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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Innard feelings

This is the first year in many, perhaps since I was about to turn 30 and thought, "My God, it's the 80s - life as we know it is over," that year-end contemplation is the order of the day. Usually, life is a continuum and the marking of an hour or a day or a year or even Y2K doesn't really mean that much (although one increasingly looks forward to 12:00 and lunch). One certainly looks back, in ruing or rejoicing, but the significant events of life seldom correspond to something so manufactured as end of a quarter or birthdays or balls dropping in Times Square.Will I feel older/wiser/safer/gobsmacked at 12:01 am 1/1/14?


But this year, as I say, is a bit different. For the last three weeks I've been quite focused, attuned to the passage of time and other things, waiting for enlightenment.

I would have thought that my ideations would be complex and magnificent. The successful completion of abdominal surgery should have made me think of the fickleness of life, its beauty and promise. Every moment going forward should be precious. With all this time sitting around, lying around, wakeful at 3:00 am, I should be planning great things, novels even, or at least visualize a new year's re-arrangement of the living room furniture.

Not a chance. My head is actually in my belly, in a couple of quarts of guts and organs.

"What's that twinge down there?"
"The catheter's going to pull out, I know it."
"Do I dare to eat a bean?"
"Rumble, rumble, soil and dribble."
"Gotta be  infected by now."
"There's no way those steri-strips are going to hold."
"What if they left a sponge in there?"
"I hope to God the prune juice works."

But this new year there will be a dawning, there will be a change. I'm out of the peristaltic obsessions of the city, its sophisticated robots and outcomes research. I'm in Maine, back to simple cold and surf and snow and long-suffering balsam firs. Time to get my head back to everyday dreaming.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


I know I'm close to this man's Maine when I first see the Camden Hills - that fleeting view from Route 1 in Warren. They actually look quite tall from that distance.

The pictures below, however, are not from Maine, but from the Adirondacks, where we spent Columbus Day weekend. These mountains are somewhat more real, to coin a phrase, than our coastal mountains, the reasons for which I'll explain shortly.

The picture below shows part of the Great Range - also a golf  fairway of the Ausable Club, where we did not stay, having not been invited, having indeed no inclination for yellow pants and Ray Bans, but having been invited to stay at Putnam Camp across the road, having much inclination for rusticity, and conversation not related to investments or sports, and a history that included being founded by William James, among others, and visits by Freud and Jung. 

Our hosts assured us semi-hikers used to 1500-foot "mountains" that the trails we would take that weekend were relatively easy. They were right on the relatively part. Our first day consumed only 7 miles round trip, but the last 0.7 miles we climbed at what seemed a 45-degree angle, and several times one of us boosted the other by the derriere, and the fallen leaves artfully hid roots and rocks such that coming down was way harder than going up. The result (below - the summit of Round Mountain) was worth it, even though it was only a 3000-footer. But we could see seven of the 46 4000-footers, and marveled again at the fortitude of those members of the Forty Sixers Club who have climbed them all, including some of our weekend party. These Adirondack trails are serious stuff.

The second day after heavy exercise, most of us know, is not the bad one. But we knew what aches were coming, and opted for an easy hike (without the "relatively:) on Sunday. Our hosts graciously accompanied us on the trail along Gill Brook, although perhaps they would have liked something more challenging.

There is nothing quite like a mountain river - every turn produces a new falls, pool, riffle, arrangement of rock.

But then we just had to see Lower Ausable Lake, a fjord-like cleft in the mountains (that too was worth it), and the miles piled up, ending up in a total of 10 for the day. Much of it was gentle, on a road no less, with SUVs occasionally crowding us to the side, but toes and calves still took a beating.

From the little we saw, Adirondack Park is a magnificent place - 6 million acres, a third of which is preserved forever wild. As you can see, the views are tremendous, the air and water is pure, and - once you get away from the masses of cars at the main trail heads (especially on Columbus Day weekend, which coincides with Canadian Thanksgiving, which brings many Quebecois from just a couple hours away) - the quiet serenity of mountains is hypnotic. In spite of this, and please forgive me O Great Wolfjaw and Gothics and Marcy and Giant, I'm happy to return to our little mountains next the sea, for the world divides into mountain people and ocean people, does it not?

Sunday, September 29, 2013


The slang of social media has mostly escaped me, but I did run across the term 'selfie" recently and thought it a wonderful expression of the anxiety of the age. Smart phones have made it child's play to take your own picture (a button will reverse the camera lens so you don't even have to contort) and I imagine selfie-ness is exploding. I suppose to most people it's an expression of individuality, but for this somewhat crabby older person it recalls, among other things, the time I spent in Asia watching the portraiture of sameness: all the hikers, for example, dressed the same and posing for the same picture at the top of the mountain, or the family with a monk on the grounds of the Buddhist temple, or all the pretty girls smothered in cherry blossoms and gazing eternally upwards. In the West the astounding technology is producing a similar maddening sameness. We used to say "he's buried in the pages of a book" but now "he's addicted to the glow of a screen." Just ride the subway or walk downtown streets to see the mass appeal of individuality.

Obsession on our own faces is nothing new. But this seemingly desperate need to make them not only beautiful to mass standards, but also to promulgate them as widely as possible seems to me to betray a deep anxiety. It's an anxiety that defines parts of America, and that is fear of the Other. If we record every detail of our lives on Twitter, and cavil ceaselessly on the peccadilloes of our friends on Facebook, and post our faces on Instagram in every conceivable light and mood and grimace and smile, then we won't fear so much the unknown. By sheer repetition life will become safe, and the Other - the black, the violent, the liberal, the Muslim, the gay - will be rendered irrelevant, and invisible, and if they do arrive, they will be disarmed by the screen. The tools that promise us the world drive us behind walls. If we tweet hard enough, the whole world will become like us. The self bears investigation only in pictures, seldom in conversation, or a walk on the shore, or the pages of a book.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


One of the strange things about life in New England these days is that our neighborhood in suburban Boston has more wildlife than our neighborhood in semi-rural Maine.

Now the wildlife in Massachusetts shows a substantial variety of wildness. At the bottom of the scale, more or less pets, are the mice and chipmunks that inhabit our house. Also, squirrels, which were discovered this week nesting somewhere in the second-story walls and which have now been lured into traps (one mother, five babies) and escorted into A Better Place. (Apparently, they gained access by climbing three stories up a metal drainpipe, according to our neighbor, then chewing out a board.) Somewhat higher up the wildness scale are birds, lots and lots of birds, which are becoming slowly pet-ified by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of feeders in our town. Dramatically, bird species include turkeys, a flock of which sauntered out of our backyard in the late afternoon, pecked around under the big oak for bits of broken acorns dropped by squirrels or wind, and wandered down the street, appearing not just once, but three days running, and not just a few turkeys, but twelve. Deer have been seen in the neighborhood (but not for a while now). At the top of the scale a red-tailed hawk vies with a coyote for prominence. I give the edge to the coyote; the hawk seems to have adopted this area, while the coyote roams widely, despised and lonely and inhuman.

In Maine, we have maybe one mouse, a couple of chipmunks, and one little red squirrel, and none of them seen very often. There's usually a family of deer, relatively tame. There are quite a few birds, of course (just not the quantity), notably a glorious little flock of goldfinches, the occasional hummingbird, an impertinent crowd of crows, and show-off seagulls, all of which appreciate humans' feeders and lawns and flower beds and trash, and - now we get into the species that really don't give a hoot about us - a family of ducks, a loon trying to decide on leaving or staying for the winter, blue herons every once in a while, and more and more frequently, at the top of the scale, fly-bying bald eagles, who seem truly disdainful. The foxes too are still quite wild, and would do just as well without us as with us.

