Saturday, January 30, 2010

First in the nation

In 1815 the world's first Total Abstinence Society was founded in Portland. In 1851 Maine became the first state to ban the sale of alcohol entirely, except for "medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes." Prohibition didn't end in Maine until repeal of the national laws in 1934.

Or did it? Last year the legislature addressed the important issue of taste testings, probably at the behest of beer and booze lobbyists who wanted the same freedom accorded wine shops. So, yes, the solons did indeed extend tastings but the helicopter parents among them, in an apparent reflexive return to Maine's glorious past, added to the application form governing such proceedings the stipulation that tastings "must be conducted in a manner that precludes the possibility of observation by children." Said law went into effect September 12.

Maine is now first in the nation in wine blog jokes. Shop owners offering tastings drape their windows to prevent spontaneous addiction in two-year-olds (mere blinds are not acceptable). Obscure back rooms are utilized. Skulking occurs. Bafflement reigns. Probably out of sheer embarrassment, tempering legislation has now been filed in the new January session.

The original legislator said that he was only trying to prevent kids from seeing drunken adults in supermarket aisles. His name is Webster, clearly of Puritan descent, probably from Massachusetts, where of course all interdictions started. Long live Cotton Mather!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Penobscot

For more than 200 years the Penobscot River was a dumping ground: logs and sawdust from the timber industry, waste from the tanning and cotton industries, heavy metals and organic solids from the paper mills, sewage from everyone. As late as 1967 a state study said that boats could not be kept on the river south of Bangor, since their paint would peel. It wasn't just that a most beautiful river was fouled. The lobsters and fish and future of Penobscot Bay itself were threatened. The Clean Water Act of 1972 started the process towards purification.

So you'd think that in 2010 there would be no more issues about water pollution. You'd be wrong. A chemical plant started operating on the banks of the river south of Bangor in 1967. It used mercury to produce chlorine for the paper companies, and discharged that processed mercury, accidentally and deliberately, into the air, into unlined sludge pits and directly into the river. These discharges were common knowledge but formal investigations didn't take place until the 90s and even then, only a lawsuit successfully prosecuted by citizens' action groups in 2000 forced the company to shut down and start a clean-up of 235 acres of contaminated soil.

Ten years later the State and the company are still litigating. Some progress on the clean-up has been made. No doubt it's a complicated project, with a complicated history of site ownership and disputed solutions, but the simple truth is that the original owner, and the one now responsible for clean-up, is Mallinckrodt LLC, a healthcare company, whose website proudly states: "For more than 137 years, the name Mallinckrodt has been synonymous with purity and innovation in the field of chemical manufacturing and medical products worldwide."

How big companies play with people's health! How our legal system provides cover! Is mercury poisoning a pre-existing condition?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rivers

After yesterday's downpours and the warm temperatures melting almost all the snow, rivers are flourishing in all kinds of places. Thin sheets of water course down Crockett Beach Road, in regular little waves (how and why does water do that on tar?). The ditches on the sides of the paved lanes are torrents. The dirt and gravel driveways are so soft, it feels like there's a slow river underneath your every step. The land below the leaching field is a moving bog. The steps on our walkway become little Niagaras.

I love the ocean, especially on days like today after a big storm, when the surf crashes all night, and the waves around Little Island beat constantly white, and power and glory have no human component. But clear rushing water is compelling in its innocence and regeneration. I think of summers my family spent in northern Michigan, in a cabin on the banks of a trout stream, and how the river in its purity saved me from the horrors of adolescence. Even looking at rivulets in the ditch makes me think of the push of water against waders, the susurration of current, shallow spawning beds of shining gravel, cold delicious water in a cupped hand. Eventually the rivers of the world rush into oceans, replenishing ancient dark seas, mixing with salt and kelp, fish and lobsters, monsters and myths, immensity and infinity, and isn't that a fine way to grow up.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Deer

It's almost incomprehensible that the white-tailed deer seems to be disappearing from the Maine North Woods. You think of forest, you think of deer, but according to the hunters, it's almost impossible to find them anymore. Someone calculated that the odds on getting your deer are less than 2% this winter.

People blame the loss of deer wintering yards, the deep snows of recent years and the predations of coyote and black bear - as if Maine's forests never have been cut, there has never been deep snow before, predators are suddenly something new. Gotta have something to blame. Probably the government's the problem.

