The fading lilacs of June, wild lupine along the road, standing in rows of spiky pinks and jagged blues. Pines and spruces—and then a patch of road with white birch groves dressed in their pale paper sheets of bark. In the evenings the lights of your car startle the blazing eyes of the big, furry Maine cats. They are strangely impressive, especially the bizarre matings of blacks and browns and yellows, the colors smeared in patches or fixed in stripes—ugly, anarchic. These large cats seem well suited to the northern part of the country, but there is a desperation about them too as they slink into the lonely, silent, black canals of wet earth next to the roads. No lights in the distance, no paths cut through the trees, no domestic breaks in the forest of alders.
The steady beat of the local people’s days—puttering, dreaming, working. There is something meditative and faraway about the Maine person—in his movements, in the controlled cadence of the jokes, the reserved, cool smiles. From birth the weather has marked him as it has marked everything around him. The clearest of blue skies, the dazzling sun on the bay, the warm grass, the brilliant summery white of the harbor alive with sails: still, even so, there is always behind the brightness the domain of winter—fog, rain, and snow. It never vanishes; it just seems to step back for a little.
When it is dark or rainy or cool the afternoons are endless; they stop—glooming. The light drops, the day waits. Time seems to hang in the air, thick, motionless. The stillness of the old, small village is complete, the rhythmical flow peculiar, as if repeating moments lived before, perhaps long ago, or by someone else. This sensation is touched with melancholy and sometimes one feels a pang of panic. In the drawer there are old photographs of our square, my house on the left, just as it was a hundred years ago. A sense of continuity oppresses just as much as it reassures.
“Many a noble heart mourned the fall of those great oaks.”
People speak of worrying about the trees. The great old elms, with their terminal woe, are dying grandly, a real death like that of the old chancellor in Rilke’s story. But what about the grand dukes—the cedars, the maples? They wait, reprieved, harboring the winds. On the rooftops, in the gutters, damp, yellowing leaves. From the shore, islands live and die, appear and disappear, depending upon the light, the fog.
A fantastic love of difficult, awkward islands gripped the heart of rich people at the turn of the century. Grandeur and privation, costliness and discomfort. Some years ago we took a friend from South America to an island quite a distance off Machias, Maine. The launch pulled up to a long, wooden pier to which the owner’s sloop was moored. The house was a large yellow frame with two graceful wings and inside there were beautiful dishes, old maps on the wall, fine painted chests, and handsome beds. We lived there in silence and candlelight for a few days, stumbling about with our guttering tapers, coming upon steep back stairways where we had been expecting a closet with our nightgowns in it. “This is madness! No, it is not one bit amusing!” the Brazilian lisped in fury.
The house on the island in our bay is notable for its uncompromising, flawless memory of those good-sized dwellings in important towns of the Middle West. Cleveland, St. Louis? Strong and solid structure, placed on a broad avenue, fifty years ago, out of style with too many colored panes and redundant porches. Memory built it brick by brick on a Maine island.
Downstream a little red wooden farmhouse, local, stands on a rise, its field running down to the shore. It is utterly serene, pure, one of those sentimental bits of landscape, existing by accident, perhaps not even treasured. It is dazzling, simple, forlorn and yet free of the psychodrama that mars the paintings of Wyeth when he comes upon similar scenes. The beauty is that nothing is happening in the red wooden house; it does not mean anything or hide anything.
From one spot on high ground, back from the road leading out of town, you can look down on the Bagaduce River and across to the other bank where small villages with white spires seem to stand, trapped and glistening. All of the whiteness is tipped with sunlight, but it is so small and still and fixed that it does not seem quite real. Our own language and our own day unfit us for the Maine landscape and even the Maine “experience.” There is a bland vacation quality to most Maine literature and it is all, except for Sarah Orne Jewett, a sort of translation. (From her story “The Town Poor”: “My good gracious, ain’t this a starved-looking place? It makes me ache to think them nice Bray girls has to brook it here.”)
From the window, in front of my desk, an old worn-out apple tree extends a branch with its little, wormy green fruits hanging on it like Christmas ornaments. Swishing through the frayed leaves, a cedar waxwing, two flickers. Here, in Maine, every stone is a skull and you live close to your own death. Where, you ask yourself, where indeed will I be buried? That is the power of those old villages: to remind you of stasis.
There is no place to go! You just stay at home. Then systole (the post office), diastole (the grocery store). Back home again. A trip sometimes to Bucksport, and then to Bangor, to meet the airplane. But nothing to do. Claustrophobia and coming to terms with it, living with it, that is the Maine theme. You are enclosed in your village, in the whole state, its position, its distance, its weathers.
