North by East
A case of identity theft south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The War Between the States may have ended 141 years ago, but there might be a few words to be exchanged yet between Maine and North Carolina. It seems there's a spot on the North Carolina coast that bills itself as "the original Down East." We beg your pardon?
"Oh, I knew there'd be trouble when you folks found out about this," laughs Judi Orbach, who runs the Down East Folk Arts Society in Beaufort, North Carolina. Orbach has a more personal interest in the matter than most of the residents in the ersatz — you should excuse the phrase — southern Down East. She was born and raised in Gorham, Maine.
Orbach notes that her two Down Easts share many similarities — both incite arguments about where they start, both are oriented toward the ocean with an important fishing economy, and both are home to unique local accents. They even earned the Down East moniker in much the same way — Maine because in the age of sail it was downwind and east of Boston, North Carolina's because it was downwind and east of Beaufort, the nearest town of any size.
The southern Down East occupies a broad, marshy peninsula and a strip of barrier islands south of Pamlico Sound and extending some twenty miles east of the North River, the generally accepted boundary line. First settled in the early 1700s, it is home to about five thousand year-round residents in thirteen small, unincorporated communities. "This whole area was basically cut off from civilization until the state got a road into it back in the 1940s. Before that, the only access was by wate," explains Pam Morris, of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum on Harkers Island, which celebrates the region's history of waterfowl hunting, decoy carving, and boat building.
The isolation resulted in a unique Down East accent that harkens back to Elizabethan English. "It's really quite famous in North Carolina," notes Vicky Jarrett, editor in chief of Our State magazine, North Carolina's answer to Down East magazine. "It's got a real lyrical, very old, seafaring sound to it."
The region also faces Maine-like development pressures, with giant condominium projects and second-home construction pushing out locals who can no longer afford to live on the shore. "There's actually been quite a strong uprising against all the development," Morris explains. "I've seen up to 1,500 people at community meetings, and that's pretty good in an area that only has five thousand people."
But what's this whole "original" Down East claim? "Well, we've been here for many, many generations," says Morris, but she quickly mollifies any ruffled Maine waters by adding an explanation. "Back a few years ago one of the television stations tried to claim that everywhere east of the capital, Raleigh, was 'Down East' North Carolina. Well, we couldn't let that stand. So that's why we call our part of the world the 'original' Down East."
Well, okay. But don't forget that the real original is about a thousand miles downwind and east of you.
Buzzing for Bucks
In Machias, blackflies have become a natural resource.
It was a Jon Stewart moment. Or maybe a John Belushi. Last summer the Maine Blackfly Breeders Association, a Machias-based charity that admires all things blackfly with tongue firmly in cheek, received a letter from an Arizona laboratory asking for blackflies. Lots of blackflies. Dead, dry blackflies. For which it was willing to pay money.
It seems the lab thought the breeders association was actually in the insect cultivation business. "This is not an opportunity we can pass up, right?" offers Holly Garner-Jackson, a longtime member of the Down East group. "We first wrote back a very funny letter saying that we don't normally condone the killing of innocent blackflies, but since this was for scientific research . . . well, we want money, lots of money."
Spectrum Labs, Inc., found itself not quite sure how to take its new Maine blackfly supplier, but it was happy enough with the results that it wants more this year. So the association is lining up members and local residents who own bug zappers to collect the several ounces of blackflies Spectrum Labs uses in veterinary research on animal sensitivity to the little bug's bite.
Garner-Jackson says last year's request came too late in the season for the group to collect the full hundred grams the lab originally requested. ("Do you know how many blackflies that is? A lot!" marvels Garner-Jackson.) For one thing, the zappers were overwhelmed by mosquitoes that had to be hand-sorted from the smattering of blackflies. Still, the insects they did send were enough to earn the group a hundred dollars, "and we told them we'd definitely do it again this year," Garner-Jackson says. The money was part of the more than $6,000 the blackfly breeders raised and donated to local charities and AIDS research efforts last year.
