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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A bird in the bush

A robin has built a nest in the evergreen shrub immediately next to the back door. She (the female builds) has been flying in and out of the shrub, while he (the male protects) has been flying in and out of the blue spruce a few yards away. I know there's a nest because I finally looked closely into the shrub, and saw a baleful eye and a sharp beak not six inches from my nose. I withdrew at once, remembering last year's manic attacks on the bathroom window behind the shrub.

We haven't been in Maine as much as usual this spring, so the door has remained closed and the birds emboldened. Mama built and brooded and fed in peace, and Daddy had to fly at no rivals, no human unknowns, and no shadows in the glass like hawks, or nets, searching for lunch. Robins seem to tolerate humans for the most part. They often build their nests very near to our houses. Certainly, they love the worms and bugs in our lawns and in our gardens, and gladden us with those lovely early morning songs, often the very first of the pre-dawn.

But yet I was a little scared sticking my face into the shrub. No matter how domesticated or anthropomorphized, animals still remind us of how much we are different and how much we are the same. The scientist and writer Loren Eiseley said, "One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human." In this tiny drama of two robins and a man, I met not only myself but worlds of wonder. For me, a bird in the bush is worth infinitely more than any number of birds in the hand.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The brutality of the hummingbird

There's a small, half-dead spruce on the bank by the ocean. It's silly looking, bruised by storms, with just a few scraggly branches left, one of which is bare and springs out of the top like a cowlick. Among many other reasons never to remove the tree I've just discovered another. The sprong-y thing at the top serves as a perch for a hummingbird.

Even a hummingbird must rest. I'm always amazed at the ceaseless energy of birds, constantly flying in and out of the frames we construct of the world. Speeding, darting, gliding, swooping - the words to describe their flights are endless. A bird's activities seem random and purposeful at the same time, especially the hummingbird who can fly at right angles, or backwards, or forever, or so it seems. The hummingbird, being a bit wild, doesn't sit on the Adirondack chairs like the robin does, a more domesticated bird who feel so comfortable there that he not only perches on, but poops down, the slats of the chairs. (Robins have also built a nest in the shrub right next to the back door, subject to constant alarms from openings and closings and shadows in the windows, but that's a story for another day.) The hummingbird rests on high, unconcerned with the planes flying into Knox County Regional.

What a contrast birds are with the brute force of the airplane! No song, just noise; no brain, just a computer; a hard metal skin replacing bright soft feathers; petroleum, not seeds, for food; engines, not wings, for power. A plane just drives stupidly straight ahead.

But when it comes right down to it, is the hummingbird any less brutal? Is his glorious flight anything more than the drive for food? A person of a reductionist or materialist persuasion would say yes, birds are little more than more-exquisite machines, following instinct, stimulated by chemicals.

This is something to fight against every day. Lest I forget, a bird in flight or at rest startles me into beauty, and beauty can't be explained or reduced, even the beauty to someone (else) of a Gulfstream in full throat.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One Woman's Maine

Eva Murray lives and writes on the island of Matinicus, in the strong tradition of wonderful women writers in Maine like Cathie Pelletier, Elizabeth Gilbert, Louise Dickinson Rich, Elizabeth Strout, and Elisabeth Ogilvie. She keeps a blog on Down East online. I was very surprised to read her last post that confessed to never reading Elisabeth Ogilvie.


Ogilvie set her exquisite "Tide" novels on Criehaven (disguised as Bennet's), just south of Matinicus. Eva, you must read them. They sound like your life, tough and tender, brutal and lyrical. I expect life's emotions and trials are pretty much the same everywhere, but what a compensation to live it in a beautiful place.

I'm anxiously waiting for July and the publication of Murray's book "Well Out to Sea."


Monday, June 14, 2010

Under my skin

Recently, a friend to whom I read a few Yeats poems asked why I had such an intense attraction to the man, his poetry and his country, since I'm not Irish, political, or religious. I couldn't really give a satisfactory answer, other than the weasly one that Yeats and his language combine mysticism, Nature and human civilization in a most incredible way. I should have just said that he gets under my skin, especially since we visited Sligo a few years ago.

Maine does that too (especially since I haven't been there for 10 days!). I can't really explain it. I'll cross the Piscataqua River Bridge tomorrow and I'll think, or maybe even say out loud, that the air is fresher, the trees greener. I'll swear that the smell of pine is suddenly stronger, possibilities huge.

