Sometimes the Light, in Other Places
Maine had eluded me. Stuck out there like an arm or, really, a mittened hand into Canada. I had lived as a child in upstate New York, my closest passage to Maine until last year’s journey into Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. My wife tends to choose these summer visitation places, these short summer aways. Not with a dart to the map. She believes in long consideration and tends to favor high and in the corners where the temperature drops. She tried Alaska once but the airline time there is like flying to Europe. We had been to Oregon so many times we swore off it for awhile. She delved into her google skills and searched island locations, coastal points: a house for rent. She circled around this one in Maine with indecision, examining all the other options. Sometimes there are too many options. And then she showed it to me and after some back and forth email with the rental personage we pounced. It was isolated, near a small town. There would be no fancy social events, no shopping malls. Yep.
The house was down a road so striking I thought we must be lost. Forested, fern laden, my daughter said, “this place looks primeval.” Indeed. Both doubted as I pulled next to the side of the house. To be sure we were there, I had to walk out toward the ocean and look back at it in same line with the web shot my wife had shown me. “This is it,” I proclaimed, popping open the unlocked front door. And then I walked straight down to the shoreline. It was so lovely my camera and I were inseparable after this: the light shifting, the fogs, the forested islands off the shore, gulls going ever over. Herring Gulls were one of the several constant bird voices that would stay with me for the week. Birds I never get to hear in Arkansas.
As in Canada, the water was littered with manmade objects. There it had been mussel cage markers. Here is was the color coded floats above lobster traps. I could easily see 400 or more from my point jutting out into the ocean. The house was surrounded by 45 acres of private land, a large shoreline wrapping west and southwest from our jutting point. Clearly the lobstermen were numerous and reportedly there were about 300 of them just here in Stonington, each one painting his floats with different combinations of colors. Red over white, black over white stripe, orange over orange, chocolate over red, the tide carried loose ones in to my shoreline. I took them up to the battered cedar table there, examining the knots and colors, the complex plastic connectors, the frayed lines suggesting violence or territoriality. Your guess is as good as mine. Somewhere someone made their living from constructing lobster floats is what I thought. I could imagine lessor lives. Sometime in the past they were probably glassine things, hand blown by float glassman. I wanted a glassine float. I still want one.
In my chair atop the rocks, I ruled the oceanic world and its shifting lights, its unpredictable fogs. Some days I looked into a wall of white cloud resting like a tired monster on the sea, swallowing the islands. The tides were about 10 foot differentials, slow moving, non-violent. No traffic sounds audible except the motors of lobstermen. The road above us was a dead end. It was a background of quiet surf and birdsong. And this was not a haven of hidden tidepools like Oregon. The shoreline was small stones and mussel shells and several sea plants, an abundance of salt water snails. One could lift a double handful of snail shells up into the light whenever one wished, making a sound like maracas. Shake them and splay them out into the new surfline, like the divining tools for a sea witch. The evergreens came down to the granite outcrops that had been the other industry here for over a hundred years. Uplifted granite supported everything. One of the older quarries was across the bay to the north. It held its own lobster boat harbor. It is where I went to rent a mountain bike.
The house itself was woodwork and windows. No blinds, just sea and trees and the halting blue sky in the skylights. The 5:15 dawns came in for you. It is the only place I have ever stayed where there was a note about keeping the bird feeders full. Several feeders hung outside the window array. She had a large stash of dark sunflower seed stored in the pantry. I was dutiful with it. The Purple Finches and American Goldfinches loved me. The Black-capped Chickadees talked in my direction. I pished up groups of them in the trees around the yard. They came here and here, so close, with that inquisitive chickadee eye. Their language so similar to my home chickadees but slightly off tuned, the cadences modified. They came to stare. “You’re not from around here are you?”
At dawn, there on the coast, this far north, at 5:15 AM, I was undecided. Bike ride or walk into the woods? The owner had a one mile private nature trail that wrapped around her entire 45 acres. If you stood still on the yard listening for guidance, what you heard was: the Goldfinches and chickadees chatting about the feeder, an overlay of Red-breasted nuthatches and the distant cry of Herring Gulls. It is a bird of laughter and sadness, this gull. One wants them in your world. In Arkansas I see only four or five Herrings a winter at most. Usually they are youngsters as it takes years for Herrings to reach the fine white and silvery adult colors. Most winters I see none. Mostly in my state they don’t talk. In Maine they are home and they discuss the world constantly. They are kings of the water along with the cormorants. And the far less common Great Black-backed Gulls, who are the true gull giants but are far outnumbered. I do not tire of these birds. The whole week, I put my binoculars on passing Herring Gulls every time they flew over. Like binocular practice I suppose. They always watched me. I like being visually attended by the eyes of birds.
