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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The last of the naughties

Technically, I know, the decade still has a year to go, but it will be very satisfying tomorrow to get rid of those double zeroes. It's been an awful decade, full of such zeroes as ex-Presidents, negative markets, mindless sectarianism (religious and political), and needless wars. I'm not sure how we're going to improve. The Obama agenda is obviously the first step, if it ever gets through with any semblance of its original promise. May I also propose a healthy dose of Maine for the years to come? If you aren't as blessed as I am and can't live in the state for any length of time, or at least visit, here's my New Year's prescription.
  • Get outside. Breathe in clean air. Walk in the woods. Sit by the ocean and think.
  • Take life more slowly.
  • Be a little cussed, skeptical, independent.
  • Read books by the fire.
  • Cultivate your friends. Embrace your family.
  • Split wood.
  • Drink Moxie.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More surveys

Tis the season, I guess. The latest survey from the Pew Research Center has to do with religion (as you'd expect with a name like Pew). It seems that people in the northern states, especially New England, are the least religious in the country, or at least most negative on the four statements of the survey (Religon is very important in my life; I attend religious services at least once a week; I pray at least once a day; I believe in God with absolute certainty). There may be many reasons for this but I'm more interested in what might be taking religion's place. With Maine (and Massachusetts) right down there at the bottom of the lists, I feel qualified to speculate:
  • Drinking. The fine glow from a gin-and-tonic or Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy replaces a Christmas Eve service or a successful exit from the confessional. And hangovers are definitely Calvinistic.
  • Red Sox. Long, boring hours punctuated by little bursts of energy, just like church.
  • Law and Order reruns, especially SVU. Daily reminders of dark nights of the soul.
  • The Sunday newspaper. How convenient that it's delivered just in time to preclude church attendance! And lately the two even dwindle together.
  • Money. Getting it makes you feel either saved or damned. Ditto on spending it.
  • Alternative energy. The number of creeds and postulants and factions is rivalled only by the number of schisms in Protestantism. Each time the world will be saved.
  • Nature. The only thing worth believing any more? But what a thing! Is there anything so salutary as Penobscot Bay on a bright, late-August morning? So cleansing as snow-shoeing in dense woods? So holy as a pointed fir leaning over a pink granite ledge? God should be proud of us here in the North.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"I am extremely disappointed"

Thus said Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine as the health care reform bill passed the Senate. Sen. Snowe thinks the bill was rushed through, is too costly, and could have benefited from a bipartisan process. She makes no mention of human facts: that her Maine constituents are among the nation's poorest, that Maine's population is the oldest, that Mainers pay very high health insurance premiums, that many Mainers forego insurance entirely and wait helplessly until Medicare is available. Nor does she mention that the state-run (as in "public option") program Dirigo Health, which subsidizes health-care costs for low-income people, has significantly lowered the percentage of the uninsured, now below 10% (compared to the US at around 16%).

Sen. Snowe, I am extremely disappointed in you (and of course in Susan Collins, Maine's other Senator, as well). There was some hope that you would be a part of the process, be a statesman and not a politician. Was the bill rushed through? Yes, because the Republicans' disinformation machine would have killed it given time. Will it be costly? Yes, but only in the short-term and actually quite cheap compared to the death panels of the Pentagon. Was the process bipartisan? No, for the Republicans have not shown themselves to be worthy of debate.

Maine's state motto is Dirigo - I lead. It doesn't apply to Senator Snowe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Last week the journal Science published a research article on happiness, attempting to rank its prevalence by state. Supposedly, this research compared what people said against objective measures known to affect happiness (weather, population density, air quality, home prices, etc.). You'll be happy to know that Louisiana was number 1 and New York was number 51. My own home states, Maine and Massachusetts, checked in at number 10 and number 43 respectively. Eight of the top ten were warm-weather states.

May I say that if we believe that happiness can be measured by objective measures such as the above, we should change our species name to Homo superficialis.

This study contrasts with a happiness survey taken by Gallup in November that relied only on what people said. Here the top states were the wealthiest and the most tolerant, with Utah first and West Virginia last. Massachusetts was 8th and Maine 29th. Even taking into account people's ability to lie, especially to themselves, these data seem more representative.

It's probably no accident that both studies were published around the holidays. I know that for many the holidays are stressful and depressing, for the hype can't possibly measure up to the reality, and indeed makes it worse when the reality is loneliness, poverty, or ill health. We are told to be happy, that the perfectly cooked turkey or latest-model cell phone will save us if we just try and buy. When will we see a happiness survey based on friendships and family and peace and contentment?

That describes us this Christmas, especially with daughters having safely returned from France. Geographic, scientific, objective, and especially commercial descriptors have little meaning or place. Happiness is decorating a tree with ornaments from a lifetime, angels and nutcrackers, frosted pine cones, homemade Santas, the silly and the corny, the ornate and the plain, the special box of fragile glass pieces that sparkle in the colored lights - all the reminders of growing up together in our own little state of bliss.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Climate change

1. Big storm blasts up East Coast, blanketing area from Carolina to Boston with snow. A nice change from the usual December rain and slush?

2. Northern France (where both our daughters are) shivers in below zero (Centigrade) temperatures and a couple inches of snow. A nice change from the usual December rain and slush?

3. Maine, usually synonymous with snow, gets almost nothing from the storm. A nice change from the usual December rain and slush?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wind, yet again

Wind was again in the news this week. Some perspective:

1. Three sites off the coast of Maine have now been chosen for the testing of wind-turbine platforms in deep water, the first in the US, including one a few miles from Monhegan. (Monhegan's famous artists George Bellows and Edward Hopper might enjoy such a beast, Jamie Wyeth and Rockwell Kent perhaps not). Norway already has a deep-sea turbine in place.

2. Turbines in southern Maine are not producing nearly as much electricity as hoped. (Sites on undeveloped rural hilltops, and presumably the open ocean, apparently will be fine.)

3. Maine recently installed its 100th turbine. (California has 14,000.)

There was a report on NPR's Marketplace a week or so ago on Japan's efforts to conserve energy since the oil crisis of 1973-1974.

1. 40% of "green" patents are now held by Japan.

2. All Japanese companies must become at least 1% more energy efficient each year, and must have at least one employee overseeing the effort.

3. Every new appliance model must be at least as energy efficient as the latest release from a competitor.

The average Japanese now uses about half as much energy as the average American.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Shooting stars

Quite by accident, I saw shooting stars early Monday morning (can't blame the dog this time for waking me at 4:00 a.m. - she conked out under the covers as soon as I went to bed and didn't stir all night). I discovered later that it was the night of the annual December Geminids meteor shower, and the windows happen to face the right direction, east, and I happened to wake up before dawn, and I happened to try the sky for a soporific.

The bedroom windows allow a view of sky and bay and pointed firs of only a few degrees. I should have gone outside for the full 360, but it was 4:00 a.m. and cold. Even so limited, the view was thrilling: the stars are so brilliant and numerous and inspiring anyway in the undeveloped night skies of Maine, and then there would be a silent little pop! of light, then a brilliant little trail, then a little white flame-out. You really did get the sense of stars falling down, and also the slight and thrilling fear that a real star directly overhead (or at least a substantial meteor) would take it upon itself to target the house.

"Thrilling" is a slight over-statement. It's not a spectacle like, say, what the Chinese do for international honor. A shooting star lasts about a second. Its trail is tiny. I saw maybe 10 in an hour of gazing.

"Humbling" is a better word. In order to get all those cliches out of my head (life-is-so-short, blaze-of-glory, what-is-the-meaning-of-life), I tried to calculate how many shooting stars there would be in my life if they arrived once a second for 70 years. The answer, after a certain amount of stops and starts and confusion about decimal places, was about 2 billion (later confirmed by a real calculator to be 2.2 billion). Now that's thrilling. Don't you love the idea of a second of glory?

The calculating, and the humbling, put the world to right, and getting back to sleep until 6:30 (5,400 seconds later, with dreams) was a piece of heaven.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The writer's friend

The woodstove offers:

1. warmth, preventing you from going back to bed or curling up on the couch with the New Yorkers that you're way behind on
2. complexity - lots of flues and vents and baffles, the frequent opening and closing of which keeps your brain alive
3. tangible results and goals, i.e, the thermometer magnetically attached to the stovepipe registers the temperatures ( 400-500 degrees) for "best operation"
4. discipline - it must be lighted first thing in the morning, even before orange juice, the log rack must be restocked twice a day, the wood pile in the garage must be replenished
5. creativity in choosing the exact right log - diameter, length, hard- or softwood - for maximum burn and most shapely fire
6. nostalgia: Baron Wormser lived for more than 20 years with only woodstoves for heat and cooking? Such a simpler way of life.... Also, when you light the stove in the morning, you use newspaper, financial statements, cereal boxes, and old manuscripts and sometimes you read them and get distracted by the past, which leads to the most important point of all:
7. distractibility: getting up constantly to check the burn, open a vent or door for just a little more air, brush wood bits from the floor under the log rack and ash bits from the brick apron in front of the stove, get some more logs from the garage, check the stovepipe thermometer, then your house's, then the outside one and feel virtuous, in fact do anything at all to get you away from the balky sentence, the lame phrase, the description that slithers around like jello, the cliches that just will not leave your brain, the character who sounds like you, and the impossibility of transitions between paragraphs.

