Friday, May 30, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer:Lobsters

There is one beast that is not yet fished out, and that is the world champion of icons, the Maine lobster. Nobody really knows why it’s still so abundant.

It’s hard to imagine an animal more identified with a particular state or even country. “You must eat a lot of lobster,” people invariably say when we tell them we have a house in Maine. “Well, not really,” we say. They immediately follow with “Well, do you have a boat?” (That answer is also “No.” Worried looks appear on their faces, and the topic changes.) The reasons for the lobster’s fame? Perhaps a lobster steaming on an urban table is an instant invocation of a simpler way of life. Perhaps we want to believe there is still some pure cold wilderness left. Perhaps the solitary and independent life of a Maine lobsterman pulls at our mind strings.  Perhaps it just tastes good. It’s certainly true that the totality of its image is far greater than the sum of its tropes.


Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Logging on the Penobscot

As the white pine was being decimated, spruce logging began in the middle of the 19th century, and it wasn’t long before almost all species – fir, birch, larch, oak - were found to be useful. Bangor became the biggest lumber city in the world, the speculation in land and timber rivaled the technology and housing booms/busts of recent years, and the Penobscot River was the key to it all, the logs’ highway.
People romanticize the life of the 19th century Maine logger in logging museums and television specials. It was not romantic. It was hard.
Lumbermen would start work in the woods in the late fall, when the freezes started, and stay the whole winter. They lived in crude smoky camps, slept on cut boughs, and ate beans and pork and dried cod day in and day out (but in great quantities: 4 meals a day, an estimated 5,000 calories of protein and starch). They cut trees with axes and hand saws, cleared paths down to the rivers, hauled up water to make the paths icy, skidded the logs along behind pulling oxen, and piled them on the river bank or on the frozen ice of the river itself, waiting for the spring thaw. When the ice was out, they pushed the logs into the water, freed log jams, herded the logs through the cold lakes, danced along the immense booms with pike and peavey staff to sort the logs for the mills.  It was dangerous and dirty work. Many were killed or disfigured. They saw their families a few months of the year.

Why is this romantic? It seems to be a peculiarly American kind of romanticism: the company of men, the battle against nature, self-reliance, the peace and beauty of the forest (after the loud and noisy day was done, I guess). As he was for many things, Thoreau was both vector and cure for this disease. In The Maine Woods, after describing the primitive construction of the houses the loggers lived in during the winter, hardly distinguishable from the hovels for the cattle, he then has this to say: “They are very proper forest houses, the stems of the trees piled up around a man to keep out wind and rain, - made of living green logs, hanging with moss and lichen, and with the curls and fringes of the yellow-birch-bark, and dripping with resin, fresh and moist, and redolent of swampy odors, with that sort of vigor and perennialness even about them that toadstools suggest.” (pp 18-19).


                                  Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Monday, May 12, 2014

climate change

We left Newton, MA today at noon: sun and 87 degrees

We arrived in Owls Head, ME at 4:00 pm: fog and 47 degrees

How's that for a temperature swing? Just good old Maine idiosyncrasy, right? Couldn't be climate change. Nah.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Aroostook potato fields

The fame of Maine’s other big crop, the potato, has waned since its glory days. It has a similar number of acres under cultivation as the blueberry does, about 60,000, and is worth somewhat more in economic impact. Its fields can be equally beautiful: the plants blossom massively and pinkly in spring, and in the fall, in the several weeks between removing the visible plants and digging the fruit, the fields are a gorgeous palette of contoured “hills” in browns and greens. But the potato has keenly suffered from competition.
Technology has conquered regional advantages. Potatoes are now stored in refrigerated warehouses and suffused with a gaseous sprout inhibitor and can be held indefinitely. Thus, the words “Maine” and “Idaho” mean little anymore; Aroostook County, once the largest producer in the world, is no longer anything special and has fallen to eighth in the nation in production. It’s all about price, and potatoes grown all over the world have become barely distinguishable from each other, just fodder for fast-food franchises.
But this is one industry that seems determined that technology and marketing will not leave it behind. It touts: GPS for “precision agriculture” (whatever that means), digital imaging to grade potatoes, huge harvesters, high-tech storage techniques that preserve spuds for a year, the marketing of Maine potatoes for seed, “adding value” locally, i.e., produce fries and chips near the farms, those little purple “heirloom” potatoes, new uses like vodka and hand-made chips, and in a nice irony, the first state to export seed potatoes to South America, where the potato originated. It seems to be working for now, but the potato has become a commodity, and the way of life it used to represent in Maine – the family involvement, local color, festivals and traditions, the school holidays in September during harvest – is almost gone, replaced by something approaching the agri-business corn fields of the Midwest.



Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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