with the eldest in Brunswick, to forsake the highways and take a gentle route back home. The idea was to stop in Ogunquit and walk Marginal Way and the beach; we could have taken I-295 and the Turnpike all the way to Ogunquit, but the day was beautifully blue and before we knew it,"gentle" morphed into Route 1.

We left Brunswick at noon, got home at 5:30. Since the trip normally takes 2.25 hours, and the little side trip to see Walkers Point in Kennebunkport got us slightly lost and took 1 hour, and the Ogunquit walk cost 1.5 hours and $5 in parking at Perkins Cove (on Nov 2! we paid!), the extra time spent on Route 1 apparently comes to only 0.75 hours. (If I include the hour due to resuming EST, we're into negative territory, appropriate for Route 1.) Of course, it seemed much longer. There are a few copses and open fields between Brunswick and Portland (save the national excess that is Freeport), but all green disappears in favor of stores and stoplights from then on, as Portland spreads south, as the "vacationlands" of Scarborough and Old Orchard Beach and Saco and Biddeford and Wells just plain spread. But it's not like most "Route 1's", where national chains predominate. In Maine we have mom 'n pop restaurants and motels, water parks and souvenir shops, a lot of them cheek by jowl for miles, to be sure, and everything really quite ugly, but the only sign of the national disease are the gas stations, occasional Holiday Inn, and a few new malls set back against acres of parking. 98% of Maine businesses are small businesses. We proved it yesterday.

Development slowed as we neared Kennebunk, stayed mostly tasteful in the Yorks and Ogunquit (it must have something to do rich people, or zoning, or all the McCain/Palin signs along the road), roared up again in Kittery. But all in all, it wasn't quite as dreadful as parts south, say in Saugus, MA.

And the great thing about Maine's section of Route 1 is that you can drive a minute or ten off the road and immediately be in the woods, or on a farm, or by the surf. Except maybe in Old Orchard.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fund Raising

We'll be back in Maine this weekend for Parents' Weekend at Bowdoin. Two weeks ago it was Parents' Weekend at Union. It's always a hoot to experience the various appeals to contribute to endowment drives from colleges to which we're already paying many thousands a year. You'd think they would at least have the decency to wait until after graduation. And why the parents of students? Are we that grateful to them for accepting our children?

It must be about the rankings. The two colleges together have well more than $1 billion (which would fund the entire State of Maine's operating budget for nearly half a year) so they really don't need more. Or do they? They're always building something, of course. Maybe the real goal is to cover every inch of campus with something, impressing US NEWS and alumni alike.

So it was kind of refreshing to see the Calvin College fund raising banners earlier this month. Better than Much Higher Rankings: Stocks and Bond Increasing Our Position.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It was the end of a perfect day and our favorite view was especially beautiful at dusk. Not that you can tell it's autumn from this picture: one of the great things about the ocean is that a particular scene can be almost the same in all seasons. (Or it can be amazingly different.) Outside the camera's eye there's the browning grass and the decaying gardens and the falling yellowed birch leaves, but the picture still gives us summer or spring, a useful fantasy as we face the darkness and uncertainty of winter.

Things seem to fall in October, leaves, spirits, markets. I happen to think Maine is pretty damn nice all year round but can't deny how special summer is. But rejoice! Last week, after only 14 years of living with the wood stove, I at last read the owner's manual in some detail and figured out how to distinguish an updraft fire from a horizontal fire, how to manipulate the damper and the air supply and the thermostat at the back, and not incidentally (duh!) how to make the house much warmer with much less wood. Nothing like a crisis (the propane bill had just arrived) to bring out the best in us. Bring it on, winter - we're going to be cozy, less sweatered, and less poor.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Maiden Cliff

The white cross appears to be religious but is actually a memorial to a young girl who fell off the cliff in 1862. I expect the cross was erected as much for the spiritual marvel of the views as for the salvation of a soul. Thoughts of heaven pale in comparison with the beauty of the earth. We can see the rest of the Camden Hills, the peculiar little islands of Lake Megunticook, the million dollar houses on its shores, even the ocean and the peninsula of Owls Head, all available after only a mile's climb. No wonder the town keeps repairing and replacing the cross for all these years. It draws tourists much better than neon.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bates Street

This is my grandmother's former house in Grand Rapids, MI. She bought it shortly after WWII when she had to leave Minnesota on the death of her husband and the loss of her farm. Mother's mother was a strong and stern woman although not with her grandchildren, and she was pleased to let me stay in her house, occasionally during my freshman year in college when I worked second shift at the nearby hospital, and for my whole sophomore year. I slept in the tiniest of rooms at the back, until my Uncle Henry, the first son after three daughters, the bachelor, the one who lived with Grandma, the one perhaps she was hardest on (and her children included an apostate Bowdoin professor and a near-radical in New Jersey!), until Henry gave in temporarily to his devils and was institutionalized. His room (see the window to the right of the door) was slightly larger than the cubby off the kitchen, maybe 6 feet by 10, and was the location of my own dark nights and eventual break with the tradition of those who loved me.

