Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Just about as far opposite...

We're about to head for Florida for a week - can't think of anything more different from Maine. I hope I survive.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Red herring

More fall-out and folderol over the federal government's decision in November to cut the fishing quotas pretty drastically for the Atlantic herring:

The fall-out this week is that Bumble Bee, owner of the last sardine canning factory in the US, in Prospect Harbor, Maine, will be closing it shortly, costing some 130 people their jobs.

Herring is a vital fish. It's not just that the Dutch and the Danes like it raw, and the Brits like it smoked, as kippers, for breakfast; it's not just that millions like the little ones packed in oil and called sardines. Herring is the bottom of the fish food chain, protein for whales and tuna and cod and seals and, ominously for the lobster industry, the main bait for those millions of traps. Like cod and salmon before it, herring used to be so common that you could practically walk on the water when they schooled (see some of Elisabeth's Ogilvie's descriptions in her Tide novels of the great excitement of herring running in the harbor of Bennett's Island). Maine used to have a hundred canneries on its coast. But unlike cod and salmon, herring aren't yet fished out. And that's what the fisheries scientists are trying to prevent, for the signs are there: big trawlers have been vacuuming up the fish close to shore, before they spawn, so that the herring is pretty much gone from the coastal waters.

The folderol is that the truth, amidst all the carping and complaining, is hard to find. Scientists admit they don't have all the answers yet. The big commercial fishermen say they're reluctant to fish farther out, because of cost and time. Bumble Bee claims to be closing now in anticipation of a shortfall of fish in the next three years. And the little guys, the inshore fishermen and lobstermen and of course the employees of the former Stinson Seafood plant, in continuous operation for a hundred years, are helpless and mad. And everyone blames the government, as usual.

I don't believe any of them. These days every issue is instantly polarized. No one says what they think, only what they think will play well on the screen.

The best available scientific evidence, which the government by law must act on in fishing management, says the herring fishery could be in danger. History tells us that any resource will be depleted unless regulated. So something must be done.

But let's do it so that the big vacuums out there are banned. Do it with the little guys in mind. Be civil and honest. If the citizenry had reasonable discourse, maybe the politicians would follow suit. And don't get all heated up and say the government lost those jobs in Prospect Harbor - I'd bet the real reason Bumble Bee is closing that factory relates to demand and not to supply. There's a reason it was the last sardine factory in the US.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The standing of trees

There are many lovely words that describe a group of trees - copse, grove, thicket, wood, coppice, stand. And when the soft, wet snow clings to every twig, as it is doing today, a thicket of oaks becomes thick with loveliness, a grove is grave in its new white clothes, a stand has new standing in its ceaseless, seasonal transformations.

I'm reminded of an old article I recently ran across, published in 1972 in the Southern California Law Review by Christopher Stone. Its title is “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” Whether nature has rights is a relatively new subject in philosophical discourse, coming to a little prominence alongside the great environmental legislation of the 70s. People tend to laugh at the notion in these shell-shocked and unimaginative days, and even though there are some minor advances (a dozen US towns have passed some kind of natural rights ordinance for the environment and against the corporation, and Ecuador in its recent new constitution has some bold language written in response to the predations of the oil companies), I don't see Poland Spring's (ie, Nestle's) water miners or HydroQuebec's dam builders quaking in their boots. But I'd love to come back to life in a couple of hundred years and see trees and vistas and lynxes in court, defending their rights and winning. (If corporations can be people, why not mountaintops?) After all, it was only 150 years that women and slaves were considered to be property to be exploited.

Maine is 90% forested. That's a lot of votes in the campaign to elect our future judges.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Black and Blue

On my walk today I saw a blue jay flying about among the spruce and the birches on Bayview Terrace. Seeing a jay is sufficiently rare these winter months that when I got home I consulted Sibley as to its winter range, thinking that perhaps climate change was increasing it even into Maine's dark months. I should not have been surprised to see that the jay covers pretty much all of eastern and central US all year. Just by its insouciance I should have known that winter would hardly be enough to curtail its activities.

I also should not have been surprised to see the jay in the same family section as the crow (also the magpie - of course). Both are social birds with loud mouths who, as Sibley says, "mob predators." When a group of crows sets up their hollering, you can safely bet that some owl or fisher is being harrassed. I've witnessed this: several times the congregation has sung in the trees near the house and a couple of minutes later I see a fox slinking and skulking down the shore, found out again. Sibley heads this section of his book "Jays, Crows and Their Allies," which seems especially appropriate in their bruising war of words against the flesh-eaters.

