North By East
Down East Editors on chickens, the sixteen counties, and more.
HOME TO ROOST
Chicken coops are suddenly popping up in some of Maine’s most upscale communities.
Maine is going to the chickens. Seriously, over the past few years a half-dozen urban communities, including Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, and Westbrook, have rescinded bans on the feathered cluckers. The new crop of coops is the latest manifestation of the burgeoning interest in local food.
Even tony Camden has a measure on the June ballot to allow chicks in town (although, truth be told, there have been at least two Camden residents who kept hens here for years, before a busybody recently stirred up trouble). “I had understood that, under an ordinance that apparently no longer exists, people could have chickens for residential use, so we built a coop,” explains Camden resident Sarah Ruef-Lindquist. But after a visit last winter from the local code-enforcement officer, Ruef-Lindquist was forced to send her dozen Rhode Island reds “into exile” in the country while the town debates overturning the little-known law restricting chickens and all other “non-usual household pets” to properties of at least two-and-a-half acres. If all goes as she hopes in June, she will be allowed to bring nine hens back (sorry, no roosters) to their eight-by-ten-foot backyard coop.
The fight to bring the birds back to Camden looks like it’ll be easier than it might have been a few years ago. “I feel like the public awareness around green and sustainable living issues has just grown incredibly. It’s not such a hard sell,” remarks Stacey Collins, a freelance writer whose then-ten-year-old daughter led the campaign to permit backyard coops in South Portland in 2007. When Portlanders launched their own pro-chicken campaign in 2008, they approached Collins for advice, and she says she still receives two or three e-mails a month from people across the country looking for help in pushing their poultry programs. “I think it has to do with more and more people each year wishing they lived a simpler life and lived closer to nature,” she explains. “And it’s nice to know that your neighbor down the street has chickens. There’s some clucking. Because they’re not absolutely silent, of course.”
Indeed, chicken champions say the birds represent more than just a fresh source of eggs. They’re also a means of reconnecting us with a past with which we’ve increasingly lost touch. “There’s a man who has lived in our neighborhood since he was a kid,” Ruef-Lindquist says, “and he said growing up he had to keep his windows closed because there was a pigsty right outside his window, with pigs and chickens everywhere.” Today, she says, the value of keeping backyard chickens is hard to quantify “because it’s hard to put a price on the time you spend on the chickens. But when you give someone eggs -— to thank them, for instance — you can’t put a price on that.”
A simple tune is the best way to remember Maine’s sixteen counties.
If you’re a Mainer (born and bred), the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” tune conjures patriotic sentiments of a more local variety. The intentionally unforgettable “Maine County Song,” set to the tune of the popular “Revolutionary War” ditty, lists the sixteen counties of Maine. A simple memorization tool, the song is used in elementary schools across the state as a way to teach Maine geography to young children.
Here’s the “official version” from the state’s Web site: “The sixteen counties in our state are Cumberland and Franklin. Piscataquis, Somerset, Aroostook, Androscoggin, Sagadahoc, Kennebec, Lincoln, Knox and Hancock, Waldo, Washington, and York, Oxford, and Penobscot!”
No one knows the origins of this useful ditty or why it persists in classrooms. According to the Maine State Library, the song has no author. Its contents are not even a mandatory part of the current teaching curriculum. “Maine history has been part of the Maine Learning Results standards since their establishment in 1997,” explains David Connerty-Martin, the director of communications for the Maine Department of Education. “But the guidelines require only the teaching of geography and do not specify knowing the counties.”
Nonetheless, the song continues to be taught in schools. “The entire fourth grade learns the “Yankee Doodle” version of the sixteen counties of the Maine song each spring when we are studying Maine,” says Rockport Elementary School secretary Joan Doherty.
Michael Pratt, a third grade teacher at the Charles Snow School in Fryeburg has sung the song for ten years. “It helps my students learn the counties, and they enjoy it,” he says. “Plus it’s always been part of the curriculum here. The teacher who was here before me always taught it to the kids.”
Here’s something else that’s curious about the “Maine County Song”: It has multiple versions. One tune kicks off the second line with “Piscataquis and Somerset.” Another begins with “Piscataquis and Kennebec.” So children growing up in Brewer may learn the counties in one order while kids from Shapleigh memorize them in an entirely different order. No explanation exists for this discrepancy; no known geographic delineation
explains the phenomenon either. And we suspect this is one unsolved Maine mystery that will remain so.
MISS MAINE’S MINK
There’s an unlikely connection between fur trapping and a beauty contest.