Into the woods I am accompanied by evergreens. And the small Red Squirrels that make me laugh over and over. These are squirrels with an immense sonic repertoire. Diminutive, like chipmunks, they are fast tree climbers up or down. They leap across the gaps between fenceposts around the house garden. They have rattles and chirrs and chatter and a muffled growl that modulates with their interest in the associated competing squirrels. They are irascible with each other. They attend to me, the staggering strange human with their polarizing schizophrenia of fear and curiosity. Their highways in the spruces are endless, their secret passages are intricate and personal. The one that comes to the bench below the bird feeders has a circuit under the house. He comes up in one bush predictably on a branch that seems to have been worn by his foot tread, his tiny claws.
Tree fall and cleared areas along the trail had wild raspberries. They were in fruit. You’d think they would be mobbed by birds but there is apparently so much fruit out there I found only some Winter Wrens and the occasional Song Sparrow in among them. This is not a place of Mockingbirds. I never heard a single Cardinal. I got the feeling the soil layer is tenuous everywhere. Not too far down and one hits solid granite like out on the beach heads. The landscape up here in the past has been scraped by glaciers. Granite harvest in the past as much a part of the commerce world here as lobster. One could cut a quarry anywhere you wanted, just stagger and point. In one place of open stone a hawk lifts and stops in a tree. He screams the long whistle of a Broad-winged Hawk. It is a home bird. He makes me smile. He screams again.
The trail around the property must be maintained by someone. And surely not just the owner of the house. I could do this job. Live in a cabin, just back over there. Although likely the growth of things this far north is slow and less grassy, measured by cool. Many places the trail just wandered through moss and over broad stone. Here and there a natural plank was placed for footfalls across wet low areas. There were no real tree markers, or blazes. Sometimes a fallen limb was placed along the footfall boundaries, pointing the subtle way. At one shoreline cove someone had started a woven hideaway, like a bent branch and shingle rocket ship, powerless but secretly sheltered in these woods, its only round window peering out toward the sea. Almost always I was beneath the shadows of tall trees. In places a tree had gone over and down with their apparent shallow root structures, the granite again causing sprawl where there was no chance of deep binding penetration. Usually the direction of the treefalls was away from the ocean, from which I assume, at least in winter, the wind might come with some determination. Beneath the great standing fan of roots, ferns took their own root, dangling like green decorations over these arched caves where the water collected.
Birdsong was less intense, birds less concentrated here in the northern latitudes. But I could stop virtually any time and hear a Hermit Thrush singing somewhere. In the mornings the Winter Wrens spoke intermittently. And if you are in a place where these two birds are singing simultaneously, you are in an auditory paradise. Most of the time there was an undercurrent of squirrel chatter as well. And around the house the singing Purple Finches, a vocalization which I have not heard in my state in winter. The female Purples also made sounds including an odd “chii-queer” noise that I chased several times. Constantly the goldfinches and always the Herring Gulls spoke. And here the White-throated Sparrows seem to make their perfected song. They spend the winter with me, though likely not these particular sparrows. The whistled song here was clear and precise, rarely abbreviated. One of the purest sparrow songs anyway. Every male I watched sing was the strongly marked form of this bird. I appreciate them more now than ever.
On the seashore in my chair, I tried to learn the difference between the cries of the Arctic and Common Terns. They are chatty things with that falcon-like flight, the sudden angular breaks to crash into the ocean, which seemed more like daredevil madness than hunger. Have I ever known hunger like a bird? It is doubtful. I tried to project myself out onto those islands in the distance. I drank red wine and raised my glass to the passing kayakers. Across the water sometimes I could hear clearly bits of their conversation which now I have forgotten. I listened for the whistles of the Guillemots and cocked my head every time an Osprey shadowed across me and my stones. The fisher kings fished above me. While I tracked the moon across the sky like it was my job, tried to relate it to the tides moving up and down right in front of me. One forgets that, like the water, we are also lifted toward the moon, lighter and heavier on a cycle with the sky.
