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“Which way to Millinocket?”

“Don’tcha move a goddamn inch.” 

Maine jokes — an acquired taste, perhaps. So many of them are built on city slickers asking for directions. “You can’t get there from here.” (Say it with the accent: “You cahn’t get they-ah from hee-ah.”) Lost travelers always seem to find farmers willing to guide them: “First, you drive up a mile, mile-and-a-half maybe, and turn left where the old church used to be.” 

“Used to be.” It is a familiar refrain in the more rural and forgotten areas of the state, and along the coast north of Acadia National Park, where few out-of-staters are likely to venture — an area known as “Down East.” 

There is much that “used to be” in Sullivan, Maine, a small community on Taunton Bay about 15 miles beyond where the tourists turn off U.S. 1 to Mt. Desert Island and Acadia. With a population of about 1200 spread over half a dozen townlets between Hancock and Gouldsboro, it has been home to my best friends from college for about 30 years. Over that time I have visited them often. 

They have an old farmhouse (I call it a farmhouse, although there is no farm) in North Sullivan along the road that parallels Taunton and Hog bays. Like much in the town, it is weathered and steeped in character. 

Sullivan has changed over those decades, although you might not notice it if it were your first visit. It still looks quaint, as if it were some Down-East Brigadoon. But there are many things that “used to be.” 

The Singing Bridge

For me, the most notable is the loss of the singing bridge from Hancock to Sullivan over the narrows between Frenchman’s and Taunton bays. The old bridge had a steel mesh roadway and every time a car ran over it, it roared like a banshee. That steel-truss bridge was replaced in 1999 by the “silent bridge,” made from prosaic concrete. 

Taunton Bay

The singing bridge was opened in 1926, replacing, after many years, the original wooden toll bridge that was washed away by winter ice a few years after it opened in the 1820s. Between bridges, a ferry ran from south shore to north — a flat boat that held one carriage at a time and charged a dime for a crossing. The Waukeag Ferry went out of business when the singing bridge opened. 

Stuffy

You get attached to something and then, it’s gone. When we first started going up to Sullivan, there was, just across the bridge, a small, wooden roadside ice cream stand called “Stuffy’s,” which also sold lobster rolls and the best lobster bisque I ever ate. We went back there for lunch many times. Of course, it is now gone. 

Abandoned quarry

So are the granite quarries that used to support the town, and so are the silver mines that made the town viable in the first place. 

According to A Gazetteer of the State of Maine, published in 1886, “There are now eleven incorporated companies owning mines in the town, most or all of them being operated. Work has been done also in five or more unincorporated mines. There has been completed in the vicinity a concentrating mill and smelting works for reducing silver ore.

“On the various streams there are two saw-mills, two stave mills, one shingle-mill, and one grist-mill. … A steamboat touches at Sullivan Falls three times a week.”

All gone. 

The Native American name for the area was Waukeag. It was first settled by the French in the early 1700s, but was given to English-speaking settlers by the colonial government of Massachusetts in 1761, when it was called New Bristol. It was incorporated in 1789 under the name of Sullivan, one of the original settlers. At the time of the Revolutionary War, there were just 20 families in town. By 1870, the population was 796. In 1880 it was 1,023. It is not much bigger than that now. 

Schoodic Mountain

As you drive north on U.S. 1 through Sullivan, you can often spot Frenchman’s Bay to your right, a vast tidal flat at low tide, a lake at full. In the distance to the south you can see Cadillac Mountain and Mt. Desert Island. Just north of the highway is Schoodic Mountain, 1,069 feet high, and Tunk Lake, where Rear Admiral Richard Byrd used to have a vacation home. 

On the peninsula just south is Sorrento, a resort town a bit more upscale than Sullivan. 

Reversing Falls

And at the mouth of the inlet, where Taunton Bay dwindles to the narrows that used to be called Sullivan River and opens onto Frenchman’s Bay, the tide creates what is known as a “reversing falls,” where the rising tide creates a dangerous rapids heading into Taunton Bay, and with a falling tide, creates the same rapids in the opposite direction. The current is fierce, up to 13 knots. 

But it is Taunton Bay Road that is what I am most interested in. Just after the silent bridge, there is a left turn that takes you through West and North Sullivan along the eastern shore of Taunton Bay. It continues out of town along Hog Bay and into Franklin. The road is beaded with old homes, usually clapboard with front porches and foundations or stoops made from granite once quarried locally. 