One can predict, however, that some day foxes will beg for scraps, Walmart will sell eagle feeders, the bears and lynx and moose will be driven into Canada, the truly wild animals of Africa will be extirpated, and all the rest of our animal species will live in a peaceable kingdom, sharing shelters and food and diseases in the new world we are making but don't really want.

We won't mention insects.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What a difference a deer makes

Here are the phlox in the garden near the house.

Here are the phlox in the garden down by the water.

The difference is that the deer around here nip buds all summer long in the one garden, and leave the other completely alone. I can only assume that the manufactured wood, or human smells, or fear of glass keeps them away from the house.

The deer wars have been going on for a long time. I was reading today that deer were nearly wiped out in New England in the early 19th century, from indiscriminate hunting and from clearing the forests. With reforestation (we're almost back to colonial coverage) and regulations on hunting, the deer came back, and have become especially fond of the goodies that our gardens provide. Every since we got civilized in the later 19th century, people have been complaining at this clear violation of the suburban imperative. Me, I'm ecstatic that such wild and graceful and beautiful animals are so willing to share their space with us, and ask so little in return. When I see a mother and yearling standing stock-still in in a yard near the edge of woods, as we exchange 5 minutes' worth of stares, when I finally move on, when a second yearling crosses the road behind me and joins its family waiting so bravely for the human to leave, when all three bound elegantly into the safety of the trees, how can any dark mood not lift away, how can one not rejoice at the difference a deer makes?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

In tatters

Driving up to Maine on the Turnpike yesterday morning, I noticed in my rear-view mirror that a pickup truck was overtaking me in the left lane. This is not news: since I started driving at the speed limit a couple of years ago, almost everybody overtakes me. Indeed, it's news when I overtake someone. The truck itself was news, however. Big and completely black, including the windows, it was hiked up on four double-sets of large tires and looked like it wanted to go a lot faster than 75. I strained to see the words plastered across the top of the windshield like a beetle-brow, but reading backwards in the mirror is one of the skills I've lost to advancing age and I had to wait until the truck was past before the identical phrase become visible on the back bumper: Maine Turbo Diesels. Indeed.

But the words painted on the side, conveniently at eye-level as I was passed, were the interesting ones.

"My truck cancels out your hybrid."

Since I don't drive a hybrid, I didn't take this personally. I suppose I should have, since my little Civic was getting 50.4 miles per gallon so far on the trip, according to the calculations of Average Fuel on the dashboard, but clearly the statement bore no relation to logic, and was merely a typical aggressive strike of the abstract kind, assuming the fellow inside was referring to gas mileage in the first place. Apparently, it's somehow American to burn up as much gas as possible.

(The feeling of the great widening divide in this society was reinforced later by the evening news; this summer's huge car sales are being driven by sub-compacts and large pick-ups.)

I wasn't able to see the fellow inside (darkened windows, great height) to confirm any other stereotypes, although it was somehow satisfying when he left the Turnpike at the Old Orchard Beach exit (maybe there's a honky-tonk bar there whose bouncer throws you out if you get more than 10 mpg.). He's probably a good family man, life of the party, etc. He's certainly a patriot, for exactly in the middle of the bed of his truck he had planted a big American flog, which was slowly being tattered to death by the keening wind.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Atlantic Ocean, then

A couple of afternoons ago, we followed Rockland's harbor walk, which runs between the two industrial areas that still define Rockland in spite of the recent invasion of the artists and the sailors and the gourmands - the hulking warehouse of Dragon Cement on the south side and the boatyards and fishing wharves on the north. The contrast of views between middle and ends is actually not all that great, except for the fancy boardwalk constructed in the heyday of MBNA. Rockland's waterfront is still pretty gritty no matter where you are on it. The contrast of use, however, is great. The downtown part of the waterfront now serves the tourist, from the big festivals honoring lobsters and the blues to the hundreds of sailboats and motor yachts crowding the moorings. When we first starting coming to Rockland 18 years ago, the harbor contained only working boats. Now the lobster smacks and the Coast Guard and the shrimpers tie up well away from the Top-Sider set.

In due course we reached the northern end, and walked partly out on the Municipal Fish Pier. The dog was most interested in the smells of bait and rotting ropes; we looked at the utterly utilitarian scene of piles of traps and rusty barrels and fish shacks of tin and the huge blank warehouses of the boatyards next door. Esthetics might be the absolute last consideration on a working waterfront.

As we were leaving to return to the 21st century and the 1%, I saw a older man taking pictures of a fish shack sliding into the bay. He stood next to a motorcycle fitted out for long-distance travel: the comfortable seat, the large windshield, the double metal panniers painted bright red. He too was properly fitted in helmet and leathers. As we left the pier, we heard a very loud female voice coming from what seemed like the motorcycle itself. It seems he had rigged up some kind of loudspeaker to his phone, so he could talk over the roar of his machine and through the plastic of his helmet. He was keeping in touch with someone, and that someone was saying, "So you're at the Atlantic Ocean, then. How is it?" in a broad Midwestern accent.

Vividly, this Midwestern boy remembered the first time he ever saw the Atlantic: at age 13, on Popham Beach, with family on a windy day full of surf and gulls and the breathlessness of adolescence. For 50 years the ocean has been in my nostrils and my bones. If our motorcycle man was seeing the Atlantic for the first time, and rehearsing the scene for his wife or friend, then I can't imagine a more different way to do so: nature worked for its bounties vs nature stripped to its elements. I hope neither of us ever loses that thrill.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The tanker in the bay

Looking out on a bay that shows no sign of human activity but a monstrous tanker is an odd experience.
Let's assume that oil is being transported - even stranger.
The tanker slips past Fisherman and Sheep Islands as if they didn't exist. I wish the tanker didn't exist.
Here I am, yet another silly romantic, enjoying a balmy August evening and ignoring the world of petrochemicals that got me here.
Is that what we have to do to find peace?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sun and fog

The sunrise this morning was spectacular, and brief. The sun rose red-orange over Vinalhaven, intense and clear. The sun path on the bay reached for me in bed like a furrow on fire. High clouds turned pink, purple, white. The sun rose until it was perfectly framed between the horizon and the thin band of dark clouds just above. I wished I could stretch this moment to last longer, I wanted to stay bunched on my side in the bright clarity of morning, dreaming the possibilities of light, viewing a simple, clean world. The earth actually goes around this thing! For millions of years! The moment lasted but several minutes before the dark cloud took over. Time to face verticality, and coffee, and clocks ticking.

One hour later the fog had come completely in. I could barely see the water, let along the sun. Time to face the outside world, traveling blind through cyberspace: the news of the Times, reviews of books I'll never read, an array of environmental disasters flagellating me via Twitter feeds, the usual mess ever-, and never-, changing. It's better to travel "away" when you can't see the beauty in place.

Soon enough, fog and sun were mixing. This is a better metaphor for the confusion of daily life. We take the dog for a walk she doesn't really want. We struggle with words. We struggle for energy to struggle with words. We hope and regret at the same time. We try to pin down the wispy ineffable. We calculate the carbs of lunch and cars.We worry needlessly about our children. The future breaks through but occasionally. Cosmology no longer seems simple. In my beginning is my end.

