This daybook is a true companion - and excellent teacher - for life on the Maine coast.
A Coastal Companion, A year in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Canada, by Catherine Schmitt (Tilbury House; Gardiner, Maine; paperback; 176 pages; $20), is the gathering together of a community that consists of the sea, animals, plants, winds, stars, and the people of the coast. It is book as neighborhood, honoring how we live and share.
Some people find our natural history facts in identification field guides, on the Internet, or in the reference materials at the local library. Others choose to saunter and daydream their way toward the light. Schmitt’s daybook format, with 365 entries and a wonderful bibliography, serves both preferences. Depending on how we chose to use it, this book is both a reader’s immediate pleasure and a starting point.
I have lived by this cold, life-giving, life-taking gulf almost my entire adult life, but Schmitt, who is a science writer for the Maine Sea Grant College Program, keeps telling me things I did not know. Here is a small sample of the facts I plucked from her gentle, easy prose: this gulf is about 36,000 square miles, from the arm of Cape Cod to the Bay of Fundy. Water enters it from the North Atlantic, and spins counter-clockwise. Populations of cod spawn in particular regions of the gulf from fall to early spring. Grey seal pups are born here between December and February. The bald eagle was given its name because, in Old English, balde meant white. Off Schoodic Point there are canyons three hundred feet deep where six-foot corals grow. Just off Belfast, the seabed belches bubbles of methane gas. Over sixty rivers empty 250 billion gallons of water into the gulf each year. The shadbush is named for the fish beginning their spring runs as the flowers open. Spring advances north fifteen miles a day. The leatherback turtle, unlike the Ridley and the loggerhead, tolerates the cold. All summer long, Mars Hill receives our nation’s first morning light. A single hagfish exudes a gallon of slime at one shot. And on. . . . From the bounty of this book, I have made a list of subjects I want to know more about. One by one, I will track them down, and in doing so am brought more deeply home. Of course, home is not entirely about what is wild here, and Schmitt knows this. We have neighbors who reflect on their lives as we do on ours. Some are poets. Schmitt has chosen a poem to introduce each month. Here is a portion of Candace Stover’s “Beach Walk Souvenir” for the month of August:
Never as bright the stones
we find, the stones we stoop
to gather, all slick with the sea
and its tossing glimmer —
no matter how we turn
to burnish them against our palms
or pocket them
(even in our mouths)
something in their gleam is gone . . .
“Green” by Elizabeth Tibbetts, “One Afternoon” by Annaliese Jakimides, “September” by Jan Bailey, “Deer Isle” by Burt Hatlen, and “First Day of Spring: Field Trip” by Kristen Lindquist are among the well-crafted poems included.
Schmitt also quotes from the honored masters: Whittier, Longfellow, E.A. Robinson, Carson, Emerson, Thoreau, Beston, and E.B. White, as well as from the contemporary über field biologists, Ted Ames and Bernd Heinrich. Margaret Campbell’s diagrammatic drawings and Kimberly Martul-March’s dream-like figures add dimensions of good companionship.What Schmitt does well, but not enough, is to point out some of the every day ways we can behave less harmfully, gestures that add up: walking on barnacles injures them. Don’t do it. Helping snapping turtles cross the road is important (do it cautiously). Explore tide pools without yanking or rearranging because they are much more fragile communities than they appear. I would have preferred further instructions to the soft-edged homilies that sometimes fog her writing; one of the reasons we are reading this book, after all, is to learn how to take better care of the places we love.
Schmitt adeptly controls a wide range of often-complex information from various disciplines. I picked up one error: black ducks are dabblers, not divers. And I somehow wish Schmitt had been as upbeat about the lives of double-crested cormorants (fascinating birds) as she is about the intemperate hagfish, and that she had offered more particulars on how we affect this last, best place, and what we can do to preserve it. But these are quibbles.
In the end, the quote by John Burroughs that opens the book says it all: “We crave the verse that shall give us the taste of salt spray upon our lips.” Catherine Schmitt’s book is generous — it gives a great deal, and I hope she will treat us to a sequel. She has more to teach and we have more to learn.
Maria Padian’s debut novel, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress (Knopf, New York, New York, hardcover, 288 pages, $15.99), tells the tale of teenager Brett McCarthy, a soccer star, vocabulary ace, and popular member of a tight-knit group of girlfriends at her Aroostook County junior high. After a phone prank goes bad, Brett bears the brunt of the blame and her social status suffers.
- By: Susan Shetterly