Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rushing Wind

I think we can all agree that the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on foreign energy. Increasing our energy independence will entail a combination of the wise conservation of existing sources while exploring alternate sources. It will include both personal behavior and government involvement. There is no panacea.

Here in Maine, wind power has become a very controversial issue. Governor Baldacci has declared the development of wind power a priority of his administration and in this State, what the Governor wants, the Governor gets. He has expedited the permitting process for industrial wind projects by eliminating certain requirements. Maine currently has 18 industrial wind projects either online or at some stage of approval.

But let's pull in the reins a minute. Maine is known as "America's Vacationland" because of its unspoiled natural beauty. Many of us have bought or built cabins in pristine areas as an escape from urban lights, noise and traffic. We love the land and respect nature. Clear-cutting the mountain tops and ridge lines to erect 400' tall industrial wind turbines would do irreversible damage to Maine's greatest asset, its pristine beauty. Why are we rushing into it?

There is plenty wrong with the way Maine has charged ahead toward the Governor's stated goal of becoming "the Saudi Arabia of wind" but rather than explain how ill-conceived his plan is, I'm going to take a more positive approach. I want to present a quick list of questions that should be asked and answered before any industrial wind project is approved.

1) Does the site make sense? The government has completed extensive and detailed studies of wind levels across the country. The resulting maps can be seen at:

The American Wind Energy Association warns that "a site must have a minimum annual average wind speed in the neighborhood of 11-13 mph to even be considered".

2) Zoning. Is the site in an area zoned for industrial development or will zoning variances have to be granted?

3) Who's behind the project? Is it a public- or a private sector project? If it is private sector, we need to keep that in mind at all times. Who are the backers and what are their motivations?

4) Does it make financial sense? The project needs to make both short-term and long-term financial sense. If it's private sector, does the developer have sufficient capital? Will it be profitable? More importantly, would it be profitable without any taxpayer money going into it in the form of subsidies, tax advantages or other preferential treatment from local, state and federal government?

5) Are the projections valid? If the investors claim they will be profitable, are their projections based on realistic data? Every figure must be questioned and defensible. The burden of proof must be on the project's backers. Is there a ready buyer for the power generated? If so, is the projected sited near existing delivery lines that can handle the additional capacity?

6) Local impact. What impact will the project have on the environment, local economy, and the health of nearby residents? How many permanent jobs will be created? How will nearby property values be affected? Hard facts and trustworthy studies from existing projects are now available.

7) What impact will the project have on the current grid? Will the responsibility for building new grid capacity fall to the citizens? What impact will the addition power lines have?

8) Study the developer's reputation. Are there allegations of improper dealings associated with other projects? Any history of lawsuits or indictments? Have its other wind projects met their power-generating objectives?

9) Scrutinize those in favor. Which supporters have a financial stake in the project? Which ones have a less direct vested interest in it? Which ones support it because they believe "wind is green so wind is good"? Which ones intelligently back it only after careful consideration of the short- and long-term costs and benefits?

10) Scrutinize those against. Which opponents are against the project because they don't want it in their back yards (a.k.a. NIMBYs)? Which ones intelligently oppose it only after careful consideration of the short- and long-term costs and benefits?

11) Scrutinize the decision makers. This would be the officials of affected towns, the State DEP, Corps of Engineers, and others. If any individual with a vote in any stage of the approval process has any kind of relationship or stake with the project's developer, ethics demand that he declare that relationship and recuse himself.

12) Is it a net green gain? Setting aside the political and financial issues, will this project be a net gain in terms of 'going green'? Keep in mind that fossil fuels are used to start and stop the blades. Turbines also consume enormous amounts of grease and oil for lubrication and cooling. When the power generated is forced into the existing grid, the traditional power plants will by law have to throttle back and operate less efficiently, thereby creating more pollution.

13) What if the wind doesn't blow? Should the project fail to deliver as projected, will the developer be required to remove the towers and return the land to its pre-project condition through soil replacement and planting? If the developer has confidence in his projections, writing such a clause into any permit should not be a problem. If he refuses, consider that a red flag!

