Monday, May 25, 2009

Graduation

My daughter Kate graduated from Bowdoin College on Saturday. It was a good ceremony, as these things go: Penobscot Indian chiefs gave the invocation, five diverse and impressive people got honorary degrees, the State of Maine congratulated all in the person of former Governor McKernan, and there was no commencement speaker from outside, just two students who won contests. The best part was the processional that snaked around the quad, the students being led by the Chandler's Band and receiving the hoots and cheers from family and friends and then lining up along the walkway in a double row as the faculty walked to the stage between them.

Bowdoin is well grounded in Maine, offering many opportunities to volunteer for the Common Good. It also emphasizes a liberal arts education, although the obsession with sports and money is a little hard to reconcile. But it is also full of driven, ambitious people; let's pray that a little of the liberal and the Good and the Maine way of life has rubbed off in four years.

Monday, May 18, 2009

JFK rocker


It's therapeutic. JFK had a bad back from a war injury, and had rockers everywhere he went, even on Air Force One. I imagine him reading the papers of state, or reading a story to his children, or just gazing at the Atlantic off Hyannis. The rocker is perfect for work (the laptop fits just right, the arms are wide enough to hold a notebook or a pad of paper) and for pleasure (I swear the view of the water can heal dyspepsia, not to mention despair) and for nostalgia (if looking back at Maine from just a couple of days' distance can properly be called nostalgic).

Sofas and soft chairs are no good for what ails our heads. Bodies, yes, but the healing of the mind requires an upright stance and gentle movement, the back and forth of emotion and remembrance. The rocker seems to force honesty, and courage. In profile, it proclaims peacefulness. Occupied, it gives energy.

It's also easy to get up from when you're stuck in cliche and need to wander around, look out all the windows, make some tea, stoke the fire, read the dictionary. Then it calls you back.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Progress

Most of New England is forested again. This is just the opposite of the 19th century, when most of New England was cleared for crops and pasture. We owe our present blessings to the rich farmlands of the Midwest and the bigger forests and mountains of the West, which drew adventurers, developers, farmers, and miners away to new promised lands. I call that progress, to have our cities and forests living together in harmony.

Remnants of the old way are everywhere: old foundations, pieces of bridge on river banks, rockwall fences, gentleman's farms, logging roads, root cellars, stately houses, humble cottages. It was a hard way of life, and we're grateful for our modern comforts and the agribusinesses in Iowa and the smelters in Idaho and the computer guys in Silicon Valley. We would go back to the 19th century only to be closer to family and nature, and we can still do that now if we try.

Or just live in Maine. 90% of it is wooded. 99.44% of it is pure.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Skunk cabbage


A sure sign of spring is the skunk cabbage. It's alarmingly vigorous and full-grown for so early in the year, like some kind of alien plant from the hothouse of Venus, and I've often half-wondered (this is the state in which you have a slightly nagging question but don't bother to find the answer) why. As in usual in nature, there's no one answer but a lovely circle of them. First, the plant is one of the few that can generate its own heat, thus melting its way up through frozen ground and prospering while others shiver. Second, it has contractile roots that more or less pull the stem deeper into the mud; adult plants, therefore, grow down as much as up, making them strong and nearly ineradicable. Finally, a broken leaf produces a pungent odor which, along with generation of heat, attracts the early insects for pollination. Nearly perfect Darwinian survival, I'd say. Also some Emersonian self-reliance and initiative, not to mention good marketing.

