Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why did the slug cross the road?

Most of my walks these days are spent eyes down - there's no use looking up or around, it's all grey, the fog smothers the top halves of trees and the near distance of woods. The pavement is constantly wet and so slugs are my companions, other than the dog of course, who isn't interested in this particular variety of slime, much to my surprise and fortunately so, or we'd be stopping every few feet for a sniff and a roll. I imagine the slugs traipse out in the rain for any number of reasons: to escape drowning in the woods from the record-breaking rainfall this month; to race each other - the Sluggie 500 (mm) - on a hard surface; to perform slug-wheelies; to remind me with their grossness that life could be worse. I note the road is least slug-olated where it borders lawns (even slugs dislike the mono-culture of suburbia), most where trees and weeds and leaves grow close. I note too that there are no slugs in the middle of the road; they make it about a foot or so from the verge, then perish in clumps of goo, too slow to escape even the few cars that travel our country lanes. Or do they just stop and await the smoosh?

I don't think slugs have a lot of ambition. They don't want to get to the other side of anything. They're all water in a bit of skin, and when the whole world looks that way too, the slug goes out in a praise of gory.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The luxury of esthetics

Serving North Haven and Vinalhaven, the Fox Islands wind turbine project is underway. Many of the islands in Penobscot Bay have to buy mainland electricity at ruinous rates; the three turbines planned will save money, eventually, and make the islands energy independent, both good Maine virtues. The project has had overwhelming support from the residents.

Emboldened by this, Monhegan is also considering a turbine. And now the oil paint thickens. How would the artists and nature lovers coming to this natural heaven on earth deal with an artificial thing standing 130 feet tall, gently roaring? Would they take their easels and money belts elsewhere? Or would they, we, all accept that this is the price of progress?

Electricity is our sacramental wine. We must have it at all costs, preferably not as the result of fossil fuel incineration, but still we must have our lights, our computers, our lifestyles. Only the most severe of isolationists thinks we can live without it. Power is both the sin and the forgiveness of our lives: coal and oil is the addiction, wind and solar and tide machines the cure.

It seems we don't have the luxury of esthetics anymore, especially in poor Maine where nearly 90% of power comes from fossil fuels. Even in wealthy Massachusetts the folks of the Cape and the Islands will, I'm sure, eventually succumb to the arguments of Cape Wind. What no one questions is the need for all these machines in the first place.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Camden does the 180

The other day, Camden voters (who seem to go to the polls a lot) approved a moratorium on franchise businesses. The stimulus was the attempt a couple of months ago by a Dunkin Donuts franchisee to set up shop on Main Street, which license was temporarily granted, then taken away, then voted on by referendum, now banished (but only for 180 days, when the ban could be extended or voted on again). Clearly, the town is somewhat divided between two kinds of brand-consciousness.

Obviously, Dunks has a brand, as does Camden, both apparently world-famous. The former is feared as something that could destroy the latter, if the slippery slope thing happens (Dunks, J Crew, Walmart). Would Camden suffer if a couple of innocent little franchises sneaked in? No. Would it suffer if there were a lot? Yes and no, since it depends on your definition of suffering.

Maine has long cultivated a certain brand of purity of life, vigorous vacationing, clean everything, natural enjoyment, regeneration. In the continual quest for tourists (here's where the suffering definition comes in - we need them, we hate them), the message has to contain both uniqueness and comfort. There's no problem with Maine's uniqueness, but comfort in the US increasingly means familiarity, i.e., the right not to be surprised by weird foods, inns without wifi, unexplored coffees, off-brand clothes, local characters emerging from the woods for a slug at Joe's Corner Bar. Ergo, the franchises of Freeport, Kennebunkport, Boothbay, Bar Harbor and their mini-clones on various stretches of Route 1.

So I guess Camden is really discussing the need to attract the right kind of tourist. The majority of citizens, at least for now, wants the kind who want the surprise, even though to this non-shopper's mind, buying at Gap is very little different from buying at Priscilla's Boutique. The real surprise is beyond Main Street in the woods or on the shore or on the water, and I expect most tourists still come to Maine for all the right reasons.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Moose lottery

Maine's moose permit lotteries have now been held, and 3,015 lucky or persistent or rich people got permits to shoot. Lucky: 56,600 applications were made. Persistent: applicants get extra chances based on how many times they haven't got a permit in the past. Rich: 10 permits are auctioned off by sealed bids - around $10,000 probably got you one.

This is all quite sophisticated and highly worked out. Residents get 90% of the permits. Hunters, both residents and non-residents, can increase their odds by buying extra chances (the prices are doubled for flatlanders; indeed, they are encouraged to buy 10-chance packages at only $55 each). There's a system for registering one's hunting companion, only one allowed, who is felicitously called a "subpermittee," and a possible last-minute substitute for the subpermittee, called "alternate subpermittee." A permit holder is assigned either a bull or a cow, to be harvested in September, October, or November. Permit swapping is allowed but only once, and only with another permit holder. You can expect success; 75% get their prize.

