Home: Finding My Way in the Maine Woods Part 2

Anthony Emerson
TDR Regular Contributor /September 1, 2021

Part Two: Mill Town

I love nature. 

Being in and around the wilderness makes me feel a razor-sharp closeness to my truest self, and to my spiritual antecedents like Percival Baxter, the visionary and namesake of Baxter State Park—a promise kept by Baxter when he vowed to keep Katahdin the mountain of the people of Maine. There were also lesser-known figures who roamed the valleys driving logs, felling trees, trapping fur, and making a way in the wild. Some of those obscure men who helped etch a society out of the forest and eked out a life for themselves and their families in the brutal north country were related to me by blood. Percival Baxter, I know, had an intense and enduring love for nature; he fought and paid to preserve Katahdin and the surrounding forests, and when it came time to write the parameters that would regulate the park in perpetuity, he couldn’t help but wax poetic when he decreed that the land “shall remain forever wild.” What I don’t know is how the men who worked the woods—and shared my family name—felt about the wilderness that took them from their families, reamed them of their blood and sweat, and not infrequently ended their lives. Was it awe or agony they felt when they took to the woods?

Moving through groves of hemlock, spruce, and pine, beneath the green spires of the near wilderness feels— especially in the quiet cold of winter—like a journey to my self; the whole self, that contains the unbroken chain of wildness that lives in me and was borne of some ancient ancestor embarking on an overland odyssey to the fertile wilds of whatever continent he inhabited, searching for a food source and the raw materials necessary to build a life. And maybe it was he who passed along the love for mossy river rocks, the smell of fire spilling across the scarlet leaves of autumn, and high, open spaces that I inherited. 

The relatives of my past who are not abstractions or the manifestation of my romanticized relationship to the snow-covered earth were mill workers and mountain men. They were men of pride and little wealth, and so they went into the woods out of an abiding drive to provide for their families. My great-grandfather—a man who lived until I was in my mid-twenties—started work at age twelve. His hands were thick and strong, and he had knuckles like boulders. At only twelve years old he shoveled coal at the trainyard to support his mother. At sixteen he started work at the mill but left after two years to join the Navy and fight in WWII.  During that time the mill continued to run with the wives and daughters of the enlisted men making paper from trees that were in part provided by the prisoner of war lumber camps that contained German soldiers captured in North Africa. My great-grandfather, Atlee, never graduated from high school, but was a lifelong employee of the Great Northern Paper Company, and a union leader. His family lived comfortably in the quiet mill town that sits on the banks of the Penobscot; some of us still live there, though the mill remains whole only in the memory of those that saw it at its greatest. While Atlee’s biological father was a construction baron and alleged prohibition-era bootlegger with a taste for pinky rings and fur coats, the man who adopted him and raised him was a simple man whose life was filled with work and little else. He was among the mill’s first employees. Lloyd would tend his trap lines after an eight-hour shift in the paper room, in the middle of the night, walking the entire distance with my great-grandfather by his side, and then the entire way back, with the two of them sharing the load of fox and beaver pelts, their footfalls penetrating the early morning silence as they found their way home in the dawnlight. 

If my meanderings among the boreal forests of the Katahdin region don’t put me in closer touch with the countrymen who shared my DNA then I think it is because of the nature of work. Recreation feels like a modern luxury, one that my grandfathers wouldn’t understand. Hiking, camping, kayaking, photographing birds perched atop snags, and sitting on the dirt shaded by clouds and canopy contemplating life would have seemed a peculiar waste of time.  Thoreau, who was built of relatively feeble constitution, was scared out of his wits by the ruggedness of Katahdin, and said of the barrel-chested men who dwelt at its base “the mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.” They did what they had to. And although I have no family who relies on my labor to eat or be sheltered, and I have a combined two hours of experience with axe swinging, I feel a primal urge to build with my hands something that would make the great men of my past proud. And I will. But right now I am focused on telling their stories and the stories of the town they founded and grew so that I can help in the resuscitation of its spirit and vitality.

