Friday, July 31, 2009

Pulling the lips off fish

Scheduled for this past weekend was the scholarship fishing derby held by Unity College on Lake Winnecook, otherwise known as Unity Pond. Apparently, some 200 fish were tagged with various prizes, including one offering a year of free tuition; the fish were released into the pond; newly-accepted and returning students then were allowed 6 hours on Sunday to catch a winner. When I first heard of this, I thought, how clever, how innovative, what fun!

Then Ol' Sourpuss took over. OS clearly has high expectations for institutions that are so obviously environmentally friendly, as Unity College is, with so many of its students taking environmental majors. This makes him think that surely there are other ways of promoting good stewardship than killing hatchery-raised pan fish. And why does it have to be "incentivized"? Furthermore, the pond is hardly pristine anymore; most of the shoreline is developed and powerboats abound (full disclosure: my parents used to have a camp there, and regularly decried the jetskis and outboards roiling up the waters, perhaps because one day a particularly obnoxious boater who clearly hated eighty-year-olds deliberately tried to swamp their paddleboat). Are contests the only way to win these days? What about nature for nature's sake?

OS is somewhat mollified when he checks the college website and sees the picture of the student flotilla pushing off - all canoes and kayaks, not a motor to be seen. The winner of the 20 grand seemed happy, too, in his wolf T-shirt. A good-time weekend was clearly had by all, what with the ice cream socials and the sustainability workshops and the rock band. But pulling the lips off tame fish and partying on about the loss of innocence seems incongruous at best, and low-rent at worst.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Remodeling

One of my favorite quotes from Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac is: “We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our yardage.” The confluence of images is just plain startling: delicate, exquisite Moorish architecture, huffing, puffing, noisy earth monster, huffing, puffing football linemen going for goal. The allusion to Christians, with their industrial imperatives, taking over and remodeling the lives of Muslims is a little subtler. His prescience for our own time is remarkable.

I think of this quote almost every time I see a piece of machinery digging out a foundation, cutting down a tree, building a store. No matter the rights of private property, I wish that, after all the EPA regs are satisfied, the zoning boards passed, the plans approved, there was a time-out button to push that asked if we really needed this house or timber or Home Depot. Delicate, exquisite Nature is Maine's Alhambra; the very fact that around every corner and out every window there's a view of something precious, the very fact that we have so much unmechanized space, makes it that much more important to keep. The world around us is already a model of perfection. It doesn't need "re."

Writing and working in the 30s and 40s, Leopold's obsession was the land and the effects of mechanization. He was a forester and a hunter and knew the pleasure of machines, what benefits they bring. He also clearly saw our dependence, and the business imperative, and our football mentality. Having achieved potential freedom from want, he wanted us to move to the new plane of wish.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Absolute dominion

I've just discovered another thing, along with the lupine-bluebell connection and the occasional August sightings of Bushes at Walkers Point, that Maine has in common with Texas, this time exclusively: both states, and only these two states, have the law of absolute dominion. AD says that a property owner has rights to whatever is under his land, no matter that "whatevers" like liquids might also extend under someone else's land. The law is obviously just fine by Texas Oilmen. It works pretty well for Nestle, proud owner of Poland Spring, as well. NestPolS apparently has no compunctions about drawing down the aquifers as far as it can suck.

Towns like Newfield and Shapleigh, near the New Hampshire border, are fighting back. In response to NestPolS' attempts to get permits from the state or the towns, Shapleigh recently passed an ordnance stating, “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.”

Don't you love the idea of water having rights? Don't you hate the idea that this is how people must fight the near absolute dominion of the big corporations?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sea wars

The news this week that the State of Maine, for the first time ever, has closed a section of ocean to fishing because of territorial conflict gives me an excuse to mention Elisabeth Ogilvie again. The section of ocean surrounds Matinicus, that speck of land 25 miles out from Rockland. The conflict involves one lobsterman shooting another over cut traps. Little has changed in the 60 years since Ogilvie wrote about such things, in her Tide series of novels about Bennett's Island, today's Criehaven just next to Matinicus. She wrote about conflict between lobstermen, yes, but also about peace and beauty and simplicity, with the backdrop of the insanity of World War II.