Henry eventually got a little better and moved to Maine in the 80s, to Richmond in a halfway house, under the sponsorship of his brother in Brunswick. It didn't last very long, and he ended up at Togus VA Medical Center, in a locked ward, and finally in a pond, drowned. On my travels through Maine I would often drive past Togus, and think of his death and funeral and grave, but it took this trip back to Grand Rapids, to see the old house and to understand that maybe we both thought of Maine as a place of refuge, both of us escaping devils, his old Satan, mine a few corporate imps. I'm very sorry that not even Maine could heal him.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Cabin

On our way to Traverse City a couple of weeks ago, we stopped in Baldwin to try to find the vacation cabin of my youth. Things hadn't really changed that much in the area, Baldwin being kind of stuck in no man's land in the middle of the state, but it still took a couple of passes on Route 37 before we found the access road, still unpaved but now graced with a street sign, West Harmony Lane. The road still wound down the hill towards the river, the power lines still hummed, the several driveways to the right still approximated my memories, but when we reached what had to be the place, I almost advised Cindy to turn around and try again. It was completely transformed, from a simple log cabin with a falling down garage, to a semi-fancy year-round house, with pole barn and gardening shed.
This wasn't its first transformation. My parents sold the cabin to someone who apparently (as they reported on a clandestine visit some years later) covered the place in yellow siding, as if nothing was safe from suburbia. The current owners at least made it look like a cabin again.
The river in front, the Little South Branch of the Pere Marquette, looked essentially the same, however. The dream had not changed. We owned the cabin for almost all my teenage years, and my longing for it, for trout fishing in the river, for summer in the verdant woods, for family time away from small-town Minnesota, away from the dry and inhospitable prairie, was almost indescribable. I felt as I did when we started coming to Maine: pure escape, from corporate pressures which indeed are quite like small-town life, from ambition, from public responsibilities.
I still think of the cabin as a savior, and expected upon returning and finding it again to be overwhelmed by grace. I was even nervous, as if I was about to give a presentation. It didn't happen. I was happy to see it, of course, but being saved when you're fifteen and being saved when you're fifty is a different level of heaven. Still, as we said goodbye to the current owners and drove out the driveway, I gave a little prayer of thanks to the place that prepared me for Maine.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The area west of Traverse City, Michigan, I was very happy to discover earlier this month, is as spectacular as I remember when I visited in college. Back then there was energy to burn, to climb the wall of sand at the Dune Climb and hike in 3 miles to Lake Michigan, up and down over the dunes. I believe my party even slept out under the stars, without a plan for rain.

Almost 40 years later, we are not so adventurous but more appreciative. We slept in a comfortable bed, ate better than burgers and beans, took showers. Nonetheless, progress on a large scale has largely been thwarted at Sleeping Bear, leaving wind and sand and water and woods and dunes that at their highest point are nearly 500 feet above the lake (and the angle down is nearly 90). What towns there are are minuscule. It's very dark at night. Not so different in kind from Maine, one might say.

Except that it is, and not just for the immense dunes. It starts with Lake Michigan. It is of course freshwater, and swimmable all summer and into September, and large enough that, like the ocean, you can't see the other side. But I've never felt power and majesty as I do on the North Atlantic, not even when we were in Grand Haven during a wonderful blow.

The obvious difference is the tide; most of the time, the Great Lakes are quiet, sending small, consistent waves always hitting the same part of the shore. Most of their shores are sand, not rock. Because of the sand, the water color is a light blue, almost green in spots, almost tropical. I don't ever have the sense that monsters lurk beneath the surface. If there were monsters around, one didn't discuss them.

In many ways I'm happy I grew up in the Midwest, for the calmness, the placidity, a more phlegmatic approach to life. But when I'm in Maine, especially on a day like today (blustery, cold, whitecaps on the water, soft grey-blue the color of the clouds, hard slate-green the color of the sea), I find in the serene turbulence and sharp beauty of the place the sense of spiritual energy that the adversarial training of my childhood had no chance of instilling.

Monday, October 20, 2008


In the back of my mind, as we've lollygagged out of state for a month, has lurked Hurrican Kyle. Kindly, he missed Maine and pommeled Canada back on September 28 but even "missing" means a lot of rain. And heavy rain means a small river of mud and sand down the driveway.

I've been slightly obsessed about water flow since early this year when a new pattern was established, to the detriment of the garage, the railroad-tie steps, and the brick walkway. Completely amateurish solutions, arrived at after thinking deeply and squinting along the driveway surface and damply observing run-off during light showers, involved the construction of canals bordered with stone and leftover bricks, which were immediately overcome by any precipitation falling harder than a shower and lasting longer than 10 minutes. The garage floor took a mudbath, the walkway turned from red to grey. I'm not looking forward to tomorrow when we'll see what Kyle hath wrought, and I take no comfort in the fact that the Panama Canal also has to be continually dredged.

