I can’t believe summer almost flew by without a trip to the rocky coastline of Downeast Maine! I am missing the beautiful landscape I wasn’t able to enjoy this summer due to a complex project for a client so I am thrilled to be heading there today. In preparation for my reentering the state’s abundant natural beauty, I’d like to share a riff about one of last year’s trips that celebrates an expressive writer and soulful environmental activist.
The friend I am visiting, Zina Glazebrook, has moved up the coast a bit and is now near the Pemaquid lighthouse featured in the lead image in this post. We took a trip to the spot along the shore where the waves blast onto land last year when she and her darling dachshund Iggy were living in Boothbay Harbor, which is where this musing takes place one deliciously drizzly afternoon. I knew it would be a perfect day for cozying up to the fire so I made quick work of moving a wing chair to a spot where I could enjoy both the warmth flowing from the fireplace and the view. I propped my feet up and gazed at the boulder-strewn shoreline, my writer’s notebook in my lap, thinking about how many times I have made this exact move—from Tuscany to Lake Como and Paris to London. There’s something about sitting and staring out a window to take in one’s surroundings that serves as an important act of settling in.
It is also an integral a part of the creative process for me as a writer that I call making friends with a place. That day, as the harbor fingered landward, I made note of how it narrowed to end in a crescent pocked with rotund stones cresting the silvery liquid even at high tide. At low tide, a squidgy-looking silted floor revealed itself, the muck pocked with clumps of mossy green seaweed. Sans water, the grasses were relieved of their ability to undulate poetically, slumping to form globs of sludge that melded with the gunky floor. At first I thought to describe the bottom as moon-like, a world where craters fill with water, but it was friendlier than that.
As in most coastal communities, there was the normal jumble of human-activity gear marring the natural beauty, perhaps the worst offender an above-ground hot tub set within an outcropping of land off the parking lot of a nearby hotel. The whirlpool’s ugly exterior was the counter opposite to the aged stone that surrounded its platform—the walls, which disappeared into the harbor when the tide sluiced in, pocked with patches of mustard-yellow organisms of such a bright hue I couldn’t believe they were natural. As I stared at a circle of plastic Adirondack-style chairs and occasional tables in the most garish colors imaginable, I wondered, Why is it some humans choose to buy such ugliness rather than opting for furnishings that manifest natural beauty and are inherently sustainable due to their classic features and well-made longevity? Set against the lush tones of lawns effervescing from a solid week of rain and the beautifully hued lichens, these machine-made artificial atrocities were downright offensive.
Conservationist Rachel Carson, who left such a valuable legacy in her activism, also left a beautiful one in her writing. The prose she penned includes some graceful meditations on Maine’s landscapes (including a mention of the bright plant-life I noticed for the first time during that trip to Maine) in her book The Sense of Wonder: “A rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods. I always thought so myself; the Maine woods never seem so fresh and alive as in wet weather. Then all the needles on the evergreens wear a sheath of silver; ferns seem to have grown to almost tropical lushness and every leaf has its edging of crystal drops. Strangely colored fungi — mustard-yellow and apricot and scarlet — are pushing out of the leaf mold and all the lichens and the mosses have come alive with green and silver freshness.” What I love about this narrative is how it illustrates what a lyrical writer she was. It’s not the first notion most people call to mind about her due to the fact that her book Silent Spring set the environmental movement in motion, but it’s how I remember her.
As I watched a sudden swell in the water toy with a dock holding shiny yellow, orange and red kayaks, I had to wonder what she would think about the environment’s further decline and the added threat that plastics bring to the dilemma were she still alive. This pier sliced into the scene, culminating in a floating segment that moved at the bidding of the rising and lowering tides. As I watched its edge wobble, raindrops began stippling the water with their nimble points, circles of movement radiating out to interrupt the reflection of the cloud-choked skies the sun was trying its best to penetrate. The gulls keened as they pirouetted in the air and dropped swiftly to skim the surface of the shallowest waters. A large crow lit on the crossbar of the structure separating the anchored section of the dock from the fluctuating platform and began cawing from the frame as if he sought entrance through this veritable doorway at the land’s edge. On that Independence Day, I found that what nature was saying was more interesting that what people had to say; I found that the elemental effects deposited in the beautiful setting seemed so much more relevant than the things people decided were necessary to outfit their frantic vacation days filled with sport and relaxation. As I closed my writer’s notebook to move my chair closer to the fire, I wondered, Is this really the legacy we want to leave?
Carson had some powerful advice for parents who want to ensure their children learn how to truly care for the environment. The narrative is also from The Sense of Wonder and I include it here because I do believe it is our future generations who have even a ghost of a chance to save the earth (if it’s not already too late): “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”
Studying those ghastly chairs, I began to wonder what initiatives the design industry has in place to marginalize impacts on the environment. I will be doing some investigating in the months to come. If you know of any, please leave me a comment so I can include them in future writing, okay? If you enjoyed Carson’s prose I included in this post, I highly recommend her books for the very last of your summer reading list. In case you’re unsure whether her writing is expressive enough to count as escapist prose, I leave you with this musing about sanderlings she saw feeding on an island beach in Maine before they flew away to northern climes. It’s from her book Under the Sea-Wind:
“Before sunset, the skies lightened and the wind abated. While it was yet light the sanderlings left the barrier island and set out across the sound. Beneath them as they wheeled over the inlet was the deep green ribbon of the channel that wound, with many curvings, across the lighter shallows of the sound. They followed the channel, passing between the leaning red spar buoys, past the tide rips where the water streamed, broken into swirls and eddies, over a sunken reef of oyster shell, and came at last to the island. There they joined a company of several hundred white-rumped sandpipers, least sandpipers, and ring-necked plovers that were resting on the sand. [...]
“About an hour before dawn the sanderling flock gathered together on the island beach, where the gentle tide was shifting the windrows of shells. The little band of brown-mottled birds mounted into the darkness and, as the island grew small beneath them, set out toward the north.”
Footnote: I consider Carson as much a groundbreaker as Beatrix Farrand because both of these women devoted their lives to aspects of the natural world, though very different versions of it. If you would like to read about the garden design visionary, I featured the Groundbreakers show at The New York Botanical Gardens, which honored her legacy, on the blog earlier this summer.
This is a Wanderjahrlot installment in my series of DesignSalon posts. To see others, search the blog by typing “Wanderjahrlot” in the search bar [I dare you to keep a straight face while doing so!]. Text and images © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement, author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns, and an NYC-based new media strategist.