Friday, December 31, 2010

Lichen


The last day of the year is a good time to talk about lichen.

Lichen represent pretty much everything modern life isn't. They are slow-growing and long-lived. They are immensely adaptable, living almost everywhere on earth; they even survive exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space. They are beautifully symbiotic: not a single organism alone in the world, but two forms of life, two races if you will, a fungus and (usually) an alga, living in harmony.

Nature doesn't give lessons (although I'd like to think so, and it surely is fun propounding that it's a guide for human life). But it does give perspective, especially at holiday time. Many holidays have a natural beginning, related to the seasons of the year. That pagan basis took on a supernatural sheen in the religious eras, and has further evolved today to have little meaning, emotional or religious, beyond a kind of generic celebration of consumption. Imagining yourself as a lichen on the outside of the International Space Station brings things back into perspective.

New Year's Eve may be different from most holidays since it celebrates (or rues!) a purely artificial break in time. There never has been any natural or spiritual significance to it. We mostly pretend, for a couple of minutes or even a couple of days, that our reflections on the past or our avowals for the future are just something we've been meaning to do all year, should have been doing all along. Then we get drunk.

Lichen can help us here too, giving a warning at the least. Constancy is one word for what they are, but I especially like the concept, but not the fact, that lichen are rare in cities, being so sensitive to air pollution. I've nothing against cities (well, maybe a little); the point is that it's harder to live simply, purely, sensitively, sensibly, there. By definition, the human element is triumphing (although we're seeing at what cost to our lungs), and the natural element is losing. Time is no longer on our side when even lichen flee.

I'm not in Maine for this holiday - can you tell?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Assumption


I've been saving this picture, taken at the Acadian Village in northern Maine, for the holiday season. The rock announces the entrance to a replica log chapel from the 18th century.

The St. John River valley is largely Catholic and one side of the river (Canada) is barely distinguisable from the other (US). The early settlers had their log churches; as the area grew more prosperous, each town built a proper cathedral. In most Catholic churches Mary is as prominent as Jesus, and that emphasis on the human seems most appropriate here in the County, in a place of gentle unpretentiousness.

Not being Catholic, I had to look up what the Assumption was all about. The key point seems to be that Mary, upon her death, was transported to heaven not only in soul but in body as well. No wonder she's venerated! She's up there in the flesh. Heaven wouldn't be nearly so boring if you could eat and sail and sweat and hike and kiss and feel an ocean breeze on your skin. (It would be like Maine.)

This brings me to Joseph. No veneration there! Indeed, he's pretty much forgotten, just a figurehead, a breadwinner, someone to have around to prevent gossip, an excuse, a means to respectability. No rosary bead hails him. He's no Father, just a Dad. No wonder we men spend Christmas watching basketball, playing with our new electronic devices, and drinking somewhat to excess. We're trying to glorify our bodies.

Not all is pious worship in Aroostook County. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see in the background, to the left of the plastic flowers, a little toy truck. Someone has editorialized on the fate of Joseph. Behind every great lady stands her Jeep.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mt. Blue

Back in Massachusetts for a few weeks of holiday cheer, parties, and family time.

For most of us, Christmas is a time of feelings much more familial than religious, even though most families are as widely scattered and broken apart as the sects of Christianity. At this time of year we cling to the nucleus and try not to worry about the electrons. We remember the good times and forget about the schisms. The old pictures come out, and memories revive. It's an annual renewal of some kind of faith.

It's an especially good time to remember our family summers in Maine (it's cold today, and flurries dust the city's asphalt, and the shortest day of the year approaches), especially when my parents still lived there. Their camp on Unity Pond was our meeting ground. We would drive from North Pond, and later from Owls Head, have morning coffee and sugar cookies, leave the girls for a day of swimming, Monopoly with Grandpa, baking with Grandma, and Koolaid and chips for all, and take off for our own day of pure enjoyment. In the early days we would inevitably head for Mt. Blue, that lovely large foothill to the bigger mountains to the west and north, for a picnic and hiking. It was a climb just strenuous enough for the middle-aged, and just remote enough for the romantic-aged. The reward at the top was as good as any Catholic or Calvinist absolution. Then we'd re-trace the hour back to Unity, and have hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill, marshmallows to follow on the dying coals, watch the loons and the ducks, hope for a sight of the two eagles living nearly, and talk of the present, not the future; of goods, not evils; of joy, not guilt. The drive back home, in the slow-falling evening, with daughters nodding off in the back seat, seemed both immediate and endless. We had renewed our family.

But of course things change. Parents move back to Ohio, girls grow up, Grandpas die. Mt. Blue lives on, and if there's a tinge of sadness when I look back, seeing in the mind's eye the yellowing leaves of August, the humbling infinity of a mountain lookout, and a small white cottage on a blue pond that was left behind, well, that's what the holidays are also good for. The things we've lost are a big part of the things we've gained. And oh, the things we've gained.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Light is a wave

At quarter to four, it still looks pretty much like noon. The sky is a little pink, to be sure, and there's a slight cast to the light, but it isn't all that different yet. The waves, long rollers now after two days of storm, break as white as ever and the house on Ginn Point still contrasts strongly with the firs and the water, although now lit by the settting sun. At 4:00 much has changed. I can't see the pink lollipop wind turbines on Vinalhaven, and I have to put on an electric light to see the keyboard. The sky has lost its blush and is considerably darker. By 4:15 it is practically dark. The waves breaking on Little Island are ghostly. I see little out of the windows and reluctantly turn on the Christmas tree lights.

I can't help but remember those long evenings of summer. They would stretch out for several hours, it seemed, allowing time for a drink on the deck, a leisurely dinner, then sitting out some more to watch the osprey fish. The advance of the dark in summer is crepuscular, not this sudden curtain of winter.

I watched the waves throughout tonight's half-hour of evening. On Sunday and Monday they were as violent as the wind, chaotic, multiplied, crashing several ways at once on top of each other, but today the wind is calm and the surface of the ocean appears calm as well, just gathering itself every ten or fifteen seconds into a four-foot wall of water. When the waves break on the shore, the sound is like a roaring wind even though there is none. Yet the waves keep coming, like light from a distant planet. Their energy is hidden under the surface, again like light.

Neither the strong mysterious waves nor the fading mysterious light tells me anything (they just are) but I read them anyway. Winter doesn't temporize, draw things out. It is not soft or indolent. It's on/off, light/dark, calm/furious and not much in between. It's a time for understanding that we understand so little. Light, they say, is composed of both waves and particles. That seems ultimately meaningless. A wave, by that token, is both there and not there, for it breaks into nothingness, or it is one wave endlessly repeated, breaking memories on a cold shore.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The once and future lane

The woods and the lane running through it looked stunned this afternoon. Just a few days ago there was snow on the firs and ice on the asphalt. The temperature was in the teens. Winter was bedding in. But now everything is wet and brown, and water is running in the ditches, and the storm threatens more rain, and I could have done the walk in my shirtsleeves, it's that mild. There were whiffs in the air of both freshness and decay, as if the seasons were all mixed up. Of course they are: just a few hundred miles to the west the country is suffering a huge winter snow storm.

I thought of Robert Finch's essay "The Once and Future Cape" (published in his book Death of a Hornet) as I walked. Finch is a writer who chronicles the beauty of nature and change on Cape Cod, but this essay concerns the kind of change he'd rather not celebrate. By the nature of the place, basically a huge sandbar, the Cape is used to change, and its beauty at least in part comes from the peculiar allure of how the natural world changes but not really. The essence of the Cape survives the shifting dunes and the erosion and the new channel cuts from big storms. But it's not surviving humans very well. Finch describes the changes on the dirt road he lives on; over the course of 20 years the road has been gravelled and stone-dusted and straightened, which caused erosion; a subdivision of ranches and mini-malls developed at its far end, which caused traffic; it was paved and ditched, which caused hideousness; and then his neighbor died and the land was sold by the heirs to yet another developer. He can hardly bear to walk the road anymore. He writes, "But if I have learned anything as a writer, as chronicler of this extraordinary, doomed place, it is this: there is only so much fascination in watching something beautiful die."

