Who’s Schoodic, and What’s the Point?

I have been granted a great gift: a two-week writing residency at Acadia National Park, in Maine. I am staying on the Schoodic Peninsula (pronounced SKOO dic), a smaller area of the park that’s separate from the main section on Mount Desert Island (site of Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain). I am a short walk from Schoodic Point.

This is a daunting assignment for a writer, because where are the words that do the place justice? Do they even exist? At one point, I found myself envying the visual artists, who with their paint boxes can render some facsimile of the broad boulders by the gulf, the steel of the sky in the mist, the patterns of mosses and lichens that constantly draw the eye. I may need to sort through thousands, even millions, of words to arrive at an adequate description.

In the meantime, I’ve been given time to roam, and this is the best gift for a writer—at least for a nature writer! I roam and write, roam and write. I go to the Point and sit and watch. Or close my eyes and listen. Or lay on the rocks and inhale the salt-infused air.

I pray. Often I try to stay still but am drawn by a small pool a bit farther out, or tiny spiders that look giant through my binoculars, or a shining, black rift in the rock.

The crevices tell an old, geologic tale

I thought perhaps there was some colonial guy, maybe a Dutchman, named Schoodic. But it turns out the name probably derives from the Mi’kmaq word eskwodek—“the end,” or possibly the Passamaquoddy word for “the burnt place”—scoudiac. For me, this “end” has been a beginning, or maybe a return. Although I spent much of my childhood at Jones Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, and although I live not far from the Sound (now on the Connecticut side), I don’t visit the the coast very often. More often, I pass by it. And although I am a nature writer, I tend to focus my words further inland, about my immediate surroundings. It’s good to again survey the edge of the land, and think about the life beyond it.

I am learning so much. A brother of a friend is a park ranger here, and he graciously invited me to see Tom Wessels, author of Granite, Fire, and Fog,  speak. He talked first about granite, and how the glaciers shaped things. But geology doesn’t always grab me—somehow it feels too abstract, too slow-moving (glacial pace, and all) to for me to grasp.

Beard lichen

He had me at lichens. Among the first specifics I noticed here, once I stopped dropping my jaw at the multitude of sweeping, water’s edge vistas that met me at every curve, were the generous “Old Man’s Beard” lichens that hang from so many trees. They are on a maple outside my apartment here, but I think the author said they especially favor spruces. The often-misty climate promotes a different environment, and, as Wessels said, different “communities” of growth, which translates into a truly unique landscape. Get this: fog droplets contain 1000 times more nutrients than rain. So, lichens at Acadia grow comparatively quickly. Still, they are quite slow-growing composite organisms (not plants—they are made of algae + fungi).

They are EVERYWHERE!!

Even the ordinary seems amped up here. (Of course, I may be high on freedom. Or on the salt air.) The rabbits (or hares?) are more approachable, and (apologies to grey squirrels back at home) the squirrels (red here) are cuter and less shy, too. There is an endless variation of color in and on the rocks (I learned that crustose lichens are actually welded down into the rock; almost like they are painted on!). I like looking close up at the snails that hold court on so many surfaces.

Snails and barnacles by the millions

I went to the Oceanarium to learn more about the creatures beyond the edge. The touch tank host held up sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea stars, horseshoe crabs, moon snails, etc, presenting fascinating, often outlandish details about each one. For example, sea cucumbers can spill their intestines in response to an alarming event, and suck them up later. You can’t make this stuff up.

Having my family join me was a joy. We had dinner at The Pickled Wrinkle  and actually tried some wrinkles, and some deep-fried dulse. Before that, we had worked up our appetites around some low-lying areas of the peninsula.

I have to admit, I was concerned about how things might change when the guys joined me. I was a hermit of sorts in the week that I was here alone. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. I wrote for hours. I walked for hours. I was silent for hours.

We talked over dinner about the hermit life—about how Thoreau lived alone in his cabin but walked to town for companionship and had guests come over. Gavin described how the protagonist in a book he loves, Ed Stafford of Naked and Marooned, relished the idea of being alone and planned a whole adventure around the concept, in the South Pacific. But eventually he craved human companionship and hid nearby when he knew humans were going to be on his island, just so he could see them. It’s the rare person who truly does not want any kind of contact. (See The Stranger in the Woods, a Maine story, for one such case).

Gavin in his element

The deepening of dimension that comes with other humans became clear to me right away when the guys arrived. I thought I had been pretty adventurous this week—scaling fairly steep trails and venturing alone into varied terrains. But within a half hour of Tom and Gavin’s arrival, my shoes were muddier than they’d been all week. Gavin was eager to check out the flats, and we squished about admiring the “bubble” seaweed and snails and natural sponges. After dinner, Tom, who had driven a long way on little sleep (thanks to our dog’s urges for nocturnal walks), passed on a walk to the Point. But Gavin and I went, and I rejoiced in his joy at leaping boulder to boulder, embodying the effortlessness and energy of youth and health.