Across the water, Taunton Bay opens up into Egypt Bay and the town of Egypt, made famous — or notorious — by Carolyn Chute’s 1994  book, The Beans of Egypt, Maine. 

Among other losses in Sullivan are Jerry’s Hardware and, while Gordon’s Wharf is still extant, the busy fishing business is gone. There are a few family cemeteries, an art studio where stone sculpture is made, and a ceramic studio. 

 

This last time I visited, I attempted to make a “portrait” of this end of Sullivan, the way Alfred Stieglitz made a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe — hundreds of photos that I hoped would, in aggregate, give a sense of the place. I can only share a tiny fraction here. You can find a more detailed portrait of a single house at (link here). 

There are three reasons to photograph something you care about. First, simply to capture it so as to possess it, for the sake of memory, the way you keep old snapshots of family birthdays and vacations. Second is to create art, that is, to make an image out of shapes and colors in a design that has graphic interest. But third is to see.

We look over so much at every minute of every day, but seldom see it. Looking closely, paying attention to details, absorbing character, seeing relationships — these things come with seeing with purpose. Seeing is engaging. Engaging is being alive. 

Wandering through Sullivan, I wanted to gather albumblätter  for my scrapbook; I also wanted to make something that might be, in its tiny way, considered art; but most of all, I wanted to use my camera as a way of focusing my sometimes wayward attention on something I want to know more deeply.  It is a way of expressing affection. Photographing, done this way, is a means of caring.

To collect snaps, or to frame art are fine in themselves, but using the lens to focus the mind and heart is infinitely more rewarding. It creates meaning.

Click on any image to enlarge

Many years ago, I attended a photo staff meeting at my newspaper and the photo editor was complaining about a picture that a very talented staffer had made. For him, it was too arty.

“This is a newspaper,” he said. “Our photographs must be clear. We cannot have any ambiguity in them. If it is a picture of a house, I want it in the center of the frame, and I want the whole house. Like a real estate photo. We are not making images for a gallery; we are showing readers what the story is about.”

I remember cringing, but I said nothing. I was not on the staff, but just a travel writer who made my own photographs for my stories. I was in the meeting by default. 

The idea that a photograph was merely an illustration to back up words bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Instead of a supplement, I thought of them as amplification. 

Some things can be said better visually than verbally. The photo might very well be able to stand on its own. 

But, in a culture of verbal people — as a newspaper tends to be — a picture is a stand-in for words. You should be able to point to something in the photograph and name it: “House.” The name then, takes over, and any visual information is immediately rendered moot. Very like when you head to a rest room at a McDonald’s and the pictures on the doors tells which one to open. The image becomes a pictogram. 

This is the way many people regard photographs. They look and they name. “Aunt Julia.” “The house I used to live in.” “Niagara Falls.” Then they turn the page in the album. “Here is me at my prom.” 

Much of the visual information in the picture is passed over, not registering. Was that a blue tux at the prom? Did those horn-rim glasses make you look dorky? Were the shoes cropped out of the picture? Can you remember, then, what shoes you wore? 

Details matter. When you name the image rather than see it, you miss the majority of what is pictured; you miss all the pleasures you could enjoy — the colors, shapes, textures — and all the information that is there to mine. I am reminded of those impatient people I have seen in art museums running from painting to painting and reading the tags next to them. “This is a Renoir. Oh, this one is a Picasso.” 

Naming things often gets in the way of seeing them. Naming is a very low form of intellectual activity, but one it is too easy to become proud of. It does not actually indicate your intelligence if you can name ever painting in the gallery, or the make and model of every car you spot on the highway. It just means you can memorize. 

When, before I was a writer, I was a teacher, I would sometimes draw two shapes on the blackboard and ask, “Which of these shapes can you draw more accurately?” Most students would pick the square. It had a name and they could see the square, translate what they saw to a word, and then retranslate that word onto the paper with their pen. In the process, details of the original are obliterated.

Notice that the square here is not a perfect square. It has some sketchy lines and it is not completely closed up, and, in fact, it isn’t even a square, but a low-aspect-ratio rectangle. All of that visual information is expunged when you replace it with the name, “square.” The amorphous shape, on the other hand, would require you to look at it and attempt to follow its contours with your pen, forcing you to pay attention visually. 


Your blob would be drawn more accurately than your square. 

In his groundbreaking book, Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin described the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art with a series of oppositions. Among these is the contrast between art which emphasizes the unity of the whole, which may suppress detail to the benefit of the overall design; and art which revels in a multiplicity of detail, even if it confuses the overall design. 