What affects me so deeply about Maine is the sense of loss. Lost people, lost mills, lost fish in the sea, lost berries and livestock, unpredictable potatoes, bereft farms, stony and slighted fields, patchy pastures. Maine lost 25,000 farms between 1880 and 1940. More than half the improved land had reverted to forest over thirty years ago. And yet so romantic and nobly unreal are the residents here that they live with a sort of nightmare peopling their emptiness. They are always predicting hordes of one kind or another, tourists, summer-house buyers, marinas, dense developments from the icy tip to the barely warm south. They are coming, watch out!
We all say that constantly. But nothing comes and nothing lost returns. Shrinkage continues, developments pour the foundation and that is the end of it. “Poor drainage!” the local people say, triumphantly. The movie house went before I came to Maine and the shoemaker has been a memory for longer than I’ve been alive. Our only lobster restaurant burned to the ground last year. The gap, the leveled ground has melted into the landscape, as though it had been waiting, this emptiness, for its natural turn. They goeth and they do not return, ever. The agitation of July and August always subsides. The roads are soon empty, the hamburger stands close, the postal clerk’s load is lifted. The wistful, sweet torpor returns.
I am sure I don’t understand Maine. I have been here for three months a year for sixteen years. But is this a long or a short time? I have, however, worked on this place, as one speaks of working on some new language. I have studied it a bit, driven about alone, inland, looking, wondering. Is the quiet a true tranquillity and peacefulness? I sometimes think it is and then again—perhaps it is something else. There is about the region a curious and fascinating softness that seems to spread like a blanket over the hardness of rock and woods and icy turf. This is a perturbation, this ambiguous softness in the drifting fogs, the thick greens of the trees, the dampness, the swampy meadows. It is in the people too, in the men as well as in the women. Not a tropical softness, of course, but the odd snowy lassitude of isolation. Whole countries and people formed by these long, huddling winters. “Well,” he told me, “November is the suicide season. Summer is over, winter’s ahead. Long months of closing in.” Pregnancies, breakdowns.
“Oh, when I think of winter I just think of poverty spread over everything. The cold makes everything poor. They are always saying they like it, like it the best of all, calling it better than summer. But I don’t think they are telling the truth…. I think winter does something to your head, your feeling, something not even the summer’s heat can undo.” And he looked with a soft melancholy toward the waving sea. “Well, anyway, this is a handsome place.”
My own town of Castine stands out on a point and thus has something of the feeling of an island. It has attractive houses; boats and docks and shores give it beauty and life; it has gentility and promotes its history. The Main Street slopes down to the harbor, slowly, and houses curve along the waterfront, some ours (summer people), some theirs (town people). There is a turn-of-the-century quality to life here, pre-swimming and sunning and beaching; instead, eager boating, rather pure and difficult and special, again like decades ago. Relations with people are of a gentle and genteel sort; it gives a stinging pleasure, not being what has come to be your true self, putting it aside for three months, like going home and as the C&O pulls into the old station adjusting and rearranging yourself. Or perhaps it is calling upon some self always there, but, like a telephone, in suspended service.
In Maine I have lived with those I loved, my family, and I have also spent several summers more or less alone. The puzzle to me is that both are the same: it is always sweet, strange, protective. That is because the town is small and the colony of summer folk, or those once summer folk, is intelligent without being in any way fanatical. Like the weather, we know we are inclined to be disappointing and yet one must take a sort of positive stand, say that the faulty is not so bad, the winters less severe, the rain beautiful when compared to the devastating heat in the cities. One of the things it takes to make a good Maine summer is an inferno of heat elsewhere: if New York or Long Island or the Cape boils, a steady beauty, warm and sunny, exhilarates us in Castine. And so we profit by the ill luck of those to the south of us, but we are not, reciprocally, able to make them share our desolation.
Like all odd groupings Maine gives love for love. One day recently between about four and six o’clock a fierce wind whipped around the tennis court. There were four of us playing, the rest frightened off by hurricanes at Portland and the sleet-gray sky. The wind at the court became soft as water; it was like swimming to raise your arm to serve—and on and on we played, all of us drowned in the magic of the cool rushing wind and the heat of running. A peculiar happiness sometimes comes upon you in these northern places and you feel—ecstasy.
I have sometimes wondered if spending all my life, through college, in Kentucky has brought me closer to Maine. Streets and towns and familiar persons. But it is vanity to go on too much about these things. I am skeptical of everything in America just now, wary of roots and character. The past is a cliché, just as the future is. Perhaps we were never Puritans and that is the trouble. Everything in our lives seems subject to revision. Surgery cuts away all those appendices and gall bladders of belief and national temperament.
