An essayist takes a journey into the soul of one of America’s most popular national parks.
- By: Susan Hand Shetterly
Sunrise from Cadillac Mountain reveals a coastline carved with a crooked knife.” So begins Christopher Camuto’s Time and Tide in Acadia (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, New York; Hardcover; 224 pages; $24.95). With this start, he intends to convey not only the sculpted quality of the coastline (crooked knives, used by Wabanaki masters, are precision tools), but also to establish a connection to a vanished time when the People of the Dawn traveled to their traditional places of summer encampment on the island of Mount Desert.
Camuto is after what those first summer settlements may have offered: an intimacy with a place, acquired over years, through private revelations at dawn, at dusk, in rain, at the first snow, binding a person to what is wild. The island today, home to one of the great national parks, is a tourist magnet. Millions of people visit. How, then, Camuto asks, does one begin to forge a connection to this severe and gorgeous landscape that is particular, that is, in a sense, indigenous?
In 1604, Mount Desert presented itself to Samuel de Champlain as a line of round, raw granite mountains up against the horizon. As he sailed past, he realized that they were, in fact, rising from an island base only a scissor-step away from the mainland, and he named it the Island of Barren Mountains. Thousands and thousands of years before the French and English, before the gentle Acadians, for whom the park is named, this land began in fire and ice. The signs are everywhere today: in the coarse and fine grained granites, the siltstones, the basalt dikes, the schists, the sedimentary ash and tuff, the erratics. And upon these stark beginnings the rusticators, the great philanthropists, the brilliant American landscape architects created a park that became part of the national system in 1919. It is, therefore, not surprising that the park reflects a sophisticated, urban ideal of landscape, that its beauty is wild and also extravagantly tamed, that within its boundaries you feel both the unfettered forest and mountain and a sense of something as scrupulously maintained as Central Park.
Christopher Camuto writes for the traveler who wants to get past some of this. He hikes the quieter trails, explores the marshes and ponds, lakes, and marine edges. He’s seeking what he calls the “inner life” of the island.
“Before you step into an early morning hour on Bennet Cove,” he writes, “changing it with the presence of your curiosity, sit down on a sea-polished log abandoned at the wrack line along with crumpled lobster traps, broken toggles, and tangled cordage.”
This is a book you might turn to after you have read through a guidebook or after you have spent time on the island and want to know what other people have found here. It is neither a guide nor a personal narrative — but something in between.
Writing about nature is no easy trick. The best writers use aspects of their personalities as characters in their narratives. They give us themselves within the natural world, which is full of huge emptiness, grand silences, overwhelming otherness. The writer’s job is to bring the reader home. Our greatest nature writers have extended our sense of homeland so that today it includes Walden Pond, Arches National Monument, the Great Salt Lake, the Sand counties of Wisconsin, the Yaak Valley, and the outer beach at Truro, to name a few. These writers give us one human being deep in what’s left of a wild place. There is nothing like it.
Here is the voice of Camuto at his truest, enriching our lives by showing us what enriches his: “Stir a salt marsh with a good ash paddle as carefully as you can and what birds you don’t put to flight noisily you will send silently into the mesmerizing ranks of marsh grasses and dense thickets of heaths that offer you miles of shoreline without a useful place to put ashore.
“An inviting, ultimately impossible place, a salt marsh will fend you off as surely as it takes in what lives there. A marsh is, after all, another tidal zone, another place where the edge of the sea works secretly in the open.”
- By: Susan Hand Shetterly