22 February 2015

Maine - Tell me about that.

While trading email with a friend now living in Las Vegas, he wrote: "Maine. Tell me about that." Okay. Take a ride with me up the Atlantic Highway to mid-coast ME.

We're living in Belfast, a coastal town with much of what one might imagine for a New England coastal town: schooners, lobster boats, tourists. In Waldo County, one of Maine's 23 counties, Belfast Bay is within Penobscot Bay, itself within the Gulf of Maine, and protected from the pounding surf by Deer Island, Vinylhaven and many smaller islands. The towns of Rockland, Camden, Lincolnville, and Belfast make up most of what's considered the mid-coast region. Portland, the state's biggest city at just over 66,300, is south and west while the sublime grandeur of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are just east.

The peninsula of northern New England is bordered by New Hampshire to the west and Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada, to the northwest and northeast, respectively. The Atlantic Ocean rolls to the south. The Appalachian Trail begins in west-central Maine, at Mt. Katahdin. About 1.33 million people call Maine home. Most of those people are older than the national average, many don't like us folks who move here "from away." Many are welcoming and friendly.

I arrived in late August for a position at Unity College. The previous July we (wife, child and I) visited for the first time together. The summer vibrancy of Belfast attracted us with its independent bookstores, classic old movie theater, working lobster docks and a rejuvenated ship-building yard. The true Main Street appeal was and is very charming. A small town of not quite 7,000, Belfast has relatively good schools and at least one watering hole that tolerated what emerged as a strong Green Bay Packers bar.

There is a surprisingly strong Wisconsin contingent out here. Among other points of contact, there are nearly a dozen professors of various rank at Unity College who either graduated or taught at UW-Madison. A dozen may not sound like a lot but, as a micro-college (less than 1,000 students) this dozen represents nearly a third of the entire Unity faculty body. Coming from the 40,000-student milieu of UW, the adjustment has been both refreshing and somewhat challenging - but all for the better. It's a good place to be right now.

Getting to work, I drive west from Belfast on 20+ miles of a snake trail that is State Highway 137. At Knox Ridge, I turn north on Hwy 220 towards the town of Unity. Roadkill porcupine were very common in the fall - than I ever thought there could be roadkill porcupine. Like raccoon in the Midwest. Crows are everywhere out here, too. And seagulls. Lately, near Knox Ridge, I've been seeing a few Bald Eagles and at least one osprey. A flock of wild turkeys is not uncommon, scratching around the fallow organic veggie fields common in Waldo County.

This area was a hotbed of the Back to the Land movement of the 1960s - 70s. A renaissance, it seems, is taking place. Younger farmers and ag-industry workers are plentiful. Some have moved up from New York and Boston and, while these trust-fund kids may make nice mainstream media stories, they are not the norm.

Winter. Old Man Winter is a jerk. Most people seem to rely on plow service for snow removal - even for a small driveway. If it snows 8 inches overnight in the Upper Midwest, one can expect to hear a solid handful of snow-blowers out and running by early the next morning. Here, I am the only one. Also, sidewalks. People do not seem all that concerned with clearing sidewalks. Comparisons aside, this winter would be a challenge anywhere. With about 55 inches of snow in three weeks of late January and early February -- and a good 12 to 16 inches since then -- we ran out of places to put snow several weeks ago. Boston, about three hours south, has been hit even harder.

Photo by James T. Spartz (@jtspartz) on

We are settling in. The young miss is in school and making friends. My second semester of professorship is going pretty well. The good wife is looking for work after having finished up a lingering project from UW. We're in a rental house that is a little tight yet adequate enough for the time being. We are definitely looking forward to summer. Spring will be nice, too. They just call it "mud season" up here though, so some new muck boots might be in order.

So, Maine. Yeah. It's okay. My excitement will likely be a little stronger come summer but, for now, yeah, it's okay. Now, tell me about Las Vegas...

17 January 2015

Sometimes You Just Have to Write.

Sometimes you just have to write. The subject doesn't matter, it's the drive that persists. Write. Let your fingers do the talking. From Q to P to A to L to Z to M... Just get it out.

It's a snow day and there's work. The tea has cooled and the honey is gone. Too late for coffee. No need to be clever. Just write. Get past the "nothing to say" and the "no time" and the noise of everything. Just write. Turn the spigot and water that keyboard garden. Write beautiful phrases of lush language. Or total crap. Just write.

There are no sidewalks here, just paths to follow. Walk along them. Let the world go away. Dim the lights a bit and let old photos shimmer in the blur. Play your records. Play Eh La Bas and St. Louis Blues and T-Bone Walker. Play Jacques Brel, Herb Alpert, Ray Charles, Lightnin' Hopkins. Good ol' Lightnin'. He may stumble - that one-time soul-blues drunken pioneer idol of countless roots rock duos - he stumbles and falls and you pick him up with the grace of Mother Teresa. Let Lightnin' do his thing. Let Mother do here thing. You do yours.

