Monday, May 31, 2010

Down East, Day 2: Quoddy Head


We got to Quoddy Head State Park somewhat late in the afternoon, and were sorry for the lack of time, for it is achingly beautiful, one of the most gorgeous places I've ever been. The cliffs are high, the surf roars, trees grow out of the granite, and little streams cross under the Coastal Trail and fall like lace to the shore. We walked only some of the Coastal Trail, but maybe that's just as well; how much glory can this old heart take?

For a few weeks in the spring and in the fall, i.e., at the equinoxes, West Quoddy Head Lighthouse is the first place in the continental US to receive the morning light. (I'd like to tell you that we made the return pilgrimage the next morning to see the sunrise, but Sue's popovers - actually popunders, since they were concave with bananas and syrup - took precedence.) Quoddy truly seems like one of those end-of-world places. We're blessed to be able to experience it still. The work to preserve and conserve these places is God's.

We did have time to take a side trail to a perfect peat bog, complete with a boardwalk dotted with signs explaining the science and the poetry of these fascinating (and fragile) ecosystems. Compared to the wild shore not so far away, where everything seemed oversized, the bog was quiet, petite, attenuated. What trees there were matched me both in height and in years. We went from being dwarfs to the firs and cliffs to being giants to the pitcher plants. At times like these, I'm always astounded at the range and reach of beauty.


Reluctantly, we left Quoddy Head at dusk and went to dinner. In a daze I allowed myself the fried clam plate, with fries and slaw. What matters a little cholesterol at the end of the world?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Down East, Day 2: Lubec and Campobello


We arrived in Lubec around noon, bought a bit of lunch, and took it (probably illegally) across the bridge into Canada, i.e., Campobello Island. A group of rich New Yorkers bought the island in the late 19th century during the rusticator craze, erected their huge cottages, and, well, rusticated. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's father was one of them, and while his first cottage burned, his second still stands, all 35 rooms full of FDR and Eleanor and their happy/unhappy life together. Campobello was where FDR contracted polio - he would return only three times to the place he loved almost more than politics.

On the ocean side Campobello is wild and beautiful. On the bay side, it's calm and full of salmon pens. (The big tides flush the fish waste away, the modern version of water pollution.) I don't really understand why all the big houses were built facing the bay. Maybe the sailing, like polo and polio and politics, is more relaxing if protected (like the salmon). Or perhaps the rich businessmen didn't want reminders of their rough and tumble workday lives.

Lubec is only a couple of miles from Eastport by water but seems completely different. Here the people, I suspect, have already made their money, elsewhere, and bring it to Lubec in order to have the time to keep lovely houses and a clean waterfront. There's a derelict building but it's part of an old smoked herring factory itself about to be preserved.

It's a delightful town for older folks, and getting older - the high school has fewer than 40 students and will probably close. Our B&B, the Peacock House, has had guests from all over the world. There were two restaurants from which to choose. The sunset was heart-stopping.

Between hiking in Campobello and staring agog at the sunset was Quoddy Head, the highlight (for me) of the trip and so spectacular as to deserve its own post, next time.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Down East, Day 2: Eastport


The rain let up mid-morning, giving us one last sprinkle as we walked through Eastport. Like many port cities in Maine, Eastport is trying to make up for the decline in shipbuilding and fishing by touting tourism. The possibilities are great. It sits on a dramatic point in the middle of Passamaquoddy Bay, islands both Canadian and American all around. Scenery is dramatic, unspoiled. It's the easternmost city in the continental US, exceeded in eastness only by Lubec, a mere town, a couple of miles by water, but 40 miles by road around the bay, away.

To love "away" to love Eastport. It's gritty, unpretentious, startling, decaying. Tides reach 25 feet. Its high street is lovely, 3- and 4-story brick buildings mostly connected, and mostly (but not all) tenanted. It was to be the center of the huge tidal power project of the Great Depression of the 30s, pushed by FDR who vacationed on nearby Campobello Island, but the project lasted but a year and Eastport seems to be slowly sinking since. Will it survive the Great Recession of the 00s? Well, there were some builders working on that beautiful brick, a couple of new shops clearly were going to open soon....


This is Maine's dilemma: incredible natural beauty, decaying waterfronts; unspoiled, too far from urban centers; lots of things to do, but those things don't fit the modern life. Places like Eastport must depend on a real shift in attitude - away from loud consuming, toward quiet community. These pictures might be considered depressing, but to me they symbolize a way of life fast disappearing, a slow life, hard perhaps and difficult, but humorous and independent and free of the crazy abstractions that rule the 300 million people to the west.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Down East, Day 1

We returned on Sunday night from a few days Down East, that is, east of Ellsworth and Bangor. We had never visited the stretch of coast from Acadia to Canada and needed to correct that glaring omission. We are extremely glad we did.

Although the first day was hardly glad. We set out from Owls Head at the beginning of a kind of small northeaster, and are pleased to report its company for the rest of the day - the usual wind and rain and fog. It was a graphic illustration of the reason Down East got its name, the prevailing winds pushing us east. The storm wasn't the problem, since it was to be a day mostly of travel anyway. The problem was certain executive decisions made by yours truly. But first the highlight of the day.

