Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SAD

The acronym defining Maine's school administrative districts is unfortunate. Living in Maine is by no means unhappy, although in some folks seasonal affect disorder might spring to mind, especially in the depths of yet another snowstorm, and certainly to most schoolkids it's the right emotion, especially in September. For the rest of us, the use of periods separating each letter should be required in the media.

Whatever one's state of mind, however, we were cheered recently by the news that voters in the five towns comprising SAD 28 overwhelmingly rejected the State's proposal to consolidate the district. I don't know the details of the proposal, but it doesn't surprise me at all that independent and cussed Maine voters would deny further encroachment of bureaucracy in their lives. Obviously, they love their local schools, under their control, not some SAD superintendent's, even at the price of, or at least the threat of, losing a certain amount of state aid as punishment. These are pretty wealthy towns, generally (Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville, Hope, Appleton) and can afford the hit if the Governor needs to balance the budget on the backs of towns; still, to vote so strongly in such times is remarkable.

It's a fine and dangerous balance between efficiency and independence. I often find myself on the side of big government but I hope only on those issues that clearly transcend local politics. Where local control will benefit and motivate and inspire, let HAPPY* reign.



*Harnessing All the People's Power of Yore

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snowshoes


On the Hosmer Brook Trail, it takes quite a few minutes to achieve the point of snowshoeing - getting into the woods that otherwise would have been impenetrable. We have to walk up the side of one of the Snow Bowl's downhill runs, then veer off on something that looks like a snowshoe trail - narrow, twisting - only until a few snowboarders and skiers come flying through the trees. We're startled and a little dismayed by the interruption but in awe of the skill.

Then we're in the clear of envy and annoyance and into the peace and quiet of a winter woods. The uphill slope is gradual at first, and the trail only partly broken (not exactly a mass participation sport, this), and the breathing easy. It gets steeper, of course, and the clear, cold air does a little wheeze-squeeze on our alveoli, but snowshoeing is only a little harder than hiking, and the black of trees and the white of snow are uncorrupted by our trials and prejudices.

From part of the trail we can see Bald Mountain across the valley, shining in the sun. We're in shadow here in the afternoon, but we don't care. The trail is marked as for children with big blue blazes on trunks and pink ribbons tied to branches, and it doesn't make it to the top of Ragged Mountain but goes back down in a tame loop - none of that matters. Goals and adventures and sunny achievements are best left for the summer. Winter is more of a moon season, pale, mysterious, pure, with its ups and downs. Going uphill, unchair-lifted, under your own steam? Perfect.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Glued to the TV

We did virtually nothing yesterday but watch the Inaugural. The TV went on at 10:30, went off with the last float of the parade (the weird NASA one that disgorged a white blob that then ran down the street trying to find a moon on which to plant the flag it carried). Except for certain biological breaks - canine and human - that's some nine hours of continuous, uplifting emotion.

What wonderful moments: Aretha making us gush, the all-too-human flub from both the Chief Justice and the President-elect, the sobering speech, the brilliant Obama females in their colorful coats, the tears and shouts on the Mall, the glory and the tension of the walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. We feel connected again to our government and our country. We're a little less nervous about our future. Our children might actually have a better world than ours.

As someone who's spent time overseas and worked for European companies, I was especially impressed with our President's words on foreign policy: strength, compassion, aid, respect. This is an unbelievable man. I went to bed early, exhausted by unaccustomed political fervor.

There was only one blot on the day - I can hardly write about it, it makes me so upset. There is a blank sign, the kind that stands in front of the Old Fellows announcing bean suppers, on Ash Point Road near the airport. That is, it was blank when we drove by on Monday afternoon to go snowshoeing. Sometime on Monday or Tuesday, in a despicable fouling of one of the most moving days in our nation's history, someone had spray-painted "KKK" in letters three feet high. What's left of my Christianity makes me want to ascribe this to a prank, or ignorance. But the awful rumors circulating on the web during the campaign seem to have become flesh. There is someone in this bucolic part of the world who is degenerate, desperately unhappy, evil. I don't want to believe it, but I must. The whitest state in the Union voted for Obama; would that he could now reach out in mercy and save one benighted Maine soul from hell. I can't.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Snainstorm

Even in Maine it's hard to stay cheerful and optimistic in the middle of a snainstorm. The forecast was promising: 6 to 12 before it's over, with only a slight possibility of rain along the coast. We snuggled into the day with books and stories and a modicum of work, and the anticipation of a lovely day of snowshoeing in the aftermath. And it started off well. A couple of hours of steady, swirling snow, temperature below freezing, a couple of inches of build-up over the usual foundation of ice.