What exactly does the Maine Trappers Association (MTA) have to do with the Miss Maine Pageant? At first glance it may seem like an odd marriage of gore and glam, but this spring marks the pair’s sixth anniversary. Since 2004, the MTA has donated a furry prize to the winner of the annual Miss America preliminary pageant: a fur coat made out of Maine-trapped animals. A variety of critters — from raccoons and red foxes, to coyotes, otters, and beavers — have donned the backs of the past five Miss Maines (always “single and never married women who are high school graduates age seventeen to twenty-four,” according to the official rules).
The gift of fur is just one of the prizes presented to the victorious beauty queen. In 2008 winner Adrienne Watkinson received a knee-length red fox vest, plus tourmaline earrings from R.D. Allen Jewelers in Freeport, along with more than $15,000 of scholarships, and about twenty other gifts.
Coat creator Gregory Tinder of Tsarevich Furs, in Northport, uses pelts provided by the Maine Trappers Association and donates his own time and talent to provide the yearly fur piece. Tinder acknowledges the controversy of his creations, but insists that the demand for fur has been steadily increasing since the mid 1990s. “Here in Maine there is so much hunting, fishing, and trapping — my clientele keeps me very busy,” he says.
The coat symbolizes the commitment of the Miss Maine Scholarship Pageant to promoting Maine businesses,
explains Valerie Clemens, president of the pageant’s board of directors. “It’s a wonderful gift that we get,” she says. “We have had some people write in wondering why we would accept [a fur coat], but Tsarevich is a Maine company that we are happy to support.”
Haute couture or faux pas depending on your perspective, fur is inarguably one thing: warm. “There is nothing warmer than fur,” emphasizes Tinder. And that’s a trait that comes in handy up here at the 44th parallel during our so-called spring.
The lone inhabitant of Hibberts Gore endures the challenges of living off the grid.
There are plenty of times when we’d all like to be alone, an island unto ourselves. That’s increasingly hard to do these days, but Karen Keller has managed to find solace in the tiny geographical oddity known as Hibberts Gore. Keller is the sole inhabitant of the 640-acre unorganized township near Windsor, her only companions being the deer, kingfishers, and beavers that wander down from nearby Sheepscot Pond. Hibberts Gore is one of the few parcels in the lower half of Maine managed by the Land Use Regulation Commission, having somehow escaped being absorbed by its larger neighbors over the decades.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Keller’s cabin rests in one of only four townships in the United States with a population of one (the other three are in Indiana, Wyoming, and New Hampshire). But before you go romanticizing the idea of getting lost within the map of Maine, Keller says life off the grid can be rugged. “I’m still here alone, except for during deer season, when a hunting camp might go up,” she explains. “I just
finished replacing the roof on the shed; finally got around to replacing the tarp with rolled roofing. I would’ve preferred to spend that money on insulation, but the insurance company was right rabid about it.”
The only break from the routine, Keller says, is when a reporter calls to check and see if she’s still holding on in Hibberts Gore. “Every so often some paper or something will do something [on me],” she declares. “Usually at the most inopportune time.”
Sorry to bother you, Karen. But hang in there.
The lobster’s second cousin suffers an identity crisis.
Crabs are the Rodney Dangerfield of seafood. They get no respect.
Let’s put it this way: A lobster is a lobster is a lobster. But when it comes to crabs, no one knows what to call them.
Take the rock crab (Cancer irroratus): aka the peekytoe, sometimes called the sand crab, otherwise known as the eel grass crab, and formerly referred to as the bay crab. The term peekytoe originated in the Stonington and Deer Isle area, explains David Smith, owner of MDI Shellfish Co., in Southwest Harbor, where locals referred to the rock crab as a “picked toe.” Around 1980, Rod Mitchell of Portland’s Browne Trading Company, decided to change the name for marketing purposes. “Rod came up with the name peekytoe,” explains Browne Trading Company Marketing Director Nicholas Branchina, “essentially bastardizing the already quirky Maineism “picked toe” into a brand name under which Browne sold the crabmeat.”
That’s when fancy restaurants and gourmands across the world interpreted the peekytoe label to mean a high-end brand of Maine crab. (These days, a pound of peekytoe can retail for more than twenty dollars.)
The name, however, remains a point of contention. “I never have written peekytoe on a sales slip at all,” claims Smith, whose company is primarily in the wholesale business. “Now, what [the retailers and restaurants] do with it on the other end. . . . ” Smith uses the rock crab nomenclature himself, but sometimes takes the when-in-Rome approach when dealing with customers. “When you’re in the town, you have to speak the language,” he says. “When we were young we used to call them bay crabs. Some of the people farther Down East, up in your rivers, they were calling them eel grass crabs. Sand crab is another term that we used to call them many years ago. Whoever came up with that name was out on the sandy, muddy bottom when they caught them, that’s all. They’re all local nicknames given to this rock crab.”
Unfortunately, this crustacean of many aliases is becoming even more of a delicacy because of a recent blight that has devastated their stocks. “There’s been a die-off of the rock crabs,” says Smith, “so it’s been very difficult to get enough to keep the business busy.”
