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

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.