The Wicked Coast

Maine is a joy in summer, but even more captivating in winter.

By Paul Theroux

Wherever you look on this coast, you see a Wyeth vignette. It was an icy diamond-bright day in late winter in mid-coast Maine, under a cloudless sky, the tide ebbing from the ice chunks that encrusted the rocky shore like blocks of salt, the north wind whipping whitecaps across the bay. This stretch of water, the lower end of Penobscot Bay, known and charted and fished by Europeans for more than 400 years, once teemed with cod as it now teems with lobsters. As for the particular details of seaside granite and tangled kelp and white clapboard houses and driftwood washed smooth by waves, it is clearly Wyeth country. The man known locally as Andy once lived and worked just down the peninsula, at Port Clyde. His painting The Patriot depicts the father of the man who still runs the nearby sawmill.

I was visiting a lobsterman friend to ask a favor. This man greeting me would himself suit a Wyeth portrait. He was warmly dressed, a heavy coat over a down vest, cord trousers, rubber knee-high boots and a fisherman’s thick rubber gloves. He was crouched in the sun on his own dock, surrounded by tall stacks of lobster traps.

“What are you doing here?” And he laughed, because he’s used to seeing me in the summer. I laughed too, hearing “doo-in hee-yah.”

I said I needed him to run me out in his boat to an offshore island where I had to transact a little business. Of course he said yes, no problem, did I want to go right now before the tide ebbed away?

We were soon on the water, the wind cutting my face, the islands glittering around us. The last ice age carved this coast, created the narrow south-trending peninsulas and lumpy granite islands, all of it now softened by tall spruce trees, “The Country of the Pointed Firs,” as one of its literary chroniclers described it. In summer these trees perfume the coast and support osprey nests. My friend was telling me how this had been an awfully snowy winter. It was not a complaint—for months it had been perfect for snowmobiling up near Rangeley. Oh, yes, very cold, but he had warm gear and added that one day (“I am serious”) a few years ago on that trail, the temperature was 37 below zero, Fahrenheit. And he laughed.

Most visitors to coastal Maine know it in the summer. In the nature of visitation, people show up in the season. The snow and ice are a bleak memory now on the long warm days of early summer, but it seems to me that to understand a place best, the visitor needs to see figures in a landscape in all seasons. Maine is a joy in the summer. But the soul of Maine is more apparent in the winter. You see that the population is actually quite small, the roads are empty, some of the restaurants are closed, the houses of the summer people are dark, their driveways unplowed. But Maine out of season is unmistakably a great destination: hospitable, good-humored, plenty of elbow room, short days, dark nights of crackling ice crystals.

Winter is a season of recovery and preparation. Boats are repaired, traps fixed, nets mended. “I need the winter to rest my body,” my friend the lobsterman told me, speaking of how he suspended his lobstering in December and did not resume until April.

But his son, younger and stronger, was preparing, this week in early March, to set out his traps—800 of them. His chosen area was 35 miles out to sea; with his stern man helping, he could bait and set 100 traps a day. What I take to be heroic effort is an average day for men like him, and women too—it’s not unusual to see a woman piloting a lobster boat and hauling traps.

I love talking to this man and his neighbors, because they are the enduring community of the Maine coast, making a living in the same fruitful and laborious way that people here always have. The coast was known to Europe from the earliest times. John Cabot claimed it for King Henry VII in 1497, Verrazano sailed “down east” in 1524, Captain Weymouth set foot here in 1605 and was rowed in a shallop up St. George’s River, which he named. Charts made during these voyages were used by Europeans seeking fish. Indeed, as Bill Caldwell writes in Islands of Maine: Where America Really Began, fishermen from England, France, Spain, and Portugal were familiar with Maine’s islands—so much so that by the early 1600s as many as 300 foreign fishing vessels were working the waters off the Maine coast.

The Wawenock chief Samoset, who befriended the Pilgrims at Plymouth, was born a little way down the coast, at Pemaquid. (He knew English; some say he learned it from another Indian, who’d been kidnapped by English explorers.) Thoreau claimed that the wilderness of Maine was as wild as any on Earth, and his Maine Woods (portions of which appeared in The Atlantic) is persuasive on that theme. I agree with Bill Caldwell that America began here, and it endures here in the same venerable way.

The landscape of the mid-coast is summed up in the plangent lines that begin the poem “Renascence,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was born near here:

All I could see from where I stood

Was three long mountains and a wood;

I turned and looked the other way,

And saw three islands in a bay.

Many small towns I know in Maine are as tight-knit and interdependent as those I associate with rural communities in India or China; with deep roots and old loyalties, skeptical of authority, they are proud and inflexibly territorial. These traits, deplored by some people “from away,” are the secret of their survival. I like these Mainers for their self-sufficiency; they are uncomplaining almost to a fault, indeed studied self-deprecation is the normal mode for such people, who superstitiously make a point of never boasting of a great catch. “Not bad” is passionate for a Maine lobsterman. They are renewed by a sustaining culture. My friend the lobsterman is also a volunteer fireman, as well as a trained (and unpaid) emergency medical responder. Onshore, whenever his pager summons him, he hops in his pickup truck and answers the call.

Late fall and winter is also a time when Mainers get creative. I know many painters, sculptors, and weavers who spend this time of year at their art. The expression cottage industry does not do justice to others’ achievements in knitting, quilting, basket-weaving, bottling maple syrup. Many of these products are sold at the State of Maine Cheese Company on Route 1, halfway between Rockland and Camden. This modest but well-stocked cheese-maker sells cheese curd squeezed that same day, as well as seven-year-old sharp cheddar, and a dozen other varieties.

Rockland, the commercial hub of mid-coast Maine, was a blue-collar town originally based on shipbuilding and later on the fishing, granite, and lime industries. After Camden just up the coast became gentrified and prosperous, Rockland—with fishing in decline, and no longer an exporter of rocks—reinvented itself as a destination, with a world-class art museum, the Farnsworth (a showcase for three generations of Wyeths), and a renovated classic one-screen movie theater, the Strand, as well as good restaurants, bookshops, and a series of weekend summer festivals celebrating lobsters, blues, and boats.

Maine does not end at its coast. Its beauty is repeated in its islands, thousands of them if one also counts those rock ledges known locally as “knubbles”—small knobs—some of them supporting a tree or two. Traditionally many Maine islands were offshore depots for fishing and lobstering; some served as pastures for keeping cows, or for quarrying granite; lighthouses still stand on some of them. Some are privately owned, with summer houses on them, and a look of defiant seclusion as though challenging John Donne’s assertion that no man is an island. On the Maine coast, some men are islands.

Headed out with my friend that day to one of those granite islands topped by tall spruce trees, I asked him what he had been doing lately.

“Shrimpun,” he said.

He and his son had spent the past few weeks trapping and netting shrimp. It was a hard business at sea on those windy, freezing winter days, hard too because the shrimp have a short shelf life unless they’re quickly shipped, peeled, and frozen. They are medium-sized. The catch is not huge. The price that week was 75 cents a pound. Not much, but never mind.

“Tasty?”

“Wicked tasty.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/06/the-wicked-coast/308490/