All in all, quite a useful thing, the woodstove.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Giant contradictions

Finally some good news about carbon dioxide! The increasing level of the stuff in the ocean seems to make the shells of lobsters, shrimp and crabs (but not snails, oysters, clams and scallops) bigger and harder and stronger. This is a finding of considerable implications for Maine's fishing industries, but is also a finding in isolation, and scientists have no idea what it might mean in the bigger picture.

Well, I do. Just like in the real world, the rich gets richer. Those scuttling creatures are already abundant and doing well; stronger shells will make them indestructible. The more we pollute, the more they will benefit. At last they will grow huge and emerge from the sea. The crab will form campaign committees, take over government. Shrimp will school together in giant pods and conquer TV and movies. Lobsters will be the new New Army, or I should say, Peace Keepers, red in tooth and claw. Little helpless things like crabs will have no Hope.

Farfetched? Not nearly as much as headlines that say "President Defends US Wars, Accepts Peace Prize."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sun bombs

The weather maps the last few days have looked vertiginous, as low-pressure systems march across the country like giant sine waves. Here we're getting a day of sun, a day of snow, a day of sun, a day of rain, etc., not altogether displeasing because any sunshine beats no sunshine. Of course, at this time of year the sun's arc through the southern sky is pathetic, a blip starting at 7:00 in the southeast and ending at 4:00 in the southwest and at its peak, getting barely a third of the way up. Not that we aren't grateful. I watched this morning as the outdoor thermometer, which gets about 10 minutes of direct sun a day now, gamely raised its mercury 2 degrees in response.

While low and weak, the sun's influence is still noticeable. Most of the snowfall from the other day is now melted from the tree branches on the north side of the lane. The southside trees are still laden. I take care to walk in the middle of the road, away from snow-covered, overhanging branches, to avoid the sun's little tricks, like suddenly raining a snow-bomb down my neck. Today I could brave the north walk on Ash Point, down to Crockett Beach, for the wind seems much less cold on a sunny day. I don't mind quite as much the continuous ups and downs of war news, market gyrations, healthcare legislation.

Weather is starting to resemble the Internet. You can always quickly find something good to follow something bad, or is it vice versa?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Just after snow

The woods out back were a perfect marvel this morning. Just enough snow had fallen to blanket everything, and it was wet enough for serious and creative sticking. All the horizontal surfaces had caps, all the vertical surfaces were whitened on the north side. The effect was slightly dizzying, like looking at Janus or yin-yang. Turn one way and it looked like just a normal couple of inches had fallen. Turn the other and the whole world was white, an alien place of no color, an outer space. It was exhilarating to be in a new, one-element world, like breathing water under the ocean.

Except for the sky, which was blue like only a post-storm sky can be, there was almost no color. The evergreens and moss and grasses were obliterated. I had to peer close up at the bushes to see red winterberries. There was one exception: a crabapple tree on Ash Point Drive still had a few red apples clinging to the snow-laden branches. I'd like to think that's the origin of Christmas tree decoration, not Victorian angels or some Visigothic thing involving the heads of enemies. Brightly colored baubles and lights are pagan enough for me. There's enough stuff already cluttering up our winters.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Just before snow

The first snow of the season is forecast for the coast tonight. I might have been able to tell even without the benefit of technology: a northeast wind of a certain heft; a sky uniformly gray and the same color as the ocean; clouds not quite thick enough to obscure the sun entirely; the weak glow of a wintry sun; temperature that feels colder than what the thermometer says; air spiced with Canada and chewy from the woodsmoke blowing from everyone's stoves.

As I walk I look especially intently at what remains of color in the woods. Besides grays and blacks and browns, there isn't much. The winterberries boast various reds shading into orange. Long grasses in the wetlands have turned into light-colored hay. Short grasses on the lawns are still partly green. The mosses are neon-green this year, from all the rain, and they have colonized rocks on the forest floor, poking through the leaf bed like bright Pacific atolls. A few yellowed leaves cling to the bushes at the side of the lane.

In the morning it will be hard to pretend it's still fall. The landscape will be black-and-white, but choices will become grayer, more complicated. It will not be as easy to be productive, or optimistic.

The danger of winter is living too much in the head. The pleasure of winter is living much more in the head. Animals of all kinds need to hibernate and be refreshed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

To be content...

For a year now, the Amish have been moving into the area around Unity and buying farms. (Unity is a small town halfway between Bangor and Augusta.) They're coming from various places in the Midwest and Canada, and even a few from the other two towns in Maine that boast them, Smyrna and Easton in Aroostook County. Unity seems the perfect place for Amish, including its name: lovely, rolling countryside with good soil and plenty of water; friendly, tolerant people; Unity College and its heavy focus on environmental studies. For any people that completely eschew electricity in their houses are environmentalists at their very core.

I've often wondered about the relationship between religion and conservation. Humans are enjoined to be good stewards, and it should be a natural fit, but so often those who believe in the Bible forget the one in favor of the other, dominion over the earth, etc, etc. There is a movement to revive the relationship but in today's fractured and splintering world, I can't see that the religious right will ever take the earth seriously again.

Religion aside, the life of the Amish is very compelling. They make wonderful furniture. They believe in books. They grow organic food. They build windmills to run their compressed-air engines, or charge battery packs. Family care is paramount. A sign in one of their houses in Unity reads: "To be content with little is hard, to be content with much is impossible.’’

Lifestyle aside, the religion of the Amish is not very compelling, mostly I suppose because it's similar to the dark Calvinist tradition in which I was raised. But the Amish have managed to bring light into the gloom. They've done what few can accomplish, marry word and deed.

I already think of Unity fondly, since for about 10 years my parents had a camp on Lake Winnecook, known also as Unity Pond. And now that the Amish are there, it's a small but poignant connection to my diminished family, for the last time I saw my father alive was at his 60th wedding anniversary party at the Blue Heron Farm Retreat, near Amish Country in eastern Ohio, where for a weekend our family eschewed doctrine in favor of living.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Boston Harbor

Sunday saw the first sunny day in a week and so, our need for the sight and sound and smell of the ocean being great, we drove down to South Boston for the nearest fix. Very pleasant to walk around Castle Island and then along the breakwater that sticks out into Boston Harbor. The breakwater encloses part of Carson Beach so one can avoid the dreaded go-out-and-then-have-to-retrace-your-steps syndrome, in favor of a much more satisfying loop that returns you to your car without having to backtrack.

Pleasant enough, but not thrilling like a walk along Rockport Harbor or Ash Point or even Old Orchard Beach (in winter, of course - summer tends to be unspeakable there). The islands of Boston Harbor are pretty but lack granite and fir trees. The sand of Carson Beach has the slight gray tinge of industry and over-use about it. The rocky shoreline is indeed rocks, but they've clearly been put there and are black with old pollution. The water is clean, but doesn't really sparkle. One would be shocked to see wildlife. The places for rest are pieces of architecture as well, not what you'd find in plain Maine. ( I haven't been in Maine for 17 days - help!)

But not bad for a sanctuary in the middle of the city, even with the docks and containers marked Maersk and Hanjin crowding right up to the back of the fort, with the triple-deckers of Southie stacked like dominoes just beyond Columbia Road, with large and noisy jets taking off from Logan every couple of minutes. People (and lots of dogs) clearly were enjoying themselves, and our little one went into sensory overload, ranging from side to side and straining at the leash for the entire hour of the walk. Her scents per minute ratio must have been over the top - I can imagine popsicle and mustard and firecracker and beer and the latest news from countless canines. At least one of us likes the city better than the country.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turning swords into plowshares

The last two planes lumbered out of Brunswick Naval Air Station today. For some, the complete closing of the base in 2011 will mean hardship, as the area loses 5,000 jobs. For others, it represents opportunity, as that marvelous capacity of Mainers to meet challenges and accomplish things as communities gets into full swing with the plans for the base's redevelopment.

For me, the sight of those awkward, low- and slow-flying planes in the skies over Brunswick was bothersome. They seemed to be on perpetual training missions, or up there just for the hell of it, burning gas in pointless loops over the Androscoggin River, the islands, the ocean, the woods. They were incongruous in these settings, warbirds where there should only have been eagles and egrets. The implements of war seem especially out of place in a place of such beauty.

So there will be more than 3,000 acres freed of the Pentagon's grip. From what I've heard of the plans, considerable open space will be preserved, nearly half the base. The remaining will be mixed-use, housing and offices and light industry and, naturally, aviation industries, given the existing buildings and experience, not to mention twin 8,000-foot runways that the Navy (a parting gift?) recently resurfaced. A better parting gift might have been to return the runways to meadows, but one can't expect everything.

