Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turning swords into plowshares

The last two planes lumbered out of Brunswick Naval Air Station today. For some, the complete closing of the base in 2011 will mean hardship, as the area loses 5,000 jobs. For others, it represents opportunity, as that marvelous capacity of Mainers to meet challenges and accomplish things as communities gets into full swing with the plans for the base's redevelopment.

For me, the sight of those awkward, low- and slow-flying planes in the skies over Brunswick was bothersome. They seemed to be on perpetual training missions, or up there just for the hell of it, burning gas in pointless loops over the Androscoggin River, the islands, the ocean, the woods. They were incongruous in these settings, warbirds where there should only have been eagles and egrets. The implements of war seem especially out of place in a place of such beauty.

So there will be more than 3,000 acres freed of the Pentagon's grip. From what I've heard of the plans, considerable open space will be preserved, nearly half the base. The remaining will be mixed-use, housing and offices and light industry and, naturally, aviation industries, given the existing buildings and experience, not to mention twin 8,000-foot runways that the Navy (a parting gift?) recently resurfaced. A better parting gift might have been to return the runways to meadows, but one can't expect everything.

If the redevelopment is successful, it will soak up a lot of capital and ambition that might otherwise have looked elsewhere in Maine to slake its thirst and destroy the land. A couple of thousand acres in Brunswick should save trees for a few years in Moosehead, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Moose tracks

On Thanksgiving Eve, it seems right to discuss the moose, especially since one was spotted this week in the Thomaston area, up to her withers in a swamp. Regretfully, I'm not in Maine this week, or I might have been one of the scores of people who rushed out to witness this sacred event. Thankfully, I'm not in Maine this week, or I might have been one of the scores of people....

It's a rare event also. The only other sighting in our area that I can recall in the last 15 years was in Owls Head village, in the little pond across from the general store, well before the fame of the store's hamburgers brought the Volvo wagons to town. Well, there was also the mystical sighting in our own yard, I'm ashamed to admit, and I'm ashamed because the sighting was a supposed moose print in the garden, and the sighter was our real estate agent who pointed it out with some drama as we were considering buying the property. Somewhat later, I wondered if she had a certain implement in her trunk to seal deals with flatlanders.

Much better that folks rush around with cameras than with guns. Of course moose hunting is not allowed along the coast southwest of Belfast, so the Ms. in the swamp was in no danger. Or maybe she was escaping the carnage in Wildlife Management Districts 15, 16, 23, and 26, for those WMDs hovering over the midcoast allow moose hunting in November. It's not that far, maybe a 30-mile amble down Route 17 from Augusta (WMD 23 actually seems to contain the state capitol, but I didn't see politicians on the lists of game to be bagged) towards Rockland and then south; maybe Maine's entire herd of 30,000 should make the trek, giving thanks all the way for one of the few benefits of development, and then, on December 1, retreat to those north WMDs with the low numbers.

So I think the shy and quiet moose should be the symbol of Thanksgiving, not the bad-tempered turkey, for Thanksgiving is a holiday mellow and kind even though the Pilgrims weren't. The moose is already the state's animal, and keeps continued good health. There's still enough wilderness to sustain them, even apparently in Thomaston, and isn't the bounty and beauty of the land what we really give thanks for this week?

Monday, November 23, 2009

ConnectME

In 2005 Gov. Baldacci promised to provide broadband to 90% of Maine households by 2010. The ConnectME Authority (still the state's smallest department) was established to distribute grant money (from taxes on retail communications) to local ISPs for this purpose. The number of households needing such services was estimated to be 40,000. Three rounds of grants have been made, totalling about $3 million. Last month, the state applied for $43 million in federal stimulus money.

Meanwhile, the state's health is deteriorating. Health care expenses, and health insurance premiums, are among the highest in the country. Maine has the oldest population in the country, and is among the poorest. Many people do without insurance, doctor visits, and medication. They wait for Medicare.

The Times has all the grisly details. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/health/policy/11maine.html?_r=2&hp

I'm sure it's not fair to pick on one government program during what the Governor is calling "our Depression." But Maine seems committed to the sexy stuff - all the alternative energy projects, for example, and remember the laptop program for middle school students? It's expanding to the high schools - at the expense of the basics. And where are all the recent budget cuts hitting hardest? Health and human services.