Imagine Jane Austen writing about Maine island life - that's Elisabeth Ogilvie. Quiet, funny, insightful, with flashes of savagery. (And of course, there's the confluence of names - Elizabeth, Bennett.) The sea wars have probably been going on since Austen's time, since Criehaven was settled in 1750. And so Ogilvie makes it a place mythical to American literature and life, and I rue the chance to have met her; the Austen of the 20th century died just 3 years ago, down the road in Cushing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Still life

On Saturday morning I was walking the dog on Canns Beach Road when I saw a small brown heap in the grass just a foot or so from the road. It looked organic and I moved closer. Mia showed no interest.

It was a fawn, clearly dead. Its shape was compact, legs bent, hooves tucked in, as if its mother had nudged it into a kind of burial. I guess it was still-born. But why was it here out in the open, practically in someone's lawn? It was still there in the afternoon, but gone by Sunday morning's walk.

I read later that in the first days of life, mothers often leave fawns for a while to go off to feed, and the fawns lie completely still as a defense mechanism. They have no smell and predators miss them, as Mia did. For a brief moment, I had a surge of hope. Maybe it was still living, maybe the mother had no choice but to give birth right there, and then the fawn, in those clearly hostile circumstances of grass and tar and cars and humans, lay low for a day. There was absolutely no trace of it on Sunday, no crows or coyotes or picked-over bones. Had it defied all odds?

No, no good to hope. The body when I saw it had nothing of life in it. It was almost bluish - it must have had some congenital disorder that killed it on birth, something dramatic that didn't allow the mother the privacy of the woods. Maybe it's better that way, better than an insidious cancer that lurks for years, is born in a blood test, a biopsy, torments the body for months, even years, then inevitably wins.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Road to Nowhere

In March of this year the state decided to put money into a highway around Caribou, ME. If you're thinking that a $20 million road bypassing a town of 8,000 sounds pretty absurd, then a little history is in order. Apparently, the original intent of the federal interstate highway system was to build I-95 all the way to the very top of Maine, but for whatever reason, it stopped in Houlton, about 100 miles short. Needless to say, this has stuck in the craw of the folks of Aroostook County for generations. Route 1 goes that far, but they believe that a limited-access, divided highway will immensely increase the speed at which the potatoes and broccoli of Aroostook can get to market, not to mention the tourist dollars it will bring from the south and the general improvement in a very poor part of the state. So this bypass, and one for Presque Isle next year, seems to be a start at completing the great promises of the 1940s.

Just to show what the rest of the world thinks of northern Maine, the Boston Globe ran a story about this today, four months later.

The Mainers in the south are not happy with spending precious dollars in the north, even if the prospect of replenishing the highway fund with federal stimulus money looks good. After all, Aroostook, that giant county shaped like a handgun pointing west, the largest US county east of the Mississippi, one that defines all of Maine's northern border, most of its eastern, and part of its western as well, has a population of 71,000 people (and declining), which means an average of just over 10 people per square mile. That's not a lot of votes. No wonder a local paper somewhere rather south of Houlton called the project "the road to nowhere."

To me a road to nowhere is a contradiction in terms. Let nowhere be nowhere, please don't disturb it. But the people of Aroostook take it personally, not surprisingly: "Kittery and Kennebunk and Portland get 6 lanes of the Turnpike, and we get none?" I think they are blaming the wrong thing. Blame the culture that seduces their children away, blame the world-wide, restless surge of capital for the declining value of their potatoes and their land, blame the long winters for the lack of tourists and second homes. Surely there are better ways for the state to help the people of Aroostook than building more monuments to pollution and fossil fuels and rest-stops featuring fast food.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Working the woods

Nearly every afternoon lately, we've seen a deer on our walks on Bay View Terrace. I should say "the" deer, because I think it's the same one each time, and I think it's one of the two grown-up yearlings that we saw in the spring following their mother through these woods. It is standing on the side of the road or ambling across it, and it stops dead when it sees us, a hundred yards or so away. Its body is pointed into the woods, its head looks back, and as we get closer, maybe within 30 or 40 yards, I can see its large brown eyes and those big ears, slightly twitching, that would look so comical on anything else but this beautiful creature. It is upwind; I can smell its musk. When we cross its invisible comfort line, it bounds away.