In Frank Speck's book Penobscot Man, published in 1940 and based on interviews he had with elderly Indians 30 years earlier, those old folks recall how every once in a while deer and caribou would just leave the Penobscot River watershed. A few years later, they would return to their former populations. And that was in the time of serious deforestation, and lots of wolves, and no "deer management programs."

So it could just be a natural cycle, deer somehow communicating among themselves about greener pastures in Canada, or New Hampshire, or even in southern Maine, where of course the population is increasing. I don't doubt their intelligence and ability to do this. The doe I saw several times last week would run across the road and then stop some 50 yards into the woods and look back at me. She was beautiful in her stillness and twitching ears, her lustrous brown coat, her fixed gaze at the biped whose apple trees and hostas and salt licks and flowering bushes were making life so much easier for her. She was thanking me, I think, and if deer can communicate with humans, surely they can spread the word that those places with all the guns should be avoided for a while.

Whatever the reason, a wilderness without deer is unthinkable, and if it takes the reserving of land areas huge enough to allow for natural cycles of migration, or evolution, or adaptation, or whatever the herds are doing these days, then we should do it. Deer don't know how to blame.

Friday, January 22, 2010

State of the State

Governor John Baldacci gave his last SOTS in Augusta last night. It seemed like a pretty good speech (I read it, didn't hear it, as I'm in MA this week and no MA media carries any ME story unless it concerns moose, lobster or gay marriage), with the usual punter's clutch of political cliches about challenges and opportunities balanced by enough stats and programs to please the wonks. I suppose I'm asking too much for imagination in these things (Carolyn Chute telling us what it's really like to have no money, Patrick Dempsey talking about health care, Stephen King on the deep dark Great Maine Forest Initiative, Don McClean singing the praises of the coast, George H. Bush on fishing quotas from cigarette boats, George Mitchell trouble-shooting in Canada).

The SOTS is not good these days, but the future is bright, Baldacci says. Not sure I believe that, well, maybe in the long-term given the state's exquisite features and sturdy people. Short-term? Pain still to come. Maine is so often called a state of mind, but the body also needs to be fed. Just getting through the winter is the state of mind for many as the Bush recession drags on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ugh Massachusetts!

So wrote my daughter this morning from France. News of yesterday's special election for the US Senate had been prominent even there.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why an obscure Republican state senator is now a US Senator from the most Democratic of states. Suffice it for now to say that Martha Coakley failed to win over the independent voters (a majority of voters in Massachusetts now belong to neither party).

I'm sorry that the number of female US Senators did not increase to 18. I had hoped that Coakley would have provided some support to Maine's two Senators, if only by being a woman, as they struggle with being moderates. Perhaps in an odd way (Scott Brown is really quite conservative, and a bit of a lightweight, and until yesterday considerably less famous than his American Idol daughter) this election will force Senators Snow and Collins back to the hot seat, especially in healthcare reform. I think Mainers would appreciate a return to politics of people, not politics of party.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Coyotes

I wonder how the coyote hunting tournament is going up in Jackman. The tournament lasts from the middle of December to the end of January, and the last story I saw a couple of weeks ago on the MPBN site dutifully reported both sides of the question - comments from those zealots outraged that money would be paid to kill cute animals, and from those hunters convinced that the coyote is the main culprit in the much-reduced deer population in the north woods. At the time a grand total of six hunters had registered; one animal was killed. Perhaps the month of January will be more rewarding.

I'm sure the coyote is both reviled and misunderstood. But I don't understand either side. Why don't the zealots decry the slaughter of thousands of deer and ducks and moose and bear? Why don't the hunters protest the other factors, like loss of deer wintering yards from logging, that are pressuring the woods? I'm afraid the animal lovers don't know the first thing about real life in the wilderness. I'm equally afraid that the hunters are terribly short-sighted in their need to preserve the "Maine way of life."

Mostly though, this story illustrates the extremes in which people revel, knowing that the inevitable media storm will justify their points of view, at least to themselves.

A sidebar to the coyote story is more frightening. Maine now allows coyote hunting at night. Can you imagine? I can: guns in the dark, cats and dogs and lovers mistaken for prey, liquor liberally applied, someone nodding off at 3:00 a.m. with a loaded rifle in his hands? What can the state be thinking? Trying to emulate the streets of New York?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Journeys

My daily walk around the Ash Point section of Owls Head takes only a few routes, its outer edge usually alternating between Lucia Beach and Ash Point itself, with occasional jaunts to Crockett's Beach. Sometimes I'll walk back along the shore, if it's nice weather and the tide is out. How boring, one's fellow travelers in the 21st century might say. I of course love it, gripped by every familiar thing and every change, small and large, in season, foliage, animal auras, human intercessions, air and sky and water.