From T.S. Eliot, East Coker section of The Four Quartets

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Yesterday afternoon, the resident flock of seagulls, aided slightly by the crows on the shore, decided to raise ruckuses. Three or four times, for periods of 10 or 15 minutes each, they flew back and forth over the water screaming or squealing or squawking, or however English describes their calls. As with so much of animal behavior, it seemed inexplicable, at least to me. Naturally, I've been imagining reasons ever since.
  • War/rain dance/sabbath/mating rituals - not that there was any discernible patterns to the workings out of their various religious passions
  • Insouciance - see how we can fly so expertly and you can't
  • Practice for the Feast of Flying Ants night 
  • Bird Olympics - some infinitely complex synchronized flying competition, in heats?
  • Noise continuation - my own strong suspicion, for all day yesterday on our shore, a couple of lots down from us, there was the buzzing rasp of a chainsaw cutting down and chunking up trees and the banging and groaning of an excavator digging up stumps, and the seagulls, being warlike and insouciant and hungry and competitive, were trumpeting their approval of this destruction, while this Homo sapiens was listening and watching and wondering about the new house to be built there, and how big it is to be, and more specifically, what is the wisdom in clear-cutting the lot, except for the thin borders of trees providing a buffer with the neighbors on each side, considering that trees are pretty much the only friends that Homo sapiens has in the fight against climate change, and although I'm sure there's a good, explicable reason for the clear-cut, not merely
  • A matter of convenience for the big machines
  • A larger expanse of lawn
  • A better view
yet this Homo sapiens want to change his species name to Homo tristis.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Five minutes with four crows

Four crows flew down again to the lawn this morning. Quite amazing how interruptible one is when trying to write.

All wandered around for a bit. One got a better offer and flew away almost immediately.

The remaining three got together in a little circle. One wallowed in the weeds for a while, scratching its belly on the ground, scraping its wings with its beak, dry-bathing perhaps, or de-lousing. The other two stood around, then left for some desultory walking and pecking.

All three tried the red berries on the bush on the edge of the lawn - they must have been sour.

Standing just outside the garden, one pecked briefly at the lavender (funny, I've never seen a crow actually in the garden). Was it the weed bather? I don't know, I don't know which is which anymore. I've lost the pea in the pod.

One tried pecking for something underneath one of the Adirondack chairs. Three times it snapped forward and backward, abruptly, like a comic imagining a lurking ogre.

None of them made any sounds at all - there were no foxes around to hassle, clearly, not was it 5:00 a.m.

Five minutes was enough of this play (I can't believe any of it was serious feeding - more like sampling and spitting at a winery). All of us went back to work.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


The contrail looks straight and purposeful. The plane producing it is heading east, probably to Europe, carrying a summertime assortment of tourists and business people, so straight and purposeful. This is what we imagine our lives to be, full of the easy mechanical decisions, east-west, on-off, cold-hot, happy-sad.

I'm pleased to see, after just a few minutes, that the contrail starts to break up. It wiggles and wavers, and soon enough, as the approaching cold front takes over the sky, it disappears. Human purposes leave inevitable traces, some harmless, some destructive, and our easy decisions can have terrible consequences. The atmosphere breaks up this particular warning sign, but suffers because of it. Contrails contribute more than you'd expect to climate change. The carbon cost of jet fuel is terrible. Modern travel is all too convenient. When we will stop take the easy way?

Friday, July 12, 2013


It is Thoreau's  birthday today and I've taken some time to look at "quotes" websites. He of course is the quoter's dream; I've been as guilty as most "nature" writers of mere copying and pasting more times than I care to count. But today, in his honor, I rescue one of his most popular sayings (you would not believe the number of inspirational posters on Google Images for "The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it") from the twang of popularity.

Thoreau never wrote this sentence. Somebody uneasy with the complexities of his language made it simpler, more balanced, more quotable, blander and more memorable, and it took a little digging to find what he actually said, in Walden.

In his first chapter, towards the end of a discussion about birds' nests, foxholes, the wigwams of Indians, and the shelters of the poor, which are palaces full of luxurious things compared to the Indians', he actually wrote: 

"But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man — and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages — it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."

So much for shallow sloganeering.

My cost for this slice of life? A wonderful half hour wandering in the woods and weeds of Walden.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

White on black

E.B. White is 114 years old today. I deliberately use the present tense, since to me he's as alive and relevant and wise as he was on his 70th birthday in 1969, when he gave The New York Times the following quote:

"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

What I miss most about the literary world today is the subtle, thoughtful, moral response to the human condition. There are a lot of thoughtful people, there are a lot of moral people, but there aren't very many subtle people, and making a measured view of the rightness or wrongness of a person or event is quite rare. Irony is big, empathy is not. The balance is way off. Many writers have no trouble planning their days.

Throughout One Man's Meat, White's collection of essays from Harper's Magazine, World War II is a quiet presence, but some of the greatest anti-war sentiment is found in this book, with no shouting, no enraged pacifism, no exploding bodies or cruel drones, no statistics of death. He got at the blackest subjects through the commonest things - going to the lake, the death of a pig, a spider, farm chores, taciturn Maine neighbors. Improving and saving the world is rather hard to do quietly: I'm in awe of how he did it. Too bad we can't be like White, and save and savor at the same time.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Four crows

About half the area's usual patrol has landed on the lawn. Three walk around, tottering a bit on their clumsy legs, looking for bugs. The fourth takes a dry bath, rubbing its belly and wings on the grass as if to rid them of lice. They totter and bathe until a shadow in the window sends them clacking and cawing away.

I shouldn't like crows as much as I do. They are loud, sociable, aggressive - traits I run from in humans. They specialize in the 4:30 am wake-up chorus call. They dive-bomb poor little foxes. Sometimes their cries sound like something or someone mortally wounded, or at least gaseous. They're black and ominous.

Yet I like them, not adoringly as I do goldfinches, not awestruck as by the dive of the osprey - but comfortingly. They're like family. And in these few days when we celebrate the birth of our country, when we tolerate the firecrackers and parades in the heat and fireworks in the mosquito-bitten night, the raucousness of crows fits right in. They remind me of all the places I've lived, for they were there too, announcing big events, chaperoning. They remind me of the Fourth of July, the anticipation of picnics, badminton with your uncles, sparklers (as close as we were allowed to firecrackers), lemonade and Grandma's white bread and hot dogs that have never tasted so good since, fireworks over water. The crows were there, picking up the pieces. It was OK to be loud, sentimental. It was OK to be an American.

Now we don't do much of anything on the Fourth. Patriotism has become a little suspect. Our summer evenings are no longer endless. Our enthusiasms have waned. Equally I can say that the ones that remain have intensified. We are content with quiet, and lovely views, and words on a screen or a page. Love is still there, and passion. But the hoopla is gone, except when the patrol flies by, a loud pack of eleven-year-old cousins bent on mischief.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The two most beautiful words in the English language

Henry James said they are "summer afternoon" and Dorothy Parker riposted "cheque enclosed." On the day after the solstice I'm going to claim "summer evening."

It could have been the perfect one, last evening. (It wasn't quite, for reasons you'll see.) The air was cool and dry, the ocean that interesting mix of placid surface and smooth rolling waves breaking white on the rocks. Evening, of course, begins in the late afternoon around here, 5:00 (4:45 if you're desperate) with drinks on the deck, a book, crossword puzzle, or just gazing. There ought to be a word for a gaze that's deep and satisfying.

The birds as usual were the main attraction. Gulls and ducks in abundance, the occasional cormorant and osprey, goldfinches bursting out of the balsam fir like a shower of sparks, a bald eagle in imagination, and the flock of crows that calls this shore home: one of them sat on top of a nearby spruce and did his exuberant triplet - CAW! CAW! CAW! - at least 10 times, in a voice as loud as a lawn mower. Maybe it thought me unseemly for looking so idle.

In honor of the longest evening of the year, I had planned to stay out until dark, some 4 hours away, eating and drinking and reading and watching, but it got too cool and a little buggy, and I brought my celebration behind glass. It would be light again soon enough.