Rain came mid-afternoon, wonderfully life-giving and all that but not in winter. Temperature rose, build-up melted, slop-shoveling began to prevent bigger ice layer later, dog attacked shovel, snow balls, and suspicious lumps, got flat anvil-head from rain. All (well, two of three) gave in at last to darkness and alcohol at 4:45, gloomy save for the wondrous surf that raced in and pounded the rocks, the day's saving grace. Usually, in our cove, protected from the bad north and west winds, waves come sedately and slowly in, hand-in-hand with the slope of the seabed. Yesterday they were setting speed records in the southeaster, unimpeded by the islands and Ginn Point, bursting on the granite as if impatient for the climax.

I should have had more faith. We woke this morning to the perfect snowfall, 5 or 6 of the light fluffy variety, a pleasure to sport in, man and beast, a pleasure to move from the walkway, a concupiscent blanket on the branches of the firs. And if the layer of experienced ice remains under all this innocence of snow, well, we'll be careful with our illusions.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

White Pine

The flooring of our second story appears to be original wide board planking, probably white pine. It's visible from the first floor because there is no dropped ceiling, just the bare planks. They appear to be continuous down the length of the old part of the house, about 35 feet, although I suppose they could be smaller pieces nailed invisibly into the joists. And many of them are wide, as much as 19 inches.

The white pine is a fabled tree: the tallest in the east (as much as two hundred feet), very old (close to 500 years in a few cases), prized by builders since colonial times, claimed in the age of sail by British agents in search of the perfect masts for their warships. This house was built as a cottage in 1924, not that old in the scheme of things, and the only fables here are the ones we make ourselves, but yet I like this link to the colonial past if only through the workmanship. I assumed that boards this wide were pretty rare these days, but Google tells me otherwise. Lots of builders offer wide planks and many are careful to say they come from sustainably harvested trees. I marvel at the tree that could produce a board 35 feet long and a foot-and-a-half wide; maybe these days you can only get one or two such boards per tree, accounting for the high prices. It's comforting to know that if the market goes completely sour, there's a small fortune in our ceiling.

It's not so comforting to know that white pine is fragile in a storm. There's more than one exploded trunk in the woods out back, from the southeaster some weeks ago, the same storm that broke a large branch off the white pine growing feet from our house, which landed inches from our house. Perhaps it's trying to get us back for owning the innards of one of its relatives from 85 years ago.

Today's southeaster isn't nearly so violent, and our stately neighbor has so far refrained from further punishment. All is well, for the house is strong and well built, and the surf is crashing, and I'm lost in time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Country Lane

It doesn't wind, it doesn't feature ravishing dairy maids in verdant leas, it doesn't have towering English oaks sheltering the gentry from wind or heat or bumpkins in the fields, but I still like it, it's close to home and on a frigid January day, it's mine. And the dog's. We've completed two-thirds of the walk, and have turned east down Bay View Terrace. It's a lovely little road, maybe a quarter mile long, almost perfect in its ordinariness.

Between Cann's Beach Road to the north and Granite Point Road to the south, there's probably 100 acres of woods, broken only by the Macintosh's houses - parents' and daughter's - and their driveways and woodpiles plopped in the middle, and of course by Bay View. It's a normal woods, cut by deer paths, not very dense, brown and black deciduous and green evergreen and white birch, an owlish kind of place although I've seen but one here. There's a kind of meadow half-way down, made flatter and more obvious by the snow, which in summer is overgrown with scrub and fireweed. Besides the Mackintosh's, barely glimpsed even in winter, there are only two other houses, both near the end, both small, unprepossessing. (At the very end, the water spawns big ones.)