It isn’t that the classic art doesn’t pay attention to detail. In fact, it often takes pains to make everything equally easy to recognize, well lit, well placed in the frame. But the whole is more important than the parts. 

Balancing that is art that may even obscure some detail to make others more prominent. 

This dichotomy occurs repeatedly in art history — from Classic Greek art to Hellenistic Art, from Renaissance to Baroque, from Neoclassic to Romantic, from Modernism to Postmodernism. In Nietzschean terms, classic and romantic, Apollonian and Dionysian. 

The 20th Century, which we are most recently heir to, unity was valued as supreme. Artists, writer and poets who filled their work with profusion of detail were denigrated. The most concise poets were held superior. Painters who reduced their subject to basic forms were extolled. Musicians who subdued florid detail in order to render the overall form of the music more clear were applauded. They had a “grasp of the structure.” 

The complaint lodged against pianist Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, was that he never fully expressed the form of longer pieces of music, such as sonatas, getting lost in multifarious musical volutes and whorls. Of course, when you listen to the ancient recordings of the great pianists of the early 20th century — an era of romantic piano playing — all of the pianists focused on details. It is where the fun was to be found, the flavor of the ingredients rather than the melange of the whole.  

Romanticism in general relishes the detail, and can often get lost in it. That’s what makes it Romanticism. (Well, one of the things). Detail is where we find the pith, the essential oils, the meat. 

Classic painter Joshua Reynolds taut the “grand style,” and recommended choosing the general over the particular: a stylized tree over the quirky oak in the back yard. Romantic artist William Blake read Reynold’s book and wrote in the margin: “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit.” You can also imagine him chasing kids off his lawn. 

But his point is that the world is made up of details, and meaning is found in them. The collection of details fills out the impression we get from the quick overview. It is the detail that we know the whole. 

Through this essay, I have sprinkled photographs of the details of a house in Maine. It is one I know and love very well. 

If you look closely at them and absorb all the tasty detail, you can have a much fuller understanding, not only of the house, but of the style of Down East Maine, its economy, its culture, the nature that grows green in profusion everywhere. 

Crumbs to make a cake. 

Part 4: In which we enter the landscape of the mind

Sorrento dock

Each of the United States has its own flavor, its own existence as myth. It is the sense one has, if one does not live in that state, but imagines what it would be like to visit.

One imagines what Arizona must be like, with its cowboys and cactus, but the reality of Phoenix — “Cleveland in the Desert” — negates that myth. That is the nature of myth.

Some states have bigger personae. California, for instance, which existed as myth both for “Forty-Niners” and for Okies. Montana offers big skies and clean air. Oregon had its trail and Mississippi has its Yoknapatawpha County.

Texas claims for itself the largest myth, although it is hard to warrant such big ideas if you have actually been to Midland or Odessa. Texas is only big in hectares. Otherwise, it is the state of large hats as substitutes for small manhood.

Each state has its mythic presence, although it is hard to make the case for Delaware as anything but the “gateway to New Jersey,” and the Garden State gains any resonance it has only from Tony Soprano and Bruce Springsteen.

But one state led all the rest historically in this landscape of the mind, as a special place in the American imagination, a place you dream about when you think your daily life is too mundane.

Lubec

Lubec

Historically, the state that has had the longest claim on the American spirit is Maine, with its deep woods and rocky coast, its taciturn, independent people and its echoing loons. Maine is the original great escape, the place to go to return to nature and feel what it is like canoeing across a backwoods lake with a mist rising from the water.

Maine is the place Henry David Thoreau went when his Walden Pond seemed too citified. Maine is the place that dozens of American artists went to find some glimmer of inspiring wilderness.

It’s also the place the 19th-century robber barons went for summer vacations.

As America has expanded westward, Maine has lost some of its magic, but it is still a mythical place, drawing millions of visitors every year.

But there isn’t a single Maine. Regionally, there are at least four Maines.

The first is the southern coast, which first attracted a wealthy clientele a hundred years ago. This is where old money came for the summer. It is where former President George H.W. Bush had his place in Kennebunkport. It is also home to the new Yuppie tourism centers on Penobscot Bay, where you can always get a good brioche: Camden and Rockport. They are not much different, in their way, from Carmel, Calif., or Sedona, Ariz. — all trendy shops and new museums. You visit L.L. Bean in Freeport, and see a hundred other factory outlet stores.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake

Mooselookmeguntic Lake

Then, there is the mountainous Maine of the western part of the state with its thousand lakes, from Rangeley Lake to Mooselookmegunticook. This is the part of Maine famous for its out-of-place town names: Mexico, Norway, Paris. It is a place to go for fishing and camping or renting a cabin for a week.