Still, some things must count. How can it be otherwise? To live in an old, sparsely settled, cold region, to endure it, to face it—that matters. Maine seems so much less open to the universalizing of television than, for instance, the South. There is a commercialized aspect to a Southerner’s very conception of himself—that I have thought for a long time. Even his bigotry is standardized, packaged, predictable. You do not often find people in the South who think the cause of all the trouble in the world is the use of aluminum cooking pots. That is too individual, too personal—better stick to the same nuttiness everyone else has. Discomfort of body and mind is the condition of the north: solitary lives with solitary ideas. One does not live out a large myth so much as contribute his lonely, authentic bit to the “whole,” making the whole hard to express, slippery, peculiar, puzzling. To be poor, isolated, damp is not a character so much as a condition and yet man and nature are one here, or seem to be.
Nature more than man inclines toward the general in Maine. The place always reminds one of some abstract pictorial representation of itself. Rotting boats, apple green. The cold, severe seas, home to old sailors with grizzled, undulating beards, boots, rubber coat, head turned to one side in a rocky smile. Is it Winslow Homer? The face is on the calendars and somehow you run into it at the docks. The piers with the loose boards, the native waterfront houses, tilting, listing. Leaning wharves, splintering lobster boats, abandoned dories, the boat builder’s fantastic shed. Tides and fogs and herons, seals, the osprey’s nest on the tip of an island, the gulls’ breeding ground. It is indeed like a painting and every little inlet, with its empty boat, the mast standing watch, is an illustration from a bad book.
Water—this is everything. These waters are sacred. “Going down to the bay is the closest to heaven I will ever come,” an old man said. They are all afraid of the water. It seems absurd to learn to swim and many do not know how. It is too cold for man. You can stand on a corner and hear an argument about whether you die in fifteen minutes or fifteen seconds in the really cold part. They talk about that and what happened to the lobster. Some say it’s the Gulf Stream.
“I guess there is a remaining respect for those who have been out in all weathers. At twenty below your clam flats freeze. Still, one man got enough from a night’s herring catch to buy an Oldsmobile.”
The clam diggers and their families. “I don’t know what they are going to do this winter. Eight or nine kids, all living in a tent. Two of the girls sleep in the car.”
Inland: Why does the hummingbird return to the north? “They live more intensely than any other being on our globe,” an old book says. The hermit thrush—suitably named for the Maine airs and branches. And yet so many of the birds are oddly bright and tropical in coloring.
Near Skowhegan—a long, narrow shed which shelters the little shops from the wind and the rain. The variety store, the grocery, the hamburger and crab roll stand. In the grocery very little sign of the local—browning bananas and hard, grassy tasting tomatoes from the opposite coast of the country. The smell of Wonder Bread somehow pierces through the wrapper, or is it the wrapper itself that is now the characteristic scent of country stores, taking the place of the pickle barrel?
The abundance of flags puzzles. Fine houses, with their flagpoles jutting out from the second story, as if in a permanent, steely salute—these often seem to call attention to the claims of the house, to its white clapboards and black shutters, its fan-shaped glass over the doorway. The place itself is honored as much as the country; sentiment attaches to ownership and upkeep as well as to patriotic and ceremonial occasions.
But it is the flags on the tiniest little shacks, those frail wooden wounds, the barest sort of dwellings, coverings rather than houses. These often have two little flags, cheap ones on sticks, over the gashlike door. In Maine, those who have been born here and who remained, endured, even the poorest and quietest, appear to share a common feeling about themselves. They feel a part of something very old, a sense of living in an ancient land, with ports once so busy you could step from ship to ship for a mile, and they feel the empty forest still there, as it was in the earliest America, the beginning. They seem to have an unconscious image of being original stock, neither good nor bad, just what was always here.
There is a poetic mysteriousness about these forlorn, poor inland people, not at all like the patriotic Americanism of other parts of the country. It is a dreamy thing, not an aggressive challenge. The claim does not seem to be an accusation against others—they are too poor for the fiercer bigotries. It has instead all to do with the recalcitrant landscape, the remoteness, the hardness. And so when you see a flag pinned to an old shack you almost feel the person announcing himself, saying, Look, I am still here.
Things: An abandoned mill at the bottom of the hill, over a stream. A little shack, up an old, empty road, the very earth depressed. On the right, the woods of birch and pines, resting upon a gutter filled with twigs and sticks and leaves, nature’s garbage. I have felt frightened on the roads in Maine, as if I had stepped into a sudden darkness. The bleak northern air is unwelcoming, madly inward. Out of the darkness some old, ragged, melancholic Massasoit might now step, prophetic, resigned, subdued, aching.
