Tag Archives: Maine

Mist

“What was full was not my creel, but my memory. Like the white-throats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning……”  Sand County Almanac, Trout fishing in June, Aldo Leopold, 1948

When I served on the Mount Vernon Conservation Commission in Maine, we had been charged by the Planning Board to recommend either authorizing or proscribing development along the boundaries of the dozen or so lakes and ponds that shared all or some of their shoreline in our town. The State of Maine legislature determined that the only way to change the ways of recalcitrant landowners, sometimes four generations into their titles on the land, was to force the issue by mandating that absent local zoning rulings by the Planning Board, all lakeshore was to be “resource protected,” which meant no development, no digging, no brush or tree cutting, no dredged sand to make it easier on swimmer’s feet, no septic systems, no camps, no anything. This served to give the local authorities some cover dealing with that contingent of land owners which held fiercely to the rule of ownership. Zoning was akin to usurpation, and land use regulations were the stuff of the politburo.

Moose Pond, Taylor Pond, Minnehonk Lake, Hopkins Pond, Doloff Pond, Parker Pond, Flying Pond, Inghan Pond, Long Pond, Echo Lake, Torsey Lake. Each had some or all its shoreline in Mount Vernon, and each had to be assessed.  Each one recalls pleasant memories. The Planning Board was elected; the Conservation Commission was not, so the heat could fall on us without repercussions at the polling place. The Planning Board would submit the zoning plan to the state, but the Conservation Commission would provide the maps. In a small town, it was a true town meeting democracy, and all who served on their boards and commissions were paid the same. Less than nothing because we all incurred some costs as well as donated sometimes significant hours of our time. So, if it got nasty, and we got fired, we were ahead financially.

Few enterprises are as dedicated as unpaid volunteer labor, and we rose early on many weekends to study and map the soil types, vegetation and slopes of the land surrounding each of our clean water responsibilities.  Eastern White Pine, Canoe Birch or Alder; Swamp Maple or Burr Oak. Each could tell a tale of its favored soil and how it may absorb or run off, how it would, in the parlance of the septic system builders, “perc.”  Willows, River Birch or Silver Maple might indicate too much clay in the soil, so effluence would run off too quickly, would not “perc,” and a septic system might leach into the lake. Too steep a slope would do the same thing. We pored over topographical maps to locate shoreline of special concern.

 Too much organic matter from run off, be it from human or farm waste, could prompt algae blooms or promote growth of invasive plants, choking off the healing sun, defeating aerobic natural cleansing, lowering oxygen levels and degrading the balance of the many species which dwelt in and around the lakes and ponds. If bad enough, it could kill the pond, turning it into a foul-smelling hazard. What was precious to life and beautiful to the spirit could be lost.

Getting it right was important. Too many restrictions would be unfair to land owners and buyers of dreams with their waterfront year-round or vacation homes. Too few or missed frontage could mean ruin for the source of those dreams.

We would unstrap our canoes from pickup truck or car roof and put them in early in the morning Saturday. The town provided us with good geodetic survey topographical maps that we would rely on for slope calculations. After our on-site inspections and map study, we would color code lakes with our invented zoning mark ups to present to the board. We’d crumple the soil in our hands, write notes on trouble signs like pipes running into the water from camps, notate streams, marshes and runoff to identify vulnerabilities to the complex ecosystems. While not professional ecologists, we had training in biology and forestry and did our best to accurately map them out in a good faith effort.

“A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass…. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon……. A sense of time lies thick and heavy on such a place.” “Sketches Here and There, Wisconsin, Marshland Elegy” Aldo Leopold

While no money changed hands, there was more valuable compensation for the work. When intermittent rain puddled in low places and small dry streambeds bubbled to life, mist sometimes clung to the low hills – gossamer gray with persistent tendrils that unlike fast wind driven clouds remained as unchanging as a watercolor. Mothers and baby wood ducks ignored us if we were still, as did pairs of loons with their plaintive cries. The ducks and loons feed early among the reeds in shallow waters, as they, like serene, entitled nobility have ignored those that present no threats or promise no meals for millennia on these ponds and lakes. Occasionally a moose with similar disregard for human trespassers would wade into the water plants to graze, or perhaps swim a half mile across the pond without seeming effort to seek more promising forage. The flat still surface of the lake was broken only by a bullfrog jumping from its stone perch or a lake trout (called togue in Maine) or land locked salmon rising to surprise an unlucky water bug or dragonfly larvae. Although they prefer the abundant smelt, they are voracious eaters and, in the spring, when the water is still cold, these species will feed opportunistically near the surface. When a duck or a Great Blue Heron took wing to pursue some necessary purpose, the energetic beating was clearly heard as only profound quiet will disclose, yet the silence remained undisturbed.

 “Joe Leaphorn still remembered not just the words but the old man’s face when he said then: ‘I think from where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.’”  Coyote Waits, Tony Hillerman 1990

 

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Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.

