North by East
I move through the house, cooled in a rinse
of honey and calendula — arms
and legs, hardened summer feet — then stroll
onto the back deck in the half-haze
of early morning. Along the field
fence, doves muse their throaty blues, apples
plunge through dry air; their rotting
weighs even the drunken bees.
Cicadas steam, weary of summer,
when suddenly and one by one
a host of hairy moths lights on my ankles
and calves, shoulders, throat. Plain and brown,
and in syncopation, they slowly sound their
short, dull wings. I scarcely breathe but close
my eyes, feeling blessed, as if perhaps
they will me into flight, up from my
Monday mood, my vain brooding, as they
dangle from my open robe, my hair.
I dare not move or tremble. I feel
the delicacy of their nimble
legs, wings, antennae, like small breaths, like
words, a stuttered code. Soon, of course,
they rise and vanish, seeming into mid-air,
but tiny traces of wings dust my
wrists, brow, the ropy veins of my feet.
The Beard Is Here
Maine men are ahead of the latest fashion trend — by a whisker.
We were just a little amused when a recent New York Times article breathlessly declared that "the beard is back" and quoted fashion designers and ex-metrosexual males who had rediscovered their hirsute side with a certain, well, giddiness. Here in Maine, the beard never went out of style, thank you very much.
"I bet a quarter of the customers who come in here have beards," says Amy Stanton at Vintage Barbershop in Bath. "The younger ones go more toward the goatee look, but the older men, thirty and up, tend more toward a full beard." (And the trend is apparently even stronger in the publishing industry. Currently four out of five male Down East staffers sport some form of facial hair.)
Some of Stanton's clients "look like full-fledged Civil War generals," she adds. "They've got six or seven inches of growth on them." More common are the shorter, neater versions. "The ones that look like a few days of stubble I think are kind of hot," says Stanton, who works in the shop with her husband. (Sorry, guys.)
Beards have been popular in the Pine Tree State since before Paul Bunyan chopped his first tree. It's a rare grizzled Maine sea captain who didn't sport chin whiskers in his portrait, and today beard-growing — and beard-shaving — contests are regular fund-raisers for organizations all over the state.
The Times calls it "the lumberjack ideal." Maine men just call it practical. "It gets cold up here in the winter," points out Amy Stanton, who recalls seeing no beards at all on a recent trip to Arizona. "Men who work outdoors like that extra insulation." And as the first autumnal nip caresses our bearded faces, we like knowing we're staying ahead of the urban fashionistas, too.
Return of the Native
The first salmon season in seven years opens this month.
For the first time since 1999, fly rods will sprout this month along the salmon pools on the Penobscot River near Bangor — and the only wild Atlantic salmon fishery in the United States will be open for business once again. In June the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission approved a proposal for an experimental catch-and-release season running from September 15 to October 15 that is expected to draw fishermen from all over the country.
The experiment is the result of several years of improving salmon numbers in the Penobscot, according to Patrick Keliher, executive director of the commission. "We're consistently seeing returns of more than a thousand fish each year now," he explains. "We looked at that and wondered if we could have a recreational fishery that won't jeopardize the recovery effort."
The new season is an acknowledgement of improved salmon runs, Keliher says. Other people involved in the salmon fishery add that the season will give new life to the three major salmon clubs — in Bangor, Veazie, and Eddington — which provide vital support for salmon recovery efforts but suffer from declining memberships. In effect, allowing fishing creates support for improving conditions that allow more fish.
After a year and a half of study, the commission chose a limited fall season, the most conservative approach possible, while still allowing fishermen a chance to try their luck. Special salmon licenses will go on sale in mid-August both online and through special agents around the state. Keliher is unwilling to predict how many anglers will rise to the bait. "Somewhere between one and a thousand," he laughs. "If we have a couple of hundred people chasing fish around, I'll be more than happy."
The chase will be tightly controlled. Enforcement personnel from the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Resources will be on hand, as well as salmon commission staff who will monitor everything from salmon conditions to water temperatures. Flags posted near the most popular salmon pools will tell fishermen if fishing is allowed — green — or must be stopped — red.
"We can close the fishery at any time if we deem it harmful to the fishery," Keliher says. The season is strictly catch and release, and anyone who thinks otherwise would be wise to hope a game warden catches him or her before any members of the area's three salmon clubs do. "We're counting on peer pressure from salmon club members to help a lot," Keliher notes.
If the experimental season goes well, Keliher expects it will be continued in the future. He was unwilling to say if it might be extended into a spring fishery, which many anglers prefer. But then, any season at all is more than many anglers expected seven years ago.
In praise of Maine's marvelous mists.