It seems that the magnificence of the animal demands this elaborate system. A thousand pounds of meat, or an antler rack for your den, shouldn't come easily. And the season has to be heavily regulated, or these shy, placid beasts, estimated to number about 30,000 in Maine, would be quickly eradicated. By the way, a handgun may be used, which gives you some idea of the level of sporting expertise required. And there's even a season now in southern Maine, instituted last year to substitute for the killing by cars.

Needless to say, I don't quite get the whole proceeding.

There are two saving graces: first, the proceeds from the lotteries are used to send Maine kids to camp; second, if the price of preserving the 21,000 square miles of wilderness (sorry, Wildlife Managements Areas) in which moose hunting is permitted is the death of 2,000 moose, I guess I'm all for it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Not all the news that's fit to print

Someone actually bought a newspaper company. The Portland Press Herald has been sold (after more than a year of trying by its previous owner, the Seattle Times Company) to a group led by Bangor native Richard L. Connor. Mr. Connor already owns The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, PA, apparently a financial success.

The focus is to be relentlessly local. I looked briefly at the Times Leader site to gauge what was to come, and it seems to be true. All national and international news comes from the Associated Press, for example, and the story on the stock market was still about yesterday's activity. Obituaries are the second tab after News, followed by Sports. (I've noticed this trend to increased obit coverage in the Boston Globe as well, where the daily list of the dead now covers 3 precious pages.) I expect obits are an income source for newspapers.

Is this the new model for newspaper survival? It makes some sense, and certainly fits national trends of conglomeratization. People want to be able to quote USA Today just like they like to wear Gap jeans, or believe what they read in the New York Times like they believe in the fleecewear of LL Bean. So our newspapers will cover small areas thoroughly and leave the big issues to the big boys.

Much as I think that most politics (not to mention life) is local, I can't help also thinking that the analysis and reporting on big issues should also have a local perspective. The view from Portland or Boston or Boise on the national scene is a major corrective to the view from New York or DC. The complicity of the media during the Bush years is a good example of what might happen if national and international news reporting is concentrated in the hands of so few with "access."

Right now, any rescue of any paper is good news. Rescue comes at a price, of course. Wages are reduced, jobs lost, offices closed. In Mr. Connor's case, such employee give-backs are balanced by a bit of financial gain if the paper does well, and employee representation on the governing board. This is an interesting model that others should explore. To make newspapers into non-profit foundations based on philanthopic gestures from rich people should be a resort appealed to only at the last.

Mr. Connor is a Maine native but hasn't lived here for the last 41 years. Let's hope that as he comes home, he finds a way to preserve the Press Herald and the voices of Maine that it represents, to keep the independent, yet cooperative spirit of Maine's people alive as an example for the rest of the country, and to make a little money besides.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Playing on the Shore

Two small boys were playing this morning a couple of hundred feet down the shore. Their voices, if not their words, carried clearly to where I sat on the deck, sweating from the unaccustomed June sun (not to mention the exertion of hauling chunked-up logs from our latest felled-tree up to the stack by the garage), although a particularly excited phrase did come clearly through: "Hey, look at this long black thing." The morning fog was just clearing from the water, rocks crashed against each other in some sort of game, and a female voice, a mother's undoubtedly, had the unmistakeable cadence of warning and protection.

I'm going to assume here that playing outside, using the natural things to hand, has infinite advantages over playing cowboys and Indians, or video games, or anything else having to do with guns. I hope the world can give me that, can give the boys of the world that. I hope the boys know how lucky they are to play in a place like this - the world is their periwinkle, green crab, rockweed, sea gull. I hope they don't make that long black thing into a rifle or a whip, although it's entirely possible, even probable, knowing boys. I hope their mother tells them the difference, and why it's important.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Camden Yins, Rockland Yangs

What's new in my favorite complementary opposites within the greater whole?

In Camden voters have restored the town/country balance that for a few months, thanks to over-zealous prosecution, was seriously out of whack. Residents will once again be allowed (quoting VillageSoup) "to keep no more than nine small farm animals such as chickens and rabbits. Roosters are still prohibited unless the property owners have at least 2.5 acres. Owners will not be allowed to slaughter the animals at their homes and will be prohibited from selling eggs, meat or fertilizer from their animals. The pens will have to be at least 15 feet from abutting properties and cannot be in the front yards of the homes."

The long-suffering homeowner who precipitated the crisis expects a joyous homecoming for her 12 chickens (exiled to another town for the duration) as early as today.