If the redevelopment is successful, it will soak up a lot of capital and ambition that might otherwise have looked elsewhere in Maine to slake its thirst and destroy the land. A couple of thousand acres in Brunswick should save trees for a few years in Moosehead, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Moose tracks

On Thanksgiving Eve, it seems right to discuss the moose, especially since one was spotted this week in the Thomaston area, up to her withers in a swamp. Regretfully, I'm not in Maine this week, or I might have been one of the scores of people who rushed out to witness this sacred event. Thankfully, I'm not in Maine this week, or I might have been one of the scores of people....

It's a rare event also. The only other sighting in our area that I can recall in the last 15 years was in Owls Head village, in the little pond across from the general store, well before the fame of the store's hamburgers brought the Volvo wagons to town. Well, there was also the mystical sighting in our own yard, I'm ashamed to admit, and I'm ashamed because the sighting was a supposed moose print in the garden, and the sighter was our real estate agent who pointed it out with some drama as we were considering buying the property. Somewhat later, I wondered if she had a certain implement in her trunk to seal deals with flatlanders.

Much better that folks rush around with cameras than with guns. Of course moose hunting is not allowed along the coast southwest of Belfast, so the Ms. in the swamp was in no danger. Or maybe she was escaping the carnage in Wildlife Management Districts 15, 16, 23, and 26, for those WMDs hovering over the midcoast allow moose hunting in November. It's not that far, maybe a 30-mile amble down Route 17 from Augusta (WMD 23 actually seems to contain the state capitol, but I didn't see politicians on the lists of game to be bagged) towards Rockland and then south; maybe Maine's entire herd of 30,000 should make the trek, giving thanks all the way for one of the few benefits of development, and then, on December 1, retreat to those north WMDs with the low numbers.

So I think the shy and quiet moose should be the symbol of Thanksgiving, not the bad-tempered turkey, for Thanksgiving is a holiday mellow and kind even though the Pilgrims weren't. The moose is already the state's animal, and keeps continued good health. There's still enough wilderness to sustain them, even apparently in Thomaston, and isn't the bounty and beauty of the land what we really give thanks for this week?

Monday, November 23, 2009


In 2005 Gov. Baldacci promised to provide broadband to 90% of Maine households by 2010. The ConnectME Authority (still the state's smallest department) was established to distribute grant money (from taxes on retail communications) to local ISPs for this purpose. The number of households needing such services was estimated to be 40,000. Three rounds of grants have been made, totalling about $3 million. Last month, the state applied for $43 million in federal stimulus money.

Meanwhile, the state's health is deteriorating. Health care expenses, and health insurance premiums, are among the highest in the country. Maine has the oldest population in the country, and is among the poorest. Many people do without insurance, doctor visits, and medication. They wait for Medicare.

The Times has all the grisly details. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/health/policy/11maine.html?_r=2&hp

I'm sure it's not fair to pick on one government program during what the Governor is calling "our Depression." But Maine seems committed to the sexy stuff - all the alternative energy projects, for example, and remember the laptop program for middle school students? It's expanding to the high schools - at the expense of the basics. And where are all the recent budget cuts hitting hardest? Health and human services.

It's wonderful that the state is trying to think creatively about the future. But the present is pretty damn important also. Think of all the energy being poured into grant applications for stimulus money (my favorite project still is the $9 million walkway connecting two parking lots near Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, owned by the billionaire Krafts) - why can't the country unite for health care?

Speaking of the present, Maine senators Snowe and Collins hewed their party line in voting against allowing health care legislation to come to the floor for debate. They say they're against the public option; I suspect immense political pressure from Republicans. There will be many more opportunities to vote, I know, but please Senators, do the right thing when the time comes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wind power

Yesterday marked the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Fox Islands Wind, the three-turbine project on Vinalhaven that is designed to make Vinalhaven and North Haven self-sufficient for electricity. Lots of dignitaries turned up, including the Governor, who seems so bursting with energy for these projects that he could power one himself, and Philip Conkling of the Island Institute, one of the project partners, who made the interesting comment that the wealth of the Maine coast was built by wind. Sailing ships were indeed necessary to the development of fishing and lumbering and liming, until, as Mr. Conkling said, fossil fuels took over.
I have no problem with hyperbole at these exciting moments. It was a great day for the islands and for the future of Maine, which is admirably determined to exploit the wind and the ocean for all the green they are worth. Now Camden is starting to think seriously about a project on Ragged Mountain.
I'd just like to point out that, according to the information sheet that comes with my Central Maine Power bill every month, wind power's share of power sources for electricity currently totals 0.0%. (Hydro is 40%, nuclear 20%, gas 24%, oil 5%, coal 9%, biomass and waste burning 2%.) There's an awfully long way to go and I'd hate to see conservation efforts, which are much more efficient at reducing consumption, be sidetracked.
Then there's the esthetic side. The people of Vinalhaven seemed charmed and happy with their turbines, and I suppose that turbines on Ragged Mountain, which already has the Snow Bowl's ski lifts and a radio tower, wouldn't be overly hard to take. But to overtake fossil fuels, just how many turbines will we need? Some folks in the western mountains are already complaining.
Of course I'd rather build wind turbines than burn fossil fuels. But the prospect of a mountain top like Ragged bursting even more with tall mechanical things and sitting right next door to Coastal Mountains Land Trust's heroic efforts on Ragged and Bald to preserve and conserve is rather jarring.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Water, water

I can't remember a year in which the wetlands in the woods above the house have been so continuously full and the water drains down the ditches and through the pipes to the ocean without cease. I walk along the shore and the little rivers coming off the banks never seem to dry up. They have been gurgling, sometimes loudly gargling, since spring. Below the pipe draining our own bank there are grasses and mosses and weeds as green as the height of summer. The heavy rains of June and July must have raised the water table permanently, at least for this calendar year.

I wonder if we know how blessed we are in the Northeast. Water is not yet as valuable as oil (although if you buy it in fancy bottles, it costs more) but it will be. Some say that New England's last great economic resource is its way of life. If this is true, it is due in large part to our lakes and rivers, the way rain is attracted to our hills and valleys, and to our huge, pure reservoirs as valuable as Canadian shale or West Virginia coal. We just haven't yet put a price on it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Flags in Maine flew at half-staff yesterday in accordance with President Obama's order honoring the dead of Fort Hood, Texas, and today in honor of Marine Major Samuel Leigh, formerly of Belgrade, killed in a helicopter crash over the Pacific last month. The flags are apparently unrelated to Veterans Day.

Why aren't we in a state of perpetual mourning for our dying soldiers? Is Veterans Day the most forgotten of holidays? At least the Portland Press Herald carried a prominent picture of the Portland parade, and several articles about vets. Disgracefully, The New York Times home page had no mention at all of Veterans Day, although if you scrolled down past the fold, you got a link to an article about the French and Germans marking Armistice Day. The Boston Globe's page had a feature on the parade in Boston, but again it was below the fold. Above the fold were articles typically pandering to "demographics": a report critical of the Boston Fire Department, a piece on a missing woman, and in prime position, "A fall sampling of season's sipping," adorned with a picture of the Concord Grape Cobbler as featured by the bar Drink.

I'm about as far from a military man as you can get, but even to me the lack of respect for our veterans and the way the government ignores them when they return home is shameful. I applaud Obama's actions in Iraq and Guantanamo; I can't understand why he's dithering about Afghanistan. Bring our soldiers home and take care of them when they get here. Why is this so difficult for our leaders (and our urban elite) to understand?

Monday, November 9, 2009


After seventeen days (and two hours) away from Maine (but who's counting?), you walk in the house and smell the stale odor of old ashes. It's not a bad smell. It's just a greeting from the woodstove: "Why haven't you been here for so long, I'm just sitting here in the corner full of ashes until you get back and get that real woodsmoke smell going." So, obediently, the first thing you do after putting away the groceries is to start a fire. You get it going, and the smell turns from stale to wonderful, and you go out for a walk before the darkness falls at 4:30.

Your goal for the week is not to turn the thermostat past its minimal setting. This should not be difficult, with the current mild weather, although night-time frost is forecast for later in the week. Your neighbors usually have their stoves going at this time of the year, providing a homey scent to your walks, but today's weather must be too warm to waste the wood. Not a concern for you: you have stacks of split wood from all the trees that fell last winter, and stacks more to split, you need to feel you're circumventing the oil cartels Arab and Texan, you must have that tang of smoke in your nose, even though it makes you sneeze.

You come back in from the walk down Ash Point. The fire is still burning brightly, and after a few minutes, your lungs are used to the insult of its particulates, and the smell of woodsmoke is engrained and enmeshed in your clothes and your being, and you don't smell it anymore, and you are home in Maine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Attention to detail

One of the things I like about France is the sense that order and beauty and pride have their places in ordinary life. The Jardin du Thabor in Rennes exemplifies this. It's a large park in the middle of the city, with wide paths, old trees, sculpted lawns, no litter, and on the large forecourt of the conservatory, where we ate our lunch of baguette sandwiches in the sun, nearly a dozen city workers replanting flowers and tending the beds with exquisite care. It was nearly November; how many times do they change the flowers in the course of a year?