Stalking the wild strawberry

He noticed things I had noticed when I arrived, like the beard lichen. But also new things, like wild strawberries on the grassy walkway back toward our temporary home. On the way back from the Point, he spotted the silhouette of a porcupine crossing the road. And a colony of spittle bugs inhabiting the roadside grass. I’ve had a room of my own at Schoodic Point, and it’s been a dream. I churned out two longer- and deeper-than usual pieces and roughed out ideas for quite a few more. But I can see now that even a landscape such as this only goes so far, if it can’t be shared.

Spittle bug community

We humans need each other, and we each bring a unique perspective about the natural world. We also have a crucial role to play here. I discovered a writer I hadn’t heard of before: Louise Dickinson Rich often focused on Maine. She died in the early 1990s, but reading her words, I am sure I would have liked to know her, had I the chance. I end with an “Amen!” to her words at the end of The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich:

Man, who cannot swim as well as a fish, nor fly as well as a bird, nor support himself on bare ledges as well as a lichen, is the observer, the recorder; because there is no one else—not the bird, not the rowan, not the lichen or the fish—who is capable of doing it. Perhaps all his other achievements are less than this, that he watches, and makes the record, and tries to find the meaning. He alone cares, and in that caring, perhaps, lies his weakness and his very great strength.

Posted with gratitude to Acadia National Park, which, by granting me the writing residency, has made so much possible! 

Preserves and Professional Parks

path in woods startMy friend Chris asked me recently about my week-long nature writing residency at the Trail Wood memorial preserve, and the first two words that came to mind were “life-changing.” I reveled in the chance to be in nature alone for extended periods, to contemplate, to write and rewrite, to read the treasured words of Edwin Way Teale in his very home, his very office—a sacred place to me! For the first time ever, I used up the camera storage in my iPhone. This blog isn’t big enough to contain the wealth of images, so I’ve scattered a select few throughout the post.

butterflyfuzzy mushroom lichenOf course, Trail Wood had many creatures and plants that I don’t see every day. The Beaver Pond became my favorite destination, and one morning I watched one of the beavers having an early swim. I took photo upon photo of insects in both meadow and forest, but I wasn’t usually swift enough to capture the many birds digitally. I looked forward to daily sightings of the woodchuck who lived near the house. My suburban New York roots showing, I sang to myself in the woods and carried pepper spray just in case the reported resident bear didn’t like my performance. (Maybe the bear wasn’t as exotic as it seemed. There have been several reported sightings in Deep River neighborhoods recently!)

Teale cabinAn absolute gift of the preserve was its undisturbed quality. But another gift I took away from my time there is the practice of really looking and listening even in places that haven’t had the benefit of such thoughtful stewardship. I  take small walks around the office park where I work, not by any stretch a nature preserve. Still, I smile at the abundance of Carolina locusts behind the buildings (who don’t seem to be doing any noticeable damage), and the occasional spotting of a raptor, bright bird, dragonfly, or hornets. I look down into the wetlands below the tall hill. Once in a while, I see a deer. Just once, I rescued a young raccoon who was clattering around in the nearly empty dumpster, watching from a distance as he climbed the long birch limb escape ladder I’d lowered for him.

Just the other day, I snapped a picture of a delicately decorated moth (looked like the oversized Oriental vases my grandfather had around his house) who turned out to be an ailanthus webworm moth. I love it when nature comes right to my door!

alianthus web worm

While staying at the Teale home I was drawn to a book of Mr Teale’s that I hadn’t read before: Days without Time. The edition on the study shelf was dated 1948, just 3 years after his son David was killed in World War II. Teale’s introductory words ring so very true:

The fall of the tree, the swoop of the hawk, the tilt of the buzzard in a windy sky, the song of the hermit thrush at evening, the opening of a windflower, the eddy of a woodland brook—all of these are events for days without time. They might have occurred during any one of a thousand or ten thousand years. Ticking clocks and factory whistles have little to do with the eternal recurrence of these eternal themes.

Something for me to remember after my New Hampshire vacation, chock full of walks in shallow streams and visits to waterfalls: when the “factory whistle” is again in play, nature doesn’t live only in preserves or the areas we think of as great sightseeing locales. It is everywhere. With eyes and ears wide open, every day is a new chance to notice it, to give it the full attention that it deserves. With that attending we find ourselves more connected and more alive.