We drove to Bangor and saw Paul Bunyan's statue (no, that wasn't the highlight, although he's quite high), then through Orono and Old Town to the Penobscot Indian Reservation on Indian Island. Our goal was the Penobscot Nation Museum, which turned out to be a whole series of adjectives: small (but definitely beautiful), full (of wonderful artifacts), fascinating (not least because of its gracious curator James Neptune), humiliating (when the facts of annihilation by white people are so bald and disturbing). James showed us an evocative film about the people and their connection to the river, and patiently answered our questions. I'm still overwhelmed by the fact that James is a direct descendant of John Neptune, born in 1767, chief and shaman of the Penobscots, and Louis Neptune, erstwhile guide to Henry David Thoreau on his first trip to Maine. What terrible diminution of place and power that one family, not to mention a whole peaceful people, has seen.

As if in teary response, the rain grew stronger as we left Old Town. The executive decision that ruled the afternoon was basically a silly romantic wish to travel through great swathes of undeveloped forest. The Maine Atlas showed a suitable road, the Stud Mill, running for some fifty miles through nothing. The "nothing" part of the wish was granted, but it wasn't a beautiful nothing. It was boring and utilitarian: a logging road accompanied most of its length by large power-line towers on one side and a strip of cleared land, strangely wide, on the other. We passed a handful of pickups, and a dozen large trucks stuffed with logs. I'm sure they all wondered about the little blue idiot sedan from Massachusetts....So no leafy bowers, no magnificent white pines, no moose. Thoreau had long ago left the building.

But worse was yet to come. Mr. Executive also had the notion of visiting Grand Lake Stream, home of many 19th century hunting and fishing camps catering still to "sports" from the cities. Visiting one, if only to look briefly, seemed an educational thing to do. It involved taking a little shortcut, a short, 10-mile stretch of road off Stud Mill called Little River Road. And here in true executive style I blame anything but myself. Little River Road was indicated in the Atlas to be the same kind of road as Stud Mill, and indeed the same kind as the tarred road that eventually led from Grand Lake Stream to the smooth bliss of Route 1. Needless to say it wasn't in reality.

Having unconsciously delegated, said executive wasn't driving and long-suffering helpmeet, now supremely expert on gravel, was. It took an hour to go 10 miles. The wash-outs were enormous. Thank God for the rain - you could estimate how deep the ruts were. Two miles per hour was several times achieved. Blind faith in the Atlas is forever tarnished.

The pelting rain made Grand Lake Stream less than memorable, and we were never so glad to get to our B&B in Princeton. Wilderness is fine in a 4-wheel drive, sturdy boots, real spare tires, and a pack of provisions. We should have gone straight to the beauty and splendor of Lubec, an amazing area, the very eastern end of the US.

Stay tuned for Day 2.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Showers and mercy drops

Very early in the morning, maybe 4:00, it rains, a light rain, or so you think, half-conscious. A little later, around 5:00 or 5:30, it's foggy (an extremely light rain!), and you don't need consciousness or the big window by the bed to tell you so, the foghorn does. The fog moves off slowly, out into the bay, all through the morning, through the reading-in-bed and breakfast and more reading and checking websites and writing, and by 11:00 the clouds are gone, mostly. Whereupon the wind picks up and the sky darkens and a lovely shower, not hard, not soft, just right, falls for 15 minutes. It has turned warmer and the sound of rain through the open door reminds you of childhood, of Sunday afternoons spent with Tom Sawyer or Horatio Hornblower, stretched out on a cot in a porch by the rushing Pere Marquette River. The rain stops, the sun comes out immediately as if summoned to tea, and you close your files and go out into the lushness.

On your walk down to Ash Point, the crab apples are fading from full glory and the lilac bushes, almost as big as trees, are rushing towards it. A crow luks-luks at you, just for fun. A deer trots down the McIntosh's lane, then stops at the edge of the trees and looks back. You are by turns cool and warm, depending on the faithlessness of the breeze. The sky at Ash Point shows the line of showers now racing away from you towards Vinalhaven, and more lines of clouds, a blacker shade of shale, racing at you from the west.

What makes a cloud release its water, or hold it for another place? You choose to sit outside on the deck for lunch, having thought you were safe, a fine judge of clouds, and then you feel a few drops. You look up. There is no cloud above you, but the wind has shifted to the north and the little dark number over there seems to be the cause, in amidst blue sky, and the few drops continue to fall out of the sunshine. You stay, eating a sandwich. Water beads on your apple, making it even more enticing. Drops plink into a glass of Orange Dry, and splatter and widen on your gray T-shirt. Five minutes and a few score drops later the sun dries and warms you again, until the post-rain breeze becomes a strong wind and drives you inside.