A streamer of wood smoke. White paint that has rusted to a deep gray—and a disastrous rim of darkening, peeling coral paint around the window panes of the shack, like nail polish, expressing an elation, shortlived, inappropriate. Some of the coral paint clings like specks from birds to the glass of the windows. It is bitterly ugly, wrongheaded, a defeat of misplaced hope.
Deep and lasting deprivation settles and clings, not yesterday’s or last year’s but poverty with old, sturdy roots. A horrifying clutter screams through the lonely air. It is as if the history of the family were strewn around the yard, a desolating iconography. Everywhere a crowd, a multitude of rust, breakage, iron, steel, and tin. Here, almost blocking the door, is the rusting wheel of an automobile. It has lain there so long it has become something natural, like stone, taking its place in the scheme of things.
Large objects are like piercing, menacing hurdles. A heavy, rain-dulled bit of obsolescent plow, blade upward, glittering brownly in the weak rays of the sun. Three large planks, remnant of some construction dream, nails upright like steeples. A slide upside down, the ladder broken; a huge tin garbage pail, dented everywhere, as if from a thousand blows, its bottom a sieve. A battered baby stroller, clumps of wood, old chair legs, bed springs, a tarpaulin in which an old puddle of water nests. A sled, a barrel, rubber tires. All crowned by the object just to the left, the car itself, leprously scarred, squat on the ground, but permanent like a dependent building, stripped of window glass and cushion, of steel and handle and headlight, a shell, gathering its cellar of worms and wearing its own metallic patina. Grand as some Step Pyramid, meant for the hereafter. A grackle swoops down on the snubbed, black nose of the engine. The bird rests a moment, sleek, shiny, radiantly blue-black against the dead tin.
But what would you have, what setting would be suitable to the unproductive, disdained back road, the barren hill? Sometimes in a dream you imagine the perfect setting for the poor, or the not-poor, for that matter. It is always a beauty based on emptiness and lack dressed and furnished in an inspired sparseness. Think of the old New England clapboard, of some historical meaning, open to the public, with nothing in it except iron pots hanging over the wide hearth, the wooden bed and worn quilt, the scrubbed floorboards, the little homemade chairs for the children primly set about a tea table. Or a Japanese sense of fitness, the perfect, bare utility of mat and pallet and cushion. Or the rooms of young married students, crates and candles, baskets and posters.
But what idle snobbery all of this is. With the poor, and all of us, truth is found in the rusting, immovable car. This is a serious object and it has a life without end. It is its immovability, its heaviness that awe you. A defunct automobile that has come to rest in the front yard, well, it will be there next summer and the one after that and you can only pity the poor householders, singled out for this heavy misfortune.
And all the other parts and bits seem to represent some kind of odd hope that afflicts the poor when they are faced with a damaged but not utterly valueless object. One day the bolt will meet the nut, the broken saw will find a function, the new child will play in the rubber tire, the broken slide will one morning grow upright like a stalk of corn. This is not psychotic hoarding, but normal bewilderment riding on the back of consumption. These broken, damaged, smothering things are reminders of all those miserable down payments and you cannot utterly disown them any more than you can bring yourself to throw away the mistaken coat, the shoe that lightly pinches.
What sadness in the fuchsia plastic flower amid the steely, violent grays of the landscape. One day on display in the warm store it represented eternal possibility. What is an old appliance except a tomb of sorrow, a slab of disappointment, a fraud not really acknowledged but kept around mournfully, a reminder of life’s puzzling lack of accommodation? Everyone feels in his bones his own weakness and helplessness. What energy and success and determination are necessary to rid oneself of the heavy, doomed appliance, the inert, out-of-order iron and steel. It is part of life’s ill luck that you choke on the mistakes of your hope, and live in a martyrdom to the strength of that which is useless and yet long-lived.
Stepping among these dormant accumulations a child must walk as nimbly as a mountain goat. The clutter is life history, autobiography. It depresses with its bulk, its sharp, tetanus edges; and yet it is homage, belief, loyalty, hope. It is the same everywhere except that in Maine you come upon the heroic trash by surprise, for you hadn’t thought there was anything living around the corner. The debris is oddly settled in an emptiness and you see the old plastic as if you were an antiquarian looking for musket balls.
The fine house, the beautiful harbors and islands, yes. But Maine is a museum of another kind, a collection of the deserted and abandoned, a preservation of the feel of long, catatonic winters. Its exhibitions tell of no money and nothing to buy anyway, of nothing to do and no place to go. It preserves the face of lack, of minimum, the bottom—the pure, lost negative. Living in it your heart seems to stop sometimes, gripped by a fearfulness that is not altogether painful. You have seen your great-grandparents, their static, browning profiles; and you have put them back into their still and slow, hard scenery.
October 7, 1971