Trees are a large part of it, and they don't have to be perfect to fit the bill. One cause of tree burls and tumors is apparently salt spray driven into and under the bark by strong winds off the ocean. The tree's tissues and cells proliferate around the insult, trying to heal it. It's the way Maine gets under my skin: it's a little embarrassing maybe, the way the affection/infection is so obvious, but the cancer doesn't seem to harm me or the tree at all, and we stand proudly and awkwardly at the edge of the cliff, not caring who sees. Yeats didn't care either, especially by the end of his life when he got positively weird with mysticism. The beauty of Maine and of poetry is definitely not skin-deep.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Down East: conclusion

Driving back home through Ellsworth was a bit of a shock, Route 1 returned to its over-developed, ugly self, which reminded us, gratefully, of all the things Down East Maine doesn't have:

  • cell phone service. Not even my AT&T "World" Phone worked. The implications are clear.
  • fast food, although Machias apparently has a McDonald's we didn't see.
  • too much choice. For restaurants, we could choose from among (Princeton) one, (Lubec) two, and (Prospect Harbor) three, one of which was a bar.
  • huge supermarkets. Most towns had only a small market, usually IGA.
  • traffic. I can hardly remember any stop lights, let alone delays. On the Stud Mill Road, we passed a few pick-ups and a half-dozen logging trucks, in 50 miles.
  • shoppes, olde or otherwise.

And what Down East has?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Down East, Day 4: The Schoodic Peninsula

Another sunny day Down East, this one spent on the Peninsula. From our B&B (Elsa's - highly recommended) in Prospect Harbor we explored the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park, hiking to the top of Schoodic Head for the westerly views of Frenchman Bay and Cadillac Mountain and the easterly views of the Down East coast; driving the park loop road - two lanes, one-way, almost no people - that is a gorgeous miniature of the bumper-to-bumper park loop road across the Bay; taking a picnic lunch to the inviting tables just inside the Park; ogling the mansions in Winter Harbor. It was a beautiful May Saturday, and I imagine the main part of Acadia was starting to bustle and burst, and there was hardly anyone just five miles away by water. Same park, but a world apart. I could still catch a glimpse of the way Schoodic was when Louise Dickinson Rich wrote The Peninsula some sixty years ago.

In the afternoon we walked around the town of Corea and indeed tried to go to the cottage where Rich lived and wrote just outside of town on Cranberry Point. A chain across the lane said "Private." We didn't breach. Apparently, the owners guard the place carefully from Maine groupies like me, although they do rent it out to suitably respectful, well-vetted types, according to the owner of Corea's antique shop Old Good Goods. Pilgrimages these days take money, and special access. Worship is not free.

Corea is a lovely and quiet town. One of the many things that strikes me about Down East is its un-pretension. A tiny house like this often sits on a million-dollar view. The sea is a fact of life, not a movie set.

And any town that still has an active grange must be the real thing.

Then evening come on, and some clouds, and perhaps even a bit of rain to mark our last night Down East. When can we go back?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Down East, Day 3: The Coast

I can't leave the wonderful town of Lubec without showing this sign. It is not a comment on the age of the town's inhabitants, or the latest anti-aging panacea. Maine folks often scramble to make money, and now that fishing is so hard, some are gathering "wrinkles" (periwinkles, or snails to you and me) for sale to Asian markets. But even this humble activity is threatened; seaweed farmers tend to rip up the rockweed indiscriminately, without regard to the wrinkles hiding underneath.

One of the problems in travelling near the Maine coast is the temptation to drive down every peninsula, explore every cove. We budgeted only a day to drive from Lubec to Prospect Harbor, maybe 60 miles by Route 1, maybe a lifetime of exploring. So we had to skip the bold coast and all the conservation land from South Trescott to Cutler, cliffs and rivers and trails, oh my! We drove through Cutler to see the huge radar installation - very weird to see war on the coast of Maine. Continuing the war theme we also stopped in Machias so I could see Burnham Tavern, the oldest building east of Bangor, built in 1770 and the place where the first naval victory over the British was plotted in 1775.

We walked around Machias a bit - clearly a cool town.

Much of the day was spent hiking first in the Nature Conservancy's preserve on Great Wass Island off Jonesport, and then in the Petit Manaan National Wildlife Refuge. So we got down two peninsulas - only a thousand to go.

But for drama and stark beauty, you can't beat the blueberry barrens of Washington County (and we didn't even drive away from the coast to see the really huge ones). To me blueberries are the perfect plant: delicious (we're talking about wild blueberries here, not those obese things from New Jersey or Chile), healthful (the most anti-oxidants of any food), very low maintenance (just burn off the fields every other year), and colorful (including the gorgeous red of the fall). It should be world berry, not just state berry.