It's wonderful that the state is trying to think creatively about the future. But the present is pretty damn important also. Think of all the energy being poured into grant applications for stimulus money (my favorite project still is the $9 million walkway connecting two parking lots near Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, owned by the billionaire Krafts) - why can't the country unite for health care?

Speaking of the present, Maine senators Snowe and Collins hewed their party line in voting against allowing health care legislation to come to the floor for debate. They say they're against the public option; I suspect immense political pressure from Republicans. There will be many more opportunities to vote, I know, but please Senators, do the right thing when the time comes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wind power

Yesterday marked the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Fox Islands Wind, the three-turbine project on Vinalhaven that is designed to make Vinalhaven and North Haven self-sufficient for electricity. Lots of dignitaries turned up, including the Governor, who seems so bursting with energy for these projects that he could power one himself, and Philip Conkling of the Island Institute, one of the project partners, who made the interesting comment that the wealth of the Maine coast was built by wind. Sailing ships were indeed necessary to the development of fishing and lumbering and liming, until, as Mr. Conkling said, fossil fuels took over.
I have no problem with hyperbole at these exciting moments. It was a great day for the islands and for the future of Maine, which is admirably determined to exploit the wind and the ocean for all the green they are worth. Now Camden is starting to think seriously about a project on Ragged Mountain.
I'd just like to point out that, according to the information sheet that comes with my Central Maine Power bill every month, wind power's share of power sources for electricity currently totals 0.0%. (Hydro is 40%, nuclear 20%, gas 24%, oil 5%, coal 9%, biomass and waste burning 2%.) There's an awfully long way to go and I'd hate to see conservation efforts, which are much more efficient at reducing consumption, be sidetracked.
Then there's the esthetic side. The people of Vinalhaven seemed charmed and happy with their turbines, and I suppose that turbines on Ragged Mountain, which already has the Snow Bowl's ski lifts and a radio tower, wouldn't be overly hard to take. But to overtake fossil fuels, just how many turbines will we need? Some folks in the western mountains are already complaining.
Of course I'd rather build wind turbines than burn fossil fuels. But the prospect of a mountain top like Ragged bursting even more with tall mechanical things and sitting right next door to Coastal Mountains Land Trust's heroic efforts on Ragged and Bald to preserve and conserve is rather jarring.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Water, water

I can't remember a year in which the wetlands in the woods above the house have been so continuously full and the water drains down the ditches and through the pipes to the ocean without cease. I walk along the shore and the little rivers coming off the banks never seem to dry up. They have been gurgling, sometimes loudly gargling, since spring. Below the pipe draining our own bank there are grasses and mosses and weeds as green as the height of summer. The heavy rains of June and July must have raised the water table permanently, at least for this calendar year.

I wonder if we know how blessed we are in the Northeast. Water is not yet as valuable as oil (although if you buy it in fancy bottles, it costs more) but it will be. Some say that New England's last great economic resource is its way of life. If this is true, it is due in large part to our lakes and rivers, the way rain is attracted to our hills and valleys, and to our huge, pure reservoirs as valuable as Canadian shale or West Virginia coal. We just haven't yet put a price on it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Half-staff

Flags in Maine flew at half-staff yesterday in accordance with President Obama's order honoring the dead of Fort Hood, Texas, and today in honor of Marine Major Samuel Leigh, formerly of Belgrade, killed in a helicopter crash over the Pacific last month. The flags are apparently unrelated to Veterans Day.

Why aren't we in a state of perpetual mourning for our dying soldiers? Is Veterans Day the most forgotten of holidays? At least the Portland Press Herald carried a prominent picture of the Portland parade, and several articles about vets. Disgracefully, The New York Times home page had no mention at all of Veterans Day, although if you scrolled down past the fold, you got a link to an article about the French and Germans marking Armistice Day. The Boston Globe's page had a feature on the parade in Boston, but again it was below the fold. Above the fold were articles typically pandering to "demographics": a report critical of the Boston Fire Department, a piece on a missing woman, and in prime position, "A fall sampling of season's sipping," adorned with a picture of the Concord Grape Cobbler as featured by the bar Drink.

