Saturday, December 31, 2011

Donuts, Diners, and a Long Day's Drive

Dateline: Freeport, Maine
This is my first dispatch from the Great White North on what will be a week-long road trip of exploration from Washington, DC to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and back. In recent years I have made annual winter pilgrimages to Tall Timber Lodge, in the far northern precincts of New Hampshire, and I was considering another such trip this winter. Then a new opportunity presented itself . . . a return to my favorite haunts in Maine, where my family has summered for the past quarter century and where Sally Ann and I have spent the entire summer for the past two years since my retirement. And from there across Atlantic Canada to Halifax, Nova Scotia which I visited for the first time in early August. And now I write this on New Year’s Eve from a motel on the edge of Freeport, Maine. It was a long day’s drive from Maryland, with a number of interesting stops along the way. Once again my traveling companion is my old friend and photographer extra-ordinaire Michael G. Stewart, the source of many of the fine photographs that have accompanied these postings (http://www.michaelgstewart.com). In the back seat is his son Spencer, whom we are taking back to school at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, and his girlfriend Anna, who came down from Manitoba after Christmas for a short visit before returning to school.

We were up at 3:30am and on the road within the hour. Soon we were skirting the northern fringes of Baltimore and heading north in the direction of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The kids were fast asleep in the back seat when Michael and I made our first stop of the day - at Maple Donuts, which has been peddling donuts and other baked goods in and around York, Pennsylvania since 1946 and is now one of the largest independent producers of donuts on the East Coast.

With a selected baker’s dozen in a box on my lap, we continued toward Harrisburg and had a predawn breakfast at the West Shore Diner (so called because it is located near the western bank of the Susquehanna River) in Lemoyne, across from Pennsylvania’s state capital. Dating from the 1930s (with very few improvements or upgrades since them, by the looks of it) Michael and I have eaten here before and I have described it in an earlier posting as has Spencer, the invertible Diner Hunter [www.dinerhunter.com]. “This is my go-to diner in the Harrisburg area,” Spencer writes. “And one of the best I’ve been to. It is one of the friendliest around. The food is excellent, and comes in enormous portions at bargain prices.” I have to agree with him there. It took several cups of black coffee to begin to pry my eyes fully open.

Spencer and Anna were awake long enough to join us, but they were once again fast asleep in the back as we crossed the river and headed northeast toward Allentown-Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley. Later this morning we passed along the edge of the Poconos and through the Delaware Water Gap, before crossing into New Jersey where we stopped at the now defunct Tom's Diner, near Netcong and Ledgewood. If it looks vaguely familiar, that's because scenes from Cyndi Lauper's 1984 music video "Time After Time" were filmed here. It is closed now and it has seen better days; it’s probably not able to compete with the newish White Castle franchise across the highway. We were all feeling a little peckish and we took the opportunity to sample a bag of sliders before we continued on our way. They are similar in size, shape and taste to the "Aristocrat of Beef" they served by the bag at the Little Tavern establishments around DC (Spencer is also a LT authority). They got me through many early mornings and late nights during my graduate school days.

Desiring to keep plenty of distance between us and the traffic around New York City, we turned north at Parsippany in the general direction of upstate New York before we eventually crossed the Hudson River on the Tappan Zee Bridge and began to make our way across Westchester County. As we did the sky began to close in on us; a heavy mist enveloped us and would accompany us for the rest of the day.

We nibbled on the morning’s donuts until we stopped for a late lunch at the Sandy Hook Diner (circa 1920s), in Newtown, Connecticut. Unfortunately, it had already closed for the day and we were obliged to move on down the road, continuing through Hartford and stopping next at the Yankee Diner (circa 1930s), in Charlton, Massachusetts. As luck would have it, it had closed five minutes before we arrived. I guess folks had to get ready for New Year’s Eve parties. A few miles north we found Charlie's Diner (circa 1930s), in Spencer, Massachusetts. It was open which was good because we were pretty damn hungry by this point. The diner is actually tacked on to the side of a more traditional restaurant and the food, although very good, is not your typical diner fare. So, for my New Year’s Resolution to eat healthier, I ordered the tuna salad. It looked and tasted quite good, but I still felt hungry when we returned to Route 9 through Worcester.

The rest of the day was spent covering the remaining miles across eastern Massachusetts before following the coast through New Hampshire and southern Maine. We ended Day One here in Freeport, Maine where we will quietly welcome 2012. I seriously doubt we will stay up that late; we are beat and we have after another full day in front of us. Tomorrow? North to Bangor and on to Calais where we will cross into Canada. Then across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Halifax.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy 2012!!

Wishing all of you a very Happy New Year!!

I will be welcoming 2012 in Maine followed by a wintertime exploration of the Edge of America (and Canada). I hope the new year brings you good health, a bucket of happiness, and some well deserved prosperity.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Luke 2:10-14

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wishing Everyone a Festive Holiday Season

I hope you have a safe and pleasant holiday surrounded by friends and family.
It has been an unusually warm December here in Maryland and there will be no white Christmas for us. I recall fondly those past holidays in the upper Midwest. If you have snow, enjoy it!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Third Anniversary of Looking Toward Portugal

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the Looking Toward Portugal blogspot. Once again I want to thank my readers, the regulars and those who check in from time to time, for making this experiment such a wonderful success. I look forward to another year of posting my random notes from the edge of America. Join me when you can.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Raise the Song of Harvest Home

I am reminded of the 18th century hymn “Come Ye, Thankful People, Come” and its refrain, “raise the song of harvest home.” Let me take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday as you gather with family and friends to enjoy a bountiful feast. Despite the trying times we find ourselves in, there is still much to be thankful for . . . today and every day.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Giant Cicada Threatened Famous Blogger!

Worry not dear readers. I am still here and still hard at work sharing my random notes from the edge of America. But it was a close call this past summer when I was on a photo safari to Nova Scotia, on the far edge of Atlantic Canada. It was early morning when I arrived in Peggys Cove, a small, idyllic fishing village with a population hovering around 40 hardy souls on the Chebucto Peninsula southwest of Halifax. I wanted to be there to photograph the village's well-known lighthouse at the entrance of St. Margarets Bay before the tour busses from Halifax arrived to disgorge the thousands of tourists that visit during the summer months. Unfortunately, it was a very foggy morning and it was difficult to see much of anything and I thought I might have to leave without getting the shot I came to get. Luckily, the fog lifted just as the busses were beginning to arrive and I was able to capture a beautiful photograph of the lighthouse. I was just finishing up when this monstrous cicada emerged from the fog and the water. Needless to say, I beat a quick retreat to Halifax for a doner kebab and a big plate of poutine. Thanks to Michael G. Stewart who caught it all on film. I wonder what happened to the tourists I left behind?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

Celebrating Our Nation's Veterans

To our fathers and mothers and friends, and to all the men and women who have served in uniform . . . our sincere and deepest gratitude for your sacrifices. Our country celebrates our soldiers and veterans. I only wish it took better care of them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Check Out My Latest Poem . . . .

