I have Maine on my mind. I recently read, “Maine Farm: a year of country living” by Stanley Joseph and Lynn Karlin. In the 1980s, they bought Helen and Scott Nearing’s original farm house and garden in Harborside, Maine. The book was a gift from Dave Sears who lives summers, with his wife Judy, on Matinicus Island, Maine. The book led me to find a Nearing DVD I sometimes used in class, “Living the Good Life” — Bullfrog Films, 1976. It’s still available for $59. One reviewer wrote, “His laugh and her singing make it magic.” It brought back many memories from our visit in the early 1970 (recalled in a previous blog, “Down the Atlantic Coast”).
A few weeks ago, Melody and Garret Bonnema from Bethel, Maine visited us in Yardley. They moved to Maine from Bristol in the early 70s and opened a pottery studio. This visit they delivered several pottery pieces we had ordered as a wedding gift for Libby Paglione and Steve Vedder. It’s been years since we have seen the Bonnemas.
Last week we drove to Rockland Maine and spent a night at The Ledges — a great motel overlooking the bay. Next morning, we bought ferry tickets to Matinicus. We were off to visit David and Judy Sears who bought a house on the island following retirement. Diane and Dave taught together back in the beginning. While waiting for the ferry, We met Martha Trower, from Chebeague Island just north of Portland. Amazing, she knew the Nearings, had taught at Gould Academy and knew the Bonnema’s, and knew David and Judy Sears from previous trips to Matinicus. Together we reflected on Maine — it’s amazing mix of traditional and hip cultures.
Maine on my mind.
Our first trip to Maine was about 1973. We were living on Old York Road in New Hope with Barbara and John Paglione. Although Diane and I were teachers and John worked in a Trenton hospital, our lifestyle reflected the “back to the earth movement.” Not really a commune but we sometimes referred to our arrangement as an “intentional community.” Summers John and I worked on two Pineville farms owned by the Daniel brothers. Barbara and Diane worked in Japan Artisans, a great and missed New Hope shop.
We had a large garden, put up corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables. Made preserves, condiments, bread, most of our beer (very crude) and wine. We all cooked and rotated house chores. We discovered Helen and Scott Nearing through “The Maple Sugar Book” and “Living the Good Life.” I wrote the Nearings asking if we could visit. We invited my father to join us and were offered to use a “plexiglas cabin” Bill Lynn from Bristol was building on a small piece of Maine real estate. (Bill worked for Rohm and Hass and the plexiglas was scrap.)
In the 1930s the Nearings had begun homesteading in Verment. Scott, an Economist, had been fired from the University of Pennsylvania and another college for socialism. Helen, some years younger, could have had a career as a concert pianist. In Vermont, maple syrup was their cash crop. By 1952, the ski industry was taking over Vermont, the Nearings moved to Maine.
They bought a farm on the Blue Hill peninsula south of Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor. Their property was in Harborside, on a small cove off Penobscot Bay. In the 1960s, the country was being introduced to a new youth culture, alternative life styles, back to the earth, eastern mysticism, gardening, communal living, hand crafts, flower power, and in media language — “hippies.” The Nearings were quickly becoming the “gurus” of homesteading.
We left Yardley in two aging VW bugs (one red; the other black), spent the night at Lynn’s “A” frame, just enough room for 5 sleeping bags. The next day, headed to Harborside. It had become a “Mecca.” Our invitation to visit Forest Farm wasn’t necessary, visitors showed up every day. Helen and Scott sat outside their frame farm house, mending netting they put over their blueberry bushes. The berries had replaced maple sugar as a cash crop. Several “in” people sat with them. Although they had a bowel of grain for lunch, we weren’t offered any although I read that sometimes visitors were invited to lunch. Some stayed for days, camping on the property and helping with farm chores.