Hopefully these sweet, tender ocean crawlers return to health soon. “Call them sand, or eel grass, or bay crabs,” Smith exclaims, “but if they get ahold of you [with their claws], you call them something else!” You can imagine what that might be.
FROM POLITICS TO PUBLISHING
A former congressman shows off his bookish side.
After more than a decade of service in the House of Representatives as Maine’s First District congressman, Portland native Tom Allen is curling up with a book. Thousands of them in fact. After losing his race for the Senate against Susan Collins, he has traded politics for publishing, becoming president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers this month.
“I become a spokesman for the industry as a whole, overseeing their public policy issues and their litigation,” explains Allen. “[Publishers] have copyright protection issues, piracy issues, questions about how to adapt to new technology. They have issues with all fifty state legislatures, congressional issues, and litigation that needs to be pursued and overseen.”
The Bowdoin graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard Law School trained attorney says he’s always been a bibliophile. “When I was growing up, I read books and played sports,” he says. “That’s what my childhood was like.” And his passion for the written word hasn’t changed much, since he first read Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War during the summer of his junior year at Deering High School. “I read fiction and nonfiction and history and books on education and politics. I’ve always got several books going on at once.”
His current reading list includes The Liberal Hour by G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot, two Colby College professors; The Dark Side by Jane Mayer about how the war on terror led to government-sanctioned torture; Here If You Need Me by Maine Warden Service chaplain Kate Braestrup; and Stephen King’s On Writing. The last title particularly comes in handy as Allen says he is working on his own book. “It will take a while,” he admits, “but I’m having a good time.”
The retired politico’s genuine excitement for his new post is palpable. “I think this is going to be a new area for me that’s very interesting,” Allen says. “And frankly I’m excited to have a job which keeps me partly in Washington but gives me a lot of time in Maine.” You can bet he’ll always have a good book for the plane, too.
SLITHERING INTO SPRING
The reappearance of some Maine residents is more shocking than others.
The beauty of spring is, of course, watching the world wake up from the long, snowy winter, but some
phobic Mainers would prefer it if a few of the Earth’s creatures would stay snoozing all year long. Snakes are certainly one such creature, as more than a few hikers heading out in the early days of May have been spooked over a garter or eastern milk snake heading out for its first slither of the year.
Fear not, says Bob DuBois, president of the Maine Herpetological Society. “Maine doesn’t have any venomous snakes.” In fact, the Pine Tree State is the only one of the Lower 48 to be able to make that claim, though DuBois says anecdotal evidence indicates rattlers are making a return. “We used to have timber rattlesnakes, but there has not been a confirmed sighting of a timber rattler since about 1905. But I know there are people who claim to have seen them and who say they know where they are.” No doubt, a few false reports have come from people who have encountered a milk snake, a harmless creature that will shake its tail against the leaves, mimicking its venomous relatives.
For snake lovers like DuBois and the hundred other members of the Herpetological Society, springtime is a glorious season to welcome reptiles of all stripes and sizes back into their lives. “Turtles and snakes come out at roughly the same time, right about when the temperatures start raising up there and the snow melts,” he says.
Maine law prohibits keeping native species of reptiles such as black racers and box turtles as pets. But Mainers are permitted to possess exotic serpents like boas and pythons. For snake owners to compare their slinky, imported pets, the Herpetological Society holds a handful of gatherings in Portland and elsewhere across the state. “Reptiles in the U.S. are a billion-dollar industry,” DuBois says of the growing trend toward cold-blooded pet ownership. “I think people are a lot less squeamish than they used to be.”
He might be onto something. Just ask all those suburbanites with chicken coops.
FOUND IN UNCLE HENRY’S
2001 GE sixty inch projection TV, needs service, worked great for eight yrs, shut off one night and next day wouldn’t come on, had perfect color and pic, might need high voltage part, bring Popeye and Bluto to help move out, bulky and heavy, have all papers and manual. Standish.
FOUND ON CRAIGSLIST
Free: man’s toupee. Only worn twice.
Real human hair. Brownish blonde with a sprinkling of gray highlights. One size fits all. Can be trimmed to suit taste. Wash in washing machine, gentle cycle. No bleach. Looking for new owner because neighborhood dogs growl at me when I wear toupee. Also squirrels chase me down the street. Maybe you will have better luck.
One Mainer to Another
“Giant forces are changing the entire social, political, and governmental set-up of the world. What was clear and accepted becomes complex and bewildering. We find ourselves squarely up against conditions, new in government, calling for clear thinking and wise action. . . . Like one going on a long journey, we must pack only the essentials. We will have to ‘travel light.’ ”
—Maine Governor Louis J. Brann (1933)