Home: Finding My Way in the Maine Woods

Anthony Emerson
Covering FAMILY, PLACE, AND HEALTH
TDR Regular Contributor /July 15, 2021

Part One: Where I’m Coming From

There is a town north of Bangor, east of Moosehead Lake, and 200 miles west of the Bay of Fundy, where great men went into the woods to make a life. Their wives lived with quiet, determined intention, and their children were reared beside a river engorged with timber and lakes bespeckled with rocky isles. These families built a life, a community out of the northern forests of snow and pine. They lived off the land because they had to, because prosperity loomed in the collective imagination of the community. But it was not ripe for the taking, it was a thing to be etched in hard stone like a sculpture, a promise seen only by those who knew their way in the woods. Like a birch bark canoe, it had to be coaxed from the hardwoods of the north country by men with skill and grit and a drive to go places that were unforgiving and wild. Those men were pioneers who turned their backs on the sea and the sun-weathered faces of their fathers, said goodbye to their mothers and the dreary coast, the fisheries and promises of a good life; or bid farewell to their mother countries like Italy and Lithuania, and followed the hallucinations of manifest destiny inland, to the Maine frontier. And there they built a city in the wilderness, the largest paper mill in the world, and churned out newsprint for publications like the New York Times. This town, named after an Abenaki word, that means “land of many islands,” that sits on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, with its leafy gold that lays in the shadow of a great mountain, where tough men drove logs and felled trees the size of buildings, and made paper out of pulp… is still there, though long past its glory. It is called Millinocket, my people are from there, and today I call it home.

People that I love, love it here. They fit in. They drop their r’s and eat fiddlehead soup.

They’ve mourned and wedded and grown up and then became old here. They’ve sat in the pews, the grandstands, headed unions, hosted knitting groups and Tupperware parties, and joined or started every organization that makes a person a bona fide local.

Today, the mill is gone and only rubble and emptiness occupy the space where the pride of Millinocket once stood. The last version of the mill left in 2008, but the dream of a day when the mill would again be up and running and return the town to paper-making splendor has died only recently. In my time as a resident, I have felt the slow anguish of a dying thing fade into the cold nothingness of death. For more than a decade, the people of Millinocket have resisted the tides of change, balked at non-papermaking proposals, and languished in economic hardship exacerbated by the opioid crisis. There is a confounding ethos of anti-conservationism, something the locals refer to as “tree-hugging.” I feel like an outsider. And yet, these are my people. I want to know them. I want to know what they want for themselves, for their community, and for the wilderness just beyond their homes—the forests where our fathers’ fathers worked and lived and made a life for themselves; and where our fathers drove trucks and built second homes after they got hired straight out of high school and “followed the window.” What are we to do with the acres of pine and hemlock and hardwoods that were to be our birthright, but that stand to this day steadfast in the face of climate change and the inexorable will of man to forge on— all while our dreams dissolve into dust?

This is not a love letter nor an appraisal of what is right or wrong about a place or a community. It is not a critique, nor could it be; I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know what it all means to me, but I find solace in examining the bonds between myself and the here and there. No matter how I feel about it, I come from here. But I came back for the woods.

Beyond the borders of town, a brilliant expanse unfurls in all directions, blanketing the earth in summer’s green, autumn’s amber, and the soft cotton of winter snow. Just past the banks of the Penobscot River’s West Branch—in a far-off country—the crown jewel of Maine rises from the wilderness. It is a special place that I love wholly and inexplicably, where men I admire found meaning in the formidable landscape and where I search for my own meaning among mountains and men.

Without ever having reached Katahdin’s peak, I knew I was in the presence of something special. The way the mountain materialized on the horizon, beyond a lee or muskeg and around every wooded corner of the backroads outside of town—was a gift; it was a thing that never got old, its majesty deserving of celebration. Katahdin’s crown seemed to hang from the sky like an ornament and changed color with the seasons or glowed different purplish hues with the cloudbursts of spring and early summer. It remains a monument in my life, both literal and abstract: it’s a wellspring of inspiration—the mountain and the wildernesses that skirt its base—and a vestige of my childhood; it’s a place on earth that scrapes the firmament, where I have always stored my aspirations, and a luminary, a symbol for what I care about: the land and its most vulnerable inhabitants. It is an idea, a gospel, a thing created in the image of god; it is a revelation. Man could never conquer nor make sense of it, only fight to preserve it and store it in our consciousness. The wilderness at its base is the altar upon which I worship; on Knife’s Edge I risk becoming a martyr, and in the waters of Chimney Pond, Katahdin Lake, and Wassataquoik Stream, I am baptized. Fording the rapids of the West or Each Branch I pay my respect to past disciples, wild Bodhisattvas like Thoreau and Roosevelt; I can feel their presence and their reverence too. Their wilderness dreams are mine now, we store them in the clouds with the words of the man who made it happen, the one who decreed that this land remain “forever wild.”

I want to know myself and I never feel more rawly myself than when I am paddling or hiking or camping. In fact, just being in nature strips me down to who I essentially am; and being in this nature—the north Maine woods— makes me feel rooted, connected to a timeless throughline that is elemental to my personhood. Who I am in relation to the Maine woods is who I am as an individual, on the most basal and primal level; in the wild, the good and bad of my character are revealed. But I am not a hermit, the whole of my spiritual and psychological makeup cannot be deduced from the wilderness alone; I am a member of a family, a community, and a generation. MY generation, whether born and bred or interloper, has no memory of the good times, the prosperous years when Main Street had an opera house and teenagers could afford to buy their own homes. We may be few in numbers, but we carry the burden of ancestral trauma with an unentitled poise that I am genuinely proud of.

This essay and the ones that will follow are my attempt at probing the consciousness of a place, a people, and a landscape, so I may better understand what it means to be from Millinocket, of the north woods, and to see what remains of the noble lumberman of our past. Is it only names, geography, and frostbitten skin we share with the strong men and women who built this town? Or is an inimitable desire to live and work in a place where most men couldn’t coded into our DNA? Who are these people? And how do I fit in?

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  1. Great piece. I’ve yet to visit Maine outside of a Stephen King or John Irving novel. This essay paints a beautiful picture.

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