Monday, March 29, 2010

Small steps

The signing last week of the latest US/Russia version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which had expired in December 2009, brings to mind the short, vivid life of Samantha Smith. In the summer of 1983, the 11-year-old from Manchester, Maine was the center of the world. Terrified by the prospect of nuclear war, she had written a letter the previous December to Yuri Andropov, new leader of the USSR, asking him to work for world peace. It wasn't long before the media in both countries had their proverbial field days with Samantha: Today show, Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, visit to the USSR, etc, etc.

One wonders why Samantha didn't write to Ronald Reagan first, or at least to George H.W. Bush, the Vice-President who summered just down I-95 in Kennebunkport. Her letter tells why, in part reading, "I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country." Clearly, Reagan's PR machine had done its job on Samantha, even before the Great Communicator really got going. March of that year 1983 saw both his first use of the phrase "evil empire" and the launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Interestingly, it was in April that Andropov responded to Samantha. Perhaps he thought he had found his own Princess Leia in the new age of Star Wars.

Unfortunately, the age of Samantha didn't last. She herself was killed in a plane crash in Lewiston just two years later in 1985, returning from filming a show in London. Her Foundation, promoting student exchange and peace, lasted only 10 years. The low-brow TV series Lime Street, in which she starred (I guess the media was very successful in getting her to give up on peace with the USSR) and which indirectly caused her death, lasted 8 episodes.

I doubt there's a direct relationship between Samantha and START, but you never know. After all, President Bush signed START I, maybe inspired by a Maine youngster. Small steps work in diplomacy, if not in life.

The news of START II was pretty much buried by the healthcare triumph. But it is vitally important. Each side will be allowed "only" 1,500 or so weapons, down from over 2,000 each - still plenty to kill everyone many times over. And the treaty can say nothing about all the other nuclear powers, presumably covered by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty signed by most of the world's nations, yet mostly toothless. So the danger is always present. No one seems to care, except Obama.

Ominously, the Senate has yet to ratify the CTBT, after almost 20 years. The Senate also must ratify START II. Both require a two-thirds majority. Will the party of "No" take yet another small step towards its final "nucular" implosion?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Profligacy

I've just finished reading Bernd Heinrich's A Year in the Maine Woods again. Among its many pleasures is his description of the immense effort a tree makes to reproduce itself, how it produces millions of seeds in hopes of one or two successes. Rachel Carson describes the same thing - and even more so - among littoral creatures in The Edge of the Sea. Both authors point not only to this profligacy of seed, but also to the incredible variety of nature even as one climbs higher up the food chain. Heinrich is amazed every spring at the scores of different warblers, each of whose calls, and nest-building techniques, is unique. Carson glories in the 2,000 species of barnacle. Their examples are legion; their calculations are so great as to approach meaninglessness; their passions are boundless.

The profligacy of humans is of a sort different from our fellow creatures. Our capacity for ideas, conjecture, stimulation, forethought seems as extravagant as the plankton of the sea - we match nature's intensity in the creations of our minds, spending without limit. But we must also be the only species whose waste is reckless, not recyclable. Our ideas have the mean habit of hardening into radioactivity, garbage dumps, ideologies, impervious surfaces, willful ignorance, rocky chasms. Fitting our bodies into the world seems more and more difficult.

At least someone - the poetical biologist - seems to be thinking about our place here, leading in moral and spiritual philosophy, in fact. Maybe also in religion, where the immensity and infinity of nature is God. Outside of poetry and nature writing and the joys of good fiction, I don't find much hope in the rest of our intellectual discourse.

Or maybe I should just stop reading the profligate idiocy of online comments on healthcare, and go outside to look at a profusion of crocuses.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ice out

Many Maine lakes are showing ice out at the earliest dates ever recorded, Megunticook, for example, on March 19, the earliest in more than 100 years. You can now paddle your canoe its entire length again, if you were inclined to get wet and cold on another truly awful day in the Northeast (another sign of spring). I've often wondered: was last week's beautiful weather a payback for the downpours that preceded it, or are today's downpours a payback for the beautiful weather? We might have to go back all the way to the Garden of Eden to answer it. Or maybe it depends if you're a Democrat or Republican.