I was talking today with a fellow committee member at Coastal Mountains Land Trust about his journey to Maine. His was a high-powered executive career reassessed after a corporate take-over and once he got to Maine, he said he found what so many people seem to be looking for, a small town, familiar faces, community, the ability to make a difference just by living there. This is not peculiar to Maine but Maine has an ineffable combination of tolerance and beauty that seems to make it easier.

Travel seems to be necessary, however. Our generation and that of our children, I imagine, has an excess of curiosity, and a suspicion of stasis often well-grounded in fact. Many of us had to travel (if not plain bust out)to escape narrowmindedness, or for business, or for pleasure in the new, or out of insecurity. But many of us also find the unfamiliar places of the world, while fascinating and beautiful and enlightening, cannot truly be experienced the way a deep commitment to a particular place can.

I think of the familiar saying from Lao-Tzu, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The usual interpretation is a bit trite; another claiming to be a more accurate translation says the journey begins with the ground under your feet. Action comes out of place-knowledge, and self-knowledge, and this makes me want to reverse the old adage: "A single step begins with a journey of a thousand miles."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Governor of Maine

Being Maine's Governor must be an exceedingly attractive position. As of yesterday, there are 22 hats in the ring for this year's election. (The present Governor John Baldacci will have served two terms and can't run again.) By party there are 6 Democrats, 8 Republicans, 2 Greens, and 6 Independents.

That Republicans have the highest number is not really surprising. There's a long tradition in Maine for them to stand on. The Republican Party was founded in the 1850s as the anti-slavery party; Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was Lincoln's first Vice-President and the state was prominent in abolitionist work. Lincoln supposedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, when she lived in Brunswick, "So you're the little woman that started this great war." Maine continued to vote Republican even into the 1930s and had the distinction of being one of two states (Vermont the other) of denying FDR electoral votes in 1936, and it wasn't until the 1990s (with a brief aberration in 1968 - Edmund Muskie was Humphrey's VP candidate) that Democrats started to win in Maine. But William Cohen was Clinton's Secretary of Defense, and of course Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe carry on the tradition of female Republican Senators started by Margaret Chase Smith.

Over the years, unfortunately, the Republicans somehow lost the moral high ground. That they are still reasonably strong in Maine has much less to do with individual rights than with states' rights. Maine's people are in many ways remarkably tolerant, but when it comes to the long arms and sticky fingers of the federal government, a certain cussed independence tends to slap the hands that would feed them. Where else in the country would three-quarters of the candidates be non-Democrats?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Private Lanes

Bayview Terrace is just an ordinary country lane, about a half-mile of woods with a few houses bunched up where it ends at the ocean. As some readers of this blog may remember, it's also perfect in its plain-ness, for in and around its unassuming trees and underbrush I've seen deer, woodpeckers, owls, frogs, grouse, winterberries, raspberries, blackberries, streams of water rushing in the gulleys like real rivers, little bogs and wetlands, the lush camouflage of deep August, and now the stark bare outlines of a cold January. Even the name is perfect, anticipating the popular reward of surf and islands and osprey at water's edge.

Now here is the list of private-lane names approved by the Town of Owls Head during 2009.

Mimilou Way
January Lane
Chara Lane
Long Haul Lane
Dory Lane
Knoll Road
Gigi's Place
Itssocosy Lane
Harley Lane
Stellar Blossom Way

Undoubtedly each is merely a glorified driveway for a new house, name chosen by the owner (one of these is in my neighborhood and I'm not saying which), but I'm a little disappointed with folks' vision, which seems to be limited mostly to memorializing daughters and wives and possibly cats. Long Haul Lane has possibilities, however: one imagines a couple scrimping and saving for years and finally building their dream house in a quiet corner of Maine.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great Maine Forest Initiative (II)

The report from Keeping Maine's Forest has a number of recommendations, which I summarize (and editorialize for what is NOT said) as follows:

1.Mix private and public funding to protect large tracts of forest. In effect this is a dig at the advocates of a Maine Great Woods National Park or even a National Forest. Apparently it's no longer necessary to argue about it, since the "menu of options is so much broader than it was 20 years ago." Also, the committee assumes that considerable industrial use of the land will continue.
2.Encourage transfer of development rights. TDRs allow further development of already built-up areas in exchange for preservation of open space near that same area. This is aimed mostly at southern Maine where pressure is heaviest.
3.Develop community forests. Towns themselves take ownership, perhaps as recompense when land changes hands.
4.Certify forest products as "green" as much as possible. There is some subtext here about brand management, where it is clear that Maine wood products can compete with the aggressive foresters of Siberia, Indonesia and South America only on terms of quality, rather like the lobster industry is doing.
5.Find new products and markets, while preserving current output. Good suggestions for the New, like biomass energy (wood pellets, cellulosic ethanol) and wind turbine farms, but uncritical reliance on the future strength of the economy and Maine's ability to compete.
6.Make the forest part of the emerging carbon cap-and-trade systems. Great idea to make carbon sequestration as important as pollution control, but many, many years off.
7.Form a Maine Forest Advisory Council. Naturally, committees seek to extend their own lives, but this recommendation in effect acknowledges how difficult actual results will be to obtain and how long it will take.

The Initiative has recorded a goodly number of excellent points, and the multi-disciplinary nature of its cooperation and its positive spirit are admirable. I wonder, though, how much time there really is before the new financial beasts that now own much of the North Woods, the real estate investment trusts and the timber investment management organizations, reach their objectives (short-term of course), max out their tax advantages, and start to sell to anyone and everyone. The essence of the Initiative is compromise and that may be a good strategy for now; but it seems to me that ultimately only the federal government has the money and the ability to overcome local interests. This may be the chance to replicate the 70s and the tremendous wave of legislation (the EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act) that changed American life. Until federal funding is fully explored, I'd hate to see Maine compromise away its treasures, like it seems to be doing with Plum Creek's development of Moosehead.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Great Maine Forest Initiative (I)

For nearly two years now, a group of about 20 people drawn from state government, non-profits, forest industries, and land trusts have been meeting under the auspices of the University of Maine to discuss the future of Maine's Great North Woods. Their report is now available at http://www.crsf.umaine.edu/pdf/KeepingMainesForests_2009.pdf .

I haven't yet read the full report, but this doesn't sound like business as usual, some academic thing to be presented and filed away. It sounds serious, and promising. Pleasing all these constituents, from the environmental purists to the loggers, will be difficult but vital not only to the health of Maine but also to our collective spirits and psyches. I can't imagine what not having Maine's vast wilderness would mean except to predict impoverishment on all levels.

To keep it will undoubtedly involve the federal government. Apparently Interior Secretary Salazar on his recent visit to Maine expressed interest in helping, and the Department of Agriculture is also interested. Many Mainers don't want the feds anywhere near this (a common theme for 400 years), but like health care, there may be no other source of the money, the authority, and moral imperative to do the right thing. Left to themselves, individuals or even individual organizations will probably not rise above self-interest and strive for the greater good.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Fish free or die

Every once in a while I think of getting out rod and reel, putting on old running shoes, going down to the shore, wading out a bit, and casting out into the bay. It would be pure nostalgia: with my Minnesota grandparents pole-fishing from the shore for muddy southern bullheads or trolling in a boat for vicious northern pike; rowing with brothers and mother out into Big Star Lake in Michigan and casting for sunfish and bass; and the ultimate experience for a fifteen year-old Nick Adams wannabe, fly-casting for rainbows and browns in the Little South Branch of Michigan's Pere Marquette River. Of course I really haven't fished since, and the equipment is hopelessly out of date and probably all gummed up with age and would be ruined by the saltwater, and the shore would be treacherous with rockweed, and the water freezing even in August, and what would I catch anyway (if there's actually anything to be caught) except maybe those little mackerel that the osprey grab, and what does one do with a few inches of oil and bones?

Thank goodness the federal government has stepped in and is saving me from blithering reminiscence. To fish in the ocean in 2010, I would have to register and get a number. Fines are authorized for the failure to do. Licenses will undoubtedly be required in 2011. Tracking and questionnaires and research will follow.

Thanks, NOAA, you have reminded me that I'm an adult, that wistfulness is strong medicine best left to the professionals, that four hundred years of freedom are down the tubes in spite of the handy toll-free number and user-friendly website. Those kids fishing on the Rockland breakwater better get prepared for this new world. Every kind of fishing is a serious business, and even mackerel are precious enough to regulate.