Some Kind of Wonderful
Tinder Hearth Bakery in West Brooksville is rekindling community through food and music.
- By: Kim Ridley
Photograph by Jeff Dworsky
It’s easy to feel like you’ve reached the sweet green ends of the earth when you drive through West Brooksville on a foggy summer evening. Lush meadows roll down to the Bagaduce River. Red-winged blackbirds and bobolinks sing from the marsh. Listen closer and you hear people singing, too. The music is coming from an old barn. Step inside and you realize this isn’t the end of anything, but, perhaps, a beginning.
A crowd of fifty or better, counting several small children in bright rubber boots and a damp golden retriever, listens attentively as neighbors and visitors share their talents. A striking woman in her fifties sings “Some Kind of Wonderful” a cappella. An octogenarian reads several pieces from the American Poetry Review, and a young poet reads her own work from a notebook. A belly dancer is followed by various singers who perform original songs and covers of everyone from Johnny Cash to Joanna Newsom.
Welcome to the Brooksville Open Mic, where musicians Lake Larsson, her son, Tim Semler, and his cohorts at Tinder Hearth Bakery are rekindling community through music and food. At a time when some towns on the Maine coast are becoming seasonal retirement destinations, the Tinder Hearth crew is finding ways to restore village life to a vibrancy that encourages people of all ages — especially young people — to stay, connect, and create meaningful lives for themselves. They’re also living it. They call it “the shiny pursuit of staying put.”
“We started the open mic and the bakery as a response to listening to what was happening in the community and contemplating what we might be able to do to help create a more life-giving pattern,” says Semler, 26, who grew up in Brooksville. “The priority is what does the community need, not how can we make a big profit.”
One thing Semler realized the community needed was bread. So he, Lydia Moffet, and a handful of friends who were renting living space in Larsson’s farmhouse built a wood-fired cob oven in the yard. In 2006, they began baking sourdough loaves from starter Semler brought back from Africa and organic grain from Aroostook County and Quebec. Mastering the dance between this wild, unpredictable dough and fire is notoriously difficult, but Semler and his eight or so fellow bakers and housemates do it with grace. Their extraordinary, nutritious sourdough breads are sold on the Blue Hill peninsula and are beloved by addicts far and wide. In the summer, they make about 1,600 pounds of sourdough a week and bake it in “Svetlana,” the big, beautiful brick oven they built indoors last year.
Another thing the community needed was a place where young people could be creative and everyone could gather for an evening of fun, says Semler’s mother, Lake Larsson, who moved to West Brooksville in the early 1980s. An educator, bandleader, and former bassist for blues legends Pinetop Perkins and Shirley Lewis, Larsson was inspired by the stories of an elderly neighbor, Robert Condon.
“The late Robert Condon constantly told me about the grange dances, where people would come every week to get together,” Larsson says. “I thought, ‘What if I opened my barn to the community for a family-friendly event so people would have somewhere to go without needing to spend a lot of money?’ ” In 2005, she cleaned out her barn, put up lights and bright cotton fabrics to create a cozy performance space, and put out the word.
The open mic, which happens in the barn the first and third Sunday in the summer and monthly the rest of the year at the nearby Reversing Falls Sanctuary, has been a mainstay of Brooksville life ever since. Over the years, performers have ranged in age from four to eighty-seven and run the gamut from jug bands to magicians to musicians of every ability. Many performances are a bit rough around the edges, but perfectionism isn’t the point. “The audience is very loving and forgiving, which opens an opportunity for people to be creative together,” Larsson says.
The crowd in the barn enthusiastically applauds for every performer. Semler, a gracious and amusing emcee, invites everyone to enjoy homemade soup and Tinder Hearth bread. A founder of Tinder Hearth’s popular band the Living Daylight (and a former state tuba champ), he plays the West African balaphone in one piece, later sings the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and sits in on jazz drums for another singer’s rendition of “Comes Love.”
The evening’s last song is a lovely, meditative piece called “Heart March,” written by Semler’s younger sister Bridgette, who shares the family’s musical talent. She invites everyone to join in as she harmonizes with her friend, the young Brooksville singer/songwriter Estelle Poole, whose gift has been nurtured at the open mic. Their voices rise sweet and high, riding the waves of sound as everyone sings.
As the song ends, barn swallows return to their nests in the rafters. Evening deepens. Kids run around, hopped up on homemade cookies and brownies. The air smells of salt, wet grass, and earth. People linger. No one seems anxious to leave.
- By: Kim Ridley