It is posted on the Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret blogspot -
http://ruesansregret.blogspot.com/2011/11/pumpkin-tattoo.html

It was written in the waning days of our summer sojourn in Maine and inspired by visits to the Wyeth landscapes along the state's rocky coastline.

And I am happy to announce that the hit count passed 30,000 this morning. I appreciate your continued interest in Looking Toward Portugal.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Octsnowber

This weekend certainly did not turn out as I had planned. Yesterday afternoon I crossed the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland’s Eastern Shore fully intending to get up early the following morning and set off from Tilghman Island for a day in search of some trophy rockfish. Unfortunately, the forecast was not in my favor with the prediction of a strong nor’easter arriving overnight and bringing an early winter storm extending from the Mid-Atlantic states through New England. Snow in October! Who’d a thunk it?

The earliest measurable snowfall in both Baltimore and Washington, DC was 0.3 inches on October 10, 1979, during the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburg Pirates. Trace amounts also fell in Baltimore on October 9, 1895, and again in 1903. A trace was also noted in Washington on October 5, 1892. The earliest recorded major snowfall in our area of Maryland was almost 6 inches recorded in Baltimore on November 6-7, 1953. Snow before Halloween is a rare occurrence. If the forecasters were correct, the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area could expect a modest accumulation from this storm. Another one for the record books perhaps?

By the time I arrived on Tilghman Island last night, the forecast had turned positively grim. A light rain had already begun to fall and the winds were picking up. A captain will normally wait until the morning of an outing before pulling the plug on a day on the Bay, but it was hard to ignore the fact that we were in for quite a blow and the good captain had to accept the fact it made no sense to challenge the stormy bay unnecessarily. The trip was cancelled. Yet all was not lost. I spent a wonderful evening with friends on the island - a great meal with some fine wines and an evening topped off with some exquisite bourbons as we watched the St. Louis Cardinals win what was probably the best World Series in recent history. And a good night’s sleep as the storm began to brew outside.

This morning we wandered down to the local island store to pick up the papers and to check out the waterfront. A cold, raw rainfall fell and bands of gusting winds raked across the island. All the boats were still at their moorings; none of the captains had chosen to wander out onto the Bay today. We also drove down to Black Walnut Point, at the southern end of Tilghman Island, and found the Bay to be remarkably calm despite the winds. Still, the heavy wind-blown rain virtually obscured Sharps Island Light three miles to our southwest at the mouth of the Choptank River. Clearly this was not a day to be fishing on Chesapeake Bay. We returned to the warmth of home and hearth for a nice breakfast and a relaxing morning reading the paper.

This afternoon I departed Tilghman Island for the drive back to Washington. The storm continued to lash the Eastern Shore where local communities were cancelling Halloween parades and other outdoor activities. Listening to the car radio, the reports kept coming in of significant snows accumulating most of the day north and west of Washington and Baltimore. To make matters worse, the snow was slowly moving into the two cities and their suburbs. Strong wind warnings were posted on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as I crossed over and fallen power lines closed the main Eastern Shore highway not far behind me. Winter has come early to Maryland this year! As I crossed over the bridge I looked down at the Bay which was now churned to a froth . Blowing rain became blowing snow and it seemed I was driving into the worst of it.

Certainly the Chesapeake Bay has seen worse storms than this. One would expect hurricanes this time of year, not a winter nor’easter. Traveling across the Bay Bridge is always a challenge when the winds are gusting regardless of the season. As the first snow of the approaching winter ticks against my windshield, I am reminded of other memorable trips across this bridge. One of the first was during the so-called "Bicentennial Winter" of 1976-1977, my first in Maryland and the coldest on record on the East Coast since the winter of 1779-1780. Back then ice on the Bay was so thick that carriages could cross from Annapolis to Kent Island, the same spot where the Bay Bridge is now situated. It is rare indeed for ice to stretch from shore to shore, yet in 1976-1977 the tidal Potomac, from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington, froze solid as did much of the upper Bay, and strong pack ice was responsible for tilting the Sharps Island Light fifteen degrees off perpendicular. As we crossed the bridge in that late December the ice reached up and down the Bay as far as the eye could see. It has never done that since then, but those of us who remember that winter take nothing for granted when contemplating what that season might offer up. Today’s storm reminds us of that.

This morning, as I stood on Black Walnut Point, I could barely make out Sharps Island Light on the horizon, its now familiar cant peaking through the misty tempest. I wonder what this winter will bring us. It is getting off to a rather early start.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Man of the Hour - Reprise

My dad passed away two years ago today. Permit me to share with you once again the short tribute I wrote and posted then.
__________

Father he enjoyed collisions; others walked away
A snowflake falls in May.
And the doors are open now as the bells are ringing out
Cause the man of the hour is taking his final bow
Goodbye for now.


This is not what I planned to write this week. I was not sure what I would write, but then I listened to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam singing "Man of the Hour" and I knew what I had to say. There are times when life throws you a curve and this week was one of those times. My dad passed away in Florida after a lengthy illness. It was not entirely unexpected. He lived a long and interesting life spanning 85 years. Still, one is never really prepared for a life’s final chapter . . . especially when it’s your dad. So permit me this very brief reflection on a life now ended.

Ralph C. Rogers was born in Decatur, Michigan on June 24, 1924 and lived there for the first 18 years of his life. He played varsity basketball at Decatur High School and eventually attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Drafted into military service during World War II, he served in the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign in 1944-1945, including the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for its participation in the liberation of that country. After the war, he returned home, married my mom, and attended the Georgia Institute of Technology where he earned Bachelor and Master degrees in Industrial Engineering. Then it was off to Chicago in 1950 to work in the engineering department at Montgomery Ward, the job he held when I was born the following year. He later worked for the Chicago-based consulting firm Stevenson, Jordan & Harrison for several years, a job which took him and his family around the country. In 1958 he took an engineering position with Champion Paper Company, in North Carolina, for almost six years. During that time he served in various professional organizations and taught at Western Carolina University. He ended his professional career with J.C. Penney where he moved in 1968 and where he was engineering manager for the catalog division until his retirement in 1984.

After retirement, Dad and Mom moved down to Florida’s Gulf Coast where they lived until 1994 when they moved to Ohio to be closer to family and friends. It was a family history that followed the trajectory of so many others of their generation. But it would not last. Things began to come apart and my parents divorced shortly before their 50th anniversary. Dad moved back to Florida where he eventually remarried. I did not see him much after that, certainly not as often as I had hoped. His life, for whatever reason, took a new direction. I was happy, that he was happy, or seemed to be, but I missed the time we should have spent together in these final years. We talked on the telephone occasionally; it just wasn’t enough. I never doubted his love for me, or mine for him. We just had a difficult time showing it.

I did spend more time with him during his final illness, but these were visits to the hospital and the nursing home where he lived the past couple of years. It was tough to watch him wither away. And now he is gone.