It wasn't the perfect evening to celebrate, after all, not yet. That happens later in the summer, in August, the season of change in the north country, the season for changing those two words back to "love you," or even better, "my family" when they join me on the deck, in memory or in fact.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Having the privilege of taking care of two yards, I think quite a bit about the concept of Lawn. One of ours is in the suburbs. conventional, bordered nearly all the way around by clipped hedge or trees planted in a row, and it is somewhat ratty looking, with weeds and bare spots and chipmunk holes, because we don't have a lawn service and are not terribly serious about brush-cut perfection. The other is in the country (more or less the country), somewhat bigger and less conventional, just as weedy if not more so, edged by wilder vegetation, and including a large leaching field out back that I mow as if it were lawn. Both lawns look great in June (but don't look too closely), pathetic by August.

Actually, I don't really take care of yards. I merely mow the lawns, and occasionally provide some muscle or weed duties in the gardens. We break down our outdoor duties along stereotypical gender lines, sweat vs esthetics, for example, or action vs emotion.

So we maintain our patches of control against wilderness. Humans love contrast, don't we, or is it that we need contrast? In spite of all conventionality, a tended mono-culture lawn still looks great against profusion beyond. The lined edges of a garden, curved or straight, rock or rail tie or just edged dirt, still look great between cut grass and clipped hedge. Even the unnatural mound of a leaching field shines in the middle of woods like a glade. And my absolute favorite part of the country lawn is the twenty feet that span the edge of the bank, especially on a stormy day like today when the surf crashes below. The wildness, and the control, are always within reach.

By the way, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on  the lawn, in spite of calling it "managed grass space" with no hint of irony. It's a potent symbol of many things, including privilege, especially before the invention of mowing machines in the 19th century when laborers and animals kept lawns trim. America adopted the lawn wholesale from the English, a not-so-subtle indication of class and race in our so-called class-less society. Perhaps it's really because lawns are a terrible waste - the water, fumes of fuel, the chemicals, the @#$%^&* leaf blowers - and we're proud that we're prosperous enough to afford them. And in spite of the modern trend to tear them up and plant fruit trees or cactus (or is that being done only in places with water crises?), we hang on here in New England, of the manor born, mowing to our hearts' content.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Women writers

I'm in the middle of an amazing stretch of fiction reading. Having finished Life After Life (Kate Atkinson) and The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout), I'm now reading The Round House (Louise Erdrich) and Dear Life (Alice Munro). I've had to read a couple of Peter Lovesey detective novels in between just to keep from being overwhelmed.

That these four writers are female is exactly the point. They are among the best writers today (and one of them is the best), and I don't understand the various biases and prejudices that are still current. Certainly women don't seem to get the press that the glamour boys - Michael Chabon, Martin Amis, the Jonathans (Franzen, Safran Foer, Lethem), Junot Diaz - get. There's the Wikipedia scandal in which women were being shunted off into a separate category of writers, and the on-going study at the Women in Literary Arts website showing that literary magazines are still heavily biased to men.

Not that there aren't terrific male novelists. Jeffrey Eugenides, Kent Haruf, Peter Cameron, Stewart O'Nan, and Howard Norman come immediately to mind. But for controlled passion, exquisite language, fidelity to story and mood and family and character, the women are in the ascendant, if not already triumphant. Men seem mostly interested in their plumage.

It's my bias, of course, but to me it's like the difference between a hot city sidewalk and a cool country shore, between conturbation and contemplation, between "Look at me!" and "Look at them," between the novel-as-TV and the novel-as-it's-always-been. Enough of irony already!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

More foxes

I was going out to a lunch appointment yesterday when the car was stopped almost immediately by an irresistible force. Just a hundred yards along a crowd of foxes played on the road, and it was a crowd: I counted at least five kits in the open and an adult in the woods. The babies looked half-grown already, and would be by the fall. I suppose they felt emboldened that the people in the house opposite have not yet arrived for the summer, and the little cottage next to that, so long derelict and suspected of housing evil raccoons, has been torn down and not yet mansion-ized, leaving the lot wide open. Their den had clearly survived the earth movers and backhoes and the building of the seawall for the new owners, or maybe ma and pa dug a new den in the bank on the shore.

The kits seemed to regard the car with curiosity. After watching a while, I had to get going (silly human schedules!). They didn't panic but quite calmly drifted into the woods, still messing around with each other, twigs, imaginary mice. As I turned up the hill, they came out into the field next to the road, not exactly following me but still curious, and then I stopped again as in the tall grass they gamboled and bobbed, appearing and vanishing, practicing (I imagine) the vertical leaps and pounces that in adulthood would end in dinner.

It wasn't innocence I was feeling. Joy at such exuberance, certainly, but I know that the lives of foxes in the wild are very short, and resourceful as they are, they are constantly on the edge of danger and hunger. It was more about that parent in the background, watchful, proud, worried and ultimately helpless at whatever fates faced the family. In just a few months the kits would be gone to seek their own territories, their own dangers and diseases. But for now they gamboled, and this father rejoiced in their spirit and drove away, cheered up on a difficult day.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mangy and wet

Even though it's rainy and foggy and chilly (and will be for the next 400 years, it seems), it's still good to be back in Maine, a feeling only amplified when a fox trotted across our yard this morning. Granted, I did see a fox in Ohio last week, but it was at an intersection of two country roads, with houses on each corner, and the fox was moseying from garbage can to garbage can as if it were used to getting fed on trash pick-up day. Our fox also looked a bit mangy, or maybe it was just wet, as we will be later when we tackle the spring gardens, and I did worry for a moment if its den was destroyed when the new seawall of riprap was constructed down the shore. But it quite purposefully went down the bank as if going home after a successful night with voles. I hope it hasn't been reduced to scrounging for left-over people food. It's good to share a little of wild and wet and ripe, in amongst the lilies, bleeding hearts, and brambles on our bit of ocean-side home.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Light until nine

The evening goes on and on. It's perfectly still. Not a leaf stirs, the bird sounds (none of them familiar) are loud, there are not even any insects to wave at. The long grass settles down and gleams in the low light. Talley the Singapura cat settles down in my lap, also gleaming. Her daughter Bertie stalks chimeras somewhere nearby. It's 9:00 here on the western side of the eastern time zone. And there's still a month to go before the equinox.

And Ohio isn't even the far western edge. I lived part of my boyhood in western Michigan and vividly recall playing kick-the can and hide-and-seek until nearly 11:00. It was a summer-long gift, those 5-hour evenings after supper, appreciated as if games were eternal, time were endless. Now life is quieter, a little more sedentary but more appreciated. Even this unfamiliar place makes me content, and I look at my car at this end of the long, thousand-foot driveway, pointed out as if ready to leave in a couple of days, and yes, I miss the ocean, and my wife, but tonight is a gift too, out of time, or rather, back in time.

Ten minutes later, it's nearly completely dark.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The birds of north-east Ohio

I'm about half-way through my month-long, Maine-less sojourn, most of which I'm spending in rural north-east Ohio at my brother's house, staying with my mother while brother and family vacation in Ireland. Today feels a bit coastal Maine-ish - foggy and cool after yesterday's thunderstorm - not surprising since we're only a mile or two from Lake Erie.

My daily routine includes, of course, a walk. Although I don't know Ohio well, this area seems distinct form the rest of the state: flat, mostly wooded, full of little ponds and tiny streams and open fields of hay, a floodplain perhaps for the big lake to the north. The walking is easy, quiet, unspectacular, and the animals I see are mostly domesticated - seven Herefords in a feed lot, a dog frantically barking behind a fence, chickens crowing and clucking, my mother's two cats willfully going in and out of the house. The wild animals I see are mainly birds, the common ones seen most everywhere in the Midwest and New England. Or maybe I could count barking dogs behind fences, on chains, behind doors, including one in a cage that seemed anxious to take a bit of my thigh for his afternoon tea.