Compared to Paris, Rennes itself might be considered ordinary (certainly, Parisians would have no trouble making the consideration). With its huge student population, it could easily be scruffy and down-at-heel. But it's not - it's lovely and sophisticated.

And when the ordinary workers in their ordinary trucks make sure of their daily supply of baguettes, you know this is a place for living.

We could use a dose of this respect for everyday living in our messy American cities.
But ultimately, the Jardin is a little too perfect, the workers a little too complacent. I for one need the messiness of the Maine woods, and the knowledge that our little corner of crashing surf doesn't need a Michelin star just down the road to make it perfect.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Back to the Future

Having just returned from a week in Brittany, I expect that I can divine the future of the Maine coast in, say, a thousand years (assuming, of course, that it isn't drowned). More or less civilized people have been living in Breton and on its coast since the Dark Ages - by "civilized" I mean the kind of people that need to build and develop and conquer, rather than those who live peaceably on the land - and the land is much used up by farms and settlements and cities, and the coast highly industrialized and vacationized. Except for the protected areas in which there is almost nothing but cliffs and surf.
Maine has had only 500 years of "civilization," so we haven't yet achieved the European split between rigorous (and usually tasteful) development and wilderness in small bits. We still have sprawl. We cherish the messy notion that the frontier still exists just beyond our suburbs and exurbs. Europe has dispensed with this. There is no frontier, all is known, even the wild and rugged parts of Brittany that look like another planet, for there is a comfortable hotel just over the hill, and a village just down the road, and shops and restaurants and museums never very far away. You can't really get lost in Europe.
But you can really live well, and see beauty everywhere, even if it's a little tame by Maine standards. And the holy places are still holy and well-preserved and revered, even if they are crowded about by the trappings of civilization. Europe has preserved enough to keep its ties to the land, and at the same time imported the land's beauty into its urban places. It's a good response to all those Vikings and Normans and Catholics and Calvinists.
I hope I'm wrong about Maine in the year 3000. If we in America and Maine in particular could learn to concentrate more of our development and preserve more of our land, then I would be wrong and we'd have the best of both worlds, like Pointe de St. Mathieu near Brest, whose rocks and ocean look primeval and uncivilized in the best possible sense, whose abbey has been a place of religious, now secular, worship for 1,500 years.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Maine sites

Among the websites I look at most days for news are four based in Maine: VillageSoup (Knox County), DownEast, Portland Press Herald, and MPBN. Each has its charms.

VillageSoup http://knox.villagesoup.com/ : local news in all its glory; the weather (every day when we're resident and some days, out of longing, when we're not)

DownEast http://downeast.com/ : trivia (today's answer is 611 miles - see the site for the question - or if you're reading this later than today, see below*); blogs; (for everything else I get the magazine)

Press Herald http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/ : general Maine news; Bill Nemitz

MPBN http://www.mpbn.net/ : news stories that I as an effete liberal snob am likely to like.

The sites are especially useful when we're not in state, useful for crying and moaning and wishing and hoping, that is. Do we use place-based websites differently depending on the place in which we access them? I think so: I'm especially hungry for information when I'm elsewhere. It got bad enough the other day that I clicked on the Ultimate Maine Wedding ad on DownEast just to see the pretty pictures of the coast I figured would be there. It's like carbo-loading: I've been out of Maine for more than a week; and tomorrow I'll load up on eye candy and facts fat and empty trivia calories especially greedily, for in the evening we're going to France to visit our daughters, and except for the coast of Britanny, which apparently resembles Maine, I expect to go cold turkey on the sights and sites of the Pine Tree State.

*the length of the Maine-Canada border

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More "dubious" distinctions

1. The Pew Research Center reported recently that Maine has one of the highest divorce rates in the country. Refreshingly, Pew has no opinion about the reasons for this, claiming to see no correlation with other relevant data such as age at marriage. Other folks have no compunctions, citing Maine's high working-class population, high poverty levels, tolerant attitudes and less religion (see No. 2), low percentage of college education, and the fact that divorce is relatively easy to get. A mess of reasons sounds about right - if there were just one reason for a phenomenon, we'd have nothing to gossip about.

One guess for the state with the highest rate.

2. Maine is also right up there in religion, or lack of it, tied for fourth in the country (with Washington, after Vermont, New Hampshire and Wyoming) for the highest percentage of people who say they have no religion. Phone polls conducted by researchers at Trinity College say so. (By the way, can you imagine being called to the phone, during dinner of course, and asked if you believe in God? Would your response be different if your burger was burned? If you had a bad day? If you just won the lottery?) There are absolutely no data that could explain this and I haven't seen anyone try.

My guess? You don't need religion so much when some of the most beautiful places in the world are all around you.

One last speculation: does any of this have anything to do with Question 1 on the Maine ballot this November? Earlier this year, Maine became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage, but opponents got enough signatures to try to repeal the law by referendum. Well, it's no accident that in Vermont now and New Hampshire as of 1/1/10 same-sex marriage is legal. Vermont and New Hampshire also have divorce rates well above average. To keep pace with its distinguished neighbors, Maine really must vote No on Question 1 and preserve the evil reputation of northern New England in the minds of Mississippi Baptists and Minnesota Calvinists and the Catholics of southern California.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


We can see a lot of islands from our environs: Little Island in our cove; Monroe and Sheep behind it to the northeast; Vinalhaven behind them (and the three turbines of Fox Islands Wind are up now, just barely visible and more so at night when three red eyes wink at us); Fisherman with its two lonely buildings straight out to sea; Ash if we walk down to Ash Point, where we also can view the lovely chain of Muscle Ridge Islands off Spruce Head. I've discovered recently that Maine Coast Heritage Trust has been working in this area, on Vinalhaven, of course, with its marketability, but also on small and pristine Monroe, one of the first examples of an island given in trust, in 1973, to the state, whose easements were further strengthened a few years ago by MCHT; and Ash Island, where it's working to raise the million dollars that will convince the owner to tear up the hundred-year-old zoning that theoretically would allow the construction not only of houses but a hotel. So why? not why would MCHT want to preserve such a lovely spot as Ash Point and Island, but why would anyone want to build on an island separated from the mainland by just a few hundred yards? Don't build your big house for all to see, crying "I'm islanding!" If you're going to be isolated, do it right.

The appeal of islands is obviously strong, but I confess I don't fully understand why. The beauty is compelling, but it implies the desirability, the need for isolation. The rich apparently need to escape the pressures and importunities of the business and professional worlds just to stay sane, but who would want that life the rest of the year? Regular folks need to get away too and I understand that (retreating and escaping is a character flaw), and an artist's need for solitude I get, but think about it: once you've retreated to an island, to a hotel room for a weekend, or a cottage for a few weeks, or a house in retirement, where else can you escape? It's just the ocean, brothers and sisters, and that is an environment hospitable only to water-breathers, sailors and other irrational beings. I'd rather be on the edge of the land, escaping just enough, keeping my retreat options open.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fixed wings

The wind has been blowing steadily out of the north and east the last few days, and this gives the gulls a chance to strut their stuff. I use the word strut deliberately, not only because what gulls do in the wind is like walking on it but also because they do it with fixed wings, bound to their bodies as if by metal struts. On Friday morning just after dawn I watched for half an hour as the gulls sailed straight into the storm, fast, scores of them all moving north, hardly moving their wings, certainly not flapping them, in what can only be described as the perfect use of a natural body.

I'd like also to use words like joy and pleasure, and that's fine for me but not for them. Even if a gull could suddenly speak English and describe what he's doing, I still wouldn't understand him. I don't know how a bird weighing a few pounds can glide seemingly without effort into a wind gusting to 25 mph. I don't know why they're all going north and none south. I don't know what new marvelous perspective they get on rocks and waves each time they twitch their wings a bit to take advantage of some unknown lift and drag. It's a miracle.

Airplanes used to seem miraculous until I had to fly too many times in them. And now they're just fearful, roaring, groaning, crude approximations of flight. I suppose the gull and the plane use the same principles of aerodynamics. But one is grace and the other grease.

The next time those beasts using Knox County Regional haunt me, the sightseeing prop that needs a muffler, the antique biplane buzzing joylessly in some airshow, the commuter jet bringing people from Boston for the wrong reasons, the rich-boy Gulfstream that roars in the middle of the night, I'll remember the northeast wind, and laugh.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


A new Goodwill store opened recently in Rockland, and the parking lot has been full the several times I've driven past. I don't know enough about Goodwill to know if what looks like a large number of cars is normal, unusual, due to the bad economy, due to Mainers' thrift, new-store factor (it's actually fairly handsome), or all of the above. In any case it's good to see this kind of recycling happening, especially since the store is located just down the street from a Walmart and its aisles of junk.