And the road
The old man paved
The broken seams along the way
The rusted signs, left just for me
He was guiding me, love, his own way
Now the man of the hour is taking his final bow
As the curtain comes down
I feel that this is just goodbye for now.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thank You For Your Patience

Although my random thoughts from the edge of America have continued to bubble to the surface since we departed for Maine in mid-June, I have been slow in posting them here as we had very limited access to the Internet while we were away. We are home now, or at least some place where I can get online on a regular basis, so please check out the new postings dating back to mid-June. You will get a good idea how I spent my summer and what I am up to now. And stay tuned for new postings in the coming weeks. Nameste!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Swinging Beef

Some say castrating a calf is a matter of taste.
Some do is slowly and others in haste.
Some gently saw, while others pull
While making a steer out of a bull.

The cowboy poet Lloyd Gerber, who recently died in Washington, DC at age 87, was once invited to read a poem on “The Tonight Show” when it was still hosted by Johnny Carson. He chose to read “It’s a Matter of Taste” - about cowboys castrating young lambs by biting off their testicles. Needless to say, Gerber got the attention of Johnny and his audience that evening. Although I have never personally bitten the testicles off a lamb or any other animal living or dead, I have seen it done. Furthermore, I must confess that I very much enjoy a properly prepared dish of ‘lamb fries” or “Rocky Mountain Oysters” a.k.a. bull calf testicles (frequently called “prairie oyster” up in Canada).

I am presently in Gainesville, Florida, in the heart of some of the best cattle country east of the Mississippi River. And although mountain or prairie oysters, as well as lamb fries, are not as popular as they are out west, seeing the beef cattle roaming the local ranches reminded me of Mr. Gerber’s poem and my own enjoyment of a well-prepared plate of assorted nuts.

Being from the Midwest, known more for its dairy herds than beef cattle, I never had an opportunity to savor these delicacies. This does not mean that farmers did not castrate their bulls and sheep. My grandfather did, but for some reason the thought of “peeling” the now detached testicles (removing the outer membrane), flattening them with a heavy spatula, and then dredging them in flour (why some call them “dusted nuts”) and deep frying them to a golden brown perfection, was not high on his list of priorities. Given me a good steak any day!

My father-in-law worked on Florida cattle ranches for years and was personally involved in the castrating of young bulls. The wife of one of his men would prepare a bucket of balls and he would eat and enjoy them, according to my mother-in-law who could never quite get her head around the idea of what they are and where they come from. My wife was young and does not recall ever trying them. But I know from personal experience that you will not find them on the menus of Florida restaurants, at least none that I have ever been to and I have been to a few. And what would you call them? Sewannee River Dumplings? Panhandle Pancakes? Florida is famous for its Apalachicola oysters, but these are real oysters. So you get the idea.

Attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, one of my colleagues lived on the large Robles Ranch, in the foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of the city. We enjoyed leaving our studies behind and heading into the desert to party and more than once I attended a large barbeque at the ranch featuring local beef. It was at once such party that I was introduced to, and consumed for the first time, a rather large plate of rocky mountain oysters served with homemade hot sauce. Funny what tequila will do to such a young and impressionable mind. All kidding aside, I actually liked them; I liked them very much. Now don’t turn your nose up until you have tried them. They taste a lot like chicken. No they don’t. They taste exactly like what they are. After we left Tucson for Maryland, my tastes turned toward Chesapeake oysters (again, real oysters) and crabs, and I had little opportunity to remain a gonad gourmand.

More recently my wife and I took an extensive road trip through the Great Plains from Nebraska to Montana and back. I was not surprised to frequently find RMOs on the menu. Finally, on a snowy afternoon in Deadwood, South Dakota, sitting in the same saloon where Wild Bill Hitchcock was shot in the back and killed, my wife and I sat at the bar and I order a large plate. Sally Ann had never tried them, had never even seen them cooked. When the bartender brought them out and placed them before me along with a mug of cold beer, Sally Ann commented that they looked a lot like popcorn shrimp (they do a little) and asked why they weren’t round. “So they won’t roll off the plate,” the bartender and I answered in unison. They were as good as I remembered while dipping them in a tasty ranch dressing. Lloyd Gerber was correct. “It is a matter of taste.” I think they taste just fine.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Better Late Than Never

On October 6th it was announced that Tomas Tranströmer is the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. What follows is an essay I wrote this time last year when it was expected that he would when the Nobel Prize. I am running it here . . . better late than never!

Earlier this month British bookmakers offered Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps Sweden’s most noted poet, as a 5/1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him ahead of three other poets ranked at 8/1 - Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis - as well as the Paraguayan playwright Nestor Amarilla. Tranströmer, born in Stockholm in 1931 has, in addition to his career as a noted poet, critic and translator, worked as a psychologist providing vocational guidance to Sweden’s incarcerated juvenile offenders. This year is not the first time that he has been on the bookies’ shortlist for this prestigious honor. I welcomed this news but suspected that Tranströmer would not win since last year’s laureate was a European - the Romanian-born German novelist, poet and essayist, Herta Müller. One hopes that geopolitics would not influence the judges, but it does. A Hispanic writer had not won since 1998, when José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and playwright who passed away in June, took home the Nobel laurels. But when you think about it, no Swede - no Scandinavian - has won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1974 when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, both members of the Swedish Academy, shared the prize. So I was not surprised when the Academy anointed Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa as this year’s winner. He was not the bookmakers choice - his chances were listed as 45/1 - but there can be little argument that Llosa is deserving of the honor.

I will admit that I was pulling for Tranströmer. I have been reading his poetry since I was first introduced to it in English translation almost 40 years ago. Robert Bly, his longtime friend and translator, writing in the introduction to his 1980 translation of Tranströmer’s Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers (1978)], has perhaps captured the essence of Tranströmer’s importance and appeal to readers. His “poems are a luminous example of the ability of poetry that inhabits one culture to travel to another culture and arrive.” I felt an immediate connection to his poems when I first heard him read in the spring of 1974 when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

I was working on a Master’s degree in German Literature at the time and had been involved with the University’s Ruth Stephan’s Poetry Center since my arrival in Tucson. I was especially drawn to its venerable reading series and the small poetry library located in a house donated by Ms. Stephan (a second donated residence, a small cottage, housed the noted poets visiting the Center). Tranströmer came to Tucson in late February 1974 to give a campus reading. He was also interviewed for the new student literary magazine, Window Rock, which also reprinted a couple of his more recent poems. I was there that evening sitting in the front row. Admittedly, I knew very little about the poet and his work when he took to the stage. He came before us as a relatively new presence and voice. Although he rose to prominence as a promising new voice in his native Sweden in 1954 with the publication of 17 dikter [17 Poems], at the age of 23, it was not until the early 1970s, with the publication of Robert Bly’s translation of 20 Poems (1970), and May Swenson’s translations in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), that English-speaking readers were first introduced to the work of this fine Swedish poet. I read some of these translations prior to that evening, especially after hearing Swenson read in Tucson the previous month when she offered effusive praise for Tranströmer’s poetry. I cannot say that I fully understood them, but I was nevertheless intrigued as I felt he was a new and important poetic voice. There was an inborn authority underlying ever word, every phrase.

Now the evening star burns through cloud.
Trees, fences and houses grow, grow larger
with the dark’s soundless, steepening fall.
And under the star is outlined clear and clearer
the other, secret landscape that lives
the life of contour on night’s X-ray plate.
A shadow draws its sled between the houses,
They wait.

