On a Windblown Island, a Tangle of Trees
The storms last winter howled and smashed and tore and the old spruce trees easily gave way. We live surrounded by Picea Mariana, the black spruce, identified by that well-known silvicultural scientist Edna St. Vincent Millay (who mentioned these specific shoreline trees in her poetry). The Internet says otherwise, but I was told by a forester once that these trees don’t usually make 100 years. A black spruce does not become a venerable and ancient tree. Many of the spruces here sprouted as weeds when agriculture became the exception rather than the norm on the island, somewhere around World War II. Between their age and their shallow roots, the ledge they attempt to grow on and the unceasing wind, and now the spruce bark beetle to add to the fun, our forested island is becoming a rat’s nest of tangled blow-downs and up-ended root masses, heaved out of the ground, wide and flat with nothing for an anchor but the next tree over.
I have seen old pictures, bent black and white photographs from the earlier decades of the last century, when dresses were long, engines were small, and all the houses were lit and warm in the winter. Homes sat surrounded by open field and mowed grass, and as a rule nothing interfered with the north wind across this island but a few lovingly tended ornamentals.
Years ago, they say, you could see the water from anywhere on Matinicus.
Clayton Young, late of this island and the historian for many years, told us that the old-timers thought no more of a spruce tree than of a dandelion in the lawn. As for me, I am grateful for this singularly lowbrow forest; it’s sort of a head game, an illusion. I don’t really want to see the water from anywhere. An ocean view is all very nice, but in the winter, that sea breeze becomes a sledge hammer. Walking a shady road deep in the high trees, our very real physical isolation can be forgotten. With my admittedly naïve and overly-romantic affection for the north Maine woods, I can imagine that clump of trees outside my window going all the way to Canada.
Fact is, it’s going down.
In February of this year, my regular buddies Ray and Donna at the Knox County Emergency Management Agency urged us to go out and survey the mess after a series of storms, and particularly after the one which broke the bell buoy loose from its mooring outside the breakwater and drove it into the inner harbor, nearly against the fishermen’s wharves. I suppose that was proof enough that the wind blew fairly hard out of the east that day. The federal government had designated the disaster, and help might be had for the restoration work if somebody were to take on the paperwork. We resisted, convinced that we could in no way comply with their requirements, and because we had no idea what anything would cost or how to estimate the biomass or where to start or how to explain our island realities to the bureaucrats who think every town has a surfeit of chiefs, incident commanders, professional contractors and pulp trucks with Prentiss loaders, or that every act of nature has a corresponding standard operating procedure.
The wind blows and knocks the trees down. That is our “standard operating procedure.”
Thankfully, our mess was placed on the desk of the very best of FEMA’s feet on the ground, an old-timey Mainer who could cut through jargon like a scythe through a clump of ditch weeds. Would that said agency had more like Rex. On the southeast side of the island in the area known as Condon’s Cove, the storms had made power line maintenance impossible; nothing but an army tank might be able to get through the pretty-nearly destroyed woods. Rex “the FEMA guy” flew out on the airplane with a sandwich and a clipboard, stomped around in the puckerbrush with us looking at the tangle of deadwood and roots and telephone c able, was appropriately startled when Paul calmly reached over and took a low-hanging power line in his bare hand, and did some quick arithmetic at the kitchen table. It didn’t even hurt.
For the last few days, daylight has brought the sound of the Caterpillar 315C cleat-track excavator which, in lieu of said army tank, has opened up the power line into Condon’s Cove. Contractors from the mainland (Randolph, Maine to be exact) have cut wood and cleared blow-downs, drilled and pounded into the ledge never far below the surface, put up new utility poles and, today, shifted the power over to the new line. The crew is anxious to get off this ridiculous rock for the weekend; they are worrying about the fog, as well they should. Their equipment, the Caterpillar and the truck and the trailer that held eleven telephone poles and the big air compressor and somebody’s diesel pickup, cannot leave until the tide is right for the Island Transporter to come back and get it all, and that will not be before Monday. While they are here, people think of things. Up on the north end, it’s “Hey, those power line guys have an air hammer, a rock drill, and we want to get this new telephone line through this hump in the ledge…” That’s typical for Matinicus; no tradesman gets off of here without doing a bit more than he’d initially been hired to.
The path to the cove looks exactly like a large piece of machinery had just bashed through on caterpillar treads, which is what they are (and not, after all, “tank treads.”) The job foreman spent a few days conducting lineman school for his younger guys who dutifully wore their hard hats (not being from here,) and some of the neighbor’s prized holly took a bit of unintentional abuse from all the truck traffic, and we don’t have any idea when the money is coming from FEMA, and folksinger Andrew Calhoun here from Chicago to his family’s place in the cove wondered about the fabled Peace and Quiet of Maine’s islands when the excavator showed up at 5:15 a.m., and when they came up short of a couple of items, Page Burr saved us yet again by having stocked just the right hardware, from the days of his ham radio tower, here on the island before he left us.
Next winter, more big trees will come down. I live in the middle of the island but I may have a water view after all in a few years. This power line should be safe, at any rate.
Eva Murray was kind of hoping the guys would let her try out the excavator before they left Matinicus.