 

[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter

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Christmas Trees

“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” Winston Churchill

Our first Christmas tree was not quite a year after we were married. Finishing up my last year at U Mass, I bought our first small tree in Northampton and dragged it up the stairs to our third story walk up railroad apartment. Rita remembers still the sound of the needles rubbing against the narrow stair and hallway walls. We set it up in an alcove off the main hall of our apartment, the only space that had room for one. Our decorations were minimal; they later accrued over the many years-some homemade by our parents or children, some gifts, some bought one by one in small shops or fairs. We still break them out once a year.

Our habit has been to put a tree up later in the Advent season and leave it up past Epiphany. Too late, and we miss the piney smell through the run up to Christmas; too early, and it is a fire hazard by the end.  A sadness overtakes me when I see Christmas trees put out for trash pickup on the twenty sixth like checking off a box, another season survived and behind us.

One of our early Christmases we were living on Mashnee Island on Cape Cod. We had little money, but decided we wanted a live tree that would get another chance the following spring. I took my pickup to Hog Island, state owned, uninhabited, and the site of a large navigational warning sign at the north end of Cape Cod Canal. The sand while frozen was easily broken, and I dug out a small pitch pine, usually called a scrub pine, Charlie Brown never had a sparser specimen. After cutting out a large root ball, I wrapped it in burlap and brought it home. We put it in a large steel washtub in the living room of our rented cottage, kept the tree watered, and hoped when we resettled it after Christmas, the pine would survive the midwinter thawing. When I checked it early in June back on Hog Island, it was green and supple.

“It still feels weird to spend money on Christmas trees. Back when Mom was alive, we’d go out “tree hunting.” That’s what she called it, anyway. I think other people might use the word “trespassing.” Jenny Han, Fire with Fire

The ten years we spent in Maine provided us with many memorable Christmas trees. When our two older children, Amy and Gabe, were still small, I would load them on a sled, put on my bear-paw snowshoes, and we would go tree hunting. We first cut on the five acres surrounding our first Mount Vernon house, and later found our trees on the hundred acres we bought with a friend in New Sharon. I preferred Balsam Fir, but once settled on a Canadian hemlock and only once on a Norway spruce. Neither one kept its needles long enough for our preferred elongated season; when we finally took them down, threadbare and forlorn, we had a lot of sweeping and vacuuming to do.

Many years the highest temperature of tree harvesting day would remain resolutely in single digits, but bundled up with big mittens, the kids would complain only if I trudged too deep into the woods and took too long in our quest for the perfect tree. Tree cutting was always followed by hot chocolate back by the wood stove. Decorating was done in stages after we’d get the tree up: a couple of days with the tree in its natural state of beauty, the scent filling the house. The tree would draw up large amounts of our doctored water, feeding and bringing it back to life until the branches fell to their accustomed levels. Next came a day or two of just lights, then another day or two of our favorite decorations and candy canes, and finally the addition of strung together popcorn or cranberries. We eschewed tinsel of any kind, preferring to leave the tree unconcealed, not hidden behind manufactured glittery shininess. The evergreen foreshadows life eternal, renewed each day and year.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

One of my most enduring memories of Christmas was our second in our first house in Mount Vernon. That year’s tree was a monster, rising almost to the cathedral ceiling in our dining room, a full twelve feet. I had cut a large Balsam fir. We used the lower branches for other decorations and the eight-inch trunk of the tree was used in the spring to help construct the pole barn woodshed I built. But the top twelve feet somehow were pushed through the front door and stood upright against the window.

My folks came up for a pre-Christmas visit. A half a dozen years prior to my father’s passing, he remained a vigorous sixty, and my mother still an Irish beauty. As was their custom with little room in our small converted barn, they preferred to rent a room in nearby Mrs. Hall’s bed and breakfast and not climb a ladder into one of our sleeping lofts.

We celebrated my mother’s birthday on St. Nicolas Day. She had begun work on the hand painted ceramic Nativity set that still adorns our Christmas celebrations. The first year brought us Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Eventually there was the full panoply of kings, shepherd, sheep, camels and a cow. She made several figures every year as Christmas gifts. Each year we carefully unwrap them from their newspaper protectors and set them out again in a central spot in our home. The carefully made wood manger itself was designed and crafted by Rita’s father, Dave, a skilled woodworker and furniture maker. The combination of the two – figures and crèche are treasured and a symbol to us of the permanent marriage of our two families.

That year after overcoming Rita’s objections to the giant tree and the extra sets of lights, in the end, our perfect Balsam fir is an indelible remembrance. After we got it in the house with much effort, trying to save as many needles as possible in the narrow entryway, my father insisted on climbing the ladder and helping with the decorating up high, including the angel at the top. I will not forget him doing this while Christmas persists in our hearts.

 “…freshly cut Christmas trees smelling of stars and snow and pine resin – inhale deeply and fill your soul with wintry night…”  John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

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Allagash

“Wilderness is the preservation of the World.” Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway begins in sight of Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. Running ninety two miles from lakes west of Katahdin, it ends where the Allagash River, meandering north, runs into the St John River on the Canadian border.

allagash 2In the mid-eighties my fourteen year old son Gabriel and I joined with eight other men for nine days to canoe the Allagash Waterway. We planned logistics, food, equipment – a duty roster calendar and menu for each day: cooking, clean up, water and wood gathering. Two other father and son teams with young men near Gabe’s age, along with a pair of late teens and Father Wilifred Gregoire from Westerly, Rhode Island, partnered with a parishioner who was his friend. Father Greg was an experienced outdoorsman, an Allagash veteran with more than a half dozen previous excursions. Milton Wilbur from Woonsocket, another Allagash veteran, accompanied by his son, Josh, led the trip.