Are these birds really wild anymore? I suppose the vultures, robins, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, blue jays, sparrows, wrens, and the two geese who seem to have adopted my brother's property could survive without the lawns and fields and seeds and shrubs and roadkill supplied by humans, but it would be much more difficult. Some of the birds clearly don't need us. The pileated woodpecker sounding like a machine-gun, the kill-deer leading me along the road with their piping, the two kingfishers (?) calling a little square dance around a tree before having sex, the blue heron I saw in a swamp in the state park nearby - all these give me the sense of freedom that more settled life might lack, a feeling of hope and of the very long cycle of life that temporary or even permanent setbacks find a place in.

There are deer here also, those lovers of edges, but I haven't yet seen any.

Not that lovers of edges aren't inspiring in their own right. What could be more amazing than a hummingbird in your lilies? I'm just not sure humans are thriving here, even though we have created this new world of borders. Many species do thrive, finding food in spite of danger, finding food because of danger. I live in such places, on the edges of ocean, city, emotion, pain, ecstasy, where I can find food for the body but not necessarily for the soul.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Organizing lobsters

There's a new movement to organize lobster fishermen into a union. The industry must be in trouble if the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers wants to take on the long-standing Maine Lobstermen's Association. I don't have an opinion of the worth of either of these groups, but I do wonder how inside, hourly, company tool guys like IAMAW fit with outside, independent, piece-work trap guys like lobster fishermen. Also semantically speaking, something named MLA would seem to be the obvious choice to represent the economics of our lovable crustaceans, but only if it can distance itself from the main problem: that the lobster dealers - neither company guys nor independent contractors but some queasy in-betweeners - set the prices in this business. Oh, the possibilities for collusion!

On another and perhaps lighter lobster note, I was "interviewed" following publication of my lobster essay last year in PANK, and the interview is finally published.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tree rat sex

Gray squirrels are not common in our area of Maine (we have the terribly cute, feisty, chattering red kind), so I have to observe them in Massachusetts. They probably don't deserve the odium that most city-dwellers heap on them, being reasonably cute, terribly athletic, and fascinating to dogs. After all, their sins are minor: solving the barriers to bird feeding stations, and chewing their way into attics. Perhaps there are more.

Anyway, I spent a lovely few minutes at the end of an even lovelier day watching three of them in the oaks behind our house. Two seemed to be a couple. There was playing and chasing around tree trunks, which I soon understood to be fore-play; a couple of  tentative humpings; then a prolonged coupling, or what appeared to be, since the sun was going down in my face and the sight lines were not clean. Some rest followed, on quite separate branches, and that was followed by what I can only describe as snacking. They both climbed high into the tree, far out into the smallest and tenderest branches, and with their clever hands broke them off and ate the new buds. Twigs were discarded like cigarette butts.

The third squirrel? Just moved mysteriously through the trees like they always do.

Nothing earth-shattering here, just squirrel sex and noshing, but I had never seen either before, and it was a damn sight better way to spend time than surfing news sites for news of the odious marathon monster.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April 15

It's supposed to be a joyous week, this unofficial start of spring when we in New England can say with some confidence that winter is finally over, when the people of Massachusetts and Maine celebrate Patriots' Day and the beginning of our country's independence, when the schoolkids have a week off. This year the third Monday in April also coincided with Tax Day and I never have felt so grateful, so willing to support our government.

The response to the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon has been overwhelming: first-responders of all kinds running towards the explosions; rides, food, shelter from citizens; dedication, security, compassion from our elected officials and our police and fire guardians. Whenever we think we live in a barbaric society, public response saves us. We live in a civilized society too.

Maybe residents of Newton feel this particularly strongly. A good chunk of the marathon's route goes through our city, including Heartbreak Hill, and few of us live more than a couple of miles away from the Hill's agonies and triumphs, few of us have never see them in person. We are also blessed with the ability to pay our taxes (indeed, we just voted to raise them for school and road repair). We are privileged in most senses of the word. Paying taxes to help ensure a society of civility is one of those privileges.

Yet the desire yesterday, even in this safe place, was to escape these cities where crowds of people attract crazies. Disasters in a rural place are mostly natural, and making a violent political or religious statement on the shore of the ocean or the middle of the wilderness is ludicrous, for only God will see you. But that desire to escape is a feeble response, purely a gut reaction, and it fades quickly. We bear responsibility for our collective suffering and need to assist however we can. And that includes the commonweal.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


I'm serenaded these days by bangs and crashes just up the shore. The cottage there was recently sold, and torn down, and now the new owners are engaging what the contractor calls "shoreline erosion control" before they build their new place.

This involves riprap (I'm writing this post mostly because I love that word), the rocks and stones placed on coasts and shores to protect our houses and lawns and golf courses and roads from the ravages of water. In this case they are huge white chunks of scrap granite - that stretch of shore will look quite sporty when it's finished.

I wasn't sure why this is necessary. The houses along this shore sit up on a small bank 25 or 30 feet high, enough protection to last many years, I would have thought. We've lost less than a foot of bank in almost 18 years, for example. But when I walked past the site yesterday, I asked the contractor about it and he said the ledge there has been crumbling and could be dangerous. Let's hope that disease is not catching.

I wonder more apocalyptically if the new owners are just being super-cautious in this era of climate change. Apparently, they are from New Jersey and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to think, considering what happened to the sandy Jersey shore this past year, that they are escaping to a rocky place that needs only a little help, however loud and glaring, to be safe.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter missionaries and pagans

I'm not saying that the world divides neatly between those who preach and those who play - it just seems like that sometimes. The news, for example, describes almost no middle ground. It's all disaster (and the people who are called upon to fix it) or celebrity (and the people who are called upon to wallow in it). The morals of celebrity and the freedoms of disaster are left to the poets.

Yet writers who are not journalists must always struggle against both (except Jane Austen who in Sense and Sensibility does it so perfectly that nothing sweaty shows). Mere mortals guard constantly against moralizing, and ferociously edit out melodramatic gushing, and the result often creaks and slides with remnants of both. How in fact do you approach an obviously evil world? What do you make of those moments of love and joy? What do you live for?And what is the truth, and is it upper- or lower-cased?

Personally, I can't help but criticize bad actions, bad people, bad outcomes in politics and business and love. I can't help but fall aswoon on Beech Hill, Lucia Beach, in my backyard on the first warm day of spring, in a reading-aloud of Richard Selzer's "Skin." But bringing them together? It seldom works for me on paper.

It's really a religious question, I guess. Do you believe in something ultimate? I obviously have trouble both ways: if you don't believe in something beyond human perception, what's the point of living? If you do, it's logically (and often emotionally) impossible.

I'm (obscurely) comforted by the notion that Easter is just the Christian manifestation of countless pagan rites throughout history and geography. It seems to fit with the maxim (slightly preachy, I admit, even Calvinistic) that although an absolute Truth (God, Nature, Art, Music, Love) is unattainable, we have to go after it anyway. Isn't every day of our lives both an affirmation and a denial? Yes/No seems a perfect answer to Easter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Deer at dusk

As it was getting dark, I looked up from whatever important thing I was doing - perhaps a crossword, tackling someone else's words as a reward for making it through another day of my own - to see two deer on the lawn. They were grazing, and shortly a third joined them. I watched from the big windows in front.

