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Home Stories Mark My Words

Message in a bottle

Let’s go back. Who remembers the days before the returnable container law? A little research shows that the Maine legislature passed the act to require a five-cent deposit on beverage containers in 1976.

Before that, a teenager with a .22 rifle could pass a summer afternoon walking a country road, shooting bottles in the ditch. If we went in pairs, we might set them onto rocks and use them more practically for target practice. Cans were a little less practical. A .22 bullet would sometimes pierce the can without so much as disturbing its equilibrium – you had to walk right up to it to see whether it had even taken a hit. A bottle, on the other hand, gave a satisfying explosion.

Plastic containers were still a few years off when I used to walk the roads reducing glass containers to inconspicuous fragments. The plastic bottles you can still shoot that don’t cost you your deposit are milk containers right down to the single-serving 16-ounce size. You don’t lose your nickel because there is no deposit. For this reason, single-serving chocolate milk containers in Number 2 plastic can still be found in ditches. No one wants to pick them up. But they are unsatisfactory as targets unless you fill them first with ditch water before setting them onto rocks or fence posts. With water in them they don’t blow down, and a hit gives you a tell-tale stream of water from the holes. (Caution: Firearms safety dictates that you never shoot a target resting on or near a rock. I now observe this safety rule, but in my early days of shooting I was much more confident of my marksmanship.)

Maybe I’m the reason there is a bottle law. Maybe some state senator’s kid lacerated himself on a bottle fragment when his bicycle haplessly carried him into a ditch alongside a road in Franklin County in the 1960s. Or maybe someone was incensed that people in cars were so insensitive then that they would drink beer after beer and chuck the bottles onto the roadside and leave them as scattered eyesores.

I can imagine someone driving along with a “roady” – typically a can or bottle of Budweiser – and sailing the empty into the air from an open car window. (Never did it myself.) I can picture a carload of 18-year-olds defiantly doing this back when I was 18. (I never pitched one from a back window either.) The drinking age in Maine was 21 from Prohibition until 1969, 20 from 1969 to 1972, 18 from 1972 to 1977, 20 from 1977 to 1985, and 21 ever since then.

I have no idea why the legislature tinkered with it so much at the time, but I remember the confusion then:
Can I have a beer?
How old are you?
What’s the drinking age?
I dunno, they just passed a law.
They just passed one a couple years ago.
It went down.
No it went up.
How old are you now?
Still 19.
I think it’s 20.
I’ll be 20 when this discussion is over.
OK, have a beer.

The next time you’re in a grocery store, look closely for ME -5¢ on beverage containers. You will find this on sodas and beer, of course. And on wine or liquor it’s 15¢. You will find ME -5¢ on Splash and orange juice. On spring water and “energy” drinks.

You will even find ME -5¢ on half-gallon jugs of prune juice.

Think about it. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s Maine wanted to discourage those casual hellions who were tossing their empty beverage containers from car windows as they cruised the countryside. Who, pray tell, ever drank down a half gallon of prune juice, while driving, and then tossed the empty into a ditch?

The prune juice lobbyist at the state capitol must be only a part-time position. But you can tell that the dairy lobby is well-staffed. Milk containers are exempted from the bottle law. Are we to conclude from this that far more hooligans guzzle prune juice while they text and drive than swill milk?

I notice, too, that the legislature of 1976 desired, in addition to the already-extant littering fine, to make the forfeit of 5¢ per container a sufficient incentive for a carload of teenagers to hold onto their bottles so when they were through drinking they would rush to the nearest returnable center and redeem the six-pack of empties for a full 30¢. Well, 35 years ago 30¢ was worth about four times as much today. Isn’t it about time to raise the deposit?

Bottle deposits didn’t begin in 1976, however. Remember those upright soda dispensers with the heavy glass bottles lying on their sides that were visible through a door on the left side of the machine? These were not just returnable bottles that were crushed and recycled, they were actually washed and re-used. After a few refills, a six-ounce single-serving bottle would be quite roughed up and abraded. Some were painted in two colors for the brand – Royal Crown, Moxie, 7-Up! The paint usually stood up well through numerous refills.

The price for a bottle of pop in the 1950s? Five cents. You didn’t walk off the premises with your drink in those days either. Once you had finished you six ounces of refreshment, you stood the empty in a wide, sectioned wooden crate that rested next to the vending machine. If you were determined to take it with you, you paid the shop keeper a 2¢ deposit. And finding an empty bottle in a ditch meant a trip to the gas station or wherever you could find the nearest vending machine, in order to collect the pennies, which still had value then.

The deposit in the olden days was not due to an act of the legislature. It was the bottling company’s value of its bottles. If you wanted to keep the bottle, you had to literally buy it. And you could sell it back for the same 2¢ price.

Two cents in 1957 was worth 4¢ by 1976 (using the Consumer Price Index), so the first bottle law in Maine had it about on par at 5¢, but that 2¢ is now 16¢ today, an eight-fold increase.

That same eight-fold increase suggests that a six-ounce drink that sold for 5¢ would be worth about 40¢ today. But you don’t find a single-serving drink of that size any longer. It’s generally about 16 ounces (ranging from 12 to 20), and 16 ounces should go for about $1.07 today.

In 1957 the legislature of most states had not thought of taxing a nickel Coke. Now the Maine tax on your buck-and-a-half soda is seven percent, which adds about a dime to the price. (You could have bought two Cokes 55 years ago for the tax on a soda today -- that's if our money would hold still...)

I just happened to think of all this when I was picking up 23 beer cans all in one spot alongside the Golden Road last week. I’ll get $1.15 for them when I turn them in, but I was more interested in cleaning up the roadside. I guide in that area, and I’m a little sensitive to what visitors see. And I thought: If the deposit on these cans were 20¢ apiece now, about even with the change in the cost of everything else compared to 1976, then someone ditching a suitcase of empties would be forfeiting close to five dollars.

