Monday, December 31, 2012

Grandmother

I've published a new essay today on Scintilla. Someone who's been dead for nearly 40 years lives on.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Arcadia

I recently finished Lauren Groff's second novel Arcadia. The title was enough to please me: Groff could have written the worst possible book - say, 50 Shades of Arcadia - and I would have picked it up. It turned out to be excellent (although my wife didn't like it nearly as much), an impressionistic and powerful meditation on life in a commune in upstate New York and the longer-term consequences therefrom for the beasts who inhabited it..

I'm drawn to things eschatological, raised as I was in severe Protestantism and now living half-time in Maine. That focus on last things naturally leads to a certain preoccupation with their aftermath (the hoped-for one, of course, not the dreaded one), i.e., Heaven, or in this case, Arcadia, heaven on earth. For me, of course, the search for the best possible life stops far short of any religious longing.

Fortunately, the secular urge is very strong. I'm easily impressed, for example, that the word Arcadia (or Acadia in modern parlance) essentially means wilderness, from the interior region of Greece, to the romances of Renaissance Europe, to Verrazano who named the entire Atlantic coast from Virginia to Labrador thusly, to the French Canadians seeking a new heaven, to the glorious national park in Maine. I'm hopeful that heaven is not some city on a hill but huge forests on many hills. I'm sure, in this stormy Christmas week, that bringing a tree into the house is a sign of redemption, and that we gather around it like families of blameless deer, and that the pagan symbols of this season are far stronger than any Christian ones.

For the thought of last things makes me think of first things, how we began, where we're going; and that makes me thank Thor that we're considerably more druidic than liturgic. There are elements of hell - the fights, filth, and fervor of a commune, the noise and concrete of a mall - but we make them ourselves, and we could fix them if we really wanted to. And in any case, we can always hug our daughters in thanksgiving, and look out at the blameless storm in safety and anticipation.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Walking

I often think of the difference between walking in the city (well, OK, a suburb) and the country. The former is full of the works of humans, from which one can hardly escape. It's possible to gaze up at a tree or into the sky, or focus down on a piece of moss in the cracks of the sidewalk, but the effort makes one looks slightly ridiculous, not to mention sore in neck and knee, and the gaze must be intensely focused to avoid the intrusion of airplane, pavement, car horn, dog walkers, blinking Christmas lights, politics. None of these are bad in themselves, but the accumulation can be draining, if only because I'm forced to think of systems, and peculiarities of character, and the thin skein of society that holds this all together. The eye skitters from house to freshly sawed stump, from trimmed hedge to mowed lawn - all the trials of domestication, including the dog I'm walking for purposes of her nasal scent optimization. This human eye and mind are not optimized, unfortunately.

That shrub over there carved into a spiral may be very similar to a bush blown crooked at the edge of the sea, the quick brown dog across the street may be cousin to the fox, but they have been subsumed to human needs. To understand their essences needs a different, wilder context. I need to see the strong ropes of Nature holding all together.

Walking in my neighborhood in Maine is hardly exploring the wilderness, I hasten to point out. There are houses and cars and paved roads, just not nearly as many. Which means I can walk for minutes, or stare for an hour, and not see or hear or smell anything manufactured. I know this is important for me - do I dare to say it might be important for others?

It's as if in the country I think much more about the individual, who is innocent until proven guilty, and in the city, I'm fixated on the group, which is guilty until proven innocent.

Thoreau said it another way in his essay "Walking": "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements."

The final proof, for me, is that our frenemy time passes swiftly in the country. A walk down to Ash Point seems to take only a moment, because the eye and mind are actively engaged in the business of life, not passively receiving its manufactured products. Time can drag in the city, ironically, right in the midst of hustle and bustle.

Like Thoreau in Concord, I hope I have the best of  both worlds. What would it be like, though, to walk every day in real wilderness, and how dangerous? My whole life might pass in the blink of a fox's eye.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Natural marketing

Now that my 20-something daughters are home for the holidays, I can pose the following question with greater accuracy: Which of the ingredients in this list do not appear on the back of shampoo bottles in my house? *Answer below.

  1. horsetail
  2. cottonseed
  3. silk protein
  4. lemon
  5. lavender
  6. eucalyptus
  7. oat flour
  8. macademia oil
  9. wheat gluten
  10. aloe
  11. tapioca
  12. sunflower

Each brand seems to have one or two "natural" ingredients, usually prominently featured on the front but buried in a pharmacopeia of chemicals on the back. I'd list those too, but I doubt you want to know what the billions of us are putting on our heads in the name of cleanliness. But I can say that "gl" compounds - glucose, glycerine, glutamate, glycol - appear in almost every case, and although they sound terrible, they are mostly organic, to the point that even Tom's of Maine includes glycerine in its list of ingredients. Of course, Tom does not have a shampoo product - there are some lengths to which Nature cannot go.

Companies might get more creative, however, in using the natural goodness of Maine products. Tom, for example, doesn't appear to use any uniquely Maine item in spite of his company's name. May I suggest you consider producing the flavors listed to the left? Any or all of them will greatly enhance the appeal of the products to the right.

Moose bladder                                      Tea Party tea
Extract of fog                                         Moxie Lite
Lupine root                                            Poland Spring Forever
Whisper of pine                                     Moosehead Freedom Ale
Toe jam of eagle                                    Fried clams a la pourpre
Blueberry blush                                      Whoopie pie soup
Lobster water                                        Anything at Moody's

After all, your company is not called Tom's of New Jersey.

*Trick question: all of them appear.

Friday, December 14, 2012

No news

I'm often tempted to access no news source when I'm in Maine - no newspaper homepage, no financial website, no NPR program. (TV network news is not even in my radar, not since the days of Huntley/Brinkley).) The vagaries of the Middle East and Wall Street and Washington and Augusta just don't seem all that insistent in the face of the eternities of forest and ocean and seagull and deer. Important, yes, for an informed citizenry is essential - but worthy of attention (and worry, trauma, anxiety, fear) several times a day? How about once a week? Is that patriotic enough? Think how much happier, more productive, more satisfied I'll be!

Or how about not thinking about news at all? A recent survey found that people who watch partisan news outlets only, Fox News especially, fare significantly worse on tests of current events than people who watch no media news at all. Bias, and bias reinforcement, apparently makes us stupider.

I'm now going to apply this lesson locally. If I check the Times and the Globe and the Bangor Daily News but once a week, and balance that knowledge by daily listening to Maine Things Considered, I should become reasonably informed on Sunday and nicely biased and a bit stupid for the rest of the week. Stupid like a fox patrolling its kingdom, worry-free and ready to feed.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Instant

After not being Maine for several weeks, I returned to a house colder than usual. A twist of the thermostat produced no instant response. I was in for a long service call.

Somewhat later, after the woodstove took the chill out of the air, after I calmed down about the length of that service call, I thought of our incredible expectations for the world. We've gone way past instant oatmeal - now a lawn appears in the course of a day, a thousand people can tweet Madonna in a second, teachers get feedback while they're teaching, your smartphone gets you tickets and trivia. Conversely, if a webpage takes two seconds to load, I'm mad. Traffic is a personal insult to efficiency. Slow walkers raise blood pressure. We do not suffer fools or slow waiters gladly. We expect the steady compression of time and tasks by at least 10-fold every model year.

I submit a new infection - instancy - to the CDC for classification. It's got all the hallmarks: fever, racing pulse, sour stomach. It is spread by airplane travel, it is communicated by the Joneses. And the cure? Stare at something, like surf or a tanager, for minutes on end. Take the Internet with a grain of salt. Drink lots of fresh air. Wait like a patient, patiently, for warm relief. Then take a fool to lunch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Seagulls

It seems to me that seagulls don't get enough press, and when they get it, it's bad - all that squawking at summer dawns (that's 4:30 am up here in north country), poking around the shore for disgusting rotten things,  descending on the ducks when they pop up after a food dive, swooping down to relieve you of the sandwich in your hand (this happened to my wife in Florida), pooping on your brick sidewalk, or somewhere worse. But they are magnificent flyers, moving swiftly, changing direction with the flick of a feather, or just standing in mid-air in a windstorm, laughing at us. Most wonderfully insouciant.

Then there is the standing on roofs. On my walk down to Crocketts Beach this morning, I saw perhaps 20 of them on the ridgeline of one house. As I walked by, a few rose up and circled overhead, perhaps following me, passing  by another favorite house, judging by the white streaks down the roof angle, and finally joining a bunch of others on the roof of the big house on the shore. Each new arrival settled in, and the line adjusted such that equal space was achieved between all, and the effect was eerily organized, some 50 birds all lined up along the whole length of roof, all perfectly spaced, all facing the same way looking out to sea. I'd give them a lot of credit if I knew why they did it. They wouldn't care.

The roof tiles of this big house were not white-streaked like the other, lesser abodes away from the water. Perhaps the owner had failed today to activate the luxury house accessory package - the hot-wire, roofline gull repeller, along with the golf simulator in the basement and the fake-log fireplace. Or the gardener and the woodcutter and the lawnboy had come but not the seagull shoo-er. Or the roof had the Seaside Special: tiles guaranteed against guano for 15 years. Probably the gulls just know class when they see it. Wretches, to distribute their waste so discriminately!