[“Epilogue,” from 17 dikter, translated by May Swenson]

What I recall from the poems read that evening, and what I have taken from all of his poetry I have read since, is Tranströmer’s very strong sense of place, even when it tends toward the surrealistic at times - Sweden, of course (he has continued to reside in Västerås near Stockholm), but more particularly the islands of Södermalm and Runmarö and the east-central coastal archipelago of his ancestors where Tranströmer spent the summers during his youth. The audience was enwrapped from start to finish and I left that evening a convert.

Tranströmer’s long poem Östersjöar was published in the autumn of 1974, and Samuel Charters acclaimed English translation Baltics was brought out by the Berkeley publisher Oyez in 1975. I read it as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy (which, I recall, was not very easy). It provided entree into an entirely new understanding of Tranströmer’s poetics and use of metaphor, and I agree with the poet Bill Coyle who later wrote that this collection “ is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually.” Again, the strong sense of place - the Stockholm archipelago, and the Baltic Sea.

In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
forest you’re out on the open sea.
[Baltics, II]

“The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment,” Coyle writes, “with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.” The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, and this long poem reflects the geopolitical realities of the Baltic region and their impact on the poet and his work.

Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no man’s
water
and break against the stone.
[Baltics, III]

Transtömer returned to Tucson in November 1975 for a reading at which he presented Baltics in its entirety. I had an opportunity to speak with the poet at some length afterwards and he graciously inscribed my copy of the Charters translation of Baltics as well as my copy (one of 600) of the inaugural 1974 number of Window Rock with it’s interview of the poet and the reprints of two of his poems. I went home that evening with a deeper admiration for the poet and his work, but also a better understanding of the plight of these small nations so close to the poet’s native Baltic archipelago yet suffering under the oppressive Soviet thumb.

And now: the stretch of open water, without doors, the open
boundaries
that grow broader and broader
the farther you stretch out.
[. . . ]
But it’s a long way to Liepaja.
[Baltics, IV]

Baltics came up a few years later, in the autumn of 1979, when I had an opportunity to discuss Tranströmer’s poetry and the plight of the Baltic states with the noted Estonian poet Ivar Ivask (1927-1992) and the Lithuanian historian Vitas S. Vardys (1924-1993) . We shared dinner at the faculty club at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma, and my long conversation with Ivask, who was then the editor-in-chief of World Literature Today and the founder of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which Tranströmer would win in 1990, opened my eyes to other approaches to the poem, including those by Baltic writers in exile.

Tranströmer’s English speaking audience has continued to grow as has his influence on other poets. His work in translation appeared in Robert Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: - Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer (1975). Bly’s translation of Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers, 1978] appeared in 1980, and an entire issue of Michael Cuddihy’s fine journal, Ironwood 13, was devoted to Tranströmer in 1979 (published in Tucson, by the way). Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, containing the work of several of his noted translators and edited by Robert Haas, was published in 1987, and New Collected Poems, translated by Robert Fulton, appeared in 1997. This volume was greatly expanded in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems which represents the first time all of Tranströmer’s poems to date have been available in one volume in English.

I have been lucky to hear Tranströmer read two other times. First, at an evening reading in Stockholm, in the spring of 1985. I had a free evening in the city and it was a treat to hear selections of Östersjöar and other poems read in the original Swedish. Tranströmer was treated like a rock star yet he remained the same humble man I first encountered a decade earlier in Tucson. The last time was here in Washington, DC, when Tranströmer read at the Folger Library, in April 1986. The poet and his poetry had reached a new and recognizable maturity, yet his inner voice, and the voice by which he shared his poems in Stockholm and Washington, were still recognizable from that first time I heard him read in Tucson in 1974. Both, etched by new experiences, remained, spare, clear, and quiet - the benchmarks of his poetry through the years.

Thankfully, Tranströmer at age 79 remains a major poetic voice in the world. Sadly, however, his own voice has been largely silenced by a stroke he suffered in 1990, an event foretold years earlier toward the end of Baltics.

Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be said,
aphasia
there aren’t any words but maybe a style . . .
[. . .]
Then comes the stroke: right side paralysis and aphasia, can only
grasp short phrases, says wrong words
Can, as a result of this, not be touched by advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he still composes in his own style,
he becomes a medical sensation for the time he has left to live.
[Baltics, V]

Despite the cruel silence imposed upon him, Tomas Tranströmer continues to practice his craft and sharing it with the world. We are certainly thankful for his insights and his ability to help us recognize and transcend the boundaries that encompass us all.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Cemetery of Leaves

We enjoyed a pleasant Labor Day weekend marking the end of the summer season here at the lake and the approaching arrival of autumn. We were here when school let out and people were putting their piers and boats into the water, and we are still here as schools resume classes and people are pulling their piers and boats out of the water. Some, in fact, pulled them out in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene and just decided to leave them out. I marvel at how short the summer season is here in Maine - pretty much the months of July and August and that’s it. Our neighbors here on True’s Point celebrated the beginning of summer on July 4th and now we signal its demise while enjoying a season ending Labor Day picnic.

When we came to Maine I said I wanted to stay here until the autumn colors peaked, which is normally during the latter half of September. And now that it is late September we are beginning to see more and more leaves turning with each passing day. It has been slow going; heavy rainfalls throughout New England back in the spring have caused some trees to drop their brownish leaves early. Other leaves were dispatched prematurely when Hurricane Irene passed this way with heavy rains and high winds in late August. Still other trees stressed by the unseasonably warm temperatures in July have already dropped their leaves before they had a chance to go dormant. Add to this a general warming of the climate (or so the scientists keep telling us and, frankly, I have no reason not to believe them) which is causing the leaves of other trees to turn later than they did even a decade ago. Still, the signs of autumn are with us. There are a few yellow patches appearing along the lake’s shoreline and the swamp maples are turning a rich crimson while the sugar maples are beginning to flare orange. Other trees are showing hints of the colors yet to come. I imagine we will be at peak autumn color by the time we head home to Maryland in early October. It was Henry David Thoreau who once wrote: “October is the month for painted leaves.” I plan to hold him to his word.

In fact, I have just finished re-reading Thoreau’s essay “Autumnal Tint” which first appeared in print in 1862. In it he catalogs the phenology of the autumn foliage near his home at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, while also describing his own love affair with autumn as he provides the reader with a rich description of the variety of hues exhibited by each tree and the surrounding grasses as summer passes into autumn and the year slowly draws to a close.

When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in. I love to wander and muse over them in their graves. Here are no lying or vain epitaphs. Your lot is surely cast somewhere in this vast cemetery which has been consecrated from of old. You need attend no auction to secure a place. There is room enough here.

Fall is really my favorite season and so we plan to enjoy it here in Maine, and then again at home in Maryland where it should arrive in full color in the waning days of October. There are other harbingers of autumn upon us. The local apple orchards in Maine are now heavy with fruit, and with each passing day we are seeing more and more flights of geese over the lake and many are overnighting on the far shoreline. The squirrels and chipmunks are scurrying about as they gather nuts and pine cones. They know winter is coming as the earth will go into a muted hibernation only to awaken again in the spring. Like Thoreau, I think I shall go a celebrate these days of autumn. “Let us walk in the cemetery of leaves.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Really Looking Toward Portugal!

