Musings from Maine
The editors reflect on our forty-fifth president, the Great Gull Graveyard, GPS, and more.
Obama Makes forty-five
Maine set a presidential precedent in 1680.
The January inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States continues a tradition that began 210 years ago with George Washington in 1789. Except, that is, in Maine.
The Pine Tree State can claim an even older precedent — our first president arrived in 1680.
The Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony named Thomas Danforth as the first (and apparently only) president of the “District of Mayne” three years after it acquired the territory from the heirs of Sir Ferdinando Gorges in 1677. The purchase reportedly involved some real estate sleight of hand to short-circuit the wishes of Britain’s King Charles II, who had hoped to establish Anglican colonies between the Piscataqua and Kennebec rivers. Danforth and sixty armed men arrived in Falmouth (now Portland) in 1680 to establish a governing council among the settlers and cement the Puritans’ claim on the region.
Danforth had good reason to work against the Crown’s wishes. Born in 1622 in Framlingham, England, he immigrated to Massachusetts in 1634 with his father, Nicholas, and a younger brother, Samuel, to escape religious persecution. He grew to become a man of influence in the colony, serving in various government positions as well as being named the first treasurer of Harvard College. He owned fifteen thousands acres of land outside Boston where he created the town of Framingham. When he came to Maine he was deputy governor under Simon Bradstreet.
According to various sources, including a family history, Danforth was well regarded as president. He laid out Fore, Middle, and Congress streets in Portland, negotiated honestly with local Indian tribes, and defended the settlers vigorously against what he viewed as the unwarranted impositions of the English monarchy. He reportedly risked being charged with crimes against the Crown for defending the rights of colonists to choose their own leaders and manage their own affairs.
Danforth’s career, including his presidency of Maine, has been overshadowed by his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Modern accounts of his role vary, tinged, perhaps, by Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, in which Danforth is portrayed as a religious fanatic and judge who sends innocent people to the gallows. In fact, Danforth was not a judge, and his contemporary, diarist Samuel Sewall, wrote that Danforth had serious doubts about the trials and worked behind the scenes to end them.
Today Danforth is remembered with a street in Portland and a small town in Washington County. But because of his presidential precedent, Barack Obama will always be the forty-fifth president in Maine.
The Great Gull Graveyard
Where do seabirds go to die?
It’s a sight seldom seen in Maine — while driving Route 1 recently we saw a gull that had lost a sudden meeting with a car bumper. We realized that in a lifetime of living on the Maine coast we only rarely ever see a dead seagull. Considering the millions of gulls that throng the shore, rivers, and lakes of the Pine Tree State, why is that?
The question raised all sorts of speculation. Do they all die at sea? Is there a clandestine gull reclamation service patrolling the coast? Is there perhaps a gull’s graveyard, similar to the mythical elephant’s graveyard of Tarzan fame? The answer, as expected, is much more prosaic. “They tend to melt into the environment pretty quickly,” says Eric Hynes, a staff naturalist at the Maine Audubon Society in Falmouth. “Those that die at sea eventually sink if they’re not found by scavengers, and those that die on land become food for other animals and insects. A bald eagle, for example, can’t actually catch a gull on the wing, but it will take a weak or injured bird.”
Bird watchers can spot half a dozen or more species of gulls along the coast. “On any given day, you might see a ring-billed or a black back or a herring gull,” says Hynes. “We see laughing gulls in summer, and Bonapartes on migration. Icelandic gulls and glaucous gulls sometimes spend the winter here.” Gulls have been known to live as long as thirty years. As for numbers, “hundreds of thousands, millions,” Hynes says. “Too many to count.”
But no gull’s graveyard? “Sorry,” says Hynes.
A Meeting on a Map
Thanks to a Maine man, GPS fanatics are roaming the globe.
Alex Jarrett wasn’t trying to start a new worldwide hobby when he decided to visit a particular spot on the map. He was just playing with his new Global Position System (GPS) device. Then he wrote about it on his Web site. Now thousands of people around the globe have found a new use for their GPS units.
