North by East
The real reason Mainers back into parking spaces, whales spending the holidays off Bar Harbor, and more.
Ever wonder why Mainers back into parking spaces?
Magazine editors are prone to a certain amount of navel gazing, and one peculiarity of Maine life that hasn’t escaped our scrutiny is Mainers’ tendency to back into a parking space whenever possible, rather than just pulling straight in. A quick Google scan revealed that we were not the only ones who had made this observation in our travels around the Pine Tree State. Like any good journalists we started contacting the experts.
“We don’t have any specific research that we’ve done on the topic, but we do teach that it is generally the safest way to park, due to the fact that you’re not backing into traffic,” remarks Pat Moody, a spokesman for AAA of Northern New England. “The other thing that comes into play is snowbanks — it’s much easier to try and edge forward when leaving your driveway, rather than to have to back out and manage that with the snowbanks, too.”
Ah, yes, the white stuff. Surely we must get better traction in forward when the snow starts to pile up, right?
Wrong, says Silvio Calabi, former publisher of Speedway Illustrated and now a full-time test driver. “On the flat, whether the front wheels are pushing or pulling doesn’t matter,” he explains, adding that with a front-wheel-drive car on an incline you’ll actually do better in reverse, since you’ll have gravity and the weight of the engine working to your advantage. Instead, Calabi believes Mainers have a more subconscious reason for their parking habits. “Mainers tend to look ahead — winter’s coming, got to lay in the firewood, that kind of thing — and I think that translates into backing into parking spaces,” Calabi says. “It just makes the trip easier at the end of the day.”
At the state level, staff at the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles couldn’t locate any trick driver’s license test questions prohibiting someone from backing out of their driveway (though test-driver Calabi should be careful, since it turns out that it’s illegal to drive backwards on state roads), and even state troopers couldn’t find a reason to turn on the blue flashers if we backed into the street.
In the end, the answer to this Maine phenomenon was revealed to one of our editors last December, when the battery on his tired Saab just couldn’t stand up to the chill of a frosty winter day. A simple jump-start would have had him on his way in no time — if only he’d backed in.
Must be from away.
Surprise! Cetaceans are spending the holidays in the Gulf of Maine.
Mainers get a bit of a kick out of watching the snowbirds head south to Florida for the winter, since we know that they’re missing out on some of the best Maine has to offer (sore backs from shoveling not withstanding). Marine biologists always believed that whales were the biggest cold-weather wimps of all, spending their winters in the balmy Caribbean rather than freezing their flukes in the Gulf of Maine. Now it turns out that North Atlantic right whales might stick around these parts even after the snow flies.
Researchers say that for the past three Decembers, aerial surveys of the Gulf of Maine have turned up a surprising concentration of right whales in Jordan Basin, about seventy miles south of Bar Harbor. Last year scientists spotted forty-four of the massive cetaceans on December 3, followed by forty-one about two weeks later. This leads them to believe that Jordan Basin, a thousand-foot-deep depression in the ocean floor, may be a mating ground for the endangered whales, of which only about 325 are known to exist. If this theory proves true, it will be a dramatic discovery in efforts to protect the whales, since scientists have never before been able to identify a mating ground.
“Right whales have a pretty simple list of priorities: food and sex,” explains Tim Cole, a research fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Cole leads the team that conducts the aerial surveys, working out of an airplane flying just 750 feet above the frigid water. “Which one priority is on top for that time of year we don’t know, but Jordan Basin might be one of those areas where copepods [a.k.a. whale food] are in very thick densities.” Seeing large groups of whales on the surface reinforces the belief that they are “surface-active” animals, meaning their activity on the surface involves females calling to males and males then fighting each other for mating rights.
The whales don’t linger forever in Maine, though. Cole says right whales’ primary calving grounds are off the southeast United States, and observers have used callosities — bumps on the top of whales’ heads — to recognize the whales from the Gulf of Maine down south just a month or so later.
Still, it’s nice to know that even whales recognize that the best place to spend the holidays is in Maine.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A new report sheds light on Maine’s hunger problem.
If you live in Maine, you’ve likely had the experience of watching a customer ahead of you at the grocery store pay with food stamps. The transaction seems to provoke embarrassment from everyone involved — shopper, clerk, and observer — but sadly it’s a fact of life in a state where the per capita income is only $19,533.
And it’s an increasingly common occurrence. New data from the 2008 American Community Survey announced that Maine scored second highest in the nation for people participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The report estimated that 13.8 percent of Mainers received some sort of subsidy to buy food in 2008. By comparison, the national average is 8.6 percent.
Data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services indicate that the actual number might be even higher; 218,285 Mainers received SNAP benefits this September. That’s more than 15 percent of the population. The pain isn’t spread equally, either. In counties such as Washington, where the per capita income drops to just over $14,119, nearly a quarter of all residents need supplemental food assistance.
But hidden in all this bad news, there is one silver lining, says John Martins, director of communications at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services: “There’s a direct correlation with how well you administer the program and how many people receive the benefit. About 92 percent of Mainers who are eligible receive the benefit.” That number is well above the national average, he notes. “We just do a really good job getting the benefit out the door.”
Food assistance has always been politically controversial, with critics arguing among other points that the beneficiaries receive unnecessarily ample assistance. But the average food benefit in September in Maine was $128 per person. If you’ve been to a grocery store lately, you know that such a sum won’t buy much. And the program specifically prohibits the purchasing of any non-food product, including cigarettes and alcohol.
In terms of funding, 100 percent of the funds come from the federal government. “It brings good money to the state,” argues Martins — in September the total was about $28 million — “and helps the farming industry, and even farmers markets. There’s a lot of good that comes with this program,” he says. “Not only is it food in hands, but it stimulates the economy without draining the state budget.”
No matter your political persuasion, that’s one benefit all Mainers can get behind.
On Sundays too he would rise before dawn
and brew a pot of coffee over the fire,
then call the dogs with a backwards yawn
before packing up decoys, weights and wire
in a wicker backpack and two homemade hods.
I’d wait until I could not see my breath —
The sunrise over the lake he said was God’s
own reassurance in divine faith.
So he and I would watch it dissipate,
lying in wait for a chance to imitate
the mellow rasp or nasal hailing call
in ruffled light behind the deadfall
and under the waning eye of Orion
the dog’s Hup our command bird on, bird on.