I like to think that our lane, built basically on rock, will not suffer such a fate. There are houses at its end, on the shore, but after that, leading up the Ash Point Drive, there is nothing but woods. Yes, it's paved, but it's crumbling a bit. Yes, a new ditch was dug last fall, and some blackberry bushes uprooted, and that part of the lane now looks a little suburban, but no other "improvements" have been accomplished. It's just a plain woods, subtle in its winter colors, exquisite in its summer foliage, restful and iconic even when it's spring in December.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Barbershop

The tree-trimmers are in Owls Head again this week, I suppose in response to yet another day of very strong winds a week or so ago. Trees are freshly fallen, including on our yard where three spruce, growing very closely together as if they were friends and throwing up one large, common rootball, fell across the leaching field. Chainsaws ring out in the clear cold air. Chippers grind. It's as if the woods needs a trim every few weeks and puts in a call for travelling barbers.

It's a different crew from last month, I think. The equipment looks newer, and the license plates on the vehicles all say "Texas." This I don't understand. Not that there aren't already significant correspondences between Maine and Texas. The bluebonnet, for example, is closely related to the lupine, and there is a strong attraction for Maine's coast among Texas oilmen (Camden, for example, where every other person seems to be ex-CIA or from Houston, and par exellence Kennebunkport, where Bush I is both and Bush II isn't). I'm just not sure why Central Maine Power would be leasing, or buying, or employing men and machines from so far away. Maybe if something goes wrong, if the guys trim too exubertantly or fell someone's favorite pointed fir, CMP can claim (in that time-honored way of Democrats and Easterners) that it's all the fault of Texas.

It did get me to thinking about communication. I would have liked to find out about these men, sit around the barbershop as it were and trade biographies and politics and jibes, but I confess that guys with chainsaws and chippers are just a little out of my league. This should not be. They are undoubtedly perfectly fine people. When I drove down the lane and found a truck blocking my way, I waited a few minutes, then nervously beeped the horn. Immediately they moved the truck and returned my smiles and waves when I drove past. Even though I use machines every day, slightly less intimidating machines to be sure, those that destroy things make me upset. Ergo, their operators do too.

Thoreau thought so, about a new machine of his day. “We are in great haste,” he said in his Journal, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” I may have to admit that for once the great man might have been wrong. There's much to talk about, like the beauty of a December day on the coast, like the loneliness of American business life, like the fact that we East Coast liberals won't give up our destructive, petroleum-powered cars.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Very aerie

The story making the rounds of almost every Maine media site last week concerns the eagle's nest that wasn't and the bypass that hasn't been. It is a nest, all right, and built by an eagle (probably), but there is no eagle in residence. It is a bypass, all right, but only in planning for the last 50 years, with many iterations and routes over the years. The place? Wiscasset, of course, named the prettiest village in Maine only because so many people have been stuck there in Route 1 traffic for so many hours that only dreamland will take them away.

The crux of the story is federal law that prohibits development within 660 feet of a bald eagle's nest. All this year a new bypass route has been discussed, until suddenly someone from the DOT discovered this nest, which must have been recently built for surely the Army Corps of Engineers or the state or somebody would have seen it in mapping out the new crossing of the Sheepscot. Whoops, there goes the plan. Bald eagles rule, on money and in hearts, and the new route must be shelved.

Am I the only one to see eerie conspiracy theories? Here's what's really going on.

1. Someone from Red's Eats, the famous lobster shack right downtown on Route 1 that most people blame for the miles-long back-ups, whose waiting lines regularly back up with 50 people who should not be wearing the shorts they do, built the nest.
2. A flock of crows built the nest, in order to be near the carrion on Route 1.
3. The Sierra Club built the nest - which itself is within 600 feet of Route 1, by the way - hoping to force the state to interpret the law retrospectively and tear up the highway. Cars would be taken across the river using mules, ferries made from recycled Moxie cans, and hemp ropes.
4. The Tea Party built the nest, intending to root out the oppressive hand of government in the ordinary lives of the American People, and, of course, to maintain gridlock.
5. Maine Eastern Railroad built the nest, in anticipation of the new train service from Brunswick to Rockland.
6. An eagle did indeed build the nest, but as a spare (apparently, they do that). "I'm an eagle, I'm a bald eagle, I'm an American bald eagle, I can do what I want."

Whoever built the nest, he or she or they or it, thanks. Much as I hate that traffic, why in the world spend $100 million on new roads and bridges, taking property and destroying wetlands? Let's make a pact, all you disparate interests. Let's just keep building nests until telekinesis solves the problem.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Canada, basically

Forty-one years ago yesterday, the Selective Service System was re-instituted for the purpose of drafting boys for the Vietnam War. I remember it as a beer-y evening. The fate of 19-year-olds was being decided by a lottery and most were unhappy/angry/scared to death about it. My college roommate and I came late to the "party," sat and drank while the capsules were being pulled from the glass jar, and eventually thought as the evening wore on that we had missed our numbers. By the end we were jumping out of our skin, for I had received number 354 and he number 366. We were as safe as possible.

I often think of that time before the draft. My parents were living in Canada (I had lived there also for the last two years of high school) and I seriously considered jumping the border in the event of a low number. Ever since, Canada has been a kind of haven for me, in imagination if not in fact, a place where I knew life to be slower and richer and the people, being mostly recent immigrants, to be friendly and compassionate. In actuality, Maine has become that place for me, my own lucky lottery. Much of Maine might as well be Canada, of course.

I don't go so far as to imagine what life would be like if I had been forced to escape the draft. It would have changed my life (by the way, very few people should be allowed to use that phrase, which I heard bandied about in a Starbucks yesterday, only cancer victims and Megabucks winners), changed it physically, that is, but probably not all that much spiritually. By the age of 19 we are pretty much are who we are. (Besides, that way madness lies.) I would have ended up, I'm sure, in some kind of Maine.

I will imagine, however, that the re-institution of the draft for the purposes of the Iraq war would have made that war much shorter. I will imagine that the Afghan war would not have happened at all. I will imagine that young people would be out on the streets again, and even if they weren't, rich and politically connected parents wouldn't let them go to be killed. Now that would have been a life changer, for thousands.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just say no


The Thomaston-Rockland section of Route 1 is becoming a dubious battleground. Thomaston especially has been aggressive the past few years in developing its eastern border, with movie theaters and restaurants and car dealers and a massive Lowe's (aren't they all), and now talk of a Walmart. It's an easy way to increase the tax base, I guess, without destroying the town center a couple of miles to the west. Push all the unsightliness at Rockland, they won't notice the difference. (But really, why does the area need another Walmart when there's one in Rockland a few miles away?)

The Weskeag River also crosses Route 1, not that you'd notice it. It's just a brook at best for a mile or so, and then, at that place where the Rockland and Thomaston and South Thomaston and Owls Head town lines all come together, it starts to widen into a beautiful marsh. It is the Weskeag Marsh, quite famous in birding circles for its variety of shore birds, raptors, waterfowl, owls, and grassland and woodland birds. The reason it's famous is that it's been protected by the State of Maine for a long time as the R. Waldo Tyler Wildlife Management Area. It has to contend with a dump and the Dragon Cement plant and a number of houses near its watershed but the birds and the stuff have co-existed well. There's been sufficient buffer against humans.

The river flows naturally and beautifully four miles down to the ocean. At South Thomaston it debouches into Ballyhac Cove and Nabby Cove and the Mussel Ridge Channel of Penobscot Bay. The contrast between water- and highway is ridiculous: awful Route 1 development that approaches Ellsworth, ME or Lynn, MA, or Homestead, FL in ugliness; the Weskeag River that almost could be in the Great North Woods. What's the reason? On the one hand, a state agency whose answer to almost every question must be, "No, you can't do that there." On the other, a town zoning board whose answer to every question seems to be, "Yes, you can do that there."

Is it any wonder I worry about, and glory in, the world?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Noises off

I've been out of Maine for 10 days now (only 14 more to go) and the lack of good sounds is deafening. What we have in the city is noise, and that's deafening too, and it's been particularly so in our neighborhood lately. An old house behind us was sold when the owner died at nearly 100 (Trudy had lived there all her life) and in the modern way, it's being mansionized, at least doubling in size. Even though the house is across the aqueduct and a couple of hundred yards away, the noise of construction is loud, rattling and booming from 7:00 to dark. Tree-trimming also seems part of the new housing gestalt, along with instant lawns -the two must go together in the cabal of contractors - and we suffered chain-saw mania for a couple of days. Trudy also owned a vacant lot behind her house, which of course has been sold; yet another noisesome mansion rises. Our neighbors in front put in a new driveway - this took days of trucks. Neighbors to the right are just completing a new roof and gutters. And of course leaf-blowing season is in full, gas-guzzling, ear-splitting swing. Today I counted four blowers belching simultaneously, possibly a new record, in the yard of the painted lady Victorian on Lincoln St.