I do take a little comfort in that these homespun, homemade approaches to the problem might make me a bit more of a real Mainer. For now, until another Bob (1991) comes along, and/or the steps fail completely, I'll resist the profe$$ional $olution of large machine$ and pla$tic tarp and 4.5 inche$ of white gravel. A man should be able to control his own destiny, unless of course it involves world finance, presidential politics, global warming or the music choices of one's children.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I suppose it was good to be on vacation as the markets tanked. The temptation to check accounts isn't nearly as strong when you're with friends and relatives, or walking the beaches of Lake Michigan, or basking in a B&B near Sleeping Bear Dunes. We were good Americans, spending money, having fun, following the advice of our President in the face of disasters. What, me worry?
Now that we're temporarily finished with privatizing profit, socializing risk is in full swing. (Odd that the Republicans are in favor of both.) New regulations are the order of the day, and after driving through a number of the exurban areas of Michigan, I do hope that financial regulation is not the only category to gain more oversight. Mini-malls have taken over vast swatches of southeastern Grand Rapids, eastern Holland, southern Traverse City. It's as if there has been absolutely no regulation at all for years, resulting in incredible ugliness. We have these problems in the east, of course, but land is limited and further expansion is difficult. Farms and forests and wetlands seem to be valued. Environmental review has teeth. I wonder if such sentiments ever trouble the members of the zoning board of Allendale, Michigan.
The irony is that lack of regulation has not produced diversity, but a depressing sameness: the mini-malls are completely filled with national chains. A further irony for Michigan - irony is too mild, tragedy comes closer - is that it is in desperate shape. While we were there, McCain's campaign actually pulled out of the state. How awful, to be abandoned even by the Republicans! And now with the Big Three threatening to become the Big Two, it can only get worse. Yet development seems to continue unabated.
There are some incredibly beautiful places in Michigan, and still a lot of undeveloped land (probably the problem). Yet I get a sense of life on the edge, desires unchecked, a state reaching the end of the game and going into overtime. Maine is by no means perfect, but there's a strong feeling of place and respect for what's there, and precious, to be protected at all costs.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

on vacation (not in Maine!) - I'll resume in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

First Week of Fall

The days have been sunny and cool this week, the nights clear and cold. It's a little strange to be outside the rhythm of changes that fall usually brings, to be able to enjoy these perfect days without too many distractions. And life gets slower up here the closer we get to winter: far fewer boats in the bay, cars tooling down to Ash Point, airplanes landing, tourists window-shopping. You can see the slow natural changes, like trees changing color, people getting wiser, even as the unnatural ones (schools, jobs, 5-year plans, bail-outs) pick up the pace elsewhere.

The Japanese maple is a small reminder not to worry about the calendar too much. Some varieties, like this one at Vesper Hill, blaze even in June. To me that's comforting. A tree is free from the curse of locomotion. It doesn't have make progress to make a point; it's magnificent in its own right, in all seasons. Yet it has a spirit that transcends time, subtly in most cases, blatantly in others. The Japanese maple is particularly wonderful, for it also travels in space, the contemplative focal point of countless gardens around the world.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Maine Atlas and Gazeteer

...is clearly one of the best books ever published, good for hours of daydreaming, armchair adventures, and general baby-boomer innocence, not to mention a pretty good companion when you're out and about in the state. I love the way all the hills are named, like the native Americans used to. I love the six different line styles for roads, from limited access highway to trail, with the ominous and exciting empty circle signifying a permanently washed-out bridge or road. I especially love the red gazeteer icons symbolizing places of interest, from proud lighthouses to humble nature preserves. I'm proud to be on the spread of maps 8 and 9 (almost entirely ocean, includes the mythical islands of Monhegan and Matinicus, also the Ragged Island of Elisabeth Ogilvie).
But (says the ex-Calvinist) there's always a dark side. The Atlas is of course published by DeLorme, in Yarmouth, home of the great globe just off Route 1. And DeLorme is David DeLorme, who founded the company in 1976 when his homemade maps found a market niche. Great story: local man loves the outdoors, sees a need, big success. The dark side is the relentless press of business. Having published Atlases for all 50 states, having pioneered the street CD-ROM for every address in the US, DeLorme is now heavily into GIS and GPS, and the irony starts to be crushing. It's now easier to find oil and minerals, easier to develop land, easier to log, easier to build malls, easier to trek into wilderness knowing you can be rescued, and the very thing the Atlas is designed for, to find places of beauty and peace, is aiding and abetting the opposite.
Having been in business and having (in effect) despoiled my own bit of Maine by owning a house here, I'm sensitive to the contradictions of such criticism. I dearly hope, however, that Maine can remain a place of some mystery and inspiration for my children and their children, that the Atlas will continue to provide inspiration for responsible souls, and that the users of GPS will every once in a while turn it off and go where they don't know where they are.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


At about 5:30 there's a faint red blush in the sky over Vinalhaven, and then not much happens for the next hour. Each morning's dawn is slightly different. Yesterday there was a brisk breeze from the north, and streams of seagulls sailed into it. I didn't see any going south but they must have returned, perhaps out of sight over the land, flying in a grand circle, all for the show-off pleasure of maneuvering straight into wind without flapping their wings. Yesterday's sky was also mostly cloudy except for a band of clear hugging the east horizon, affording just enough room for a full concentrated red rise. This morning's sky was cloudless; I was surprised to see how much red tinted the blue unhindered.

The hour seems to go very slowly. It's not just that I'm not ready to get up; it's peaceful and quiet, this transition between night and day. The ocean is calm, the light is slowly brightening, and the only wireless transmissions are my own, exploring the coast un-Googled. I know from the map that the orientation of this view is down east, a straight line over Vinalhaven, through Stonington and Acadia, all the way to Lubec. I take the hour to fly from here to there, calmly, fixed-winged like a gull. In this lovely hiatus, it's hard to believe the earth is really spinning, that the sun will rise soon enough.

Then the red starts to turn to orange and the first piercing ray shoots across the bay. In the space of 5 minutes he's fully up, white and brilliant, the earth now spinning much faster, or so it seems. The mood is broken. Various imperatives beckon. I park my little hour of reverie on the hard tarmac of the day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dog Napping

The usual sequence of events that takes the dog from vertical to horizontal on the trip across state lines is as follows:
  • Start off in the back seat but get your skinny butt into the passenger's lap as soon as possible.