I had to have some fun, though. So earlier this week, I bought a giant bottle of prune juice. You might have seen me driving around Lincoln on Monday and Tuesday this week, window rolled down, slowly slurping from that big bottle. I held the bottle so the label could easily be visible: Del Monte Prune Juice. It took me two days to drink it, but fortunately I like the taste of that stuff.

And when I finished it, I drove down one of the roads leading out of town, (I'm not saying which road), and when I was sure no one was looking -- I CHUCKED THAT BOTTLE OUT THE WINDOW!

There! There has been a stupid 5¢ deposit on prune juice bottles since the law of 1976, and I may be the first person who EVER committed the act with a prune juice bottle.

And therein lies my message in a bottle: I think certain drinks in certain sizes should be exempt from the deposit, or else milk should cease to be exempted, and I think the bottle deposit should be raised to 20¢ or even 25¢ to keep up with the ever-continuing degrading of the dollar.

Looking out for yourself


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble, it's a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.  But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy.
"Desiderata" was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945).  In 1956, the rector of St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used the composition in a collection of mimeographed inspirational material for his congregation.  Someone who subsequently printed it asserted that it was found in Old St. Paul's Church and was dated 1692.  This was merely the year the church was founded and has nothing to do with the origin of the piece.
Compare “Desiderata” with Saint Paul’s letter to his Roman mission (Romans 12:9-21):
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  Do not avenge, but, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals upon their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Another widely-quoted piece has been attributed to Mother Teresa because, in the same way that Desiderata was discovered, someone found a copy of it posted in a room she used in Calcutta.  But Mother Teresa, who has inspired untold millions, took inspiration from a 19-year-old American college student, Kent M. Keith, who composed the Paradoxical Commandments in 1968.  The couplets have been so widely reprinted that, in the words of the Internet, they have gone viral, to the eternal delight of their author.
So here are the commandments:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
=What It Means=
In a way, this is an expansion of the subject from last week, charity.  But both of this week’s quoted pieces are also about yourself.  Where charity is giving without thought for oneself, Desiderata and the Paradoxical Commandments are about taking care of yourself as well.
Taking care of yourself might mean saying No, when asked to support someone else’s favorite cause.  You don’t have to be particularly sociable to be caring and influential.  You don’t have to join a community group or be chairman of the local chapter.  You may do so, of course.  And community groups that sponsor events and raise money for worthy causes provide one powerful way for individuals, who are so inclined, to give back to the community and exercise some much-appreciated generosity while enjoying the social advantages of taking part in the process.  For some, it makes more sense to make their contribution within the framework of a time-tested organization than through anonymous acts or a one-on-one basis.
Once in a while, after someone has made a certain neutral or even negative impression on me, I discover that this person has made a contribution within the community that I never would have suspected.  Realizing this about some, I have learned never to judge an individual by the prevailing impression.  Not everyone who is generous is particularly likable.  Kindness often cannot be traced to its source.
Sometimes a person’s giving or effort makes no sense.  It appears to be misdirected or wasted.  Sometimes there is no obvious recipient of the effort.  And then we discover that the person who has cleared what appears to be a useless gateway to nowhere has opened a pathway to a beautiful new setting.
Artists often strike me in this way.  I can relate to that which motivates a composer to write a symphony that might never be placed before an orchestra, that might never be heard by any audience.  The composer may be gratified if an orchestra takes to concert and if the applause is enthusiastic.  But many a great opus was written because the composer -- the artist -- had something in his head that needed to be expressed and never would have been written if he had insisted first upon a contract for concert dates.  
So also for many a great book.  Henry Thoreau, a famous recluse even in his own lifetime, who traveled through our town of Lincoln by buggy in August, 1846, on his way back from Katahdin, once observed: “I have a library of a thousand books, nearly eight hundred of which are copies of one I wrote myself.”  In other words, he had written and published the book because it had to be expressed, not because someone had contracted to take it off his hands if he would write it.  For someone to make the effort but risk obscurity, in effect, risk that the effort is wasted, is a gift to the lucky ones who discover it.  Depending on its impetus and content, it can be seen as charity.
Thoreau may not be widely read nowadays, but there have been only a handful of writers who have conveyed the uniqueness of America so well.  If he had waited for a hundred-thousand-dollar publisher’s advance, we never would have seen what he had to tell us.  He wrote anyway, paid for piles of his own books to be published, and probably gave a lot of them away.  And thanks to his generosity in doing it, his influence will be eternal.  Did those who were acquainted with him in his lifetime say to themselves: “My, what a generous man!” or “He’s going to be remembered as a great man of letters.”  Or did they stay clear of him because he was a grumpy, eccentric neighbor?  I bet it was the latter.
Desiderata and the Paradoxical Commandments affirm what I have understood and lived by for most of my life.  They sum up succinctly many of my convictions and consolations.
I have composed some music that will never be heard, just because it felt good.  If I had another whole lifetime to do it, I would probably complete a symphony.  I have painted something that many see but don’t realize that it’s even there.  It just makes a certain space look right and is a relief from the drab blankness that preceded it.  If I had more lifetimes, I would probably do something on a grand scale in the visual arts.  The motivation for doing either is to offer something unique and good, whether it is accepted or not.
Above all else, I have made it a mission to write.  A lot.  I’m not trying to be Thoreau or anyone else.  But, to me, it’s a contribution.  Take it or leave it.  It looks as though much of what I’ve written and put out there will not be discovered in my lifetime.  But I feel better for having laid it on the side of the road -- the “information super-highway” -- to be picked up by a curious loiterer some day, someone who will perhaps be better off for having found it.
Generosity, goes one definition, is planting trees under the shade of whose branches one knows he will never sit.  I suppose that explains my writing as well.  It is a creative outlet, and if anyone appreciates it, I am gratified.  If anyone is offended by it, I invite him to remove his eye from my page and his hand from my pocket, for chiefly the ones I intend to offend are those who expect me to be cordial as I am being fleeced.  That is a topic for another day, though.
In 1971, Les Crane recorded Desiderata as a spoken “song” with a choral background.  It won him a Grammy.  There are several versions (with pictures) on YouTube.  The ones posted by YCSMusic2 and by oddsnends09reloaded are the ones I find easiest to look at.
Keith M. Kent published a book, Anyway, in 2001, with stories that illustrate each of his Paradoxical Commandments.  I have the book and will gladly share it if asked.
To these splendid pieces I can add little, but I must add something:
Say Yes when you want to, but only when you want to.  And when it is best for you to say No, say it clearly but kindly.
When you know what is right, act on it with confidence.  You do not need everyone’s approval.
Do not mistake someone’s closed purse for miserliness.  Some of the most wonderfully generous people do not care to appear generous.
Many, many organizations that appeal to you for money are making people’s lives better only by the wildest stretch of the imagination.  Those which have by-passed the normal route of appealing to you directly and have attached themselves to the public treasury, and they are legion, are the ones most deserving of suspicion.
Nurture your friendships.  If there is someone who will do anything you reasonably ask and for whom you would do the same, you have a rare friend.  If you do not have that friend, find one by being one.
Everyone, including you, is sometimes good and and sometimes bad.  Show people that you see the good in them, and forgive yourself the bad that is in you.
Also, forgive yourself for doubting now and then and nurture your faith.  As in Desiderata and the Paradoxical Commandments, there is wisdom of astounding depth in the words of the ancient prophets as well, and there is the theme, throughout, that this world is no cosmic accident.