The range of the crow covers the entire US except for the deserts of the southwest (very sensible creature). It really should be the national bird. It's intelligent, articulate, sociable, courageous, common and adaptable. It's a democrat. Who cares about some soaring, warlike, endangered and unreachable eagle, however magnificent?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thanks O Canada

"We stand on guard for thee" is a line from the Canadian national anthem. Quite appropriate these last few days, as that beautiful cold area of high-pressure from the north kept last weekend's big storm well to the south of New England, and today, a perfectly clear-blue, calm, and warmish day in Maine, is still under its influence as it works hard to keep yet another storm away. The storm tonight and tomorrow will pound the mid-Atlantic again and may hit southern New England, but looks to miss Maine entirely, a happenstance pleasing to all but the snow enthusiast, as we now have reached well into February, the month of restlessness.

At least Washington DC is no longer smug about its winter weather. I imagine, however, that the politicians all got out of town last Friday, to escape the metaphor of their congressional gridlock made even too obvious for them to handle. The federal government is closed again today and our heroes are definitely heading for the constituencies or the slopes again, getting a jump on next week's planned recess. I know they work hard, or at least spend a lot of hours working, but they don't get anywhere so they might as well leave, cool off, regroup. The citizenry of DC seemed to be in a feisty mood against them last weekend, engaging in a mass snowball fight directed at black SUVs with the temerity to try the streets. Big cars in DC mean government - I think the snowballers were telling them to go home. So they did.

Canada can do another thing for us while she's at it. Along with that pure air please send us little bluebirds of national health-care happiness. Sunny Maine and Massachusetts (at least we're trying to fix the problems) will be happy to transport them down to DC and release them in the Senate chamber to await the return of the squabbling snowbirds of sectarianism.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cooperative clean-up

The story of the agreement to clean up Long Creek in South Portland is a fascinating one. It's long since ceased being any sort of real river, of course, since its neighbors are the Maine Mall, the jetport, the Turnpike, lots of offices and factories - in other words, typically developed America with lots of "impervious surfaces." When it rains, all the pollutants from our comfortable lives (oil and grease and heavy metals and God knows what else lies on all those hard surfaces) are washed away, into the sewer that is Long Creek. (I must say that the phrase "impervious surfaces" is as frightening as it is colorful; if we had its opposite, "permeable surfaces," would everything be OK?) Stormwater and run-off have become the modern creek.

The creek has long been on Maine's list of "urban impaired streams" (once again I applaud modern phrase-makers), and local landowners have been working together, slowly, to try to fix the problems. Two years ago the Conservation Law Foundation goosed the process a bit and appealed for action by the EPA, who indeed has now acted. Long Creek by federal law must now be cleaned, but the basis of the law is the agreement among landowners in the first place to assess themselves at $3,000 an acre. It's a wonderful example of the private (landowners, concerned volunteers) and public (local, state and federal) sectors working together. Would that the politicians and the bankers and the multi-nationals and other supremely selfish entities could do likewise. Just once.

It's also one of the few instances in New England where a mall and its like are agreed to be polluters. Certain of us have thought so for a long time, however more along the lines of visual, emotional and spiritual pollution. It's unfortunately been impossible to prosecute ugliness. Until we get an Emotional Protection Agency, the regular EPA will have to do.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Animal spirits

One of the thrills of walking our woods is the chance of seeing wildlife. Ironically, we almost never see animals on the trails we hike in the Camden Hills. Growth is too thick, sightlines too limited, and our progress by snapped twigs and avalanching stones gives us away. It's near human roads and fields that the animals allow themselves to be seen. As I've written before, we see deer most frequently, and only occasionally a fox slinking along the shore, or a grouse exploding out of the underbrush, or an owl in an oak. And even though deer are really quite common (the other day, when my wife went out to the grocery store at dusk, she saw six of them in our neighbor's yard, five of which ran in a row across the road in front of her car and the sixth in politeness or terror waited for her to pass), I still hope on every walk to see one.

I can't help but believe that the motivation is a spiritual one. Here runs (or flies) a being that is other than a human, untamed, temporarily free of our guns and our traps, tuned perfectly to the music of its place. For a moment I lose my conscious self. There's a quiver of joy. For a second or two I am not cut off from the spiritual world. My Western training to dominate and rule, be fruitful and multiply, has been rendered silly by the very fact of a free spirit regarding me with dispassionate interest.

The Penobscot Indians who have lived in this area for thousands of years have that intimate knowledge of the Other not for seconds but for lifetimes. They believe that each animal species mimicks humans in its social order, leadership, rites and importance. Humans are just trickier, a more resourceful animal. In the hunt, an animal plans to give itself to the human arrow or spear, and is therefore treated with immense respect in death. And so it's as if my second of joy is a holy sightline, an arrow flying to another world and lodging in a heart foreign to mine only in its disdain of the commands of Genesis 1.