Back in late 2009, when I first launched this blogspot, I provided an explanation of its title. I was not referring to the actual sighting of the Portuguese coastline; it is simply an allusion to one standing on the coast of Maine and staring out to sea. At that latitude, if one could see beyond the curvature of the earth and across the vast distances of the Atlantic Ocean, one would be looking toward Portugal. I noted, too, that one actually would be looking toward the southern peninsula of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. But I was hoping to look farther afield than that and “looking toward Nova Scotia” just did not have the ring to it.

Last week, my good friend Michael Stewart, with whom I have taken a number of road trips through the Mid-Atlantic states in recent months, stopped by the lake here in Maine to rest up on his drive from Maryland to Nova Scotia. New Gloucester is right on the way and a convenient half-way rest stop. Michael spent a day here, but I am not so sure how restful it was for we were up early the morning after his arrival and motoring down to Biddeford, about an hour south of here, to have breakfast at the newly restored Palace Diner (one of the better breakfasts I have had in recent memory) before driving up the coast through Saco, Old Orchard Beach, and Scarsborough photographing other old diners and pieces of roadside Americana from a bygone era before ending up in downtown Portland where we enjoyed lunch at Marcy’s Diner. Later that day we had dinner at Cole Farms, in Gray, and so the entire day was a meat and potatoes extravaganza!

Michael planned to leave the lake very early the next morning for the ten-hour drive to Halifax where his son Spencer studies architecture at Dalhousie University. Since Sally Ann was off on her own adventure in Scandinavia leaving me to fend for myself for a couple weeks, I decided to hitch a ride. Not long after dawn we were on our way through the rolling hills of the Androscoggin and Kennebec river valleys and the lacing of fog slowly began to burn off with the sun’s rise on a beautiful Maine morning. We arrived in Gardiner, on the banks of the Kennebec just south of the state capital of Augusta in time to be the first customers for breakfast at the A-1 Diner. Eggs, bacon, home fries, and plenty of strong black coffee and we were fueled for our journey up to Bangor and farther into Downeast Maine (up here, the father up north you drive, the farther down east you get).

Crossing the Penobscot River at Bangor, I was reminded of John Steinbeck passing this way with his dog Charley 51 years earlier and his attempts to navigate Bangor’s morning “rush hour.” In my book, it is not a rush hour if you can drive at the speed limit (or faster). We were soon through Bangor and Brewer, its sister city on the other side of the river, and pushing eastward on Route 9 - the Airline Highway. What seemed to be endless forests and marshlands stretch to the horizon at every compass point; where townships no longer have names and are known only by a series of initials and numbers. This is the real Great North Wood of Maine. I love this landscape, but for many, the only reason to drive the Airline is to get to the other end, at Calais (pronounced like that rough patch of skin on working hands), on the banks of the St. Croix river which also happens to be the international boundary separating the USA and Maine from Canada and the province of New Brunswick.

When I was growing up I was taught that the US-Canadian border, which stretches across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is the longest undefended border in the world. Americans and Canadians share (for the most part) a common colonial and cultural heritage and speak (for the most part) the same language. I have been to Canada countless times, and back in the old days crossing the border was almost as easy as crossing the street (and in some places it means just that). I recall one instance when I was driving through northern Vermont and upon arriving in the next town I noticed that all the signs were in French. I had crossed the border and had not even realized it. I reported to the local Canadian customs office and was told that it happened all the time and then I was asked most politely to try not to do it again. Those days are gone forever, my friend!


Until fairly recently, the border crossing Calais was a short two-lane bridge spanning the St. Croix and separating the small downtowns of Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and the equally small US and Canadian customs stations. The bridge and the customs stations are still there, but both countries have opened new state-of-the-art border facilities on either side of a multi-lane bridge farther up river. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the more recent return of obligatory passport controls, nobody gets waived through the border checkpoints any more. At least not when one is entering the United States. That said, there was no wait to pass through Canadian customs and after a very few questions we were on our way. No so easy for the folks going the other way. Several long lines of vehicles were lined up waiting to clear US customs. The same was true when we later drove down St. Stephen’s main street. There seemed to be no traffic to speak of at the Canadian port of entry, yet cars waiting to enter the United States were backed up across the international bridge and all the way through downtown St. Stephen. Gone are the days, I guess, when Americans use to cross into Canada to get a better view of the July 4th fireworks over the river.

With Canadian money (now almost at parity with US currency) in our pockets, we set off on our trip across New Brunswick, skirting the Bay of Fundy and its amazing twenty to thirty foot tides, between the border and the provincial capital at St. Johns. From there it is trees and rolling farmland, and more trees. We pass Moncton and then more trees and rolling farmland, and more trees. The landscape changes very little as we continue into Nova Scotia. Correct. More trees and rolling farmland. We do pass through Oxford, Nova Scotia which is the province’s blueberry capital. Before long we climb into the clouds as we cross the Cobequid Pass and then descent into the coastal plain and eventually arrive in Halifax as the sun is setting.

Early the following morning Michael and I were joined by Spencer and his girlfriend Anna as we drove the forty kilometers to Peggy’s Cove in the hope that we might see one of the most photographed lighthouses in North America before the tour coaches began to arrive. The fog was thick upon our arrival, but we managed to have the place pretty much to ourselves. Despite the fog I stood on the rocks and looked eastward toward Portugal. Nothing in between us here. I recall Henry Beston: “the dark and desolate North Atlantic and a thousand miles of whitecaps and slavering foam.” Well, it’s a bit further than a thousand miles before one arrives in Lisbon. But I was really looking toward Portugal! It was worth the ride.
Despite the beauty of the coastline and the quaint fishing village at Peggy’s Cove, a visit to this spot recalls one of the worst airline tragedies in Canadian history. On September 2, 1999, just a few miles off shore and not that far from the Halifax airport, Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed into the dark Atlantic killing all 229 passengers and crew on board. The brave citizens of Peggy’s Cove and nearby Whaleback assisted in the futile search for survivors. A few kilometers down the road from the lighthouse is a stark memorial to the victims of the tragedy.

We returned to a mostly sunny day in Halifax and wandered the city and its waterfront. One of the highlights was a visit to Alexandra’s Pizza, near the Dalhousie campus, which has been voted as having Halifax’s best poutine for several years in a row. Needless to say, I had to sample the fare and it rates pretty high in my book as does their Donair kebab. That’s good eating, folks!

The next day, Michael, Spencer and I set off for the long return trip across the Canadian Maritimes, taking note at Stewiacke, Nova Scotia that we crossed the 45th parallel marking the half way point between the North Pole and the Equator. It was a rainy day until we approached the US border and the sun popped out. We sat in long, very slow moving lines as we finally cleared US customs and followed US Route One to Perry, Maine were we recrossed the 45th parallel. We stopped in Eastport, which is the eastern most city in the United States. From there we could look at the foggy reaches of Campobello Island (in Canada) and Lubec, Maine, which is the easternmost “town” in the USA. Near there is West Quoddy Head, which is the easternmost point of land in the United States. And yes, West Quoddy Head is the farthest east you can go. That is because East Quoddy Head is on Campobello Island, in Canada. You would think that this area would be the first place in the US to greet the morning sun. Not so. That honor is reserved for the summit of Mount Katahdin which is located in northern Maine some 150 miles to the northwest. At an elevation of 5,267 feet, it catches the sun’s first rays of the morning. But you get the idea.