  • For 20-30 minutes, tremble with fear, as it's unclear if the trip will end in some torture conducted by the groomer or the vet.

  • Start to calm a little, ie, sink into long-suffering arms until a turn signal or lane change or slight slowing down or buzzing fly on the dashboard provokes new fear and fresh trembling. Go upright.

  • At the hour mark, give or take 15 minutes, give over to trust and sleep, draped willy nilly across arms and legs, for the next two hours.

Yesterday, however, I drove to Maine with no passenger lap on offer. The solution, I figured, was to take along the doggy bed as a substitute. We set off, and all was well for the first few minutes. Mia settled into her bed as soon as we reached the highway.
Then I looked over at her and got my first inkling that all was indeed not well. She was lying in her bed, fine and dandy, but her head was perched on the side wall and she was staring at me. I don't know if dogs blink; she didn't for ten minutes; I checked almost continuously. She was unyielding, knowing that I was carrying her off for some disaster. Her face was pathetic.

Clearly, none of my assurances and invitations to rest gave her relief and she turned and twisted and trembled all the way through Massachusetts, finally giving in as we crossed into New Hampshire. Perhaps she thought that now, surely, having crossed a state line, someone like the FBI would be on the case and she could relax a bit. There was a brief disturbance at the toll booth as she tried to signal for help. Then she actually seemed to sleep for a bit, although her eyes were partly open.

Until we hit the Piscataqua bridge. I don't know if it was the soft curse I uttered at the driver tailgating me, or the smell of the tidal river, but Mia bolted upright at the height of the span and wouldn't be comforted. Maine doesn't necessarily give her great vibes; she's a people, after all, and shouldn't have to deal with large dogs and wild deer. For me, of course, the moment is heaven. Not even the awful sprawl of Kittery's outlet stores can blunt the sweet smells and salubrious scents of the piney woods and the ocean air.

Her distress lasted all the rest of the way. She was starting to give up to her fate around Brunswick if we hadn't stopped to deliver forgotten goods to the college senior; unfortunately, as soon as we turned towards Bowdoin, she knew she was about to see her big sister. And with that reminder of home, comfort, love, and happiness (all the things I didn't represent at the time), she wasn't about to believe me anymore and was restless all the way to Owls Head.

So today I've been extra nice (treats, a walk on Crockett's beach, a session of rope pulling), pathetic in my own way in asking forgiveness for my crimes. I believe she has forgiven me. At the moment, she's behind me on the blue couch, napping without staring.

Friday, September 19, 2008

While Not in Maine

In the great tradition of university writing of the late 20th century, I now write about what it's like to write about a place without being there. I haven't been in Maine for more than a week now, so I'm served by memory or imagination (or both mixed up) and not the waves and stars and snoopy deer. Needless to say, it's a little more difficult to get inspired at a distance. And the kind of writing that deliberately denies a sense of place and character has to be served by word play and irony. Failblog!
I've always thought you can write about anything anywhere. To do it honestly and well, however, you have to get inside your character, or feel cold clammy sand between your toes, or take apart the car engine yourself. Otherwise, it feels shallow and forced. It's not just about the language or the medium. It's about your connection to something.
Everything these days conspires against connection. I'm blown around like a leaf by the news and the views. Distraction is a way of life, maybe even a deliberate philosophy. A place where we don't get so distracted by words and images of all the other places we could/should be - that's what we need to believe in.
Fortunately, Maine so strongly gives me that feeling that I can write about it while being elsewhere. I imagine that's what the theorists say also, that Marshall MacLuhan is still right about the medium being the religion. True, but maybe for people who don't have any religion to start with.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Local News

For nearly 3 days, the most emailed story on VillageSoup was "Man charged with pooper-scooper assault." This afternoon it fell to second. Unlike the old days (when we had a camp on North Pond in Smithfield where the highlight of each vacation week was reading the police logs in the Waterville Sentinel), there's very little detail to these reports. It's frustrating to know only that the assailant (name, age, street and town given) hit someone (name, age, street and town not given) with a small shovel used for scooping poop.
If this had happened in the 80s, the author would have had crucial detail (big dog bit little dog, or Palin vs Biden, or some territorial dispute involving an excess of feces). But there's no money or talent anymore to expand the news. We no longer get Mrs. So-and-So reporting a prowler wearing yellow suspenders. A car no longer backs onto a front yard and dumps a box of National Geographics, a goose-neck lamp and two ratty teddy bears. Mr. Smith of Worcester, MA used to be apprehended for sitting on the banks of a pond at midnight, unclothed, with bamboo pole; now he's merely arrested for fishing without a license and fined $100.
Such loss is not confined to Maine. Our local paper in Massachusetts used to have clever headlines and a little humor in the Crime Log (at least they still have the little map of town, with numbers showing where the miscreants are). Now it's just 1. Larceny, and 2. Rash of Car Breaks in Lower Falls. Lawyers must have gotten to the Editor.
Something is lost when we don't know if the scooper victim required a tetanus shot. But it's still better than reading yet another "On the Campaign Trail" column in the Boston Globe. Nothing squelches imagination like indignation.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Governers and Premiers

I see that the New England Governors and the Eastern Canadian Premiers are meeting this week in Bar Harbor. I wanted to understand what they're up to, so I looked online only to find almost nothing - no program, no pre-meeting seminars, no headquarters hotel, no pre-registered attendees list, no opportunities to sponsor a coffee break, no continuing education credits. Obviously not the kind of convention I've attended (in the hundreds), this one appears to be by invitation only.

