Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Maine myth and The Lobster Coast

While it might be difficult to imagine Maine as anything other than a destination for tourists, especially if you are new to the state, it wasn’t always the case. Unlike our neighbors south of here, Maine was slow to enter the 20th century, at least economically. With its emphasis on traditional industries such as fishing, farming and logging, the economic areas of the state dependent on those industries have found it difficult to find replacements when livelihoods based on these dried up. Washington County, areas west of the Penobscot and regions of Western Maine are still struggling to find viable economic replacements for lifelong residents. For far too many, a low-wage retail economy is what many have been forced to turn to.

Recently, I’ve been reading Colin Woodard’s The Lobster Coast. Woodard captures the Maine that once existed as well as any author I’ve read, writing about the state. Woodard traces the state’s history of its people back before New England was settled. With a very readable writing style that avoids meaningless historical minutia, Woodard still gives his readers a healthy dose of history, while painting a portrait that shows us where we’ve come from and, unfortunately, where we are headed.

Over my blogging career, I’ve posted a lot of my thoughts and concerns about the state where I’ve spent most of my adult life. Recognizing that Maine is changing and becoming less like the place where I grew up, occasionally, others have cautioned me about falling prey to the nostalgia bug. Maine was not an idyllic place when I grew up and it never has been. It’s a state where natives have had to scratch, claw and hew an existence that could be both backbreaking, as well as tenuous. Still, there was something in that type of life that made us different from most other places, away from here.

What I appreciate about Woodard’s book is his ability to deconstruct some of the myths about the state perpetuated by the likes of the Maine Department of Tourism and Yankee Magazine, among others. A native of Maine, who has become a well-respected journalist writing on global affairs for a number of national publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as The Chronicle of Higher Education, he obviously hasn’t forgotten his roots, back in the Pine Tree State. In fact, you'll find his regular column, Parallel 44 about Maine-related topics in Working Waterfront, a monthly paper native to Maine's coast.

His care of his subject matter and attention to accuracy were evident to me. Having done my own share of first-person research, I was impressed with the number of people he spoke to, as well as his footnoting of his sources, in the back of the book.

One such person who he interviewed and writes about in the book is Zoe Zanidakis. For those of you who ride the waves of pop culture and reality-based television, you’ll recognize Zanidakis as the resident of Monhegan Island who was one of nine contestants chosen from a field of over 50,000, to be a member of the cast of Survivor. As Woodard writes in the book, obviously, the fellow contestants, many of whom didn’t have a lick of survival experience, were intimidated by Zanidakis and voted her off the faux survival setting in the South Pacific. Not a big deal for her, as she returned to her fishing village on Monhegan and was back behind the wheel of her boat, The Equinox.

For me, one of the best parts of the book, was the chapter titled, "Brave Old World", where Woodard carefully considers the obvious tension that exists between maintaining our uniqueness, which attracts people here in the first place and the recent tendency, particularly south of Augusta, to become just another extension of suburban Boston.

Maine continues to change, as young people leave the state, only to be replaced by wealthy retirees and young families with children. For instance, York County has grown by 13 percent since the early 90s, while many coastal communities, particularly Midcoast Maine, have grown at around 10 percent. One in ten residents of most southern and Midcoast counties have moved here since 1990. This leads to the ongoing suburbanization of our state that contributes to sprawl. In fact, Greater Portland had the worst sprawl of any area in the Northeast, according to a Brookings Institute study, conducted in 2001.

As Woodard ponders at the end of his book, the clich├ęd Mainer—rugged, individualistic, and outdoorsy, with his non-nonsense practical dress and ways—is actually the polar opposite of the Mainer that you actually find inhabiting our suburban communities. With their manicured lawns, office-bound way-of-life, much of it spent in climate-controlled office buildings, today’s Mainer has no connection, or even a clue about the Maine of days gone by.

One passage that stood out near the end was this one:

Woodard writes, “I don’t know whether one can “save” Maine’s land, sea, and culture from the forces that are dismantling it. I know that things change—places, people, ecosystems—and the adaptation has been the hallmark of success ince the universe was born. The Gulf of Maine didn’t even exist ten thousand years ago, the Maine coast less than half that time, with Europeans living on its shores for a mere four centuries. If the native Mainer is a nascent, homegrown culture or ethnicity, it's one born over little more than two centuries, shaped by military, economic, and environmental challenges every bit as serious as the ones before them now.

What worries me about today’s crisis is their fearsome combination of speed and intensity, Coastal Maine has become integrated with the global economy at a time when people and capital move at an astounding pace, overwhelming zoning boards and fisheries managers alike. The unquenchable demand of Asia’s great fish markets creates and destroys fisheries for urchins, whelks, and other strange creatures before scientists can even develop a management plan. A fishing hamlet is transformed into a retirement colony so fast that the newcomers never even realize what was there and what was lost.”

This historical amnesia, I’m afraid, caused by the rapid acceleration of our world, will ultimately be Maine’s undoing. Once we become just like other states to our south, then what is the benefit of living here? While the coastline and natural beauty are breathtaking, if private landowners restrict access, much of it will become off limits to average Mainers like me and many others. Wouldn't it make more sense to move somewhere else, where the opportunities to make more money, are more abundant than Maine's? One can always come back here to visit.

As our state continues to change, arguably for the worse in many areas, it becomes difficult to stay for many of us who grew up loving what it once stood for. I urge you to take the time to read Woodard’s book. It’s an important contribution to understanding who we were, who we are and possibly, what we are becoming.

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