Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Perfect Winter Storm

Our local daily newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, is very good, and its editorial and op ed pages, in particular, are the best kind of this genre: a source of never ending conversation and infuriation.

Last week, in the midst of our second major snow and ice storm of the not-quite-here-yet winter, columnist Kent Ward from up in the County decided to use some newsprint inches by pooh-poohing, alongside a few seemingly “sacred cows,” global warming. He did so from a very particular, traditional Maine viewpoint, one which greatly informs our Down East island fishing culture and is therefore worth further consideration.

This viewpoint has several predominant characteristics, all of which Ward ably illustrated. The first and most obvious here in our own community is a pragmatic “what you see is what you’ve got” approach to the world. Ward’s expression of this characteristic sounds like this: we’ve had more major snowstorms, ice, and cold in the first days of December than at any other time in recent memory; therefore, there is no such thing as global warming.

The second and related characteristic of our rural Maine communities which Ward exemplified in this column is a separation of the human world of cause and effect from the natural world. Snowstorms and cold weather are forces that effect human beings, creating inconvenience and pain; yet their causes are disconnected from any human action.

The third and most important characteristic of Maine communities illustrated in Ward’s column is a natural resources-based fatalism. If “what you see is what you’ve got,” and the natural world is a force of its own, separate from human causation, then there isn’t a damn thing you can do about global warming. Just like the past ballyhoo about a potential “nuclear winter,” Ward writes, concerns about the negative effects global warming are just another creation of the “professional doom-and-gloomers of the world” (the polar opposites, if you will, of the cheery, optimistic, traditional folk in northern Maine).

Our local version of these characteristics sounds like this: the fish aren’t here this year; this has happened before; we don’t know why and we can’t control it; maybe they will be back when they’re ready. Or perhaps an angle like this: property values are increasing; we can’t afford our homes or taxes; “the economy" is a large, natural phenomenon and there is nothing we can do about it.

There is a lot of wisdom in this type of fatalism, which has its deep and understandable roots in rural experience and traditions that for centuries had no way of measuring human impact on our own environment; and in problems that seem so much bigger than we are that they are unsolvable. Fish DO come and go in natural, often unpredictable cycles—just like the weather. Fish and weather are natural elements of our world, with lives and spirit and meaning of their own; they are rightfully mysterious to us.

This traditional Maine viewpoint, however, also helps us to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions. It’s one thing to believe in god, or to recognize that the world is a bigger and more powerful spirit than our own individual self; it’s another thing to use this knowledge and respect to abrogate our individual responsibilities, as part and parcel of this world.

Luckily for our fisheries, most of our local fishermen are, in their own words, “waking up” to the fact that the demise of ground fish, and potentially lobster, are the direct result of fishermen’s own management of the resources; and they’re working to turn that management around.

What are our similar responsibilities for global warming or escalating property valuations? The tragic aspect of both phenomenon is that they are NOT “natural” or inevitable. They are a direct result of how we, in the richest and most developed country in the world, consume resources.

Our fierce ice and snow storms are a part of, not separate from, global warming. Our high property taxes are a direct reflection of how little we choose to involve ourselves with core community issues via land use ordinances and economic development initiatives.

It’s true, each of these is a very complex ecosystem, in and of itself; and, as individuals, we are small in the face of these much larger issues. But together we are powerful. The earth has born witness to both glacial and tropical ages throughout the millennia and, with our help, is quickly entering another tropical age. Our oil-and-consumption based economy is quickly entering a recession. If we’re unwilling to take both small and large actions to stem the effects of these very human phenomenon—rising tides, droughts, the loss of farms and fish and jobs and the polar ice caps—then at the very least, in another good Maine tradition, we need to be willing to let them go without complaining.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

There's No House like the Opera House

Just in time for the holidays, and travelling with a snow and ice storm since Ohama, we've arrived home to our island and Opera House. From my office window at dusk on Saturday afternoon, I can watch the Island Fisherman's Wives in the parking lot on the commericial fish pier, pouring punch and welcoming Santa Claus and excited families. Behind them, the tiny Isle au Haut ferry, green port lights glowing in the near dark, makes its last trip in to shore.

