Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Great (and no-so-great) North Woods

I'm not a particularly political person, but Paul LePage is well on his way to making me one. A few days after attending an environmental forum (at which he claimed to believe in science, that science would be his guide), the Governor released a long list of environmental regulations he wants modified or even eliminated. That's bad enough, but also on the list was the astonishing proposal to open 30% of the Great North Woods to development. That's 3 million acres (15 times the size of Baxter State Park) of potential strip malls and second homes and resorts and subdivisions.

I shouldn't be astonished at the bias - this is from the man who is holding 25 Red Tape Audit business forums around the state and 1 environmental one. I'm astonished at the crudeness of the math:
  • In a state having trouble attracting business at all, how in the world will LePage fill 3 million acres?
  • How did he determine that 30% is the right number? By adding up the holdings of his business friends?
  • Why not just propose the whole 10 million acres of unorganized territories open?
  • Who gets to develop those acres?
  • Which acres will be developed?
  • Will there be a good old-fashioned land rush, with Paul LePage as sheriff?
The proposal makes no sense, of course. It's meant simply to be an assault, a cynical political statement made for publicity, a way to undercut or eliminate the Land Use Regulatory Commission. Let's hope it turns out to be as unsuccessful as it is mendacious.

This week also saw the announcement that John Malone, of Liberty Media (cable TV) fame and wealth, is buying 980,000 acres of Maine forestland. Perhaps there is a connection, for Mr. Malone says he will continue the land's use for lumbering and recreation, i.e., not development, although he has said nothing about conservation or preservation.

With these two announcements we truly are retreating several hundred years back in Maine's history, into the era of legislative land grabs (c.f., the British, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), and rich men founding kingdoms (c.f., the Binghams, the Pingrees) in the 17th and 18th centuries. And if we are not careful and watchful, we'll also get another devastation of woods and lakes and rivers ala the 19th and 20th centuries. If only the Republicans would remember that their party was founded by high-minded statesmen like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, not low-minded businessmen like George Bush and Paul LePage.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Escape

During my working days I saw Maine pretty much as an escape, and that was OK, if a bit insulting to the state. Our lives were busy, and accompanied by a certain amount of stress from work and school. Some respite, however temporary, was needed. And because Maine is so special, our anticipation of a holiday weekend, or a week or two of vacation, or even a short overnight, was very high, almost frighteningly so. You could have argued that something was wrong with suburbia if escape was so necessary. But we didn't. There wasn't much time to think about it.


Now there is time to think. That's what I tell myself is so wonderful about being in Maine. (Thinking apparently requires lots of time watching snow fall, waves break, boats steam up and down the channel of the Gut.) It's a slower pace of life anyway, and having minimal work and family duties helps as well. So is escape the right word any more?

There remain traditional elements of vacation: more reading, more lazing on the deck, more walks and hikes, more gardening. And when I'm alone in Owls Head, tendencies to the slovenly arise: minimal dishes-doing, practically eating out of the microwave, afternoon reading on the couch that often ends with the book on my face. If it weren't for volunteering for Coastal Mountains Land Trust, and the unceasing drive to write, my mother wouldn't be proud of her son at all. One must be productive.


And that's the second great thing about Maine. It's easier to be productive, at least for me. Words and ideas and images seem to flow through the air, begging to be captured. (Not that I always can.) When I look at the ocean, I see how it's true that the words time and tide are basically the same, “tide” coming from an old English word meaning “division of time.” Humans don't have endless time, except in what we see and feel and capture in art. That's what Maine offers, an inspiring and kindly division of time.

And the people of Maine seem committed to the land. (Although I continue to fear the new Governor - not only does he want to roll environmental regulations back into some Bush-era free-for-all, he also proposes to open 30% of the unorganized territories, i.e., the Great North Woods, to development.) So land trusts and others can be very productive in preserving it.

In other words, when you're in Maine there's nothing to escape from.

When you're not? Time is not quite so kindly, it's true, but one is productive in a different way, and we count all of our blessings these days.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Guv

On the face of it, we really should be pulling for Paul LePage, Maine's newly elected Republican Governor. He's Franco-American, and overcame a terrible childhood of poverty, abuse, homelessness, and discrimination. He's plain-spoken and a man of the people. Completely on his own, he became a successful businessman and politician, ending as General Manager for Marden's and Mayor of Waterville before running for Governor. So what if during the campaign, he was a little rough ("LePage tells Obama to go to hell"), he courted the Tea Party, he aired some weird positions on climate change and energy and creationism and healthcare. Politicians will say anything to get into office, and once they get there, they tend to moderate, right?