It's pretty easy to guess what they talk about officially. Of the five Resolutions resulting from last year's conference (1. Energy and the Environment, 2. 400th Anniversary of Quebec City, 3. Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, 4. Economic and Social Impacts of Demographic Issues, and 5. Oceans) I could have predicted several without looking. Not that I know what the fourth Resolution is: like any organization, NEGC&ECP has its own jargon to hide some inconvenient truths. Maybe they'll explain this year.

What they talk about unofficially will be much less interesting, I predict - the Canadiens, the Red Sox, the weather, the golf on day 1, maybe a little politics and some job networking like normal conventioneers. Gov Rell of Connecticut is female and Republican and perhaps will be asked to explain a certain phenomenon from the other side of the country.

In true convention spirit, I do hope they all wear name tags and have to stand in 10' x 10' (3.3m x 3.3m) booths to hand out little tschotckes (cadeaux). Also, in the usual spirit of things, I hope they get quite frustrated at meeting in a beautiful place and seeing only the insides of a conference center. Finally, in the new spirit of the times, may I suggest their next meeting place not be fancy resorts in places like Brudenell, PEI, Newport, RI, or Bar Harbor, ME but in a truck stop (arret du camion) just off the interstate.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Just finished reading One Man's Meat for the umpteenth time. I can pretend to be in Maine without actually being there. It's going to be an annual thing, like reading Country of the Pointed Firs.

I'm reminded of the essay "Dog Training" whenever I walk ours. EB receives a book to review and says, "Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor." His Fred even "disobeys me when I instruct him in something he wants to do."

Our poodle disobeys us only when there's something else she wants to do (sniff, chase, lick, sleep); otherwise, with no scents or squirrels or grandmothers or hassocks available, she's reasonably attentive to treats and head rubs.

The dog training book's author, a Mr. Wm. Cary Duncan, discusses housebreaking at some length. Apparently, he says dogs don't like to be stared at when doing their business. Not of course true at all - Mia inevitably squats on the busiest street in our neighborhood. And don't look disinterested; as EB says, "Nothing is more comical than the look on the face of a person at the upper end of a dog leash, pretending not to know what is going on at the lower."

Maine seems to bring out the lyrical and the humorous in writers, of which EB White is the prime example. I also think of Bernd Heinrich's A Year in the Maine Woods, a lovely book. I've seen he's written One Man's Owl, obviously something to look forward to.

And I need to read Baron Wormser's The Road Washes Out in the Spring, and Wesley McNair's new anthology, A Place Called Maine. There must always be a breath of fresh air on my bedside table.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Aldermere Farm

We've driven through and walked next to Aldermere Farm in Rockport hundreds of times by now and have yet to stop in. If you are a habitue of the mid-coast, it's locally famous; if you are interested in the cattle called Belted Galloways ("Belties"), it's internationally famous. I look at the website ( http://www.aldermere.org/ ) and say, "We really ought to participate somehow."

Not that we're all that interested in farming, but then this is not your grandfather's kind of farm. It really only has one product, the meat and semen of the Belties. In addition, there are art shows and art workshops. There are gardening programs, nature walks, and moonlight ski tours. It borders on Penobscot Bay between Rockport Cemetery and Megunticook Golf Club, on some of the most expensive real estate in the country. A wind turbine generates electricity. It does, in at least a little bit of tradition, host a 4-H club that centers around Beltie calves.

All this happens (is necessary?) because the farm's last owner gave it to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

My grandfather's farm in Minnesota was a little different. Yes, it had black-and-white cows, but they gave milk, not semen. It had chickens. It was muddy. The fields weren't picturesque meadows bounded by ponds and bay and rock walls, but were planted in pedestrian rows of corn and swatches of hay. The barn was partly falling down. The house featured tar paper siding. The roads defining its quarter section were gravel that had long ago lost their gravel. We walked them looking for agates, not Belties. The windmill pumped water. I expect the farm is now swallowed up by a corporation.

Is this the fate of all small farms, selling out one way or another? I'm sure it's true for salt water farms, which spawn subdivisions of big houses with fake widow's walks, for the views, don't you know. A beauty in Lincolnville succumbed last year. But our grandfather's farms, let's hope that the local food movement can help them survive the agribusinesses. As much as I love forests and woods, Maine would not be the same without the undulating fields and white barns and prickly independence of its small farmers.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Forests and Woods

When you fly over or drive through Maine, the trees seem ubiquitous, forever, an endless resource. It's hard to believe that there is little old-growth forest left. Almost all of Maine has been logged.

An old-growth forest is usually around 200-300 years old, so any parcels left predate the huge logging operations of the 19th century. I doubt I've ever been in one, but I can imagine the richness. What have we lost?

I cringe, heart aching, every time I see trees cut down, for they have souls that have more value to us, both practically and spiritually, than we can know. Patiently, they supply shelter, oxygen, beauty, and poems; stoically, they give up their lives, some to live on in the paper on which we write poems; then they grow back.