That afternoon we helped Scott cut up some sapling size wood for heating, “warms you twice,” he said with a twinkle in his eye,”when you cut it and when you burn it.” Later we headed in a pick up truck to Orr cove to collect seaweed to fertilize the garden. The Nearings grew most of their food in a stone walled garden. They were vegetarians, “we don’t believe in enslaving animals or people,” Helen explained.
They took us on a farm tour. Quite proud of a new stone house they were building (Helen taped a rock, “it’s solid, strong). At the time Scott was 90; Helen was in her 70s. Scott lived until 1983; he was 100. Helen continued to live in the stone house; she died in 1995, 91 years old. After Scott’s death, Helen sold the frame house and some of the property to Stanley Joseph and Lynn Karlin, authors of “Maine Farm” mentioned in the beginning of this blog.
Nearing stone house — today the Good Life Center
As evening approached we said goodby to Helen and Scott. Scott had been extremely open, friendly, constantly offering funny aphorisms, “Pay as you go.” No borrowing or credit cards for Scott. In contrast, Helen seemed a bit sour, maybe tired of the constant visitor stream. They suggested we stop to meet their neighbor, Eliot Coleman, who was establishing (much to the amusement of regular Maine farmers) an organic farm. Eliot was working in the garden when we arrived — raised beds of rich soil, lush with vegetables. On our trip to Matinicus, Dave Sears gave me a copy of “This is in Your Hands: one dream, sixty acres, and a family undone” by Melissa Coleman, Eliot’s daughter. On the to-read list with several other Maine books.
Stanley and Lynn and Eliot were not the only homesteaders that followed in the Nearings footsteps. A few bought land from them in Harborside. Jean Hay Bright, wrote “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life.” She wasn’t always complimentary to the Nearings. The Nearings may have lead thousands of others, “hippies and homesteaders” that flocked to Maine in the 1960-1970s.
I recently discovered a Bangor Times slide show, “The Good Life.” It had five chapters — Seed, Root, Bloom, Harvest, Preserve. They wrote “Sixty years ago Scott and Helen Nearing inspired a movement that changed Maine forever.” Today the Good Life Center, at Forest Farm, in the Nearing stone house, promotes the self-sufficiency, basic life style in tune with nature and community, the message Scott and Helen lived and wrote about. The original frame house can be rented. Maybe a Paglione-Profy Maine reunion.
Our next trip to Maine was in 1975. Melody Bonnema had gone to Pratt in NYC with Barbara Paglione. After college she studied with an established potter, Toshiko Takaezu. Melody opened a studio in Bristol with her husband Garett, who would leave teaching to become a potter. The Bonnemas were part of the movement of homesteaders and craft artists discovering Maine. They bought a large Victorian with an attached barn on Main Street in Bethel. The town was picturesque but not a major tourist stop. There was an Inn across the street and National Training Laboratory (NTL) was headquartered in town. NTL was known for its T group training that sought to improve interpersonal relationships and communication skills — very 1960s. Gould Academy was also located in town. So in the 70s, there was a small flow of outsiders through town. That would grow when Sunday River Ski resort was developed.
We moved in with the Bonnemas their first summer in Maine. I did some carpentry work in the barn and the building of display shelves for craft fairs. Diane worked with Melody, actually learning to throw her signature minature hanging pots. We traveled with them to several craft fairs. It was pretty clear we weren’t in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or the East Coast corridor any more. Maine was different.
Although Bonnemas worked hard, there was a flowing, rhythmic pace. Lots of friends visited and I remember Melody (like the Nearings) explaining, “Today is a working day.” But tomorrow . . . I think we hiked in the Maine White Mountains at least twice, or three times a week. Usually the Presidential range — Jefferson was a favorite because a road took us far enough up, that above tree line was reached with minimal effort. There were also hikes through local forests — I remember feeling lost on one hike. No houses, no roads, no signs of civilization. We eventually emerged.