Fortunately, it's incredibly plain (except of course for the sight of thrilling green where nothing else is). If it were as beautiful as it is tough, the world might well be covered by now, from swamps to gardens to domination in a blitz of invasive marketing. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad. Skunk cabbage sequesters carbon better than asphalt, is better-looking, and is only marginally smellier.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vernal pools

Springtime brings these seasonal pools, home to frogs and salamanders and a tiny kind of shrimp. The pools dry up in summer and can't support fish; ergo, otherwise-helpless species needing water thrive there. A swarm of tadpoles would be like chocolate pudding to your average perch or bass.
The frogs, both wood frogs and spring peepers, hibernate during the winter under a thin layer of loam or leaves. They survive by icing up. All the fluids in their bodies freeze, but not quite solidly, thanks to an over-production of urea and other antifreezes in the late fall. An excellent tactic for Maine winters. Then in the spring they thaw, migrate to the pools (in most cases the same ones they were born in), advertise for companions, mate, produce eggs, and hatch tadpoles. See the blobs of pudding in the pictures below.
The males are the ones doing the advertising, of course. We heard them peeping last night as we drove home from an anniversary dinner in Rockland, an absolutely distinctive sound, like no other, like pure joy sent up to heaven from earth. It's just chemicals, I know, but I'd like not to believe that, especially in the face of evidence like 23 joyous years of migrating to Maine with my own wonderful companion.




Saturday, May 9, 2009

At last





















Spring's been coming for a long time but this past week's trial of wind and rain and 45 degrees on the coast did tend to set spirits back a bit. Until yesterday. I don't want to jinx anything, but it really was a perfect day.

Our favorite walk through Rockport includes a road through the golf course. Say what you will (and I do) about the frivolous use of land, but the beauty of open, grassy meadows contrasted with sky and water and trees is not really a natural occurrence. This particular treat for the eyes needs fairways, or cows in meadows (which Rockport also has).

One of my favorite things about spring is the color of the new leaves - that pale yellowish-green that looks so hellish on bad art and golfers' pants and so heavenly on trees. It's such a tender and vulnerable color that pollen is not the only thing makes me tear up in spring.

Just to be cruel, or realistic, six months ago the golf course looked quite different.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Free speech

The Constitution must have been proudly on display the other night at Camden's Select Board meeting. Free speech was debated, specifically the right to conduct free speech on the Village Green.

It's wonderful how our most basic, and sometimes complicated, rights are discussed so openly and sincerely. This must happen in thousands of meetings across the country. We have an educated public. Opposition is both loyal and informed. That sometimes we get muddled up doesn't really matter - we'll debate again soon.

At issue in Camden was the local high school's chapter of Amnesty International and its wish to inform the public, on a Sunday in June, about the predicament in Tibet. After much debate, this was granted. The Board is not a liberal, pinko communist cell - they rejected the request of a group that wanted to read the entire list of soldiers killed in Iraq, accompanied by drum beats.

So a slight muddle. Why Tibet and not Iraq? Less noisy?

It seems to me that every group should have the right to congregate and inform in public, even in so peaceful a place as the Camden Village Green. They are innocent of vandalism, noise pollution, contrary opinion, swine flu, until proven otherwise. As the Police Chief said, "Where can people go if not a public space? And if you say no, and they do it, what do I do?"

Equal rights, gay marriage, free speech, enlightened police - what's next, universal health care?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Unintended Consequence

The bald eagle population of Penobscot Bay is apparently growing rapidly. We wouldn't necessarily know, for a sighting over here on the west side of the bay (away from the islands where they wisely live) is rare, lasts maybe two seconds, and is the occasion for wild whoops and comical gyrations as we press noses against the windows to follow its flight out of sight.

Also living and breeding on the islands are gulls and eiders, which boast large numbers, and great cormorants, which do not. In fact, the cormorants probably won't last the century, or the decade, for the eagles have forsaken their traditional diet of fish and now feast on tasty birds, chicks and fledglings mostly. The cormorants, because they are so few to begin with, suffer the most.