Mia regards it as she would a mole, or another dog, or a grizzly bear - wary interest, from a distance.

Of the three animals in this picture, it's hard to say which is wedded more to routine. The deer seems to be following the instructions of his mama: walk these woods in the early afternoon, don't ask why, just walk. The dog starts looking at its owner about 1:15: it's time (even though she doesn't particularly like the walk), it's just time so let's go. And the human: as he walks, he imagines the deer waking up with the sun, getting some breakfast, checking its sites for news, working its woods, and stopping for lunch and a walk and some chores around the deeryard. Exactly his own life up here, except he has words, and how wonderful to work them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Memory-less

The fine weather continues, six straight days now. Rain and fog and cold is only a memory.

For half of those sunny days I have been without memory, the peculiar shade of memory represented by the computer, that is. On Saturday morning the wretched beast refused to accept AC power, and I just got him back this afternoon, soldered port and new power cord smirking at me. It's ridiculous how much I'm dependent, even addicted, and I think he knows it.

It's not like I was cut off from the world. The phone, the radio, and TV all work. I could get a little Net fix on my old slow Blackberry. But no personal email, no websites, and no access to the rough drafts of the various pieces I'm writing. It should have been heaven. It wasn't.

Or I should say, it would have taken a long time before it was heaven. I wrote on paper (I probably should review the writing immediately, for its many indecipherable smears) and no cursor blinked, there was no temptation to look up a fact or the Dow. There was a hint of pleasurable unlinking from a machine. And doesn't ink on paper look so nice in the sun, not all glare-y with reflections and refractions and dark shadows and other temptations to bad writing? But I didn't have my notes, I didn't have drafts, I had no memory but what sat in my brain. It was a little alarming to have to re-create, extemporize, and eventually just give up and work on something new. Liberating, maybe and eventually.

One thing's for sure. If I had been deep into the soccer scores or the local news on Village Soup like I usually am at 7:00 in the morning, if I hadn't been sitting near the window reading Roxana Robinson's Cost (which is about addiction, by the way) and sipping coffee, I would not have seen the slight disturbance in my sideways vision, and then the bald eagle flapping majestically from the tall pine next door and crossing into our airspace right in front. What a thrill! What a memory! Thank you, H-P, for making me pixel-less this morning; I'm going to turn you off now, and think about rapture.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dust

The complaining about the weather worked - yesterday and today have been the kind of days that feature on Maine tourist websites, where the sky is blue all the way to the horizon, the islands have no haze, the ocean's color doesn't even hint of gray or green, all people are smiling. And why not? The law of averages, if not deservedness, says we are due for some bright pleasure.
So the work space moves from the rocking chair to the deck chair. The dog is outside all day, unnapped, and therefore sleeps all night without moving, bothering, licking, sneezing, groaning, grumbling, or growling softly at the night creatures that might be there. I do little chores around the yard in the afternoon: raking up stray twigs where Dave wood-chipped yesterday; channeling water out of the driveway (which is STILL flooded); spraying Bobex to keep the deer away from the pretty little variegated hostas; sweeping the brick walkways of their latest accumulation of dried mud and dust; taking down and sawing up the little dead fir at the edge of the shore. Ah, now I remember what it's like to sweat and get physically tired. The beauty of the day allows me, makes me, appreciate my mortality, that's how we're wired, and as I labor over the fallen tree, making little piles of sawdust for the bees to burrow in, sawing chunks off the trunk, then stopping far too often to look at the bay and cool off, I think of the days this little tree went through, foggy and stormy and sunny and icy, and why it died. The inside core of the trunk has only a hint of punk; something else killed it. It stood strong for as long as it could, and I think of my father, suffering so many stormy days these last few years, weathering storms of criticism and anxiety all his life, battling the cancer in his core, perhaps now getting ready to return to dust. The sweat drips in my eyes. Or is it tears?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shorts!

and sitting on the deck and waking up at 4:30 with the sun. (Only 17 summer pleasures to go.)