The sense of community was amazing. And it was made up of locals, born in Maine, heating the house with saw dust types, and the migrants moving in. Somebody needed to move a piano, a group got together one afternoon, moved the piano, cracked open cans of beer or Boones Farm Apple, guitars came out, and there was a jam. I think his name was Douglas, was building a log cabin outside of town. Could we help? So for a day here or there we lifted logs, forming the cabin walls. Saw my first Moose on one of these cabin building days.
We became regulars at some businesses in town. There was a small coffee shop, Bonnemas like Sunday morning breakfast out. The hardware store-lumber supply was a frequent visit, “Charge it to the Bonnemas.” Then there was the small grocery where we bought milk and eggs and Boones Farm. We learned that firewood was important, there was a wood stove (we learned about Vermont Castings) in the kitchen, some of that heat seeped upstairs (needed in the winter).
In the Bethel area in the early 1970s, there weren’t any organic farms or farmers markets, arugula, heirloom tomatoes, artisan bread or craft beer. I don’t remember any craft artists except the Bonnemas. Since then it changed with the new Maine.
When we went to Bethel in 1975, I thought I would write. But except for my daily journal, I didn’t write. In August I saw an ad for a photographic workshop in Rockport. I could save my artistic honor. Photography not writing. The Maine Photographic Workshops were new. Dave Lyman’s inspiration; professional photographers, talented students and a utopian setting. We took a sailboat to a small island and spent a week photographing on 35 mm ecktachrome (it could be self developed). The instructor, Bruce Curtsinger, a National Geographic contract photographer, opened my eyes to light and composition. Particularly composition. He taught the traditional rules but pushed us to go beyond the accepted. Sunrise, sunset, ocean calm and ocean waves, seaweed and rock and rock. Wide angle (Bruce lent us an 18 mm lens), close up. Color, light, pattern, texture, repetition.
The next year I returned to the Maine Photographic Workshops to take a course with Ernst Haas — color and color, “Keep your finger off the shutter until you know you want the shot.” Bruce Dale, “You need to shoot people.” Both were great experiences influencing my life and photography.
Diane and I have traveled in Maine a number of other times. I remember driving up the coast, stopping at a roadside stand and having my first lobster, corn , maybe a baked potatoe. Lobster never made it to Bristol when I was growing up. Delicious. I remember horse back riding in Arcadia National Park. And I have mental images of coastal towns, Kennybunk, Wiscasset, Damariscotta, Friendship, and Tenants Harbor. One year when Jenny was about 8, we spent a week in Searsport.
We returned to the Blue Hill pensiula several years back when the Kwait Brothers were playing at the Blue Hill festival. Jenny and Rob with a young Eli camped; Diane and I stayed in a B and B. One afternoon we took a driving tour and in the Brooksville historical society saw a sign “Condon’s.” Diane recognized it immediately, from children’s author, Robert McCloskey’s (“Make Room for Ducklings” fame), “One Morning in Maine.” Our guide in the small museum said, “Drive down the road and you’ll be there.” Within minutes we were in Buck’s Harbor with Condon’s Garage and store just as they are illustrated in the book. McCloskey has a home on a small island in Penobscot Bay.
I don’t think we realized we were in Nearing territory until we noticed a mail box, “Nearing.” We drove up to the stone house but everyone from the Good Life Center were off to the Blue Hill festival. We drove next door to Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Farm. We talked to some interns, “Yes, Eliot still lives here.” As we toured the farm and small market stand, I noticed someone coming out of the farm house. It was Coleman and I couldn’t resist stopping him and relating how we’d met 30 years earlier. Today Coleman is the go-to spokesman when something is happening in the organic farming movement.
Two years ago we planned a September trip to visit David and Judy Sears on Matinicus. Dave required surgery and the trip was cancelled. We had credit at the Percy Inn in Portland, so in April 2015 we took a trip to Concord, MA and Portland, ME. Downtown, historic Portland reflects the “hip” culture that migrated to Maine in the 1960-70s. Waterfront properties with boutique shops and a lively food scene. Unfortunately we couldn’t get reservations at Eventide Oysters — the hot oyster bar — ended up next door at Hugo’s, one of Portland’s first national known restaurants. There was an expensive, if interesting price fixe tasting menu. Another evening we ate at Street and Company, a favorite for us and discovered lunch at the dive bar J’s Oyster on the waterfront.
