In Maine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.