I stop dead, for no particular reason. Mia also freezes, expecting something to confront. In the crunching of boots (mine) against ice and snow, and the tinkling of a blue rabies tag (not mine) against collar I've failed to hear the thrilling silence of a woods in winter, so cold that wind is not allowed and animals are tucked away safe. Absolutely the only sound is a dog barking, and I know that dog, it lives on Granite Point a half mile away and it sounds like it's barking up that tree just over there. Everything is preternaturally clear: sound, silence, flaking birch bark, wisps of sea smoke on the bay, the cliffs of Vinalhaven which I can just barely see. And close: the cold is intimate, in your face and toes and lungs, heightening all sensation.

Most of the way down Bay View there's a curious little tableau that I've often wondered about, ascribed Victorian secrets and fantasies to. A small hut sits thirty feet off the road, falling down, windows broken, door barely attached and splintered. Yet it has dignity and style, a peaked roof, a large window looking into the woods. Across the road on the south side is a rectangular patch of open grass, now snow-covered, lined with blackberry bushes. Someone takes the trouble to keep it open, mowing the grass in summer. On the day after the death of Andrew Wyeth, I like to think that the hut was a studio, for a painter or a writer, and the patch his place to take the sun and inspiration, and the mower his ghost. I like to think he's there for the love of the ordinary.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gateway Route 1

Although this project has been going since 2004, I ran across it just the other day. The mission sounds admirable: to plan sensible development and to preserve rural character for the twenty-some towns and hundred-plus miles of Route 1 from Brunswick to Prospect. One should realize, however, that the project is run by the Department of Transportation, the same folks who rode roughshod over lawns and trees and driveways in Warren a few years ago in the infamous widening project, and tried to do the same north of Camden. Ever optimistic, from what I can see Gateway is an attempt to be a little more sensitive to the needs of real people, rather than directives from Augusta or even Washington, complete with a healthy PR effort from Morris Communications.

I do like the idea of increasing the density of towns already established. To have schools and stores and houses closer to each other, to build up rather than out, to build villages rather than big boxes or malls might leave the countryside open for views, moos, and moose. The spaces between towns on Route already are shrinking, thanks to unchecked development. Whether DOT can persuade towns to alter their Comprehensive Plans is another story. Local zoning boards have all the sins and virtues of small-town life.

Rockland voters recently denied Walgreens the chance to build yet another drug store, between a large Rite-Aid and a Walmart just a mile apart. A very hopeful sign for Rockland, but I worry about 20 towns acting together on complex issues. And will the toothpaste just squirt past Prospect into Washington County if bottled up down south?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dead zone stays alive

VillageSoup reports today that the view from Bald Rock will remain pristine, at least for the nonce. The local cellphone company in Lincolnville has been trying since 2005 to build a 190-foot tower in the middle of one of the grandest views on the coast. Horrors! Bald Rock seems to be a dead zone between Camden and Belfast! As far as I can tell, approval has been given and taken away several times already; fortunately, the company has only the Maine Supreme Court left (I rather doubt Roberts, Alito, Thomas and co. would be interested) for appeal.

It's a lovely, 2-mile hike up Bald Rock, most of which is a gently rising wide path through woods, and the last half-mile satisfyingly steep. The view from the top is spectacular: nearly all of Penobscot Bay is in view, and hawks soaring on the thermals, and the islands, and the sea traffic, and the peninsulas, and even Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. We've hiked it scores of times, and never tire of it. I'm very glad the citizen's group seems to have won. The thought not only of a "monopole" of steel mocking the trees around the base of the mountain, but also of punters at the top of Bald Rock, brandishing IPhones and demanding of their callees, "Where are you?" is not to be imagined, much less experienced.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It Must Be Maine