The wind had been strong enough during the last storm to keep the yard clear of snow at the edge of the bank. I immediately thought that the deer must be desperate for food to go for the brown stuff that passes for lawn these days (and most days, I must admit, even in summer), and so much in the open besides, just 30 feet away. The rest of their world is still covered with snow, and by late March they must have reaped all of the Spanish moss and cedar bows within miles. But they looked healthy, and of course elegant, and I probably was reading too much into their apparent bravado. Or maybe my mossy grass was a bit of dessert.

Then I thought of agriculture, as if I were raising deer like cows in a field, and they would nuzzle my hands after feeding if I slowly and carefully went down to them. (Quite a field - just a few feet from the ocean, like a taste of a saltwater farm.) It's true that deer in these rural parts are at least partly domesticated, if by that we mean they tolerate humans to a degree for the bounty of our ornamental shrubs and flowers. I think it was their calmness that made me think of them as tame and friendly. They would look up and twitch their ears every ten or fifteen seconds, especially when I moved from one window to another, as if they couldn't quite figure out what that flickering shadow in the big grey tree was up to, but my general impression was that they were unafraid.

After 10 minutes or so, they wandered over into our neighbor's yard. They continued to feed quietly, and only one of them looked up at the airplane, prop-driven, noisy, lights like probes, roarng in just above. The other two kept right on nibbling.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The "thud" against the house was a familiar sound. I knew at once what it meant and got up to investigate who it was this time.

Of course, the look she gave me was not reproachful. A bird, not even a beautiful female cardinal, isn't capable thereof (I think), although flying into a glass window would certainly be cause enough.

The first time I looked, she sprawled a little awkwardly - one wing was extended unnaturally - in the thin layer of snow on the deck. I feared the worst, that she was dead, or would die shortly. A few minutes later, it was clear she was better. She was perching more normally. That's when she gave me the eye.

I assumed in my guilt that she indeed could see me standing safe and warm behind the French doors. I also assumed, at least for one terrible moment, that she was blaming me for what had happened to her. Never mind that the living room extends out from the house such that there are windows on three sides, thus offering the illusion of a path through. Never mind that I had nothing to do with the building of the house. Never mind that the pathetic fallacy is indefensible. I am the proprietor. I'm responsible if she dies. I should have darkened my windows, or something.

That she - apparently - fully recovered (or at least was gone when next I looked) is a tribute to animals but not to humans. I can't imagine, for example, that Usain Bolt would survive as well as a humble little bird, either in body or in bravado, an impact with a transparent wall provided by the IOC at the end of his record-setting run. I can't imagine how the creatures of the natural world survive the countless insults we humans put in their way. When the tables are turned, say, by a tsunami or a northeaster or a plague of locusts, we give up the ghost and run crying to our God or our iPhone. But a mere cardinal bears my impudent windows, and lives to sing another day.

PS - she did live. I saw her the next day  in a tree just outside the window.

Friday, March 15, 2013

New essay

I have a new essay out at Connotation Press . I probably shouldn't admit it, but it describes someone who's almost the perfect definition of a Masshole.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why walking?

Having been nearly a month OOM*, I'm very pleased to be back, especially on a mild Tuesday when only a couple of cars during the course of an hour's walk this morning disturbed the germination of skunk cabbage and ideas. Such a walk on the roads and lanes of Owls Head is my emblem of return, and here are the reasons why.

1. Must bow to the currents gods and say that walking is a good form of exercise, not the best, but suitable for someone who no longer cares to impress.
2. Will distinguish walking from hiking, which is more of a worship (of body and vista) than a communion, the way California coast and hills (they stun) contrast with Maine coasts and hills (they soothe).
3. Finds the familiar place, does the same route over and over, yet allows time and space to expect the unusual (eagle, fallen tree, first skunk cabbage of spring, progress on that McMansion down Lucia Beach). Can easily stop and stare or grouse.
4. Provides just enough tonic for restlessness. Not necessary to beat the restlessness out with tennis or running, just applies a nice salve.
5. Springs me outside walls, face bathed in breeze, bugs, sleet, heat, sunshine, fog - anything but the glow of a screen and the succor of a sofa.
6. Experiences nature with just a little difficulty, a little sweat, and a little soreness in calf and arch after an hour. Pretends to be Great North Woodsman. Could if I wanted to.
7. Allows time to rehearse conversations, in the several senses of the word rehearse: repeats past talks but invents new responses to find a better light or less embarrassment; invents and proposes imaginary dialogue with hero novelists; practices opening lines for future tasks; tries to remember Leonard Cohen lyrics.
8. Does not listen to music - far too irruptive.
9. Solves problems of the world, provides last lines of essays, practices blog posts.
10. Proves that all we really want out of life is to know one place, deeply, lovingly, slowly, sacredly.

*Out Of Maine, Odds-On Melancholy

Friday, March 8, 2013

California dreaming

Our week in California went by as if we were in a dream, made more so by the day-mares of weather at either end of the trip, on the way west just escaping a big storm in Boston when it turned to rain and on the way east beating by eight hours a big storm in Chicago. To be able to foil Boston's February is fantastic enough, but then to go to sunny and warm California besides!

Not only the weather was a heavenly escape. We stayed with our daughter and her boyfriend in the hills just west of the Central Valley near Davis (where they are attending grad school). Yes, this area is populated, each hill topped by a house, others straggling in the little valleys, but the lots are very large, and almost everyone has kept big trees and tends a garden and keeps sheep or lamas or goats or ostriches (!) or cows grazing around the house, and jackrabbits run freely around and through the fences and a herd of a dozen deer wanders around and over the fences and regularly rests in the pines next in the driveway leading to our daughter's house. They were our welcoming party when we drove up to the geodesic dome on an appropriately named Sunday..

The kids do live in a dome home, having lucked out in the rental market around the university. It's a dream of a place on the top of a hill, surrounded by trees and cactus and oleander like a reverse moat, circled by a deck 90% of the way around, its walls inside showing how triangles are made into a sphere. From the deck we watched the sun set over the western hills.

A remarkable feature of California is that you can see hills and mountains almost everywhere. The lower ones are developed, but beautifully, lightly, sustainably, a true American dream of large houses, of cattle grazing on the hillsides so green in spring, of millions of acres of vineyards now extending well outside Napa and Sonoma. But even more dream-like are the bigger hills as yet undeveloped, a curious patchwork of thick woods and open meadows that looks planned but isn't, and of course the big mountains to the east and north, containing an array of national parks and forests truly unbelievable in allure and beauty. This boy's dream of Yosemite might actually happen.

Another feature of the landscape is the often sharp divide between city and country. The Bay area cities extend for a horribly long way east along I-80 (whose horrible traffic we discovered one morning driving into San Francisco), but once out of their grasp, the towns further east become manageable. I suppose it's only a matter of time before more development springs out of farmland (we did see some "retirement communities" and one large casino in the middle of nowheres) but for now in towns like Davis and Vacaville development stops abruptly and fields begin. The suburban sprawl we see in the East is not so prominent in northern California, which has densely packed cities, exurban farmlets, and (still) vast amounts of true wilderness. This is not true of southern California, some people's definition of hell.