As I walked back up the road from the beach, one lone seagull was walking on the road ahead of me, as if leading me away from its babies. We traveled together for a couple of hundred yards, and then I saw the problem. I got a little too close and it tried to take off and fly and it fell over like a drunk. One wing hung down, useless. It hurried off into a yard as if embarrassed. How does a gull break a wing? Is there anything so terrible as a wounded bird? Its magic, its blitheness, is gone. I wish I had a sandwich to give.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hypocrisy

One of my favorite quotes is by Francois de la Rochfoucauld: "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue." In other words, hypocrites make the world go round.

I used to think that hypocrites were the worst sort of sinner. After all, Jesus lumped them in with scribes and Pharisees (you know, the famous whited sepulchres). Dante put them in the eighth circle of Hell, just above Satan and the devils. I still look at a politician and puke. But I'm getting better.

Hypocrites are crucial to fixing things. My particular obsession is of course the natural world, defending it, preserving it as much as we can. Where would our movement be without Richard Nixon (who signed all the great environmental legislation in the 70s, however reluctantly), John Muir (who hobnobbed with Presidents), Al Gore (who has one of the world's biggest houses), Bill McKibben (who burns fossil fuel incessantly as he travels the world), your average land trust board member (with a house or two, a car or two), etc, etc. These are the best kinds of hypocrites, those who know they are and worry about it, those with a conscience - OK, maybe not Richard Nixon - the kind of people who are driven by their shortcomings and work hard to compensate, over-compensate in the best of cases, for their sins.

When next we criticize the vices of cars and big houses and the God-given right to take international vacations on jets, remember the virtues of endless committee work, and big annual donations, and perpetual easements, and weekend fundraisers, and estate bequeathments, and trail construction, and the uprooting of invasive plants, and the long hours of writing and preaching and one-on-one persuasion. They often reside in the same person. If they don't, if the hypocrite in question really has no conscience whatsoever (la Rochfoucauld really should have amended his maxim slightly), then together let's wish him good luck wearing that coat in Hell, the one that glitters beautifully but is heavily weighted with lead. Let's start a list of the candidates.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

He's got the whole world

Business people of a certain age will remembering having a Palm Pilot, and being very cool in airport terminals about the malleability of its calendar, to-do list, contacts, and calculator, and that satisfying tapping/handwriting with a stylus. We could even sync with the desktop in the office.

Things have moved on a bit in the last 15 or 20 years. Where we used to have a little of the office in our hands, useful for business trips away, now we have the whole compelling world. Or so you would think by observing the rapt and downward gaze of pedestrians, diners, commuters, worshipers.

The symbolism is very powerful. The hand makes me human like almost nothing else, and to have the answer to any question, the contact with millions of Friends, the knowledge that someone could be thinking about me, texting me, loving me, sending me dog videos RIGHT NOW, all this in the palm of my hand no less - that must make me superhuman, god-like in fact. It is me that has the whole world....

Oh false god! Oh icky iPhone! Aberrant Android! How much better to look in the eye than the screen, to watch a strange bird unencumbered by a search of Sibley, to hold in the hand the last white phlox of the year and not take its picture!

Oh, how long can I last before I must have one?

Monday, November 12, 2012

90th year

We were pleased and honored two weekends ago to be able to celebrate my mother's 89th birthday in  Maine. Heroically, she made the flight to Boston, delayed only a day by Sandy; hastily, we went north the next day.

It seems right to be in Maine for such a landmark. So much has changed since 1923, Maine too, of course, but I dare say the view and the shore and the islands and the bracing, exhilarating air now are the same as when our house was first built, in 1924, and perhaps for centuries before. Humans have made magnificent things, and fantastic art, and great social progress over those centuries. We've also lost a lot, but this is not so obvious on a rocky seashore. (Now on a sandy one....). The arc of years seems to have a point here; the end result is not so scary. I only have to watch my mother stare at the surf to understand that progress these days is poorly defined.

Of course, we did drive up in a nice car, and the house is toasty, and the cable brought us a couple of hours of Pink Panther silliness, and lots of people live way beyond 90, and we can see the brutal wind turbines on Vinalhaven if we peer just wrongly through the pointed firs....

The big spruce in our back yard is extra poignant this season. I'd like to think my two matriarchs are about the same age - they are certainly similarly strong and enduring. What clearly is true is that they both still look like forever.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sunrise or sunset?


Is the sun setting on racism, misogyny, corporate PAC money, and granny-starving?

Is the sun rising on better medical care, immigration reform, and the end of Middle East wars?

I'd like to think so but it's a matter of hope more than fact.

I can say for sure, however, that in Maine Governor LePage stands nearly alone after the voting this week. Both Maine Senate and House flipped to the Democrats, the open US Senate seat went to an independent who most asssuredly will caucus with the Democrats, and both Democratic US Reps retained their seats. Bond issues that the Governor doesn't like were approved, including another chunk of money for Land for Maine's Future, and the legality of same-sex marriage was for the first time in the country approved by ballot. Susan Collins, the other US Senator, is a Republican who sometimes votes with the Democrats and has little to do with Augusta. It looks like a new day to me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Carousel

I should have known as soon as I saw the cement truck idling on Lucia Beach Road, just where it turns from two lanes to one lane, more or less. But there was no sign of anything different in the neighborhood, and I kept walking. When another cement truck came roaring toward me, sounding like a fighter plane invading a peaceful country, taking the whole road and forcing me nearly into the woods, and the first truck came roaring behind me a couple of minutes later, then even this innocent got that something was happening at the beautiful little pocket beach at the end of the road.

It's a visceral reaction, an unexplainable and naive and sophomoric despair. I can only think of the trees that were cut down to make room, to make timbers; the lime dirtily dug to make concrete, the iron to make steel, the coal to make electricity; the sand melted to make glass; the petroleum refined to make plastic and tiles and the gas to bring all the machines in to dig and cut. This house-building is a brutal thing, and indeed brutal is the way we build most everything. A new house in such a gorgeous place seems only a crude apprehension of our grasp on life.

I don't think of the people who will live there and enjoy the surf, the birds, the always-changing marriage of sky and ocean, like I do. I can only see the scarred earth, the naked struts, piles of waste. Mine is a victory of imagination, a failure of empathy. I'd rather the carousel of development stop and let me off, even though I'm on it and enjoying the ride.

At least the new house is contained on a small lot close to trees, at least it's being built near the few other houses ringing the beach. At least no one cut down six acres of trees for the benefaction of a single dwelling. That happened a couple of years ago farther up Lucia Beach Road, and on my way back home to my own collection of insults to the earth, I walk past those acres, still scabrous and scrubby, and look for signs of the trees taking over again.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Climate control

At the national Land Trust Alliance meeting in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago, I heard a myriad of inspiring stories - land trusts in every corner of the country are conserving and preserving huge ranches, little urban parks, farms, wetlands and woodlands and badlands and uplands from development and for people. There was a lot of talk of climate change also, fairly depressing stuff, in fact, including an image now indelibly imprinted in my head: those countless rich-people developments of big houses in Florida that, all through  the hot season (which is half the year), are continuously air-conditioned, even though NO ONE IS EVER THERE in the summer. Why the air-conditioning? Because if the houses weren't cooled, mold and fungus would take over and the houses would soon fall down. What a culture! Pun intended.

I'm even more depressed to realize, as many people have now pointed out, that in nearly 5 hours of national debating, the four gentlemen on the tickets have so controlled themselves as to mention the issue of climate change not once. Sacrifice, foresight, prudence, investment - these are now irresponsible words in a time of continuous economic crisis. In a hundred years, humans will curse us for ignoring this great threat to the life in which our spirits, our art, our happiness and our very genes thrive: storms, heat, food shortages, water where it shouldn't be, not enough water where it should be, loss of life in a scale approaching all-out war. Perhaps our descendants will like their big heads, puny bodies, respirators, body armor, indoor climate-controlled immunity bubbles - somehow I think not.

So this afternoon I split wood for an hour, that helped some. Then I sat down by the shore to watch an ocean storm building; the wind blowing from the southeast whence much of our best drama comes, the clouds of a rainy warm front overtaking the blue sky, whitecaps building in the bay, the strong surf of high tide roaring on the rocks. That helped even more. And when a bald eagle flew by right in front of me, I was almost cured. Almost.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cats and dogs

I got up to get another cup of coffee and stopped, as I always do, to look out the kitchen window. Something a bit different this morning: a fox was standing in the driveway. Magnificent character: shiny coat, long tail, handsome face. We have not been in Maine for a few weeks so perhaps Reynard and clan (there's a den near the abandoned house two lots north) have become used to wandering around the place undisturbed. Not to be undisturbed this morning, although I for one was motionless and respectful - a cat came into the picture, prowling along the edge of the woods some 20 feet away.

Soon enough cat and dog became aware of themselves. Proto-dog remained more or less still  Fully evolved feline assumed the crouch, then the slink low along the ground, advancing to within ten feet. Another pause. Various things twitched. Cat then performed a short run, stopping prudently short, at fox, who flinched, backed up two steps, held its ground. More twitching, more of a conversation than a confrontation.

