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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just say no

The Thomaston-Rockland section of Route 1 is becoming a dubious battleground. Thomaston especially has been aggressive the past few years in developing its eastern border, with movie theaters and restaurants and car dealers and a massive Lowe's (aren't they all), and now talk of a Walmart. It's an easy way to increase the tax base, I guess, without destroying the town center a couple of miles to the west. Push all the unsightliness at Rockland, they won't notice the difference. (But really, why does the area need another Walmart when there's one in Rockland a few miles away?)

The Weskeag River also crosses Route 1, not that you'd notice it. It's just a brook at best for a mile or so, and then, at that place where the Rockland and Thomaston and South Thomaston and Owls Head town lines all come together, it starts to widen into a beautiful marsh. It is the Weskeag Marsh, quite famous in birding circles for its variety of shore birds, raptors, waterfowl, owls, and grassland and woodland birds. The reason it's famous is that it's been protected by the State of Maine for a long time as the R. Waldo Tyler Wildlife Management Area. It has to contend with a dump and the Dragon Cement plant and a number of houses near its watershed but the birds and the stuff have co-existed well. There's been sufficient buffer against humans.

The river flows naturally and beautifully four miles down to the ocean. At South Thomaston it debouches into Ballyhac Cove and Nabby Cove and the Mussel Ridge Channel of Penobscot Bay. The contrast between water- and highway is ridiculous: awful Route 1 development that approaches Ellsworth, ME or Lynn, MA, or Homestead, FL in ugliness; the Weskeag River that almost could be in the Great North Woods. What's the reason? On the one hand, a state agency whose answer to almost every question must be, "No, you can't do that there." On the other, a town zoning board whose answer to every question seems to be, "Yes, you can do that there."

Is it any wonder I worry about, and glory in, the world?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Noises off

I've been out of Maine for 10 days now (only 14 more to go) and the lack of good sounds is deafening. What we have in the city is noise, and that's deafening too, and it's been particularly so in our neighborhood lately. An old house behind us was sold when the owner died at nearly 100 (Trudy had lived there all her life) and in the modern way, it's being mansionized, at least doubling in size. Even though the house is across the aqueduct and a couple of hundred yards away, the noise of construction is loud, rattling and booming from 7:00 to dark. Tree-trimming also seems part of the new housing gestalt, along with instant lawns -the two must go together in the cabal of contractors - and we suffered chain-saw mania for a couple of days. Trudy also owned a vacant lot behind her house, which of course has been sold; yet another noisesome mansion rises. Our neighbors in front put in a new driveway - this took days of trucks. Neighbors to the right are just completing a new roof and gutters. And of course leaf-blowing season is in full, gas-guzzling, ear-splitting swing. Today I counted four blowers belching simultaneously, possibly a new record, in the yard of the painted lady Victorian on Lincoln St.

I'm not saying Maine has no noise. Some summer days we get planes and trucks and boats and lawn mowers and chain saws, maybe even all at the same time. But we also have sounds, lovely sounds. Henry Beston in The Outermost House wrote that “The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” (I'd add, having spent childhood summers in northern Michigan, that the sound of a cold trout stream rushing over rocks is pretty wonderful as well.) In the city all these sounds are muted, or drowned, or forgotten. If we do have them, or stop to hear them, they ring off a myriad impervious surfaces and become mud in the ear.

I won't elaborate on Maine's other sounds: the tweets and hoots and caws of birds, the chorus of peepers in the spring, the thunk and thwack of an axe splitting birch, a foghorn in the distance, the crack of a tree shifting in winter, or even the sound of nothing at all on a cold, clear, star-bright night. But you can be sure they'll be in the uppermost, the most forward, the sanest part of my mind for the next 14 days.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Ash Point Cemetery is your ordinary bone yard. Maybe an acre in size, with a few hundred plots, it memorializes names of English and Scots and French and the occasional Finn, the normal mix for Maine's dead (and in this neighborhood, the living still). Its setting is undramatic, with small raised ranches on either side, and fields merging into forests at the back, and the gray, weathered buildings (house, barn, outhouse) of the Mussel Ridge Historical Society just down the road. Apparently, its oldest headstone is dated 1808. I wouldn't know; I got that from the Owls Head town history online, having never stepped foot inside the gate.