Garner-Jackson quips that the association will have to expand its breeding stables to provide enough blackflies for the project. Or maybe the bid for sponsorship from the makers of the Mosquito Magnet will pan out. Until then, she says, "May the swarm be with you."
Only in Maine could someone make blackflies a sustainably harvested natural resource.
Maestro's Last Bow
A Portland conductor takes his leave.
When Toshiyuki Shimada takes the stage at Portland's Merrill Auditorium May 2, his appearance will mark the end of an era for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, where he has been the music director and conductor for the past twenty years. In many ways, he's already moved on; Shimada has spent the last year commuting between Portland and New Haven, Connecticut, where he's taken over as music director for the Yale Symphony Orchestra.
While Shimada is excited about the opportunity to work with young musicians — not to mention the fact that fundraising, a necessary evil for many conductors, is a much smaller part of his job description at Yale — he does admit to a bit of wistfulness about leaving Portland. In part, that's why he chose to conduct Verdi's Requiem for his final performance with the PSO. "The conclusion in a way is all about peace," he says. "Not that it was a dark, stormy time in Portland at all, but it's a nice conclusion to the whole thing."
The recent announcement that Jane Hunter, the PSO's executive director — essentially, Shimada's counterpart on the business side and a nineteen-year veteran of the organization — would also be leaving at the end of the season means that the region's classical music aficionados face an uncertain future. But Shimada is confident the city — and the orchestra — will weather the changes smoothly. "We're a higher-budget orchestra for a smaller community," he says. "It says something that, yes, there is support for the fine art performance groups that exist here. I will miss my audience."
The feeling, maestro, is mutual.
The Santa Clause
A typo can make quite a difference in the legislature.
It was one of those ohmigod moments that every legislator occasionally has. Senator Dennis Damon and Representative Leila Jane Percy, cochairs of the Marine Resources Committee, realized they had lost a bill. The committee was supposed to be considering a highly controversial measure imposing limits on the elver fishery, with the innocuous title "An Act Related to the Preservation of Elvers." But they could find no record of it anywhere in the committee files. On a hunch, Percy burrowed into the depths of the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, where rough drafts are turned into polished bills.
And there it finally turned up, stalled because no one knew what committee should hold the hearing on "An Act Related to the Preservation of Elves."
They promptly renamed it "An Act Related to the Elver Fishery" and had it printed. "I guess 'elver' didn't fit the SpellCheck program," Damon quips. Given the short supply of humor in this past session, he adds, perhaps it should have gone to the Natural Resources Committee as an addition to the Maine Endangered Species Act.
Saco tackles fast-food architecture.
The question of what to do about so-called formula restaurants — you and I call them fast food places — has riled towns across York County in recent years. York and Ogunquit banned them altogether, and Shapleigh has been considering doing the same. Saco, however, is taking a different approach. Already home to a number of restaurant chains, the city has focused on ensuring that any new construction fits in with the nineteenth-century homes just down the street.
Case in point: Biddeford resident Ron Giles' KFC/Taco Bell on the congested stretch of Route 1, which also serves as Saco's Main Street, known as Hamburger Alley. Last fall, Giles knocked down the boxy white building, which went up in 1969, and replaced it with a more muted structure that bears an obvious colonial influence. While Giles says he ended up with a nice-looking restaurant, the process to arrive at the design was circuitous, involving not only the usual back-and-forth between the business owner and the city but also negotiations with representatives of both KFC and Taco Bell over the city's unusual design requirements. (Though the chains are owned by the same conglomerate, Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, Inc., they operate independently.) Giles says the whole thing took months longer, and cost $75,000 to $100,000 more, than a typical rebuild.
Likewise, Saco resident John Maragus recently demolished the McDonald's he owns across the street in order to replace it with a building featuring earth tones, energy-efficient design, and, believe it or not, smaller golden arches.
While we applaud Saco officials for attempting to make a drive down Route 1 a bit more harmonious, we've got to wonder if they're not just trying to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Even Giles, who says he was able to justify the additional expense because it was either that or leave town altogether, suggests that there's only so far such efforts can go. "They've always got to think of what's good for the city," he says, "but they've got to understand that they developed it as a business section years ago."