But what they grow back into are woods, not forests: quite tame, utilitarian, beautiful and inspiring and necessary but not fearsome or profligate. I love our woods, but when I walk through them, I can hear only faint echoes of the great white pines, Maine's own ents, that once ruled the land before they were needed for war.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cocktail hour

We had a surprise guest last evening for nibblies. I had my gin and tonic, Cindy a glass of wine, and this lovely a few windfall crabapples. The crabapple tree practically brushes the windows of the living room, and the deer calmly stood and chewed while we scurried for the camera. If she would have permitted it, we could have reached out a hand through the window and stroked her supple neck.
I expect she was the mother we saw on Monday crossing the road with her two fawns (and not the mother I saw last month with her three fawns, which were considerably bigger). Maybe there's kind of a baby sitting cooperative among the neighborhood deer, allowing each mother some personal time to herself. This would explain the single doe I saw eating our neighbor's rose bush a couple of weeks ago. The deer certainly seem to have adopted human ways, or at least they've lost some of their fear of the two-legged monsters. Apples and roses seem to be worth the risk in spite of the humans in their clapboard cages.
It does ask the question about the father(s). I shouldn't be so sexist as to assume he wasn't doing the baby-sitting, but I'm afraid it's probably true. We never see male deer around the houses here. They must be off in the deeper woods, protecting the seed, while the womenfolk get civilized.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


When I was growing up in the Midwest, corn (not to mention food in general) was not particularly special. The varieties available in the summer for "corn on the cob" were not that much different from the canned and frozen stuff we got served on ordinary days (except that the rules governing excess butter and salt mysteriously slackened). It was very yellow and a little tough and you could spend a half hour afterwards happily picking your teeth. Most serious vegetable gardeners had a row or two out back, so August and early September evenings generally featured corn. Good tomatoes too, which were so common that reverence had not yet entered the culinary picture, and "heirloom" applied mostly to furniture.

We make quite a fetish of our corn these days. We compare varieties and years as if they were fine wines ("Remember the '07 Sugar Snow?"). One friend of ours rates corn on a scale of 1 to 10; he never awards a 10 and almost shies away from ears of unknown provenance for fear of not even getting to 7. And not only sweet corn is on our minds: field corn seems even more precious, linked as it is to ethanol and our misfiring efforts to declare energy independence.

The stand of corn in the photo below must be sweet corn. I don't think the owner is distilling Freedom Oil in his basement, and there don't seem to be any hogs around. There easily could be though. This scene could be any one of countless fields and gardens in the places of my youth, except for the odd difference in varietal heights, signifying some kind of Eastern liberal tolerance for differences, and the fact that just a hundred yards away, behind the photographer, is the magnificent shoreline of the harbor in Rockport, Maine. There's a culture clash for you.

Monday, September 8, 2008


One of the reasons I love this part of the coast so much is that it's all rocks. Not necessarily rock, i.e., the classic Maine shelves of granite that slope into the sea, but single rocks, lots of them, the kind useless for almost everything except pilfering for the construction of stone walls. We have some granite, but only scattered colonies, which makes them all the more interesting for their rarity. We have a few sand beaches, but they are almost always shingle beaches, the sand covered at high tide, and you have to watch your tide clock in order to run the dog to her satisfaction, or stretch out on your blanket in comfort. The rest of the shore is rocks. One stretch from Ash Point to Lucia Beach seems to have been organized. There are half a dozen stretches where all the rocks are about the same size: first, a hundred yards of brains, then quite a lot of lima beans mixed with apples, then a few feet of walnuts, then a tongue of pink granite, then the sugar sand of Lucia Beach. I have no idea why rocks would group together this way, probably something profound along the lines of crowd behavior or mob action or the littoral equivalent of paranormal crop circles.

The key point here is that the rocks are useless. Ergo, no hordes of people ala Old Orchard, no fancy marinas, no fish processing plants, no motels. Just houses sitting quietly on the bank above the water, and enough wild conservation land at Ash Point to transport you to another time.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Stuff (II)

12:35 pm: car is packed, no room for any other stuff (mine), but OK, not driving this time. Sweat instead, Hanna approaches with mucho moisture.
12:40 pm: eat tomato sandwiches with departees, student departee adds cheese, turkey for protein, final nutritional example for parents, wife departee adds peppermint for dessert.
1:05 pm: hug daughter good-bye, sit with dog on porch, watch remaining family drive off.
1:07 pm: wait for news from New York. Walk dog. Call mother, discuss Palin. Sweat. Read. Watch soccer. Look at essay. Concentrate! Too much stuff in head. Wait. Drink. Hanna has struck, they're splayed all over the Pike. Dog naps.
6:23 pm: wife returnee calls, all is well, coming home. All stuff safe in room. Hannah rains, now worry about splaying on Pike eastward.
6:24 pm: It will be OK.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Margaret Chase Smith

In this year when women in politics have made quite a splash, I'm reminded of the service of Sen. Smith of Maine in the 50s and 60s. She was diplomatic, quiet, steadfast, beloved in her four terms; in great honor, she stood up publicly against her fellow Republican Joe McCarthy. She was the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the US Presidency (1964, defeated by the Arizona Senator of the day, Barry Goldwater). Maine continues her fine tradition by having two women Senators at present, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both moderate Republicans of the sort nearly extinct in 2008.

Which leads me to Sarah Palin. It's only been a few days but even if only 10% of the stuff coming out about her record is true, she's already approaching Mitt Romney's record of most issues reversed. Again if the rumors are true, she could hardly manage a small town, let alone the governorship of Alaska.

