What Else Remains?

Once the head of tide on the Kennebec River was up around Bingham. Along what we think of as the Maine coast, from Kittery to Calais, the deep and dark blue ocean rolled. The great whales and great auks fed and frolicked; gannets plummeted, porpoises tumbled. No human eye saw them. Longfellow’s “beautiful town/ That is seated by the sea,” lay far below and far ahead of them.

Europeans arrived; human and natural history began their incessantly escalating struggle.  Human history wins most of the battles, thereby accelerating its eventual loss of the war. Think of Boston’s Back Bay—Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon, Boylston, and Newbury Streets, the Boston Public Library, the Prudential Center: some of the priciest urban real estate north of Manhattan. It was tidewater a mere two centuries ago. Where commuters now creep along Storrow Drive, the Abenaki built fish weirs. Think of Portland’s Back Cove: in Longfellow’s Day, Marginal Way, lower Preble Street, outer Franklin Avenue, and a long stretch of I-295 lay within the jurisdiction of the Harbor Master, as did Baxter Boulevard.

Well south of New England, along most of the alluvial shoreline that runs from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, down to Florida, coastal development came belatedly but suddenly, to places that had beaches, and for people who had leisure. Within living memory—mine—lonely beaches and barrier islands became sleazy or upscale tourist meccas, retirement destinations, or swanky gated communities, complete with world-class golf courses.

In low-lying country, a little sea rise goes a long way. Ask citizens of Atlantic City, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Wilmington, Charleston, or Miami about sunny day floods and king tides. People are clever and resourceful—Holland is proof of that—and these cities may well survive for quite some time, surrounded by dykes and drained by pumps. But imagine yourself flying the 500 or so miles from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, down to the bottom of North Carolina. You’d mostly see variations of one pattern: Barrier islands facing the open Atlantic, and between them and the mainland, interconnected bays and sounds—Barnegat, Rehoboth, Assawoman, Sinepuxent, Chincoteague, Currituck, Albemarle, Pamlico. The barrier islands are basically sandspits. Some remain beautifully empty. Many are anything but: Atlantic City, Ocean City, or Avalon, New Jersey; Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; Ocean City, Maryland; Chincoteague and Virginia Beach, Virginia. In North Carolina, Nag’s Head, Kitty Hawk, Corolla, Surf City, Topsail Island, and Wrightsville Beach. You see narrow strips of houses and hotels perched on sand a few feet above sea level, cut off from higher and dryer land by open water or inland swamp. The scientific consensus is that no amount of beach replenishment or fortification can save them; the data is indisputable. But not undeniable—in 2011, the political leadership of North Carolina passed HB 819, ruling the scientific consensus out of order, null and void, whenever it threatened to undermine property values.

I’ve never flown over the coast I’ve just described. But I know it by analogy to the South Carolina coast. I was lucky to grow up there. And I cannot bear going back to the beaches and inlets I knew. I can see them in my sleep, but only there.

But I have flown up the Maine coast, from Portland to Lubec, in a private plane that Bowdoin College chartered to take a few faculty to Grand Manan. We left early, on a serene June morning. We followed the coastline the whole way out to Lubec, before we turned east across the Grand Manan channel. We maintained an altitude of perhaps a thousand feet.

I know particular parts of the Maine coast intimately; so does everybody who is reading this. We can see them in our sleep. But dear God, think of the whole length of it! That string of bays, sounds, and tidal rivers; rockbound peninsulas, spruce-crowned ledges, and gently rolling salt-water farms; the orderly scatter of islands. Think of the salt-marshes, the sequestered and unspoiled little beaches: All that real estate.

This coast fosters some kind of belief in permanence. Artists have made it part of our national heritage: think of Fitz Henry Lane, Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, the Wyeths, Eliot Porter, and so many, many others. Or think of a single poem—Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven.” Or one book—Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea.

In human history, economic history, and natural history, everything connects to everything else and nothing is permanent. Southward from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and HB 819 notwithstanding, billions of dollars of investment and a lot of good memories will soon be lost: hotels and houses and skinny beachfront towns, built on sand and surrounded by water, will disappear in another fifty years. Investment writes off its losses, leaves its failures to be dealt with by people who cannot themselves leave, and moves on. Life covets coastlines, and no species is more covetous than ours. All that investment and all those people who want to live by the ocean will soon be going elsewhere. And where would that be? Northeastward from Portland. On this coast of America, what else remains?

The great American heritage of landscape painting began with the Hudson River School. The paintings still exist; the Hudson River the painters saw with their eyes and felt in their bones does not. This is not the case in Maine. We can see what the painters saw, miles and miles of it, recognize it, and still feel it in our bones. That is a rare and remarkable thing.

Any heritage, artistic or natural, is an endowment or a trust, and requires funding. The aim is simple: continuity and perpetuation. Maine Coast Heritage Trust turns fifty this year. It has continued and coordinated the efforts of many land trusts and many individuals—some local, and some “from away”—to carry into the unforeseeable, uncontrollable future a heritage that is national, regional, and local; historical, ecological, cultural, and alive.

Franklin Burroughs was born and grew up in Conway, South Carolina. He moved to Maine in 1968 to teach English at Bowdoin College, retiring in 2002. He has written numerous books and published essays. His book Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay won the John Burroughs Medal (no relation) for natural history writing in 2007.

This piece is part of Voices from the Coast, a collection of writing, art, stories, and images offered in celebration of the Maine coast and launched in 2020, Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s 50th year.


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