After about five minutes of this, the cat slowly and gracefully walked away. Reynard also departed the field of battle with grace, ambling into the woods. Of course, it was no battle, much as I expected the fox to employ its five-fold advantage in size and at least terrorize, and maybe atomize, its fellow warrior. No ancient rivalry today. It appears our wild neighbors are being civilized, or at least evolving from slyness to shyness. I wonder if he would allow me to pet him tomorrow morning.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The color of canyons

Back from 10 days in Utah: a couple of days at the Land Trust Alliance convention in Salt Lake City, and the rest in the south around Bryce and Zion Canyons. It was of course hard to leave New England at this time of year, but I expected the colors of the canyons and high desert to rival our hardwood foliage. And they did, almost.

In the categories of grandeur and weather, I must admit the West won, and handily. The walls of Zion Canyon alone are much higher than Maine's biggest coastal mountains, and we were ecstatic to exchange the cool and rainy of last week in New England for warm and sunny. In the matter of color, it's probably silly to compare - the two places are so different. The thousands of canyons show such an astonishing range of shapes - especially Bryce with its dense population of hoodoos - that you want to explore every one of them. Their colors too are amazing: shades of vermilion and pink and rose and dark red and off-white and light brown change hourly as the sun strikes a new angle. The desert floor is more monotonous, red sands mixed with white, the muted grays and greens of tough plants, and the dark green of stunted conifers, with occasional shocking pink flowers of the prickly pear and tiny bright red and yellow flowers widely scattered and almost invisible. Each primary color seems just a couple degrees off true, paler than we're used to, due to the scarcity of water, I assume. The sky, however, was as bright blue as anything anywhere, and much bigger than we normally see.

Yet we do compare. For all the wonders round every corner, and glimpses of Western animals (buffalo, antelope, tarantula, lizard, jackrabbit), and massive doses of photo-therapy, we were ready to come home. The lack of water is the ultimate challenge for people from the east - we must have some kind of gene that makes us crave big trees and lush vegetation and armies of birds and ever-present rivers and lakes and ocean. And, of course, the loud, brilliant, fully charged reds and yellows and oranges of the New England hillsides.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Colors

The fall foliage season in New England is supposed to be one of the best in years, and judging by the amount of color we saw in mid-coast and southern Maine yesterday, "they" will be right. We were actually leaving Maine for a few weeks and thus were pleased to see brilliant spots of red and orange and yellow here and there. Not a massive and heart-stopping blast across a hillside, but a smattering enough to last until we get back, get back to Massachusetts, that is, in mid-October when it will still be early enough, we hope, to have a heart attack or two.



Here's one from a couple of years ago in Maine (Bald Mountain in Camden).

We will be missing the Maine display this year because of a trip out West, where we hope to make up for it in the canyons of southern Utah. Will Bryce and Zion measure up? Will rocks trump leaves? It pains me to be even a little disloyal to New England, but I fully expect they will.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Motion vs. rest

Why is the eye drawn so immediately to anything that moves? Is there something anatomical or physiological about its make-up that forces attention? Any ophthalmologists out there who care to weigh in?

Where I rest and watch, birds are the obvious provocateurs. Gulls and crows add noise to their movements; the three loons I see this morning move, but placidly, along the water. But waves demand attention too, and reward you with a crash on the shore, and the sailboat out in the channel moves quietly like a loon, and the monarch butterflies flutter about disjointedly, looking for nectar to sustain their migration to Mexico. Yesterday afternoon I watched a robin for ten minutes, and it just stood motionless on the lawn newly mowed. I don't ask why, but that feeling built, you know the one, the one that begs you to rap on the glass at the zoo, or flick a dragonfly, or gesticulate at a robin, demanding motion from something that was built to move. If it doesn't move, it might be dead and that would be inconvenient, might even make you think.

Movement is demanded to seek food and shelter, or for the pure joy of itself, like goldfinches chasing each other in the newly-bright morning, or a hike up Bald Rock. For anything else, does the eye betray us? Does it lead us to ambition, or greed, or movement for its own sake, like a treadmill or a TV screen, sans joy? At the most basic level, I presume that the eye is meant to warn. But for humans, so many of our dangers today are invisible, and maybe we can discover them best at rest, with patience, with the help of others. Sight is a wonderful thing. Second sight is even better. We were built for both, I trust.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bird on a wire; birds wired

I was driving on Route 1 near Camden the other day and saw a small raptor, a hawk of some kind, sitting on a telephone wire or Internet cable or whatever other marvel gets strung out along roads these days (not including commuters). It was perfectly still. Now traffic on Route 1 is busy even in September, especially in September, but our friend seemed completely unperturbed. Perhaps it had spied a bit of roadkill and was waiting for evening, or October, and a chance to swoop and snack. Perhaps it liked the rush of traffic, soothing like surf if you're not in it, I guess. In any case this individual hawk has made some kind of peace with the most destructive beast our civilization can offer, the automobile, grunting and gassing in packs just a few feet away from its perch. I can't necessarily apply such accommodation to its whole species, nor to ours.

The next morning I was sitting in my chair working (i.e., staring out the windows in front) when there was a thud on the window near the chair. It wasn't one of those loud thuds that instantly conjure up the death of a bird, but I got up to look anyway. Immediately, two blue jays in the cedar tree five feet away started shrieking, presumably at me. Whether one of them was the original thudee, or it was another bird altogether, these two were mad - or so I interpreted it. They were definitely looking through the glass at me, clearly hollering their heads off at me. It was so loud for a while that I started to think the original thud on the glass was not an accident at all but an attempt on my personage. They seemed more like a raptor than the hawk did, not at all happy with the way we humans take our places in the world, taking not finding, by the way, and with the way we then wall ourselves away behind steel and glass. What must it be like for birds to live so close to aliens!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Eaarth, part 2

As promised, Bill McKibben in the second part of his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough Planet offers some hope, or rather, some hopeful signs that our culture is becoming different. It's too late to rescue the climate that made human civilization what it is (was), but re-making our lives will help the transition. His basic message? Small and local, with the internet binding us together in new bursts of creativity and community to balance all the boring little stuff we'll now have to do (grow things, save things, feel things).

The new efforts span the globe, yet get little publicity. The new efforts are incredible and amazing - McKibben gives scores of innovative examples for growing food and producing energy - yet they get little publicity. I didn't know, for example, that new farming methods can produce much higher yields than  the monocultures of mega-farms. I didn't know that rooftop solar panels and wind turbines could produce 81% of New York City's power. And on. And on. (Read the book.) It's embarrassing to read that places in the developing world are much more sophisticated than the US about organic farming (and get better yields).

I came away cursing the big-business obsession that dominates our dinner tables, our ambitions, our politics, our news, our lives. I am appalled to realize that industrial society is the first time in human history when one needs no neighbors to survive.

By the way, McKibben is pretty much a genius. He blends fact and fury, doom and hope, story and statement in an utterly compelling way. (Did I mention that you must read this book?) Like any good evangelist, he sometimes (in my opinion) minimizes the problems of freeing ourselves from Big Agriculture, Big Oil, Big Wind, Big Government (I mean, it's his own statistic that one barrel of oil equals about 11 years of manual labor - think about that for a moment) and I personally can't decide if the internet is ultimately a mind suck or a group hug - yet, I was terribly depressed and terribly inspired, both, by the book.

Here are two websites for further inspiration. Look at the daily news for further depression.

http://frontporchforum.com/

http://www.350.org/

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Eaarth, part 1

What a strange feeling as I read the first half of Bill McKibben's book Eaarth! Not just that it's so dire, so full of unassailable arguments about the fate of the earth. His point is that humans have changed our environment unalterably. Nature is no longer in charge. There's too much carbon in the air and the seas to go back. The great features of our planet - the temperate forests of the US, the aboreal forests of Canada and Russia, the tropical forest of the Amazon, the polar ice caps, the seas themselves - have been or will be damaged forever. We live on a different planet now, and the biology, the ethology, the psychology of all of its inhabitants are mutating.

All of this is not the strange part, depressing as hell as it is, for it's something we already know, deep in our hearts. The weird part is to be reading the book in a place still largely unchanged.

For the most part, Maine's waters are still clean, air is pure, forests cover 95% of the land. The population is stable or even declining a bit. Wonderful experiments in farming and locavore eating are happening. The land trust movement boasts 100 organizations and incredible successes. We escaped almost entirely the heat and drought and storms and fires that most of the rest of the county suffered this summer. It feels like a cocoon here, or a enchanted island. I look out on the bay and I'm transported to another time.

There are stressors, of course. Southern Maine really should be called northern Massachusetts. We don't have much snow anymore, and the ski resorts suffer. Deer habitat is under attack; hunters and dollars now go to Canada, or Pennsylvania. Invasive species creep in. Lyme disease and West Nile increase. Lobsters behave erratically. But for the most part life here goes on as it has for centuries.

I'm very anxious to read the second half of Eaarth. McKibben promises ways to live, to cope, to enjoy. Good - it's fine to live in fantasy until the rest of the world comes knocking.

See you in couple of days for part 2.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A very determined caterpillar

Ever wonder why a caterpillar moves so purposefully? I do, and when I saw one crawling along the edge of the deck, I decided to watch for a while.