Are humans to interfere? Should we discreetly patrol the cormorants' nests, perhaps with signs advising the eagles to leave, or at least re-consider the benefits of fish? How much cholesterol in cormorants? Should we compute the eagle's RDA? Who's going to win, a magnificent warlike raptor, the symbol of America, or a lowly black water bird? If you had to save one for democracy, which would it be? Sounds like our foreign policy until recently.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Equal rights

The Governor has just signed a bill allowing gay marriage in Maine. A proud day for the state, and for New England, for if New Hampshire also passes the law as expected, only Rhode Island will be left in another century. Opponents will try to mount a ballot referendum this fall; I hope they see that their money and effort, however sincere, could be much better spent on issues that are productive, not destructive.

It was four years ago that the gay rights law was signed in Maine. That too suffered a referendum repeal, which thankfully, the voters rejected. You could ask why it took four years for gay marriage to follow. Isn't it obvious that there's a breath (no, a gale) of fresh air blowing across the country?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

LURC

It sounds ominous even when you spell it out - Land Use Regulation Commission. When you consider what it does - a zoning board for all the unorganized territories in Maine, about 10 million acres, nearly half the state - it sounds impossibly ambitious. And when you look at the issues it covers - an addition to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, a large wind farm, permitting a trailer on a ten-acre plot, the proposed Moosehead Lake development of hundreds of thousands of acres - it sounds ludicrous. How can seven men and women handle all this?

Then you realize that although the area is immense, there really aren't all that many people up there. Piscataquis County, for example, the heart of the Great North Woods, boasts 17,000 people in almost 3 million acres. So LURC is really not much more than a zoning board for a smallish city. Or is it?

Unfortunately, the issues can be as immense as the territory. How do you deal with a Plum Creek Timber Company that wants to develop Moosehead? How do you account for the needs and wants of fishermen, hunters, hikers, snowmobilers, foresters, skiiers, tourists? How do you handle the PR departments of the investors and speculators that now own most of the territories? What about the Maine lynx and moose and bobcat and salamander? What about the lakes, the old-growth forests, the pristine streams?

Fairly and openly and slowly seems to be the MO of the Commission. Its members have a healthy mix of commercial, academic, civic and scientific experience. Yet I tremble at the thought of irreplaceable treasure in the hands of mere mortals, no matter how committed and balanced and moral, no matter how much they are policed by the public and the conservation groups. We need an immortal, a Thoreau, who more than 150 years ago saw the danger and wrote of the need of a "national preserve." Maine Woods National Park, anyone? What happened to that idea?

LURC was established in 1971, after rampant development of the wilderness in the 60s. The game is changing again and we may need a new higher power to protect us from ourselves.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Atlantic Salmon

Starting today, there was to have been a month-long fishing season on the Penobscot River north of Bangor. It's amazing that there are salmon at all in the river, considering what we've done to prevent their runs. Yet every spring some hundreds of fish make it up from the ocean, enough that last year the State opened three miles of the river to catch-and-release fly-fishing. Once 50 fish were caught, the season ended.

But this year the State, under some pressure from the Feds, cancelled the season. The Feds want to make the salmon an endangered species, the State prefers to keep them "threatened." Apparently, the difference in terms is great.

I don't know if Maine's salmon commission wants to please the fishermen, or just keep the Feds out of Maine's game. A certain independence needs to be maintained, I'm sure, and catching a salmon on a fly-rod must be a great thrill, even a privilege. I never fished for salmon, but when I was a teenager, fly-fishing for brown and rainbow trout was a holy activity even if anyone could get a license (I definitely wasn't just anyone back then - I was a "tortured soul"). The Little South Branch of the Pere Marquette River in northern Michigan was my church. And most fishermen will say it's not about the fish, it's about being outside, on the fish's level. One fellow said, "It's not about catching a fish, it's being able to."

But times are dire for the Atlantic salmon. Until someone can prove that catch-and-release does absolutely no harm, and that hundreds of guys in waders flogging the waters and climbing the banks is beneficial, I'm thinking the church-goers should put their religion on hold for a while. Progress in cleaning the waters and removing the dams is slow, but sure. The Feds are right to interfere. Sometimes our human nature doesn't know when to act and when to stop, look and listen, even the most exalting of us.