Part 2: Uncovering Changes
Missing the Before
The City of Portland, Maine is home to 66,215 people. Bon Appetite named Portland the 2018 restaurant city of the year. https://www.bonappetit.com/story/portland-maine-city-of-the-year-2018.
Portland has followed the pattern of city revitalization taking place throughout the country. The boom in real estate led to a lack of affordable housing and an increase in homelessness. Neighborhood histories disappear as condos replace older homes. The process to preserve historic landmarks cannot keep up with the renaissance. Long-time residents bemoan the lack of parking, the increase in taxes and uninspired architecture. Newer and younger residents revel in all the city has to offer – green space, walkability, music venues, microbreweries and ubiquitous coffee shops. Some, like Coffee by Design, served as my de facto office for a year while creating Welcoming the Stranger: building understanding through community based art in 2015.
Tourism is one of the five major industries of the State of Maine.
April 1 – COVID-19: 377 confirmed cases statewide 9 deaths
When Maine Governor Mills issued the stay-at-home order on March 31, she said:
“I implore you – look to yourself, your family, your friends, your loved ones, your neighbors on the front lines, first responders and health care workers fighting the virus, those who can’t stay home; the children who live around the corner, the farmer who grows your food, the grocer and the pharmacist who sell you goods, the teachers who are missing their kids; the fisherman, the sailor, the truck driver, the janitor, the waitress at your favorite diner; these are the people you are protecting by staying home. This is who you are saving.”
The City of Portland closed: no hotels, no restaurants, no cruise ships, no coffee shops, no bars, no barber shops and the list goes on.
The stay-at-home mandate reduced the need for car ferries to and from Peaks Island. They scheduled only 3 boats a day. https://www.pressherald.com/2020/03/19/casco-bay-lines-to-reduce-ferry-service-because-of-coronavirus/. At 5:30 am, I joined the line of cars waiting for the ferry. The lines continue throughout the day to accommodate construction workers, food deliveries, essential workers and returning summer residents. Masks required; social distancing at all times.
In preparation for my 2-week quarantine in Maine and possible food shortages on the island, I did what is euphemistically called: A Big Shop. The trunk and backseat of my car were now a mobile pantry.
Growing up in New England, neighbors always had “ just in case’ food. Some they grew and canned. Some they purchased. Snow storms, power outages, lost employment, ferry breakdowns, or any number of other possible catastrophes – and now a pandemic – are on the list of ‘what ifs.’
The children’s book Stone Soup has its roots in European folktales. Once upon a time, a stranger arrives in a town. He carries a soup pot but has no ingredients with which to cook. He sets to boiling water and adds a stone.
Each villager stops by and asks:
What are you cooking?
The stranger replies:
Each villager then says:
That would taste much better if you added …
– a carrot, a potato, some greens and so on and so on…And they did. The community created a soup and the soup created a community.
“Just in case” pantries are, not only for your home, but for sharing with others in need.
The island was deserted. All businesses were closed: gas station, laundromat, café, restaurants, library, bicycle and golf cart rentals, ice cream shop, school, museums, churches, hardware store, taxi service and non-profits. Hannigan’s grocery store was open limited hours.
Peaks Island was a microcosm of the state – if not the country.
When I first returned to Peaks Island to share in the care of my mother before she died, I was welcomed into a year-round community of 900 residents that traditionally swells to more than 5000 in the summer.
I learned the names of the mail carriers, restaurant owners, grocery store cashiers, librarians, tour guides, waste collectors, landscapers, musicians, and artists. I joined the chorale and (hoped in the future) the ukulele band.
In her book Year of Wonders Geraldine Brooks tells the story of a walled town in 1666 that chose to protect the greater community from the plague raging within its walls by allowing no one to enter the town and no one to leave. http://geraldinebrooks.com/year-of-wonders/
At the conclusion of the weekly Maine CDC Covid 19 briefing, Dr. Shah reminds everyone:
Be Kind. Take care of one another.
The residents of Peaks Island took to heart his ‘mantra.’
A Peaks Island Covid 19 response committee was formed to provide up-to-date communication, assist with shopping and transportation, food pantry access. Mental health teams offered support if requested.
Year-round residents used stimulus checks to purchase gift cards to island restaurants and shops to support their small businesses.