Our return trip took us through the barrens surrounding Machais, Maine’s blueberry capital, and then we headed back north to the Airline Highway and on into Bangor. After a long day’s drive we were back at Sabbathday Lake by the time the sun set. So Steve, what did you do this weekend? Looking toward Portugal. Really!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Must Find Moose (and Squirrel?)

I have been coming to far northern New Hampshire for years. I stumbled upon this area quite by accident. I don’t know what I expected to find, but what I discovered was a country of beautiful landscapes and friendly people. It is a nearly pristine wilderness with far more trees, streams and lakes than people, and I have come to think of it as my “panic hole,” as Jim Harrison might call it - a place where I can go to escape the stress and anxieties associated with my everyday existence. It is a place of solitude, of peace and quiet. The locals call it “God’s Country” and after spending a great deal of time there I have come to agree with them.

I have just completed a road trip which took me through central New Hampshire and the White Mountains and finally brought me once again to my panic hole for a few days of wandering the back roads I have come to know and love so well. There was still enough light in the sky when I reached Tall Timber Lodge, on the northern shore of Back Lake, that I was able to continue north on US Route 3 - “Moose Alley” - the only major highway in this part of the state, as it winds its way through virgin forests to the Canadian border just over 20 miles away. Approaching dusk is a favorite time to spot a moose or two.

My decision to make best use of what daylight I had left paid off. I spotted two moose cows and a single juvenile feeding among the puckerbrush near the shore of Third Connecticut Lake just a mile or so shy of the Canadian border. They had emerged out of the woods to feed and to seek respite from the biting insects. I pulled off the road and watched them for over a half hour, until they reentered the woods around the same time it got too dark to see them well.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the many places where I have seen moose in the past, driving numerous miles along the network of logging tote road while checking out other haunts in the marshy wetlands of the Indian Stream valley and the headwaters of the Connecticut River that moose often favor. Although I did not spot any moose, I did spy several whitetail deer and a pair of red foxes not to mention a potpourri of bird species. Squirrels and chipmunk scurried across the road as I slowly passed by. I also wandered along the East Inlet of the Connecticut River above Second Connecticut Lake in the far northern reaches of New Hampshire where it abuts Maine and the Province of Québec. I never encountered another living soul along these narrowing roads full of potholes and washouts. You can’t get more on the edge of America than this. I was rewarded for my effort; several adult moose were feeding along a stream bed and they paid me no heed as I watched them in the growing dusk. God’s Country? Yes indeed!

The evening before my departure I was sitting in the lobby of Tall Timber Lodge waiting for my table in the lodge’s Rainbow Grille, chatting with the gal behind the desk and telling her about my explorations and sightings. She asked if I would be interested in accompanying a film crew from the Travel Channel who was planning to go out the next day and travel some of the same areas I had in search of moose. They hoped to get enough film footage for a planned episode for the Travel Channel’s new series “America’s Wildest Roads.” This was an invitation too good to pass up.

Very early the following morning I rendezvoused with the Boston-based film crew - a producer, cameraman and sound engineer who were staying at a nearby lodge - and a young local guide who hoped to put us on some moose. Although it was too early to grab breakfast at Tall Timber Lodge, where I was staying, the good folks there made sure I had a thermos of coffee and a bag of bagels. I was good to go.

Once the gear was stowed away our small bus was heading up US Route 3 - Moose Alley. Hardly a “wild road” by any stretch of the imagination, although it does run through mostly unsettled terrain between the crossroads village of Pittsburg and Canada, Route 3 is a well-maintained federal highway. But you often see moose and hence the name. Our guide assured us we had ideal conditions to spot moose - temperatures in the 60s and overcast skies. I shared the locations where I had spotted moose over the previous days yet we never quite made it to any of them, always turning around just a couple miles shy of my coordinates. The driver seemed concerned that we should not get too close to the Canadian border since no one had their passport with them (I did; I always carry my passport when I travel up here). I am not sure what he thought might happen, and I assured him passports were not necessary unless we actually crossed the border. Nevertheless, he gave our northern neighbors a wide berth and unfortunately we missed some prime moose habitat. We also passed on the East Inlet road although the driver told us it passed through some beautiful moose habitat. I could attest to that fact, but it was left unexplored that day.

We did get off on a tote road that took us up into some higher terrain on the slopes of Magalloway Mountain. This is also some very “moosey” habitat and we saw signs of recent moose activity everywhere we went. There were plenty of moose tracks in the muddy wallows along the road and extensive evidence of recent feeding on the lower branches of the abundant spruce trees and the roadside alder thickets. Lots of signs, but not a single moose in the five plus hours we trekked through the wilderness of far northern New Hampshire. We did see two whitetail deer and lots of chipmunks and squirrels, but this was not the stuff of an exciting episode of “America’s Wildest Roads.” I sensed the film crew’s disappointment when we eventually arrived back at their lodge. I signed a release form in case they use any footage in which I appear, but I seriously doubt that will happen. Hollywood will have to wait.

Was I disappointed? Of course, I always like to spot a moose. But for me, simply traveling through God’s Country is enough for me. It is still some of the most beautiful landscapes you will find anywhere. It is the reason I keep coming back.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Camp Life

I very much enjoyed George Smith’s “Up to Camp” in this month’s issue of Down East magazine. “Every Mainer has a camp. It may be a place we own. It may be a place our friends own. It may be a place we rent every summer. It may be a campground and a simple tent. But it’s ours, even if only for a week or two each year.” Smith has captured what it means to retreat to a special place where one can pass a few idle weeks of a New England summer. “We all need a place where ‘there is nothing to do. ”

I will add that a Maine camp is not just for Mainers; there are many of us “from away” who anxiously anticipate our return to the Pine Tree State to enjoy our own summer camp experience. And now, after spending the past 25 summers here on Sabbathday Lake, I am finally getting use to calling our place a “camp.” In the Midwest, where I grew up, a place like ours is usually referred to as a “cottage.” A camp is where you camp in a tent and cook on an outdoor fire or stove. Smith has set me straight. “Camps may be rustic with a two-holer [that is what we called them at home, too]. It may have plumbing and hot showers. It may have a kitchen or just a Coleman stove on the picnic table . . . But it is always the most comfortable place on earth.” I could not agree more and this is why we return here year after year. We come to seek solitude and peace of mind.