Today's Globe brought a 4-page glossy brochure advertising the winter delights of Maine. (Its headline seems to me a severe come-down from "The Way Life Should Be.") "This winter, do more than vacation. Maine-cation," it exhorts. The state is neatly divided up into eight sections, with lots of pictures of snowmobiles and huskies and skiing and ice fishing and snowboarding, mercifully with only one picture each of moose, lobster and lighthouse. Each section has a blurb in travel-ese ("Enjoy thrilling winter fun"), an 800 number and a url. The blurb of the section I'm most familiar with, Mid-Coast, highlights the US Toboggan Championships (neglecting to mention that they were started as a joke, and remain mostly so), skiing with ocean views (the Camden Snow Bowl, not named), one of the region's world-class museums (must be the Farnsworth in Rockland, which is excellent but not quite world-class) and inviting historic inns (do they have to say "historic?"). I looked at the website (decent, not too hyped, a 5-minute video featuring almost all water scenes, in summer, naturally). I didn't dare call the 800 number, for fear of getting the Chamber of Commerce.

I don't mean to disparage the hype or the wholesomeness. God knows the state needs to suck every single tourist dollar out of Massaschusetts. And it's great to see the familiar beautiful breathtaking pictures, however hackneyed, in the attenuated thing that now passes for the Sunday paper. It's just that for me the bland words spoil the reverie, not to mention the crowds of people who in normal economic times fly to Florida but might now drive north "for a getaway that will warm your heart and leave you with memories that last a lifetime."

If they only knew.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Carbon 59

I never can decide if chaos or order is the more handsome, but it certainly seems that the choice is much less important away from the city. Out here you can even argue there's not much difference between the two. Any old walk in the woods - stalwart trees inevitably falling, rushing water frozen into billows, the shapely flights of finches a marvel of randomness - will tell you that. The carbon cycle is so obvious.

The rock-hard wood yields grudgingly to the saw, giving up its lovely rings to the eye. Each log, heavy with H2O, strains your back when you lift it to the wheelbarrow and then stack it on the pile. The axe reveals the rushing rivers of fibers inside. After the logs are split you stack them - more carbon pain in your back - in the garage to dry. Then, some years hence I expect, given the amount of wood we now have, each corporeal log-body vanishes in an inferno of burned oxygen and escaping carbon and contentment around a stove. I don't understand how an atom can do all this - pure energy by itself, nothing really but imagination and belief; airy in leaves and in our lungs; soft and supple in the shivering of an aspen; hard and bountiful in the trunk of a tree; beautiful in the shape of a cheekbone. It just does, and the mind/brain gets excited/depressed by its antics, and a man in his 59th year rejoices.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year

Total time spent outdoors on a typical winter day: 160 minutes, ie, 25 minutes walking the dog on Ash Point, 45 minutes walking in Rockport, 90 minutes dealing with wood. Total time spent outside today: 16.5 minutes, namely, 4 minutes walking the dog, 10 minutes walking in Rockland, 2 minutes putting gas in the car, 30 seconds dashing to and from the garage. Reason: wind chill at about 400 below.

There were a surprising number of people out and about, however, real Mainers obviously. It looked like at least half the shop(pes) in Camden were open. (Almost nothing was open in Rockland - enough said?) The parking lot for the Bald Mountain trail was nearly full. A number of couples were walking along Lincolnville Road. There were even two cars parked below the rock-climbing cliff at Megunticook - you don't think....? nah. We, in contrast, forewent our pre-chill plan to attend the Coastal Mountains Land Trust reception at Beechnut House - three-quarter mile walk up an untreed, wide-open trail to end up at the top of a hill in 40 mph winds, are you nuts? - and drove around Knox County in comfort instead. On second thought, maybe the walkers and hikers weren't real Mainers after all, but flatlanders determined to make the most of the holiday, if even it killed them, determined to get the full winter experience of ice and wind, or just determined to prove themselves worthy of their second houses. Real Mainers were hair-of-the-dogging, watching football played among the palm trees, napping, reading, splitting wood. We fall in between.

We should have made the effort, for the woods are lovely in winter, the deep hollows snow-filled, pools and brooks half-frozen and making ice-sculptures, black tree trunks standing straight, knockneed, akimbo against their white blankets. There's a blessed absence of color. Purity of vision is a good way to start the year.