It was the black and white kind so common lately in Maine, the Hickory Tussock, and it's in the news besides, for its hairs are allergenic to some people. Panic! Don't let anyone go outside ever again!

Here it is.


So it crawled to the end of the edge, waved its head and front half in the air as if Googling, and turned back. It crawled all the way to the other edge, at a rate of speed I estimated would not exceed 200 feet per hour, manfully (bugfully?) straddling the multiple chasms between the deck boards with hardly a pause. Upon reaching the other side, it Googled some more. Thinking it wanted a somewhat more productive surface than my recently painted deck, I played God and flicked it onto the grass. This was a fall equivalent to more than 100 feet to a human, but the caterpillar rested only a moment before resuming its pursuit of...I don't know what. Obstinately, it pushed through the grass and started climbing up the latticework below the deck, went upside-down navigating the lip that the boards make, and greeted me again on the surface.

Now what? You can't fly yet, you silly bugger, so why the obsession with altitude? For a while it was more of the same, exercising on the moon, but then it must have sensed more appropriate climes, for it made for the back edge where a fern overhangs a bit. I cheered its successful transition from chemical to vegetable, although stupidly, it bumbled about for a while, looking for the highest frond, which it eventually found. It stayed for a while, upside-down, maybe hiding from God. I watched until dinner was ready.

Very boring to some but not to me. While it crawled, I admired its coloring and symmetry (also, I had the beautiful bay to look at if bored). I learned basically nothing, except that, sorry Eric Carle, it didn't seem to be very hungry. According to the books, it's supposed to end up in the leaf mat on the ground, forming its cocoon for the winter. It probably did - at least it wasn't on the fern in the morning. All in all, an excellent half hour of pure observation, little philosophy, few facts, no wisdom - better than watching what was on TV at the time, allergenic network news.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Birds of a feather - and not

Sunday morning: Two osprey patrol the channel between Ash Point and Ash Island, back and forth, hovering, sailing, maneuvering with the slightest of wing adjustments. One lands on the island, pecks around on the shore, then ascends again. They are somewhat smaller than those I usually see, and their calls - almost continuous - don't quite reach the high squeaking or peeping or whatever characterizes the sounds that adults produce. This is the only evidence by which I deduce they are juveniles recently fledged from the big nest near Lucia Beach, that and the joyful aimlessness of their flying.

Several airplanes also patrol the sky, although much more deliberately, on their way elsewhere, on their way to land, in straight lines, in large arcs, faintly roaring. An odium of comparisons springs to mind, which for the sake of the beautiful morning, I try to suppress.

Walking back home, I pass a large house. A man sits on the stoop, talking on the phone, and I hear but one phrase before I'm past - "That depends - are you flying commercial?" Humble birds in home-made nests don't have a choice but to share the air with private jets in this part of Maine. Other inhabitants, of  bigger houses, have too much choice.

Sunday afternoon: As if they had divined my criticism, nearly a dozen private jets take off in the couple of hours after lunch, roaring not faintly over the deck. This is a rate of assault I've never quite experienced before. It is the Sunday after the antique cars auction at the Transportation Museum, of course, so perhaps it wasn't personal, just wealthy people returning with papers and deeds back to Houston or New York.

It is also the last Sunday in August. They are leaving Maine. I'm staying.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sleepover

At about 6:00 last night the fir tree in front of the house received a visitor, a blue heron. It flapped up from somewhere down the shore, lit on a branch in the middle of the tree, preened and stirred for fifteen minutes, then rested, motionless, back to me, front to the bay. Two hours later, the light had almost gone but I could still make out its shape. Presumably, it stayed the night in its shelter of needles and twigs. It was gone when I woke at sunrise.

I guess it didn't mind another kind of wooden house looming just 50 feet away. It felt no kinship with its fellow biped, gray though I too am becoming. It turned its back to the glass and the electric lights of night, preferring the smooth surface of water dusted by starlight. It slept vertically and awoke (I hope) refreshed, rather the opposite of me. It doesn't know about feather pillows, food in cans, furnaces, consciousness. It roosts where it wills, and leaves as it wishes, when its needs drive it on to the next shore. It's a hard life. Comfort is simply a full belly, a protected roost, until danger and hunger come round the next time. Lucky bird, to have so many homes, and no house.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Town and country meetings

On successive nights this week, I attended meetings of the non-profit variety. It's fun, although probably not profound, to compare them

Monday night saw the annual town meeting of Owls Head at the Community Center. There were maybe 70 attendees out of a population of 1,580.  None of the 33 articles in the warrant were contentious. Only a few were even slightly amended. Judging by the suppportive comments made about the proposed exemption from vehicle excise taxes for active duty military personnel, the audience was patriotic, perhaps largely conservative. Interestingly (at least I thought so), of the five most important town officials (three selectmen, one town clerk/tax assessor, and one treasurer) four are women. There are a few paid staff, but much work is done by volunteers.

The affairs of the town have largely to do with money. We rely almost entirely (94%) on property taxes for revenue. Most of the budget (73%) is expended for the schools. The town has 260 children under 18 (I looked it up on the 2010 census), so it spends $10,000 per kid. (I did the same calculation for my other home of Newton, MA, and it is also about $10,000. Odd?). Total real estate in town is valued at $350 million.

All facts and figures, all the reports from animal control and care for the poor and library and roads commissioner, and the seven dry, form letters from our state and federal senators and representatives are in the extensive, 100-page annual report. Even though one gets the feeling that all real news has already happened behind the scenes, yet it's clear that one or two stalwart opponents could wreak some havoc at town meeting if they wanted to. The open publication of information is very powerful.

Then last night I went to the annual membership meeting of Coastal Mountains Land Trust, out in the country at the Tranquility Grange in Lincolnville. The percentage of attendance was about the same - about 50 people out of membership of 1,200. This meeting had very little to do with money (although money lurks behind everything we do, and we have considerable reserves), and the audience was largely conservative in the other sense of the word. Like the town, we have a few paid staff and much work is done by volunteers.

Very little business was transacted at the meeting, except the election of new Board Directors. The agenda was half a page. Much good will was exchanged, and our many successes were celebrated. Board members brought refreshments.

I draw no conclusions from this comparison, except that both bodies are healthy and active and in good financial shape. Huzzah for these two great American traditions, one very old, one quite new. May they both remain faithful stewards of  land and water and people's lives.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

More mysteries

We were blessed the other morning by a visit from an osprey. For a good ten minutes it sat on the very top of the fir tree on the shore, and the several humans inside the house could not look away. Through binoculars its hooked beak was clearly visible, its massive talons somewhat less so. Even this juvenile appears to be an efficient killing machine. 





I won't speculate on its reasons for this unusual visit. I don't know why, even though we see them fly around just as frequently, it and its kin don't dive for fish in our cove nearly as much as they used to. Is it related to the large fish that continue to jump acrobatically in the cove? (What are they, why are they doing it - I haven't a clue.) I refuse to draw conclusions and contrasts, biologic or poetic, about the American goldfinch that flew in to perch for a minute, just a few feet from the osprey on the top of the next fir over.

Fish, fir, bird, spouse - we are all too closely connected to be distracted by facts.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jumping fish, lobster molts, micro-climates and superstructural fantasies

Lots of mystery on the bay recently:

Fish have been jumping in the cove. Not the usual schools of mackerel roiling the surface, but big solitary guys, 2-3 feet long, clearing the surface completely and falling back with a satisfying (at least for me) splash. I've never seen this before, not in 18 summers. What are they? Sturgeon are said to jump for no reason, but I thought they tended to stay in rivers and near river mouths. Bluefish are notorious surface hunters, plowing through the above-mentioned schools like gym teachers, but I'm not sure they jump unless hooked. Maybe they are striped bass, which seem to be increasing on the coast of Maine. Why are they doing this? Not a clue. These are the mental perils of a man who mostly observes, not participates.

Very few lobstermen out there fishing since June. The price is so low it's not worth fishing, they say. The early season catch was tremendous, flooding the market, because apparently hordes of lobsters came in from the deep way early this year to shed. No one really knows why.

The fog the other morning crept northwards, slipping up the edge of Sheep Island. Vinalhaven and the bay to the south were already obscured. Then the fog just stopped, began to retreat. What strange change in humidity or wind caused this? If the climate can change within a few hundred yards, then I pity the sanity of weather-people. Imagine making weather the subject of your life and research, and being constantly befuddled and amazed. There's hope for science, maybe.

As the fog retreated, a ship appeared moving south. At least I think it was a ship - its hull was hidden and all I could see, binoculars included in the effort, was its superstructure of various heights and shapes. A castle wall, complete with towers and crenellations, trying to find Disney? Twin U-boat conning towers lost in time? Giant Lego thing returning home to Denmark? Fantasy remains alive. Often I'd rather stay ignorant of the facts.

All of this was accomplished in a relatively few minutes of bay-watching per day. Think what the result would be if I could do this full-time: a gold medal as the world's most happily confused man.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why I write, about nature

For a quadruple emotional and spiritual whammy, I guess.