The former Limington resident has created what he calls the Degree Confluence Project (http://confluence.org), in which participants find the exact point at which lines of latitude and longitude cross. Maine, for example, has twelve confluence points, including one in the middle of Aziscohos Lake and another east of Lisbon Falls. The United States has 896, and all of them — except for a few in the Alaskan outback — have been visited by project fans. In all, 5,538 confluence visits in countries from Togo to Turkmenistan have been logged on the Web site by 10,885 participants.
Jarrett, who now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and operates a pedal-powered hauling business, says the whole effort began in 1996 when he bought his first GPS. “They were pretty new then and not all that accurate,” he recalls. “I wondered what I could do with it, and as I was looking at a map I noticed there was a confluence about ten miles away.” Jarrett visited the site in New Hampshire, took photographs, and created a Web site “with the outrageous goal of visiting all these places,” he says. “I never really believed anything would come of it, but today we’re about one-third complete for the entire planet.”
To qualify for the project, the confluence must be on land or within sight of land. “If you’re out in the middle of the ocean, there’s not much to see,” is his reasoning. It’s not always easy. No one has logged any of the eighteen confluences in North Korea, for example (or at least lived to tell about it), and several countries require that GPS devices be registered with the government.
Jarrett says ten people around the world now serve as regional coordinators and help manage the Web site. Although Jarrett deliberately doesn’t keep track of who logs the most intersections — “it’s not a competition” — he says the probable confluence king is a cargo ship captain who calls himself Captain Peter. Jarrett himself has about fifteen confluences to his credit, but he says his real goal has already been reached.
He says the most interesting aspect of the project is the fresh view it gives people, both participants and Web site visitors, of the world. “Most of the time when you read about a country, you see the photos of the big landmarks and hear about the most interesting places,” he says. “At the Degree Confluence Project you can go look at a country and get an idea of what an average place there looks like, and not just the images but also the stories of the people who traveled there or live there.”
One Good Turn
An Auburn farmer’s invention improved New England skiing forever.
Whether you hit the slopes at a big resort like Sugarloaf or a tiny one like Titcomb Mountain in Farmington this winter, you’ll no doubt be seeking out some fresh corduroy. If so, you can thank Auburn native Otto Wallingford for putting you in the right groove.
A farmer with a gift for innovation and founder of Lost Valley ski area, Wallingford came up with the idea of towing an eight-foot-long roller to grind up the practically bulletproof snow that was created by the early snow-making machines in the late 1960s. (Wallingford, who died in 2000, is also credited with designing and building the first pole snowguns.)
“When I was at Sugarloaf, we all looked to Otto for grooming equipment,” remarks John Christie, author of The Story of Sugarloaf and president of the Ski Museum of Maine. “He was the first one who saw snow as a crop, and thought ‘How do you make the best stuff you can?’ ”
After testing the device at Lost Valley, Wallingford gave his “Powder Maker” to Sugarloaf to test on the larger slopes. Within a few months he had sold more than two dozen. Wallingford’s design has been revised over the years, but there is no denying that he is responsible for turning a snow-less winter into one that skiers and snowboarders can enjoy. “Irrespective of what the weather brings, they’re able to turn it into corduroy,” Christie says.
Thanks to Wallingford, corduroy will always be in fashion on the Maine slopes.
“Splitting Wood in Winter”
You’ll need a barn with a big door, the old
style kind that hangs on wheels, slides open
down a track. You’ll need a bare bulb, the sun
having sunk before your return from work.
You’ll need a splitting maul (the ax always
gets stuck), a medieval weapon perfect
for pillaging heat from the heart of the wood.
You can plug in the portable radio
or just listen to the hush of the swing
then thwack . . . or thoonk, and the soft clinks of cloonks
of the splits falling from the chopping block
onto the old, thick, scarred floorboards of the barn.
You’ll need your hands to rip apart pieces
still connected by strips of unsplit wood.
You’ll need to load the canvas carrier
thrice, enough to survive the dead of night.
You won’t need reminding, “Cutting wood warms
you twice: once cutting it, once burning it.”
You’ll smile walking through the cold, back to the house,
your hot breath a harbinger of wood smoke.