I imagine she was chosen not only because of her sex but because she's telegenic and speaks well. The same could be said for Obama, but he was chosen by people, lots of them, not by some panel of political consultants who look only at video and gut issues and polls. Do you think they considered Collins or Snowe? How long would a woman like Smith have lasted in the Republican politics of today? No way, and not at all: they seem to be women of principle. It's hard to imagine that Palin believes anything at all - another point in her favor with the panel, obviously.

And in Skowhegan, home of sensible Maine people, and a political backwater (thank God!), Sen. Smith is rolling over in her grave.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Live Lobsters Shipped Anywhere in US!

It's kind of like shipping seafood, this business of sending out essays. Today I sent out some four dozen copies of various Maine essays I've been working on over the last year or two, a few by email attachment, a couple through an actual submission system, but most through snail mail. Most editors like their work fresh, I guess, like lobster, made of something real, even a bit snappish. Pixels are boring, they don't bite. I do hope the work is fresh - I didn't wrap it in gel packs.

So I imagine little bits of Maine - lupine, crabs, moss - now winging their way to all parts of the country. Essay writers generally have a bit of preacher in them so I hope what I sent sheds a little light into a range of benighted university towns. I like the idea of proselytizing for Maine, or more correctly for a Maine state of mind. Surely, Mr. and Ms. Editor, the readers of all of your magazines and journals I'm presuming upon will agree to be enlightened.

I worry, however, that the pen is not mightier than the claw or the tail. Maybe next time I'll strike a deal with The Lobster Guy and include dinner with each of my submissions. A trifle more expensive that way, but worth it when you're trying to save the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It's only partial madness to post this reminder of a cold and foggy day in Maine when here in Massachusetts we're enjoying a stretch of the most perfect weather - highs in the mid-80s, lows around 60, low humidity, strong sunshine, with a few cottony clouds for effect - this side of Santa Barbara. It's enough to make a man believe he could be happy anywhere.

The method here is to suggest that contrast might be the real key to happiness. A place like Marshall Point Lighthouse offers dramatic examples: the hard life of a sailor vs the welcoming beacon, the surf crashing against the impregnable rock, violent storm easing to calm fog. But there's no reason why equal drama can't occur here in my back yard: the huge rustling oaks masking the distant noise of traffic, the crab grass of late summer taking over and looking almost respectable in the sun, ants constantly re-building their hills in the crevices of the brick patio, peace and quiet winning out even in the middle of a metropolitan area of 3 million. It seems to me that beauty is as much a matter of peaceful resolution as it is of perfect form. It just happens to be easier to see in Maine, and easier to forget that we live in a complicated world that requires constant attention.

And as the Republican Party meets in St. Paul this week, I hope that the principle of contrast will be made stark, that our happiness in November will be complete as we throw out the bastards.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


8:53 am: car is packed (daughter has a lot of stuff) although room for one more bag (mine) if selfish gene listened to. Daughter runs upstairs, wakes up younger sister for goodbye, comes down, hugs mom and dog. Other daughter goes back to sleep.
8:55 am: leave house, drive familiar route north.
10:01 am: enter State of Maine space, rejoice silently.
11:15 am: arrive Bowdoin following many fine examples of indie rock, French pop. Daughter lucky to go to school in Maine. Worry about getting stuff to room on 13th floor, but large laundry thing on wheels appears, dump stuff into it and breeze up elevator to room. Stuff no longer looks protean, as daughter now senior and has private room to fill.
11:35 am: unlike Raymond Chandler, not a fan of long goodbye, so leave before things get mushy. Go south on Route 1 - noooooooo! Owls Head just one hour north! But yes, said I'd be in MA this week.
12:30 pm: feel rebellious, stuff stomach with cotton batting and lard for lunch, suffer recriminations and lack of Tums.
1:16 pm: cross back into NH, spent only 195 minutes in state of grace. May not return for as many as 8,640.
2:20 pm: arrive home, hug daughter to relieve pangs of several sorts. Dog cries in my face. Back to computer.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Farm stands

Based on the recommendation of a neighbor, we've now shopped a couple of times at Beth's in Warren. It's the kind of place where nearly everything for sale is grown on-site, where half-a-dozen chickens run around the aisles, where the fruits and vegetables are beyond luscious. Like farmers' markets and the slow food movement, farm stands are becoming quite popular. Beth's is located some 5 miles off Route 1, in the middle of nowhere, and yet the parking lot was full and there were several people in line at each of the two registers. The true test of any farm stand is the corn; Beth's is the best I've ever tasted. It is almost yellow, not white or pale like some of the new varieties, and it actually tastes like corn, not chewy sugar.

This morning we went to an honorary Maine farm stand that happens to be located in Needham, MA. It is such a pleasure to go to Volante's: no crowded aisles full of bumper-car shoppers, no fluorescent lights, no 57 varieties of depressingly packaged cereals, no refrigerator cases so cold that you really should put on long pants just to get milk; just heaps of peaches and apples and beans, mums in the greenhouse, a 25-foot table devoted solely to corn, open-air building. If we ignore the ranches and Colonials and their chemical lawns on the drive there, if we close your eyes against the Audis and the SUVs, and look only at the gorgeous produce, and the fields sloping away from the greenhouse, we could be in Maine. No live chickens, but pretty damn good for suburbia. And for the duration of the fall, I vow to buy no supermarket produce whatsoever, MA or ME.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Nothing fried