At the end of a sunny day, the house and the woods behind it put the pointed firs on the shore mostly into shadow. For a few minutes, only the tips are ablaze with light, and every once in a while a goldfinch will sit there and preen and bask and sing in the sun.

So, first: the incredible opportunity just to watch and listen.

Second: when the goldfinch flies away, the chance to think about what I've just experienced, what it means, if anything, the tininess of bird (and man) against the immensity of sky and water, the cheerfulness and playfulness and sociability of these little marvels, the blessings of free time in this place, words and phrases already replacing the pictures and rolling around in head and heart..

Third: eventually getting those words to stick, to connect to each other and to the ideas of history and culture, and to inspire emotions all over again, for me and for others.

Last: this is the best way I know to approximate the comfort, the security, and the ecstasy of the religious experience, and - what amounts to the same thing - to overcome by a kind of perpetual resurrection the incessant concern with self and the mean stabs of despond and despair. Love does this also, and often art and music, but I find it difficult to write about them, as if Mozart's molecules and my family's hugs were somehow other-worldly. I can't even try. I'll have to get to heaven on the verbs of the goldfinch.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

In praise of

...the author Howard Norman, who writes novels about Atlantic Canada and therefore could (should) be a Mainer. I'm presently reading "What is Left the Daughter" for the second time.

I can think of no better way to describe his books than to quote what David Godine (publisher extraordinaire) said about one of his authors, the Maine poet Wesley McNair. He “embodies the laconic idiom of New England” and “What I like is the specificity of the poems. It seems like something that really happened to someone who really existed.” 

So, in Norman's novels, there is no:

  • preposterous plotting
  • authorial intrusions
  • incest, child abuse, or other fashionable sins
  • characters (strong/stupid/brave/tough/erudite) beyond belief
  • characters standing in for the author (also beyond belief)
  • terrorists
  • serial killers
  • university departments of English
  • gratuitous violence
  • ennui
  • gratuitous sex
  • ethnic angst in Brooklyn


No wonder Norman's no best-seller.

Monday, July 30, 2012

East-west slow-way

Getting across the state of Maine is difficult, if you define "difficulty" in terms of miles per hour. We traveled to our friends' house on Kezar Lake, nearly in New Hampshire, and getting to and fro consumed much of the weekend. Kezar's only 125 miles away but it took nearly 3 hours to reach, a laughable rate of speed. To my mind, of course, this is not a bad thing.

More progressive people have long wanted to build a better route at various latitudes across the state, and their latest incarnation, somewhat north of my route (see boondoggle), seems to make progress only for Canadian truckers wanting to cut Maine off at the hump, thus shortening the distance between New Brunswick and Quebec. (The existing east-west rail line is apparently considered to be so 20th-century.) The 70-mph crowd gets where it's going fast, and blind.

Here's some of what I saw, driving with my Maine Atlas close to hand, following at least a dozen different numbered state roads of the minor variety:

  • Farm stands by the dozen
  • Papoose Lake Camps and Resort
  • Beautiful highlands farms, only some of whose land was dedicated to growing the kind of money crop falling out of the pockets of men in yellow pants and golf carts
  • A great variety of small towns, from well-to-do (Wayne) to nearly abandoned (Bucksfield)
  • Views of New Hampshire's White Mountains
  • A family reunion (or an Olympics party), at a small camp, on a pond, in the rain
  • Curvy roads (and their snake-shaped warning signs)
  • Magnificent old mill buildings, run-down chicken barns
  • Lots of cars towing campers and boats
  • At the end of a driveway, what appeared to be (I should have been going even slower) a fresh pig's head on a stake
  • Some miles later, signs advertising the Stoneham Pig Roast for August 4 - perhaps related to the item above
  • Large lakes, clear rushing streams, lovely hills
  • A small public bazaar featuring pies for sale
  • No toll booths, few fast-food joints, no overpasses or off-ramps or wasted medians. No stress.  No semis. No passing. No Audis.

Isn't this a better way to be transported?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Normal weather day

Not too many of these days during this amazing summer in Maine:

  • not dry: a lovely shower in the night time and into the early morning
  • not hot: in the 70s, unlike the steady 80s of the past many weeks, and certainly not like the terrible heat in much of the rest of the country
  • not clear: low, gentle clouds, a little mist over the bay, soft humidity on the skin

It's a pleasure, this kind of day. I don't feel compelled to get up and out and accomplish something, the way you do when the weather is perfect. It's increasingly hard to appreciate a hot sun in a clear sky. I don't have that worry in the back of the head that beauty can't last. The weather and the world have gotten so strident that "calm" and "mild" have been retired from the media's lexicon. Maybe it's just age. But on this normal day, things don't look so bad, maybe the earth won't always be fierce and bright in spite of current reports from elsewhere. I'll be ready for the sun again tomorrow, when I'm younger.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Great open spaces


About 100 years ago, Henry Ford said about his new Model T, “It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

I love this statement - the most economical statement of the American phenotype I've ever heard. And by a prototypic American besides.

Amazing how much of it is still true.

1. Low in price. What Ford invented is much greater than a car. His systems for manufacturing in essence sent America down her long endless path of consumerism. Thousands of particular things are so cheap that any particular person can buy them.
2. Man. Male bread-winning is assumed. While women have made tremendous advances, glass ceilings and boys' clubs and inequal wages still exist.
3. Good salary. Unfortunately, Ford might be turning over in his grave on this one. His benevolence was gutted by the capitalists, then saved by the unions, and now gutted by the capitalists again, such that factory workers now make a good salary only if unionized.
4. With his family. Still the American ideal, this notion of the family, at least in advertising and often, but perhaps not as often as before, in fact.
5. Hours of pleasure. Leisure is still precious here, still the reason for all that hard work, although I suspect that joy-riding has been overtaken by the joystick.
6. God's. The political polls, if little else, indicate that at least half of today's Americans believe in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
7 Great open spaces. The ultimate irony notwithstanding, i.e., Ford's invention will eventually overrun everything, great open spaces abound. Right here in Maine, the Great North Woods is a national treasure, the coves and bays and wide ocean heal our frantic lives, the lane in the woods out back teems with ideas and possibilities, none of which are human. The car may take us there, but perhaps we will retain enough of our senses to leave the vehicle at the gate and just walk into heaven.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Collectives

I've always loved the names for groups of animals, especially the birds. Here are some of my favorites, only a few of which I've seen:

a charm of finches - yes, every day
an exaltation of larks - no, never, too bad
a gaggle of geese - yes
a murmuration of starlings - yes, but only on screen. An amazing sight, nonetheless.
a murder of crows - yes, at least 10 times a day
an ostentation of peacocks - no
a parliament of owls - no, more's the pity
a siege of herons - no
a tidings of magpies - no
an unkindness of ravens - yes, in the trees surrounding the churchyard where Yeats is buried

How to describe, then, the group gathered down the shore the other night? It ought to be a noisome word, since I only had sound to go on, trees and bushes blocking the gathering from view. There were screeches and laughings, murmuring and shouting, voices speaking over and under and through each other. It lasted for hours - they started at cocktail hour, were still going strong at my bedtime. They were too far away to hear individual phonemes, other than the occasional vulgarity. Four or five individuals were involved, judging by variations of tone and volume. Intoxicants seemed to be in use. The voices were almost entirely female. A lower male one sometimes rumbled, but if males were there in force, they were inside watching Downton Abbey.

I sat for an hour or so, listening and smiling and imbibing my own intoxicants of gin and sea air. All other birds seem to have deserted the shore. Only the sounds of this party, yes, it was a human party, raucously unusual for this quiet shore, were heard. It was as if some women decided to have a man party, full of noise and opinion and beer and taunts.

In their honor, I dub this collective an exuberance of women.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fox

For some years we have not seen foxes. They are reputed to have a den in the stony bank on the shore (I never did spot it during quite a few wobbly walks down there) and we used to see them regularly. In fact, they occasionally crossed the edge of the lawn in full view of our gin and tonics. Of course, the fact that we didn't see them doesn't mean they weren't there. I wish I could sit dawn to dusk on the deck and just watch, but other, more responsible activities intrude.

But last week we saw one, presumably the same one, on successive days. It was ambling down the shore, calmly trotting from rock to rock in spite of the murder of crows flying about in great outrage. I wonder what it's like to be pursued (reviled, warned, mocked, booed) wherever one goes. It's tempting to make the analogy to politicians hunting office in the face of the loyal opposition, but the fox is handsome and resourceful and the crows intelligent and social and I'm afraid those adjectives describe neither political party at the moment.

The fox, however, is proving to be a little more important to humans than we once may have thought.

New research suggests their importance to the control of Lyme disease. As coyotes seem to proliferate, foxes seem to depopulate, and although both mammals eat mice and voles, fox do it better. The new balance of power means more rodents (certainly true in and around our house), and rodents may actually be a more important vector of the disease than deer. Ergo, Lyme disease is increasing in incidence and range, and still increasing even as the deer population at last levels off.