The ice also went out in Washington on Sunday night, at long last. Cold and unfeeling gave way to warm and understanding. The President, curiously, went the opposite, from warm and fuzzy ("let's try working together on healthcare") to cold and efficient("damn it, the majority of people elected us, and we have the majority in both houses of Congress, so let's just do what they elected us for"). The solution is not perfect, but it's worth rejoicing. Perhaps now people won't have to wait, suffering, until they're 65 to fix their knees and backs and arteries and kidneys, a common occurrence in Maine even though the State has one of the lowest rates of uninsured thanks to Dirigo. Good weather ahead.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stewart Udall

The news of the death of Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy and Johnson, casts today's unseemly partisan political dysfunction into sharp relief. It seems there is no cause that can unite Washington like the great environmental movement of the 60s and 70s did, not even the health of our nation.

Udall oversaw a tremendous increase in national parks (including Cape Cod National Seashore for those of us marooned in Massachusetts); helped pass path-breaking legislation like the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966; and - here the bipartisanship comes in - set the stage for the even stronger environmental legislation signed by Richard Nixon in the early 70s. It was a time of unified national will. I remember thinking of Udall as a savior.

Forty years later, we have gone backwards. On a day when an historic vote is being taken on health care, partisanship reigns, fanatics spit on congressmen, tea-partiers abuse Barney Frank and John Lewis as they walk into Congress (guess what was shouted), and I just want to run for the clean air and pure water and wilderness of another time and space.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Woody

Every once in a while I see a big pileated woodpecker in the woods. Yesterday, it came rather closer: from the window I saw him (or her: Sibley tells me after the fact that the male has an extra splotch of red under his crest, and memory failed to record the detail, what else is new) poking around all the fallen trees and stumps in the yard. It was a warmish day - maybe the ants were venturing out, carpenter ants, that is, his favorite food. There was no thrumming or drumming or calling, unfortunately, just sedate wandering from stump to log and occasionally waddling up and down a living tree for variety. The waddling was a bit comical - crest bobbing, legs spread, knock-kneed - not only going head-first up but especially butt-first down. One can see why Walter Lantz, the inventor? sire? father? creator? of Woody Woodpecker used Mr. Pileated as a model. That and the crazy laugh - but did all those little kids in the buttoned-down 50s and 60s know that the laugh and the drumming were territorial and sexual?

Woody has gone the way of the dodo, and I'm sure the real-life model is equally adrift of the attention of the modern kid. I recently met a teacher who works with school kids in an ecology center. The kids love being out in the woods, she said, but are almost completely ignorant of nature. "That's a real toad?" they squeal, having never seen one. And these are kids not from Brooklyn or Dallas but from Topsham and Brunswick, Maine, with woods and waters all around.

Speaking of dodos and toads, it's said in Washington that the proposed legislation called No Child Left Inside has a chance of being authorized as Obama tries to revamp educational standards in this country. Does NCLI need a mascot? A little drumming in the dead wood might be just the ticket.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Down the shore

This weekend's storm brought big surf but no more downed trees, at least close by. Once again, central and northern Maine seems to have escaped the worst of it, like the rain and cold and wind from Saturday noon till Monday midnight in Boston. I see a little evidence of further havoc in Owls Head, but nothing like the February southeaster. That one hit our neighbor's trees especially hard, such that our view down the shore to the south is considerably opened up.

At high tide today I could actually see the waves break on the rocks. Usually you have to supplement the experience of high surf at high tide by going outside, because from inside the bank hides the drama. In fact, if you aren't concentrating, the unseen boom and roar occasionally makes you look up and curse at the boat or plane that dares to come so close.

But at noon today there was no danger of mistaking demon motors. I could just stare at the light blue of the sky merging into the darker blue of the water turning slightly green in the cresting wave crashing gloriously white on the green-brown rockweed splashing the brown rocks highlighting the dry white ones. And the spruce lean lovingly, as if to embrace it all. It was hard to tear myself away for lunch, but at least feeding was easy: my mouth was already open, and had been for a long time.

