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Home Stories Mark My Words

More Than a Crossroad

In my first column here, I celebrated the ways in which we in the Maine Highlands live close to the land. Not long ago, I developed a proposal for an enterprise that I thought Lincoln was ready for, and I distributed copies of the proposal to several business people in the area. It received some encouragement; more on that shortly.

First, though, some perspective. Everyone who can read this on the Internet realizes that we have at our fingertips technology that is evolving at astonishing speed. Every new breakthrough has changed our lives, and we can't even consider going backwards. Most everyone, too, is at least vaguely aware that a couple billion people in the world today live very much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago: Think of the tribes in Kazakhstan, nomads in Mongolia, farmers in rural China and India. Those Americans who have been to Afghanistan and Iraq have stepped into such ancient scenes.

In our country, by contrast, there are those who live in areas that spread continuously across several states, where trees and trails are kept in "parks", lights are on day and night, and you're seldom more that fifty yards from public transportation. I don't disparage that way of life; having sampled it, I merely choose something different.

It is easy for those who do not have have a global perspective to assume that accelerating technological progress is reaching everywhere. You may think: Ah, well that's dumb. (After all, you have perspective.)

It's dumb, and also dangerous.

People who cannot conceive that a quarter to a half of the world is centuries behind us can also be counted upon to dismiss the reality that the benefits (as well as the chaos) of technology are also limited for wide expanses of the United States as well.

I find it ironic when I read about some new death-defying medical breakthrough, or about some city that is providing wireless service to its entire population. Those who take these promises for granted, whose densely urban centers insulate them from the quieter places, who believe that the whole world has access to their miracles, and who are unaware that they themselves are in the minority, are naive. But from this pool of naive people will come the lawyers and lawmakers and accountants and money brokers of every next generation. And they remain naive once they have power.

That's how the lack of perspective becomes dangerous, not in a life-threatening way, but in a way-of-life-threatening way. People who cannot comprehend your way of life may vacation on the Maine coast and think it is quaint, or they may become Peace Corps volunteers and think Congolese villagers are primitive, but they cannot be counted upon to regard those who live in these outposts as equals on the human scale. They cannot be counted upon to return to their cities and say: Hey, we really need to let those people continue to live as they have chosen to up to now.

Rather than leave other cultures alone, yours included, they cannot help but try to "improve" them. If we were desperate for cramped quarters and nightglow, taxi exhaust and garbage strikes, we'd move where we could enjoy those cultural comforts.

Year after year, where we live, we remark on the encroachment of urban influences and control, passively wishing that much of it would stop. Urban leaders who want to improve our way of life out of existence are aggressive and self-righteous in their lack of understanding and respect. How can we not desire electricity at camp so our stereos can drown out the loons in the evening? Shouldn’t permits be required for thinning our wood lots, and how can we justify brutally burning those beautiful logs in our stoves? Shouldn’t we have designated walking paths through our woods so that hunters, especially, don’t trample baby birds that have fallen from their nests?

We have little with which to resist this ignorance. But when the urban zealots cruise into our wilderness outpost of a town, they can encounter a population lured by gadgets and confused by change, or they could encounter something different. They could see signs -- and I don't mean road signs -- of a population that identifies with what we have going for us here.

That proposal I made a while back was to encourage someone, anyone, who has the business sense and access to the needed resources, to create a combination outdoor supply store and recreation area. Barry and Nancy Davis in Medway have run a good example of the retail portion of it with Two Rivers Canoe & Tackle. They do not see themselves expanding to Lincoln, (I've asked), but they are open to offers that would include their existing business in a larger operation.

Two Rivers Canoe & Tackle, and the Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville, each serve the area that lies beyond it: Baxter State Park and the West Branch in one case, the Moosehead region in the other. Either of these stores represents the scale and variety that I have in mind. We do not have such a retail center for those entering the wilderness to the east of Lincoln. Walmart serves its purpose and I am grateful for what it offers, and many small local stores have displays of some very useful outdoor gear, thanks to the diligence of one local entrepreneur.

The retail angle is only part of it, though. I envisioned a store with the character of a Bass Pro Shop (rather than a Cabela's), with a shooting range adjacent to it, and the Penobscot River flowing alongside as well, where customers could try out certain equipment or take introductory or advanced lessons. I could imagine a campground and a public boat landing close by. I personally do not have the resources to back it. I just wrote the ideas down and made them available. And the response from those who read it was positive, in a contemplative sort of way.

Year-round local people would not be the clientele to keep it afloat. Yes, we crave access to such a place and would use it, but the thousands who cross the bridge from I-95 and pass through our town on the way to their hideaways between Danforth and Grand Lake Stream are the customers to keep it going. They have absolutely no place north of LL Bean in Freeport or Cabela's in Scarborough, that has a reliably comprehensive selection, where they can stop and stock up on the things that sustain the Maine wilderness way of life that their hideaways represent. A few know of the store in Medway and, as a Maine Guide, I have happily directed people there, but for most, it is not in the right direction.

Businesses are in the forefront of making a region's image. The coast from Camden to Rockland is defined by its private enterprises and their Chambers of Commerce, as well as by the tall masts in the harbors. Businesses demonstrate what goes on there. The same can be said for the Moosehead region. Lincoln has a strength as a service center for those who make a home in the surrounding towns, who have second homes and camps in the region, and who vacation here. We are a handsome town. But our lack of a vendor targeting this customer base is like the original hole at Ground Zero.

Such a combination operation, and I stress the combination part of it, has the power to make a defining statement about who we are and what this region is all about. A store front wedged between two other shops would be nice for local clientele. We’ve had a couple of these in the recent past, and I miss them terribly. But a store front, generally, is not a statement. An eye-catching operation that makes logical use of land and water in a location that visitors can't miss is not difficult to imagine here, and the impact can be striking, influential, and long-lasting.

Such a business, designed to complement related enterprises in the area and working together with them to promote the character and recreational opportunities that we know we have, can make it much more difficult for naive urbanites with power and good intentions to ruin what we celebrate here.

Without it, we appear to be just another crossroad among the trees and continue to attract well-intentioned outsiders who want to save us from ourselves and make us modern. Perhaps what they want for us is not what we want for ourselves.


I was hired by the Great Northern Paper Company in the mid-1970s and started out as a spare worker in the wood room, grinder room, and paper room. In the mid-1980s the company had added a desk in the hallway between two other rooms in the personnel suite, and I had my first “office” as a personnel guy. In this period, I handled workers’ comp issues and minor complaints, among other assignments. I never knew from day to day who might walk up to me with a question or request.

Eddie appeared before me at 8 a.m. one Tuesday morning after finishing the 12-8 midnight shift. I forget now what part of the mill he was working in. I was just dropping a load of homework onto my desk, (in management you have homework), and I told him I had to go to a meeting right away. Knowing that his schedule would be the same the next morning, and also that he had a long drive home, I said: How about same time tomorrow?

Eddie smiled and said: Sure. He went home and I went to my meeting.

Eddie is his real name. I owe him that much. He was a few years younger than me. I was not well-acquainted with him, but I knew him to see him and realized that he lived about an hour a way, in a town outside Bangor. He came from a large extended family, and his surname – family name – is well-known in that town.

Eddie was not a troublemaker and did not have a workers’ comp issue, so he was not a frequent visitor to the personnel offices. He was a bright young man, dark-haired and slight of build, careful, polite, and well-liked. That much I already knew, and really nothing more.

The next morning just before 8 a.m. I was driving into the parking lot at the mill. Eddie’s car slowly passed mine right between the gateposts as he was driving out. Our drivers’ doors were right side by side but our windows were rolled up. I gave him a quizzical look and a shrug. He smiled, waved, and drove on out the gate.

I went to my desk and started my Wednesday duties. Just before lunchtime a personnel assistant came over to tell me that Eddie had gone home that morning and blown his brains out.

This struck me very hard, and it remains one of the defining moments of my lifetime. I was young, gaining experience and confidence, enjoying life and good health. There was nothing in my constitution that would identify with the impulse to destroy myself. I would not have expected it of anyone else, although if I had listened to him when he first asked, I might have learned something of his anguish and I might have understood.

If I had listened… I don’t remember what the meeting was about that I went to instead. I still don’t know how to tell whether a life is at stake when someone asks: Can I talk to you? I do know that is why I now stop and try to hear the message most of the time when someone speaks to me. As a male, I am still a lousy listener, but I am attuned to the silent alarm in someone’s words the way I am sensitive to the hint of wood smoke on a summer breeze.

It was not long after Eddie died that Great Northern upgraded its Employee Assistance Program from one full day a week to three days, and soon afterward to five days a week – a full-time counselor stationed in downtown Millinocket at the company’s expense. I participated in setting that up, although it was scaled back only a few years later as ownership of the company changed hands again and again. In my role with the personnel department, and at the request of the counselor one day, I participated in an intervention in Lincoln at the home of a GNP employee who actually handed me the revolver that he was intending to use on himself. That helped resolve my sense of ineffectiveness after failing Eddie, but it didn’t bring him back.

I never learned what might have driven Eddie to do it. I never spoke with a member of his family afterward or read about it anywhere. Gossip moved freely through the mill, but his name never came up after he was gone.

What happened between Eddie and me is not identical, but hauntingly similar, to something that happened in my first year of college. I had left the cafeteria one evening and was walking back to the dorm. A girl I knew, Carol, was approaching. We paused when we met, and she asked me what was on the menu. I told her. She thought about it, said it didn’t sound very interesting, and then she turned down the lane leading to the busy street that ran past the campus. The next day we learned that she had been forced into a car at the intersection a few yards from where I left her, and her body had been dumped in a nearby park. (The killer was later caught.)

I’ve always praised cafeteria food since then.

As a personnel guy, I participated in cleaning out employees’ lockers after they abandoned them. A week or so after his death, I accompanied the mill guard who went to empty Eddie’s locker. Most lockers were left with shoe fossils in the bottom covered with piles of stinky clothes, a sweat-stiffened baseball cap on a hook with a beaten hard hat over it, pinups on the inside of the door, spilled shaving goo on the shelf above, sometimes some purloined mill equipment standing awkwardly against the back of the space. Nothing surprising jumped out of Eddie’s locker at us. But the guard and I stood there for a few moments, just regarding it with respect. Eddie's did not have the usual disgusting inventory. There were clean clothes neatly folded in the bottom, including bright white T-shirts. There was shower gear arranged on the top shelf in an orderly manner, a clean soap dish with a handful of small change in it, a belt hanging from a hook. There might have been more, but that gives the general impression. These things we bagged and gave to someone higher up, who passed them on to the family.

I know I am not responsible for Eddie’s death. I’ve been absolved of that. And if I had taken the time to hear him out that Tuesday morning, I might not have prevented his death. Maybe he just wanted change for a dollar or had lost the key to his locker. But it affected my character and it changed the way I do some things. If sharing it in this way gives anyone else the nudge to pause and listen, then maybe Eddie can help save a life many years after his own ended so inexplicably. 

Makes Cents

A recent news item described the dilemma of the US Mint: It costs more than a cent apiece to make pennies.

Quelle surprise!

For 30 years pennies haven’t even been made of copper; they’re copper-plated zinc, as you can see when you pick one up from the street that has been run over. They were made of bronze (95% copper) until 1982. At today’s value of copper, ($3.88 a pound in late March), there is 2.5 cents worth of copper in one of those old bronze pennies. (A bronze penny weighs 3.11 grams, 146 bronze pennies weigh a pound.)

So copper was eliminated a long time ago, and now the cost to produce a zinc penny exceeds its face value. (It still doesn’t have a penny’s value of zinc in it. The raw material is just a small part of the total cost.)

Let’s help the Mint solve its dilemma. Let’s write our Congressman and ask him to take part in eliminating the useless cent.

Consider the history. In 1794, the United States minted its first dollars. Real dollars were coined using roughly an ounce of silver. In fact, the Mint still produces one-ounce silver coins stamped ONE DOLLAR, bearing the current year’s date. These, of course, are for collectors and for people who stockpile silver.

An ounce of silver today is worth about $35. Coincidentally, the prices of things today is about 35 times what it was 50 years ago. And what happened then? In 1964 the Mint produced its last money made of coin silver. I was 14 years old. I had a job and, when I could afford to, I would take a dollar bill to the bank and exchange it for a silver dollar. (And then I would spend them.)

When a dollar would buy 35 times what it will today, a penny would too. Back then it would buy what 35 cents will buy today. (Hmmmm… and just what will 35 cents buy today…?)

Why did we stop making silver coins?

Why, indeed…

Because when coins contained silver, and contained gold up until 1932, then money had intrinsic value – the coin was actually worth something. And the person who held the coin held the value in his hand.

This made problems for the federal government. The money supply was limited to the amount of precious metal that had been been placed into circulation. An economy based on debt, rather than value, could not be created until the people were relieved of the material that actually had value.

Starting in 1933, when gold was eliminated from circulation, reinforced in 1965, when silver was reduced (and eliminated by 1971), and sealed when the U.S. went off the gold standard for its currency in 1972, the United States, and perforce the rest of the world, concluded a tradition, as old as history itself, during which people used something of value as a medium of exchange.

Let that sink in. If you are over 40, in your lifetime a practice that dates back 5,000 years was stopped by the action of the Congress of the United States.

We now use paper notes, basically fancy checks printed by the government promising to pay the bearer in more fancy notes. And we use the cheapest possible metal chips to represent the coins that used to have value.

Copper has value, too. That’s why, in 1982, the Mint began making pennies of zinc. With the dollar as devalued as it is today – utterly without value, really, except for the faith of foreign governments in its stability -- it costs more than a dollar to produce a hundred zinc pennies.

When we use money, nothing of value is being exchanged by people purchasing goods and services.

The advantages to the federal government are two: The supply of money in circulation is no longer limited; more can be printed whenever needed to shore up some political design. And with the dawn of what might be called digital currency, the government can control any individual’s money with a keystroke, although a judge’s order might still be sought occasionally. Except for the federal reserve notes in your wallet, all of your liquid assets are yours by the grace of a respectful government.

So the Mint has a dilemma. And my answer is to stop producing pennies. In fact, it makes little sense to have any denomination smaller than a half dollar, or a quarter at the smallest.

If a dollar today is worth perhaps 1/35 what it was 50 years ago, and maybe 1/100 what it was 200 years ago, then a penny today may be worth 1/10,000 of a dollar of 200 years ago – (1/100 of 1/100).

But how would we make change? To simplify, suppose we stopped making pennies and nickels and let the dime remain as the smallest fraction of a dollar still in use. Your charge at the check-out counter would simply cut off the last digit. Two bags of groceries that cost $76.34 today would simply cost $76.3 instead – or $76.30 if you need to think in two decimal places.

Round up or round down? Would it matter?

You might ask how all the cash registers and vending machines now in use would cope.

Aren’t they almost all computers anyway? Reprogram them. And what would we do with all the pennies and nickels (and dimes, if they were on their way out)? Any revision like this would naturally have a phase-in period. Heck, federal budget cuts are phased in over decades, so only the next President or the one after that will have to deal with the effects. This could be no different.

Incidentally, and importantly as well: Kennedy half dollars were first made in 1964, the last year of regular silver coinage. For the next six years the silver content was reduced to 40%. Since 1971, half dollars have been minted every years, billions and billions of them. But we see them in circulation only when some aging die-hard like me gets a handful at the bank and hands them to puzzled young cashiers or waitresses. But, along with a dollar coin, they ought to be the most common pieces in circulation.

People began hoarding them when they first saw the silver content dwindling, and have hoarded the non-silver halves ever since in some mis-guided suspicion that they are worth something. They are worth no more than the few cents worth of copper that they are made of. Eliminating the useless minor coins could bring them out of hiding.

This is the solution to the Mint’s dilemma, but Congress thinks we are blindly attached to our useless and worthless pennies. We need to tell them we are not.

The silver dollar at the bottom has about $32 worth of silver in it, depending which day's market you look at, which means that the quarter and half dollar at the top, from the last year of silver coinage, have about $8 and $16 worth of the metal in them now. The 2007 dollar, in the center, is 88.5% copper, pretends to look like the 1910 ten dollar gold piece to the right of it, and is about the same size. It's also the same size and about the same purchasing power as the 1846 penny to its left. (Small pennies were first made in 1856.) So why does Congress permit the middle coin, which is really just a penny stamped with the word DOLLAR, to be divided into 100 smaller and utterly useless units?


Second Nature

When he was here not long ago, a visitor from Chicago, a complete city person whose shoes have seldom stepped off carpet and asphalt, remarked on some of what he saw at our house and in this part of Maine: pickup trucks, gun racks, wood piles, camps equipped with kerosene lamps and outhouses.  I realized then how easily we could forget that these sights are second nature for us, but not for most Americans.


A hundred years ago, pickups were still in the future, but the rest of what struck him unusual were familiar even to city-dwellers.  Not so any more.


We, who live with the contrast of a computer and a glowing wood stove in the same room, with snowshoes next to the insulated door, with gallons of wild blueberries beside the moose meat in the freezer -- we are not some throw-backs to lost centuries past.  We are the present, and future, in a region that the city-dweller will only dimly appreciate.


I am glad my friend made the comment, because it brought back to me the value of these things.  Yes, we have the advantages of what is produced in cities: movies and music, automobiles and books, convenience foods and fashions.  It would be easy to suppose that, without cities, we would not have symphonies and Subarus.  But it is also worth recalling that television was invented by a boy on a Utah farm, books are written by authors who can gaze out over Penobscot Bay, Subarus are made in rural Indiana, and inconvenient but infinitely more healthful food can be harvested in one's own back yard.


To get fiddleheads or wild raspberries means someone has to work for it and endure a few scratches and bug bites.  Perhaps we enjoy that work more than we would enjoy an urban job that pays a lot but stresses one more.  I am amazed that someone would prefer a metro bus ride to a walk in the winter woods, or an avant garde play to an evening of snapping beans.  I feel my family is more secure against global calamity for having an axe and 16-gauge than having deadbolts and a metropolitan evacuation plan.


Visit almost any house in rural Maine and you will find a staggering variety of tools and materials.  Within a small rural area, or small neighborhood in any Maine town, are the people and the skills to use those tools to build and maintain just about anything necessary to live simply.  This is also a phenomenon to urbanites, who, with their higher incomes, are accustomed to hiring things done or to letting the landlord take care of it.


If I let myself feel smug just because I have a garden plot and a garage full of useful culch I am no better than the city person who feels superior for having all the modern conveniences.  If not smug, though, I can at least be grateful to have settled in so beautiful and peaceful a river valley, to be surrounded by individuals so practically gifted as my friends and neighbors, and to have luxuries that the city person lacks: a pair of pileated woodpeckers on my back yard tree, homemade maple syrup, stunning sunsets, stars at night and total silence as I sleep, fish in the lake, more land and water surrounding me than I know what to do with.


There are other parts of the country, and of the world for that matter, where the people are as fortunate to live with their resources just as close at hand and their resourcefulness in demand - the deep South comes to mind first, the prairies, the far West.  The details vary but the phenomenon is the same.


We don't get to a fancy restaurant as often as our Chicago friend does, or see a concert or go to a professional ball game.  We do on rare occasions, but I'd rather undergo a long trip to get to these things than to get away from them.


So I celebrate where I live -- I suppose that's the word for it.  I don't feel stuck here. -- I choose to be here.  And I welcome any escapees from a metropolitan maze who make it across the river and into our quiet dooryard.  They will see our enthusiasm for living in Maine north of the 45th parallel.

A response from one of our site visitors:

March 22- "Kudos to you! I just bought a farm house in Enfield and am learning all about the things you talk about....How lucky we are, huh? I do a lot of traveling and I feel great sadness that some children and even adults don't know what it is to hear the loons call or how much fun as a kid it is to go and get all muddy because you were down by the lake fetching polliwogs or just the feelings of pure serenity/peace when you feel as though your the only one kayaking across a huge calm lake! Thank you for putting into words what it means to be a "Mainah" and why when someone in the city asks "where are you from?" with pride we say with a smile "Northern Maine!" : ) I look forward to reading more...Well done!" - Alicia


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