I can't help but marvel at the precision of the ordnance. Ten animals would be too many. (What about the extra three chickens coming home? Into the pot?) Roosters are much noisier on 2.4 acres. At 14 feet from a property line, offending smells must be all too strong. I know lines have to be drawn and I accept that someone had to write up the ordnance and make some decisions, even though the mind that remembered to ban the sale of fertilizer along with eggs and meat is more Rocklandish than Camdenesque. I'm most worried that a definition of "front yard" is not given. Often in Maine you can't tell the difference between front and back, which I hope in the case of Camden's chickens does not result in further litiginous clucking.

While Camden concerns itself with its inner life, Rockland is looking to the skies. A new solar panel manufacturing plant inches closer to reality, with grants and enterprise zones clearing the way. In a way, I'm sorry to see classic capitalism failing. Shouldn't the need for such plants make traditional financing easy? Why does government need to step in to help? On the other hand, Why not? It's clear we haven't evolved far enough yet to affect our long-view genes.

Those panels won't do much good in foggy, cloudy Rockland. They'll have be exported to Phoenix or other deserts. But while we're looking for other sources of alternative energy, there are those chicken coops in Camden.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Double time

How wonderful to drive 200 miles north and have spring all over again, or at least the flowers of spring. There's a seaonal lag of several weeks, so we get a second dose of crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and crabapples. But best of all, these warmish days of very late spring/very early summer bring lavish displays of lilac.

These are not the occasional single sprout seen leaning tentatively over a suburban fence. These are massive clumps - 15 feet high and twice as many wide - growing wild everywhere, some deep purple and some white but most the stunning ur-purple of royalty and riches. They are monsters of scent. In close the smell is overwhelming; at a distance, mixed with sea air, the smell of the lilac shouts, "Summer is here!" Of course, we pay for it at the end of summer, when the lag reverses, but that hardly matters now, does it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crazy as a ...Robin

Just outside our downstairs bathroom window grows a bright green compact evergreen shrub of some sort. It doesn't actually grow much - in 15 years it has increased maybe a couple of inches in height. In another fifteen or twenty it may block one's view of the weathervane on the garage as one rests on the commode, reading, escaping, even contemplating the universe (ie, the weather implications of a west wind).

Lately, several times a day, I've been hearing a slight commotion in that general direction. Yesterday I just walked over and opened the door and thought I saw something fly away. Today, I was stealthier; having left the door open, I crept up quietly, slowly sneaking my head around the corner, and was rewarded with a view of a robin sitting on top of the shrub. He proceeded to attack the glass. Now the window is very small, about robin-sized if the robin is crazed and large, probably male, spreading its wings and puffing up its chest feathers. So maybe the glass was mirror-like and the robin saw a rival for his lady's affections (assuming that was his lady demurely plucking worms from the lawn below). I don't think he was after me. Was he?
Naturally, I thought this was unnatural (insane bird scratches glass, poops on sill, shatters solitude, frightens next house guest, causes constipation!) so I yelled and brandished my arms (from the safety of inside). He flew 20 feet to the big blue spruce and stared balefully at me. I did vigorous arm motions again. What little he could see through the tiny pane must have scared him. He left the premises.

Coward. We'll see if he dares come back to repeat his little macho display. I showed him what's what. Can't have nature attacking our sanctuaries.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tidbits

The Camden ethos is preserved. Dunkin' Donuts has been scared away from downtown.

Maine has passed legislation to control the mercury in compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Manufacturers must reduce the amount of mercury and pay for safe recycling.

The Maine House of Representatives has voted to downsize itself, from 151 to 131 reps. How to safely recycle ex-politicians?

General Motors will sell Hummer to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co. of China. Heavy!

Man camps in VW Jetta (a Hummer would have come in handy) for five days in order to be first in line for a clamming license in Friendship. He got it.

It was a good news week in Maine.

Monday, June 1, 2009

PowerPoint

Bottom parked in yet another airplane seat, flying back from a particularly dispiriting presentation in DC last week, I murmured to myself, "Thank God for Maine." Now if only I could have injected/inserted/infused some of Maine's freshness and beauty that I feel so strongly about into that PowerPoint in that conference room on M Street. Maybe a slide of a rockwall just before our Internet Strategy, maybe a view of fog on the ocean just after the Budget Summary, maybe a picture of firs draped in snow sneaked in between Today's Agenda and the Goals for our Partnership, maybe put the little pig from my collection of driftwood on the conference table - maybe those would have cut through the gloom and alienation of the modern business presentation. The more I use PowerPoint, the more I think it's confrontational. Here is Us telling Them how to think, here are a bunch of words and numbers and maybe squiggly lines on a screen. Where's the conversation, the interaction, the invocation of that which make us human, seaweed and clams and seagulls on the shore, smelling of decay and vigorous rebirth?

Well, I'm back in Maine, and all is well with the world. M Street will do what it needs to do, with the resources it has to hand. Too bad.