Most people want new, of course (lots of other adjectives also apply: shiny, mine, virgin, improved, not-yours). It's the same impulse, I guess, that builds malls and houses, sells new cars, promotes the latest fashions, and re-brands tired tubes of toothpaste. Has the recession helped make us less infantile, drool less, save more, want less? Maybe. For how long?

I wonder if that fabled 70% of the economy that consumers supposedly control applies to Maine. If we buy used and recycle old, how many points of GDP does that count? Has anybody ever measured that part of the economy?

I'm reminded of the book by Rosamond Purcell called Owls Head, a tribute to William Buckminster and his incredible eleven acres in the village completely filled with "junk" like scrap metal and lobster traps and windows and birdhouses and clocks and chandeliers and pretty much everything under the sun, all busted and gently decaying in the rain. Like any good New Englander he never knew when he might just need that iron wood-burning cookstove, or better yet, when someone from "away" would buy it from him. Does Goodwill have an "antiques" section?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dubious distinction

Here are three rates that at the very least are surprising:

Maine is the whitest state in the nation.
Maine has the oldest population in the nation.
Maine has the highest cancer rate in the nation.

I don't know what these mean, if they are related, if they're significant (other than the obvious: send us some young, healthy people of color!). Statistics are often damned lies, at the selective, hypocritical beck-and-call of politicians on the air. Yet this particular group of stats makes me think of Olympia Snowe and the heroic effort she's making to keep calm in the middle of the lies. "It's an historic moment," she says, implying that even in the face of an aging population, intransigent insurance companies, conscience-less lawyers, overpaid doctors, and 50 million poor people at the mercy of disease, even then the huge majority of politicians will not see past their parties' rhetoric, their re-election campaign, their donors and benefactors. I'm no Republican, and actually disagree strongly with Senator Snowe, but what other lawmaker is actually thinking about the people? The President is, I believe, but on the floor of the Senate, there never has been a time when Ted Kennedy is more missed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Insouciant species

As I was driving up to the house today, having been away for five days, the car startled two deer browsing in the little ditch next to the driveway. They jumped out, bounded to the leaching field, and stopped, not at the edge of the field near the safe woods, but right in the middle, just 30 feet away. I also stopped (the car). We stared at each other for a couple of minutes.

Clearly, a moving car spooked them but a stopped car did not. Or could they see me through the glass, even recognize me from previous encounters? They didn't care about the human or canine smells about the place (our poor hostas have proved that all summer), they apparently think a house and a garage are as dangerous as a tree.

My dictionary defines "insouciant" as "marked by blithe unconcern; nonchalant." It could have inserted a picture of these two deer and achieved the same result: the stare, the nearly haughty lifting of the noses, the jaunty ear-twitching. I moved the car. They moved into the woods.

The definition begs the question, unconcern about what? It seems like deer have reached that state with humans, or at least are getting there. (I doubt they would be so blithe about wolves, should we be so lucky as to get them back in Maine again.) Also seagulls, who go about their business more efficiently than any animal I know, who are nonchalant towards any species you might name.

And Homo sapiens? We might be the only species that practices insouciance on itself. We pretend to ignore the animal world, but secretly fear it; the plant world is altogether beneath comment; and any power greater than Homo sapiens is either slavishly courted or angrily denounced. I vote for the deer's approach: most things are neutral until proven otherwise.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Invasive species

It's appropriate for Columbus Day that the Press Herald today carried an article on Eurasian milfoil. The plant had been discovered last year in Salmon Pond of the Belgrade Lakes, near the outlet into Great Pond, and was proliferating rapidly enough for the state to take some special attention, first with divers trying to uproot the stuff last year and then with application of 2,4-D last month. (Milfoil forms thick mats of gooey, feathery green stuff, de-oxygenating water, smothering other plants, potentially harming fish.) Apparently, the herbicide is considered safe, although swimming was banned for three days and if your dog likes to drink lake water, you were advised not to let him.

Salmon Pond is small and undistinguished; Great Pond is large and semi-famous, for clean water and lovely resorts, for fishing, although the glamorous species of salmon and trout are rapidly yielding to that cultivar of modern lake life, the voracious northern pike, and the inspiration for "On Golden Pond," although the movie was shot on Squam lake in New Hampshire. Hence the big effort by the state. Milfoil in Great Pond would be a PR disaster. Oh, and an ecological one too.

We used to have a camp on one of the Belgrade Lakes. In some ways we felt more than an invasive species there than we do now on the coast. North Pond seemed largely a place for the camps of Mainers, and our few weeks a year didn't exactly qualify us. It had jet skis and motorboats and water-skiers, and even a pontoon party boat that putt-putted along with its freight of old folks. We liked canoes. We didn't shampoo our hair in the lake.

Not that being a real Mainer is ever in the offing, although one tries. I spend half my time now in state, and have progressed as far as receiving a nod, but not yet a wave, from the local patriarch down the shore. Of course, we're all foreigners in fact, invading from somewhere. And for all the good we've brought to the land since Columbus, we might profitably dive down into our souls and uproot some tendencies. I might go so far, if I could have, as to apply a good strong dose of 2,4-D to Christopher himself.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


We were probably a week too early for peak color on our local foliage tour the other day. But the colors were more than satisfactory already, thanks to all the rain early in the summer. Of course, Vermont and New Hampshire get all the foliage press, but Maine is no slouch and we were very happy with the scenery just west of here: Damariscotta Lake and the hills around it; Lake St. George (how can you beat a lunch of baguette and goat cheese and apples and chocolate on the shore of a lake ringed with green pine and red maples?); the fields and dairy farms of Liberty and Searsmont; Appleton's gorgeous blueberry fields, now almost as red as the maples. Color splashed along the edges of roads and fields and lakes, and just started to speckle the woods. And unlike VT and NH, there were no tourists. And no tour buses. And no shoppes.

Why don't more people get off the beaten path? Why do we all travel the same routes, clutching our guidebooks? Some answers:

  • Lives are run by the clock.
  • Do they speak English in Maine?
  • Tours take care of us, we don't have to worry.
  • There's not enough time to get lost.
  • We might not get good pictures if someone hasn't already been there to tell us about it.
  • Gotta get home - NCIS is on at 8:00.
  • We like the pre-paid chicken pot pie at Old Harry's Green Mountain Eatery.
  • You went where for a color tour?
To me there's nothing better than a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, the DeLorme Maine Atlas, and thou. (Can't do the wine anymore, it makes us sleepy.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


The dog and I were outside on Monday when a little shower passed seaward. I moved under the trees but she stayed out in the middle of the lawn, sitting wetly and patiently for a treat I may have forgotten to give her. We had been playing her favorite game (and now I have to type very quietly, for she goes bananas when she hears the words), called Go Outside, Play with the Ball? in which she chases and retrieves a tennis ball and is properly rewarded. She loves chasing and she loves any food that's not kibble, equally it seems, although only a human would try to decide between them. Dogs do not catalog against the future. They love the moment, however foolish it might make them look.

When I see sun and rain together I always think of a Korean phrase. "The tiger came," they say, nodding wisely, from the slants and stripes and variations that falling rain makes in sunlight and from, no doubt, the foolishness of the tiger in their folklore and art. The phrase also implies the happiness and marriage of elements coming together. I think the tiger just likes standing in the rain waiting for treats.

When we were done playing and went inside, the shower was over the islands and the human treat appeared. A rainbow is such a happy thing in spite of its turned-down mouth, so rare and colorful, so full of happy metaphor like harmony and coalition and pots of gold. And it's at its most beautiful when you don't think of ROY G BIV or Jesse Jackson or leprechauns but just stand quietly in the moment, mouth upturned in a smile.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Secret Jewel of the Seas

I woke up this morning to the sound of an unfamiliar foghorn, a deep one singly sounded, unlike the Owls Head Light horn that is higher in tone and occurs in doublets. It took a few fuzzy minutes to realize what it must have been. Rockland would be graced today, 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, by a visit from a Caribbean-style cruise ship, 962 feet in length and 5,000 feet in passengers.
I looked out the window to see if it was out there, cruising up the bay from Portland and Boston - could barely see the water, let alone a fantasy.
Calmly, I went about my morning routine, even though this was the biggest THING TO HAPPEN IN ROCKLAND IN YEARS. After lunch (since I was going to town anyway for books and food), I thought I'd just see what's what. The fog had lifted slightly in OH but it turned out to be worse in Rockland, an occurrence itself worth a press release. No large white thing anchored near the breakwater could be seen. Good - I wasn't sure I was ready for Rockland's future. But of course it was there, just secreted away in the fog, and the town was full of its passengers.