There was a family in my neighborhood in Gomer, Ohio, when I was about nine or ten years old, and they were poor. They had a bunch of kids, the youngest a toddler wearing only a filthy cloth diaper, who followed the others around. I remember my mother one day whisking the youngest one into our house, feeding her, bathing her, and sending her back out in a clean diaper (since we had a little one in diapers ourselves).

Whether the baby’s parents ever noticed or remarked on my mother’s bold act is beyond my recall.

My mom also sometimes sent food home with the oldest kid of the family, a girl my own age, who was always quietly grateful. Mom said she did it because that’s what she was brought up to do, and we jolly-well better not think we were better than that family, because we were not. God had looked out for us, and because we had enough, he expected us to look out for someone who didn’t have enough. And when we might someday be in need, perhaps that family would be prosperous enough to help us; that was her definition of community.

Without her startling example, which included honoring their dignity as equals, I might have held my nose as I passed one of them in school, which some other kids did do. But I actually came to like them as playmates.

I don’t remember much more about them. We moved from there to the small city of Lima, before anything more came of it, to a street which, in the language of the day, was in a predominantly Negro neighborhood. That’s when the tables were turned, and we actually had a period when some of our neighbors there did much the same for us, and made no issue of our race.

As this was happening, I was wise enough to be grateful, grateful enough to be humbled, and humbled enough to take a lesson from it. It was community. It was spontaneous. It was charity. It happened between people who could not stand by and watch their neighbors struggle.

Charity is an act of individual kindness. Some acts are very kind but might not meet the definition of charity -- taking a pie to the new neighbors is an act of greeting. Taking a pie to a hungry stranger is an act of charity.

The person who sees a need and fills directly, without going through an organization or a tax system in order that his money reach the person in need, is wasting nothing on administration, accounting, compliance, legal advice, publicity, campaigning, insurance, and corruption.

No one ever heard my mom tell us that charity was a passport to heaven. She did it as an act of love. There are plenty of commandments in the Bible urging charity. “True charity is the desire to be useful to others without thought of recompense,” is how Emanuel Swedenborg has put it. That was my mother’s motivation. It honors the privacy of the one in need. It demands no homage. It is done without fanfare or a paper trail.

Charity is an individual act. No one else can be charitable on your behalf. You yourself are not charitable if you give only what you confiscated from someone else. For those who follow Jesus, it is well to notice that he does not call upon us to do it in groups, or through taxes. The misconception that one is being most charitable by vociferously calling upon the government to take it from Pedro and give it to Paulo is perhaps the most insidious self-deception in the matter. “The government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul,” is how George Bernard Shaw put it.

From the Proverbs attributed to the time of Solomon: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” That’s not to say that givers become wealthier as they give, but prosperity is not always measured in wealth. There are the takers and the givers. The takers eat better, but the givers sleep better.

Even as the government has become the great transferrer of charity, still the proportion of the populace who do not have enough seems ever to remain the same. Take away the government entitlements, and the proportion will not change. It will be the same as it is now and always has been. If the government were taken out of the charity business, a lot of ruling-class attorneys would become more poor, and the so-called “standard” of living would likely become simpler, less encumbered with gadgets and conveniences and comforts and social markers. But people would be no worse off.

Nowadays (in America), a family found subsisting without a single telephone or television or car or microwave oven is deemed living in severe poverty. When I was a kid, any of these would have been a luxury and living without them was not even inconvenient.

We all feel called upon to loose the chains of the yoke on the oppressed and untie the cords of injustice. But this is something we are called upon to do as individuals. To march in the street calling for peace and social justice, calling for “fairness” -- whatever that is -- simply because those are all nice-sounding words, is to tease the oppressed with an empty promise if all we do about it is to put the actual work into the hands of an untrustworthy ruling elite.

