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

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.