I'm not saying Maine has no noise. Some summer days we get planes and trucks and boats and lawn mowers and chain saws, maybe even all at the same time. But we also have sounds, lovely sounds. Henry Beston in The Outermost House wrote that “The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” (I'd add, having spent childhood summers in northern Michigan, that the sound of a cold trout stream rushing over rocks is pretty wonderful as well.) In the city all these sounds are muted, or drowned, or forgotten. If we do have them, or stop to hear them, they ring off a myriad impervious surfaces and become mud in the ear.

I won't elaborate on Maine's other sounds: the tweets and hoots and caws of birds, the chorus of peepers in the spring, the thunk and thwack of an axe splitting birch, a foghorn in the distance, the crack of a tree shifting in winter, or even the sound of nothing at all on a cold, clear, star-bright night. But you can be sure they'll be in the uppermost, the most forward, the sanest part of my mind for the next 14 days.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bones

Ash Point Cemetery is your ordinary bone yard. Maybe an acre in size, with a few hundred plots, it memorializes names of English and Scots and French and the occasional Finn, the normal mix for Maine's dead (and in this neighborhood, the living still). Its setting is undramatic, with small raised ranches on either side, and fields merging into forests at the back, and the gray, weathered buildings (house, barn, outhouse) of the Mussel Ridge Historical Society just down the road. Apparently, its oldest headstone is dated 1808. I wouldn't know; I got that from the Owls Head town history online, having never stepped foot inside the gate.

The odd part about the cemetery is the wrought-iron arch spanning its gate. It says, "Ash Point Cemetery 1820 - 1939." The arch isn't odd - the dates are. Not 1820, presumably the date of the cemetery's establishment, although that would mean that Mr. William Heard was moved at least 12 years after he died. It's the 1939 I don't quite understand. The cemetery is still being used. A few weeks ago I saw an internment, or at least the aftermath: the fresh mound of brown soil, piles of flowers, the mourners standing around in various guises of Maine casual, both in dress and manner, talking and joking and lifting up the collars of a sport coat or a Carhart against the chill fall wind. So why the end date? Some kind of closing of the bone store against yet another world war's dead?

I'll have to ask the ladies of the Mussel Ridge Historical Society (open summer Wednesdays, 2-4 p.m.). I'll have to get over the embarrassment of walking past the cemetery hundreds of time in 15 years and not doing anything about my curiosity. I'll have to admit that although I now spend more time in Owls Head, I'm still from away.

I'll ask why the town built another cemetery at the corner of Ash Point Drive and Dublin Road, and why it is still completely unused after several years. I'll tell them I miss the blueberry patch that used to be where the new cemetery now sits. I'll ask them about William Heard, who was moved from the family homestead overlooking Ash Island: was he related to the person who lived in the abandoned trailer at Ash Point, a D. Heard according to the fading mailbox, until a few years ago, and is it true the old Heard homestead is now the Siletti property (you know, Arlene sold us our house in 1995 but I guess she's retired from the real estate business now, I see other people are living there, are she and Charley still with us?). Are there any open plots?

The ladies will be most kind, I know. They'll know that I mean well, that I seek meaning, not facts. I'll go with the dog, that will help break the ice. Maybe they'll even see that I'm reverse-engineering my life, going from ambitious to ordinary, global to local, finally feeling a sense of place in my bones, how a universe lives in a leaf. And I'll actually walk among the headstones to honor Staples and Ilvonen and LePage. Too bad I intend cremation. Ash Point Cemetery could have used an infusion of Dutch.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Grass and trash

The clarity of a fine November day is like no other. We get these blue and crystalline ones in the other seasons, usually after a big storm, but a spring beauty is all clouded with desires and the summer still has the haze of contentment if you look hard enough, especially at the ocean horizon, and the winter, well, a day like this in winter is so cold as to drive sanity away. In November there's just enough color left (green grass, red winterberries, a few obstinate yellow leaves) to keep you on your toes, but the rest of the leaves are down and the islands out in the bay don't look like they're floating or smoking and you can see well more than a yard into the woods. This is the proper balance: long cool vistas, warm grateful hearts.

You can also see trash in the ditches and the woods. This also seems fitting. The warts of life aren't always covered by luxurious vegetation, or sentimental make-up, and I for one am emboldened to take a plastic bag along on my walk. Results were as follows: 2 Twisted Tea bottles, 2 beer cans (1 Coors Light, 1 Bud Light), 2 large, fast-food paper cups marked Pepsi, complete with plastic tops and straws, an unmarked styrofoam cup and a large Burger King cup, contents unknown, a paper cup of Newman's Own Green Mountain Coffee from McDonald's, an empty pack of Marlboros, a Lay's potato chip bag, a Hot Streak Maine State Lottery ticket, a napkin, and a tattered American flag blown by the storm from the cemetery across the road. It's tempting to speculate about the populace producing such a style of discards; let it suffice to say that this too is bracing, that at least some of us take pleasure where we can without thinking about the consequences. Although a little conscience would be nice.

It's that extra view into the trees that I find most salutary. Less is hidden, the deer seem closer, a porcupine stands there dumb and fat and confident. That this magnificent stretch of weather encompasses Veterans Day is yet another bonus. Pain and suffering too are less hidden. Vets from several wars speak movingly to school children. Small Maine towns still hold parades and memorials. We're safe and alert and ready to face the winter if you are.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Simple as

The tree guys contracted to Central Maine Power have been buzzing around our roads this week. ABC is their name, and apparently life is simple. Cut down stuff near the power/phone/cable lines.

I can understand the need, especially after yet another big storm this past weekend that keep those boys out till all hours on Sunday and Monday. Prevention is nine-tenths of the cure.

I cannot understand their approach to the task. My walk to Lucia Beach today afforded many examples of the art: felled trees directly under the lines, check; trees cut down that were minding their own business some yards away, huh?; branches trimmed directly around the lines, OK; branches clearly not long enough to fall on a line yet snipped against the trunk, why? Did they need to cut bushes too? In some cases, judging by the diameters, the offending limbs were mere twigs. In at least two cases, trees now are shaved completely on one side, top to bottom. They look like comb-overs. Yet hundreds of trees are still standing where another strong storm could send them toppling on the wires. Is CMP next going to clear great wide swaths as if our little lines were grand trunks from Quebec?

The poles and wires and boxes and Time-Warner canisters are now even more visible, and ugly. I guess it's the price we pay for continued access to Google Maps and Maine Things Considered and How I Met Your Mother.

Granted I'm a little sensitive about our trees. Granted I know nothing about electro-arboreal science. But I just don't have faith in randomness, or pique, or slap-happy chainsaw dudes, especially when the name on the loud, grating machine that chews up the small stuff is the Whisper Chipper. Gentlemen of the saw, irony is lost on trees, and bleeding hearts. If you start to call your chainsaws Civilization Enablers, prepare for war.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The beat goes on

Back in Maine after nearly two weeks out of state, including a few days in Washington, DC starting right after the elections.

Nothing was noticeably different in DC - tourists still photographed the White House, tour buses lined up on 14th St. - except that the weather was like Maine: cold and wet and windy, then cold and dry and windy. Just ornery. There was no revolution evident. At Logan we saw Ed Markey (US Representative for MA's 7th District, just elected to his 18th term). He shook our hands and got on the noon shuttle. Shortly thereafter Scott Brown, our junior Senator, hurried up, perhaps late; he boarded our flight at 1 pm and napped quietly a few rows ahead of us. Neither were particularly bothered by their constituents. Riders on the shuttle are usually pretty blase about stars. Or was it because Markey is off to the lamest of lame-duck sessions, and Brown is just lame? I read later that Markey is likely to challenge Brown in 2012, so perhaps it was just as well that they weren't on the same flight. "Please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened" may well describe the next two years.