The large northern part of the state is especially impressive. Vast tracts of woodland crisscrossed by narrow logging roads down which rumble the most frightening, earthshaking pulpwood trucks, piled high and tenuously with rattling bundles of spruce trunks. It is the north of Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. This is the Maine that Thoreau wrote about in his book, The Maine Woods. It is also the part of the state, on its eastern side, where they grow potatoes.Maine tree

But it is the fourth Maine that I love the most: the upper coast, from Mount Desert Island to the Canadian border.

This is Down East. It is the least touched by commercialism. It is still composed of blue-collar working towns where men go out to fish or pull lobsters from the rocky-bottomed sea. It is old wooden houses on granite foundations and cars rusted out from wet, salty winters.

Otter Cove, Acadia NP

Otter Cove, Acadia NP

It is called Down East because when 19th-century sailing packets traveled up the coast from Boston, they sailed downwind, with the prevailing breezes abaft. Back then, Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Maine owes its statehood to slavery: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 let the slave state Missouri enter the union, but separated Maine from Massachusetts and entered it as a state at the same time to keep a balance of free and slave states in Congress.

The coast of Maine is about 250 miles long, as the crow flies, but it must have been a very drunken crow that first flew the distance. With all the bays and headlands, the actual distance of that zig-zag coastline is closer to 3,000 miles. And that’s not counting the islands, thousands of them.

Mount Desert Island is the largest of them. It is properly pronounced Mount “Dessert,” as if it were filled with chocolate moose, but most people just call it MDI and be done with it. MDI is the home of Acadia National Park, one of the most beautiful in America.

Monument Cove, Acadia NP

Monument Cove, Acadia NP

It is also the home of Bar Harbor, one of the most congested towns. In the summer, Bar Harbor is a vacation nightmare, with no parking, crowded restaurants and no room at the inn.

Acadia National Park covers about half the island and includes Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the East Coast north of Rio de Janeiro. At 1,530 feet, it catches the first rays of sunlight to hit the U.S. each day.

A road to the top provides splendid views.

But it is the view of Cadillac Mountain, rather than the view from it that is best. And the best views are from the coast roads that continue farther down east.

The real Down East begins beyond MDI. From Ellsworth — which may look like one unending K mart and KFC — you drive east and north on U.S. 1 and you leave all the tourists and development behind.

Fox Lake

Fox Lake

The towns you pass are small and picturesque: Sullivan, Gouldsboro, Sorrento, Winter Harbor, Jonesport. You see tall church steeples and town squares with bronze statues of World War I soldiers.

This is Maine for the traveler rather than the tourist. You won’t find many fancy restaurants, and the motels are all low-dollar. Look instead for breakfast in the local lunch counter with the lobstermen. There are no “destination locations.” You have to be interested in the place for itself, and not for an amusement park.

If you are looking to get away from it all, Down East is the definition of the phrase.

Machias

Machias

There are mountains to be climbed, woods to be hiked, lakes to be canoed. There are heaths to be gleaned of their blueberries and birds to scout out and listen to.

Blueberry heath

Blueberry heath

If you hike in the woods behind Sullivan, off Taunton Bay, you will find the abandoned granite quarries that used to provide curbstones for the cities of the East Coast.

Climb 1,069-foot Schoodic Mountain for the panoramic view. Or if that is too high, try 397-foot Tucker Mountain. A walk through the birches and alders will bring you to a splendid view of Frenchman Bay and Cadillac Mountain.

Schoodic Point, Acadia NP

Schoodic Point, Acadia NP

From Gouldsboro, head south to Schoodic Point, which is part of Acadia, but without the crowds. The waves boom on the rocks and a cold ocean separates you from Cadillac in the west. If there is one perfect place to visit Down East, Schoodic Point is it.

Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Or take the narrow road south of Lubec and you will come to the West Quoddy Head lighthouse, the easternmost point in the U.S. Out on the horizon you will see Canada’s Grand Manan Island. It might as well be China.

Take a look at any map of the eastern bump of Maine and see how the web of roads thin out. Hancock and Washington counties are nearly unpaved. It is empty. It is beautiful. It is the real Maine.

NEXT: Maine redux