Maybe not right. The first few weeks of LePage's tenure have been a bit ominous.
  • As I wrote the other day, he's nominated a developer to run the Department of Environmental Protection.
  • He's appointed his 22-year-old daughter, just out of college, to assist his chief-of-staff at a salary and benefits much higher than the usual entry-level position.
  • He's told the NAACP, on Martin Luther King Day, that he won't be beholden to "special interests" and that the NAACP can "kiss my butt."
  • He wants Maine to join the national lawsuit to get out of the new healthcare law.
  • He wants to relax state rules that protect vernal pools from development.
  • He wants to get rid of the Land Use Regulation Commission, the independent body that controls development in the 10 million acres of Maine's unorganized territories.
  • He's attended a number of "red-tape removal audit" forums, but only one environmental forum.
Heaven knows the government gets in the way sometimes. But the effort to streamline and reduce must not damage the things that make Maine special and viable, and it must not hurt the poor and sick. Remember, Governor, that getting only 38% of the vote is hardly a mandate for change.

I don't know if he's related to the LePages who make glue or to the LePages who bake bread. Those would be good, down-to-earth roots to have. I'm worried, however, that he's already turning into an angry beast. Just re-arrange a couple of letters in his name and you get "pelage," "the hairy covering of a mammal." What is the real Paul LePage, man or monster?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Simplicity

A couple of feet of snow on the ground makes the world look simple. I can't see the weeds in the yard left over from the summer, the maple and oak and ash leaves rotting their way back to nutrients, the moss on the patio that should have been scraped, the petty distractions of a life. Everything is just white and tucked in for the duration. Today nature makes no demands but shovelling.

I'm in Massachusetts this week, and it was a strange experience to drive here on Sunday and watch the snow piles get higher the farther south I came. The coast of Maine got very little from last Wednesday's storm, and it was an equally strange experience to be in Maine that day and watch heavy, wet snow coming in sideways off the ocean for 8 hours straight but melting immediately, leaving a couple of inches of slush. At the end of the day I could still see the logs waiting to be split, the garden detritus untrimmed, an essay asking to be re-written.

It's tempting to think that nature makes demands, portends omens, punishes or rewards. Weather is a particularly seductive siren (those Aussies must have done something bad to deserve all that flooding) but so is the sight of a deer or the sound of surf. But nature doesn't consider us. It's simple, really. It's humans that have the problem of self-consciousness.

Emily Dickinson said it best, in the last lines of poem 668:

Nature is what we know –
Yet have no art to say –
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

Not that we shouldn't try to say what we know, as she did every day of her life.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Architects in wood

I confess to woodstack envy. A lot of people take a lot of care, or have a lot of talent, when it comes to constructing a mass of split logs for drying. One guy on Ash Point has an amazing one behind his house, three rows of logs close together, 6 feet high, 6 feet wide, and easily 100 feet long (I calculate this to be 25-30 cords and at nearly $200 a cord...). It's immense and gorgeous, perfectly stacked. The end of a row is built in a cross-hatch pattern, to prevent collapse, the body of the beast is tightly packed. He must have used a splitter, to achieve logs of such stackability.

Then there are the guys who have built little cozies for their wood, a roofed alcove along a garage or deck, or a free-standing, open-sided shed. They tend to be the summer people.

Clearly woodstacking is a guy thing.

My own piles are somewhat less artistic. The one along the garage was once rather impressive, the unsplit logs piled neatly and tidily. As I work it down, it looks bedraggled and bumpy. The other pile, near the leaching field, is the fresh one from this fall's tree work, the chunked-up logs stacked like soup cans, the longer ones still lying helter-skelter. (I tell myself it's not really my pile - the tree guys haven't finished their work.) Then there's the one in the garage, composed of split wood and definitely untidy, due to a wide variety of sizes and shapes and and an inconsistency of manual splitting ability, not to mention a certain lack of patience for esthetic achievement when your back hurts.