Well, that's my quick & dirty list. Before you ask, no, my cabin is not threatened directly by any industrial wind project. Yet I feel very strongly about the irreplacable value of a clean lake and a wooded ridge line whether it's outside my window or not. I'd just like to see wind projects subject to thorough, open, honest and ethical evaluation. Is that too much to ask? Let's not rush like lemmings to the cliff.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October's First

Last night, dear friends came for 'supper', as it's called in northern Maine. One friend brought a lovely bouquet that captures the colors of a woodland autumn. She started with a few store-bought mum's and one sunflower, then added cuttings from the trees and bushes in the woods near her camp. She's captured the delicacy of fall's beauty. Here is a photo of it on our deck with some driftwood.

Click on the image to get a more detailed view of the bouquet. Perhaps a course in flower arranging would be in order for me this winter.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Two Articles Out on Cabin-Related Things

Here are links to a couple of stories I wrote about cabin living - good and bad. First, is an an essay in Down East Magazine, about the summer ending.

Second, a short story published in the current Aroostook Review, about a retired couple from Boston who pick up a hitchhiker on a country road in northern Maine.

The last of the houseguests have departed. Everyone caught fish, saw some moose, and enjoyed rusticating in the woods. The camp record for a smallmouth bass was broken. And, as usual, we ate too much and didn't get much work or writing done. Now that the summer is winding down, our thoughts turn to work. I for one am ready for it. Our summer friends are migrating south, and it's getting very quiet. This was an unusual summer, and perhaps we're all more ready to let this one go. More on that later.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Witnessing Weather

We are at the cabin now, blessed with a highspeed internet hookup and projects. The spring is blooming into glorious summer. Even though we have electricity, plumbing, and our dsl line, we are so much more aware of weather here than in the city. It's not like we're living in a tent, but for some reason, it feels close to that.

A lot of it is our metal roof; even the slightest sprinkle announces itself. Beyond that, thunder is louder here. The wind rushes through the pines and hemlocks with great drama and sweep. A fog envelops the water and veils us from even the edge of the woods. Trying to read or write, I get distracted when a weather front comes through, or when the sunshine bursts out from behind a cloud lighting up the trees across the stream at sunset. In the suburbs or city, I'd never even notice that. Here I track the times of sunset and moonrise, checking out the sky many times each day to assess what is going on outside. Of course, we have to guage whether we can go hiking, boating or fishing based on the weather, that's certainly part of it. But I think being out here, away from dense clusters of dwellings, I'm drawn to consciously witness the weather here. Looking out the kitchen window at the shed during a sudden shower, I imagined what it would have been like 150 years ago, whether people in the Maine woods always had weather on their minds, or if they just took it as it came, without much comment. For me, up here, it's a constant source of wonder.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"There's a Porcupine in My Outhouse" - a great cabin read

Just finished Michael Tougias' 2002 book, There's a Porcupine in My Outhouse - Misadventures of a Mountain Man Wannabe - about the author's misadventures in his primitive A-Frame cabin in Vermont in the 1980's and 1990's. Michael Tougias has gone on to write more than a dozen books, most recently about tales of daring rescue in New England. He's got a new book coming out next week, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Cost Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue". In contrast to the topic of his new book, "There's a Porcupine in My Outhouse" is a light-hearted memoir of his early days communing with nature as a new cabin owner. Even in its most introspective moments, the book never gets preachy. He learns to appreciate the natural world around him while experiencing a series of hilarious mishaps. I found myself laughing out loud at so many incidents in the book, most when the author was with his friends, getting into all kinds of trouble. While his interactions with nature are full of wonder, as soon as other humans get involved, the laughs aren't far behind. Despite all the misadventures, it was the cabin that got him started as a writer. The first story he sold was about a fishing trip he took with his two buddies. Highly recommended cabin read.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Calling on Neighbors by Boat

We'd owned our cabin several months before learning the etiquette involved when calling on lake neighbors by boat. We have a small aluminum motorboat. Sometimes it's most convenient to jump in the boat and run up-lake to return a book or an empty piepan. But there are rules. I think they're a throw-back to the days before telephones, when people used to call on each other unannounced. But there's a charming subtlety to it.

