Summering in Maine

August 12, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

CASCO BAY, Maine -- "Do you summer on the island?" the stranger asks me as we walk down the ramp to load our bags onto the ferry. It's mid-August and I have come here after a scattered June and workaholic July to snatch a pair of weeks as if they were aces from a stacked deck of cards.

Hauling my last bag full of books, I don't know what to say to this woman. I am tempted to tell her, "I don't summer." In my mind, people who used summer as a verb belonged to another century. They were upstairs folks when my family was decidedly downstairs.

But the boat takes off before I have a chance to answer. As we take the long, low-tide route across the water, I spot two blue herons high-stepping elegantly out of the mud. I scan for the bluefish that have made their way up the coast, like vacationers tired of the scene on Martha's Vineyard.

Herons and bluefish summer here. When I get to the house, I check out the island news. A young beluga whale has been hanging around the bay, separated from the herd and fond of human company. The blackberries have arrived, overlapping the blues. They too summer here.

Is it just my species that finds summer so elusive? At times it seems that our industrious, ever-productive modern world has lost -- no, not lost -- has sent the seasons packing. Our urban/suburban/exurban species has civilized the calendar, made the seasons as comfortable and homogenized as air that's been conditioned.

The goldfinch at the feeder is wearing its summer garb, but those who pride ourselves on indoor work are sold all-season wardrobes that are really no-season wardrobes. We wear them in temperature-controlled, comfort-zoned, weather-proofed offices where even the windows are sealed from reminders that summer is passing.

We have excommunicated nature from the center of our lives. We have cut the umbilical cord to time and place.

When I get here, I perform my first ritual, putting my watch away in the bureau. I wonder just when the rhythms of the day, dawn to dusk, gave way to bells, then to clocks and wristwatches, and finally to the precise pretentiousness of the digital clock. When did 6:14 a.m. become more important than the sun coming over the hilltop?

I put away my Palm Pilot with its address book. How many of the people in it live exclusively at e-mail addresses, uprooted from place into the ether of the Internet?

Finally, I put away the cell phone, which happily doesn't work on the island. Many who use the mobile phone as their sole phone have been equally, willfully, dislocated. When the phone chimes, the first question a caller asks is often one that our parents never could have imagined: Where are you?

In the same way, seasons have lost their primacy in our lives, the sense of time and place. It's become easier to buy raspberries in January than to find a place to pick them in August.

As for my workaday hybrid, the people who do not summer, we live with an odd duality. The more disconnected we are to the seasons in our daily lives, the more we travel to them.

At times, in some airport or other, I will see a couple in shorts standing beside another couple in fleece. One is flying to winter, another to summer. A season is just a ticket away. We head for it as if we were just tourists and nature was our temporary destination.

So too I have come here as I do every year, just for the summer of it. Even as I unpack my bags, reluctant children are already being shuttled back to states where the school calendar -- once tied to the harvest -- has been rejiggered to fit the rigor of standardized tests and the cost of heating oil. In class, children will study the environment from arm's length.

But for two weeks, I will be in season. I'll devour my abridged version of nature. The white noise of the air conditioner will be replaced with the wind. The irascible seagulls will trump any alarm clock. And deadlines will be replaced with the pursuit of a striped bass and the certainty of a blueberry pie.

On my own global positioning system, this elusive season is forever located on a few small acres in Maine. And if I run into the stranger on the road, I will tell her, yes, I summer on the island.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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