Masks and social distancing and stay at home orders are strictly adhered to.
Arriving summer residents are expected to self-quarantine for 14 days.
May 1- COVID 19: 1149 confirmed cases statewide 59 deaths
Traditionally, Memorial Day weekend shepherds in the opening up of cottages and return of summer residents. “Opening Up” a cottage means adhering to a long list of ‘To Do’s’ developed over time through trial and error. My friends/patrons/supporters of island arts are not able to travel to the island due to the pandemic.
Therefore, I am the designated cottage caretaker. In exchange for housing, I will oversee a roof replacement, landscape the gardens, perform general repairs and paint. My other task is to collect news of others and general goings -on. I will respond to islanders who inquire of them. In weekly zoom meetings, we will exchange information about life in England vs US, compare the graying of our locks and trade recipes. I will send them photographs of the most recently bloomed flower and exquisite sunsets.
Their 3-page list includes the following tasks:
Locate the hidden key if you forgot yours.
Unlock and open the doors to air out the cottage.
Get tools out that you need to proceed.
Turn on electric.
Take down shutters.
Install porch screens. (Check that no bird has created a nest on top of the screens. If so delay installation until babies fledge).
Check for damage – evidence of leaks, torn screens, broken tree limbs.
Seek out evidence of any dead creatures and remove. (I ask the neighbor to remove them.)
Vacuum up bugs, dead flies.
Turn the water on – check for leaks.
Uncover the Goddesses.
As part of Crossroads: Art for Contemplation, I created 7-circuit meditation labyrinths throughout Maryland to provide a place and a process for anyone to “journey inward.”
When walking a labyrinth, you enter with a question. When you exit, you may have an answer or a sense of direction or hint of movement towards something you had not considered.
I installed ceramic sculptures of the Greek goddesses – Demeter, Persephone and Hecate – as part of the artwork. They now ‘live’ on Peaks Island. One possible interpretation of their myth asks what we learn about ourselves when we have time to ‘journey inward.’
For many, being in quarantine provides that time.
Finding Nature With My Eyes
In general, I am a big picture kind of person. When walking, I see an entire landscape – not individual trees or blades of grass. Since I am forced to slow down due to the pandemic, I am seeing ‘smaller’.
I arrived to a second spring. It feels heartless of Mother Nature to create this amazing spring while we are under strict orders to stay at home and distance ourselves from friends.
Lilacs had just started to bloom. Hostas were leafing out. The viburnum would soon provide a backdrop for the purple Siberian irises and lupines.
During my first removal of fallen branches and leaves from the gardens, I uncover plants heretofore not seen before – at least by me:
Under the juniper – Jack in the pulpit
Under the hops – covered apple trees – moss roses
Lady slipper orchid. (It is endangered so their location is secret.)
I am still hard pressed to discern between native plants and weeds. (Although a friend once told me that anything in the garden that isn’t where you want it, is essentially, a weed.)
Dr. Chuck Radis’ (with his brother Rick) co-authored Wildflowers of Peaks Island, Maine. The color coded pages group wildflowers by season and habitats. They describe each plant by color, placement, shape of leaves, and measurements. I refer to the book as I weed.
Dr. Chuck Radis in his book, Go By Boat: Stories of a Maine Island Doctor, shares his time as the doctor for the residents of Casco Bay islands. https://www.pressherald.com/2018/12/31/peaks-island-doctor-brings-practice-to-pages-in-new-book/
The stumps of maple trees felled over the winter provide seats from which to observe more “small.” I realize how different the vista is without them. The light has changed since it is no longer being filtered through the leaves.
I count the rings on the stump: 1 light plus 1 dark ring = 1 year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwNJC-IRgPE
Each ring has a story to tell. Maybe this tree witnessed the 1918 pandemic.
One morning, while putting on my work boots, I noticed a shiny ‘trail’ on the exterior of one of the boots. I know slugs leave this ‘trace’ as they meander about. Gingerly, I inspected the interior – fortunately it was empty .
No one likes slugs.
Everyone I ask:
“Of what use are slugs? “
To a person each replies:
For me, taking the time to watch a slug perambulate provides new mantras on to how to go forward each day – not just during a pandemic:
Set a goal and persevere.
Keep eyes looking forward.
Slow down and take note of your surroundings.
Stay still if threatened.