I play more serious architect inside the house. The log rack next to the stove has pretensions to glory, and the art of loading the stove makes me feel better about my northwoodsmanship. I claim there's a technique to placing the logs, not only to start the fire but to continue it. Place pieces athwart, not parallel. Allow room to breathe. Angle a big piece, with space underneath. Vary the pieces, large and small, spruce and birch. Celebrate in the artistic placement of each log your scorn for the merchant cartels of liquid and gaseous carbon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Trees in the storm

The day started with a chain saw. I thought after yesterday - our neighbor, having suffered a big downed birch a couple of months ago and two firs a couple of weeks ago, must have worried for her cottage and figured it was time to take down the two-and-a-half leaning spruces (one trunk had bifurcated), especially with today's northeaster forecast - that I'd be safe from chains and chippers for a while. But she must have promised the felled spruce as firewood, and a man and two boys were hard at work at 7:15, chunking up the trunks and loading them into a pickup. Even for Maine the scene was a bit surreal. All three males wore dark sweatshirts, hoods up, and they looked like hobbits on some secret mission, and the storm was starting, snow blowing, wind roaring, ocean boiling. And those two boys thought they were getting a snow day! Or maybe this is what a snow day in Maine is, just another chance to work with Dad.

Northeasters are a bit surreal themselves. You see the big swirling thing on the TV screen but you still don't quite understand how at the same time a storm can move to the northeast and the winds can come from the northeast. Yes, yes, the counterclockwise movement of the winds around the center makes some logical sense, but I like the mystery of it all, a sort of Tolkien storm.

Parts southwest and west of here are getting clobbered with two feet of snow, but the ocean keeps the temperature right at 32 degrees today, and most of the snow melts on the ground, leaving an inch or two of slush. The front of the house, however, wears a coat of white like icing on gingerbread, and the windows are mostly obscured by sticky snow that blows in horizontally, and the remaining trees are waving wildly and dangerously. I'm heartsick every time a tree has to come down, doubly so when it's a human decision, but on a blizzard day like today, even I have to admit that a spruce, even a magnificent one 75 feet high, does no one much good crashed into our living rooms.

In memoriam for the spruce, I'll grieve with the Christmas tree (fake) in the living room, unthreatened and still, unruffled and safe, and leave it up for a few more days.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Strange, even for Maine

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

"protect - to keep from being damaged, attacked, stolen, or injured; guard"

"develop - to cause (a tract of land) to serve a particular purpose"

From the Main-Land Development Consultants, Inc. website:

"Bridging the Permitting and Regulatory Process"

The owner of MLDC, Inc. is Darryl Brown, who has just been nominated by Paul LePage, Maine's new Republican Governor, to be commissioner of Maine's Department of Environmental Protection. When he was a legislator, Mr. Brown received a "zero" rating from the Maine League of Conservation Voters for his environmental voting record. His company is the lead developer in the newly approved Oxford casino.

Quite remarkable. What's the saying about the fox in the chicken coop?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Country mouse, city hawk


Our house in Massachusetts is in a suburb, not city but not country either (this picture, taken by a neighbor after a winter storm, might suggest otherwise). As in many American towns, appearances are deceiving (or we try to make them so), and we are abetted in our rural illusions by a variety of wildlife that approaches that of the country. All of the following have been seen in our neighborhood.
  • mice and chipmunks (of course)

  • vole or mole or whatever it was tunneling in the yard

  • squirrels, to the delight and anger of the dog

  • rabbits, but they don't appear to be breeding like...

  • the occasional garter snake acting nonchalant

  • all manner of birds, as you'd expect in a leafy suburb, including skeins of Canada geese in the fall, cardinals and chickadees and wrens at the feeders, and a hawk or two (why isn't this a hawk paradise, with our abundance of chipmunks?)

  • a coyote, as breathlessly reported by a daughter walking home from school

  • a flock of turkeys, who must live boringly in nearby Cold Spring Park, and who need the stimulation of a weekly jaunt through back yards and streets

  • deer (well, a deer was only seen once, but still...)
This is an evolution of sorts, I'm convinced. Something or someone is trying to tell us something, like "if you won't come to us, we'll come to you." And not just on PBS, in our living rooms. These are real, living wild things that are trying to change us. Listen up.

The list above is not all that different from a list I'd make from our neighborhood in Maine. The hawk is replaced by the osprey, deer are merely more numerous, no turkeys but grouse, no coyotes (yet) but fishers and foxes, no ducks or loons or gulls or eagles. The difference is a degree of wildness, an expectation of rarity, an illusion of wilderness. I'm much more open to wonder in Maine, my ancient hunter/gatherer molecules singing. In the city, I see those six fat turkeys in the yard of the big house on Lincoln Street and rue what is lost, not wonder about what is being gained. I'm not evolved enough to mix my drinks of inspiration.
Will the suburbs, the exurbs, and the country eventually become one big Noah's ark of coexistence? I hope not. I'm afraid it would mean that humans had become all head and no body. I'm afraid that a deer facing death would rather take her chances with a Volvo wagon than with a coyote or a Winchester. I'm afraid that hawks would eat at bird feeders.