Did I mention that there's not a cloud in the sky?

And the Adirondack chairs are re-united.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Single


For a week now, the Adirondack chair on the shore has been without his mate. Before that, he sat for a couple of weeks with a crippled partner, her back broken off from its frame and its slats stuck ignominiously in the ground, useless. (Owner had been sitting peacefully, contemplating the universe with the help of a gin-and-tonic, when said back broke, causing no damage, some shock, and worst of all, a wasted G&T.) Finally recognizing the embarrassment, Owner folded her up and carried her up to the workbench in the garage, awaiting ministrations, which happened today.

The chairs are a personal challenge to Owner. They were rescued from a Newton neighbor's trash some years ago. They are large and heavy and clunky, made entirely from real wood (including old-fashioned dowels that pin bits together), not recycled soda bottles or some such. They reflect a certain Dutch Calvinist upbringing. Apparently, that's still important to Owner. Also, they were free. Which may be the same thing,

Periodically, dowels break. Drinks spill. Owner remains faithful to wood for a while, replacing the dowels with inadequate modern ones, which also break. Then he goes what for him is a little modern - large, mean-looking, staple-like things left over from some project of the workbench's previous proprietor. These rust in the salt air, pull out.

Today he goes heavy duty, high-tech. The dowel holes are filled with shiny, thick 2-inch screws. Everything looks secure. It's still raining out, so he doesn't re-unite the parties quite yet, even though the sight of just one chair is not right, a little lonely, braving the elements, working at his poetic place in the world, missing his mate. He's not sure how the one will accept the other, now laden with metal and possibly possessing foreign ideas.

The owner rubs his aching hands. Two inches of screw, times eight screws, is a lot of hard twisting. But only the dog will sympathize. The owner's own missed mate is far away in Newton, taking care of her family, letting him indulge his ancient dreams.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How I haven't spent my summer so far

1. Wearing shorts
2. Sitting on the deck
3. Grilling
4. Beachcombing
5. Hiking
6. Tanning
7. Walking the Rockland breakwater
8. Splitting wood
9. Gardening
10. Exploring Knox County
11. Walking the shore
12. Waking up at 4:30 with the sun
13. Watching osprey
14. Weeding what was formerly known as the driveway, now the pool
15. Picking berries
16. Smelling flowers
17. Enjoying Lake Megunticook
18. Looking at stars, watching the moon rise
19. Frequenting farm stands
20. Eating clams on the Cod End's deck

If summer starts on Memorial Day, then our forty days and forty nights are about up. Get some rest on these last days of ark time - the rest of the summer's going to be busy.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Motors


Here is an accounting of all of the out-of-doors motors encountered in the neighborhood in the last couple of days:

1. Lawn craft: riding mower, push mower, weed whacker, edger

2. Sea craft: lobster boats close in, ferry in the distance, yacht and sailboat (using motor, not sail to get somewhere) in the Gut

3. Wood craft: wood chipper, log splitter

4. Un-identified something down the shore, droning for an hour during deck time

5. Road craft: pick-up, SUV, sedan, motorcycle, Fedex truck
6. Dirt craft: back hoe, front loader

7. Air craft: biplane, prop plane, and my personal favorite, screaming in at 5:30 this morning, Gulfstream jet

Did I mention that the last couple of days have been sunny and gorgeous? Makes you long for the quiet, undisturbed peace of last week's six-day fog.