The mill is gone.

In the final days of July, my grandmother and I drove on logging roads and snowmobile trails and trespassed on private land in search of the best spot to view the back of the former mill site. It was hot and dry and a soft grey haze from the wildfires in western Canada hung in the air and fed dim rays of light into the river valley. More than once we were stymied by impassable windthrown trees; moose tracks crisscrossed the roads and I expected to see one around every turn, but we never did. From the closest disused logging road, my grandmother—a humble, brawny, broad-shouldered woman who walks slow and with a slight hitch in her gait—hiked alongside me down to the spot on the river directly across from the old mill, following the sound of the river spilling over the dam. We wanted to get to the backside because it reveals the truth about what remains of the mill. To the cars driving down main street the mill could seem only shuttered, not destroyed. There is a Potemkin structure that faces the town and makes the former mill seem whole, but it is an illusion. Though the skyline looks the same, the town’s pride has been gutted from the back. I once looked at the chimney stacks leaking foamy steam across a canvas of sky as monuments to my ancestral roots. Standing on the banks of Penobscot’s West Branch, staring into the ruins behind the facade, absorbing the carnage with my grandmother—a native daughter—it felt like we had uncovered a hidden desecration of a once holy place. And maneuvering the logging roads on the way back I noticed numerous patches of new growth lining the road in perfect rows. The paper company planted seeds after cutting; they took the old growth that was provided by the land and they at least replenished the soil and had an eye toward the future. I wish they had done the same for the town and its people.

The community is broken.

The feeling of being witness to something’s end sits heavy over the town like a cloud of smoke. This town is filled with ghosts. When my grandmother was a young girl, the town was a charming place where success and stability were attainable for everyone. Today the town is ailing from a lingering opioid epidemic and the detritus of late-stage capitalism has clogged our main street. Most of the young people with the means to flee have, and what is left is an aging population too old to work… and the rest of us. It can feel at times like the town of the past was a dream, that what we are are vaguely similar strangers chained by circumstance to the same carcass; we tread upon the same dirt and our personal vicissitudes read like slant rhymes in the bygone manifesto of the American dream, but most notions of being in this together were left to die when the mill bailed, and the recent political climate was the final, lethal dose. Rather than weep for the great loss at the heart of it all, I take to the woods and summon the essence of my forebears by walking through spaces they once occupied, through fields and forests they influenced with their physical might. I want to connect to my past, in part, because I want to be brought closer to the people who are now my neighbors. 

I think about the winters of my childhood when the snowdrifts touched the eaves, and I would pluck six-foot icicles off the porch and bat them at trees to watch them shatter like frigid glass. There always seemed to be an exchanging of Tupperware and casserole dishes between my mom and our family and friends. The house smelled of slow-cooked meats and we ate sticky, starchy meals throughout the day. On weekends we would drive the snow sleds to the various clubs and wilderness camps–—the East Branch Sno-Rovers and The White House Landing. There was always hot cocoa, beans, and slow-cooked game of moose, venison, and bear. The adults would huddle around each other drinking booze and eating hot food and talking with their snowsuits still on. I remember the smell of gasoline and cigarettes and the sound of revving engines behind human chatter. This was the thing to do, to quell the anxious pangs of cabin fever, and to feed and be fed by your neighbor. 

There is a comradeship that comes with sharing the experience of winter in the rural north woods. The wicked cold is more easily endured as a community. Handled together, the indignities of poverty are diminished and transformed into the foundations and fodder of communion. As northerners, Mainers, and the remaining progeny of this former boom-town, we have the stuff we need to return our region to glory; it is coded into our being from generations of men and women who survived the savage privations of the lean times and built a magic city that sat on the shores of the Penobscot River and the vanguard of industry. It is our duty to access the tools they gave us—wildness, humility, a high tolerance for suffering, and whatever sorcery gives us the ability to feed a family of five with a single can of tuna—and to use them to build a new way of life here. We have to search for the remnants of our past that we can build upon and also preserve the things we cannot afford to lose.

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