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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Value chain

In her lovely book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey mentions one of the ironies of nature: those species lowest on the food chain, the microbes and worms and molluscs and insects, not to mention plants, contribute most to the construction and maintenance of the planet and would be missed the most; those species highest on the food chain, the mammals and of course humans, contribute least and would hardly be missed if every one of us died. In fact, humans contribute most to the destruction of the planet. The acme of evolution seems to be leading to the nadir of the world.

Even more embarrassing, most species have been on earth far longer, are far more diverse and profligate than Homo sapiens. We're a bit of a blip, yet a blip with the power of a million atomic bombs. Our little Holocene epoch of geological time, our little 12,000 years or so, is killing off species at a faster rate than ever before. What makes us think we're invulnerable?

It seems to me it wouldn't take much to return humans to a position of real power. How about being impressed not by a Lexus but by a snail? How about de-gassing vanity? Just a little rebellion, perhaps, against all the traditional philosophical systems that encourage feelings of power and glory and this nonsense of the Great Chain of Being. Maybe a dash of consciousness about self-consciousness: the thing that allows me to reflect on these issues is the same thing that puffs me up and blinds me. Maybe put your watch in your pocket. Help an old species across the street. Stop and smell the prose. Love thy nuthatch as thyself.

Merely a few minor suggestions....

Or just take a walk through the woods and along the shore, imagining the incredible lives all around and below and above and behind and beyond in time and space.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Creative Economy

The huge paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket are quiet. Once the largest in the world, they have been shuttered, to the devastation of the local community and its tax base and its work force. The devastation they themselves produced - the clear-cutting, the chemicals, the noise - has in turn devastated the lives of the town people, perhaps forever. In the world of the mining of natural resources, one apparently lives and dies by the sword.

The towns are not sitting back and capitulating. Many people are trying still to save the mills, including US Rep. Mike Michaud, who grew up working there. The high school seeks to remain open by recruiting paying students from China. But most are hoping for succor from new sources of cash, from a more creative (so-called) economy. In this part of the Great North Woods, so close to Baxter State Park, gateway to 10 million acres of the Unorganized Territories, this is code for tourism.

Unfortunately, in most people's minds, a tourist is not a person particularly interested in local flora and fauna, or hiking, or beautiful vistas, or local history, or wilderness experiences, or even local people (except as "help"). A tourist these days is someone from the city who complements an hour or two of mental or physical exertion with utter luxury for the rest of the day. He wants a hotel with spas and lobbies and soft beds, a suitable collection of restaurants, and shopping if it rains; and if he does go out into the wilderness to see a loon or a moose, he wants a guide. This sad state of affairs is the same all over the world, from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar. Every city council, every tourist organization, every government produces the same plan - a luxury resort, or two, possibly with an "eco-center."

Judging by recent news reports, Millinocket seems to be no different. I would hope that Maine might be a little more creative in this transition from exploiting the land, for example, with real eco-tourism, or support for local arts and crafts, or sustainable farming. But as with Plum Creek on Moosehead Lake, and the Modena family's wish to develop the incredibly beautiful Schoodic Peninsula, the "quiet" side of Acadia National Park, Millinocket wants a quick fix to its troubles. Say a resort does get built. After a certain hoo-ha, after a few construction jobs, how will it really benefit the people? The jobs on offer will be mostly menial; the real money stays out-of-state. The tax base may increase; the people base does not. And who's to say people will actually come, when every other destination is offering the same formula? With better weather?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Maiden Tiff

I'll never be able to climb Maiden Cliff in innocence again. It was bad enough with that young maiden falling to her death in the 19th century. It was bad enough that the large white cross raised in her memory stuck in your view and reminded you on a beautiful Sunday afternoon that you hadn't been to church in ages. It was bad enough when you walked to the edge and had to imagine falling 800 feet. Now we've got a tangled murder/suicide/marital tiff/clumsy husband/weird wife story to sort out.

Every other day a new story wrinkle emerges. First the couple just fell off the mountain, the wife somehow being able to walk and flag down some help for her husband. Then she accuses him of hitting her on the head with a rock and pushing her over the edge. Then she says he's involved with another woman. Then she says her recent inheritance of $4 million from her father's estate is a motive. Then she says he's tried it before, by falling off a ladder onto her, and by employing the same rock trick on the top of Mt. Battie.

