Friday, December 31, 2010

Lichen


The last day of the year is a good time to talk about lichen.

Lichen represent pretty much everything modern life isn't. They are slow-growing and long-lived. They are immensely adaptable, living almost everywhere on earth; they even survive exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space. They are beautifully symbiotic: not a single organism alone in the world, but two forms of life, two races if you will, a fungus and (usually) an alga, living in harmony.

Nature doesn't give lessons (although I'd like to think so, and it surely is fun propounding that it's a guide for human life). But it does give perspective, especially at holiday time. Many holidays have a natural beginning, related to the seasons of the year. That pagan basis took on a supernatural sheen in the religious eras, and has further evolved today to have little meaning, emotional or religious, beyond a kind of generic celebration of consumption. Imagining yourself as a lichen on the outside of the International Space Station brings things back into perspective.

New Year's Eve may be different from most holidays since it celebrates (or rues!) a purely artificial break in time. There never has been any natural or spiritual significance to it. We mostly pretend, for a couple of minutes or even a couple of days, that our reflections on the past or our avowals for the future are just something we've been meaning to do all year, should have been doing all along. Then we get drunk.

Lichen can help us here too, giving a warning at the least. Constancy is one word for what they are, but I especially like the concept, but not the fact, that lichen are rare in cities, being so sensitive to air pollution. I've nothing against cities (well, maybe a little); the point is that it's harder to live simply, purely, sensitively, sensibly, there. By definition, the human element is triumphing (although we're seeing at what cost to our lungs), and the natural element is losing. Time is no longer on our side when even lichen flee.

I'm not in Maine for this holiday - can you tell?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Assumption


I've been saving this picture, taken at the Acadian Village in northern Maine, for the holiday season. The rock announces the entrance to a replica log chapel from the 18th century.

The St. John River valley is largely Catholic and one side of the river (Canada) is barely distinguisable from the other (US). The early settlers had their log churches; as the area grew more prosperous, each town built a proper cathedral. In most Catholic churches Mary is as prominent as Jesus, and that emphasis on the human seems most appropriate here in the County, in a place of gentle unpretentiousness.

Not being Catholic, I had to look up what the Assumption was all about. The key point seems to be that Mary, upon her death, was transported to heaven not only in soul but in body as well. No wonder she's venerated! She's up there in the flesh. Heaven wouldn't be nearly so boring if you could eat and sail and sweat and hike and kiss and feel an ocean breeze on your skin. (It would be like Maine.)

This brings me to Joseph. No veneration there! Indeed, he's pretty much forgotten, just a figurehead, a breadwinner, someone to have around to prevent gossip, an excuse, a means to respectability. No rosary bead hails him. He's no Father, just a Dad. No wonder we men spend Christmas watching basketball, playing with our new electronic devices, and drinking somewhat to excess. We're trying to glorify our bodies.

Not all is pious worship in Aroostook County. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see in the background, to the left of the plastic flowers, a little toy truck. Someone has editorialized on the fate of Joseph. Behind every great lady stands her Jeep.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mt. Blue

Back in Massachusetts for a few weeks of holiday cheer, parties, and family time.

For most of us, Christmas is a time of feelings much more familial than religious, even though most families are as widely scattered and broken apart as the sects of Christianity. At this time of year we cling to the nucleus and try not to worry about the electrons. We remember the good times and forget about the schisms. The old pictures come out, and memories revive. It's an annual renewal of some kind of faith.

It's an especially good time to remember our family summers in Maine (it's cold today, and flurries dust the city's asphalt, and the shortest day of the year approaches), especially when my parents still lived there. Their camp on Unity Pond was our meeting ground. We would drive from North Pond, and later from Owls Head, have morning coffee and sugar cookies, leave the girls for a day of swimming, Monopoly with Grandpa, baking with Grandma, and Koolaid and chips for all, and take off for our own day of pure enjoyment. In the early days we would inevitably head for Mt. Blue, that lovely large foothill to the bigger mountains to the west and north, for a picnic and hiking. It was a climb just strenuous enough for the middle-aged, and just remote enough for the romantic-aged. The reward at the top was as good as any Catholic or Calvinist absolution. Then we'd re-trace the hour back to Unity, and have hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill, marshmallows to follow on the dying coals, watch the loons and the ducks, hope for a sight of the two eagles living nearly, and talk of the present, not the future; of goods, not evils; of joy, not guilt. The drive back home, in the slow-falling evening, with daughters nodding off in the back seat, seemed both immediate and endless. We had renewed our family.

