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Location, Location, Location
Preface from- The Summer People's Children: A Memoir of Winters and Losers
-A book by (© 2006) Sandy Garson
Reaching up like a catcher’s mitt, the state of Maine boldly grabs the first rays of sun that illuminate the immense subdivision known as The United States of America and lets them alight on forests, sand and hard rock seacoast bound into a gigantic glacial terrain that exceeds the next five states combined. It is powerful landscape magically carved into three equal parts by two majestic rivers: the Kennebec and the Penobscot. It’s said until you have crossed the first, you have not trended into the real Maine. When you’ve crossed the other, well, you’ve entered legend: the land of Paul Bunyan, Evangeline, a county bigger than two states, 26 foot tides, Thoreau’s woods and Stephen King’s characters.
Frankly, nothing here is ordinary. Look carefully at a continental map and you will see Maine is the cul de sac of a gargantuan peninsula that begins in Toledo, Ohio, a way out place surrounded on two sides by Canada and on the third by the Atlantic Ocean. It is hinged to the States only by a border with New Hampshire but this runs through lakes and ridges of the Appalachian Mountains so tormented by horrific weather they tumble down and stop. It is the only contiguous state to be so tenuously united with the Union.
On a map, Maine’s zealous upward thrust makes it stick out like a proverbial sore thumb yet its appearance as the northern-most of the abutting 48 turns out to be an optical illusion belied by latitude. Still, the glaciers were slow to go so the timberline is lower, 4000 ft, and the temperate zone fizzles out, making winters more famous than places technically further north. It can snow in May, freeze in September and most of the year the landscape’s barren except for evergreens, which is why uniquely in this state there are more summer vacation homes than year round residences. Actually, summers are nothing to sing about either for Maine is the spot where three continental storm tracks converge, bringing vile and volatile weather as well as all the pollution from the smokestacks of the Midwest. August ozone alerts are not uncommon.
It doesn’t make life easier that the state suffers extremes of light in summer and dark in winter when in December headlights have to blaze at 3 PM. But what can you do when longitude make Maine America’s far east, 8 degrees closer to Europe than Cape Hatteras, 13 degrees east of Palm Beach and about 30 degrees (or more than 1,000 miles) from the western end of its time zone. The state actually stretches into the Atlantic time zone of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland—Canadian provinces it resembles far more than the American megapolis below and with which it shares history. Together they were Acadia. Although they cook so well you might not know it, the Cajuns of Louisiana are its exiles, Acadians. French in fact remains the state’s second official language, still prominent on highway signs. There are native citizens who cannot speak a word of English and at the end of the day, the financial news on public radio stations is always and only, a matter of consuming interest, the closing price of the Canadian dollar.
As it happens, part of Canada should have been part of Maine but the devil got into Daniel Webster when he was sent up in 1839 to end the Aroostook Wars by negotiating the international border. In a drunken stupor Webster drew a crooked, southward sloping line out of the mouth of the St. Croix River into the ferocious Bay of Fundy, erroneously ceding a fistful of its islands that includes Campobello. Fortunately even without these, there is still more than enough room, for Maine is the least populated state this side of the Mississippi, the wild east where 100% of the people occupy only 10% of the land. The rest, taken mostly by trees and the private companies that capitalize on them, is often mapped as “unorganized.” Until very recently the state was alone without passenger rail, now there is mini tourist service from Boston to Portland down in the southern part. What it lacks in human density Maine makes up in animals for it is a zoo that rivals African savannah: puffins, black bears, whales, beavers, moose of course, the bald eagle, fisher, porcupines, Kennebec salmon, prehis-toric horseshoe crabs, bobcats (not to be confused with the beloved Maine coon cat), snowshoe hares, loons, osprey, seals, fox, pine marten, dolphins, several species of squirrel, raccoons, sturgeon, woodpeckers, but no poisonous snakes—the only state that can make this happy claim.