Last year we again planned a September trip to Matinicus. This time I ended up in the hospital and my surgeries lasted for months. This year Dave emailed encouraging us to visit in September, 2016. I was determined to make the trip.
On September 7 we left for Rockland. It’s a long drive but the day was cool and clear. We held off lunch until Kittery, just over the border between Maine and New Hampshire. We had discovered Young’s Maine Grill on the Portland trip. Deceptively simple, it’s a great seafood stop on the bay. Instead of lobster rolls (you know your in Maine) we had oyster rolls. Crispy batter; juicy, tasty oysters, with an Allagash White — there was a case in the car headed to Matinicus.
For part of the trip up the coast, we drive Route 1. Although it has its share of tacky motels, chain restaurants, and other tourist attractions, it’s spotted with unique Maine establishments, true craftsmen, potters, woodworkers, iron workers. There are farm stands and mom and pop (several generations) restaurants. Some of the cabin- motels from the 40s and 50s even have an appeal.
In Rockland, Dave and Judy recommended The Ledges. Our second floor motel style room had a beautiful view of the bay. No need for a B and B. We had reservations at Primo, described as “the ultimate farm to table experience.” It’s claimed the chef, Melissa Kelly, started with a garden, a few hens, and a couple of pigs. Wednesday night in September, the place was packed. Our 7 o’ clock reservation was pushed to 7:30, so we had a drink at the bar. Knowing I would have plenty of seafood in the coming days, I ordered a signature dish, Pork Saltimbocca. It was quite good. Diane had a lobster Ravoli which she felt was lacking. The drinks, beet salad, dessert, homemade limoncello were good but overpriced. But the fact that Primo exists and succeeds is a testament to the organic pioneers of the 1970s.
The next morning we did some last minute food shopping. Judy wanted several quarts of homemade yogurt from a health food market. We purchased donuts from a recommended bakery. The ferry only runs to Matinicus three times a month. And it was out of service for our trip. We were taking the “island transporter.” Basically a work boat, capable of carrying several vehicles and twenty-three passengers. We were told to get there early. We waited; met Martha; and watched the stream of passengers for Vinal Haven, then Matinicus. There were family types, older couples, young couples and a few in pick ups, tattoos, and dangling cigarettes, that I couldn’t help stereo-typing as Trump supporters. How will Maine vote? On board, there were six plastic seats for passengers in a large closet space.
Seas were calm. Matinicus is 23 miles out. It’s a two hour trip. Fog was fairly heavy at times. In comparison, Nantucket, our summer destination for years, is about 30 miles out. We arrived at Matinicus harbor in a light mist. There were half dozen high piers with a fishing shacks where traps are stored and a stern man may live above. The main pier was crowded with people and trucks.
Dave and Judy loaded our bags in their truck and gave us an island tour. It’s about 2 miles by 1 mile. Maybe 125 residents in summer; 25 in winter. There are no stores or restaurants. The school has 3 students. There is a non-denominational church, town hall, post office, playground, cemetery, airport, recycling station and a new library. Until recently the library building was a “house of the rising sun” across the street from the Sears. They bought the property and donated the building to the town.
Dave and Judy rented on Matinicus for years. When they retired they decided to buy. Their house has been renovated, furnished with antiques. Beautiful. Dave began painting and with some inheritance built a studio. They have a big productive garden — if you want fresh vegetables, you grow them. There are also berry bushes and crab apple trees.
Five o’clock, wine glass in hand, there is a knock at the door. A young fisherman, just off his boat is delivering lobsters (8) and crabs (5). With corn from Bucks County and tomatoes from the garden, we had a delicious meal. Leftover lobster and crabs were the basis of a Maine chowder, Judy made for day two. Reality check: Sears rarely eat lobster and at a recent island picnic there was a basket of cooked lobsters; no one ate them.