But of course things change. Parents move back to Ohio, girls grow up, Grandpas die. Mt. Blue lives on, and if there's a tinge of sadness when I look back, seeing in the mind's eye the yellowing leaves of August, the humbling infinity of a mountain lookout, and a small white cottage on a blue pond that was left behind, well, that's what the holidays are also good for. The things we've lost are a big part of the things we've gained. And oh, the things we've gained.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Light is a wave

At quarter to four, it still looks pretty much like noon. The sky is a little pink, to be sure, and there's a slight cast to the light, but it isn't all that different yet. The waves, long rollers now after two days of storm, break as white as ever and the house on Ginn Point still contrasts strongly with the firs and the water, although now lit by the settting sun. At 4:00 much has changed. I can't see the pink lollipop wind turbines on Vinalhaven, and I have to put on an electric light to see the keyboard. The sky has lost its blush and is considerably darker. By 4:15 it is practically dark. The waves breaking on Little Island are ghostly. I see little out of the windows and reluctantly turn on the Christmas tree lights.

I can't help but remember those long evenings of summer. They would stretch out for several hours, it seemed, allowing time for a drink on the deck, a leisurely dinner, then sitting out some more to watch the osprey fish. The advance of the dark in summer is crepuscular, not this sudden curtain of winter.

I watched the waves throughout tonight's half-hour of evening. On Sunday and Monday they were as violent as the wind, chaotic, multiplied, crashing several ways at once on top of each other, but today the wind is calm and the surface of the ocean appears calm as well, just gathering itself every ten or fifteen seconds into a four-foot wall of water. When the waves break on the shore, the sound is like a roaring wind even though there is none. Yet the waves keep coming, like light from a distant planet. Their energy is hidden under the surface, again like light.

Neither the strong mysterious waves nor the fading mysterious light tells me anything (they just are) but I read them anyway. Winter doesn't temporize, draw things out. It is not soft or indolent. It's on/off, light/dark, calm/furious and not much in between. It's a time for understanding that we understand so little. Light, they say, is composed of both waves and particles. That seems ultimately meaningless. A wave, by that token, is both there and not there, for it breaks into nothingness, or it is one wave endlessly repeated, breaking memories on a cold shore.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The once and future lane

The woods and the lane running through it looked stunned this afternoon. Just a few days ago there was snow on the firs and ice on the asphalt. The temperature was in the teens. Winter was bedding in. But now everything is wet and brown, and water is running in the ditches, and the storm threatens more rain, and I could have done the walk in my shirtsleeves, it's that mild. There were whiffs in the air of both freshness and decay, as if the seasons were all mixed up. Of course they are: just a few hundred miles to the west the country is suffering a huge winter snow storm.

I thought of Robert Finch's essay "The Once and Future Cape" (published in his book Death of a Hornet) as I walked. Finch is a writer who chronicles the beauty of nature and change on Cape Cod, but this essay concerns the kind of change he'd rather not celebrate. By the nature of the place, basically a huge sandbar, the Cape is used to change, and its beauty at least in part comes from the peculiar allure of how the natural world changes but not really. The essence of the Cape survives the shifting dunes and the erosion and the new channel cuts from big storms. But it's not surviving humans very well. Finch describes the changes on the dirt road he lives on; over the course of 20 years the road has been gravelled and stone-dusted and straightened, which caused erosion; a subdivision of ranches and mini-malls developed at its far end, which caused traffic; it was paved and ditched, which caused hideousness; and then his neighbor died and the land was sold by the heirs to yet another developer. He can hardly bear to walk the road anymore. He writes, "But if I have learned anything as a writer, as chronicler of this extraordinary, doomed place, it is this: there is only so much fascination in watching something beautiful die."

I like to think that our lane, built basically on rock, will not suffer such a fate. There are houses at its end, on the shore, but after that, leading up the Ash Point Drive, there is nothing but woods. Yes, it's paved, but it's crumbling a bit. Yes, a new ditch was dug last fall, and some blackberry bushes uprooted, and that part of the lane now looks a little suburban, but no other "improvements" have been accomplished. It's just a plain woods, subtle in its winter colors, exquisite in its summer foliage, restful and iconic even when it's spring in December.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Barbershop

The tree-trimmers are in Owls Head again this week, I suppose in response to yet another day of very strong winds a week or so ago. Trees are freshly fallen, including on our yard where three spruce, growing very closely together as if they were friends and throwing up one large, common rootball, fell across the leaching field. Chainsaws ring out in the clear cold air. Chippers grind. It's as if the woods needs a trim every few weeks and puts in a call for travelling barbers.

It's a different crew from last month, I think. The equipment looks newer, and the license plates on the vehicles all say "Texas." This I don't understand. Not that there aren't already significant correspondences between Maine and Texas. The bluebonnet, for example, is closely related to the lupine, and there is a strong attraction for Maine's coast among Texas oilmen (Camden, for example, where every other person seems to be ex-CIA or from Houston, and par exellence Kennebunkport, where Bush I is both and Bush II isn't). I'm just not sure why Central Maine Power would be leasing, or buying, or employing men and machines from so far away. Maybe if something goes wrong, if the guys trim too exubertantly or fell someone's favorite pointed fir, CMP can claim (in that time-honored way of Democrats and Easterners) that it's all the fault of Texas.