Unless we do the work and the giving ourselves, person to person or small group to small group, we are deceiving ourselves that any charity is actually being accomplished.

I am acquainted with a young woman who has dedicated her life to starting and running an organization called Seeds of Change Consulting, bringing social change through education, empowerment, and economic development to the people of Bangladesh. Rachel Hathaway, originally of Millinocket and now living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, graduated valedictorian of the class of 2012 at the University of Maine. She has learned to read and write in the language of the people of Bangladesh. From the organization’s own description: “Seeds of Change supports non-government organizations to initiate and facilitate projects to overcome unmet community needs; finding resources and providing solutions to ensure the longevity of charitable projects.”

Rachel and I might differ on some of the details of obtaining and applying funding, but I am dazzled by the inspiration, audacity, initiative, and genius she has evinced, and by her sheer bravery in saying: If no one else will do it, then I guess I have to do it myself -- and I can. And I am humbled that she has given over the rest of her life to this mission.

I know another young woman, Jessica Straehle, who has decided that she will donate a kidney to a stranger. She simply stepped forward, submitted to the process of determining whether she is a match for anyone currently in need, and now that a match has been found, she is about to undergo the donation.

Beside these two women’s examples that I know very well, and next to my mother’s, (all of which are individual acts of giving -- see what I mean?), I begin to feel that my deeds are not worthy. But I do them anyway. Little things mean a lot, too, and I am at least inspired by the exhortation to perform random acts of kindness and senseless acts of charity.

Charity was not taught to me in church or by the government. Each of those entities has its own twist on it: In the church it has to go through the accounting system and the scrutiny of watchful elders. The government gets into it two ways: through entitlements, that some citizens pay into so the government may redistribute their forfeited wealth, and through the tax code, so that my giving is not charity unless it goes to an organization that is qualified under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

My mother, and the other two women I mentioned, have a definition that ignores these perversions.

It was only after being exposed to her examples, and others similar, that my family began attending a church, and much later when I began to witness the government’s usurpation of the concept. You never heard my mother wish or demand that someone give her something. She never insisted that it was her turn to be on the receiving end.

Somewhere between then and now, something changed. Seriously changed. I began to fill out tax returns as soon as I was out of high school. For a few years I busied myself with adding up the value of my charity for the tax deduction and carefully wasting time and space storing receipts and records. Then I learned that one of my choices for a donation, a symphony orchestra, had lost its 501(c)(3) status for failing to prove that it was performing “affirmative action” better than it was performing Tchaikovsky.

That did it. I gave heed to the admonition to “be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them.” I felt that filling in the tax form was advertising my good deeds.

I quit deducting for what I was giving and I sent money to the orchestra anyway, to protest the government’s trying to decide for me who was worthy of my charity. I didn’t care whether the musicians had satisfied the IRS, I only cared whether they survived to make music.

Also between then and now the government has moved from deciding who should receive my charity to simply confiscating more of my meager wealth and giving to corrupt entities that I would starve out of existence if I could. Symphony orchestras still accept donations but have become sucklings at the teats of the National Endowment for the Arts, which assures compliance with all manner of practices that have nothing to do with making music.

This could not happen without the assent of the voters, and the assent of the voters could not happen until the majority of the voters became dependent on the government themselves. So, friends, here we are.

And what do you suppose has happened to neighborhood charity? Instead of looking out for one another -- and of course some still do, and are almost driven to do it “under the radar” lest they be prohibited from doing so -- Americans now compete with their neighbors for handouts, complain that someone is getting more than they are, complain that the handout is not enough. Some lie, hide their assets, take unreported income “under the table”, avoid marriage for the government benefit in remaining single, and invent new tricks every day to get what they consider their fair share. After all, if Congress is sprinkling money from the parapets of the Capitol, then why shouldn’t we all jostle on the steps to catch what is falling from the sky?

My mother practiced her kindness because it fulfilled what she considered perhaps her most important calling.

It is an axiom of most religious traditions that as you give, so shall you receive, or ““with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”, so also it is widely assumed that God looks favorably upon those who give. But my mother’s purpose was even more simple than that. She did not expect to receive in return. She was not trying to be noticed by God. She was certainly not trying to satisfy some IRS criterion or church insistence that charity meet its measuring stick. She gave to those she saw were in need because it was the right thing to do. I do not imagine that I am even coming close to her example, but it is the only example that I am interested in following. 

Reverence for Life

Either you kill the spiders that you find in your house or you gently move them outdoors.

I'm of the latter sort. Occasionally I let one stay where I find it indoors, but I am not fond of walking into a lacy orb in the corner of a doorway. So usually I gather the scampering creature onto a piece of paper, carry it to an exit, and let it drop into the ruthless jaws of chance in the roofless vastness of anywhere-but-inside.

Even the hapless spiders I find inside during the wintertime I leave to fend for themselves in icy exile. But that may still be better for an individual spider than letting it test the tolerance of all the humans indoors.

I can't criticize those who kill spiders and other bugs that invade human space, for I am guilty of killing certain bugs myself, although usually not just to rid myself of the pest, but for a different purpose: Sometime in my distant past I began collecting them. Well, first something in my very distant past, possibly in my genes, made me a collector of everything I found interesting. In my childhood I started collecting stamps, then pennies, and then other things readily at hand. Later, when I it first occurred to me to collect them, well, bugs became a delight to collect, especially because the variety is endless and they are free. At least, there is almost no cost to it.

Since my college major was wildlife ecology, (the science of ecology, not the politics of it), and since I assembled an insect collection as an undergraduate that was so extensive the University of Maine placed limits on student collections afterward, I do consider myself an entomologist. My student collection included preserved specimens from each of the 26 orders of insects recognized at that time, presented in a glass-fronted case along with a box containing specimens in vials and on microscope slides, and exceeded all requirements and expectations.

But insects mounted on pins, as most of them were, can be expected to last only a few years at best, (although I do have a few exceptions), and so must be continually replaced if the collection is to remain presentable.

Mine has gone through stages of disaster and replenishment. I gave away the original display case -- I forget why and to whom, but I vaguely recall that I bequeathed it to another student when I graduated college. For many years, now, I have kept a reduced collection of pinned bugs in a smaller glass-fronted case.

This newer case was well-endowed with specimens, including a pair of dobsonflies, a giant water bug, several moths, wasps, bees, also a cicada, a katydid, and several beetles, and was hanging serenely on a wall at camp many years ago when, with all family members present one day, it simply let go of the wall and dropped to the floor. The case survived, but it had two glass dividers in it, which let go and sheared most of the bugs off their pins, and so the collection languished in tatters for a few years.

But eventually I became serious once more and began to re-build it. Then, this past fall, one of my daughters, who has become a naturalist in her own right, asked me for a few specimens to display in her home. Unable to comprehend the meaning of just "a few specimens" I made her a small collection -- small in my terms -- by selecting most of the best-looking examples then on hand.

So, once more this year, I have resumed diligently collecting bugs. Over time, though, my collecting has become more serious. I now have a black widow spider and a brown recluse spider both dried to a crisp and posed together on a piece of driftwood in a case of their own. They do not look quite as alive as I had hoped, but they do give a sense of what each should look like. A luna moth made itself easily available one day recently, and then another. They are both pinned and waiting for a place in the case. There are striking contrasts between them, even though they are both males of the same species.

When I first pin a bug, I start by pushing a special type of long, thin pin through the thorax -- for most this means it goes right between the wings and emerges between the legs below. I push this pin into a flat piece of white styrofoam to the level the insect would be if it were standing on the foam, and then I arrange the legs, antennae, and sometimes the wings, as on a butterfly, and hold all the appendages in position by using other pins shoved temporarily into the foam to secure it all in place, sometimes for weeks, until I am sure it has all dried stiff.

You may wonder how a live insect can be stilled long enough to be pinned, or how it can be killed without being destroyed. After all, if you freeze them, for instance, many insects will simply resume normal activity once they thaw. I still use the method we used in college, which is to enclose it in a tight container along with a piece of material soaked with a few drops of ethyl acetate. The chemical replaced the oxygen in the chamber, and the insect does not come back to life afterward.

Or usually doesn't come back to life. I learned early on that you can't rush the gas chamber. I once pinned a large wasp after too-brief an exposure to the chemical, and the next morning I found it buzzing furiously but nevertheless impaled firmly through the thorax and still firmly pinned to the drying board.

Two distinctly different luna moths and a swallowtail are pinned to dry.

I pinned a tiger swallowtail butterfly a couple of weeks ago. Two days later I checked it and saw that one wing was rising slightly and then dropping, rising and dropping. I picked up the piece of foam that it was pinned to, and three ants crawled out of its abdomen. The butterfly was very dead. The ants, consuming its insides, were making it move.

Other bugs that you don't see are the bane of a collection and despite all precautions will eventually destroy it, unless museum-level preservation methods are employed. But it's not ants that normally do the damage, it's tiny mites and other nearly-invisible creatures. I have had reasonably good luck by keeping a couple of mothballs in the display case. At least one wasp, which suffered nothing during the camp disaster, has remained intact for decades under these conditions.

Most people are indifferent to the collecting of bugs, but I have been asked how I can bear to kill something so beautiful as, for instance, a luna moth. Should I respond by asking whether the questioner stomps out spiders or swats mosquitoes? A mosquito is no less deserving of life than a moth; it is merely uglier in the eyes of a human.

I release spiders outdoors when I find them in the house. Actually, I do that with most bugs I find indoors, even flies and wasps. (OK, I swat mosquitoes.) An individual bug that finds its way into my collection is a sacrifice to science. I study them and I want others to be able to examine them closely, too. To hold a wasp, freshly rendered harmless, between your thumb and forefinger is to appreciate more closely the creature's amazing structure and abilities. I have been stung severely plenty of times, just because I spend a lot of time outdoors where the pavement doesn't go, but I understand wasps well enough to let them buzz around me without flinching and well enough to wish them no harm. I am very reluctant, for example, to destroy a wasps' nest when I need to, not because I am hesitant to approach it but because I am too well aware what a wonder of God's creation it is.

A dragonfly was spared to create a stunning portrait.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the world’s most influential explorer and philosopher of a century ago, gave us the term which has been translated from German to English as “reverence for life.” All life is precious. Every minor creature, every plant, as well as every human no matter how miserable or despicable, has life, and life for its own sake deserves to be held in awe and respect.

According to the principle of population dynamics, destroying a single mosquito or draining a puddle will not affect the survival of the species one whit. Neither will letting one moth live increase the chances that the species will survive. Changing the habitat through the intervention of human activity over vast reaches of the continent may affect the survival of a species. (According to the science of ecology, the population change must be measurable. According to the politics of ecology, someone must be making corporate profits.)

From the standpoint of nature, it may be preferable that individual members of a group die in order that the species should survive. The dramatic example of that is in the behavior of lemmings. Less obvious but equally important is that the older members must depart and make way for the young to carry on. Shooing an individual spider or fly outside and giving it the chance to carry on does not affect the chances of the species as a whole. It merely makes a difference to that one individual creature. And giving it that chance is to have reverence for life.

Every bug that I place into the killing box goes there with a twinge of reluctance on my part. But I am persuaded, at least, that it is not a sentient being. That is a matter of philosophy, of course. A fish is arguably not a sentient being either, but fish do exhibit a sense of curiosity and a capacity for learning. Even so, I can be found playing catch-and-release on a spring day with little more remorse than I reserve for killing a wasps' nest.

The flying stage of a carpenter ant and a cicada await introduction to the collection.

Less than a week ago I had caught another swallowtail, to replace the one eaten away by ants, and after gassing it I found myself working outdoors and muttering a prayer to seek forgiveness. As if to reassure me, a rather large insect buzzed past my shoulder, then circled around and did so a couple more times until I paid attention to what it was: a cicada. This is similar to the species known as the 17-year locust, not commonly seen in northern Maine. I had one before that was demolished in the case that fell from the wall, and another since then that I gave to my daughter.

I reached out a hand and literally caught this latest one in flight as it came around once more, and I took it into the collection as an answer to my petition. This, incidentally, is another great advantage of studying insects. Someone who cannot quickly identify a monster of a bug like this might smash it, or flee indoors never to step outside again, or spread a load of insecticides in a vain effort to eradicate all chance of another encounter.

I collect bugs because I am an incurable collector, and because they are abundant, free, beautiful, and educational. You can't sell an insect collection the way you can a book of coins or a famous stamp. But assembling a collection of them is just as satisfying.

I do it in the name of science. But I revere life and am fascinated by its many manifestations, and I am willing to share the earth even with things that are annoying or creepy. Just not in my food, my bed, my eyes and ears... you get the idea.

Faded photographs

Photography came into widespread use in the 1840s, arising first in France.  By the 1860s and the start of the Civil War in the U.S. there were enough cameras in use to provide the first widespread photographic record of historical events.  Who isn't familiar with the pictures of President Lincoln and battlefield images by Mathew Brady and others from the Civil War?


The 1860s was a period no longer after the invention of the camera than, say, the period during which we have had mobile phones.


The technology spread quickly, and with it a responsibility was born that most people didn't think of, until too late.  It is that responsibility which presses upon me now.


By the 1920s, millions of photos had been taken and no doubt millions of people had appeared in them.  Movies were already being made by stringing together thousands of rapidly-shot tiny images and replaying them just as rapidly between a lamp and a reflective screen.


By the 1920s, also, the people who had appeared in the earliest photos ever taken were mostly no longer with us.  But their children were still living.  The people who held those earliest photos in family albums and lockets and ornate frames knew who they were.  When I was a child, my parents, born in the mid-1920s, could name every face in every photo in our three or four family albums, and some of those photos had been taken fifty years before even my parents were born.


By the 1990s I was in possession of a large quantity of these old pictures, as well as others that had emerged from storage among my wife’s family as well as mine.  Also, by this time, my parents were dimming a little, and it actually occurred to me 20 years ago that I needed them to start labeling the old images.  Well, we did sit down on a couple of occasions, but instead of methodically doing the work, we permitted ourselves to be entertained with a few stories that went with a few of the pictures, and the rest were set aside for a later date.


My father died in 1998, and the quantity of photos, not to mention other old documents, that emerged from his belongings after his death is a terrible testament to lost memories, lost information.  We don't know who most of those people are.


A couple years after he died, I wrote to my father's sister, Ginny, in the Farmington area, by then in her eighties, and told her I needed her help with some old pictures.  She wrote back and agreed to the idea, but added that she was always busy making pies for the church and watching her great-grandchildren, but surely we would have a good time some day and go through pictures.


Well, we didn't, and Aunt Ginny died a year or two after that.  My mother still enjoys three square meals and a warm bed in an assisted-living facility in Farmington, but she doesn't even know at least one of her own children any more.  We've lost her contribution to the effort as well.


I have made an effort, though.  I have a fairly extensive genealogy of the past few generations of my children’s ancestors.  And in many of the old photos, I do know at least one of the faces.  By using the genealogy data in the way you might solve a logic puzzle, I will add possible names to the other faces and see whether it makes sense according to their apparent ages and the setting or period in the image.  Once I have made sense of one, I will look for the same faces in another and then follow my conclusion through a number of photos.  If my guesses are reinforced by other photos and settings, I will call it good.


And this is where it struck me that my generation has an even more urgent responsibility, where my parents failed.  For I am old enough that I knew not only the images, but was also actually acquainted with at least a few of the people themselves who were born as far back as the 1870s.  How much further back my mother could go, if her mind were still with her!


It's a responsibility I don't take lightly.  But it is difficult to bring the task to the top of the list of things that must be attended to day by day.  I am the last chance that a lot of these people will be positively identified.  If they are not, then the pictures are useless and may as well be donated to a garage sale.


I have the same responsibility regarding the images I have taken with my own cameras over the years.  Fortunately, modern photo-organizing programs on computers urge us to pay attention to that detail.  But for my generation there is a double-whammy -- for I have thousands of photos I took myself using film cameras as well.


I have that project under way, though.  On a make-shift desk in the basement I have a spare scanner and an old computer, both pretty much dedicated to converting film negatives to digital images.  The scanner produces astoundingly good images from 35mm negatives, and I get to resurrect the pictures I took in the 1970s, when we were just starting a family and making a home of our own.


If I don't do it, though, it will be beyond my own children's knowledge and resources to take over the job.  The volume of pictures I have is almost overwhelming, and my grown children have their own to take care of.  Only the important ones need to be preserved forever, of course, and it's a job that I accept with enthusiasm.


One footnote: My father traveled on an escort ship with one of Admiral Byrd's expeditions to Antarctica in the 1940s.  He brought back a few miniature photos.  He also brought back several rolls of exposed black-and-white film that, ever since, have remained in a tobacco can and have never been developed.  I have them now, and have probably held onto them too long.  Where, today, can you get old roll film (not 35mm) developed and printed as they would have done 70 years ago?  I can only imagine what is in those rolls...

My younger sisters and I received this photo from a cousin in Ohio, who wanted help identifying people. We all recognized the face of the man in the back row, far right, in the white shirt and tie, because we had seen other pictures of him: our mothers' father, although he died before any in our generation were born. From that one positive ID alone, and the suspicion that the girl with her hand to her forehead would be his daughter, our aunt Irene, born in 1908, with the help of some handwritten genealogy we puzzled out the names of all the remaining faces in the photo. The babe in arms is our uncle Bernie. Obviously it's a family photo, (Dershem family, Allen County, Ohio), and it was taken in 1913, the year Bernie was born. My own mother was not born until 12 years later. If this had slipped through one more generation, there would have been no one left to give it new life.


And Now for the Maine Attraction

I consider it a humbling privilege to be a Registered Maine Guide. This license did not come easily, and it is required in order to charge customers to take them out into the wilderness for fishing, hunting, or recreation.

Now, anyone without a license is welcome to take guests out into the woods, no charge, and get them all fly-bitten and muddy and lost. But you need to be registered and carry a license in order to collect money for abusing guests that way.

A Maine Guide has to be ready to calmly deal with any unpredictable event. You might think that we just get paid to go fishing. There is that; but let me tell you about a few incidents from my last few years in the woods.

Alces Aces
Every year I give several moose tours. I always have a few useful things to say, since the depth of people's ignorance is sometimes astonishing. So, before they ask, usually, I am mentioning that the bulls shed their antlers every winter and grow new ones in the summer. I describe what they eat and how much, and I try to explain that the food source changes throughout the year, and in the winter they don't hang around in the lowlands near water. As a veteran wildlife biologist and naturalist, I figure I can handle most any question about moose.

Then one year I had a pair of aces. These two guys, a father-and-son team accompanied by their wives, took a boat tour on Millinocket Lake with me. There were others on board as well, about eight guests in all. As we approached the meandering curves of Mud Brook, they began firing questions. Easy ones came first. What's the scientific name for moose? (Alces alces.) How many moose are there in Maine? (About 29,000.) In the whole USA? (About 300,000.) Does the bull take part in rearing the young? (No.) How big is a moose calf? (About 25 to 35 pounds, depending whether it's a multiple birth.) How many upper teeth do they have? (None.) How fast can they run? (Up to 35 mph.) How far? (I didn’t know.)

Well, that's where they lost me. But they kept firing questions like a couple of fighter planes, even though I was spent. How did someone ever clock a moose at 35 mph for 15 miles? What was the biggest moose ever shot in Minnesota? Does moose milk taste like cow milk? Does a moose throw up if it eats something poisonous by accident? What's the greatest number of moose ever hitched together as a team to drag a sled? What year was that? Is it true that a moose can walk on ice that a deer would break through because the moose has such wide feet? How many words can a moose be taught to obey? What was the oldest moose ever, that is, in captivity?

After I had failed the majority of their question, the pair of aces seemed satisfied. Then the younger one commented to his admiring young bride: "The guy doesn't know much about moose, does he?" And he was sincere. A moment after he had fallen silent, through the trees I spotted a familiar black form on the water, about to appear around a bend, so I cut the motor to let us drift with our remaining momentum. Slowing down also quieted the passengers, who all looked at me, even though they hadn't seen anything yet. I put a finger to my lips and then slowly pointed as we drifted onto the scene.

An old bull moose is a secretive animal, and this one was no exception. At the bend, we were a hundred feet away, and a couple of cameras had begun clicking before he decided to make a dash for it. He crossed the brook in front of the boat, splashed ashore on the other side of us, and trotted into the woods.

Neither of the alces aces had taken a picture. Nor had their wives. But the other guests on the boat, complete strangers to the moose experts, had some of the best moose images anyone will ever get in Maine.

Walk In, Carry Out
If you’re a Guide, you might be leading a hike when a big man falls right behind you and breaks his ankle on a trail, and you have to call in a team of six bearers to carry him out to the trail head to meet an ambulance four hours later. And for the entire four hours you’re trying to keep him comfortable and in good humor, just in case he’s a lawyer from back in the city -- you never know for sure. This happened to me last summer.

The Water Hater
Or consider the group of college students, out for a canoe trip. The particular stretch of river we were on, once begun, has no place along the way to meet a vehicle until the end of the day. So we loaded up several canoes and, for five hours, a young female scholar sat cross-legged in front of me, in the center of my canoe, gripped the gunwales, and wailed in panic until the very end. One of the college leaders stroked the water at the front of the canoe while I paddled from the rear.

The girl in the middle didn’t paddle or participate in conversation but cried even more when the puddle in the middle penetrated the thin layers of cotton between herself and the hull. At one point she cried in alarm, “My butt’s below water!” I started to explain that the point where she was sitting was, in fact, a couple inches below the waterline, but the canoe is buoyant, and so on. “Then where is this water coming from?” she demanded. It was no use trying to explain that the paddle drips a little into the canoe whenever I changed sides with it. She apparently suspected that the canoe was slowly leaking.

I tried to distract her with Maine Guide entertainment. I sang “Cool Water” at first -- bad idea, but I know three verses to it -- then “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night”, and then a considerable repertoire of Irish drinking songs. I told every joke I knew, which was really the same joke over and over, but each time I changed all the words and told it again. I tried to get the scholars in the other canoes to engage with her, but they insisted on keeping a half a mile ahead so they could see a moose before the foghorn I was carrying came around each next bend.

When at last we were coasting toward the landing, really just a strip of mud, at the take-out point, and the canoe was still side-to to the shore and ten or twelve feet from the riverbank, the miserable girl launched herself from center-canoe to shore and made it without touching water. Once I stepped ashore myself, she pressed back through the throng of students and hugged me quick and said she had had a wonderful time.

How It Began
Since 1897, any qualified man or woman has had the opportunity to become licensed as a Maine Guide. You’d think that for most of that time all Maine Guides were men, but the first person to be issued such a license was Cornelia Crosby of Franklin County. She was a renowned promoter of Maine’s wilderness attractions, traveling to sportsmen’s shows around the country with an elaborate display. She was already guiding professionally by the 1890s, but it had become clear to her that guides needed to be screened, and some denied the license, to assure that the ones in business were qualified and safety-conscious.

Miss Crosby petitioned the Maine Legislature to set criteria for licensing guides, and it is “Fly Rod” Crosby’s legacy that Maine Guides must meet tougher standards than anywhere else in the country. Her mother was also my great-great grandfather’s first cousin -- their parents were brother and sister, which makes the profession all the more special to me.


The shore of First Debsconeag Lake - Photo by Connie Rand

Geological Wonder

If you canoe the West Branch from below Abol Bridge, you can reach First Debsconeag Lake. A short trail from the north shore of the lake leads to the ice caves. If you’d rather not arrive by water, there is a mile-long trail from the Hurd Pond Road. (And if you’d rather not try finding them yourself using only a Gazetteer and a compass, hire a Guide.)

Each year I have led several groups to this interesting site. People naturally ask how a hole in the ground can hold the previous winter’s ice and snow until August, and then once it has melted, how the air temperature in the caves can remain below 40 degrees through the remainder of the summer.

When asked, I can explain. And this is my own explanation; I have not read it anywhere, nor has anyone made a conclusive geological study to substantiate or refute my explanation.

The ice caves are only eight miles from the base of Katahdin. Between Hurd Pond and First Debsconeag there is a hill comprised of massive, massive granite boulders, some as big as a very large house. Roughly 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, during the last ice age, sheets of ice were pushing their way southward across Maine, and Katahdin was no barrier to their advance. The rounded rocks that we find across the landscape, such as the ones that comprise the chief crop of Maine agriculture, are remnants of the destruction this ice accomplished as it thickened, moved with the creeping slowness of glaciers, and then melted. Granite rubble, (granite being a by-product of volcanic activity), as well as limestone bedrock, was scraped from Katahdin and other peaks in the path of the ice, and this rubble was left behind when the ice eventually receded and melted about 13,000 years ago.

Some of the deposits found their final resting places a little more dynamically than merely having the ice melt around them. Eskers and other alluvial residue attest to aggressive activity by water flowing within or out from the ice. But here is what I believe happened to form the ice caves. A southward-moving sheet of ice, up to a mile thick, sheered off the peaks of Katahdin, Double Top, and other granite mountains in the area. Smaller rocks may have been carried for hundreds of miles within the ice or by the water coursing through it, but any section of ice burdened with a torn-off mountaintop would not have carried that load very far. At several places in the first few miles south of Katahdin, I conceive that those sections of ice bearing the greatest remnants of the mountain peaks, slowed and stopped, and that additional ice continued to build up on top of it and kept moving, leaving the giant boulders near where they came from.

Within the first ten miles south of Katahdin there are six or more hills of similar configuration. These are not high enough to have names on a map, but one of them is the hill with the ice caves in it. If I were to state it as fact, as I do to people I take to the caves, I would tell you that the enormous, house-sized boulders are right off the tops of the nearby mountains and that, if you could make your way deeper into the hill by slithering between boulders, you would come to a layer of ice, still intact, which has been protected from the surface temperatures by the insulating thickness of rock that lies above it. Instead of ice that laid on top of the ground and melted away, what you have near the shore of First Debsconeag Lake is ice that did not lie on top and cannot melt because it has not come close enough to air and sunlight in 13,000 years.

This is not far-fetched. Maine is near the latitudes where permafrost is found in Canada and Russia. Since we can have surface frost from September 1st to June 1st, and since winter snow falls into the vertical entrance to the main cave every year and takes half the summer or more to melt away, then it is quite conceivable that we have a permafrost situation in this unique location.

If this is not the explanation, then there is a giant refrigerator of some sort beneath that hill and it will frost a beer mug in minutes all summer long. The other similar hills in the same area, I suspect, might be hiding additional deposits of Pleistocene ice, but no one has found a hole between boulders where you can crawl in and check.

Well, I had told a version of this theory to a group I brought to the ice caves one day, and a woman in the group said: “You want me to believe that a glacier carried a mountaintop right to here are dropped it, and some ancient ice is trapped underneath?” I agreed she had stated it far more succinctly than I did.

But she mocked me: “It was riding on top of a glacier -- ‘Look at me! I’m a mountaintop riding on a glacier! Oops! I fell off!’ And now there is a cave where you can go cool off on a summer day.”

I felt that science was no match for this woman’s intuition. Then she added: “I know about glaciers. I’ve seen ‘Ice Age’. This isn’t where ‘Ice Age’ happened. This cave reminds me of that chintzy exhibit I saw at the fair where they make you believe you’re going into this room to see a man standing in a fire and really it’s just a man in a caveman suit surrounded by mirrors and a fake fire reflecting off of everything and there’s a heater that’s not very secret because you can hardly hear yourself for the blower...”

But what could I say to that? The ice caves near First Debsconeag Lake are the Maine attraction that you won’t regret visiting this summer, unless you’ve already seen caveman standing in a fire.

I hope I continue to enjoy adventures such as these for many years to come, even though I go into the woods with a far different frame of reference than the people I take along. For, while my guests are reminding themselves to bring sunscreen and Off! for their guided trip, the Guide is preparing enough equipment for an unexpected overnight stay in the woods with four frightened guests during a sudden hurricane, and packing it all in a Ziploc bag.


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