At this northeastern extreme, the sea passage between continents is narrow like it is in the Pacific northwest, which is why the new world that became America was first touched upon, then imagined here. Maine land was the center, the heart of a massive bay of water bounded by the southern tip of Nova Scotia and the eastern end of what’s now called Cape Cod. Fed by a swirling dance of diverse tides that make the Gulfsteam meet the Artic, this Gulf of Maine was the richest fishing ground humanity has ever known. Moreover fish could be followed up massive mineral laden rivers that cut through skyscraping forests crammed with pelt animals. Here was a heavenly glory of shelled fish, trees rich in resin and syrup, rock shiny with slate and gems, sand beaches, berries, flocks of wild fowl, salt, birch bark, acorns (a historic source of protein and flour), venison, furs. On land, sea or foam Maine was exactly what the Renaissance craved: a treasure chest of seemingly infinite natural wealth. Its aboriginal Penobscot despite being stone age people without the wheel or axe—it is said they were only too happy to trade all their furs, fish and trees for metal cooking pots—were the only native American tribe to have no word for famine, which means they must never have experienced one. White man lusted for the conquest. Touted and praised and fabled with superlatives to rival what the Spanish applied to the golden empires of the Aztecs and Incas, this wonderland shone forth from maps as Norumbega.
The Penobscot were respectful of the loud and natural rhythms of the realm and the first sloops of European fishermen mimicked them, coming to the coast in June and leaving in autumn-- precisely what birds, whales and summer people do today. But-- let us remember that revealing Michelangelo image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in which God touches the finger of man to empower him-- the point of the Renaissance was that God was no longer alone as the executive in charge; the coach was sending man out to be an active player on the field. The retirement launched a thousand voyages of exploration and exploitation and money men who reckoned they could have the whole shebang their way. Eager to capture the “gold” of Norumbega, they shipped over a colony of settlers outfitted exactly like those shipped the other way to get their hands on the treasures of India. Then inevitably the north Atlantic winter came. In their tropical fort and lightweight clothing these indentured settlers got so preoccupied burying their dead they could not live up to the bottom line demands for fish and fur. The venture capitalists wrote them off and moved on, too callous and greedy to even offer the few pathetic survivors a lift home. A dozen years later, with more accurate meteorological and geographical information, they capitalized another bunch of unskilled settlers, shipped another vessel to the teeming Norumbega and as we know, Mayflower landed to the south at Plymouth Rock.
Disappointment defines Maine. About 170 years after its brief shining moment, it entered the Union as a backwater of trappers, loggers, fishermen, shipbuilders and folks who chafed at the mercantile madness, the religious ramparts of Massachusetts and wanted to be left alone. Its ships came and went from the greatest harbors of the world yet it did not much change from the Revolution to the First World War except in one way: although not physically connected, it had been for 200 years a Province of the Bay State that finally became its own state in 1820, which is why it is still sometimes referred to as State of Maine. Those disturbed by its limitations went on to win the West, founding Portland, Oregon (named after Portland, Maine) and providing the logging know-how that was Mendocino. The state owes most of its paved roads —and plenty still aren’t paved--to the compassion of the WPA and then to Eisenhower’s ambition for border to border I-95. In the ‘60s when man was walking on the moon and developers were paving the land with shopping malls, it was still a raw third world where most people spoke a dialect of English or French, where 90% of the landmass (and 100% of the legislature) was owned by seven timber companies, all business was natural resource and owned by out-of-staters, the speed limit on public roads was 70 miles an hour and accidents on private ones did not have to be recorded.
But it sent a grandmother, Margaret Chase Smith, to the Senate, Henry Hinckley’s exquisite yachts to all those harbor clubs and L. L. Bean left the light on. With its shiny colored postcards of sailing ships and lobster pots, summer camps, wooden canoes and Christmas trees that touched the sky, it was a state of grace, a mythic place in the American imagination sealed with a kiss by the watercolors of John Marin and the essays of E. B. White. “Chronically beautiful,” the newspaper of record reported. “Maine people, o Maine people,” the salesman at Times Square Macy’s gushed at me, “so poor but so honest. They will never cheat you, and boy do they know how to fix things. I couldn’t live there but they are wonderful those people.”
At the end of the ‘60s, when the far side of the continent had been so fully colonized we moved offshore and the bright promise of the American dream was tarnished by nightmarish confusion over what to treasure, this old world got its first significant influx of immigrants since the Revolution. Its demographers researching the exchange of drivers’ licenses discovered 10,000 young adults had traded New York and Florida and Ohio, Oregon and Michigan to move in. Their study of these people flowing out of sync ended there. Consequently, what follows here is an account of what happened over the next decade to those “in-migrants” and to Maine and to me who thought she was acting alone but slowly through journalistic assignments discovered herself swimming upstream in a school that was educated, worldly and privileged, bearing names that were the essence of America—to quote the sound byte of the time, “the best and the brightest.” With the world at our feet or at our door offering whatever we could want, we had chosen the road not taken, going backwards to this cold, isolated and forgotten place where America begins.