Tonight we will host a benefit for the Island Food Pantry: 15 to 20 musicians from Northern Maine playing old time country classics, right after a bean supper hosted at a nearby church. Today's melt is turning the roads icy: it is supposed to be bitterly cold tonight and tomorrow. The musicians from Northern Maine are a group of folks who simply like to play music in their houses. We have dubbed them "North Country Country," and this is their second appearance with us. They embody a long tradition on the island: regular folks who love to make music. With luck, some people will brave the icy roads and join us so we can help support the Island Food Pantry. Tomorrow night we present a single showing of Penobscot Theatre's hysterical "Santaland Diaries" -- a more modern and cynical take on the holiday season.

Ho ho ho and see you at the Opera House!

Power to the People

Here is Inushkuk, sitting atop the binocular stand, viewing Niagara Falls on a cold December day. I had not been to Niagara Falls since I was a kid, on a family trip that included both grandmothers; and the only others there with us this past week were a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, smoking and taking pictures.

The power of the Niagara River is stunning, as is the geological history that created them. Perhaps most interesting is that the falls started considerably further down river than they presently are; and "walked" back to their present location as they eroded the underlying ledge, creating a giant whirlpool, gorge, and more.

The power is stunning and apparent, and it didn't take long for European settlers to begin harnessing this power. The falls' power has been channeled into the first A/C power distribution network since the late 19th century, when Nicola Tesla won the support of George Westinghouse; faced off with Thomas Edison, the famous inventor of D/C electrical appliances; and created a distributed power system for Buffalo. To this day, the hydroelectric generating capacity of the Falls is magnificent and sets an underutilized example for other places in the country.

Our trip through the plains took us through multiple horizons of wind farms; Niagara, a gateway back east, boasts hydropower. The residents of California, Idaho, Wyoming are proud of their wind farms, as, historically, are those of Niagara. As they should be. The production and use of alternative forms of energy should be, as one of our OHA board members said in viewing the wind farm atop Mars Hill in Northern Maine, a point of national pride. It's too bad we don't see more such innovation in New England; which is small enough that almost every such opportunity devolves into a Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) battle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Reading Neruda en route to Detroit

It’s cold and blustery, but thankfully not snowing, and we are zipping past the steaming steel mills of Gary, Indiana on route to Detroit—and ultimately, tonight, to Niagara Falls. The madness of steam and wires, tracks and trucks that envelopes the south end of Lake Michigan, is somehow very cheery: we’re still manufacturing steel here! This place is still a working, industrial zone! The mess of a Calumet River slides beneath us, turgid with the greasy output of this manufacturing, and still I cheer it on. A recession is coming, the radio has been warning as we struggle east and homeward, and as the gas burns beneath our tires we feel the weight of this pronouncement begin to bear down on us. Thus the steaming factories and mills of Gary are a cheerful sight . . .

Reading Neruda on route to Detroit—thanks to the sweet roadtrip-gift of his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair from our friend Jennifer—is amusing in its ironies. “Let your deep eyes close,” Judith reads as I struggle to stay awake, mile after monotonous mile of American fast food culture blurring by us. “There the night flutters./Ah your body, a frightened statue, naked.” Michigan appears to have a greater saturation of Adult Video / XXX Superstores / Exotic (insert Asian-sounding name here) Health-Massage Clubs than any state through which we have yet traveled.

Dearborn. Flint. Motor City! How did this quintessentially American industry—the birth of the assembly line, the manufacture of the automobile—end up just across the border from Canada? Was Henry Ford from Dearborn?? The vaguely rolling terrain is dotted with a crust of snow that seems to have endured since last year; the strawberry and cherry orchards almost invisible against the leaden gray sky and this brownish-white crust. Why is Michigan known for fruit and cars, and not corn and cattle, the way Iowa is? It’s too simple to say “geography” since it is hardly ever the only lever of American economics. Why fruit, why Ford; and is Kellogg Michigan’s Neruda? Inquiring minds on the road--especially when the highway is closed down due to another snow storm!--want to know. We are making our way slowly, slowly back to New England.

