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

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


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.