Our particular camp is simple and rustic - unfinished knotty pine thumb and groove planks . The sitting room has a couch with lots of throw pillows, cushioned chairs, and cabinet office with its cubbyholes and fold-down desk in one corner which it shares with the hot water heater. Sally Ann uses it as her temporary studio and the paintings she has completed here are tacked to the walls. This room is lined with windows facing the lake, its shoreline with the lower deck and pier just a few feet away and shaded by the generous boughs of a white pine. The joint kitchen and dining area has plenty of space to move about and I use the table as my work space when we are not eating on it. There is a wood stove and wood box and windows over the sink and facing out on the front deck. Rounding out the lower level is a small bedroom and bathroom which appear to have been added to the camp at some point. Finally, there is a narrow stairway over the kitchen sink and counter which leads to a loft over the kitchen and dining area. It has two double beds for company and additional storage space. Two small windows provide welcome cross ventilation. Simple and rustic. It has everything we need.

Smith and I obviously appreciate the same things when we are at our respective camps: There is nothing like a hot cup of joe while standing on the pier and letting the fresh and tactile morning breeze take the sleep from your eyes while listening to the loons cry in the distance; fried eggs and bacon for breakfast; freshly picked strawberries in June and July; local corn, tomatoes and cucumber in August, and radiant sunsets over the lake. But, most important, here is where we come to find “a time of quiet reflection” with none of the distractions we face at home. It is a place with no television, no phone (well, cell phones for “emergencies” and occasional contact with family and the outside world), no computers, e-mail, Facebook, etc. I will confess that I brought a laptop with me but only because I use the peace and quiet afforded by our camp to get some writing done. In fact, I am writing this from the kitchen table in our camp as the old chrome percolator clunks the day’s first cup of coffee into existence. I find writing relaxing and rewarding. It may be considered “work” by some, but I don’t look at it that way. Writing, for me, is one of the things in life that makes getting up each morning worthwhile. So writing each day has become an integral part of camp life. “Writing is like a twitch,” Stephen King tells us. “You do it because you have to do it. And it’s fun.” I agree. So why should it not be an integral part of camp life?

We have been here for a few weeks now and will stay until early October. We have watched summer arrive at the lake, and we will watch it depart at the other end of our stay, as the trees begin to show their autumn foliage and its time to think about heading home. It will be hard to leave, but there is always next year.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Stranger

I have passed through Gray, Maine several times each year since 1988 and yet I have never stop to visit the village cemetery and the Civil War monument. The latter was erected at Gray Corner in May 1911 and dedicated on June 20th of that year. This summer the town is celebrating its centennial. The monument has been moved several times over the years as the traffic patterns changed, and it now stands across the street from the cemetery where 178 Union soldiers, and one lone unknown Confederate soldier, lie buried. This monument is significant because Gray sent proportionately more men to the Grand Army of the Republic than any other town in Maine, and the state of Maine sent more proportionately than any other New England state. Many of the units mustered throughout the state distinguished themselves in battle; perhaps none more than the 20th Maine Regiment commanded by Joshua Chamberlain who turned the tide of the Battle of Gettysburg in the Union’s favor. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor and returned home to Maine to become the president of Bowdoin College, and later Governor of Maine.

Near the center of the cemetery is the burial plot of the Colley family. Amos and Sarah operated a small farm on Colley Hill, not far from Gray Corner and its cemetery. In 1861 young men throughout the Union and the newly established Confederate States of America joined their separate ranks to go to war in a conflict that often pitted brother against brother. Amos and Sarah’s 28 year old son Charles left the farm and traveled down to Portland in October and mustered into the 10th Maine Volunteer Regiment for two years of military service. Following basic training Charles and his comrades-in-arms shipped down to Washington, DC and the battlefields that awaited them.

The Army of the Potomac was deployed into northern Virginia and the Department of the Shenendoah and the 10th Maine Volunteers tasted battle for the first time near Winchester, Virginia in the spring of 1862. Later that summer, Lieutenant Colley and his regiment were part of a Union advance into central Virginia under the command of Major General Nathaniel Beale. This Union force numbering approximately eight thousand troops encountered twenty thousand battle-tested Confederates commanded by Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson near Culpepper Courthouse on August 9, 1862 in what would later be known as the Battle of Cedar Mountain. When the smoke eventually lifted over the battlefield nearly 3500 brave men, casualties almost equally divided by the two foes, lay dead or wounded. The 10th Maine Volunteers lost nearly half its men at Cedar Mountain, and among the wounded was Lieutenant Charles Colley of Gray Corner, Maine.

Colley was evacuated to a field hospital in Alexandria, Virginia where he lingered for over a month before he died on September 20, 1862, just three days after the remnants of the 10th Maine Volunteers fought at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The War Department contacted Amos and Sarah to inform them of their son’s death and to inquire whether they wanted his body shipped home to Maine for burial. If so, they would be required to reimburse the government for embalming and freight costs. They agreed to pay and went about preparing for the funeral and burial of their son in the family plot. When the coffin arrived, the local undertaker opened it to confirm the identity and to allow the grieving parents one last look at their son. When he lifted the lid what he found was not Charles Colley but an unidentified body wearing a Confederate uniform. The error was brought to the attention of the War Department but there was no way to identify the body or to determine where it should have been shipped. Nor was there any explanation how it came to be shipped to Maine. Was the dead stranger also named Colley? No one will ever know.

Wondering what had become of their son, Amos and Sarah recognized that there were other parents mourning the death of their son who deserved a proper Christian burial. The unknown Confederate was laid to rest in the village cemetery and the Ladies of Gray, a group of mothers who had lost sons in the war, eventually arranged for a simple headstone to be placed on the grave with the inscription “Stranger: A Soldier of the Late War. Died 1862. Erected by the Ladies of Gray.” There was a rumor that a Union solider named Colley is buried in Gray, Georgia. If so, it is not Charles Colley. Shortly after the Confederate soldier was buried in the village cemetery, the body of Amos and Sarah’s son finally arrived home and he was buried in the family plot only a few paces from the Stranger.

Today the Stranger rests next to Johnson N. Smith who fought in the 27th Company of the Maine Volunteers in the Union Army. The graves of each Civil War veteran buried in the village cemetery is marked with a metallic star of Post 78 of the Grand Army of the Republic, and on Memorial Day a fresh American flag decorates each grave. The people of Gray likewise honored the memory of the Stranger; he was a brave lad who fought and died for his country. In 1956, someone in Alexandria, Virginia learned of the Stranger’s grave in Maine and sent a Confederate flag to be placed on his grave. Since then the Daughters of the Confederacy have sent a Confederate ensign to the town of Gray to fly over the Stranger’s grave and there is now a metallic shield to recognize him as a Confederate Army veteran. .

The names of each local boy from Gray who served in the Union army is etched into three side of the nearby Civil War monument, while the fourth side bears the simple inscription “To Perpetuate the Heroism and the Sacrifice of the Struggle 1861-1865.” The monument also pays homage to the lone unknown Confederate solider buried far from his southern home. The good people of Gray, Maine past and present have made him one of their own. The Stranger is a stranger only in the fact that we do not know who he is or where he came from. Just another American boy who died far too young.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Living in Maine Like a Bird of the Air

A few years ago I attended a meeting of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society at Bowdoin College which Hawthorne attended for four years, graduating with the Class of 1825. I spoke on the subject of Hawthorne and his college chums - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s most revered poets, and Franklin Pierce, one of its most reviled presidents. A third would serve in the state legislature and was eventually elected to the House of Representatives from the new State of Maine. He would die at the hands of a Congressional colleague in one of the last legal duels held in the United States, an event which Hawthorne would roundly condemn. Last summer I had an opportunity to deliver another talk on Hawthorne at a scholarly conclave in Concord, Massachusetts, where he resided late in life and where he is buried. This time I discussed his travels throughout northern New England. One of these, his last as it would turn out, was in the company of his old Bowdoin classmate, Franklin Pierce.

