Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Maine Gazetteer: Rest

When I’m not in a Maine state of mind, when I can’t rest, when some worry over children or money pesters, I look at my own version of the Bible, Delorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.  Compared to Thoreau’s The Maine Woods it is slightly less venerable (yearly editions, mine’s the 28th, published in 2005) but just as evocative. Baby boomers of a particular stripe get dreamy just from its covers: the front cover showing the familiar southwest-to-northeast slant of the state, following the Appalachian mountains, starkly completely topologically green except where bluely penetrated by the lakes (which also slant as if escaping the urban centers), no words showing on the map, no roads, the borders - not just the Gulf of Maine but even and especially where New Hampshire and Quebec and New Brunswick ought to be - surrounded by the same blue as the lakes, all in all a perfect island hovering in the harried mind; and the back cover the same shape but now a road map in white surrounded by that blissful blue, broken into 70 grids starting at Kittery and ending in Canada, recording the gruesome divisions and tracks of civilization. Inside, there’s beautiful detail of hills and lakes and contour lines, and best of all the red gazetteer icons scattered like nuggets in a stream. And you see one, the star in a circle or the egret outlined in swamp grass, and you page back to Unique Natural Areas Including Gorges, Eskers, Caves, Estuaries, Reversing Falls, Cliffs, or Nature Preserves Including Foot Trails, to read the brief description of Ripogenus Falls or Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and dream a little about a world gone by, what might have been, what still is, barely, what can be.
That great green bulk of land symbolizes anti-progress to me, anti-puritanism. It is far beyond pleasure; it is my inspiring Genius, like the Greeks used to believe. It makes me both bigger and smaller than myself: bigger because I can at least imagine immortality, if not touch it, and smaller because I know my place in the world. I’ve gone to the woods, and then, having to leave them, feel an almost inexpressible sense of sadness. Leaving Greenville after our days near Moosehead, at the very edge of wilderness, I put the Atlas in the back seat. It’s no longer necessary for the familiar way back home. For a few days I felt caught up in beauty, lost in the infinite, worshipping. I’m accepted, not for what I am, or do, or represent, but merely because I live. Then I return to civilization and the bad side of religion returns, the judging, the insecurity, the hate. I look at the Atlas, at the wonder of Acadia, for example, and imagine its glories. Yet right next door, there’s the Bar Harbor build-up, and even on the least developed part of Acadia, across Frenchmen’s Bay on the Schoodic Peninsula, I’ve read of an “eco-resort” (I think that means the developers throw in a nature center amidst the tennis courts and condos) being planned for its doorstep. Is this the future of our land, a bit of woods or shore surrounded by excrescence? Will the Great North Woods end up in pieces, islands of forest unconnected to others, protected if only temporarily, surrounded in neon like a Gatlinburg, Tennessee, vacation mansions crowding right up to the borders?
I have to put down the Atlas, then, and grieve, and remonstrate all over again. I should be contributing more, time and money; I should have worked in and gotten my living from nature; I should have understood the early restlessness of my life, I should have known that endless moves and inattention destroy the sense of place.
But the driving Puritanism that founded this country, the Calvinism that I trace through my own Dutch ancestry back some 500 years to John Calvin, this Burden that Americans carry whether they know it or not, has an upside. Even though we may believe that the world is doomed, we must also take heart in Calvinism’s basic ambition: you can’t get into heaven on your own, yet you have to act as if you could; even though we are full of original sin, we have to pretend we aren’t and do good deeds. To me this means that at the very least people must give time and money, write screeds, recycle carbon, live quietly, go to the woods, dream of the woods. For me (to paraphrase Lao-Tzu) a single step begins with the journey of a thousand miles.
Maine is hardly the perfect place. It is poor. Too many children get lousy educations. If you don’t like winter, don’t live here. Much of the cultural world is fostered by flatlanders, people from away. But all of us – lobstermen, travelers, artists, Moms-and-Pops, vacationers - still need a place to rest. That’s what Maine offers, in the tolerance of its people, the dangerous beauties of its wilderness, and the harmonies of daily living.
Landscape will perform its wonders on us humans if we’d only let it. So let it be.


Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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