Now that I'm back in Maine, I imagine the ducks are lining up differently here as well, considering the Republicans won the governorship and both houses of the legislature, but again there's little evidence of turbulence. There's talk of healthcare being attacked (need to pay the piper for all that out-of state campaign cash!), and environmental groups are worried about new depradations in a state whose governor-elect says climate change is a hoax, but if strong tea is being brewed, it's still in the pot. I do think (or rather, hope and pray) that the party now in power will find it just as difficult to accomplish their agendas as the Democrats did. In Maine, I'm encouraged by the strong passage of the Land for Maine's Future bond, and the retention of our two Democrats in the US House. In New England I'm encouraged by the strong showing of Democrats in general. In the rest of the country, let's hope for gridlock.

The New Christy Minstrels were on our flight back from DC on Sunday, on their way to a concert in Brownfield, ME that night. We could have been comforted if they had broken out in the old Sonny and Cher song The Beat Goes On, with its contradictory lyrics of change and stasis from 1967. Like Maine and New England in 2010.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Still at War

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Ehredt ended his run across the US. The Army vet and retired postal worker started on May 1 in Astoria, Oregon and ended on October 15 in Rockland, Maine, pushing a stroller for more than 4,400 miles. In the stroller were small American flags, the supply of which was replenished every so often by an entourage of family and friends. At each mile of his run Mr. Ehredt planted a flag carrying one name of the some 4,400 Americans killed in Iraq, starting with the last (at the time). The flag on Rockland's waterfront bears the name of the first, Marine Major Jay Aubin of Waterville, Maine, killed in Iraq in 2003.

In spite of this incredible feat that required endurance and stamina, not to mention three years of planning, Mike Ehredt received relatively little publicity, perhaps because he said he was taking no stand on the war, political or moral. He just felt a connection to those who died, he said. His attitude struck me at first as noble and effective. What better way to honor the dead, simply, without fanfare?

But on the eve of Election 2010, I've realized that no one is talking about war anymore, even though people are still dying in Iraq and the US military toll in Afghanistan is already over 400 this year and soon will approach the highest years of "Operation Iraqi Freedom." This has been the most cowardly election campaign I can remember. The Democrats seem to shy away from any cause or principle whatsoever, and the Republicans will discuss only greed and racism (excuse me, tax rollbacks and states' rights and immigration), and the Tea Partiers have retreated all the way back to 1776, without a clue and falsely too.

The rural states (as a percentage of population) gave the most to the cause; Maine for example, had 23 deaths in Iraq, the third-highest percentage in the US. The lowest percentage was Washington, DC. Where is the outrage?

Mike Ehredt, I don't know your politics or your ethics, but we need you back on the roads, this time for the rest of the fatalities in Iraq and for the 1,340 US dead in Afghanistan, now in its tenth year of war, and this time with screams and anger and trumpets and dirges and protests unlimited.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Worst and best

Forbes magazine has rated Maine dead last in their rankings of business-friendly states. Let's see, what do they call it? Best States for Business and Careers.

All I can say is, Hurray!

Well, I had better mince that word a little. Even though the table Forbes provides
http://www.forbes.com/2010/10/13/best-states-for-business-business-beltway-best-states-table.html
is inexplicable because the weighting factors are not divulged, one still must admit that Maine is a poor state. No getting around that. There's not all that much to cheer about from the point of view of money.

But the factor in Forbes' analysis called Quality of Life (also that Careers thing in the study title) got me to thinking, and cheering. Herewith, my guesses at what is really going on in this "research."

  • Maine people are too cussed independent for the typical business.
  • It's cold here half the year.
  • There aren't enough German car dealers, local chapters of Ivy League alumni associations, cigar shops, and members-only country clubs for those "C" people (CEOs, CFO, COOs).
  • There aren't enough ballet schools, equestrian venues, Fifth Avenue shops, and private tutors for those "C" people's families.
  • There aren't any big cities.
  • Maine's major border is with a foreign country (also, New Hampshire, which may be the same thing).
  • State government doesn't pander enough (except maybe to wind-power companies).
  • There are no big companies to brag about, measure up to, compete-on-the-charity-circuit-with.

So that's what's really going on - big and fancy and outlandish we don't have. So naturally Forbes calls Maine the worst.

You know what I'm going to say next. Hurray! The best!

I'll also just mention that Maine has one of the better unemployment rates in the country....

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Moon-touched, sun-struck

Last night the moon was full and rose across the bay, almost directly out of the east. It came up huge and orange over the southern tip of Sheep Island, whose firs seemed to pierce it for a few minutes. Then it left the land, and I watched it rise for the next half-hour, arranging myself on the couch just so the moon was framed by two pointed firs on this shore, and just so the three red blinking unnatural lights of the turbines on Vinalhaven were blocked by the branches. There's no craziness about a moonrise - just contentment.

The sun this morning came up in approximately the same place, just a few degrees to the south over Vinalhaven. Now the orange color was striated, not round, streaky in the clouds and fading quickly into blue and white. Then the sun flared up, and for the briefest of moments I could look at it, before it struck the eyes like a laser burning flesh. There's a kind of fury about a sunrise.

We can do without the moon, of course. Where the earth's skin is liquid, the moon wrinkles it. On soft summer evenings it inspires poetry, perhaps love. What else?

For me, its shy appearance in the night sky makes me grateful, just like the sight of the stars in a clear country sky does. Daytime, sun glare, strivings, turbines, energy, these are things I navigate to the best of my ability and then rest against their return. I wake up in the night and see tree, wave, rock, star in the pale light, and can touch but the ghostly alter egos of ambition and trouble.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chlorophyll

It seems appropriate that we owe our magnificent fall colors to the withdrawal of one substance, and therefore the revealing of others. Green chlorophyll departs, yellow and orange and red pigments appear. Autumn is like that: heat and humidity leave, adjectives change from lazy and passionate to chill and energetic and astringent, views open up to their essences, insects burrow, birds migrate, grass indulges in a final burst of green, change is rapid.

Except the conifers. My mother on her recent visit to Maine pointed out that Vermont and even Ohio may have more brilliant colors, but Maine has the contrast of lasting evergreen and changing foliage, and that, like the change of seasons, is finally more satisfying. Constancy and change together always seem so obvious in Maine, like the ocean, like the weather, like the winds.

Ian McEwan's most recent novel Solar is about chlorophyll, and about constancy and change. It's been criticized as McEwan-lite, somehow not worthy of the master, but critics fail to see that it's a satire. Its "hero" scientist spends his later life trying to figure how chlorophyll changes sunlight into energy, not to mention trashing most of the lovers and friends in the process; it's really very funny how he fails to understand anything at all, in spite of (because of?) his Nobel prize. In the middle of his formulas and machinery, never once does he think of the beauty of a leaf, in the autumn of his life.

I may not understand much about photosynthesis, but I know at least that Maine foliage transcends science.




Monday, October 18, 2010

Mushrooms

On our recent hikes through the north woods, we came upon a wonderful variety of mushrooms.
For once I have no desire to classify, name, assort, capture, or even identify for eating (although I do have a vivid memory of my only time mushroom hunting, conducted by a German fellow publisher in the forests of Denmark, mostly because the morels we found tasted unbelievably good sauted in butter). Just enjoy these marvellous images.












Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wild!

Friday's storm was a humdinger, 12 hours of winds gusting to 55 mph, continuous rain, heavy surf (indeed, waves broke the length and breadth of the cove, not just on shore), little sleep (it started at midnight), water leaking in at the French doors, and a tree falling literally an inch off the corner of the house. By noon the wind abated and the rain stopped and I went out to look at the damage.

There wasn't any. The tree had falled as precisely as if directed, missing the propane tanks and the window and the shingles. A few small branches brushed the house, as a tease. It did fall squarely on the ornamental evergreen at that corner, bending its double top completely over. But it was not snapped and when I delimbed the tree and freed the squashee, I just bent the tops back into shape. Try that with a house.

Just another scary storm coming out of the east, off the water (he said calmly), so big that it was still blowing, now out of the north, and showering until Saturday afternoon. They seem to be increasing in frequency the last few years, at least in our short experience since 1995. Old-timers will scoff, I'm sure.