In the next two days, we walked a trail to a typically Maine rocky coast; another walk to Condon Cove with the ocean rounded granite stones that are the inspiration for some of Dave’s paintings. We also explored a beautiful sandy beach, not typical of Maine, one of two on the island. We went to the harbor and watched a few boats coming and going; similarly, at the airport, a plane landed and took off with two passengers.
Life on Matinicus is slow, measured. It’s very different from life on the mainland. Dave constantly suggests that if you live here you must contribute to the island. It may be keeping one of the walking paths cleared or volunteering at the recycling station. It’s small town. Everyone keeps in touch. As we drove around the island, we ocassionally stopped to talk — small talk — who is off island? Whose relatives are visiting? Is someone back “fishing?”
“Fishing” is used for lobstering. No one on Matinicus fishes for fish. They fish for lobsters. It’s hard work. There are regulations on size, number of traps, and where someone with a license can put their traps. There is a line for instance between Mantinicus and Vinal Haven, a larger nearby island. It’s important to keep your traps on your side of the line. If not someone from the other island might cut you lines, losing not just lobsters but expensive traps and line. But it happens and lobstermen have known to get rough. There is no police force on Mantinicus, so island standards of behavior and cooperation are regulated by the community. Punishment can be harsh, including banishment from the island. A few years ago there was a shooting on the town dock. “Don’t mess with my traps.”
With regulation, in recent years, lobster catches have been good. Some fisherman — families have fished for generations — make three figure salaries. They may have a house on the mainland for winter and take get aways in Rockland. Some even have a home in more southern, warmer shores. But they work hard for what many of us experience as the ultimate seafood.
Life on Matinicus wouldn’t be for everyone. I don’t think I could live there most of the year, year after year, unless like Dave I was painting, writing or involved in some other art. Bo Bartlett, a painter, whose exhibition at PAFA became the background for Jenny and Rob’s wedding, has a house and studio on Matinicus. They recently bought a large Bartlett print and I have a copy of his new book for their anniversary.
Go to : dsearsart.com for more of Dave’s paintings
What I really like about Matinicus is the focus on basics. You are isolated from the usually hectic, over stimulating, sometimes depressing mainland life. Islanders sometimes refer to the mainland as “America.” It’s a different place. Everything you need must arrive by boat or plane. You are constrained by the weather. Some days the planes don’t fly; and the boats may remain in the harbor. Go with the flow. This trip we left one day early due to the weather forecast.
I remember teenage dreamy talk about being able to sit on an deserted island (usually under a palm tree), enjoying the sun and waves, sipping a glass of cold lemonade. There was romance to Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe, and the Swiss Family Robinson. Matinicus isn’t paradise but has some of those special qualities remembered from childhood.
Maybe it’s the focus on basics, the time sitting on the beach, climbing on the rocks, listening to the surf, the sights and smells of the ocean, the seas, storms and calms. Maybe I would write more; or better. Maybe I would find the time to develop my photography — my personal Maine photographic workshop.
On Saturday we left Matinicus with Captain George who ferries passengers to Rockland. On the mainland, we bought some Cod and headed to the Sears new house in Cushing — about 10 miles from Rockland. It’s an 1990s house built by a carpenter — great woodwork — a basement studio for Dave, large open kitchen, dining room with a view of the river. A cosy escape from Matinicus in the winter. That’s not to say that Maine winters can’t be harsh but when you don’t need to commute to work, snowy, cold days can be spent in front of a fire, time for reading, writing and reflection, maybe painting, photography, or some craft production.
I’m hoping we can spend more time in Maine (and Matinicus). I doubt we would move there. But I like viewing life through different lenses. Maine and Matinicus offer this. There are lessons that can be brought back to Bucks County. We may have missed our chance in the 1960-70s to be part of the exodus to Maine but have learned from our experiences there. Im keeping Maine on my mind.