It did get me to thinking about communication. I would have liked to find out about these men, sit around the barbershop as it were and trade biographies and politics and jibes, but I confess that guys with chainsaws and chippers are just a little out of my league. This should not be. They are undoubtedly perfectly fine people. When I drove down the lane and found a truck blocking my way, I waited a few minutes, then nervously beeped the horn. Immediately they moved the truck and returned my smiles and waves when I drove past. Even though I use machines every day, slightly less intimidating machines to be sure, those that destroy things make me upset. Ergo, their operators do too.

Thoreau thought so, about a new machine of his day. “We are in great haste,” he said in his Journal, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” I may have to admit that for once the great man might have been wrong. There's much to talk about, like the beauty of a December day on the coast, like the loneliness of American business life, like the fact that we East Coast liberals won't give up our destructive, petroleum-powered cars.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Very aerie

The story making the rounds of almost every Maine media site last week concerns the eagle's nest that wasn't and the bypass that hasn't been. It is a nest, all right, and built by an eagle (probably), but there is no eagle in residence. It is a bypass, all right, but only in planning for the last 50 years, with many iterations and routes over the years. The place? Wiscasset, of course, named the prettiest village in Maine only because so many people have been stuck there in Route 1 traffic for so many hours that only dreamland will take them away.

The crux of the story is federal law that prohibits development within 660 feet of a bald eagle's nest. All this year a new bypass route has been discussed, until suddenly someone from the DOT discovered this nest, which must have been recently built for surely the Army Corps of Engineers or the state or somebody would have seen it in mapping out the new crossing of the Sheepscot. Whoops, there goes the plan. Bald eagles rule, on money and in hearts, and the new route must be shelved.

Am I the only one to see eerie conspiracy theories? Here's what's really going on.

1. Someone from Red's Eats, the famous lobster shack right downtown on Route 1 that most people blame for the miles-long back-ups, whose waiting lines regularly back up with 50 people who should not be wearing the shorts they do, built the nest.
2. A flock of crows built the nest, in order to be near the carrion on Route 1.
3. The Sierra Club built the nest - which itself is within 600 feet of Route 1, by the way - hoping to force the state to interpret the law retrospectively and tear up the highway. Cars would be taken across the river using mules, ferries made from recycled Moxie cans, and hemp ropes.
4. The Tea Party built the nest, intending to root out the oppressive hand of government in the ordinary lives of the American People, and, of course, to maintain gridlock.
5. Maine Eastern Railroad built the nest, in anticipation of the new train service from Brunswick to Rockland.
6. An eagle did indeed build the nest, but as a spare (apparently, they do that). "I'm an eagle, I'm a bald eagle, I'm an American bald eagle, I can do what I want."

Whoever built the nest, he or she or they or it, thanks. Much as I hate that traffic, why in the world spend $100 million on new roads and bridges, taking property and destroying wetlands? Let's make a pact, all you disparate interests. Let's just keep building nests until telekinesis solves the problem.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Canada, basically

Forty-one years ago yesterday, the Selective Service System was re-instituted for the purpose of drafting boys for the Vietnam War. I remember it as a beer-y evening. The fate of 19-year-olds was being decided by a lottery and most were unhappy/angry/scared to death about it. My college roommate and I came late to the "party," sat and drank while the capsules were being pulled from the glass jar, and eventually thought as the evening wore on that we had missed our numbers. By the end we were jumping out of our skin, for I had received number 354 and he number 366. We were as safe as possible.

I often think of that time before the draft. My parents were living in Canada (I had lived there also for the last two years of high school) and I seriously considered jumping the border in the event of a low number. Ever since, Canada has been a kind of haven for me, in imagination if not in fact, a place where I knew life to be slower and richer and the people, being mostly recent immigrants, to be friendly and compassionate. In actuality, Maine has become that place for me, my own lucky lottery. Much of Maine might as well be Canada, of course.

I don't go so far as to imagine what life would be like if I had been forced to escape the draft. It would have changed my life (by the way, very few people should be allowed to use that phrase, which I heard bandied about in a Starbucks yesterday, only cancer victims and Megabucks winners), changed it physically, that is, but probably not all that much spiritually. By the age of 19 we are pretty much are who we are. (Besides, that way madness lies.) I would have ended up, I'm sure, in some kind of Maine.

I will imagine, however, that the re-institution of the draft for the purposes of the Iraq war would have made that war much shorter. I will imagine that the Afghan war would not have happened at all. I will imagine that young people would be out on the streets again, and even if they weren't, rich and politically connected parents wouldn't let them go to be killed. Now that would have been a life changer, for thousands.