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

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tyranny of eyes

Most of us, on our walks about town or in the country, use just one sense - vision - to experience the world. We pretty much ignore the others. Touch: exciting when you're 17 and holding your honey's hand, not so exciting when the only thing you get to hold is the dog's leash. Taste: only if you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Smell: generally unnoticed unless it's something bad, except not, of course, if your route includes bakeries or banks of beach roses; however, watch the dog for a while to get a sense of what humans are missing in this department. Sound: completely unnoticed unless it's loud, no qualifiers.

Last week, as an experiment, I decided to devote one of the dog walks in Maine to sensing sound. Here are the sounds I heard:
  • skitter of an oak leaf across the road
  • dee-dee-dee of a chickadee
  • breeze in the trees
  • strong wind in the trees, which is different from a breeze because it echoes in your ears
  • crow caws
  • some kind of muffled motor (plane? car? log splitter?)
  • creak of a tree branch
  • ding of the cowbell wind chime at our neighbor's workshop
  • human voice at great distance
  • buzz of chainsaw somewhere
  • crack of ice in the swampy places
  • swish of surf
  • click of dog's toes on the tar
  • scuffle of shoes
  • snap of flags in the cemetery
  • slight snap of old knees
  • jingle of keys in pocket
  • several times? the wonderful silence of absolutely nothing
Nothing unusual here, nothing I have heard a hundred times before, ordinary stuff. Sounds are a little paltry compared to the rich assault of information and excitement and beauty and glory via the eyes. But by concentrating on those sounds, on an ordinary half-hour of my day, I knew that if suddenly I'm struck blind, say, by Callista's hair or Rick's piety, I could still walk these lanes, guided by a humbler sense. And then all the other senses too will kick in. I'll even treasure, for example, the dog's leash. So if you see me on Bay View Terrace, blindfolded, I'm just practicing: expanding my universe and escaping the tyranny of eyes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

An ancient conversation

This has been a very quiet winter on the shore. Few storms, not much wind, little surf. We were out on Friday and Saturday afternoons, at Ash Point and Crockett's Beach, respectively, and while the dog pounced on wavelets and investigated sea urchins and sniffed at stones and dug frantically at the ghostly trails of clams in the sand, we gazed quietly out to sea at the islands.

The shore at Ash Point is all stones and rock. Crockett's is a shingle beach, one that has sand but that reveals it only at low tide. I always feel more comfortable at the former (even though the dog rejoices in the flat wet stick-retrieving sand of the latter). There's a sharper definition of boundary - solid to liquid with no mushy, lazy stuff in between. And waves talk better on rocks than on sand. I'm reminded of what John O'Donohue, the Irish priest turned Celtic mystic, wrote about the Burren in his native Conamara: "For millions of years, an ancient conversation has continued between the chorus of the ocean and the silence of the stone." (from Anam Cara: the Book of Celtic Wisdom) Sand seems too civilized; at any moment I expect chattering people wearing lotion and bearing coolers to appear. Sands shift. The "beach" is a human construct. There's a reason why most beaches ban such an instinctive thing as a dog.

In fact, words should fail us at the shore. We should listen to ancient primitives, within and without, and understand when to sing and when to rest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

US National Toboggan Championships

My second annual best-name winners among the teams competing at the 22nd annual USNTC, held at the Camden Snow Bowl this past weekend.

Four-person teams

Gold: Morning Wood
Silver: Disproportional Vikings
Bronze: Eat More Kale
Honorable Mention: Team Testicular Fortitude

Three-person teams

Gold: 3 Empty Mugs
Silver: Pulseless
Bronze: 2 Dirty Old Men and Kim
Honorable Mention: Sled Dog Millionaires

Two-person teams

Gold: Nothing to Luge
Silver: Throbbin Boggins
Bronze: Chute, I'm out of Beer (up one place from last year)
Honorable Mention: Soupcon de Plunder (mostly because I have no idea what it means)

Once again, my winners do not correlate well with the real winners. Also, remember that I experience the races from the comfort of my computer, and thus, unlike most judges, am subject to none of the following: bribes, appeals to my better self, the temptation of pretty faces or outrageous costumes, frozen writing fingers. I can be bought only by bad puns and existentialism.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I had the great pleasure recently of attending a real estate closing for the land trust and as an officer signing all the paperwork making possible the transaction. Easements use words like "perpetuity" and "forever" to describe the rights that land trusts give back to the earth, and it was a proud and humbling experience to see my name and signature on documents of such importance. It wasn't me, of course, that was important; it was the fact that an organization of humans had banded together to think about timelessness.

Another, more religious era would be talking about Heaven here. We of the preservation persuasion have the same impulse, but have placed it firmly on earth, which is our heaven. Because committed people, from land owners to lawyers to conservationists to donors, believe in the beauty of the land, a lovely section of woods and fields on the slope of Ragged Mountain is now preserved forever for our children, which are the only other way I know of to achieve immortality.

Friday, February 3, 2012


What's the big deal about waterfront property? Who cares about views of Rockland Harbor, the Owls Head peninsula with the lighthouse at the end, the breakwater with its lighthouse at the end, the romantic islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven in the distance? So I imagine the following establishments saying, which occupy a few hundred yards of what one might have thought was very expensive land:

*a Baptist church
*an auto parts store
*an oil-change franchise
*a car wash
*a parking lot
*an insurance agency

Not only are these hardly high-rent. They also turn their backs on a great view, in favor of the commerce on Route 1.

Long live Rockland and its unpretentiousness.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Birds and firs

This morning a swarm of birds was flying in and out and around and between the firs standing on the bank. One pair even swooped in tandem twice around a tree, a few inches apart, leading or chasing, I couldn't tell, exploiting gravity with wings stiff like fighter jets, although not so malignant or ostentatious. I'm not sure what kind of birds they were, I'm embarrassed to say. In defense I'll state that it was hard to see markings and colorings against gray sky and gray bay, even with binoculars, especially when the birds were flying about at such speed and in such joy and causing rather comical arm movements and dizziness in yours truly. They looked like fat house sparrows (at least from the Stokes Guide, in which they are absolutely the last bird in 700+ pages, by the way) but their flight was somewhat undulating, which is more like finches. Not exactly knowing what they were did not diminish my pleasure for those few minutes, until they suddenly all left, requiring me to go back to an essay I'd been trying to ignore.

The binoculars were the source of another embarrassment besides the comedy of arms. They revealed weird spikes on the balsams' branches. At least I (or rather, Google) could solve this one. Cones on a balsam fir grow straight up from a branch, and when the seeds fall off, they leave a spike sticking up like a candle. (Apparently, German tribes got their idea for candles on Christmas trees therefrom.) There were hundreds of them on the firs. The embarrassing part is that in many years of coming to Maine and seeing fir trees, I'd never noticed them.

Scores of birds, scores of cone spikes - how wonderful to take the time to find out what you don't know. And then, in the flush of inspiration, to take up the flight of words again, also to find out what you don't know.