Other mornings, I launched across the landscape at dawn on the Trek Mountain bike that I rented across the bay at the Quarry. Poor bike had been battered by the salted air: cassette rusting, chain ignored. It still shifted fairly smoothly but had an unexplainably sudden drop onto the lowest gear, like someone had added this cog as a second thought. I tried to stay out of that gear as it tended to kick your foot off the pedal if you chose it. Frame was too small for me but I boosted the seat up and ground up the gravel through the beautiful fog lights, the arrow beams of sunrise shooting through tall spruce. About a mile up the gravel to the battered pavement of the Indian Point road was Ames Pond. It was created, I was told by the sign, by damming a small stream. I assume they meant by humans, though there is a tower of a beaver hutch on the far side now. And a smaller patch of beaver work close to the road. This freshwater spot is a small miracle in the area I suspect. In 1932, about the time my father was born, one each of the rootstock of water lilies in white, pink and deep pink were thrown into the pond attached to rocks by some dreamer, no doubt, a botanical optimist. This dreamer was unnamed. The lilies flourished, each year a generation I suppose. And when I am there at dawn the flowers are often at their peak. I am alone but for the Black Ducks and the dragonflies. One morning I flushed a mud-footed Red Fox out of the reeds and flowers, interrupting his attempt to take fish or frogs. With the bike, I could be at this pond in five minutes, any time of day. The pond alone justified the bike.
The town of Stonington was just a mile and a half west by bike after the pond. At dawn the streets were often empty except for the most determined dog walkers. “Mainahs” apparently love their dogs. There were a few small hills on the road over. But after those the road zinged across the lovely seaside town downhill and I took on high speed. Boats anchored in the light, pastel homesteads faced the sea. Maples and birch were surrounded by daylilies, which were extremely popular decorations there. There was a sunflower species with a wide burning heart of red and these were sometimes escaped from the gardens. I have no idea whether they were native or not. But lord they were striking flowers sometimes launching shoots from just sheer cracks in the granite. The road climbed up on the other side of town, other roads spurring south to smaller islands. I tracked them all down when I could.
There was a park on the west side of town, preserving one of the beautiful ‘horseshoe’ beaches as they called them. Half-moon spits of smaller gravel washed with waves and snail shells. The one there was surrounded by rock outcrops even more striking than the ones along my rented shore. I saw just one man and a dog there on all my early morning runs over to this side of town. He wished me good morning. I sat on the rounded stones and listened to the terns arguing, watching the light come up. Some uplifts like real mountains stood off in the distance, more islands everywhere off shore. One could drift off, stretched on the rocks, cloudgazing.
We ate like kings. Or local kings I suppose. One could eat lobster for every meal: lobster egg rolls, lobster bisque, lobster chowder, just chunks of spiced lobster meat in a cup. Lobster being one of those foods so high in cholesterol that it should be a limited part of any long-lived person’s life, we ate a year’s worth. You could buy them alive here on roadside stands. Ice creams and lobsters, goat cheese. The blueberries were in fruit. Pancakes without blueberries heavily imbedded in them was an absurdity. Cakes covered with local maple syrup. I would suddenly crave them, these fruited, sweetened cakes, like a drug, at mid-day or just after dark. I looked out the window of one small shop down a longish road away from a highway that was already backroads at best. A knitting shop where the proprietress lived next door. Her scarves were exquisite. She had the figure of one who lived so close to such pancakes. But so happy, so glad to have visitors. Her loom was next to her checkout counter, and I got the feeling that she wove when things were quiet. But out her window was one of those long fields scattered with rounded granite boulders, a field that was the remnant of glaciers going by. The girls were fingering scarves, choosing. I asked her about the field and she told me this was its natural appearance. There had been no cutting or clearing.
“Those are blueberries,” she said. And indeed the whole carpet between boulders was low growing blueberry plants and I could see the blue-purple berries in abundance once she pointed them out. “I have a black bear usually on the far side,” she added, “he comes out and stretches himself and just eats blueberries while he rests.” I added Maine Black Bear to my list of future wanted lives, after one of my wife’s dogs. I wanted to ask if anyone nearby made pancakes.
Our second day on the coast we went to a local Farmer’s market. The one for Stonington was right outside town and started promptly at 10 AM. It only ran for two hours, but I could see why. The locals piled in and did all their shopping for the week. Things moved fast. The girls had scouted it out from home. A festive atmosphere, I assumed it was rain or shine, every Friday for the summer growing season. They lined up for the fresh market vegetables, grown by various farms displayed on the signs. Bagels and bread, cream cheeses and lobster (of course). Whole pies of rhubarb and strawberry and blueberry and various combinations of such. Pies like little works of art. Bread loaves from a lovely girl who looked like she had been up all night to make them. She was dusted with flour. The Nine grain bread smeared with peanut butter or goat cheese almost made me forget about craving pancakes. I kept going back to the car with bags. We would be loading up the fridge for the week. And in between the bread and bagels and the hand made jewels, once, I saw literally the first monarch of my year touch down in the grass. How much farther away from home it was, I thought, than mine. And I walked over toward it. A mother, coming from nowhere guided her child out and said, “look, Samantha, a butterfly.”