The force of the sea was seen most vividly on Crockett's Beach. It is a rocky beach, with stones ranging in size from baseballs to basketballs. In the wake of the storm these stones were winnowed, in peaks and valleys, like rows of potato hills. I've never seen anything like it; the surf had re-created itself, frozen in hundreds of tons of rocks.

The second-best thing about a big storm is the beautiful weather that follows, re-vivifying all the brain cells you lost in those hours of anxiety. The best thing is that you stand in awe of nature.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Waterfront

The other day I walked as much of Rockland's waterfront as I could, starting at the ferry terminal and going south. There's no real "harbor path" in North Rockland as there is in the touristy area, so following the shore really meant walking out and back along the various wharves and piers. It was a Sunday and there were few fishermen, dock workers, and teamsters to stare at (me). Needless to say, no pleasure boats except for the two windjammers on the new Windjammer Wharf cluttered up this area, unless they were hauled out, in dry dock. It's all business. The Coast Guard is down here (two cutters were tied up), a big marina, lots of unidentified buildings, falling down, standing up barely, used and unused, marine supply companies, and the studios of WBACH, incongruously I would have thought, although the state of classical music these days probably demands cheap housing. Crockett's Point, that spit of land that used to host a huge herring/sardine processing plant, is occupied by FMC Biopolymer in buildings that appear to be unchanged in 50 years, now exploiting seaweed instead of fish for its livelihood. I looked at the FMC website to see what biopolymers are, and left it unenlightened - possibly the blandest, least informative website in the world. Is seaweed important for secret national defense or something?

Past the huge Journey's End Marina a second Rockland begins: parks, restaurants, marinas with slips, not wharves, and the fancy boardwalk constructed in the glory days of MBNA. This is the Rockland that the 2,500 cruisers from the Jewel of the Seas (scheduled to arrive on Monday) will see, that and the shops and galleries of Main Street, of course.

Past the photo ops is South Rockland, a calm and real neighborhood of modest houses and quiet views, ending in the decaying waterfront, complete with railway spur, owned and apparently still operated sporadically by Dragon Cement.

I'm not sure there's another place in Maine that boasts such a schizoid shore. The working waterfront is only partly working. Harbor Park is starting to look like Camden. South Rockland could easily be Peoria without an ocean, substituting limestone paraphrenalia for grain.

And what will the cruise passengers enjoy? Yet another stereotypical view of Maine.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lucia Beach Road

A favorite walk around here is the pretty road that ends in a pocket beach. There's a bit of suburbia as Lucia Beach Road splits off from Ash Point Drive, a few sprawling ranches with lots of vehicles - cars, pickups, boats, trailers - in their driveways. Then it takes a turn towards the ocean, and you get a first look at the Muscle Ridge Islands flexing in the sparkling sea. There are woods on both sides, hardly a house in view, for some hundreds of yards.

I should say, "there were woods on both sides." To the west they are no more.

Some 5 or 6 years ago we noticed some cutting going on. "Could be for firewood," we thought, seeing that the cutting seemed selective and spared a stand of tall and beautiful birches. Nothing much changed over the next few years, a few more trees cut, some clearing of brush, until the recession hit, and nothing happened at all. Small trees were coming back.

Until this year. Almost everything has been cut down, except for a thin beauty strip along the road, and maybe half a dozen trees oddly placed like random islands in a plot of land that I discovered, upon asking a woman who was trimming branches down the road, was more than six acres in size. "I heard," she said, "that three houses are going in there. I better walk my property line, they might have strayed a bit over it."

A monster chipper was eating branches and brush as we spoke, creating great conical piles of chips and mulch. "Think I'll go talk to them," she continued, "to see what they're going to do with those chips. I could use some."

She didn't seemed too concerned at the loss of hundreds of trees, including those stately birches, nor at the prospect of mansions on two acres, lawns, ornamental trees from nurseries. I remonstrated, gently out loud and loudly inside, that I didn't understand why they had to cut down all the trees. "Wouldn't it be better at least to keep some for shade and beauty?"

Increasingly, I don't seem to fit in the world. I understand less and less of the drive to accumulate, push out, conquer, consume. Only a temporary lack of capital, or advancing age, or possibly governmental regulations can temper our enthusiasm for burning.

Just past the pocket beach at the end of the road is Birch Point State Park, a lovely stretch of rock and sand and tidal pools, backed by woods, known to the locals as Lucia Beach. What I call Lucia Beach is half a dozen houses crowded around a pocket of sand and big rocks. The former, officially re-named apparently, welcomes the public to its shores. At the latter I stand nervously at its edge, trespassing, watching for critical faces in the windows of the big houses all around.

Not only do we consume; we like to do it in maximum privacy. To my chagrin, that's where I still fit in the Zeitgeist, preferably, however, with trees.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 6.5

Only a last morning in northern Maine, as we drove back to Owls Head today. You could argue whether anything south of Greenville is northern Maine, in which case we had only breakfast and the half-hour drive down the west side of Moosehead Lake to boast of. The idyll was meant to be extended through the whole morning by a canoe trip down the Moose River into the big lake, but morning fog

blanketed the river and packed the car and escorted us out.

I was depressed to leave. The Great North Woods has been kind of a talisman to me, a last redoubt against progress and development, a pristine place that evokes religious feelings in an irreligious man, and leaving it was like leaving a church and venturing into an evil world again. The ironic part was that we didn't even really experience the woods, just skirted the southern and eastern edges of the immensity of the real northern Maine, drove in a car, slept in beds, ate in restaurants, hiked short and level trails. The true pilgrim would have camped and cooked outside, sleeping on spruce boughs like Thoreau did and catching brook trout for dinner. The true disciple would have combed the woods and bogs at dawn and dusk for moose. We slept in, had cocktails at dusk.

Yet the Great North Woods may be just as important as a dream and an inspiration and a symbol. To know they exist, to realize that it's vital to protect and preserve them, is as rejuvenating as being in them. Well........., not quite. Nothing prepared me for the beauty of Katahdin rising out of the woods beyond Daicey Pond, and my respect for life and the world is much richer for it. I'd like to export such peace and wonder to every trouble spot in the world.

Or maybe my depression was simpler. Our list of wildlife seen was a little scanty - a bald eagle, 3 ducks/geese (possibly redbreasted mergansers, I've discovered), a mink dashing across the Tote Road, a grouse (or ptarmigan or quail), a deer in Maynards' back yard, and 3 foxes on the road to Jackman - and the only moose, kind of a god-like animal when you think about it, alternately savage and meek, shy and aggressive, hidden, that we saw in 7 days was this fellow standing in a park in Houlton.


It doesn't matter - like Thoreau I'll still worship you.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 6

Maynards in Maine, in Rockwood, lived completely up to the advertising: a hunting/fishing camp run by the same family since 1919; funky cabins, not updated for many a decade, but comfortable; a main lodge with camp furniture, bare light bulbs, and animal trophies on the walls; three meals including an old-fashioned packed lunch in an Igloo. Ham and cheese on white bread hasn't tasted that good since childhood. Of course we were eating the sandwiches on top of Mt. Kineo.

Not quite on the top. The summit is wooded and getting a view required climbing the fire tower, which one of us did - only partway. Well, the wind was blowing pretty hard, and legs have been known to turn to jelly, and the tower could have collapsed. Right?


Mt. Kineo rises more than 700 feet directly out of Moosehead Lake. The man piloting the golf-course shuttle over to the island said there's also a deep hole in the lake right below it. So about a thousand feet of pure vertical rock, made of a rare flint called hornstone, making a rare sight that has drawn tourists for centuries. Native Americans used the rock for arrow heads, rusticators used the mountain for recreation (one of the country's biggest hotels used to be at the foot), Thoreau thought it one of the most beautiful places he had visited, and modern rusticators play golf and sit on their big porches in its shadow.



Just below the summit there's a ledge made for lunching, with an open view of the lake. No wonder Thoreau was so entranced.


We ended the afternoon with a walk around Greenville, and a stop in a lively bar where we had decaf coffee, not quite depressed enough (at leaving the next day) to start drinking at 4:00, even on a Friday. Others had no such inhibitions.
Dinner made up for that brief denial of pleasure. Four courses at Maynards satisfies the hungriest of abstainers. My prime rib was 2 inches thick and covered all of a large plate that the garlic mashed potatoes (with gravy!) didn't. Visions of salads danced in our future.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 5

After another heart-stopping breakfast (Eggs Benedict) from Fred Young, we set out on the Golden Road, the logging road that runs from Millinocket all the way across the state to Quebec. It was reported to be passable by a Baxter ranger, and he was mostly right. The road deteriorated somewhat from paved to rough-paved to decent gravel before we turned off on the Greenville Road.