Not really. Blessed quiet reigns between outbursts, blue trumps gray, warm beats cool, and besides, the crows that gather for a confab several times a day are louder than everything save the jet.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Center for Maine Contemporary Art

The CMCA is housed in a wonderful old building in Rockport, on the harbor but high above it, like all the best houses in Rockport are. The back windows look down on the water, and I, philistine art lover, did too. The artist on show, Linden Frederick, is wonderful, with realistic paintings of iconically ordinary scenes around New England, but the view of the harbor competes, I'm afraid, with even the best of painters.

It was a special opening for members of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, and thus was the best of Maine's culture on display within the space of an hour: beautiful paintings in a thrilling setting, land preservation as represented by the good staff and members of the CMLT, and a fine poetry reading by the Trust's development director Kristen Lindquist.

We were near the Center yesterday as well, but in not quite so dignified a way. Having been emboldened by the sight of the sun (first sighting all week), we decided to take one of our favorite walks through Rockport; two-thirds of the way along, black clouds boiled up in the west, and a leisurely walk along Mechanic Street became a power walk, then a race walk, and when the first drops started to fall around the vicinity of the CMCA, a trot. When people who don't ever run, try to - well, let's say it was not exactly poetry in motion. A Picasso or a Braque might be successful with our flailing angles, but any realist watching from the big open doors of the Center would collapse laughing. We got back to the car slightly soaked, greatly panting. No one saw. We were safe from posterity's view.

Except that the dog, panting but slightly, thought it was all great postmodern fun and grinned happily at us.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A family of what?

The fog yesterday lifted enough, and for long enough, to reveal this year's armada of ducks patrolling our waters. The party in search of enemy minnows must be a blended family of some sort, for half a dozen adults were neatly and completely surrounded by at least 20 ducklings. They sailed north to south for a while, the young ones leading and diving. Bringing up the rear, at least a hundred yards in the rear, were several other adults, diving, popping up, fending off a gull.

The reason for the mass grouping must be protection of some sort. The adults in the middle of the ducklings must be the mothers, offering moral guidance in the matters at hand. The reason ducklings were leading the charge is that they are now half-grown teenagers, with definite opinions. The adults trailing behind must be the fathers, content just to hang around the local clam bar and kibbitz.

In due course, the armada returned south to north just as the fog swallowed them up again. I could no longer see any particular organization to the fleet. The fog is probably their friend, where they feel safe, and casual. But after five days of it, I'm imputing that it was nice for a while to feel purposeful again. Make way!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Aldo Leopold

I just finished reading, for the first time (shame on me), the almanac part of A Sand County Almanac. Certainly one of the seminal works of ecology and conservation, the book is also a classic of nature writing - simple, direct, profound. But in some ways I was struck most by these words ending the introduction: "Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings. Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame and confined in terms of things natural, wild and free."

These sentences were written on March 4, 1948.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lush life

A benefit of the constant fog and rain is the lushness of everything, including the hostas that tried to eat Owls Head. Indeed, we fear for the health of the plants adjacent to the monsters now topping four feet in diameter. The lawns have not looked this green in July in memory, and even the rugosa rose at the edge of the ocean garden, which seemingly had died over the harsh winter, is putting forth new shoots out of the dead brown sticks, including some runners growing where they shouldn't, in the middle of the lupine.

I'm paying a little extra attention to lawns these days, having made a trip a couple of weeks ago to the half rural, half suburban country east of Cleveland, Ohio (to celebrate with gathered family my parents' 60th wedding anniversary in a lovely house on a pond) and seeing how the folks out there do grass. Land acquisition is clearly not the expensive issue there as it is in the East. The lots are huge, several acres at least, and the houses low, sprawling ranches invariably set at the very back of the lot, and the rest is grass, mowed to within an inch of its life. One particularly stark example set all of this in the middle of a corn field.

I imagine the idea here is to prove that you have tamed your part of the wilderness for all to see, and that you are sufficiently well-off in time and money to be able to afford the riding mower and the massive weekend hours required for such control. We don't have quite the same opportunity in the East. In Maine for example, what extra space exists around a house is usually filled with shrubs, or trees, or gardens, or rusting cars. The riding lawn mower is reserved for gentleman farmers from Massachusetts. The wilderness is our friend.