Covering FAMILY, PLACE, AND HEALTH
TDR Regular Contributor / October 20, 2021
Part Three: Promised Land
There is a place that I love so much I wish nobody else knew about it. And yet, people do know about it. I’ve seen other souls haunting the space, blind to my reverence and sense of ownership over this strange and wicked place that exists at the edge of the world, and center of my heart. I’ve seen planes overhead scoring the stratosphere with their contrails. I’ve seen fishermen trolling for trout behind rowboats and I’ve seen them casting ties waist deep in water that is only months shy of hardening into ice. The men themselves looked hardened by time and cold. I’ve seen moose tracks, bear scat, eagles and toads, and watched loonlets grow to become ferocious nighttime sopranos. Once, in the fall time, I watched an orange streak glide across blueberry barrens with a vulpine gait while her kits squealed out of view. I’ve heard the din of pubescent screeching from either a parliament of owls in distress or, more likely, the summer camp across the way. I don’t own this place, but I feel a sense of pride and defensiveness over it. It’s a feeling I can’t quite describe and I really don’t know what to do with it, except that it makes me wonder… should anyone really own the land?
The wilderness is more than space filled with natural formations of earth, water, weather, and beasts to be conquered or inhabited, preserved or developed. The wilderness is an idea. The men and women of centuries past who had faces shaped like mine and names that rolled off of Anglo tongues with sloppy, exaggerated vowels, who laid bricks that became cathedrals and factories, who helped found the modern institutions that continue to prop up our proud democracy— those people went to the woods for work. They cared only about opportunity, and sought to make something great that could have a chance at surviving long enough for me to lay my ungrateful eyes on it. They were building a legacy. They did it. It’s our’s. Now what should we do with it?
To the rivermen dancing atop logs, the cookees baking beans and brown bread, the sawyers, the boat captains, the teamsters knee-deep in horseshit, and the rest of the weary old lumbermen, the woods were a resource. The regal White Pine was as good as gold. And so they felled them. They felled them until the great north woods were all but free of White Pine. The human capacity for greed and ingenuity is astonishing, and the primitive men of the early 20th century with their oxen and axes were able to ravage the virgin forest of the northeast’s last frontier. And despite the upsetting reality of the intrinsic flaw in capitalism’s need for constant growth on a planet with limited resources, I don’t blame a single woodsman for the state of the woods today. They worked the woods so that my kin could eat and grow and populate the cold little forest towns that provided paper to the world. And I am damn proud. Among those men who I admire for their self-reliance and fearlessness, I am sure was a bard, a philosopher, a man who not only heaved steal by day, but also waxed poetic about a life lived outdoors, who wrote by candlelight over a black tea whose steam mingled in the air with pipe smoke, fire smoke, and the fumes of singed hide. But even he who saw poetry in the humdrum of wilderness living, could never imagine what those wild places would come to mean to a man like me.
I fell in love with the wilderness through kayaking, camping, and hiking. Though I was never a weekend warrior, outfitted in neon parkas and matching goose down gloves, come to the forest to beta test my gear and wilderness tech, I was rarely present or aware while in the woods. I was there to recreate, I lacked gratitude, and that meant I mostly considered nature a venue. It wasn’t a thing to be exploited for value, or to be valued. It wasn’t a portal to an enlightened state of mind, or a lens with which to access the ethereal and holy. It was an amusement park created by god for the benefit of man. Mine was the Genesis view of the natural world. The idea that everything natural and beautiful and valuable in the world was constructed for the benefit of man. Then something changed.
I don’t imagine kids who grow up in the city ever crank their necks skyward to admire the titanic steel monuments to modernity and wealth. Not the way tourists from Des Moines do anyway. Growing up with tourist destinations like Baxter State Park, Acadia National Park, the Appalachian Trail, and the Maine coast just beyond the borders of my town jaded me to the power of the wilderness. It took turning thirty and feeling an existential displacement from anything resembling a home for me to yearn for the wildness of my youth. I sit on stoops in Brooklyn and watch teenagers smoke cigarettes and skateboard on cobblestone streets and I am nostalgic for my childhood when I ran bare chested through rose bushes with slurpee stains on my face. I biked to the video store and bought penny candy and left coins on train tracks and thought about them being squashed as I laid in bed and listened to the train roll through town on the last leg of its journey to Quebec. I am angry and confused and I find myself pining for a thing I am sure I don’t understand. Simplicity, wholesomeness, oneness, cooperation. I miss the 90’s, low tech toys, laser discs, and the incorruptible joy of picnics, camping, and swimming at night.