1. Approach your neighbor's dock slowly, assessing whether they're home or not.
2. If you think they're home, do not shout or call their name.
3. Instead, you should slowly circle or wait just beyond the end of the dock. You try in this subtle way to attract your neighbors' attention. If it's bad weather, it's OK to pull up and hold onto their dock, but most people won't tie up. Just hold on and wait to see if your friends come out to greet you. If they don't appear you'll know they are not free to talk, and you can be on your way.
4. Most importantly, do not get out of your boat and knock on the door, unless it's an emergency or you're leaving something for them.
5. If you're leaving something for them, leave it inside or next to their 'front' door (the door facing the water).
6. If you're just stopping by to chat, and you see your neighbors are home but they don't come out, just pull away. Usually they'll tell you they saw you, but they were on the phone or in the middle of something very important.

We learned these rules the hard way. We were having dinner at our dining room table that has a view of the lake. Our place is far enough from the water that we can't usually tell who or what is at the end of the dock. A boat circled back and forth several times as we ate, and a woman in the boat waved. Since they didn't come up to get us, we ignored them. We learned later that they wanted to tell us that the mother loon on the lake we'd all been watching had just hatched her chick and was parading it on her back. This was a big event for birdwatchers like us and we missed it. But our friends didn't want to break the rules by running up to the house to tell us, or shouting. Now we know to come outside if someone pulls up to the dock, or makes a couple of passes by.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NYTimes Column - "Natural Happiness"

The April 15th New York Times had a wonderful column by Yale Professor Paul Bloom about why humans need to spend time in nature, the most important being it's essential to our happiness. You can read it here. (Photograph by Reuben Cox).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My Favorite Screensaver

It's pretty much self-explanatory.

(Right click to save it if you like)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sporting Camps: A Great Way to 'Cabin' in Maine

If you're considering renting a cabin this summer, why not book a week's stay at one of Maine's storied resorts known as sporting camps?

Maine sporting camps are remote resorts built near a body of water, usually comprising several log cabins and a main lodge where meals are served. The name 'sporting camp' has nothing to do with sports like tennis, or golf. A 'sport' is a century-old term for a city person who used to travel to Maine in summer and hire a guide to take him fishing or hunting. There are about a hundred sporting camps left. Most have an 'American' meal plan, i.e. they provide all your meals, so your family cook gets a much-deserved vacation too. (While some camps don't provide meals, others give you the option of cooking your own meals.) The beauty of these sporting camps is that you're in the wilderness, but you're not alone. You can spend your days enjoying the rustic setting, or exploring the water and woods. You can socialize with others, but not have the duties of entertaining. You can make new friends, and your kids can play in a safe environment, unplugged from cell phones, internet, e-mail and texting. Sounds like a paradise! And the prices aren't bad. Most folks book themselves for a week. Check out the Maine Sporting Camps Association Website, or the wonderful guide, Maine Sporting Camps by Alice Arlen from Down East Books.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cabin Fever... Help!

It's sixty-one days 'til Memorial Day and the official start of cabin season. I'm not sure I can wait that long. This year's strain of Cabin Fever has been particularly resistant to the usual vaccine. And it keeps getting worse.

When I closed the cabin last fall, I brought home a list of cabin-related projects to carry me through my convalescence. I also had an armload of cabin-related books to read. The projects are now done and the books have been read. I guess the only tonic remaining is to watch cabin-related movies.

With over a hundred channels of TV, Netflix and the public library's stable of videos & DVDs you'd think I could get through the remaining 8 weeks, right? While I was watching PBS run 'Alone in the Wilderness' for the fourteenth time, I started making a list of 'cabin movies'. Sadly, most movies that take place at cabins have to do with axe-murderers and the like. Anyway, here's what I found:

On Golden Pond: Who hasn't seen this classic? Both Henry Fonda & Katharine Hepburn won Oscars for their performances. Filmed on Squam Lake in New Hampshire.
Alone on the Wilderness: Watch an eccentric but likable character build a log cabin by hand in the Alaskan Wilderness.
American Values, American Wilderness: A documentary by Christopher Reeve.
Adventures of the Wilderness Family: An L.A. family (the Robinson's) decides to move to the Rockies to build a cabin and live off the land. Might appeal to the under-10 set.
The Lodge: Young lovebirds check into a lodge run by a creepy guy. How many times has this story been told? Skipped the theaters and went straight to video.
Great Lodges of the National Parks: PBS documentary series billed as the perfect remedy for cabin fever. I haven't seen these yet but they're on my list.
Adventure Lodges of North America: This one's also on my list.
Cabin Fever: Some college kids party in the woods where a hermit gives them a lethal virus.
June Cabin: A group of friends has a reunion at a remote cabin. One of them goes missing. One of the worst movies I've ever seen.
Wilderness Survival for Girls: Three high school girls at a remote cabin, a strange man arrives, etc. (Is it just me or is there a recurring theme here?)
Sam's Lake: Following the death of her Father, a girl invites a bunch of girlfriends to a remote cottage haunted by a decades old murder.
Ghost Lake: Following the death of her parents, a girl retreats to her family's lakeside summer house... wait a minute! This sounds just like Sam's Lake!!
Do you have a favorite cabin movie? If so, please leave a comment. Sixty-one days is starting to look like forever.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Eric Sloane, Renaissance Man 1905 - 1985

Bill has a camp uplake from us. Whenever he comes calling he compliments me on the improvements I've made to our cabin. Bill is a retired pattern-maker and is amazingly handy himself. His own camp predated the road so he had to mule his building materials in on his back, on a sled or by boat. Having no electricity (still doesn't) he built his camp without benefit of power tools. I value his opinions and suggestions.

sloaneOn one visit he asked if I'd ever read anything written by Eric Sloane. I had not. He then loaned me his well-read copy of 'Diary of an Early American Boy'. I devoured the book and have since bought every Eric Sloane book I can find.

In addition to his obvious talents and work ethic, Sloane repeatedly benefited from being in the right place at the right time. In that way his early life reminds me of Forrest Gump. Sloane took an early interest in art. He learned how to draw numbers and letters from a neighbor, Mr. Goudy (designer of the popular Goudy font) and started painting signs for money. Living near Roosevelt Field on Long Island, he painted the names and numbers on many planes and got to know many of the pilots. He learned to fly from none other than aviation pioneer Wiley Post, the first pilot to fly solo around the world. He quickly became obsessed with the sky and clouds, themes that would become central to his art. His first cloud painting was bought by none other than Amelia Earhart and another covers an entire wall at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

At age fourteen Sloane ran away to become an itinerant sign painter. He worked his way across America, painting signs on barns, buildings and stores. He studied America from a vantage point few people experienced.

Fascinated by weather, The Farmer's Almanac and the early American farmer's ability interpret "weather signs", Sloane is credited with being the first television weatherman, having come up with the idea of having farmers from all over New England call in their weather observations to a Dumont, New York TV station where they could be broadcast to the regional audience.

Over the course of his eighty years, Sloane wrote thirty-eight books and created nearly 15,000 paintings.

In the early 1950's, while restoring an antique farmhouse in Connecticut, he discovered a boy's almanac, inkwell and diary dated 1805. The contents piqued his interest in the life of early American settlers. By adding commentary and illustration, the diary provided the framework for the book Bill loaned me, 'Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805'.

While he may be best known for his paintings, it's his fascination with the lifestyle and ingenuity of early settlers that appeals to me. He is a recognized authority on Early American rural architecture, tools, folk wisdom and meteorology. Through his paintings and his books, Sloane's spirit lives on today as if he's determined to keep the invincible Early American Spirit alive. For this I will always be grateful to Eric Sloane and my thoughtful neighbor, Bill.

For a list of Sloane's books, go to www.townsendbooks.com/sloane.htm

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Already There

We all need to escape from our overbooked lives once in a while. What better refuge than a cabin, cottage, camp, or lodge, somewhere in the woods, on a mountain, or near a lake or river? Even if we really can't go to a place like that, we can dream about it. And in dreaming, we're already there.

It's the kind of place where.....

  • the office can't contact you since your cell phone hardly works and there's no e-mail.
  • you wear the same jeans and old flannel shirt for a week and no one notices.
  • you run errands in a motorboat or an old pickup.
  • you can't get any television reception so you start to read, and make conversation.
  • you spend a rainy day tackling an impossibly complex jigsaw puzzle.