Before the Greenville Road there was a lovely stretch of the West Branch called Nesowadnehunk Falls, where the Nesowadnehunk River (the same one we had hiked along yesterday in Baxter) joins the Penobscot. The mountain is Katahdin.


A famous section of the West Branch is Ripogenus Gorge, which we hiked along for a short way. I can't imagine how the lumbermen did it, but they used to drive logs down this canyon from the big lakes of Chesuncook and Chamberlain to the north. The water is very fast, and this is low-water time in the autumn.

The Baxter ranger was mostly wrong about the Greenville Road. It was not in good shape and our little Civic found itself once again put to the test. Trucks stacked with logs roared by, not worried about their suspensions, I guess, and on at least one occasion a truck came at us around a corner, tilted enough, I swear, to spill a quarter million pounds of wood on top of us with just a degree more of lean. Another time a truck blasted out of a side road just in front of us without stopping. Perhaps he saw us, correctly judged the angles, and wanted to give us a thrill.
There weren't a lot of log piles along the road, but enough to make it clear that logging is a messy business, not to mention dangerous. The Pelletier family runs most of the trucks in this area (and also opened a restaurant in Millinocket on the basis of their fame in the TV series American Loggers, where we ate manly food amidst logging paraphrenalia the night before); I now want to see the series not only for the information on logging but also for what might be the last of a breed. What does a real logger think of bacon-wrapped scallops called Retreds, or Blown Tires (onion rings)?

In any case the ten miles of the Greenville Road consumed nearly an hour, presented no moose (are you sensing a theme yet?), and certainly was a slice of the North Woods without pretense or comfort.
In the late afternoon we arrived in Maynard's in Maine in Rockwood, ready for the monstrous meals any logger would be proud of.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 4

It was the best of mornings, it was the worst of mornings. The best was breakfast at Young's House B&B in Millinocket, where Fred Young made luscious blueberry pancakes, three of them each the size of a dinner plate, for Cindy, and bananas Foster French toast for me, without a doubt the best French toast I've ever had.

The worst was the continued rain. But we drove up into Baxter anyway, this time on the Park Tote Road on the west side of the park, hoping for the best to return.

And it did. At first, we sat in the car for a while, looking at Kidney Pond. It was tranquil, and beautiful in its cloudy, foggy, primal state.


The rain left up for a bit and we decided to go for it, sneakers and all, into the woods and the short, wet trail to Rocky Pond. By the time we got back, our faith in light jackets and no hiking boots was justified. The sun started to break through for minutes at a time, and Kidney Pond was transformed.

The day continued like that, alternating deep, dark clouds that fortunately held their rain, and brilliant patches of blue sky that provoked extravagant forecasts of perfect weather to come. Mt. Katahdin, however, remained unseen, and we drove to Daicey Pond to collect the prize.
The Appalachian Trail passes near Daicey Pond and others on its way to the last exhausting climb up Katahdin. For those nearing the end of a months-long trek, these gorgeous bits of water must be an inspiration and a blessing, a calm place to camp and refresh. We took a bit of the Trail along the Nesowadnehunk River to see Big and Little Niagara Falls, and some wildlife of the stationary variety.


I hope with all my heart that not the slightest atom of what happened to the "real" Niagara Falls happens in Baxter, and it won't. Percival Baxter, the former Governor of Maine who personally bought and protected almost all of the 200,000+ acres of the park in an innovative trust, saw to that.

Then, at last, the Greatest Mountain.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 3

Another lovely breakfast from Clif this morning, and a conversation with his other (longer-term) guest, Peter Goth, celebrating that day's promotion to head of the ER at Gould Memorial in Presque Isle. Peter's other jobs? helping his wife Wendy Pieh raise the cashmere goats at Springtide Farm in Bremen; training physicians and vets; judging cashmeres around the country; past Outward Bound leader, etc. I have no idea how he does it (Bremen is five hours away!). Typical Mainer....

The drive to Millinocket was relatively short, just a couple of hours, and more than relatively rainy. We could see nothing of the great mountains to the west. We went to Baxter anyway, and also there saw nothing of great Mt. Katahdin. The rain reduced to some spit and drizzle for a while and allowed us the short hike from Roaring Brook Campground to Sandy Stream Pond. A steadier downpour would have stopped us, for in our blithe poor planning, we had neglected to take hiking boots and rain gear.

The pond was nicely set up for "wildlife viewing" (which means, basically, moose) with boardwalks ending on flat rocks. Alas, the only wildlife seen were three duck/goose-like birds (crested heads, orangish beaks, gray and white bodies, relatively long orange legs and feet) that have so far escaped identification (Stokes, Sibley, Google). Who needs moose when something obviously and incalculably rare preened for the binoculars! Birders, we're available for exclusive interviews.

Did I mention that we hadn't seen Katahdin yet?

Reluctantly and damply, we drove the 8 dirt miles (at 15 mph) back to the Togue Pond Gate and hoped for better luck (moose, Katahdin) the next day. Reluctantly and heroically, I resisted the Penobscot fries at dinner, saving myself for breakfast.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 2

A full day in Aroostook County, a marvellous place of hugely different terrain. It started with Clif Boudman's delicious breakfast at the inn, and good conversation with this innkeeper/bon vivant/film professor at UMPI. (His son also is involved in movies, recently as Senior Flame/Inferno Artist at Sony Pictures, a title like no other I've ever heard.) Thus fortified against the rain, we drove the loop - out route 163 to Ashland, up Route 11 to Fort Kent, down Route 1 back to Presque Isle.

Just a couple of miles south of Fort Kent our daily hike found us Fish River Falls, and some autumn fields of surpassing beauty but unknown crops. The County is like that: town, farm, unspoiled wilderness all crowded next to each other wherever you go. Well, mostly wilderness.


During the growing season potatoes are the attraction. (The other 6-7 months of the year, winter is properly and happily celebrated.) We had arrived just before harvest, during the time after the plants and stems have been cut (or otherwise defoliated) and before picking. That period of several weeks allows the potato skins to set or harden, important for storage. It also allows incredible scenes of the fields in various stages of preparation, some still mostly green, some brown/green with decay, some completely brown, the "hills" clean and ready for the pickers. These fields sweep the horizon majestically; we weren't prepared for their beauty.


There were lots of potato stands along the roads. This one was high-end; most of them sold 10 pounds for only $2.00. Honor system, of course.


Fort Kent is the center of Maine's Acadian culture, where French language and custom are still strong. Those French who settled in Nova Scotia (their "Acadia") in the 16th and 17th centuries were chased out of Canada by loyalists to the British Crown, some ending up in Louisiana and some settling in the St. John River valley in the late 18th century, living in houses like this one (now reconstructed in Acadia Village, Route 1, Van Buren).


There remains a strong Catholic influence.

The towns along Route 1 all feature a large Catholic church, almost cathedral size, and then a straggle of houses and businesses in both directions along the road. No one seems to live off Main Street, as if the surrounding forests shouldn’t be encroached upon. Development is gentle, not vicious. I doubt that zoning boards have much to do. The pace of life will not be speeded up. Poverty and pride and the small population won’t allow it.
I loved the County, its wide-open spaces, its friendly people. And we didn't even get to Allagash, the setting for Cathie Pelletier's wonderful and comic novels about the French and the Scots in Maine. Nor did we have a chance to try the ployes, the buckwheat pancakes apparently similar to the galettes of Brittany; nor, although one of us was sorely tempted, the famous poutine (french fries, cheese curds, brown beef gravy), also seen on a menu as Penobscot fries. Very good sushi in a Chinese restaurant in Presque Isle had to suffice.
Ah, the consequences of lavish B&B breakfasts. Ah, the several reasons to return to the County.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 1

Our week travelling the great expanses of the north started with the familiar trip from Owls Head to Bangor. Bangor is only 20 miles from the ocean but north of it seems like a different country. It was new to us, certainly, and I can now see why people who live there would just as soon cede the southern part of the state to Massachusetts.