It's probably not that simple. An ecosystem, even a political one as portrayed in the media, is a very complex thing. I'm very pleased, however, to see deer get off the hook, at least a bit. (In a political race between them and rodents, it's fairly clear who would win.) A future that includes more of the good guys - deer and fox - and fewer of the bad guys - coyote and mouse and PAC rat- is OK by me and my antibodies.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Icons

A friend visited us this week and we took her to several of our favorite places, including Marshall Point Light. We seem to get here at least once a summer and never tire of it, rather like supplicants bowing every Sunday to a panel portrait of St. Peter.


There are of course different kinds of icons. The man-made ones can be glorious like the Light, but often I think that the humble and the simple and the natural compete quite well. A human arranged these stones and a shell on the beach, a slight attempt to improve on nature:


But a more random, less intrusive, arrangement may be just as beautiful:


But surrounding the Light and the lighthouse, next to the small fragile cairns we build and the tide knocks down, there's the rock, the real St. Peter, about which we can do nothing but marvel. Upon this I will build my own church.



Saturday, July 7, 2012

Progress towards regress

I'd like to report a step backwards in our neighborhood. The little lane called Bay View has lost its asphalt. It's been cracking and eroding for a while now, and the other week cryptic marks were spray-painted on its surface and then some equipment - three specialized machines and one all-purpose guy - started to dig it up. Upon inquiry, the guy said they were not going to replace the asphalt. This, I said to myself, I have to see to believe.

Believe it. Bay View has always been one of my favorite walks, the striking ordinariness of a woods undeveloped - and now it's even better. Our neighbors who use and (presumably own) it have clearly decided that petroleum-based stuff is not cost-effective, where dirt and gravel are. Perhaps they even considered the deer who will now cross in comfort, the slugs who will no longer sacrifice themselves after a rain, the large increase in hunting grounds for birds, and the delight of at least one human in the new, softer, avenue of brown.

It's tempting to draw the analogy much further. The huge new LPG tank planned for Searsport would definitely go. Muscle cars, ditto. Coal burners re-fitted, plastic replaced by paper, diesel by electric, nylon by cotton, toothbrush by willow twig, hemp forever!.  Hell, why stop at petroleum? Retreat from silicon and aluminium and uranium too.

Don't we wish. Much as I'd want the world to fall apart, regress to gravel, how can I do without my car and my computer and the ergonomics of home?  I'm hooked: on power and comfort. The anachronism of Bay View seems such a tiny little thing, but it is a victory nevertheless. And doesn't the woodpile need replenishing?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Gossip at the bird feeder

Quite a few years ago we hung a bird feeder from a tree branch in our backyard in Massachusetts. It quickly became a feeder for squirrels, who learned to jump from neighboring branches and demolish the contents in a couple of hours. I shouldn't be so prejudiced, I know, but arboreal rats deserve no help from humans, whereas the birdies, the cute little birdies....

Needless to say, the feeder experiment lasted but a week or two, in spite of new test branches, waving of arms, throwing of small rocks, etc. The feeder dangled forlornly for years, empty, a quiet reminder of the way of the world.

This spring our daughter came back from a stay in Deer Isle, Maine with tales to be envied. She and Max had placed a bird feeder just outside a window and could watch finches just inches away. Worse, she could go outside and sit perfectly still and chickadees would perch and eat seeds out of Bird Girl's hand. Inspired, we dusted off our feeder, slung the rusty chain over the bend of the downspout just outside our kitchen window, bought a huge bag of pumpkin seed, and waited.

The house finches, being used to us, came almost immediately. So did a lot of other species. and all was terrific for several days. I too would be a Bird Man. Then the level of seeds in the tube dropped alarmingly one day, and we discovered that a squirrel had cracked the case: it climbed up the rhododendron, jumped over to cling to the screen on the window, then leaped to the feeder. Some yelling ensued. Just one particularly agile and intelligent beast was hoped for. Unfortunately, the case was not isolated. It happened again, same squirrel, different squirrel, it didn't matter. We were beaten again. There's nothing quite so infuriating, by the way, as the sight of a splay-legged squirrel glaring at you from your screen, when you were hoping for the bluebird of happiness.

The feeder, dutifully filled and re-filled, went back down to the trees. Lots of birds came. So did squirrels. We greased the baffle - didn't work. They still climbed down the chain, got the feeder to rocking a bit, then artfully landed on the backswing. Feeder got moved. Now they jumped from other branches, or in a pre-Olympian try-out for the high jump, from the ground. Our one moment of pleasure came from a bird that seems to hate squirrels even more than we do. The usual feeding frenzy above and below was interrupted one day by a female turkey who spread her tail and ruffled her feathers and stretched out her long neck as she pursued the squirrels into the underbrush. We knew she was female because she was accompanied by five goblets, who clearly appreciated her efforts to clear the room for their own scavenging.

That seemed a good way to end the experiment for good.

On Friday, however, I reviewed the situation once more, with the aid of a ladder. The feeder now hangs from a very long chain, out of reach of other branches, high enough off the ground. A delightful two days have followed, full of sparrow and chickadee, of wren and finch and nuthatch and blue jay, of the female cardinal and her mate who appears to have alopecia, and of the grackle, ah the grackle, squirrel of the sky, whose iridescent blue hood shines beautifully in the sun but who is big and black and intimidates the smaller birds and gobbles down the seeds as fast as any squirrel. Oh well, we've got lots of seeds, and lots of glee, for the regular squirrels are reduced to scrounging around on the ground for leftovers. So far, that is.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fisherman Island

The day is busy meteorologically and meetings-ologically, and then, during the last meeting of the day, is busy both ways at once, when another tropical downpour hits. The board room is like an island curtained off from the sea, pounded by the surf of the storm cell, and we are nearly completely distracted from the business of the day. The tumult lasts but ten minutes, and windows are re-opened, air freshened, minds tightened, sky and agenda back to normal.

When I'm back home, sitting on the deck, the sun re-appears just before setting. But the sky grants it only a sliver of opportunity, and it takes immediate advantage to stream like a laser and light up the islands in the bay. Little, Sheep, Monroe and especially Fisherman glow with a radiance as if lit from within. Fisherman is just far enough away that its details are usually not clear, but tonight the slanting sun against the dark clouds still flooding the east seems to act like a magnifier, or a purifier, and binoculars inspire the two or three trees and the old abandoned white house to a shout of eloquence. Their agenda may be past, there are no motions to second or resolutions to approve out there, but like a tropical downpour, the images come freshly alive.

An island is a troublesome beast, spawning ideas of independence and freedom where there really are none. Fisherman is small and desolate, like the rocks and grasses and surf and heath of Dogs Bay in the west of Ireland. You believe you can be married to the land on an island, or an Ireland. Where there are no people, there might be peace. But the contrast is the thing - between dark sky and gleaming light, between a fisherman and the sea, between a Board and a preserve, between an official and a druid, between a human and his Nature.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Just one flick

We both stopped dead at the same instant, me, the buck, walking up the slight hill on Bay View, and she, the doe, stepping out onto the lane. We stared at each other, human and deer, for a minute or two, not moving. That is, we were far enough apart that she looked to be still, but perhaps was tensing the muscles under her skin, her defense against deer flies, perhaps tensing her leg muscles for the first sign of danger. For my part, after the first few seconds, I fought that crazy desire to make a movement just to see her make a movement, like obnoxious people in a zoo pounding on glass, yelling, throwing twigs to make the fish/snake/ape/lion jump. Animals are not allowed to rest in peace, it's not who they are. Their movements define them. Something's wrong when a orang just lies there like a couch potato, watching us gesticulate behind the glass. Sorry, guy, the pleasures of TV are reserved for humans. We require animals like you to remind us that we too are animals. We also used to move freely.

In this standoff I was successful in holding my fire, having nothing more pressing on my plate than a walk for recreation. Soon the doe flicked her tail just once, waited a bit more, then ambled across the lane to the woods on the other side. Her walks are more than recreation, she needs to keep moving, for her plate is always empty, no leftovers await her in the fridge, that's the price of freedom. Or maybe with that flick she just wanted to see if I was the prisoner, if I would jump.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Joy of June

Still in a somber mood these days, although the perfect weather of the weekend, and the assault of June flowers - rhododendron and lilac still going strong, every last little lupine floweret now popped out, honeysuckle and spirea and a bunch of other flowering bushes well on their way to glory, beach roses taunting us with their uncultivated proliferation - are doing their best to cheer us up. It seems quite right to think about dying, at this time of lushness. Not in the angst of April, in which cold and warm, fear and faith battle, but in the joy of June. If our friend David had died in January, it would have been much harder to bear.

An Owls Head neighbor did die in January, He was older, no longer in the prime of life, but he still seemed active until the end, mowing the lawn, driving his little pickup to Rockland, fiddling with his antique Ford. Although he was buried in Rockland, where he worked his whole life, there is now a striking memorial to him on his property. Just up the hill from his house, on a large stone carried by glaciers from somewhere else and therefore called an “erratic,” his family has had his last name carved - incisively, eternally. The rock rests on the edge of the lawn that he was so particular about, just in front of a half acre of magnificent purple lupine, that wildest and most ordinary of flowers, and backed by a dark stand of spruce. Plainness, and ordinary strength, and a strong sense of home got him through life, and death. I walk past that rock every day. Cells grow and slough, and pine needles push and fall, and deer flies hatch and wait, and the hummingbird flies in a frantic arc of courtship, and the bald eagle tears at an eider duck in its talons, and my nephew's baby waxes, and my lost friend's body wanes, but the spirit and the atom go on forever.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A death, and a life

Back in Maine after an absence of 10 days. The length of the absence was planned, but not its character. A dear friend died on June 2 and we drove to Michigan for the memorial services.

