Uncle Maine

Sure, he was mildly berserk, but for writer Leath Tonino, a woodsy uncle was the Pine Tree State personified.

Uncle Maine
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By Leath Tonino

When I was growing up in Vermont, family trips to visit my Uncle Neil were sporadic. The drive to his place in Dover-Foxcroft, in northern-central Maine, was long, twisty, and, for a geographically inclined kid who pored over road maps in the rear of the station wagon, nauseating. More often than not, my extended family convened for holiday feasts and birthday celebrations at Gram and Granddad’s farmhouse in New Hampshire. And so Maine — that impossibly distant, semi-real kingdom — registered in my little-boy consciousness as Uncle Neil pulling into my grandparents’ dirt driveway, the bed of his pickup holding a minimum of two chainsaws.

“You’ve got to have two,” he would say, as if this were a natural fact, like gravity or water flowing downstream. “Ten is preferable, but two gets the job done.”

For every particular task, Uncle Neil believed, a savvy woodsman requires a particular chainsaw. Take the lumberjack alarm clock, which required a small one with the kill switch set to OFF: the morning after his arrival, Uncle Neil would put on chaps, gloves, helmet, mask, and earmuffs and charge like an armored lunatic into the room where my sister and I slept, bellowing over our shrieky laughter as he pretended to dismember us through quilts and pillows.

So this is Maine, I thought, burrowing into the blankets for safety. Back home, Mom only grunted, “You’re gonna be late for school.”

Like the Hero, the Crone, or the Sage, the Crazy Uncle is an archetypal figure, and as a kid, the two or three times a year I hung out with Uncle Neil were indeed a tad bonkers. Plunging into swimming holes in November. Skiing behind a snowmobile, towed by 25 feet of ratty rope. Building bonfires with slash, so tall that their flames touched the stars. The action was always outdoors, and the outdoors were always wild.

Other times, my uncle was quieter. The flipside of his playful antics was a subtle attentiveness to his surroundings. On the few occasions when (nausea be damned) we did trek to Dover-Foxcroft, I learned from his example as we bushwhacked into the boglands, saying little. As I followed him over mossy logs, into thickets of berry-laden bushes, and through troughs of squelching black mud, he named each plant and noticed each paw print.

Like the Hero, the Crone, or the Sage, the Crazy Uncle is an archetypal figure, and as a kid, the two or three times a year I hung out with Uncle Neil were indeed a tad bonkers.

So this is Maine too, I thought, this being on the ground and with the ground.

Back then, it seemed that a place could be a person and a person a place. I didn’t understand how my mom’s younger brother — maybe 5-foot-10, a buck sixty and change — could fit inside of him ancient mountains and backcountry ponds and endless puckerbrush, sagging barns and crooked sugar shacks, colorful autumns and sloppy springs. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote. But that’s poetry, and Uncle Neil never struck me as a poet. He’s a guy who smells of balsam fir. A guy who at 17 declared to his parents that he wanted to work in the woods rather than become “a preppy” at Colby or Bates. A guy who sports a uniform of scuffed leather boots, Carhartts, flannel, and a blaze-orange cap. A guy who, at his core, loves land not abstractly but physically, step after step, big stride after big stride.

Of course, I’m older now, and so is Uncle Neil. His red mustache has faded to gray-white. His dog, Jake, a Great Dane mix I once rode bareback around the yard, has passed away. And so has my childhood, reductionist belief that my mom’s younger brother is the ultimate symbol, the refined essence of the Pine Tree State. I know now that both Maine and Uncle Neil are more complex, that they contain multitudes.

These days, when we get together, Uncle Neil and I drink hoppy beers and talk about boring, adult things: the weather, the news, the tension between conservation and industry, those dang doofus politicians. During these conversations — usually on a deck, slapping mosquitoes — I know that it isn’t Maine itself sitting beside me, pouring another pint, although sometimes I feel otherwise. It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance, a dance between an appreciation of a place’s diversity and the vivid insistence of my childhood sensibility.

So be it. I enjoy my internal Maine, my dumbed-down Maine, my Uncle Maine. It’s a good place; he’s a good guy. And in a pinch, he always has multiple chainsaws to call upon.

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TOC NOVEMBER 2019