Our route eschewed I-95 and followed Thoreau's trip by stagecoach along the Penobscot River. We travelled in slightly more comfort. At Lincoln we parted ways with the sage and drove east to catch Route 1. I'm pleased to report that those 50 miles of Route 1 between Topsfield and Houlton are bucolic: rolling land, thick woods, small farms and so little traffic that in the whole stretch we neither overtook, nor were passed by, a single car. It was an extra hour well spent.

Quite frankly Houlton isn't much to look at, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The downtown was deserted, except for a few teens hanging out. The bridge over the Meduxnekeag River, however, was quite handsome and, although we didn't realize it at the time, deserves the name Gateway Crossing, for the land to the north becomes truly different.



I also like the fact that the wood comprising the bridge has been left rough and unfinished, a tribute to the great forests that have meant so much to this area.

I-95 stops in Houlton so no justification of time-wasting is necessary. (It was planned to go as far as Caribou, a source of indignation still for the long-suffering people of the north, but personally, I can't imagine a town named Caribou on an interstate.) There was more traffic on Route 1, for here the gorgeous farmlands of the St. John River valley begin. I had thought that perhaps these lands would be like the Midwest farmbelt, but absolutely not: The land is not flat but rolling into hills and in the distance, into mountains like Katahdin, visible from the highway. The fields are not monotonous, but stark and beautiful. The houses are not protected by little copses of trees but sit openly and proudly on the rises of hills. The woods are not afterthoughts, or woodlots, but real forests merging into the great woods to the west, coming right up to the edge of the fields as if the work of humans is clearly seen to have its limits. In the Midwest one has to look at the sky for illimitable views. Or interstates.
One major sign of human presence sits on Mars Hill, which rises like a butte out of the river valley. Don't count me among those that find the view of the wind farm beautiful. America's obsession with machines, rather than with values, continues.
A less obtrusive human work is the Maine Solar System model, constructed along Route 1 between Houlton and Presque Isle. The planets are made to scale (Jupiter being about 5 feet in diameter) and the distances between them are also to scale. We managed to see Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter, but missed the smaller planets closer to the sun amidst the development of Presque Isle. Earth's model is only 5 inches in diameter, easily lost in the clutter of stores and cars. Pluto is only an inch and is kept inside Houlton's Information Center, as if the planners knew it would be declared a non-planet anyway.
Mars Hill also offered us a first look at Maine's famous potato farms - much more to come!


We stayed the night in the lovely Rum Rapids Inn on the Aroostook River just north of Presque Isle. Our walk for the day was a trek along a snowmobile/ATV track, complete with several ATVs belching noise and exhaust. Well, at least, the operators are getting outside. The track also crossed the river via an ATV bridge, recently re-constructed using, as our innkeeper said, Obama money. If any place in the country needed stimulus, it's the County, although I'm not sure how a trail trumped a road. Of course it's really Bush money, which seems more appropriate for this land of hunters and farmers. We tried to describe our perceptions of Aroostook thus far - the farms large and small, the hills and mountains, the friendly people - to our innkeeper, who said, "Yes, this is actually Canada."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

North again

Off for a week of travel in Aroostook and the Great North Woods. Can't wait!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Questions

Why does that crow hop up the spruce branch by branch? Why does it preen, stop, move up a notch, preen some more? Why does it and its fellows choose this particular tree all the time?

I find as I get older that the "why" questions have become a different kind. The big ones, like the meaning of life and existence of God, don't pester as much as they did when I was 15, and 33. They still buzz around a bit, but since they're unanswerable, any time put into them seems wasted. The "why" questions for which there might be answers are much more interesting. Not the kind you can look up on Google, or even those that some specialist scientist probably can answer, but the kind that might require a bit of mystery along with the facts. I know why the crow preens, and I expect that its multivarious calls are known, but I don't know what makes it move, at what point it moves, why it moves, when no food or danger is in view. Things that move, like weather and wildlife and the human heart, have mystery, and are forever fascinating to the post-religious.

Things that don't move, like rocks and trees, provoke the deeper questions. They just are, and what does that mean? I might understand the crow, given enough study. I might never understand the spruce, unless given eternity.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Short pines

Back in Maine after a week in Massachusetts. It was a beastly hot and enervating week that cleared only after Earl glanced at the coast and decided to stay away, leaving us free to go to the Cape for a couple of days. Amazing what dry and pellucid air will do for the spirits, and it wasn't even Maine air.

The Cape is of course ruled by the ocean and a more malign Earl would have wreaked havoc like an Anglo-Saxon lord. As it was, the beaches on the bay side were thick with seaweed, quite a few large dead bluefish, some happy gulls and vultures getting fatter, and, according to our hosts, obviously more erosion of the dunes underneath the houses on the edge; and the ocean side was loud with huge surf and the timelessness of real dunes, i.e., no houses built on sand.

Except for the National Seashore the coast of the Cape is almost completely privately owned and developed, like the coast of Maine. There, however, the similarities stop.

Cape woods are thin and stunted. Cape houses quietly nestle into their sites. The way of life is palpably attractive. The interior Truro dunes, where our friends' house lies, roll gently with a covering of gorse and bush and grasses and short pines. Roads twist and wind, always with a house in view. Provincetown on a Sunday afternoon seems to contain more people than live in all of Maine. The wind is constant. The Cape's beauty is a quiet one (except P-town!) and it invites a calm, contemplative way of life, halfway between the rush and energy of the city and the rocks and exhilaration of the country. Well, at least the outer Cape does.

We hadn't been to the Cape for some years, inevitably going north instead of south. But on a perfect September weekend, it was a wonderful substitute for the place of tall pines.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Billions

Walking and math, I've found, are excellent partners, exercisers of body and brain respectively. In the city, I've often escaped from stress, motors, politics, and worries by simple routines: how many steps to the next corner, what's this month's percent drop in net worth, how long to reach a billion by counting once a second. Math puts a sheen of order to a world that looks to be teeming with disorder.

In the country, on a certain lane in Maine, for example, the exercises get a bit more philosophical. I'm much freer to think about big, and small, things, and their wonders. Nature's profligacy and chaos, for example: how many leaves and needles on just this little stretch of road, how many bugs, how many stars at night. The lane ends at the ocean, where life is even more amazing - a billion phytoplankton in a quart of water. Here orderly math lies under the apparent disorder in a perfect arrangement of cells and atoms.

Thoreau said, "I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can afford to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another, that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp -- tadpoles which herons gobble up and tortoises and toads run over in the road." Would he be so sanguine with our present suffering, our population projected to reach 7 billion sometime in 2011 or 2012, the way we prey on tuna and lynxes and rare wildflowers, the way we burn carbon and religions alike?

A billion has become understandable, just barely maybe, but still I can imagine those 32 years it takes to count one number per second, day and night. Not sure if I can imagine a trillion, a wonder in itself, approaching the infinite. My own body is an example of this dilemma. The number of cells in the average human body is finite, obviously, but might as well be infinite. Nobody knows for sure how many cell there are, because of constant birth and death; estimates range between 10 trillion and 100 trillion. I think this is comforting, this chaos within order, this inner immensity propelling me along.

Numbers are infinite, space is infinite, the earth is not. Tortoises and toads indeed: our mere 7 billion will run them over and use them up, unless we come to our census.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tranquility Grange

I don't think I've ever been inside a grange before last night. There are still nearly 200 in Maine, and we've seen a number from the outside (including one just down the road in Owls Head), but being from away, we never felt bold enough to attend a meeting of the garden club or a public supper or a monthly meeting of The Grange itself. I suppose there might have been some unremembered occasion in the few years of my youth that Minnesota consumed, but that's very doubtful; Dutch Calvinists had their own places to meet, usually the church or the school, and a grange would have smacked vaguely of unions or other somewhat godless organizations. One couldn't imagine belonging to a group that wasn't religious.

Last night's annual membership meeting of Coastal Mountains Land Trust was held at Tranquility Grange in Lincolnville. I would have attended just for the name. Tranquility Grange conjures up a rural past when community was more meaningful, both more intense and more prosaic. The National Grange originated in 1867 as an agricultural organization and "the Patrons of Husbandry" is still part of its official name. I imagine that it served the political and social needs of secular farmers unattached to any church, and I can only guess at the stalwart Mainers who founded their grange with the word "tranquility."