Chi Town

“It’s a done deal,” my former college roommate, Melissa, pronounces just before dinner. The 25th anniversary of our graduation from Bowdoin is approaching in Spring 2008, and we are discussing how to insert—for old times’ sake—a political demonstration into the celebrations. Otherwise we’re not much interested in attending.

“The Arctic caps saw so much loss this last year, there’s no real reversing the damage.”

Traveling U.S. interstate highways, it’s pretty clear we’re a people very busy hammering nails into our own coffins and not thinking about it a whole lot. If it were ONLY that the national debt—a kind of abstract reality that works like an invisible hand on each of our lives—has tripled under the G.W. Bush administration, we might be OK. But the number of tractor trailer trucks hauling ton after ton of stuff to consumer over mile after mile after mile of road; the number of cars, including our own big van, driving and parking and spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: what are we thinking?

The forests of Borneo are said to be shrinking at the rate of three football fields an hour, according to the CBC later that night, as we sit for two hours on a dark Canadian highway in a snowstorm. Another tractor trailer, jack-knifed. It is bitterly cold and windy. As some of my neighbors in Maine might say: what global warming?

As if each of our own experiences, day by day, defines for us the globe.

We give Chanukah and birthday presents to Jordan, who will turn nine in a few days. She is reading a series of illustrated chapter books called Babymouse, which feature quite the feminine, middle-school-age mouse in strong, self-esteeming building narratives. Jordan is an amazing soccer player and does karate as well.

While some things stay the same, some things do change.

Belle Plaine and What Cheer, Iowa: The First Ice Storm of Winter

In Eastern Colorado, the steer and the antelope and Mexican immigrants play. These high rolling plains were the nexus of the Texas-Montana Cattle (bison bye-bye; longhorns, ho!), the Overland, and Trappers’ Trails—until the Union Pacific Railroad snorted its way into town, changing everything, just after the Civil War.

It’s almost still a prairie here: surge after surge of yellowed tumbleweed becoming, as we continue east, golden grasses. Cross the border into Nebraska and the land compliantly flattens; the earth turns black and bristles with harvested corn husks. Corn, corn, and too much corn to do any of our autoimmune systems—whether human or grass-eating cattle imprisoned in a stinking stock yard—any good. For those who still eat commercial beef, who still drink commercial milk, denial (and the pleasure of your pocketbook, I suppose) is your best and most necessary friend if you travel through these environs.

Though no longer plentiful, the state flower of Nebraska is still the prairie rose, which once grew thickly as part of the eight foot tall sea of swaying grasses memorialized by the woman I consider to be the U.S.’s best novelist, Willa Cather. I am reading Prairie Visions, an autobiography by the innovative folklorist, community worker, and theater professor Robert Gard (father to Judith’s good friend and community arts worker Maryo Gard Ewell). In it, Gard relates the story of how his father urged him to leave home. The luxurious and seemingly endless sea of grasses that had lured his father to Kansas had been, by the early 20th century, chewed up and spit out by the sodbusters, those horse-driven plows piloted by visionaries such as Gard’s father himself. The prairie in Kansas gone, Gard’s father urges him out “to discover The Stranger,” to find the next untouched prairie. A parable of the paradox of American mobility and development . . .

When we reach Iowa and its swelling hills, water is pouring from the sky and freezing before it hits our windshield: the roadside ditches and medians are littered with cars and trucks. Rolled over on their backs and crushed like beetles; jackknifed like alligators trying to bite their own tales. We counted six tractor trailers off the road in less than a mile, many more before and after that. It’s a war zone and the traffic is losing.

Judith is scared and wants to stop for the night.

I can’t bear another night in a disinfected hotel along an anonymous expressway, while our debt accumulates and my goddaughter Jordan awaits in Chicago.

We’re arguing the pro’s and con’s when we pass through What Cheer, Iowa.

We arrive, bruised and fatigued, in Chicago around 10:30 that night. Whole bodies, icy souls.

(That black spot in the photo below is Jack, peering down from a loft on the stairs over the Christmas tree we helped decorate, with friends, in Chicago).