Here you dream with eyes wide open. The variety of stimulus is huge: the green hills, terraced rows of vines, redwood forests, the glorious coast. The sheer bigness of the place means I wouldn't get any work done for years if we ever moved. I'd always be dreaming of the next twist, the next vista, on the mountain trail. Of course we were there at the best time of the year (not the impossibly hot summer, not the chilly, rainy winter). So in a way I'm glad to wake up this week back in New England, back in a snowstorm (going on 10 inches last night and this morning), back to work, until our spring and summer begin and the kids can dream of Maine and we can live it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New essay published

I've just published a new essay in The Write Room about walking our dog. Half the essay takes place in Massachusetts and half in Maine, which well-describes my life.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Toboggan championships

The 23rd annual US National Toboggan Championships were held last weekend at the Snow Bowl, abbreviated to only one day of sliding, tippling, and posing because of the big storm. Herewith, I present my 3rd annual Best-Name winners

Four-Person Teams

Gold                           The Desperate Housewives
Silver                          Team Testicular Fortitude
Bronze                        Greatful Sled
Honorable Mention      Icy Privates

Three-Person Teams
Gold                            The Meat Thermometers
Silver                           Arma Sleddin'
Bronze                         Drive It Like You Stole It
Honorable Mention      Aristacracks

Two-Person Teams

Gold                           Cold and Hungry
Silver                           My Second Favorite Team
Bronze                         God Help Us
Honorable Mention       Drift Burgers

Note than past winners like the Soggy Boggan Boys and Eat More Kale are not eligible for a while. Also note that this award bears no correlation whatsoever to the actual winners.

Once again the Royal Dutch National Toboggan Team won Best Costume. The Dutch are so flamboyant!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Storm notes

At 10:00 the snow has finally let up enough so I can see a bit of the action. I still can't see across to Sheep Island, of course, but a couple of hundred yards of ocean are now in view.

The first 100 feet out is all white water. It's just past high tide, and the force of the wind and the backwash from breakers is roiling the water like I've never quite seen before. Every once in a while a big wave breaks through and crashes on rocks with a deep roar. If this storm had been a southeaster instead of a northeaster, the waves would be twice the height, given the way the cove opens up to the southeast.

Seagulls are patrolling the shore - how do they do it? These winds must be 30-40 miles an hour. Can they actually pick out food in the maelstrom? Yesterday morning, as the storm was just starting, the flock of Canada geese that I saw a couple of weeks ago, now apparently area tenants, flew south en masse.

The wind is blowing the snow into remarkably precise drifts. In front, where a break in the trees allows free passage, the ground is virtually bare. In the space behind the trees and in front of the house, the wind has created a drift extending 50 feet, with a ridge line as sharp as an axe. The deck is scrubbed clean. In back, where the space between garage and house allows free passage, there's a little amphitheater, with bare ground for the playing field and a nearly perfect, open-ended bowl of snow for the spectators. Forming the northeast section is a drift piled up against the glassed back door, which drift I just measured - not too bad at 20 inches, but dipped down a few inches from the top tier of the drift. The bricks of the sidewalk just beyond are bare.

Opening the door will be interesting.

Further out back, between the driveway and the leaching field, I can now see that a tree has fallen, a very large spruce next to the utility pole. Fortunately, it fell directly away from the wires or I would have been marooned - cold, dark, unenlightened by Internet - for days. (Perhaps only two of those three would have been a problem.) Spruce have shallow roots, and they pull up an almost perfect pancake of dirt when they fall, and this one looks like it measures 10 feet in diameter. In the last storm, another spruce fell on the leaching field - we won't lack for firewood any time soon.

This storm has been a cold one. The temperature's at 15 and the snow is light, unlike the wet and heavy stuff that started the storm in places south.

At noon, the storm is approaching 30 hours straight of wind and snow. I'm very grateful for hot soup and cold yogurt. The backdoor blockade has crept up to 22 inches. The wind seems to be winning the battle for the waves, now that the tide is receding. Only the biggest breakers make it to shore; others are knocked sideways. The white water is split into two bands, perhaps because of the topography of the ocean floor.

3:00 - wind and snow abating only fractionally. I watch a squadron of seagulls hover and occasionally dip into the milky water. No, they're not dunking Oreos but it is food they're after. Every third or fourth try they come up with a bit of something churned up by the waves - fish, crab, mussel? - and settle on the snow- and ice-covered rocks to snack. Looks like a zero-sum game to me, or worse: the amount of protein they capture can't possibly keep up with the calories they burn hovering in the teeth of the wind. But I expect they know what they're doing and will survive on their own wits, something I couldn't do in this mess.

Wood running low - I'm going to have to break out soon and get to the garage for more.

4:00 - the blockage, recorded one last time at 24 inches, has been successfully breached and the snow carefully shoveled to the 50-yard line to preserve the lovely contours of Super Bowl MMXIII. A couple of minutes' work gets me to the bare sidewalk and the garage door, and that's plenty.

I'm signing off at 5:00. The storm is still busting its guts, the driveway has not yet been plowed, but who's going anywhere?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Estimating the wild

It wasn't too long ago that humans just took - shot, trapped, netted. The supply of wildlife seemed endless, just like the continent and our very definition as Americans did. There was no brake on our free-rolling desires, no need to conserve. Now, of course, there's not only the need to conserve populations, there's also the need to count the members of those populations. If we know how many moose live in Maine, for example, we can manage them for hunting, by rifle or Canon, and also maintain along the way the proper balance between awe and collisions with cars. The estimated number of cod in the Gulf of Maine determines how many people fish this year. The steady increase in bald eagles lifts our spirits and has the magical side effect of reducing the attention that global warming gets. Bengali tigers, African elephants - by God, we'll save them with the drama of mathematics. We love numbers. Surveys and studies prove we're doing something about It. Setting aside the paradox of trying to list the ineffable, corral the untameable, factor the mysterious - no, wait, I won't set that aside. The point of all this counting seems mostly to pinpoint the exact day when the last wild moose dies.

It's hard not to be cynical about human activities. We tend to exploit until it's too late. I therefore stay positive and applaud the State of Maine for its creative use of destructive technology in saving the moose. The state is nearing the end of a three-year study in which the primary research tool for counting moose is the helicopter. You see, if you fly your Sikorsky low and slow over the Great North Woods, methodically slicing up Maine's quadrants of wilderness, you'll frighten the moose into bolting from their hidey holes, and you the wildlife biologist can much more easily determine size and age and gender and make much more sophisticated projections about populations. (Disclosure of bias: I too have been frightened out of sleep by monsters, i.e., the Gulfstreams using Knox County Regional in the middle of the night.)

Let me therefore propose extensions of this technique of overkill to other areas:

NOAA could  use nuclear submarines to count cod.
The Army will undoubtedly conduct the next Census.
Drones could pollinate crops once all the bees die.
EZ-Pass could offer the implantable transponder, billing not only turnpike tolls but uses of public restrooms, smart phone minutes, BTUs in your living room, minutes thinking about sex....

Unfortunately, I can't think of any way to re-purpose cars.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sea smoke II

At dawn yesterday the sea smoke was performing more vigorously than the day before, goosed by temperatures at 5 below. It covered much of the bay, and the new sunlight, streaming out just to the southeast of the dark bulk of Fisherman Island, made it glow. The view was like a cruel mirror of a summer sunrise, the bright blue ocean and the sea smoke like cirrus clouds. Far beyond, in the warmer waters of open ocean, a big bank of fog arose, strengthening the illusion of summer. Small chunks of ice floated near shore, as the rising tide took off the caps of the rocks. Again there was the defiant loon, and the indestructible crows, joined now by a pair of puffed-up ducks swimming close together as if in alliance against Mr. Fahrenheit. Soon the sun's rays struck the outdoor thermometer up to a giddy 20, only to fall back to 8 in shadow. By noon the sea smoke was gone. The thermometer broke 10 again, the bank of fog resolved into regular clouds, and a sense of normalcy returned. I took my walk in the afternoon, and my face was not so deeply frozen as to melt off upon re-entering the house.

