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

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.