“ Just being alive is enough” Suzuki Roshi
June 1 – COVID-19: 2352 cases statewide 95 deaths
Finding Nature with my Ears
When I first arrived, the island was preternaturally quiet. No sounds of golf carts or cars or planes or party boats or cruise ships. No lawn mowers or leaf blowers. An island committee formed to study noise levels pre and post pandemic – in hopes of stemming the future increase in airplane noise when the friendly skies re-open.
There is one exception – one very loud exception – the sounds of birds – songs, tweets, squawks, gobbles (yes, the turkeys have landed. ) create a new island soundtrack. Every morning the birds signal the beginning of another day in quarantine.
My sister and brother in law are “birders.” They have ‘life lists’ (To date: 286) and cool binoculars.
They learn habitats, recognize calls, possess language to describe each bird and spend time ‘looking and listening.” I have never really listened to the sounds that birds make. Until now.
Bird vocalizations includes both bird calls and bird songs.
- Songs are used to defend territory and attract mates.
- Calls tend to be shorter and simpler — often just one syllable long. There are different kinds of calls:
Begging calls (feed me)
There are phone apps that record the song and match it to one in the data base. https://www.audubon.org/news/how-start-identifying-birds-their-songs-and-calls
Bird songs can even be used to create an opera. Just listen.
Finding Nature with My Nose
There seem to be roses blooming in every garden. Out of quarantine and back to my daily walk, I continue to see “small.” I look at the color and shape of roses in gardens around the island. I breathe in the smell of the rose then squeeze a blossom in my hand and inhale the fragrance. It seems the most visually beautiful are the least fragrant – some with no fragrance at all.
Hedges of the ubiquitous beach rose – rosa rugosa – circumnavigate the island.
Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg first introduced the western world to Rosa rugosa (meaning “wrinkled rose” because of its creased petals and serrated foliage) in the 1770s, having come across it in Japan. So, although it is a dominant species in certain areas of the northeast and northwest of the United States, it is not native.
I walk the circumference of the island – starting or ending at low tide on Centennial Beach. There is a distinctive smell – especially at dead low tide.
It is a Sulphur-y kind of smell produced by bacteria as they digest dead phytoplankton.
As a child, I would stomp along the sand in hopes of enticing a clam to “spit” – creating a tell-tale hole revealing its location. It is still a valid technique when digging for clams.
In 3rd grade I won a contest for the most books read over the summer. (I had an unfair advantage since I lived directly across the street from the library.) The prize was a chart of seashells with accompanying samples of each shell. https://www.maine.gov/dmr/shellfish-sanitation-management/shellfishidentification.html
Walking along the beach today, it is rare to find a razor clam or a sand dollar or a horseshoe crab.
Horseshoe crabs are “living fossils” that have existed for at least 445 million years and are not really a crab.
Their blue, copper-based blood contains lysate, which reacts to bacterial toxins by clotting. Horseshoe crab blood has long been harvested to test everything from water to intravenous drugs for contamination. It’s also key to making vaccines for diseases such as COVID-19. https://www.nps.gov/gate/learn/nature/upload/nature_horseshoe_crab.pdf
Searching for beach glass has replaced beach combing for shells. Beach glass hunters are readily identified by their start and stop walking, stooped posture and/or bowed heads. Children collect the shards, store them in their pockets and parents find them in the bottom of the washing machine. Glass-filled jars occupy window sills for years – and eventually discarded over time.
July 1 – COVID-19 3288 cases statewide 123 deaths
Making the decision to drive to Maine was influenced by my commitment to co-author and produce a play to celebrate the Maine Bicentennial. Proceeds from ticket sales would support scholarships for island students.
Due to Covid 19 – all performance venues would remain closed until summer 2021. After 2 years of research and countless revisions, we had been holding onto the possibility we would mount a stage production.
“Trunk Show” tells a story of 1924 summer stock theatre, prohibition and politics on Peaks Island through the eyes of two sisters as they prepare for an uncertain future.
Like so many art and performance groups, we hope to share our vision. However, like the “Trunk Show” heroines, the future of our cast, our play, our lives – everyone’s lives – is uncertain.
Yet, the sun still sets every night.
Nice thing about sunsets is you can't do anything to them. You can't improve them, repair them, prolong them, sell them or change them in any way at all. Miranda V.