Random observations, overheard conversations, and sights from walking through town:
  • A brass band greeted the cruisers as the shuttles landed, to scattered applause.
  • Lots of people and conveyances in Harbor Park, tour buses, the town trolleys from the Lobster Festival, taxis, Chamber of Commerce folks, all flocking together to provide interesting ways to relieve the tourists of their money.
  • The Rockland Cafe must have been well-written up in the hand-outs - customers were lined down the street for lunch.
  • Lots of couples, lots of older couples.
  • Overheard:"The biggest sales opportunity of the year and I haven't sold a picture yet. But I'm not discouraged."
  • Overheard: lots of southern accents.
  • Overseen: lots of sweatshirts from Texas and Michigan.
  • A fair sprinkling of orange stickers signifying the purchase of an ticket to the Farnsworth, so not all shopping and eating (my vision of cruises).
  • Judging by the number of colorful plastic bags being carried around, the local merchants did well. There were as many as 2,500 opportunities, after all.
  • Watched the disembarking of a shuttle from the ship (very fancy shuttle, could have been an Amsterdam canal boat). The load looked like a bunch of normal Americans, coupled up, of course, and quite white, and a little older than your average mall crowd, but a surprising number of young folks and people of color, and even a few kids. Several wheelchairs brought up the rear.
A half hour of this was enough and I went to the library.
TJOTS supposed to be back next year. Did Rockland make grade? Did the stores make enough money? Was the fog to be judged quaint? Or yucky?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Car-less in the battle

What were the police (I mean, the POLICE, consisting of the State Police, the Sheriff's office, the Marine Patrol, and the Maine DEA complete with drug dog, whew!) doing in Owls Head Village yesterday morning? A routine safety checkpoint, they said. But at 5:00 a.m.? For almost three hours? I don't know their usual batting average but 90 cars were stopped (license, registration, inspection stickers, please) yielding
- one parole violation (how did they know? someone's bad brother-in-law?)
- one marijuana possession (any spliffs in the glove compartment, sir? Or, that dog must have been really good)
- a couple of traffic summonses (who in the world breaks a traffic law with all those police hanging around? oh right, it was early, probably still dark, and the officers were hiding in the General Store)
- and some safety warnings (you really shouldn't drive with lobster traps in the front seat).

Methinks there was a tip in the battle against drugs: lobster guys doing a little more than fishing.

I'm glad I wasn't out and about yesterday morning (side question: who knew so many people drive through the village at that hour?) I might have been stopped for alien behavior (Mass. plates). But the chances were slim to none. When I'm here wife-less and dog-less, I'm also car-less, that is, it's a badge of honor in the battle to save the earth to see how little I can use it, manfully ignoring the siren calls of the foliage (wait for wife on Sunday), the library (read Tony Hillerman again), and food (shopped on the way up). What else does one need? Besides, it's dangerous out there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Brain tease

I've discovered the cure for senility. No, it's not Scrabble or Sudoku or gin rummy or even gin. It's walking on Maine's seashore and negotiating its sharp rocks, tippy rocks, rolling rocks (but not Rolling Rocks, unfortunately). The brain must work very hard indeed in constant assessment. Will that rock about to receive my foot slide, wobble, pierce my Nike, tilt, roll? You are continually planning your campaign for the flat and the stable. You lose yourself in your left brain; you can feel the plaque melting away.

You can walk on elderly sand beaches, like Old Orchard or Miami. Go ahead if you want to go gaga a little faster.

The cure assumes you keep moving. Stopping to look at islands or loons or that really nice house just ahead is right-brain stuff, never proved to be of any use in business or neurology. Trying to do both, looking and walking, gets you into trouble, not to mention silly arm-waving and staggering from unbalance before you land safely on something at least a ton and stop nonchalantly, pretending to look out to sea. Don't chew gum while you walk - it will definitely be too much.

Your ankles are unexpectedly sore when you get home. How much of your right brain did you actually indulge? Will you remember this beautiful day on the shore or will you just plow along, head down, looking for safe landings?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fourth quarter

I'm sufficiently engaged in business that October 1 still means the start of the fourth quarter. In publishing it's usually the quarter that makes or breaks the year. You track the profit-and-loss statements of the book or journal or imprint or division or company in question throughout the year, but it doesn't get serious until now. All the weakness you see in the beginning of the year will surely be rectified by the end, and your reputation/pride/bonus/continued employment(?) will be secured.
That P&Ls are often misleading, full of accruals and bookkeeping tricks and errors, makes little difference. Your life has been measured, and found prosperous, or wanting.
The world seems to have little time for the continuum of life. We're much more interested in discrete things. December 31 is so very different from January 1. At midnight of your birthday you're no longer special. Every four or eight years, on January 20, a President becomes a nobody. Around five o'clock people get antsy, start looking at their watches, think about a drink and some dinner, no matter how long they've been retired.
I guess life is a bit scary when it can't be captured - it just goes along, with or without you.
When I get too wrapped up in measurements and minutes, I like to look at Maine's waters, its unchanging lakes, its clear rivers, the tides that ebb and flow unsupervised by charts and clocks. That's where my hope and security should lie. Thank God they flow along without me. In Maine I keep my watch in my pocket.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Washington creep

We attended a wedding this weekend in Washington, VA, about 75 miles west of Washington, DC. By the time you get that far out, it's the foothills of the Shenandoahs and mostly rural. But until then, DC and its infernal traffic (think cars stopped dead on the interstate 30 miles west of the city) creeps into every valley and over every hill and has been doing so for a long time.

It must have been gorgeous once, the rolling hills, the blue mountains in the distance. Until Shenandoah National Park was created in 1935, the area was logged and mined and camped and developed. Now there is at least some reclaimed "wilderness" near the seats of power, but one wonders if proximity has anything to do with it when the seats get in jets and fly right over. Your choice, Senator, Reagan or Dulles? Your ranch or your chalet?

The weather was so bad that we didn't motor along Skyline Drive as planned, but instead toured Luray Caverns, an impressive cave with magnificent 'mites and 'tites. Most impressive was a perfectly still and reflective pool, just a few inches deep, that created a dream city from the stalactites hanging down. It looked deep, complex, other-worldly, yet was just a reflection.
Shenandoah must be like that, a rescued world, taken back from the developers and the politicians. Ken Burns says that Shenandoah was one of the inspirations for his new series, his father having taken him there when he was six. How much better never having to be rescued at all.

In another 75 years, will Portland/Gorham/Naples resemble suburban Virginia? Will Congress pronounce Maine's Great North Woods a national treasure while there is still virgin forest, never-touched land, clear lakes?

We took some humor, if not comfort, in a large sign painted on the side of the truck just outside Shenandoah park:


If we're not careful, and prudent, and wise, any future national park will need to be reverse-engineered, carved out of landfills, reclaimed from strip malls.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

MA vs ME

Some friends are using the house for a week. They are very good friends, so when I think of them enjoying the weather and views and the lack of crowds in Camden, I can't really admit to envy and jealousy, which are usually reserved for competitors and enemies. On the other hand, why not? Our friends won't mind the ghost sitting in the Adirondack chair.

I know their state of mind right now - that wonderful late afternoon bliss when the sun lights up the islands and the sea calms. My state of mind is less peaceful, a little too much envy that they've got what I want, if only temporarily. Easiest just to lay aside the psychology and chalk it up to the peculiar feeling of being happy in one place, yet wanting to be in another.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Pumpkins

It was cloudy most of today! OMG!

Fitting for the first day of fall, I suppose, that the long stretch of perfect, late-summer days has ended with a bit of gloom. Not that autumn is gloomy: on the contrary, it's the best season, except to those for whom it signals winter and dyspepsia and Ezra Pound ("Winter is icummen in,/ Lhude sing Goddamm,/ Raineth drop and staineth slop,/ And how the wind doth ramm!/ Sing: Goddamm.").

But that's 90 days of apples and clear chilly nights and bug-free hiking away. Besides, Pound's winter is hardly winter as we know it. It's Regular England, not New England, at least until the globe warms some more.

And really, can you look at the pumpkins of Beth's farm stand without breaking into a smile?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Five gulls and a crab

So gull No.1 is swimming around just outside the rocks at low tide. Gull No.2 is poking in the rockweed that covers everything, then finds a good-sized crab and begins battering the thing with its beak and tearing off legs. Lunch lasts about 3 minutes, until gull No. 3, much larger, swoops in and claims. His (it must be a male, don't you think?) lunch lasts somewhat longer, until he's apparently had enough and swims magnificently off, abandoning the wreckage not to gull No.3, who has completely retreated, but to gull No.4. By now there must be close to nothing left. Yet gull No.5 hangs hopefully around on the next rock over.

I speculate about males and females, dominance and survival. Four of the gulls look more or less identical, and when lunch is over, sit separately, all looking in different directions. Is it a harem? The avian equivalent of a Boy Scout troop? The Scoutmaster is clearly different, bigger, bolder, etc, and may even be a different species. I go into the house and pick up Sibley for the ID, and am confronted with pages and pages of birds that look remarkably similar. Sibley devotes a long, high-lighted box to the problem of gull identification, and starchly says: "A casual or impatient approach will not be rewarded."

I am rebuked, gulled (if you will) by a crab. My 20 amateurish minutes of pseudo-science and pleasure in the sun have not passed muster, and I retreat to my own lunch of tuna on wheat, and an hour of fancy with Bernard Cornwell's Excalibur.