This is neither the time nor the place to think about agony and what it means - that a 58-year-old at the height of his career, in a place he loved, with the most wonderful wife and sons, could die of a brain tumor - but rather about community. Our friend, after some years of wandering the halls of academe, came back to the part of the world in which he grew up, a conscious decision to embrace a community that has numerous faults of insularity, racism, and pride as well as its virtues of kindness and industry. Yet that's where he came from, that's where many of his family and in-laws still lived, that's where he felt he could make the most difference, even though in Massachusetts and Ohio and Indiana and the innumerable places abroad where he and Pat taught, they inspired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of us to work for peace and justice and tolerance and love. He could do more, and did.

The visitation evening at the funeral home was so packed with people that it took us half an hour just to reach  Pat and sons and give them brief hugs and tears. Next morning the church was completely full for the memorial service. I stand in awe of a life that was so full of people, but David had the ability to make every one of us believe that, except for an accident of time and space, we would be his inseparably best friend.

His religion played a large part in this outpouring of love and support.But if there ever was strong evidence that religion is just another way in which humans differ, David was it. It did not seem to matter to him. A community, a friend, was a matter of love, not doctrine. That I had left the place and beliefs he went back to seemed to mean nothing. He still loved me, and that's what I now take back to a very different life of small family and limited friends and much time spent alone in Maine - that I must try to understand the person behind the pose and the posturing and the fearfulness, even in these mean and divisive times.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Garden

It contains just a few items, this simple garden. We've bought nothing from a nursery, transplanted nothing from elsewhere. Moss and ivy and geraniums just grow. Conifer needles fall. That's about it.



Every month or so, I weed. This means taking out dandelions, various little worts and banes, and also pulling out clumps of the wild geranium that otherwise would obscure everything. Such effort leaves artful patches of needles, and an exposed root system mostly mossed over.


Most people might not think this a garden at all, just some stuff under a tree. More intensively traditional gardens lie just beyond, above a rock wall.


It's perhaps my favorite garden. Its simplicity is endearing. It requires little care. Art takes many forms, I'm very happy to realize, including humility. And magnificence: the huge blue spruce under which the garden rests shouts its power for all to hear.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Categories

A favorite game when I was young was Categories. For best results, it needed a large and somewhat literate crowd, so whenever my mother's clan got together, I would beg shamelessly for a game, my brothers and I proudly the kids among the adults. Each player made a 25-square grid on a piece of paper; then suggestions for categories on one axis were tossed out (e.g., Trees) until five were agreed to (obscure categories being nixed, regretfully), and one person was nominated to suggest a five-letter word for the other axis (WATCH, say), upon which the table was given 10 minutes to fill in the squares (Willow, Ash, etc.). One received more points for originality, that is, for coming up with an answer that no one else did. The scoring system otherwise remained pleasingly arcane, with pitched arguments as to points awarded/deserved and laughing capitulations to the insistence of fathers.

I'm reminded of this game when I look from the deck at the various conifers in view. They are obviously alike from a distance, firs and spruce and pines, and not so obviously alike from close, in needle (round or flat; singly or multiply attached) and twig (smooth or rough) and bark (ditto) and cone (upright or pendant). In a fit of teenage categorical imperative, I get out my Sibley Book of Trees to confirm.

Sibley, however, has been festooned with post-it notes, more than 50 of them, and I'm distracted from the mission. We lent the book to a young friend and each pink strip marks a species identified as growing in his immediate vicinity. Not surprisingly, in this evergreen state of Maine, almost a quarter of them were conifers. I'm impressed with his perspicacity and enthusiasm, jealous of his unbroken time in the woods, wondering at his patience in differentiating among jack pine and pitch pine and larch, white spruce and red spruce and black spruce. In some nostalgia I think that one used to want to know the name of everything, where it fit in the universe, what its distinguishing characteristics were. It was a way, I suppose, of making sense of the world, or more proudly, trying to control it.

I'm comforted to read Sibley's introduction, however, and realize that the very definition of a tree is actually quite hard to pin down, the problem being those pesky shrubs that act like trees, and vice versa. One woody stem, or multiple? Thick trunk or skinny? Short or tall? Crown of foliage or not? Sibley even indulges in a bit of poesy: if you can walk under it, it's a tree; if you have to walk around it, it's a shrub. I like that. As my days get more sanguine, I'm more and more pleased just to call that magnificent plant growing on the edge of the shore "tree."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Glad, then and now

We're just back from Copenhagen, visiting our daughter Kate for a week It's a beautiful city (see my wife's photos), a beguiling mix of the very old and the very new. Also, I suspect that all restaurants with windows on the street have contracts with the passing scene to require that at least 5 tall, attractive, blond people drive by on bicycles each minute. Makes it hard to concentrate on your smorrebrod.

If one must live in a city, Copenhagen is at the top of the list. Determinedly urban (when we left our apartment to go to the airport, a party was still going on in the apartment below and we met a couple on the stairs actually going into it, at 5:30 a.m.), yet it's on a reasonable scale, with a lot of gardens and parks. The lilacs were out everywhere, for example, exceeded only by the press of people taking in a rare, sunny afternoon on the Stroget, in the squares, on the city hall plaza. At least it didn't rain much, making the chilly air bearable (it reached 60 maybe twice all week). We were very glad to have visited, and with such a terrific tour guide.

Yet I'm ecstatic to be back. The lilacs in Maine are tree-like, just a couple of days from full fragrant flower, and the lupine are just starting, and the poppies are about to burst, and the trees are fully leaved, and I walk down to Ash Point on the edge of a warm rain shower, blue sky over the bay ahead, gray sky behind.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Perfect days

Wake up to brilliant sun warming the bed. Read Peter Cameron's Leap Year for a while, chortle. Get up for breakfast of fresh banana bread, juice and coffee. Look at email and Maine websites, walk dog, think about book. Go to land trust for meetings. Return home to lunch on the deck, sun warming clothes, breeze cooling skin. Go for long walk in Rockport with wife and dog. Stop in garden center for seed and fertilizer. Mow lawn in shirtsleeves, get hot. Cool off on deck, with dog lying contentedly in grass, chewing stick. Get cold, go in to warm house for cocktail hour.Cook real dinner, converse. Watch Law and Order re-run, go to bed at 9:00.

That was yesterday. Today is rainy and quiet and everything is growing like mad. Who's to say which day is perfection? Me the mere mortal, or the grass?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Down to earth

I suppose, in the great panoply of things that bother me, calling land trusts "elite" is among the least toxic. Nevertheless, it's a charge we occasionally hear. I heard it most recently at the Maine Land Trust Network conference last weekend in Topsham, in a very benign way, of course, and in the context of something to avoid. However, the keynote speaker, Peter Forbes, who slipped in the comment, clearly had it in mind when he said that promoting community-centric preservation activities would counter such charges. Kind of like damning with faint asides.

Forbes is clearly on the "use" side, as opposed to the "preserve" side of the land trust movement. He says we're just starting Land Trust 2.0, in which community use of the wonders of nature will educate, enforce and reinforce our relationship to the land. All true, but his evangelism seems to discount the need to protect much more land from development in the first place. I believe his ideas work wonders in those cases where the land has already been compromised, or where a problem of over-use already exists. By all means, the community will help to solve the problem. But when an opportunity arises to protect an undeveloped parcel forever, we must do so and then make it available, as possible, for public use. The tide of development history is against us. We must force the issue and hope the community agrees, and benefits, and applauds.

The very diversity of endeavors on display at the conference puts paid to Forbes' pleas for a new theory. Land trusts and other groups in Maine are doing amazing things - a farm in Falmouth provides employment and education for the teenage kids of Somali refugees, community-owned forests provide recreation and sustainable logging in Amherst and Grand Lake Stream, the Appalachian Mountain Club sponsors the Great Maine Outdoor Weekends, the Saco River Recreational Council cleans up after (and educates) the 100,000 boaters using the river in the summer, Kennebunkport Conservation Trust integrates outdoor education into the primary school curriculum, the 4-H Center at Bryant's Pond inspires kids for the outdoors. (These are just from the three workshops, of 32 in total, that I attended.) These are the very anti-thesis of elitism - they are literally down to earth. Apparently, Maine folks are figuring things out without the help of national theorists.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Help! Spring is stuck!

I don't usually plead for influences from the southern climes - social, political, meteorological - but we're desperate up here in Maine. The thermometer hasn't been over 50 for days. Send us something warm! And I don't mean hush puppies.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Nature-deficit disorder

... is the term coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods, a book I'm interested in reading, if not for the slight anxiety that it might contain enough dry research to squelch the very sentiments it's trying to promote. Perhaps it's enough to recognize the feeling in the gut that today's children are being terribly deprived, perhaps one should just wish for a book of such a title composed entirely of joyful, exuberant poems describing fort-making and bug-watching and pickings-up of masses of wood-frog eggs from a mucky vernal pool well-distant from any road or screen, not to mention bird-listening on a real twitter account. Apparently, the research shows that unstructured outdoor play and adventure is supremely important, not including outdoor baseball and soccer games which are full of adult rules, but the walk in the woods around whose trees one never knows what's lurking, or laughing. That's what produces confident, creative kids.