At night, the islands off the shore seemed like distant mysteries. Sometimes the fog would clear and the stars would come out over the moving tides. My chair above the waters seemed to give me some power over the lights. It was as though I was at the head of the great stone ship and was making my way somewhere out there across the water, into some new starfield. Deluded, I would wave my arms and spill my wine, guiding my great lumpen boat ever outward, zigging and zagging through the dark. From night to night forgetting the lessons of the night before, trying to touch the fog with my hands. Thinking like something more than I was, that question again, of the traveler: am I living right? Is this my real home? Did I have enough children? And all the while I really went nowhere beyond where I already was, atop my rock.
Dawn on the trail again. A Black-throated Green Warbler comes so close I think I can take him in my hand. It is another of the birds that calls here so often and so frequently I think this must be the heart of this warbler’s world. What a lovely place to make your home. I find a stump with an empty mussel shell atop it nearby, as if some other animal has feasted here on mussel. Not a warbler. Some seashore mammal, perhaps. Surely the squirrels do not take mussels from the sea? And I see a quick snake farther along. I grab for it but it is too quick for me. When I bring my wife back along the same trail my daughter spots another snake and this time I take it. I lift it up into the light: a coppery colored garter species. Surely there are not many snakes in Maine? I ask my wife if she will hold it while I take its picture. She hesitates and then holds it up as it tries to coil and drop. It does not bite her. She asks aloud, “how did I get talked into this?” For hours after my fingers smell of snake musk, no matter what soap I use.
On the last morning, I find my white chair is gone. I am astonished. I stomp the whole point, peer into the water. Earlier in the week my wife had asked me to move the chairs back every night to the highline near the house. I left the one commander-of-the-universe chair out on the rocks above the tideline. What could take it away? She thinks the wind of the night before had tilted it into the sea. She thinks the wind and the tide conspired to carry it away. I have no answer. It is just gone. And she is, once again, right. But it does get her down onto the rocks looking out over the sea where I take her picture. This is worth the loss of the chair, though I don’t tell her this. We go out on the last day and find a new chair to replace this one. We find them at the hardware store near the recycling center. We recycle our bottles and our cans. We carry our trash to the dump. We haul a new green chair back to the point.
Ripping up to the pond before I have to return my bike, the dewdrops have traced out a thousand spider webs in the morning light next to the road. A buck in velvet leaps across them. Stepping high and staring, he barely breaks the dew apart. The road behind me is pierced by dawn, splayed into tree forms that seem patiently attentive, dusted by fog. The pond itself has opened some extra blooms for me. The eighty-first generation of these flowers, forefathers of my father’s birth year, they try to torment me with their light, dragonflies test their feet on the fronds above them. I stand and gaze across this world with Song Sparrows and Yellowthroats calling. It is surprisingly difficult to make the image in this camera box match the sun across these flowers. It always is. Out there in the shallow water, there must be other cameras, moldering in the shallow water, tossed in anger. I keep forgetting the struggle. I climb up on stumps, I lean out over the water’s edge, I jump across to the dry hummocks looking for the magic angle. And back up the road, the light that pierced everything, the light that blew out from the creation dawn has turned to just daylight again, just another wooded road. Where I can doubt I ever saw what I did see. Where I can start to think I did not sit in that chair and guide myself through some deeper darkness.
I don’t know if I will see the point again. The place is for sale. Though at a rich man’s price. Millions of dollars to call these woods your own. I will keep what I can in my head. It is the best we can do sometimes. Stare at the photos, close our eyes. But I do like to think that sometime in the near future, a lobsterman will haul up his ten thousandth trap, thinking it seems to be a little more heavy than usual, heavier and thus hopeful for the monster lobster of his dreams and he will find attached a plastic Captain’s chair instead. A simple chair that he can bolt to his stern up high, he will think it just looks like a hardware store chair. But no, suddenly in this elevated seat, dragged up from the bottomland and plopped down in the dawn light, he will find he can now drive through the islands with just the wave of his arms like some God of the sea, newly discovered, who now rules the fishing lanes on this rock strewn coast.
And I will stop, whatever I am doing, wherever I am, and close my eyes, and just go with him.