You remember the old, weird hymn whose refrain goes

Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need;
Mercy drops 'round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

Its idea is simple, the reviving power of rain. The sub-idea is weird, that God holds or withholds the water from the clouds at His whim. Science would give another view, one not quite so dependent on the worth of the rainee. You don't really care at the moment. You've just had a morning of the true kind of faith.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Yellow fingers

Some folks might consider it bizarre that I go dandelion hunting every spring day in Maine. I think it's weird too, actually. No manly salmon fishing or rafting, driveway work or tree chopping: just me and a big screwdriver. My lawn doesn't really aspire to a green, even blanket of suburban perfection. It's mostly weeds anyway. So why this hopeless, uphill battle? Every morning inevitably sees more of the cheery, bright little beasts.

The idea is to get the dandelions out before they have a chance to produce those white-Afro heads of seeds that we as kids used to blow like soap bubbles upwind of any hated neighbors. I choose only the flowering ones (eradicating them all is a nice idea - got a month or two?). For the big spreading ones, I jab the screwdriver next to the roots and with a practiced twist, pull out a handful of those sharp leaves, a flower or two, a couple of buds and sometimes even the taproot which is the whole point of the screwdriver. The little ones I just decapitate without the help of tools, since their little bodies are indistiguishable among all the other weeds anyway. This daily 15 or 20 minutes of work results in a few score trophies and produces a nice, all-green result that actually looks like a lawn. Just don't get close.

So again, why this futile exercise? For the rest of the day I can survey my little kingdom, for we carve out little spaces in the wilderness and a clean lawn is a small bulwark against its terrors. And doesn't the lawn's green sweep look wonderful against the deep blue expanse of the ocean? Never mind that it's all a matter of perspective: the lawn is a terrible jungle to ants.

Deep down, however, I'm afraid that rampant dandelions are an example of moral sloth and turpitude. Dandelions weren't really allowed in the fifties, in my childhood. Neighbors would talk, don't you know. (It's a little startling to see yourself become more like your father, God rest his soul, every year.) Taking a screwdriver to dandelions is like brandishing a Bible against sin, not to put too fine a point on it.

The truth is, of course, that I just like to be outside on these beautiful days, and any little task will do. I'm ecstatic to follow up the painting of my fingers with dandelion juice by more painting: touching up some white paint on the doorjambs, and priming the new garage door in anticipation of a cherry-red extravagant future, and leaving some white paint on my fingers to complement the yellow of the dandelions and remind me of sunshine all evening long.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hostages

We now have Maine hostas in our backyard in Massachusetts. The other day we returned with a trunkful of transplants, not asking if they wanted to be moved but assuming they needed to be saved from the increasingly domesticated deer. If plants had wishes, I'd guess they would not care to be hacked (literally: with pitchfork, spade and knife) out of their homes even though their fate as deer salad was probable. I thought I heard faint cries of "Anything but Massachusetts!" from the trunk as we drove away from Owls Head.

We tried to be kind. Yes, their taking was brutal, but we did leave some considerable amount of cousins and siblings in place. (Well, that was less kindness than backache; some of the hostas had been there for 20 years, and their rootballs were huge.) I had spent some hours among the roots and rocks to prepare their new soft bed, which sits under a familiar umbrella of pines and hemlocks. We planted them tenderly, fed and watered them immediately, and overnight a lovely rain fell as if ordered for their delectation. They are still small and undeveloped, to be sure, coming from 200 miles nearer to winter. But I have no doubt that in their new effete and citified setting, their strong Maine genes will produce champions and cross-fertilize to enormous effect.

What else could we hijack from Maine to improve the broodstock in Massachusetts? How about some courteous drivers? Friendly customer service? Living within one's means? A working legislature?

See what taking hostages across state lines can get you into?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Civilization

Back in Maine after two weeks away, one in Massachusetts getting civilized again and one in Ohio visiting my mother, although the activities in Euclid included more civilizing culture in a week than I normally get in twenty: a trip to Holden Arboretum, 3,500 (!) acres of preserved woodlands and fields and a lovely crabapple orchard, among other delights (like full-blown lilac bushes even bigger than Maine's monsters); a visit to the Cleveland Botanical Garden, where in the Madagascar Desert installation we spent a tense and satisfying 20 minutes watching a large turtle right itself from an inversion caused undoubtedly by its baleful companion (the way it righted itself was by digging out a pit from the sand underneath itself and then falling into it); and a lovely Sunday afternoon concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, courtesy of my sister-in-law (who markets for the orchestra). Several games of Scrabble continued the taming of the shaggy Maine beast, and the difficulty of connecting to the Internet in my mother's condo-ized building - she will have nothing to do with computers, reducing me to catching brief rides on weak, unsecured signals from kindly neighboring wireless networks named Belkin_G, Motorola, and dlink - added to the general uplifting of character.

But to be back in Maine on a perfect May day makes me want to celebrate shagginess. Mowing the lawn, pulling dandelions, sweeping out the garage - all those mundane tasks are so much more pleasant here, and they involve old clothes and sweat. I wouldn't be welcome in Severance Hall today. I'm even taking easy reconnection to the world of email and webpages in stride, and not let it ruin my day.

Happy Cinqo de Mayo, and may the uncivil lawsuits in civilized Arizona carry on to success.