Julien's Cliffhouse Kombucha

Across the border of southern Wyoming and into Colorado. Suddenly: evergreens dot rolling green and red pastures. We’ve crossed another line . . .

. . . into a world in which people live up canyons. Jamestown, CO, where Kate, Rudiger, and Julien are, is a former mining town of approximately 300 residents, up the canyon carved into the Rockies above Boulder by the Jamestown creek. There’s a post office, a community church, and “The Merc,” a mercantile / cafĂ© that hosts live music every Thursday and some weekends (The Merc is the big white building in the photo below, taken from the porch of Julien’s Cliffhouse). The serpentine road up the canyon is overpopulated by lean bikers outfitted in sleek, unnatural biking costumes that cost hundreds of dollars. But up in Jamestown itself, mountain lions still eat neighborhood cats; dogs roam freely unleashed; and 10-year-old Julien can walk across the street to go to the village elementary school through the fifth grade.

We had the distinct pleasure of staying in Julien’s Cliffhouse (pictured above left): a hand-constructed playhouse built by Julien’s father, Rudiger, for him. The cliffhouse is cantilevered, on steel beams, over the creek and the town center: I took this picture walking back up to it from the post office, which is almost directly beneath the cliffhouse. The porch rail is made from unhewn logs and sticks; the ceiling is vaulted, shaped by pine Rudiger steamed and curved and glued; the lavender exterior and teal trim are the colors requested by Julien.

Rudiger, born and raised in Germany but most recently of Guatelmala, is trilingual and so self-sufficient it is impossible not to envy him. Julien’s Cliffhouse is testament to his extraordinary skill as a carpenter and woodworker. All of the family’s hot water, and some of their home’s heat, is supplied by water-based solar panels he installed on the roof. He brought a kombucha mushroom with him from Germany in 1985, and after more than 20 years of fermenting this natural energy drink for himself and his family he has begun to bottle it and sell it--under the “Julien’s Cliffhouse” label. The raw, quiet beauty of self-sufficiency required by a location such as Jamestown (or Stonington, ME) is lost on neither old-school Republicans (aka, Libertarians), nor Democrats (aka Hippies), both of whom happily co-reside in many Colorado canyon, and Maine island, towns.

Monday, December 3, 2007

No Trees, Only Wind: On Cowboys and Lobster Fishermen

Have you noticed that the geography of states really changes at state lines? Wyoming: monolithic rock outcroppings tower over the biggest, flattest, most treeless plains I have ever seen. We will reach the edge, where this treeless expanse meets the sky, and fly off, soaring into the thin blue-almost-white atmosphere. The Wind is gusting at 70 mph, moving our 10-cylinder van like any tumbleweed across the road, from west to east. Giant Black Angus steer look like tiny plastic toys dotting the plains; the highway is lined with barbed wire fencing; the range criss-crossed with x-shaped, metal snow fencing in an attempt to stop the wind from overwhelming the road. The wind pushes and shoves the barbs across one’s vision until my eyeballs feel scraped: branded with the image of Matthew Shepard’s scarecrow-like form, a gay youth beaten and tied to wire such as this. This landscape is tough: not actively hostile, but indifferent to us and our many identities and destinations.

The Wind rules here, it is the shape and motion in a landscape devoid of trees or other objects. A cowboy on a horse or in a Chevy Silverado has only the wind as companion to his work, just like the lobster fisherman in his small boat upon the sea. There is a line between earth and horizon, there is you, there is the wind. In this way, tussling alone against the wind, cowboys and lobster fishermen must form their ideas, their souls, their characters. When they ride back into harbor, they expect to find more wind but instead find community. Speaking in the rhythms and languages of the wind as it scrubs the uneven surface of the water or the range, they become multilingual or often do not speak at all. Going back to our time in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, I am wondering if this is what Judith means, at least in part, when she talks about the “spirit of the west;” if it is what we mean, at least in part, when we talk about the unique culture of Down East Maine. We are a wind-licked people, the wind pushes us and we push back. We bluster, we push, we struggle. The wind is ceaseless and relentless, fierce and cold and sharp. In these locales it is never gentle. And so we bundle up, our faces and hands are chapped, we have to holler to be heard against the wind’s loud insistent voice. We yell at it, we live in it, finding it difficult to make a difference between our wind-voice and our people-voice. Maybe the spirits of the west and the spirit of Down East are of each of us alone, talking with and often over the loud wind. Shouting at god. Feeling as if we cannot be heard; and that, as between each of us, it is difficult to determine what is or is not a response, to translate god's words, to understand their relationship to our own.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Malheur, Oregon: Inspiring Theater Tales in the Desert Grim