Nothing pleases me and my cholesterol level more than fried clams, so when we decided to go out to eat the other night, it took a great lack of self-interest to agree to go to Miller's. I recited the menu more than once to the party attending, and they were perfectly fine with the lobster dinners and the crab rolls served with chips. "There's nothing fried, you realize," I mentioned casually at the end of the recitation. "It sounds good," said my helpmeet, echoed by her mother and my daughter in a chorus of healthfulness. Upon arriving, they proceeded to order lobster rolls and a lobster dinner, loaded with mayo and butter, complete with the above-mentioned Lay's, and when one package of chips inexplicably was missing from the order, they made sure its replacement was received before the end of the meal. I had steamers, and spurned the dipping butter.
It's only been two days out of state, and already I can't help but write about one of the perfect experiences of a Maine August. As if to sit at a picnic table on a wharf, looking at the boats bobbing in the cove, the sun going down from a cloudless sky wasn't great enough, the owner came by and pointed out the osprey nest on the island across the water, and mentioned the bald eagle pair living down the shore. The steamers were even sweeter than the lobster.
Who needs Revere, or Old Orchard?
If you have to spend the last day of August not in Maine, then the simplest of images will get you through.

Friday, August 29, 2008


On a day when I go back to Massachusetts for a while, I think of our little bit of heaven. It's cloudy and cool and will rain later, a kind of prep for re-entry into the "real" world. We're always trying to understand what's real and what's not. We saw this painter on Beech Hill; she was standing on the porch of a house restored from a lost age, on a property preserved from modern development, in a setting of unworldly beauty, trying to capture something. What did she see as real? A column of the house's porch, a lone tree, the Camden Hills and the ocean to the north....in paint, on canvas. The photo seems to capture the several layers of this dilemma, through a glass darkly, you might say. She was trying to understand it for herself, and for others to lift out of themselves for a moment, to experience another world, then go back down the hill or out of state and try to think how this changes your life.

We made kind of a joke picture that same day, although it's really more of a tribute to Wyeth than a satire on his fame. The very best art takes you to another world but doesn't take you out of yours. "Christina's World" looks at the harsh beauty of Maine straight on and shows what's real, even though the Olsen House doesn't really look like the property Wyeth painted and he used his wife as the model - doesn't matter. The important thing is the capture of an image no matter how fleeting or permanent.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Beech Nut house

When we first came to the midcoast and would take the girls to Chickawaukee Lake for a swim, we saw what looked like an abandoned house on the top of a bare hill a few miles to the north. It was immediately dubbed the "California house" as if that state doesn't have a tree to its name. Over the years we made one or two half-hearted attempts to find a road or a trail to the house and at last, just a couple of years ago, stumbled on the Beech Hill Preserve on one of our many drives through the lovely Camden Hills. California had been discovered.
Thanks to the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, nearly 300 acres of blueberry barrens (organically farmed), open fields, and woods are preserved, topped by a house and a view that defy description. Suffice it to say that the house has been beautifully restored since we first saw it, and the blueberries are delicious, and the vista incomparable.

The Camden Hills don't quite have the cachet and the spectacle of, say, Marin County. Last I looked we don't have any sea lions, 10-foot surf, or redwoods. The drama is reduced a notch or two, Camden is a pale imitation of Tiverton and Mill Valley (thank God), and the word lifestyle was not invented here. California is a great place to visit; midcoast Maine is a great place to live.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

First day of school

This bell at Vesper Hill reminds me that most of Maine's kids went back to the classroom today, on one of the most spectacular days of the summer, unfortunately for them. No matter how much someone might actually like school, even the blindest of bookworms would miss the warm sun and bright skies and tranquil waters of a day like today.

I wonder if one ever shakes the approach of September as a time of change. No question that the end of summer, short as it is in New England, would be enough to rue, without the prospect of more walls than trees, more work than vacation, more cold than warm staring us in the face. September and October can be the most beautiful months of all, we tell ourselves, but the statement is not necessarily heart-felt. And in typical New England fashion, I'm not sure if it's regret or dread that drives us - regret that another summer is in the books, dread of another winter on lay-away.

For me it was usually the former, since summer represented a hint of that thing that's hardest to attain - living in the moment. There's nothing wrong with worries and responsibilities; unfortunately, they like to control us and the classroom and office are the most obvious symbols of the predicament. The kid that has to go in the space of a day from the responsibilities of center field in the gloaming evening, to the worries of algebra and peer pressure under fluorescent lights, may not be the better for it. The bell does not ring for his education but for his indoctrination. September is not so beautiful if your life is cramped.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Uncharacteristically, we seemed to have missed much of blueberry season this year. It hasn't been the same, to be sure, since a couple of years ago someone converted the open field just down Ash Point Road, where free picking with the girls was a regular event of the summer, into a cemetery. Still, we've usually had a pie by now, and to leave our first hike to Beech Hill and its blueberry fields until the 24th of August seems criminal. Will we be allowed back into the state?

It's not the same to pay for them at a farm stand, even one as lovely as Beth's. A pie baked with berries you've picked in a field just tastes better. You know that all those berries would just have gone to waste if you hadn't happened by, you feel just a tiny bit that you're living off the land, as you eat that pie, the crick in your back stirs up something primitive. A few handfuls from Beech Hill are nice but a few quarts from your own private patch are heavenly.

When I go back to MA later this week, I could stop at a roadside stand advertising "Blueberrys" and stock up for a pie back home. There's a lot of choice this year, for the number of stands corresponds directly to the state of the economy. But I probably won't stop. The end of summer is poignant enough without invoking memories of the blue lips of children.