The odd part about the cemetery is the wrought-iron arch spanning its gate. It says, "Ash Point Cemetery 1820 - 1939." The arch isn't odd - the dates are. Not 1820, presumably the date of the cemetery's establishment, although that would mean that Mr. William Heard was moved at least 12 years after he died. It's the 1939 I don't quite understand. The cemetery is still being used. A few weeks ago I saw an internment, or at least the aftermath: the fresh mound of brown soil, piles of flowers, the mourners standing around in various guises of Maine casual, both in dress and manner, talking and joking and lifting up the collars of a sport coat or a Carhart against the chill fall wind. So why the end date? Some kind of closing of the bone store against yet another world war's dead?

I'll have to ask the ladies of the Mussel Ridge Historical Society (open summer Wednesdays, 2-4 p.m.). I'll have to get over the embarrassment of walking past the cemetery hundreds of time in 15 years and not doing anything about my curiosity. I'll have to admit that although I now spend more time in Owls Head, I'm still from away.

I'll ask why the town built another cemetery at the corner of Ash Point Drive and Dublin Road, and why it is still completely unused after several years. I'll tell them I miss the blueberry patch that used to be where the new cemetery now sits. I'll ask them about William Heard, who was moved from the family homestead overlooking Ash Island: was he related to the person who lived in the abandoned trailer at Ash Point, a D. Heard according to the fading mailbox, until a few years ago, and is it true the old Heard homestead is now the Siletti property (you know, Arlene sold us our house in 1995 but I guess she's retired from the real estate business now, I see other people are living there, are she and Charley still with us?). Are there any open plots?

The ladies will be most kind, I know. They'll know that I mean well, that I seek meaning, not facts. I'll go with the dog, that will help break the ice. Maybe they'll even see that I'm reverse-engineering my life, going from ambitious to ordinary, global to local, finally feeling a sense of place in my bones, how a universe lives in a leaf. And I'll actually walk among the headstones to honor Staples and Ilvonen and LePage. Too bad I intend cremation. Ash Point Cemetery could have used an infusion of Dutch.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Grass and trash

The clarity of a fine November day is like no other. We get these blue and crystalline ones in the other seasons, usually after a big storm, but a spring beauty is all clouded with desires and the summer still has the haze of contentment if you look hard enough, especially at the ocean horizon, and the winter, well, a day like this in winter is so cold as to drive sanity away. In November there's just enough color left (green grass, red winterberries, a few obstinate yellow leaves) to keep you on your toes, but the rest of the leaves are down and the islands out in the bay don't look like they're floating or smoking and you can see well more than a yard into the woods. This is the proper balance: long cool vistas, warm grateful hearts.

You can also see trash in the ditches and the woods. This also seems fitting. The warts of life aren't always covered by luxurious vegetation, or sentimental make-up, and I for one am emboldened to take a plastic bag along on my walk. Results were as follows: 2 Twisted Tea bottles, 2 beer cans (1 Coors Light, 1 Bud Light), 2 large, fast-food paper cups marked Pepsi, complete with plastic tops and straws, an unmarked styrofoam cup and a large Burger King cup, contents unknown, a paper cup of Newman's Own Green Mountain Coffee from McDonald's, an empty pack of Marlboros, a Lay's potato chip bag, a Hot Streak Maine State Lottery ticket, a napkin, and a tattered American flag blown by the storm from the cemetery across the road. It's tempting to speculate about the populace producing such a style of discards; let it suffice to say that this too is bracing, that at least some of us take pleasure where we can without thinking about the consequences. Although a little conscience would be nice.

It's that extra view into the trees that I find most salutary. Less is hidden, the deer seem closer, a porcupine stands there dumb and fat and confident. That this magnificent stretch of weather encompasses Veterans Day is yet another bonus. Pain and suffering too are less hidden. Vets from several wars speak movingly to school children. Small Maine towns still hold parades and memorials. We're safe and alert and ready to face the winter if you are.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Simple as

The tree guys contracted to Central Maine Power have been buzzing around our roads this week. ABC is their name, and apparently life is simple. Cut down stuff near the power/phone/cable lines.

I can understand the need, especially after yet another big storm this past weekend that keep those boys out till all hours on Sunday and Monday. Prevention is nine-tenths of the cure.

I cannot understand their approach to the task. My walk to Lucia Beach today afforded many examples of the art: felled trees directly under the lines, check; trees cut down that were minding their own business some yards away, huh?; branches trimmed directly around the lines, OK; branches clearly not long enough to fall on a line yet snipped against the trunk, why? Did they need to cut bushes too? In some cases, judging by the diameters, the offending limbs were mere twigs. In at least two cases, trees now are shaved completely on one side, top to bottom. They look like comb-overs. Yet hundreds of trees are still standing where another strong storm could send them toppling on the wires. Is CMP next going to clear great wide swaths as if our little lines were grand trunks from Quebec?