I myself am suffering from NDD today, cooped up inside. That is, I should be suffering, given the insistent rain and the outdoor thermometer that I recorded at 50 this morning and then watched fall as the day continued. May 1, they say it is. I won't believe it if I don't have to.

But I'm not really so afflicted. I'm so lucky as to live free and unstructured when confined to quarters, delighting in words, and even more lucky to suffer a most delightful nature hangover from yesterday's outing: on a clear day that managed to be both cool and warm, I took a long, exploring walk of almost 3 hours through sections of town - undeveloped woods, emerald-like hay fields, seashore at low tide - that I had not yet experienced, including long snowmobile trails completely delightful in not-winter. OK, so I won't turn up the heat or light the wood stove now that it's May, and I'm a little tired of being cold, and the solution of long underwear and an extra (third!) pair of socks is frankly ridiculous, and I guess I am suffering this very false spring from a touch of NDD. Where is the March of yestermonth? But that's the beauty of us nature freaks. Who cares how we cure ourselves, the goldfinches?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The old Adirondacks

A neighbor in Massachusetts was throwing them out - big, ungainly, wooden things weighing at least 30 pounds each. We rescued them and brought them to Maine and they continue to live and serve, some 15 more years now. Each year, however, they show their age and today, when I took them out of the garage, one more or less fell apart when I brought it down to the edge of the bay.

This is not the first time. For a few years now, I've been enduring smiles and laughs and discussions of liability. I keep wanting to repair these old chairs - I'm not interested in shiny new red things made from Coke bottles. I love these gray, heavy pieces of wood, all articulated together with dowels, not bolts. Well, there are a few bits of metal: each chair was originally made with a couple of large construction screws holding major parts together, but that's it, everything else is wood, except that now, in the course of their various rehabilitations, I've put in small screws in place of dowels, rather like surgical screws replacing ligaments. This year, however, the situation looked grim. Limbs fell off completely. I dragged the pieces back up to the garage and contemplated.

I admit I almost gave up. But the thought of just one chair down at the water, without companion, was too much to bear. With some effort and a few swears the Adirondack was repaired and joined its mate. I actually sat in it for a while, feeling the aches in its and my joints. It seemed solid but I knew that it might not tolerate sudden movements, or much more metal, or too much more of the modern world.

The wind down at the water was cold. But the sun was warm, and spring was here, summer was coming, the snow and hail and gales of winter were far away. We can emerge from our garages and sweaters, we are repaired. We might just last another season.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Peace is the bottom line

For the 11th year in a row Maine has topped the US Peace Index.

http://www.visionofhumanity.org/uspeaceindex/

For the second year in a row, Maine bottoms out in the Forbes business rankings.

http://www.forbes.com/special-report/2011/best-states-11_rank.html

Gee, do you think they are related?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Domestic violence

I'm not known as an admirer of Maine's Governor Paul LePage, but I'm very happy that in the last week he has signed three bills against domestic violence. It was one of his campaign promises, and he's followed through.

This is the dilemma of right-wing politics: I find that when an opponent of big government actually has happen to him or her a particular evil or problem that legislation is trying to cure - say, an aging parent needing end-of-life care, or a child with a rare and fatal disease, or a brother out of work, or a sewer line, or streetlights, or almost anything - then suddenly the opponent becomes a proponent. The Governor grew up with domestic violence and quite rightly wants to help. Why then cannot such a person see past his own needs and apply charity more widely? I'll never understand how people can vote against their own interests, e.g., taxing the poor, limiting healthcare, denying human rights, even in practical and sensible Maine.

Friday, April 13, 2012

I dreaded that first Rainbow, so

On these April mornings the clouds blast across the sky, looking shapely as thunderheads in July, then dissolving into a gray winter fog. The winds, now warm, now cold, ruffle the bay in a patchwork of herringbone. Rain pelts down; the sun comes out five minutes later. The weathervane swirls, helpless to offer guidance. Inside, north and south thoughts swirl. Minute by minute in April summer approaches and withdraws. I’m thrillingly called to be outside, to escape wintry traps of the mind, but if I go, it will be cold and wet.

That’s what summer in Maine builds on, the chill and wet and bluster of spring. It’s not helped this year by that aching week of false summer in March, raising expectations of months of warm sun on bare skin, sinking them unbearably a few days later. These days I desperately want the thermometer to stay in the 50s for more than 10 minutes and the weather vane to stop pointing north and the green leaves just to grow, damn it. I want to open the panes of glass to the embrace of air. In April glass is a prison, not a protection.

But for penance there is a reward. At the end of the day, a day particularly full of pelting clouds and bashful sun, a rainbow appears, promising grace, arcing halfway across the sky to the place where the cloud edge ends sharply in blue. And just to the north a double arc, small and faint and cold, shadows its glory.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A modest proposal

The news today is that the State of Maine will be funding a feasibility study for a new east-west highway, to connect Calais in the east with Coburn Gore in the west. This 220-mile privately owned toll highway would hugely benefit the people of Maine, says the Governor, construction company CEOs (well, one in particular), loggers, truckers, and Republicans.

One look at the map shows whom it would really benefit - the Canadians. Calais borders New Brunswick and Coburn Gore borders Quebec and the highway would be a much straighter shot for the products of Atlantic Canada to reach the consumers of Ontario and the American rust belt. Oh, I suppose a few dribbles of stuff might escape Maine too, but since Canada has everything Maine has, and a lot more of it, please prepare to see foreigners driving their semis loaded with blueberries and maple syrup and lobsters and logs through the Great North Woods, and not stopping to spend or build or recreate or appreciate. Well, maybe a coffee and a donut at Dysart's.

For, besides temporary road contractors, those are the kinds of jobs that Maine will get - waiters, gas jockeys, 7-11 clerks - from this boondoggle. Proponents says lots of new tourists will come, but the huge majority of tourists come from the south, on well-established roads. What sensible Canadian tourists will come to the wild woods of Maine when they already have what we have?

So I have a modest proposal. Just make the northern part of Maine the fourth territory of Canada. It already sticks up rather awkwardly into the gut of Quebec so just round it off. Portland and environs could stay. Also LePage. In trade the US could annex southern Ontario, which is basically American anyway, sticking rather awkwardly into the gut of the Midwest and poking Detroit in the eye.

Welcome universal healthcare, sensible politics, pacifism, and the loonie! One highway coming up!

NB - Not discussed here are pollution, eyesore development, noise, interruption of wildlife migration and breeding, ugliness, greed. I'm saving that for next January when the feasibility study will be finished.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Speed limit

On the last couple of trips between Maine and Massachusetts, I've not been exceeding the speed limit on I-95. I don't bother on Route 1 in Maine - the local traffic is such that the only time the speed limit is even possible is late at night, or on short stretches for seconds at a time. On I-295 from Brunswick to Portland it becomes possible to set the cruise control at 65, then at 50 through Portland, and drive sedately for most of the way in the right-hand lane. But it's only on the Turnpike that I can actually stay in the right-hand lane virtually the whole trip, some 40 miles, cruise control untouched, calmly watching everyone else speed past. Yesterday, for example, I moved to the left only twice, once for an old guy in a Dodge Dart and once for a semi who lost speed on a hill. I didn't have to worry about mergers; the on-ramps are so long in Maine that cars enter the Turnpike at speed, quite impatient to join the rat race.

My new technique is somewhat more difficult to maintain in New Hampshire, with its curious mix of grandmas and Massholes and other inveterate lane-changers, even though slowing is no longer necessary at the toll booth's, what with the new E-ZPass technology allowing passage at the speed limit (and still only $2.00 for 10 miles! what a bargain!); is achievable again in the 4-lane wastes of northern Massachusetts; but where Route 128 shares I-95, where civility and leisure give way completely to brute survival, disintegrates utterly.

That is the point of my experiment, civility and leisure. No more tail-gating, no more clenched fists at the speed-limiters in the left lanes, no more attempting to set a personal record in transit time, no more predictions as to the minute of arrival, and no more clenched guts when the record (3 hours, 10 minutes set several years ago on a late-night return) inevitably is never broken. And there are many other benefits. I don't have to think about cops, about the exact amount of overage - 5 mph? 10 mph?) that will escape their attention. I hardly have to check the rear view mirror anymore, worrying about the impatience and danger and possible handgun of that Audi owner coming up fast. Of course lane changes are rare, and the signalling and cruise-control adjustments and watchfulness, not to mention slight anxiety, that go with them. Better gas mileage, too. And the trip is leisurely; I've driven the Turnpike hundreds of time but am now seeing things not noticed before. The trip also seems shorter, even though it takes longer, the theory being that time passes more quickly when you're having a good time.

And so I arrive in Newton more refreshed, with more calm stored up against a new week in civilization. No wonder old folks drive slowly.

If this trend continues, in another 60 years I'll enjoy standing in line.