Voices from the Coast: On Ecology

In celebration of Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s 50th year, people share their visions of and for the Maine coast.

e·col·o·gy /ēˈkäləjē/ 1. the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

Stephen Ressel, Snowy Owl, Sargent Mountain, Mount Desert Island, 2017

Stephen Ressel joined the faculty at College of the Atlantic in 1993 and teaches courses in the areas of vertebrate biology, herpetology, winter ecology, and photography. He also served as director of the college’s natural history museum until 2005.

Gift of Hope

“Protected land gives me hope in a world full of fear. Whether we fear economic collapse or climate change, whether we fear acts of terror, or the spread of a virus, whether our fears are real or imagined, fear is amplified by our culture, bouncing off every screen. In the face of this fear, we often shut down, tune out, and enter a downward spiral of “overwhelm” and inaction. It can feel helpless and hopeless.

There is a way out of this fear and this downward spiral: it’s outside—outside of doors and outside of culture, amongst the trees, the rocks, the open sky. Here, the sound of lapping waves calms anxieties. A drifting cloud stills the chattering mind. The smell of a fog-touched morning unfurrows the brow. We experience beauty and grace, and feel what a gift it is to be alive. In nature, we find an antidote to fear and the birthplace of hope.

Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert is an artist, philanthropist, and the mother of two young children. She has a master’s degree in environment and natural resources and a background in climate and energy planning. She guides retreats for environmentalists and others, reconnecting participants with nature and their love for the land.

Alewives

An alewife is a beautiful fish. Its back is dark blue, its belly silver. It is laterally compressed, deep from dorsal fin to the sharp belly scales that can slice the skin on the palm of your hand, and as narrow from gill to gill as a pack of cards, a perfect shape to move up down-rushing water. Put your hand in a fast stream, your fingers pointed into the current, and feel the water part. You can’t do it with your palm catching the flow, but it is easy when you aim your fingers upstream, the way an alewife aims its snout.

In the 1970s and for generations before that, Patten Stream, in my town, supported one of the best commercial alewife runs in the state. In the old days, alewives grew to be over a foot long. They could weigh up to a pound. But today, if we see them at all, they are younger, smaller fish. They were sold to lobster cooperatives for trap bait, to companies that made fish meal, and to people who hung them in their smokehouses and made a tough pemmican for the general stores along the coast. As a child, my son loved to eat the smoked alewives that used to be stacked on the counters of every store. They were soft-boned, darkly fleshed, sweetly chewy. They tasted of salt and a hint of mold.

From Settled in the Wild by Susan Hand Shetterly. © 2010 by Susan Hand Shetterly. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. Editor’s note: Since this essay was originally published in 2010, a state-of-the-art weir and pool fish passage were installed at Patten Stream.

Susan Hand Shetterly writes about wildlife, wild lands, and people who work on the land and on the inshore waters. She writes short essays for the column “Room with a View” in Down East magazine, and her newest book (2018) is Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge.

Neil Gabrielson, Alewife, 2019, linocut print, 6 x 8 inches

Neil Gabrielson, 13, is an 8th grade student at Cape Elizabeth Middle School. His watercolors, pencil drawings and linocuts often drawing on themes from the natural world. When he’s not making art, Neil enjoys computer programming, playing piano, and spending time outdoors with his family.

Children’s Waters

What will the waters—
our connection,
our messenger,
become as time marches on?

It takes a child to answer this
question, to insist we can change our
ways, change this world, reckon
with our decisions.

A child will tell you they hope that
one day, they can dance in the rain,
canoe down the rivers,
marvel at the oceans, without
fear that it will be lost.

Anna Siegel is a current 8th grader at the Friends School of Portland in Cumberland, Maine. She’s served as a Maine State Lead from U.S. Youth Climate Strikes, a member of Maine Youth for Climate Justice, and is now building the ME Strikes team and planning Maine’s part in the next global climate strikes.

Courtney Mooney (see photograph below) is a Maine-based photographer and visual activist. She's a twelfth-generation Mainer whose connection to her birthplace has given her a unique opportunity to give back to it. Mooney's work is primarily concentrated on the environment.

Photo: Courtney Mooney

Keep the Coast Stable

“I was born in Rhode Island, and moved to Maine when I was two. Everyone says, ‘Oh, are you a Mainer?’ And of course, I say, 'Yes.' I feel that way even though I wasn’t born here, because I’ll run into the ocean in January, I’ll climb the mountains in black fly season, and I’ll trek through the long grass in the summer without worrying about ticks. That’s just what you do when you live in Maine. I love Maine. I would never want to be anywhere else.

“My favorite spot on the Maine coast is Scarborough Marsh. It’s this amazing place with a variety of habitats. I also really like Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth. Apart from enjoying great birding there in winter, I love climbing over the rocks and being there with friends.

“In seventh grade, I learned about U.S. Youth Climate Strikes, which is the U.S.’s chapter of the global striking movement. I saw that Maine wasn’t on their striking map. I reached out to them, and they’re like, ‘Okay, great. You have all the information. You’re going to be the state lead.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ I remember it was very sudden. I remember I didn’t really know what to do. That was really the start of my climate justice activism.”

—Anna Seigel

Maine’s Native Roundleaf Sundew: A Profile

"It would be easy to miss, if you weren’t looking for it.

Rising from a mat of Sphagnum moss is a cluster of round, miniscule, bright green leaves. The surface of each leaf is covered in tiny red filaments tipped with a dewy gland. Near the leaf margin, a small fly, ensnared by filaments, suffocates in sticky mucilage. The leaf secretes a protein-digesting enzyme, rendering the insect into a nitrogen-rich slurry, which is then absorbed.

Carnage, writ small and unspectacular.

Roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is common on the coast of Maine, but far from eye-catching. Its significance to humans is minor: used in Scandinavia for cheesemaking (enzymes secreted by the leaves can curdle milk), roundleaf sundew also exhibits some antibiotic properties. Like all plants, it interacts with its neighbors, and opportunistic ants sometimes make a meal of ensnared insects. This tiny plant deserves a deeper dive, however, as its nutritional predilections are…unusual.

Amanda Devine is MCHT’s Regional Stewardship Manager for Southern Maine, and the kind of person who drives off the road to look at interesting plants. She holds a master’s degree in botany from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program and lives in Freeport with her young daughter, Lily, who also likes plants.

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.

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.

Heidi Daub, Hum of the Sea, 2014, acrylic on paper, 21 ½ x 21 ½ inches

Residing and working in Maine since 1984, Heidi Daub creates paintings that reflect her involvement in various artistic disciplines and her reverence for the natural world. Exhibiting online and regionally, her paintings are housed internationally in private and corporate collections.