This summer I was invited to the Hawthorne House in Raymond, which is just a short distance from our summer cottage here in Maine. The subject of this talk was Hawthorne’s connections with the State of Maine. For many years the maternal side of his family was associated with a broad wilderness tract along the eastern shores of Lake Sebago, in Cumberland County. Hawthorne considered these youthful years in Raymond some of his happiest, and he cherished the time he spent wandering the woods and fishing the lake and nearby streams. “I lived in Maine like a bird of the air, so perfect was the freedom I enjoyed.,” Hawthorne would later admit.. “But it was there I first got my cursed habits of solitude.” Ebe, Nathaniel’s sister, saw a great change in her brother as a result of his time in Maine. “His imagination was stimulated, too, by the scenery and by the strangeness of the people; and by the absolute freedom he enjoyed.” This early association with this area was responsible for his choosing to attend Bowdoin College.

I understand Hawthorne’s sentiment. I feel the same way each and every time I am able to return to Maine and this is why I am spending the entire summer here. I will be posting several accounts of my weeks here before we return home in early October, and don’t be surprised if I include an occasional reference to Mr. Hawthorne along the way. I am looking forward with great anticipation to the enjoyment of the solitude and peace of mind this place affords me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Close Encounters of the Moose Kind

A recent issue of The Economist reported how moose were brought to Newfoundland almost a century ago to encourage tourists and hunters and to boost the economy of Britain’s last colony in North America. Moose, often considered a Canadian icon, were not indigenous to insular Newfoundland, but then it did not join Canada until 1949 and now they have more moose than they know what to do with. With no natural predators on the island, not even the hunters (5000 additional hunting licenses granted this year alone) have been able to hold them at bay and the current population is estimated to be around 150,000. The only effective means to reduce the moose population is to hit them with your car, which the Newfoundlanders have been doing in increasing numbers. Around 700 moose are hit annually on provincial roads.

OK, I have learned from my own experience that moose are not the smartest critters to come off Noah’s ark at the end of the big flood. Their eyesight and sense of hearing are both limited and, if one is careful, one can often get quite close to a moose before it realizes you are there. As shy and passive as they seem to be at first blush, they more often than not seem perplexed when they encounter humans, especially if they are caught in the headlights of a car cruising down the highway. Despite the small number of roads compared to the hundreds of square miles of uninterrupted and uninhabited forest and tundra found in the primary moose habitats, they (especially juveniles and their doting mamas) tend to congregate near or on roadways. Perhaps they are escaping the pesky biting insects found in the woods and swamps, but more likely they are attracted to the salt that has accumulated on or near the roadbeds during winter snow removal. Recognizing this fact, the province of Québec is now using less salt on its roads and other jurisdictions are following suit. This said, you still need to remain vigilant when driving through the northern woods, especially in the summer months. Several years ago I almost hit an imposing bullwinkle standing in the middle of the highway at night as I crossed Grafton Notch near the Maine-New Hampshire border. This before I learned to take “Moose Crossing” signs seriously. You would too if you considered the consequences of a half ton or more of moose flesh coming through the windshield at 55 mph!

Not every encounter with a moose has been quite so dramatic The first confrontation occurred when my family and I were hiking a wilderness trail in northen Maine’s Baxter State Park. We chanced upon a relatively large cow (yes, that is what they call a female moose; a male is a “bull”) blocking our path. Being city folk, we were not quite sure what we were suppose to do. Would it ignore us? Would it charge us and kill us on the spot? At the moment it did not seem to pay us any mind as it quietly fed on twigs and grasses along the trail. We approached a little closer so that we could get a good photograph. It still ignored us. So we moved a little closer. As we approached, the cow turned her head in our direction. Did she hear? Did she smell us? She continued to look our way but we were not sure if she saw us as she resumed her feeding. So we moved a little closer. This time she suddenly raised her head and once again turned in our direction. She shook her head and her ears went back. We knew she had spotted us and we stopped dead in out tracks. There was no way for us to go except the way we came in and as fast as our legs would carry us. But we did not run. We waited and in a few moments the cow walked gently and quietly into the surrounding puckerbrush and soon disappeared from sight. We were amazed how such a large animal could move so discreetly. We continued our hike, and upon our return to that spot we stopped and looked around hoping we might spot her again. But she was gone . . . or was she?

On another outing in Baxter, we were in a canoe on Kidney Pond when we spotted a moose feeding in water. Most of the time it was completely submerged except when it raised its large head out of the water to chew the vegetation it had pulled from the bottom of the pond. Once, when its head was submerged, we boldly navigated closer to have a better look. And we paid for our daring, for as soon as we approached the spot where we had last seen the moose a huge swarm of until then invisible flies that had been drifting over the moose quickly shifted to engulf our canoe and we could not paddle fast enough to escape them. Perhaps the crack about the moose being dumb was a little premature.

Since those early encounters I have seen numerous moose in the wild; while hiking through the woods, but more often along the highways, particularly a stretch of US Highway 3, in New Hampshire just below the Canadian border known affectionately as “Moose Alley.” During the evening in the summer one can find people cruising the highway at dusk trying to spot moose who have come out of the woods once the traffic has died down. Now traffic is a relative term up there. Several minutes or longer can pass before one sees another car, usually a border patrol vehicle, or the occasional truck hauling pulpwood down from Québec. Otherwise it is pretty quiet up there on the roof of New Hampshire.

So it was this past weekend. We had not seen any moose in northern Maine as we drove up along the Carrabassett and Dead rivers to Coburn Gore and the Canadian frontier. Nor did we spot any as we cruised the back roads of Québec’s Eastern Townships despite the signs announcing their presence. But upon crossing back into the USA and New Hampshire in the early evening we spotted a moose standing in the middle of the road less than a mile from the border where we saw the familiar signs warning us to watch out for moose on the highway. Later than evening, as we were returning to the cottage in Maine, we spotted a large bull along the highway in Grafton Notch, not far from that earlier encounter.

How can one not be impressed by the sight of a large moose in the wild? I guess it’s possible. The story goes that Warren G. Harding, during the first ever visit by a American president to Alaska, yawned and barely masked his boredom during his first encounter with a moose. But then again, the only time he got excited in the natural world was when someone was cutting down trees and blowing things up. I am sure for him the only good moose was a dead one. For the rest of us though, a moose sighting is pretty exciting. I know it is for me. I prefer to encounter them in the woods, but a spotting along the roadside is good too. If you know where and when to go, there are enough moose up here to satisfy your desire to find them. Just remember that they don’t share our understanding of the rules of the road and the concept of yielding the right-of-way. Drive carefully and leave the moose for others to enjoy.