All he says is that he blacks out a lot (his name is Black, after all) and doesn't remember. All I say is, Why is she climbing mountains with this guy? and How did he manage to fall as well? and What would be a suitable monument to stupidity? Might as well put it up and ruin the view forever.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Let me count the ways

Bullfrogs croaking in the marshy places and in the vernal pools

Blue wildflowers in a little wood next to a house (are they Baby Blue Eyes? I wish! What a name!)

Skunk cabbages in muck

A warmish day after yesterday's obligatory cold, hard rain off the ocean, perilously close to sleet

Clearing the gardens of their leaf duvets

The yellowish-green stubs of hosta and day lily

Turtles warming in the sun


The robin scouting the bush next to our door for its annual nest, and periodically attacking the window above it, as if seeing a rival in the glass

The melting of the last of the snow pile at the end of the driveway

Sitting on the deck for a chilly five minutes, but sitting on the deck


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It was a quiet week,

for the governor of the fair state of Maine was on vacation in Jamaica. The embarrassing stories carried on, however: the US Department of Labor, which funded most of the cost of the infamous mural taken down by LePage, is suing to get its money back; Maine's attorney general says that LePage was only exercising the government's right of free speech (!) in removing it; a bunch of Republican (!) state senators penned a public letter asking the Gov to cool the rhetoric; some of those obnoxious rollbacks of environmental regulations are grinding to a halt. The continued banning of BPA, for example, looks safe, a double embarrassment, for the proposed new law was written by industry, then rejected by LePage's own party.

But these stories don't have the piquancy, the cringing fascination of the man in the flesh. Come back soon, Governor. We miss those rhetorical stink bombs, like the ones of the character sharing your initials, Pepe Le Pew.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Vulgar vibrancy

I'd like to apply this phrase to our cold and slow-arriving spring and to the skunk cabbage pushing its energetic and slightly ugly way through the muck and melted snow of late winter. In the woods of Maine it's really the first sign of spring, generating its own heat to fight its way through the icy earth, from nothing to green in an explosion of cells. But the phrase does not originate that way. It was used in a recent email from the son of a dear friend, writing in the terrible weeks between the diagnosis of his father's brain tumor, and its excision.

"Vulgar," I assume, because of the base intentions of the tumor, and the crude, angry feelings spilling over everywhere; "vibrancy" because of the tremendous outpouring of help and hope from family and friends, and the chance to be with his parents and his brothers, walking on the beach, eating his father's famous stew, senses heightened and alive. Like most families this one is scattered, brought together principally by holidays, this time by an illness, scattered again after a successful operation, warmed by the blessings of this terrible curse.

The first sign of spring in Massachusetts is the crocus, fragile yet strong even under the snow of the April Fool's Day storm, clinging to color and joy. Vulgar and vibrant, hope is the thing with leaves. More power to us fools.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


If you look at life from the point of view of sand on a beach, high tides re-shape your surface twice a day. You are re-born.
Or they wipe it clean twice a day. You are obliterated.
Depends if you look at tides as half-full or half-empty.

On the one hand it would be great to start over all the time - wipe out all your mistakes, your disappointments, your failures. On the other hand, how frustrating, how shifting to see your best work wash away.

Art has waged this battle between change and permanence for a relatively short time. Before the 20th century, the world seemed to have a plan, or at least a rational system, behind it, and a painting or a book was created with some expectation that it would last. We don't believe that anymore. Many artists have become cynical, arch, self-referential, as if only what one personally feels or thinks could possibly have any relevance. They've lost their place in nature. They believe there is no reality worth showing if man-made or natural disasters roll so regularly through our times.

I think this explains, maybe only in part, the extreme popularity of TV crime shows, sci-fi movies, detective stories, thriller novels. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people still want shape, they want beginnings and endings, they want a battle between good and evil that ends with a satisfying bang, not an artistic whimper. It hardly matters who wins, as long as something happens, with consequences.

Nevertheless, we can capture beauty, no matter how fleeting. If there's no obvious plan, then at least we can express common goals and feelings. I find this lacking in art these days and have started to read back in the 19th century again. Oh, and of course, those detective stories that slip in and out of the mind so easily, whose morals rise and fall with such satisfying regularity.