I'm sorry to think that the destruction of trees, either by wind or by our well-meaning neighbor worried about the next storm, has caused this joy. The fall of trees is something to mourn, not rejoice. But here I am, enjoying their absence, just as I and many other creatures like deer and rabbits and the Canada lynx enjoy the edges of things, the cut woods, the field of corn abutting the copse, the unobstructed view down the shore. The works of humans can be pleasing and beneficial, but when it comes all the way down to it, even to our new view, I much prefer the works of nature, especially our splendid Maine coast, made all the more beautiful since we've been in Florida, where the green water heats up the tropics of imagination but where the shore, bordered at best by short scrub that looks diseased or tall palms that look artificial and at worst by high rises, looks always the same.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Guns of Acadia

Starring Dick and Liz Cheney, this new movie tells the uplifting tale of a father and daughter enjoying their new right to shoot guns in national parks. After much deliberation over an ancient Rand McNally road atlas, touchingly shot in black and white - alligators in the Everglades? bears in the Smokies? liberals in Yellowstone? - "Buster" and "Bambi" decide to try for endangered Canada lynxes in Acadia National Park. Their old friend W (played by an avatar of himself) drives his cigarette boat up from Kennebunkport to join them, but throws a tantrum until they let him have the first shot - after all, he started the whole idea going along with his friends at the NRA (played by their lobbyists).

The emotional highlight of the movie shows Buster atop Mt. Cadillac at dawn, greeting the new day and shouting, "Why shouldn't we carry guns anywhere we want, including national parks? Criminals and moose and terrorists and Democrats could stand just inside a park boundary, thumbing their noses at us!! No, sorry, not Democrats - the President and Congress kindly allowed this bill to stand. Thank you, thank you."

But the dastardly Maine legislature is considering a bill to deny the right again!

"Don't you have any influence in this state?" Buster demands of w.

"Not since Putin visited," w says sadly.

"If we hurry," Bambi says, "maybe there's still time to shoot up a campground."

This trailer brought to you by the NRA: "Guns don't kill people, moose kill people."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Not bad for March, is it?"

A fellow said this to me as I was walking down Ash Point the other day. (There's no way I can successfully transliterate the way he said "March" - the drawn-out, nasal "a" almost obscuring, but not quite, the "r", resulting in the wonderful Maine accent - so I didn't try.) In the usual local deprecating way he was right, assuming he was discussing the temperature, which was pushing well into the 50s. Of course he also could have commented on the markets (remember March of a year ago?), or the relief of having escaped February's storms, or the sheer joy of being in Maine and not, say, in Florida, where just 10 days ago, the temperature in Key West had trouble beating that of this beautiful day in Maatch. (See?)

I for one was happy to be back, even to see the damage to trees and roof and a bit of leakage in the attic and bedroom from the big southeaster of February 25. We were away in Florida, but as our neighbor told me, "It didn't make it any easier being here." Cold strong westerlies in Florida, warm vicious southeasters on the north Atlantic coast: I'm afraid this is just the beginning of what should be called climate upset, not climate change.

People talk funny down in Florida also, especially those riding motorcycles from various parts of the South, and "quaint" is usually a matter of what you're not used to yet, but give me these stunning clear skies, and vigorous blue waters, and the occasional baby hurricane, and hardy people who like Maine's winters, especially when they're done.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Calais to Key West

A few years ago we drove US Route 1 to its near-northern end, in Calais, on our way to Nova Scotia. A few days ago we drove Rte. 1 from Miami to its southernmost end, in Key West, on our way to Margaritaville. Well, America is at least predictable.

Thinking kindly, one wonders how many businesses call the 2,000+ miles of Route 1 home. Thinking unkindly, one wonders if there are rules that say that each and every one of them must be built to the lowest possible standard, that signs must exceed fifty feet in height, that twice as many parking spaces are paved as needed, that there must be a minimum of twelve franchises per mile? There are some spectacularly ugly sections of Route 1 - southern Maine, Revere, MA, all of New Jersey - but for sheer rigid adherence to the above rules, I'll take Florida.

There are 150 miles from Miami to Key West, and only a few of them escape the carnage: the 15 or 20 miles that border the Everglades (although the road is being widened to four lanes - earthmovers aren't much prettier than Burger Kings); the several miles traversing Bahia Honda (the only key where development is prohibited); the Seven Mile Bridge; and the many little causeways of the Overland Highway linking the keys. The rest of the miles feature the worst of America. Which worst is apparently popular, judging by the streaming, constant traffic.

On the other hand: the Everglades, what is left of them, are spectacularly interesting (I can't say they're beautiful, nothing like a Maine wilderness), and the ocean around the Keys, in its iridescent greens and blues, is spectacularly gorgeous (sorry, north Atlantic, although the Florida tides are puny and it's disconcerting to see the water basically level with the shore and the shore is pretty boring, sand and/or mangroves and/or stones, OK, north Atlantic, you actually do win). Or is it just the contrast with unbridled development?