Friday, September 18, 2009


It never struck me before how many of Maine's lakes are what they are because of dams. It's partly for water control. For example, Megunticook in Camden has six dams and if it didn't, the huge rains of the spring and summer might well have washed The Smiling Cow gift shop into the harbor by now. But thanks to the dams, the Megunticook River is tame, and the tourists are safe to shop.

I should have realized this long ago, for when we had our camp on North Pond, the dam that prevented North Pond from emptying completely into Great Pond was periodically blown up (somebody needed water for his cows, it was said). And just looking at the cover of The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer should have made it obvious. The lakes are all slender and sinuous and point to the ocean, really just gloried rivers most of them. But what magnificent rivers faux!

The dams were mostly made, not for our personal wonder at fir-covered points and land-locked salmon and loons diving ahead of kayaks, but for power, power for sawmills and leather factories and pulp mills and now hydro-electricity for our camps. The prosaic becomes spectacular, rather like open hay fields on a hillside make the trees that much more beautiful. I'm still not sure, though, about what to do with the knowledge that Flagstaff Lake, so remote and undeveloped, in the tourist photos so exquisite lying in the shadow of Sugarloaf, is mostly a flooded section of the Dead River, shallow like a lake in the Midwest, in which you can still apparently see remnants of flooded villages. Even in Maine you sometimes need imagination to caress the face of facts.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ride a Purple Pelican

To make room for daughter number 2's grown-up collection of college texts, novels, and books of poetry, I recently emptied her bookcase of all the kids' books stacked there willy-nilly. In other words, I got all teary and sniffly, and not just from the dust of many years' standing. Here are the reasons why, in no particular order:

Goodnight Moon
Millions of Cats
Blueberries for Sal
Farewell to Shady Glade
Only One Woof
Just a Dream
Two Bad Ants
The Polar Express
The Widow's Broom
Make Way for Ducklings
Ride a Purple Pelican

These are the books the girls wanted over and over. We might have read them hundreds of times. There are thousands of parent hours in these pages: paper a little crinkly from just-bathed hair, memories of cute pajamas with feet, poems from Ride a Purple Pelican recited, even bellowed, in unison, children cuddled on our laps in a perfect pieta. I've brought the whole collection (54 in all) up to Maine and probably will read them this winter, in a blizzard of emotion. Or should we read them to ourselves, out loud, and remember?

Bullfrogs, bullfrogs on parade,
dressed in gold and green brocade,
scarlet buttons on their suits,
fringes on their bumbershoots.

See them tip their satin hats
as they bounce like acrobats,
hear them croak a serenade,
bullfrogs, bullfrogs on parade.

I'm not quite sure why I brought the books to Maine. Probably something to do with the hope of grandchildren. For now, they are in the shelf just above our even older collection of LPs, but something tells me the books have a chance of getting used again, perhaps even tonight (there are 3 volumes of Calvin and Hobbes awaiting).


Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The removal of a fallen fir this winter unblocked this view down the shore. You can't see it from the house; you have to go out on the lawn and look to the south. Nor does the photo do it justice. The view needs the extra vision in the sides of the eyes, the remaining trees still standing all around, the ocean sparkling outside the lens' frame, the sense of loss. Then the sun shining on the white rocks seems altogether enchanting, like another world, the view we didn't know we had.
I'm still trying to figure out the view that I have of my father. Has it changed now that he's dead? We had such different ideas of this world and the next that they seemed to color everything. As he grew older, at least our views about this world, or more accurately, what to do about this world, grew closer: get out of Iraq, enjoy Nature, don't cut that tree, vote Democratic. But we did not get close enough to discuss the next, and so I still don't understand. Perhaps the loss is still too recent to see the real view. Perhaps death is a photograph of another shore.

Yesterday my mother went back home after spending a few weeks with us. For her death is too real, and the loss too painful, to figure out what it means for her. I know her hopes for another world carry her through; I hope that she also knows that she takes a bit of us and her grandchildren and Maine with her, and that the view that loss opens up is worth exploring.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vinalhaven bits (II)

The fence separating a motel from the town wharf is decorated with flattened cans. See below for a patriotic enlightenment.

Whatever else you want to say about Vinalhaven, it's certainly got moxie.

Vinalhaven bits (I)

Last week, we were on island for a total of 4 hours so I don't feel justified in giving more than a few glancing comments, based entirely on Cindy's photos.

On the shore just north of town was this abandoned structure. We stopped a bit to take pictures and ruminate on what possible story it could be telling. Helpfully, a woman came out of the house across the road and asked, "Can I help you?" What she really wanted to say was a warning not to go into the building (as it wasn't safe), and a little history (it had been a schoolhouse on Green Island, moved to Vinalhaven, purchased by her grandfather, now owned by her brother and used to store traps in the winter, and obviously not much else). She was very friendly, and a bit quirky. I didn't dare ask her for the stories behind the story.
Speaking of quirky, I've been trying to come up with a story for the following picture. I give up.

As we were waiting for the ferry, the base for the final turbine for the new Fox Island Wind project was being barged in. Is this the connection to the giraffe?

Thursday, September 10, 2009


We took the ferry to Vinalhaven yesterday. The party of the second part has been suggesting this for a long time and it seemed prudent and politic after 25 years to add to our ferry repertoire of Swan's and Monhegan and Islesboro. The day was of course sunny and cool (more than two weeks now and counting!). After a lovely day of walking around town and through Lane's Island preserve and Armbrust Hill park, and having a picnic of bread and cheese and chocolate by the harbor, we sat up top on the way back (the morning's trip out seemed a little too cold for such pleasure, we had to consider the poor dog's comfort, you know), and marvelled at the panorama of sea and ledge, forest and sky, and pretended not to shiver in the late afternoon wind (the dog shivered openly).

More about some other Vinalhaven sights in the next post, but for now I need to remark on our fellow passengers enjoying the wind and the sun on the ferry's upper deck: the young woman and her 2-year-old, in summer tees and shorts, talking, swinging arms, then breast-feeding without care of the cold (must be Mainers); the two middle-aged women sitting next to us who talked the entire hour and a half, or I should say one talked and the other mostly listened, about friends and relatives and life in Florida, about everything, it seemed, except the incredible scenery all around, which had struck us dumb; and finally the older couple, clearly married for a long time, the man of which occasionally put forth facts about the landscape we were seeing, and the woman of which read a sewing magazine the entire trip.

I woke up this morning wondering at the infinite variety of interests, hobbies, obsessions, and pastimes pursued in the world. Just once I'd like to be inside the mind of the hobbyist or the fanatic, say the sewing woman on yesterday's ferry, to be completely another person for a moment, to objectify her perspective and therefore yours, and to understand how she could resist the saving graces of the sun on the ocean in favor of antimacassars and macrame.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


My mother visited us for a few days, and on Saturday afternoon we drove down the St. George peninsula to Port Clyde, stopping at Spruce Head and Tenant's Harbor. We've done this route scores of times, with visitors and without, and never tire of it. Little has changed in these past 15 years. The marriage of land and ocean is still exquisite in Spruce Head; the saltwater farm at Waterman Beach has not been sold for development; hardy souls still swim at Drift In Beach; the silk pocket that is Tenant's Harbor is full of jewels; the Maine Trax ice cream in Port Clyde is still delicious and costs you 25 minutes in line but little in money. But we really make the trip to go to Marshall Point again, and it's especially wonderful to see and hear and feel the reaction of someone who's never been.

"One of the most beautiful places on the entire coast," I say to my mom and I think she agrees. The physical setting is one thing, surf and black granite and the open ocean and a wide view of islands near and far; but the small neat lighthouse and the white keeper's house are almost unbearably beautiful, not just because of their setting but because of the elegance and care of their structure in spite of the dangers of which they warn. They are works of art standing against chaos and death.

Last year a group of local citizens put up the St. George Fishermen Memorial to commemorate those lost at sea in the last 60-some years. My mother has been a widow now for a few weeks, and I hope she drew some comfort from the human ability to stand up, reach out, remember.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Labor Day Weekend

Driving up to Maine on Thursday afternoon, we tried to remember the last time we had spent Labor Day in Maine, and failed, the failure having as much to do with the infrequency of its occurrence as with the increasingly suspect faculties of memories. The end of August and the beginnng of September, the best time of the year, seemed always to be taken up with school beginnings for the kids: when they were young, with the various requirements of town, club and school soccer; when they got to college, the complicated tasks of getting them, that is their stuff, to dorm rooms. But this year marks a change.

One daughter is still in college but is spending the fall in France. Hers was a relatively simple delivery (not to mention the stuff, of course) from our arms to the safety of a host family in Rennes. The other daughter's trajectory has started on a new course. She too is now safely in France, but as a college graduate in her first job, her first apartment, the first exciting blush of a new and independent life. The goodbyes to her at Logan took on a very different flavor this year.