Fog, in our opinion, is an underappreciated resource in summertime Maine. It's nature's air conditioner. The quintessential Maine mist gives us excuses for shopping trips to Freeport and exploratory excursions to towns we would not otherwise have visited. And nothing beats a foggy day as an excuse to stay in and play another game of cribbage or crack that new Tess Gerritsen thriller with a nice cup of Earl Grey at hand. And without fog, Maine's usually great summer weather would seem sort of boring.
Maine in general does pretty well in the fog department, with an average of fifty-five days a year along the coast. For true fog fans, though, the best place in Maine is Moose Peak Light on Mistake Island, where the gray stuff rolls in for an average of 1,580 hours a year. That's sixty-six days, more than two months — not all of them in July and August, thankfully. As much as we would like to claim the title of foggiest site in the country, that honor belongs to Cape Disappointment, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington state, which clocks an average of 2,552 hours, or 106 days, of fog a year.
Mistake Island, Cape Disappointment: Is there a trend here? If so, it's broken by North America's biggest fog bank, the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, where the town of Argentia gropes its way through the mist 206 days a year. That's at sea level, of course. The overall winner of the foggiest (or cloudiest) place is Mount Washington, where the peak is wrapped in mist more than three hundred days each year.
Maine's famous for its thick o' fog days, so much so that the first perpetual fog bell ever installed was at Whitehead Island Light Station, Penobscot Bay, in 1838. It was ingeniously powered by the tide.
Just to offer some comparisons — Petit Manan Island has 250 hours of fog a month in July and August, while San Francisco, famous for its fog, sees just forty mist-filled days a year. Nantucket surprisingly has eight-five days annually.
And for those folks who really just can't abide the stuff, the least foggy spot in the United States is Key West, Florida, with just one day of a fog a year — those poor folks just don't know what they're missing.
Foggy information culled from various Web sites, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Christopher C. Burt's Extreme Weather: a guide and record book (2004, W.W. Norton & Company, New York).
On the DOT
Admittedly, we're sticklers for these sorts of things.
As editors, we realize that we scrutinize words to an extent that few other people do and are not capable of error ourselves. In a recent perusal of the Maine Department of Transportation's (MaineDOT) Web site, however, we ran across a few items that halted us at our keyboards. Almost half a dozen URL addresses contained apparent misspelled words: "Ilseboro" instead of "Islesboro," "administratered" where "administered" should have been, and "quaility" standing in for "quality" (really). A quick phone call to the MaineDOT yielded a reply in which they stated that they had not, in fact, been aware of the misspellings, but would do their best to correct them right away.
Now, if only potholes garnered such a prompt response.
Fairy House Backlash
Monhegan's fighting a construction boom in homes for magic folk.
Call it too much of a good thing. Visitors and residents on Monhegan have long exercised a certain childlike creativity by building so-called fairy houses in the island's thick spruce woods. But lately, with hundreds and even thousands of day-trippers discovering the community twelve miles off Port Clyde and the popularity of a children's book about the tiny forest dwellings, islanders are worried about the damage caused by a fairy-house building boom.
"People don't understand the potential for harm involved in ripping up a piece of moss that's been growing in the same spot for fifty years just to make a roof for a fairy house," declares Joanne Scott, president of the Monhegan Associates, an organization of island landowners that now controls three-quarters of the island and also serves as a land trust. While the damage caused by one such incident might be minor, Scott says, an alarming number of the island's visitors ("Resident's don't do it because they know better," she asserts) feel they have to leave their mark on Monhegan by adding to the fairy house inventory. "We have fairy house condominiums out there now," Scott says. "It seems like everyone wants to make a Disneyland out of the natural environment instead of enjoying the woodlands and beaches the way they are."
Some folks trace the new trend to a popular children's book by Tracy Kane, Fairy Houses, part of a series about fairies. Barry Timson, chair of the Monhegan Associates ecology committee, says fairy houses date back to at least the 1950s on Monhegan. "Some people don't want to see fairy houses at all anymore," he notes. "Others don't mind so much if they're made from dead materials — twigs, fallen leaves, that sort of thing." Timson acknowledges that the fairy-house phenomenon has led to abuses. "People go in there and build cities now," he says.
The organization has posted signs and handed out maps asking visitors to limit their home building to a section of the Cathedral Woods Trail. "We don't want to squelch the creativity of a child," Timson explains. "We're trying to educate people to treat the island the same as they would a national forest, to follow 'leave no trace' guidelines and such."
But then, perhaps that's what comes of living in a magical place like Monhegan.
Head of the Class
A new high school in Portland makes us want to relive our teen years.
It's about as predictable a sign of late summer in Maine as the first bits of red appearing on our maples: kids complaining about having to go back to school. But you'll find fewer long faces in Portland this year thanks to the new Casco Bay High School, which welcomes its second class of students on September 7.