I'm about as far from a military man as you can get, but even to me the lack of respect for our veterans and the way the government ignores them when they return home is shameful. I applaud Obama's actions in Iraq and Guantanamo; I can't understand why he's dithering about Afghanistan. Bring our soldiers home and take care of them when they get here. Why is this so difficult for our leaders (and our urban elite) to understand?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Woodsmoke

After seventeen days (and two hours) away from Maine (but who's counting?), you walk in the house and smell the stale odor of old ashes. It's not a bad smell. It's just a greeting from the woodstove: "Why haven't you been here for so long, I'm just sitting here in the corner full of ashes until you get back and get that real woodsmoke smell going." So, obediently, the first thing you do after putting away the groceries is to start a fire. You get it going, and the smell turns from stale to wonderful, and you go out for a walk before the darkness falls at 4:30.

Your goal for the week is not to turn the thermostat past its minimal setting. This should not be difficult, with the current mild weather, although night-time frost is forecast for later in the week. Your neighbors usually have their stoves going at this time of the year, providing a homey scent to your walks, but today's weather must be too warm to waste the wood. Not a concern for you: you have stacks of split wood from all the trees that fell last winter, and stacks more to split, you need to feel you're circumventing the oil cartels Arab and Texan, you must have that tang of smoke in your nose, even though it makes you sneeze.

You come back in from the walk down Ash Point. The fire is still burning brightly, and after a few minutes, your lungs are used to the insult of its particulates, and the smell of woodsmoke is engrained and enmeshed in your clothes and your being, and you don't smell it anymore, and you are home in Maine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Attention to detail

One of the things I like about France is the sense that order and beauty and pride have their places in ordinary life. The Jardin du Thabor in Rennes exemplifies this. It's a large park in the middle of the city, with wide paths, old trees, sculpted lawns, no litter, and on the large forecourt of the conservatory, where we ate our lunch of baguette sandwiches in the sun, nearly a dozen city workers replanting flowers and tending the beds with exquisite care. It was nearly November; how many times do they change the flowers in the course of a year?


Compared to Paris, Rennes itself might be considered ordinary (certainly, Parisians would have no trouble making the consideration). With its huge student population, it could easily be scruffy and down-at-heel. But it's not - it's lovely and sophisticated.


And when the ordinary workers in their ordinary trucks make sure of their daily supply of baguettes, you know this is a place for living.


We could use a dose of this respect for everyday living in our messy American cities.
But ultimately, the Jardin is a little too perfect, the workers a little too complacent. I for one need the messiness of the Maine woods, and the knowledge that our little corner of crashing surf doesn't need a Michelin star just down the road to make it perfect.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Back to the Future


Having just returned from a week in Brittany, I expect that I can divine the future of the Maine coast in, say, a thousand years (assuming, of course, that it isn't drowned). More or less civilized people have been living in Breton and on its coast since the Dark Ages - by "civilized" I mean the kind of people that need to build and develop and conquer, rather than those who live peaceably on the land - and the land is much used up by farms and settlements and cities, and the coast highly industrialized and vacationized. Except for the protected areas in which there is almost nothing but cliffs and surf.
Maine has had only 500 years of "civilization," so we haven't yet achieved the European split between rigorous (and usually tasteful) development and wilderness in small bits. We still have sprawl. We cherish the messy notion that the frontier still exists just beyond our suburbs and exurbs. Europe has dispensed with this. There is no frontier, all is known, even the wild and rugged parts of Brittany that look like another planet, for there is a comfortable hotel just over the hill, and a village just down the road, and shops and restaurants and museums never very far away. You can't really get lost in Europe.
But you can really live well, and see beauty everywhere, even if it's a little tame by Maine standards. And the holy places are still holy and well-preserved and revered, even if they are crowded about by the trappings of civilization. Europe has preserved enough to keep its ties to the land, and at the same time imported the land's beauty into its urban places. It's a good response to all those Vikings and Normans and Catholics and Calvinists.
I hope I'm wrong about Maine in the year 3000. If we in America and Maine in particular could learn to concentrate more of our development and preserve more of our land, then I would be wrong and we'd have the best of both worlds, like Pointe de St. Mathieu near Brest, whose rocks and ocean look primeval and uncivilized in the best possible sense, whose abbey has been a place of religious, now secular, worship for 1,500 years.