So I went back to the forestlands of my childhood, the wilderness that stood adjacent to my formative years. I’m looking to connect with something that feels right and good and meaningful; I’m trying to find the thread. Now, when I walk in the Maine woods I am wholly present; I am open to it all. But I struggle with contradictory feelings that vacillate between paternalistic preservationism, which would ultimately be too austere and stifling for an insular town whose very existence is tied to the notion of the forest as a product to be cultivated, and naive grandiosity that asks for an unrealistic level of cooperation and the suspension of hardlined beliefs from a people whose worldviews are shaped by decades of economic insecurity and conservative cable news. I am torn between the town and the wilderness, and I am both a local and an outsider.
Conserving the forested tract of land that begins at the edge of town should be a priority for anybody who cares about clean air and water. The Katahdin region contains a multitude of flora and fauna, lakes, rivers, mountains, and a historic and fertile ecosystem that should be in thriving existence for the rest of time. Which is easy for me to say because I don’t rely on the town or surrounding wilderness for my income. But people I love still do, and they are hurting. I want them to have secure jobs and benefits again. I want them to have access to what used to be called the middle class; the lifestyle that came from hard work and brought humble people the modest prosperity that they deserved. No man with calloused hands and a mastery over the inner workings of a small engine should be forced to wear a blue vest and greet patrons beneath fluorescent lighting. I’d like to live in a place where people can have families again and I don’t have to drive 70 miles to order a veggie burger.
On the other hand… I don’t want the views from my trailer at the end of town to be marred by chair lifts, vacation homes and Cabella’s super stores. I don’t want the rural charm of this town to be diluted by the presence of well-meaning gentrifiers trampling our precious soil with their Blundstones and electric cars. I also know that for a town that has never had to be good at anything but papermaking, a full fledged pivot to the service industry is out of the question. That kind of transformation is a generation or more away. Besides, a service industry economy means people, lots and lots of people, and the carrying capacity of the north woods can’t sustain that influx of human visitors and maintain its status of authentic wilderness. Frankly, I’m glad. I want the town to resemble for my young cousins what it is in the stories my grandmother tells us about her childhood. I wish the town could achieve long term stability while also preserving the forests around it. I want to feel a sense of pride when I look forward and not just backward.
More than anything though, I just want to be alone in the woods.
So yes, there is a place north of town where thousands of acres of mature forest scrape the clouds. Through the stand of ancient trees, a backcountry pond reflects the granite cliffs above. The pond, accessible only by foot or floatplane, is home to a rare fish called the Arctic Char. The water is always cold and clear. To the northwest, the final scenic miles of the Appalachian Trail kiss the bluffs at the pond’s shores and snake through an emerald wilderness once referred to by the natives as “the carrying place.” With its grand views of Katahdin, palpable remoteness, rich anthropological history, biodiversity, and dense forests teeming with the splendor of the north country’s flora and fauna, this place I won’t name, is as good as any to step into the wild and gain whatever is to be gained from such an experience. It’s a place to seek reprieve, peace or solace, to better understand the natural world, or to better know yourself through the beauty and suffering that are mostly a package deal in the woods. This is a place to explore the tactile wonders of mycology, dendrology, geology, and to master the art of campfire coffee, shitting in the woods, and to wake with the sun and birds and share your slumber with the earthworms who dwell in the soil beneath your tent. You can walk among trees who were witness to history—pillars and symbols and totems for men and women of bygone civilizations who knew how to love a natural thing in ways we all now aspire to, though it may be too late for us. You can wash your body in icy waters sheltered by primordial rock where birch bark canoes once dotted the shores like sea-scarred flotsam. You can go there, and maybe it will give you what it has given me: a sense of pride over place, a connection to my biological and spiritual forebears, and the release of my soul from the bondage of modern anxieties. You can go there, yes… but I wish you wouldn’t.
This essay was a few weeks late and I’m not exactly sure why except that I had a crisis of confidence; Or I was feeling disconnected from my muse, my home, my place.
That place is Millinocket, Maine. It is where my family comes from and it’s the mystery at the heart of these writings. It’s been a challenging, confusing, strange place for me to live and make a go of it over the last couple years. But as I write this right now from Brooklyn, New York, I really miss it there. I miss the cold grass beneath my feet at night, the way the stars look when they don’t have to compete with the purple spire of One World Trade, and I miss the people and how they drop their r’s and love nothing more than to talk shit about the Patriots and feed me. Nobody in all of King’s county cares if I ate today. I did, it was trendy and delicious, but it tasted nothing like home…