This morning scanty sea smoke, far out in the bay. Temperature a balmy 4, with prospects of 20. More birds around, including 7 members of one of the smaller species of Canada goose swimming just in front. Never seen them before. Sibley confirms. The danger of fantasy and illusion must be passing. These wisps of imagination mostly banished. Time to get up and work, time to go back to the smoke of the city.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sea smoke I

On these very cold days, the ocean wears wisps of sea smoke all day. In the morning it covers pretty much all of the Bay, this western side anyway (for I can't see past Vinalhaven), even appearing quite close to shore where the water is shallowest and presumably therefore coldest (a high difference between air and water temperatures produces the thickest fog). Not that you can call this scantiest of clouds at all thick; sea smoke is a matter of tatters and  rags, wisps and tissues, blown by the wind like wavelets, disappearing just a foot or two above the water. Out in the middle of the bay, sea smokes persists into the afternoon. The greater depth out there means warmer water, and since the thermometer hasn't risen past #$%& 5 degrees today....

What a pale and beautiful cousin of summer fog it is! Much as we romanticize fog, its mystery, the way it blocks out the world (like cars and planes especially), stretches of several days of its hanging around, for which this peninsula is well-known, can be quite depressing. Sea smoke is the definition of ephemeral. You can hardly see enough of it to catch it; you can't get lost in it except metaphorically, it represents such a fleeting connection between water and air, especially in the milder (hah!) afternoon, that you'd miss it if you weren't looking for it.

I like things that exist between. The shore itself is a perfect example, as are birds (like the loon this morning apparently unconcerned about temperatures just at zero, and the crows still ruling space and spruce this afternoon), and book authors, and sunrise and sunset on the ocean. All of us, and all things, live between worlds in one way or another, between life and death at the very least; it's just that some live more spectacularly than others. And sea smoke is a spectacle well worth catching if you can.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Minor notes

Thanks to my daughter's recommendations I've been immersed in the 19th century again (no, not Thoreau this time). This English major never read some of the minor works of Austen (Sanditon), Eliot (Felix Holt), and James (The Princess Casamassima), and not enough of Trollope. So I'm fixing it. And let me say that they are striking a stronger, deeper, more mellifluous note - even these so-called lesser novels - than almost any author has since. They have it all: interesting plots, fascinating and often funny characters, trenchant social and political observation, subtle and beautiful language (although sometimes a little involved for even this aficianado), and just enough irony and authorial presence to please the modern ear. This latter is the key, to me, to the problems of modern composition, ie, there's so much irony and author intrusion that all the other elements of good writing are subservient to self-consciousness and thereby suffer. The modern author is often just too damn loud.

I fully intend to pursue such "incidental" music for a long time to come. Trollope was particularly prolific, but Thackeray, Hawthorne, Melville, Gaskell, the Brontes (but probably not Dickens - see "loud") also have much that I haven't yet explored. Once finished, I can always re-read the major works, at my peril, for I then may never come back to noisy modernity again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


My essay on the importance of Canada in my life was published yesterday in the The Monarch Review. The essay has almost nothing to do with Maine (only one brief mention, perhaps a personal low in any of my essays), except, of course, that Maine is the state most like Canada - so neatly embraced both geographically and metaphorically by British New Brunswick and French Quebec - in its climate, temperament, and the tolerance of its people. In Maine, I feel like I've emigrated.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Rock with ears

I'm doing well this morning, the ideas and words are coming more or less smoothly, and then I get up to stretch, pace a bit, survey the edges of my kingdom (no, I'm not trying to distract myself, you've read the research about chair-bound mortality, right? besides, the essay is going well, as I said). I look at the sea, the edge of the bank, the spruces on the edge of the bank, the tumble-down rock wall, all the familiar sights always brimming with expectations, when my eyes snap back to one of the rocks in the wall - hey, that rock has ears! My morning is gloriously ruined.

Sir (or Dame) Reynard is lying curled up on the snow, in the sun, nose to tail. He's only 30 feet away - I scramble for the binoculars to make him larger than life. I pull up a chair to the French doors and settle in.

Soon enough his ears twitch a bit and he looks up.  A couple of crows are flying by. They don't see him, so their cawing is normal, not mobbing. His ears go back down for a spell. Something else wakes him up. Like a dog (and I mean exactly like a dog, we watch our mini poodle do it a thousand times) he gets up, stretches front legs and back, turns around a few times, sniffs his behind, yawns, slicks his jaw and long black whiskers with his tongue, and finds a new position. Now he rests his chin on a paw, now he's facing me, now he lifts his head and looks my way as if seeing something in the window. Magnificent tawny coat, black feet and ankles, ears black on the outside, golden eyes with those black vertical pupils that clash so eerily with his sloe-eyed slanted face - I feel drab and ordinary, over-dressed  in comparison.

He wakes, on alert, looking up. Two gray squirrels are running and jumping on the branches above. Calmly, he just looks, not getting up. Such a meal is clearly beyond reach.

However, something new seizes his attention and he rises up and freezes like a pointer. Then he stalks towards the back of the house, and I run to the kitchen window and see him sniffing and scratching at the base of the huge spruce back there. He looks up at its height, at the ghosts of little red squirrels past, as if memorializing the place of once and future meals. He heads for the woods and I think I've lost him.

Nope, he just sniffs along the driveway a  bit, goes out of sight around the garage, and beautifully comes back to his sunning spot for another snooze.

We're now well into hour two. If anything he's getting more comfortable. The low sun is moving around and away and shadows encroach even in late morning and still he rests. Warmth must radiate from the rocks nearby; the snow is partly melted around them. I can't believe he's so calm, so unruffled. This could never happen at other times of the year - there'd be motors, or the clink of ice cubes in a glass of gin, or kids yelling, or the barking of domesticated dogs, or the luscious scent of mice in abundance. The sun is extra special in the winter. Two hours with a fox would be a wasteful indulgence in the precious warm days of the northern summer.

Hour three starts. Now it's too late for my morning walk. How awful. He sleeps on. I eat lunch at the corner of the table, awkwardly, computer and binoculars in the way. He doesn't appear to need food for the moment, so sleek he is and well fed. I do the dishes, pack up for the trip back to the city, sneaking frequent peaks. Still there.

The sound of the back door, the garage door, will drive us away. I hate to go, but what a send-off. What a life.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Snow fallen on spruces

Nearly a week now after the fall, the snow still holds on to the arms of the spruce. Not all of the arms, not the upper ones from which the winds have sprayed the air in a white mist, not even the middle ones whose burdens tend to slide off in a bomb, but the lower ones only, still lowered and heavy. Spruce branches tend to sag anyway; do they now enjoy touching the ground in a continuous band of snow?

It was nearly a perfect snowfall: enough to cover most imperfections, enough to make shoveling more of a work-out than a heart attack, not so much that the hope of spring is completely obscured. And the beauty....not just the pleasing contrast between dark green and pure white, but the inner joy of bracing contrasts, purity of unself-consciousness, and thankfulness for propane. In the woods the peacefulness will be unmarred for days, possibly weeks, by plows or black stuff from cars or heavy human boots.

We have a few cedars around, but the deer nibble on them and the denuded branches aren't much good in holding the falling snow. All this points to David Guterson's first novel. Snow Falling on Cedars, a good book with lots of snow and relatively free of the black stuff of self-conscious writing. His last one (Ed King) unfortunately is a bad one.and suffers from the two-mirror syndrome: the author holds up a hand mirror to his bathroom vanity, or, on a book tour, angles the mirror on the back of the hotel bathroom door just so - to see and learn what? Nothing trenchant about reality vs fiction, or actions vs words, as perhaps he hoped or wanted to suggest ironically and insultingly to the plebeian reader, nothing just the back of his own head.

A woods in winter plays no such games. The lines are clear. Snow is, or it isn't.