One of twenty so-called "expeditionary" schools to receive start-up funding from the Gates Foundation, Casco Bay High School's trimester programs each focus on a single theme. Last year, for example, students studied working waterfronts by working at the Portland Fish Auction, analyzing data with deep-sea scientists, and reading Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Principal Derek Pierce, who taught English at Gorham High School and served as principal of Poland Regional High School before heading up the new enterprise, says his students are always focused on experiencing their studies, rather than exclusively bookwork. "We do field work, instead of field trips," he explains. But he is quick to point out that every student at the school — it plans to add one grade per year, capping each class at just a hundred students — will take the SAT tests and apply to college. "We have to prepare our kids for those gatekeeper tests, and expeditionary learning has pretty good results with standardized tests," Pierce remarks. He says Casco Bay High School actually makes the Forest City the first in the country to offer K-12 expeditionary learning options, with the new elementary East End Community School and King Middle School already offering such a curriculum.
While priority will be given to Portlanders, Pierce says students from other districts can apply to the publicly funded school, provided they receive the appropriate district waivers. He realizes that some families may prefer to send their children to longstanding institutions such as Portland High School, the second-oldest continuously operating school in the country, but believes his school's real-world focus will appeal to many. "We're not going to have a lot of pep rallies," he says.
That fact alone could make a few Maine youngsters sit up and take notice.
Sometimes even the computer loses count.
Someone really likes to keep track of the moose permits awarded annually in a computerized lottery by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W). In June the agency chose 2,765 lucky men and women for this year's annual moose hunt. The only problem was, it was supposed to pick 2,825.
"We drew the names on a Thursday afternoon, and Friday morning she called to tell us about the mistake," explains department spokesman Mark Latti, referring to the eagle-eyed but anonymous southern Maine resident who spotted the mistake. She had downloaded all the winners from the department's Web page and entered them into a spreadsheet program, where the sixty-permit shortfall became immediately apparent.
Latti says the department quickly tracked down the mistake to a lack of resident permits for antlered moose in a wildlife management district in northern Washington County. "Through a keystroke error or something else, the wrong data was entered for that region," Latti notes. "We would have seen it after the fact in going over the season's records, but thankfully it was spotted early, and sixty more Mainers will get a chance to hunt moose." The split season runs for two weeks, September 25 to 30 and October 9 to 14.
The lucky additional hunters were chosen from the list of alternates that are also picked during the lottery. Each year forty to sixty winners decline their permits for various reasons, Latti says, so additional names are always drawn as back-ups. He adds that the department is looking at its procedures to avoid similar, ummm, "moosetakes" in the future, perhaps by counting each name as it is read at the podium rather than relying on a computer to keep track. Latti just laughs when asked if the department plans to check previous years' lists to see if there have been other shortfalls. Perhaps it's better to let sleeping moose lie.
The Voice of the Machine
UMaine gives its answering machine a little personality.
There are few people who spend much time calling corporations and government offices who don't eventually wish there was a way to chop through the forest of computerized telephone answering trees most large organizations (and more than a few small) feel is vital to their efficiency. "For accounting, press seven; for personnel, press eight; for screams of frustration, press nine. . . . " Which makes the University of Maine's computerized answering service so unusual.
"Good afternoon. Welcome to the University of Maine. To whom would you like to be connected?" asks a pleasant female voice. Speak the name of the person or department wanted, and the voice-recognition software immediately puts the call through. The software even learns to recognize a repeat caller's voice and accent and eventually drops the follow-up prompt that makes sure the request was understood correctly.
"You can stump it, but you really have to work at it," says Les Shaw, the university's director of information technology. The system, made by SDC Solutions of Manchester, New Hampshire, was installed more than three years ago and uses advanced voice-recognition software to direct callers to any department, employee, or student who has a phone on the Orono campus, including the phones in each dormitory room.
"I have a member of my staff from Russia, Alexie Strukov, and I called in thinking I could fool the answering system with his name," Shaw recalls. "I couldn't do it, no matter how I pronounced it."
The system arrived already equipped with an enormous file of first and last names, along with the ability to learn new ones. "We have a lot of foreign professors and staff and students on campus," Shaw says. Both he and his secretary — "my speechmaster," Shaw calls her — can access the system to add or subtract names from the files, and once or twice a year a list of names goes to SDC to be professionally recorded and added to the system.
If a caller asks for someone the system doesn't recognize, the call is transferred to a switchboard operator, Shaw says, but it handles about four thousand calls a day with 95 percent accuracy. He says some callers still prefer to talk to a human being, or they mistake the answering system's voice for a real person and try to talk to it.
Shaw says an artificial intelligence that can actually carry on a conversation is still well into the future. But at least the current system listens.