You gotta think twice, or maybe three times, when you drive for hours and hours—a full day, in fact—through a cold, high, empty desert with a county and town and river all named Malheur. Eastern Oregon is quite empty and wild. As with so many points along our trip, we pondered what it must have been like to be a pioneer woman going through here, just a little south of the highway that was the Oregon Trail, pre-Dairy Queens and such.

We didn’t have enough time to hike or explore, but we did have the joy of observing several small, Main Street movie theaters—such as the Desert at left, and the Rex below—that are still alive and kicking in these tiny rural locations. Note that they, like our own beloved Opera House, were playing Bee Movie and Dan in Real Life the two weekends after Thanksgiving. The little, handlettered sandwich board outside the pretty, pink-trimmed Desert says “Matinee Today!” (it was Sunday) and proudly promoted the fact that they were showing two different movies for the holiday. It made us feel right at home. Viva la cinema! Viva la Maison d’Opera!

Jack and the Inukshuk

We hit Thanksgiving in Eugene, OR, with so much for which to give thanks. We had just left a wonderful visit with Jeanine and Don; friends in San Francisco; Dale and his fine family of three blonde boys (ASIDE: when I first went to Bowdoin, everyone assumed I was from California. Now I know why. It’s the Blonde State.) and had arrived in Eugene at Jennie and her family’s beautiful home.

There was just one small problem: our 6-month old puppy, Jack, was throwing up. All day. Beginning on our arrival in OR two days before Thanksgiving, he had no energy. We took him to the vet, who was puzzled, on Wednesday. We thought, as with all of his puppy diarrhea, that he had gotten into something and would get over it.
He didn’t. He was a limp noodle in our arms Friday morning, when we rushed him to the vet and he was diagnosed with parvo. We were stunned. He’d had all his shots; and dogs die from parvo within three days of showing symptoms. The vet rushed him into isolation and put him on an IV, giving him a 50-50 chance and telling us what rotten places rest areas and dog parks are for young dogs whose immune systems are not fully developed. What?! Why hadn’t someone said that to us previously??
And still, we had and have so much for which to be grateful. We had extra time, extra meals, extra hot tubs with grandchildren Carmen and Bodin. I got to go swimming with them, and be there when 4-days-short-of-5-year-old Bodin discovered swimming noodles and traversed the kiddie pool on his own. Now, to add to all of that, Jack has recovered from parvo.

We are on the road again, our travels safeguarded by Inukshuk (see photo of Jack with stone sculpture, above). Inukshuk is a statue created from flat stones by my sister Donna, with whom we stayed outside of Bruneau, ID, on November 25. According to some information she provided along with the statue, Inukshuk, which means “in the image of man,” are “magnificent lifelike figures of stone which were erected by the Inuit people and are unique to the Canadian Arctic.” The traditional meaning of an Inukshuk, which is reminiscent, to those who hike, of trail cairns, was to act as a compass or guide for a safe journey. For example, an Inukshuk on land with two arms and two legs, like this guy, means there is a valley, at the end of which the traveler has a choice in the direction we choose to take in our lives . . . happily, Donna’s Inukshuk now oversees our travels from the dashboard of the Opera House’s Ford van. There are a lot more interesting things the Inukshuk represents; stay tuned for more Inukshuk wisdom as we go along.

According to the wisdom of the Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal illness to force us into looking at our lives. Nor are we condemned to go out empty-handed at death to meet the unknown. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare -- wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind -- for death and eternity. In the Buddhist approach, life and death are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life. Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected. - Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying