How can anyone really know a place like Maine?
Maine is something you feel more in your heart than know in your head. It’s a geographically specific place, a recognizable shape on the map, but it is a feeling as well – amorphous yet readily identifiable, undeniable but ephemeral, like the subtle, yet unmistakable scent of balsam drifting by on the morning fog.
Defining Maine is a classic conundrum, the answer to which is no less complicated than the response to asking how well anyone really knows another human being.
How well do you know Maine? How well do any of us really know ourselves.
To craft an answer, there’s no definitive checklist of must-sees, though not for lack of nomination. There is no mandatory minimum number of experiences, no predictable “eureka” moment when clarity emerges from confusion.
It is akin to what the late astronomer Carl Sagan liked to say about the evolution of life and the miracle of sentience. “We," he said, "are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” In a way, his observation is another take on the classic T.S. Eliot quote “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Really knowing Maine requires the soul of an explorer – a desire to run its rivers, fish its lakes, climb its mountains, drink deep of the cool damp quiet of the great northern forest. At the same time, the story of that spectacular landscape, that unrivaled fresco of nature, is, by itself, a hollow tale devoid of context and flavor without recognition of the brush strokes of human history – rusting remnants of industrious natures, echoes of heartfelt endeavor.
There, the answers lie in forlorn graves along wild rivers, in the scribbled journals of wood cutters and hardscrabble farmers, in abandoned cellar holes along forgotten roads, and in the ghosts that tarry in the clouds atop barren, unfinished mountaintops at dawn.
These essays, then, only begin to scratch the surface of a state where the scope of human perseverance stretches from a steely gaze at the helm of a lobster boat along the rugged coast, to weathered hands in Aroostook County plucking the abundant fruit of autumn from the rich, fertile earth.
The scale of time for the land here is glacial. For its most recent inhabitants, it spans 16 generations. Either range transcends what can be fathomed in a single lifetime. To the first is ascribed a single virtue – patience. The second defined by a single word – permanence.
Writing these essays is, after a fashion, an entirely selfish venture. In an attempt to delineate and share the character, the color, the truth of Maine, I hope to better comprehend the entirety of it myself.
Along with decades spent afoot and afloat in the wild, the journey has included a celebration of the spiritual gifts of those adventures – unbreakable bonds of friendship, the undying love of family, rare quiet moments to contemplate a raw, inescapable sense of place. Only one fact is sure. To really grasp the totality of the power of these places, these great forces, these great spirits, one must embrace, one must savor them all.
Few among us will be lucky enough to be the ones to whom the universe surrenders her secrets. Yet all who have heard the siren song of the places in these pages, or are inspired to begin a quest of their own, are well on the way to knowing the heart and soul of a truly extraordinary place – Maine.
— Earl Brechlin
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