The poles and wires and boxes and Time-Warner canisters are now even more visible, and ugly. I guess it's the price we pay for continued access to Google Maps and Maine Things Considered and How I Met Your Mother.

Granted I'm a little sensitive about our trees. Granted I know nothing about electro-arboreal science. But I just don't have faith in randomness, or pique, or slap-happy chainsaw dudes, especially when the name on the loud, grating machine that chews up the small stuff is the Whisper Chipper. Gentlemen of the saw, irony is lost on trees, and bleeding hearts. If you start to call your chainsaws Civilization Enablers, prepare for war.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The beat goes on

Back in Maine after nearly two weeks out of state, including a few days in Washington, DC starting right after the elections.

Nothing was noticeably different in DC - tourists still photographed the White House, tour buses lined up on 14th St. - except that the weather was like Maine: cold and wet and windy, then cold and dry and windy. Just ornery. There was no revolution evident. At Logan we saw Ed Markey (US Representative for MA's 7th District, just elected to his 18th term). He shook our hands and got on the noon shuttle. Shortly thereafter Scott Brown, our junior Senator, hurried up, perhaps late; he boarded our flight at 1 pm and napped quietly a few rows ahead of us. Neither were particularly bothered by their constituents. Riders on the shuttle are usually pretty blase about stars. Or was it because Markey is off to the lamest of lame-duck sessions, and Brown is just lame? I read later that Markey is likely to challenge Brown in 2012, so perhaps it was just as well that they weren't on the same flight. "Please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened" may well describe the next two years.

Now that I'm back in Maine, I imagine the ducks are lining up differently here as well, considering the Republicans won the governorship and both houses of the legislature, but again there's little evidence of turbulence. There's talk of healthcare being attacked (need to pay the piper for all that out-of state campaign cash!), and environmental groups are worried about new depradations in a state whose governor-elect says climate change is a hoax, but if strong tea is being brewed, it's still in the pot. I do think (or rather, hope and pray) that the party now in power will find it just as difficult to accomplish their agendas as the Democrats did. In Maine, I'm encouraged by the strong passage of the Land for Maine's Future bond, and the retention of our two Democrats in the US House. In New England I'm encouraged by the strong showing of Democrats in general. In the rest of the country, let's hope for gridlock.

The New Christy Minstrels were on our flight back from DC on Sunday, on their way to a concert in Brownfield, ME that night. We could have been comforted if they had broken out in the old Sonny and Cher song The Beat Goes On, with its contradictory lyrics of change and stasis from 1967. Like Maine and New England in 2010.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Still at War

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Ehredt ended his run across the US. The Army vet and retired postal worker started on May 1 in Astoria, Oregon and ended on October 15 in Rockland, Maine, pushing a stroller for more than 4,400 miles. In the stroller were small American flags, the supply of which was replenished every so often by an entourage of family and friends. At each mile of his run Mr. Ehredt planted a flag carrying one name of the some 4,400 Americans killed in Iraq, starting with the last (at the time). The flag on Rockland's waterfront bears the name of the first, Marine Major Jay Aubin of Waterville, Maine, killed in Iraq in 2003.

In spite of this incredible feat that required endurance and stamina, not to mention three years of planning, Mike Ehredt received relatively little publicity, perhaps because he said he was taking no stand on the war, political or moral. He just felt a connection to those who died, he said. His attitude struck me at first as noble and effective. What better way to honor the dead, simply, without fanfare?

But on the eve of Election 2010, I've realized that no one is talking about war anymore, even though people are still dying in Iraq and the US military toll in Afghanistan is already over 400 this year and soon will approach the highest years of "Operation Iraqi Freedom." This has been the most cowardly election campaign I can remember. The Democrats seem to shy away from any cause or principle whatsoever, and the Republicans will discuss only greed and racism (excuse me, tax rollbacks and states' rights and immigration), and the Tea Partiers have retreated all the way back to 1776, without a clue and falsely too.

The rural states (as a percentage of population) gave the most to the cause; Maine for example, had 23 deaths in Iraq, the third-highest percentage in the US. The lowest percentage was Washington, DC. Where is the outrage?

Mike Ehredt, I don't know your politics or your ethics, but we need you back on the roads, this time for the rest of the fatalities in Iraq and for the 1,340 US dead in Afghanistan, now in its tenth year of war, and this time with screams and anger and trumpets and dirges and protests unlimited.