For the week or two before they left, we could not think clearly. The house was full of their leaving. We were worried and anxious, they were excited and afraid. Every piece of furniture held a story nobody really wanted to speak aloud. All of our labors- ours to raise them, theirs to raise us - were successful. The future was overwhelmingly on offer.

Being here now in Maine, we're calmer. That the old house in which they both spent their whole lives is temporarily quiet and memory-less helps. That they are safe and sound helps. That the weather today is as gorgeous as is possible helps. That the first wrench of separation is over helps tremendously. I look out over the water (there's only 3,000 miles of Atlantic between us!) and feel closer to them than in the last hectic, unnatural days of their departing. I hope on Monday they remember for just a moment the blessings in Maine of family and peace, of days of work and nights of rest, and then get on with the education of their lives.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Camden, Inc.

Camden's Community and Economic Development Advisory Committee met the other day and discussed the future. There seemed to be a certain amount of moaning about the present going on: no Class A office space in town, parking problems 4 months of the year, 18-wheelers rumbling through town and discouraging development, a local populace not college-educated, an economy too heavily dependent on tourism. I'm not sure why Camden feels it must be more like Boston, but then this is a "vision" committee composed of businesspeople, and they would naturally want IBM to set up a software unit in the Knox Mill, or MBNA to rise from the dead. Why, in fact, do all peoples and committees and towns and countries believe they need to grow? Is there never a time when Camden would say it has enough? Would it be better off with a Route 1 bypass, a 10-story parking garage, a college, a conference center, a high-rise office building with elevators, broadband and a "news-stand or cafe in the lobby"? Why not just build a casino on top of Mount Battie and solve all your problems?

I happen to think Camden is a pretty good town, a little crowded downtown in August, a little precious in its pretensions, but full of good people in a beautiful place. There's still lots to do to fill and renovate and and modernize and green-ify, and I doubt if its fame and appeal would be enhanced by new industry, however clean. The Committee should buy new glasses to correct its hyperopia.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Olson House

The Olson house is no longer real. It has gone beyond reality into some iconic State of Maine Mind, along with crashing surf and lobster dinners and the noble moose. Some of this has to do with Andrew Wyeth himself, who painted with a sentimentality that ranged from bracing to boring. The rest has to do with our worship of icons, living or otherwise. We seem to need physics to refresh spirits. Seeing and touching and photographing a house conjours up the faith in what that object means.

So it's easy to confuse Christina's World and our world. And that is Wyeth's genius, whether you agree with it or not. He took the ordinary and made it iconic, he painted one place hundreds of times and made it universal. I don't particularly like the way he gets there, but the sanctity of the effort can make me weep. On the day that Ted Kennedy is put into the earth, I am proud to worship in the house of commitment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


It wasn't too long ago that picnics by the roadside were common. Families on vacation, couples daytripping, the occasional biker cleaning the bugs out of his teeth, all used the tables that sprinkled the countryside. When I was a kid on vacation, the rule for picnicked breakfasts was that after checking out of the motel, we had to drive at least an hour before we could stop and fry our eggs and bacon on the Coleman. My parents said it made the food taste better; I now know that breaking up long car trips commits an important act of sanity. Besides, bacon and eggs and cinnamon buns eaten outside do not need time to improve them.

There are very few roadside picnic areas left. And those that still exist, like the lovely little riverside park just north of Wiscasset on Route 1, seem either to be closed or severly under-used. Perhaps the two are related. Tables still adorn the wharves of seaside towns, but they serve restaurants like the Cod End and Miller's and the Dip Net in Port Clyde, and some days, when it's hot and the patrons prefer to eat their clams in cool, they too are unused, and are watched over only by people-less cars waiting for the return of the Laura B. Most folks seem to want fast food for lunch, to be eaten on cool plastic seats or, fast food yet faster, on the road behind the wheel in a dangerous ballet of burger and fries and supersized soda. But I ask you: what can be better for your health and well-being than bread and cheese and chocolate and fruit at an outside table, or on a hillside, or on a slab of pink granite slanting into Penobscot Bay?

Monday, August 24, 2009


Not in Maine yesterday for the big waves. We left Saturday noon just as the ocean was stirring itself -after a long period of very calm seas - in response to Hurricane Bill. For much of this month we could have been living on a lake somewhere in the country's interior: no surf, hot temps, little breeze. But then it's been a strange summer all along, from the deluges in June to unsettled lives in July and early August, and now as summer finishes, my mother will come to visit and my daughters will travel to France.

I would have liked the shore yesterday. The power of the water is stirring. Big waves seem to bring a message from the ocean: "This is what I do, I am alive and powerful." To me this is comforting. A still ocean is more frightening than a rolling one. As long as it's flexing and bending and moving, I don't really think about doldrums and emptiness. I think about life, even though it can be dangerous.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Vroom vroom

The news that Portland might soon be requiring motorcycles to keep the noise down would be most gratefully received by this ligyrophobe. (Noise is on my mind - yesterday, a most beautiful one, seemed to bring out the loudest of airplanes to Knox County Regional.) All Portland, or any US city or town for that matter, has to do is follow the law, specifically the regulation passed by the EPA that requires all new motorcyles to bear a stamp or label proving it does not exceed federal noise levels. Simple! Of course, the regulation came into effect in 1983....

On second thought, if we enforced the law in Maine, I wouldn't have had the pleasure a few weeks ago of an excellent example of cycle mentality. Traffic was inching into Brunswick from the north, along that stretch of Mill St. just before the right turn on to Pleasant. A motorcyclist on the dangerous side of 39 was directly in front of us, ambling along in half figure-eights, side to side, merrily vrooming every once in a while. We approached two people tending their lawn. One was a blonde, in shorts, and our Lothario in leather immediately gunned his engine, vrooming like there was no tomorrow. His turns got tighter, his stare more intense, his face redder. He of course wore no helmet. I'm surprised his head didn't just pop as he drove past, slowly leering.

The woman, to her eternal credit, never even turned from her flowers.

Legislators in Portland, go at it. But first, let's get those folks in Augusta to pass a helmet law. If you're just another anonymous helmeted dude revving up, what's the point of showing off your pistons?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ospreys manque

Last night I took a glass of wine out to the deck for that dusky hour between dinner and dark. I knew from past years that these warm late summer evenings are perfect for watching osprey fish the bay, and it's really been too cool and wet, certainly from my point of view and probably from theirs, to do so until now. I was happy to find that the pleasure was still intense even without the bittersweet edge of having to leave Maine in a day or a week and go back to work.

The ospreys, however, weren't there even though the conditions were good for patrolling the calm, warm water. In fact, we've only seen a few osprey this summer, and zero thrilling dives. I had to be content with the gulls and terns and their insolent flights overhead, and the fast-cooling air, and a cadre of dragonflies canvassing the space above the lawn.

These last are the 5-inch monsters that look like they too could plunge into the water and snatch up fish for the little ones back in the nest. But presumably they're after smaller fry like gnats and the tiny vicious mosquitoes of August evenings. They look agile enough to catch anything, with tremendous zigging and zagging, speed to burn, stopping so quickly in mid-air that they look like they're going backwards.

I used to marvel at the endless hours of work expended by the osprey in circling and flying and diving, just to catch a mackerel or two. Now I wonder about dragonflies. Are they such perfect machines that endless work does not tire, that bugs in quantity do not sate, that acrobatics are passe? Do they never rest on branches and just sit back with a drop of dew and watch, say, the finches fly for fun?

Monday, August 17, 2009


The definition of humidity in these parts is the inability to see Vinalhaven even though the weather is clear. At last we have it this summer: moisture that's not flooding us in rain or smothering us in fog; it's just plain hot southern haze.

For several days now the breeze has been as quiet and the water as calm as I can remember. The kayakers are out in force. Children's voices carry over the cove from Crockett's Beach. Not much else moves, including the brain.

Walking in the heat up on the road, suffering, we might as well be wearing black like Haze Motes, in Wise Blood. We might also be preoccupied, like him, by matters mortal. We come back to the relative cool of the shore, of the imagination, of words. They help lift us out of the doldrums.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


What a difference a few miles makes! On Vinalhaven the Fox Islands Winds project is well underway. The big, 120-foot blades have started to arrive in Rockland, the final concrete for foundations will be poured next week - all in all, a well-thought-out, collaborative endeavor that shows the best of private and public partnership.

Across the bay on the mainland, the Maine Supreme Court has just ruled that the town of Lincolnville, after 4 years of litigation, must allow a 195-foot cell phone tower to be built at the base of Bald Rock. Bald Rock, of course, affords one of the finest views on the entire coast, which, for most of its hikers, will now be marred for the sake of a few phone customers.

The towers on Vinalhaven, taller at 250 feet and three in number, are carefully situated to be least obtrusive; the tower in Lincolnville singly achieves maximal obnoxiousness. Will the owner of the land on which it is to be built come to his senses and remove the blight of steel from forest and sea? Not unless there's a Supreme Court of Beauty.