The building is plain, graced with high ceilings and a simple stage and folding chairs and a couple of old-fashioned cloak rooms, the kind of place where, once industrial America started to broadcast its riches, young people couldn't wait to leave. Still, the allure of a ready-made community, sans special interests, sans holier-than-thou is most appealing, especially in the age of the Internet and the suicide bomber. Perhaps it's more attractive to people from away, from the city.

Ironically, this particular person from away found the tightest community of his life on a dead-end street in a suburb of Boston. To re-create that amid the glories of Maine would be heaven. Perfect tranquility is a goal worth praying for.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August

I can think of three books with "August" in their titles and none of them have much to do with the glories of the month. August by Judith Rossner isn't about August at all (also, not a very good book), but about the absence of August in the lives of New York therapists and patients. Barbara Tuchman wrote The Guns of August, a very good book but about inglorious World War I. One of the world's best books is Faulkner's Light in August, but deep summer in Mississippi does not compare well to high summer in Maine. Google added a fourth book, Snow in August, by Pete Hamill, which I haven't read, about post-WWII New York, whose title says it all. Where are the books about this incredible time in Maine? It's so wonderful that a book would be trite. Irony and conflict work much better in the literary world.

At least the name of our capital gives a nod in the right direction.

And it has been an incredible month - day after day of clear blue days and cool quiet nights. This morning the fog embraced Owls Head for a while, gradually retreating into the bay, but never quite leaving the islands, giving those of us on the safe mainland the best of both worlds. No war here, no hot broken city streets, no dusty roads - just a time for inner contemplation and outer radiance. When all those therapists close up shop in August, perhaps they should write their patients a prescription for Maine air and water, mist and sun, corn and tomatoes and blackberries, to get them through the month and maybe even cure a few.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Utilities

It came to me the other day that one of the reasons I like Bayview Terrace, the little ordinary road nearby, is that it has no utility lines or poles. This insight is somewhat embarrassing, as I've been walking that road for, oh, 15 years. But wires lining roads are so common that we don't even see them anymore; roads without wires are so uncommon that we should be memorializing them.

The wires and cables used to be, in their way, comforting. The electrons and the conversations and the premium TV images were safely confined, obediently in their places, waiting for the human touch. Things have changed, course. Wires aren't needed so much; phone and Internet join the waves of radio and TV and solar radiation already sloshing around in the air, and we walk freely down lovely lanes getting our fixes without land-locked interference. The tables are turning. What used to be utilities are now necessities, and "they" can get hold of you anytime, anywhere. I wonder if the phones of the future will have "off" buttons at all.

My solution is of course always to leave the Blackberry in the bag. This may be against the current of the times, and I expect soon to be painting signs for the beginning and end of Bayview Terrace: "Cell-free Road Ahead. Violators will be Arrested and Sentenced to 15 Minutes of Quiet Staring at Moss." But what really worries me is if they figure out, on an industrial scale, how to make the transmission of electricity wireless. I won't be able to leave my machines behind.
They will be my head.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bird noising

In these scientific times we're not supposed to anthropomorphize. So what a bird does with its vocal apparatus may not be called singing. It is marking territory, repelling a rival or attracting a mate, announcing a cache of bugs, warning of danger. It is not joyous or sad or carefree or disconsolate (don't spell it "mourning" dove). Even "calling" may imply too much self-aware communication. "Sounding" and "noising" are acceptable.

The idea works for gulls, who squawk as a matter of course, no reason needed. Crows too, who are an examplar of noise in fact, especially at dawn when their incessant caws and screeches and nyucks in the big bare spruce near the open window cannot be understood to have any malice or disturbing intent (or we would go crazy).

It gets slightly trickier with the dawn and dusk scatting of the robin, which sounds suspiciously like new-wave jazz in a club. The high-pitched motherly squeak of the osprey is not echo-location (or is it?). The woodpecker can't help it if he (I mean it) sounds crazy.

Even worse are the little armadas of ducks, swimming and diving, blended families of ducklings and parents whose burblings and murmurings I am desperately trying not to describe as "contented." And what do you say about the hummingbird, which is without sound, except the whirring of wings, as if a precious jewel that you'd give to a loved one could fly?

But at last the idea falls apart. There is the goldfinch, sitting at the close of day at the very top of a 50-foot balsam fir, in the last rays of the sun, pouring out his heart, baring her soul, singing (damn it!) for the glory of our lives.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking advantage

Advantage has two meanings, benign and malign. The first happens on a day like today, when the combination of hot sun and cool ocean breeze makes me spend almost the whole day on the deck. There's no competition involved, no striving. I'm not trying to beat out the gulls. Clean fresh air comes at no price.

People thought the same about coal, oil, gas, cod, rain forests. They were free and endless and the miners and drillers and entrepreneurs weren't taking advantage, they were fulfilling a destiny. Not so anymore. Every one of earth's resources has been monetized.

Including the wind, the tides, the nitrogen of the ocean. Yesterday Matthew Simmons, energy entrepreneur, of fossil fuels in Texas, of renewables in Maine, died. The news stories praise him as a visionary, and his good deeds and big thoughts were legendary. But I couldn't help but groan when I read that he died in his house on North Haven, just a few miles across the bay from his huge estate in Rockport, both of which are complemented for the winter months, I'm sure, by properties in Houston and other warm places. Why does one man need so much? How easy is it to champion renewable energy when you've made your pile on oil? Why does John Kerry need a $7 million yacht?

No doubt I'm being a churl and a hypocrite. Producing electricity from a wind turbine is much better than burning coal. I haven't turned in my car in protest of imported oil. But there's a way to take advantage of nature, and for all the promise of alternative energy, the hype misses the point. I can't help but think that the same old profit motive drives it. I can't help but wonder if the wind and the sea will run out, not in the same way as oil, but as a temporary way station in the relentless thirst for energy, and the machines will have covered the earth in vain. I can't help but predict that turbines and ammonia plants and solar arrays will one day be discarded, just as expendable and ugly as Three Mile Island. I can't help but worry that our refusal to conserve will force us into more nightmares of fission and fusion.

A true visionary works with the earth, not against it. It should be easy for us to give up our advantages, those of us who have had enough.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Antique cat

On Monday morning someone reported seeing a mountain lion in a field near the Owls Head Transportation Museum. The witness was a former Maine Registered Guide and was adamant that what he saw was not a bobcat, or a coyote. The folks from Fish and Wildlife are quite ready to be convinced, they say, but need more evidence that the big cats are re-establishing territory in Maine than the occasional sighting here and there.

What would convince them, a formal introduction? Or some lodge could organize a puma and panther party, a cougar and catamount crusade, with hundreds of hunters and dogs to beat the bushes and shoot the thing, skin it, mount it and put it on display next to the stuffed Studebakers in the OHTM. That would show 'em.

Or we could just believe Mr. Kip Yattaw (whose name is an anagram for "it Kat-y paw") when he says, "They are here and they are real."

It's the agnostic's dilemma: we want to believe but say we need proof. Or, considering the insults to the earth these days, is it that we don't want to believe and we don't want proof? We're human, we mix faith and fact to suit the politics or the emotion. All I know is that I don't like zoos, and I don't like animal dioramas, and I'm very happy this week on my walks, hoping for the impossible to appear in the woods, or even, when I took the dog out last night for her final pee, wondering if that large brown shape bounding out of the garden into the black night was possibly not the deer it was last week.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Trash

The never-ending Bush recession is producing still more casualties. It seems that the Maine companies that burn waste to produce electricity are having trouble getting enough trash to operate at full capacity. People aren't buying as much, so there's less packaging to discard, or they are holding on to stuff longer, or both. To combat this un-American activity (and fulfill their delivery contracts), the companies are resorting to mining landfills, or importing trash from other states.

At least there's an irony here that most sufferers from the recession can't enjoy. Trash is not so treasured. The country has slipped from its peak-trash pinnacle, and that is good. Isn't it?

In the waste-to-energy business, there's a direct relationship between input and output. In most other businesses, this is no longer the case. Many companies are making record profits this year, as the banks did last year, but still have not re-hired the people they axed in the depths of the recession. So fewer people are producing more goods. There's no irony here whatsoever, just the tragedy of the unemployed, discarded like packaging, and of the employed, pushed to the burning point, both quite disposable.