A wilderness canoe trek takes on its own sedate, steady rhythm: rise at dawn; stretch out the previous day’s muscle stiffness; early fire over the previous night’s coals, cowboy coffee and breakfast, clean up, break and pack the camp; put in and begin to paddle – mostly J strokes, slow and unrelenting with little respite; the sound of the water and occasional sighting of deer or hawk or a trout breaking the surface; find a suitable spot for lunch; maybe a swim if the sun is warm; put in for the afternoon miles; locate our planned evening campsite, stake down and raise the tents, roll out the sleeping bags; draw water at a spring, forage for blowdown wood and light the evening campfire; cook and eat dinner, clean; quiet talk around the fire; some nights camp songs with men used to singing together; perhaps some reading or a fold out chess set; more quiet talk with my son in the sleeping bags for the night; deep sleep two to a tent. The rhythm corresponds to the backdrop perfectly. Utter peace. Hard pulling and the soreness disappeared after a day or two. Gabe and the other young guys held their own in the canoes without complaint. Bathing was with Dr. Bronner’s phosphate free, biodegradable peppermint soap in the lakes and river. Shaving was left behind.

On Sunday morning, we changed the rhythm without breaking it. Father Greg celebrated an evening Mass before dinner with us as we neared sunset under the canopy of a stand of Eastern White Pine on the shore of the far end of Chamberlain Lake, sharing prayer and our faith. Singing our worship songs of thanksgiving in the silence of the vast Maine woods.

“How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of any nation.” Jeremiah 3:19

The early days of the trip were the most physical, sometimes fighting wind driven swells, which broke on the shore of Chamberlain. The outfitters met us at our jumping off spot after we followed a fifteen mile dirt road to Telos Lake and there delivered our five canoes – well worn, but sound, aluminum, Grumman made, flat bottomed for the river, but tricky to manage on the lakes in a wind. They drove our van back and waited for our call in nine days from the payphone in Allagash, while we paddled north. Telos the first day, tired from an all night drive from Rhode Island; the long miles of Chamberlain, portages to Big Eagle Lake, the long haul up Eagle into Churchill Lake; portage at the top of Churchill Dam to a stretch of river that flowed into Umsaskis Lake, which empties into Long Lake; past Long Lake Dam and Cunniff Island, and finally picking up the aid of the Allagash River current for the rest of the way except for an hour or so traversing Round Pond. On the big lake, we looked up once to see Milton and Josh deploying a clamp-on sail and disappearing ahead. Experience counts.

Allagash Wilderness Tramway EnginesOne long day on the river, a bald eagle followed us for hours, probably looking for scraps. He would settle in a tall hemlock or pine, wait for us to pass, rise effortlessly and glide past us to his next vantage point along the river. On another day, we took a brief hike into the woods between Chamberlain and Eagle Lake to show the boys two railway engines, stranded in the forest sixty years earlier when the logging tramway rail system was abandoned. They climbed happily through, over and around the old boilers and controls. A third diversion when we hit a long stretch of rapids, nothing too challenging, but we had to pay attention. The rangers, who kept an inconspicuous eye out for the safety of the various groups, picked up the gear we left near a woods road log bridge. We had an adventure down the rapids with only bathing suits, life jackets and sneakers at risk. They dropped off our tents, sleeping bags, clothes and provisions, safe and dry, at the end of the rapids, when the descent flattened out and the river widened once again to a more temperate pace. The teen team, Keith and Dave, stood up, then when that failed to capsize them, stood up backwards and finally went down one section of rapids with one on the shoulders of the other. They went in and swept along by the current finished the rapid run laughing riotously. No nanny state for these young lunatics.

On our last day before we made final landfall in Allagash and swapped our canoes for our van, we pulled the canoes up on a sand spit for lunch and played for several hours at Allagash Falls, where all of us were boys again, splashing in the cold deluge, slithering over the ancient, smoothed rocks like a waterslide freely provided.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, wrote that one cannot touch the same drop of water twice in a torrent and that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” My memory rusts like the train engines, becomes a bit idealized perhaps, but the Allagash changes us in some undefined way for the good. There is in Nature, for sure, tooth and claw, blood and fury, but there is also in untamed places a feminine aspect: fertile, bountiful, generous with great peace found no other place – a time for thoughts and no thoughts, a time merely to be.

“The life of contemplation in action and purity of heart is a life of great simplicity. One is content to remain at every moment in contact with God, in the hiddenness and ordinariness of the present moment with its obvious task. At such times, walking down a street, sweeping a floor, hoeing beans, reading a book, taking a stroll in the woods – all can be enriched with contemplation and the obscure sense of God’s presence.” Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, Notes on Contemplation

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