Write and sing and play. Be honest to who you are - and then get more honest. Be your own Corps of Discovery. Is honesty relative? Does Truth matter? Forget about it. Forget who you've been. Words are a scythe for your own stale attachments. Be who you are. Imagine your future in this moment right now. Right thinking. Right action. Just write.

Flowers bud in the spring and you, like the flower, find the winter all but deadly. The dark the cold the commercial nothingness of holiday hell. Shed your cynicism! Embrace the light! Get out and do something. Forget what your least-favorite aunt-in-law told you about playing it safe and sticking with security. Dullsville. You know this! The obstacle IS the path. Explore uncertain destinations. Be brave. Make the time to walk the dog in the snow along a frozen stream. Freeze your fingertips to a respectable degree. Walk through the cedar grove. Pause there. Nothing beats a good cedar grove in winter. And when you get back, thaw. Then write. Not for anyone. Just for you. Write. And keep writing. Keep it to yourself or announce it to the world. Do both.

The words are water and the fish in the water doesn't know what water is. Thank you, DFW. Be the fish. Swim. Let it happen and let it pass. Be active in the passing. Know when to say when but don't skip an opportunity. Scribble. Notate. Use your notepad - you do have a notepad, right? - (Write) - as it is by your bedside and in your coat pocket and in your duffle. When you're upstairs at Genna's Lounge and Lightnin' strikes like a two note solo so powerful and clear you are compelled toward silence. Write. Two notes can lead to an aria. But you won't know if you don't go. Get out there. Get gone. Do it. Do it again. And again and again and again. Be who you are (this is the key!). Be in the moment. Be open to new experiences. Recognize the glory of your own brief existence. Be in the moment repeatedly. Leave, but come back. Come back to the moment and write. Sometimes you just have to. Write.

02 November 2014

Bhutan, in Fashion.

The New York Times Style magazine has many good features. If you can get past the glorification of affectless nearly post-adolescent models hanging clothes that most people could never afford off their bone and skin frames, redeeming qualities do exist.

In the Nov. 2, 2014 Travel issue, the Higher State of Being piece about Bhutan juxtaposes age-old Buddhist practices with an emerging bicycle culture and the country's measure of Gross National Happiness. Astute observers will also note the irony in stating facts like "The majority of Bhutanese live off the land, practicing subsistence agriculture." within this high-tone glossy magazine spread. Travel porn, if you will, is the currency of this leisure class industry.

Nonetheless, the following quote caught my eye:

To ask a Bhutanese about happiness is akin to asking a Frenchman about wine or a Brazilian about soccer: It is the expected question, the question he is perhaps a bit weary of answering — yet he will gamely respond, unfolding not just a rote reply, but an admirably subtle disquisition. Gross National Happiness, or G.N.H., is the big talking point when it comes to Bhutan. It is also a source of intense debate, a fluid concept which, many Bhutanese contend, is often misunderstood, especially by the outside world.
“Here is the key point to understand about G.N.H.,” said Kinley Dorji, the head of Bhutan’s Ministry of Information and Communication. “Happiness itself is an individual pursuit. Gross National Happiness then becomes a responsibility of the state, to create an environment where citizens can pursue happiness. It’s not a guarantee of happiness by the government. It’s not a promise of happiness. But there is a responsibility to, you know, create the conditions for happiness.”
Dorji said: “When we say ‘happiness,’ we have to be very clear that it’s not fun, pleasure, thrill, excitement, all the temporary fleeting senses. It is permanent contentment — with life, with what you have. That lies within the self. Because the bigger house, the faster car, the nicer clothes, they don’t give you that contentment. G.N.H. means good governance. G.N.H. means preservation of traditional culture. And it means sustainable socio-economic development. Remember, here, that G.N.H. is a pun on G.D.P., Gross Domestic Product. We are making a distinction.”

14 October 2014

Michael Waldrep: Understanding the Meaning of Sense of Place

Nice essay here from one of the inaugural Fullbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling fellows: Michael Waldrep: Understanding the Meaning of Sense of Place.

Waldrep will take a multimedia approach, using writing in combination with video, photography, and mapping to conduct an in-depth analysis of places around Mexico City.

"The idea," says Waldrep, "is to communicate a sense of this place and to gather together some of the lessons that Mexico City can learn from its own development, and that cities all around the world—not least of all those in the U.S., where sprawl is a fundamental fact of recent and contemporary urban development—can learn from as well."

It will be very interesting to see how all five of the Fullbright-National Geographic scholars develop their own unique project.

07 October 2014

McKibben in Maine

A few of us from Unity College went up to Orono today to hear Bill McKibben talk. As it happened, we were walking into the auditorium at the same time as Mr. McKibben. We stopped and introduced ourselves as affiliated with Unity. To see his eyes light up with mention of UC and hear him say "I'm always glad to check in with Unity" was a moment of pride for my new place of work. I asked if it was okay to snap a picture and he was more than happy to indulge our group selfie.
From left: Gunnar Norback, Bill McKibben,
Martin Maines, JTS.
University of Maine - Orono.

The University of Maine hosted event was part of their honors program, having selected Eaarth as the honors read for 2014. It was a good talk. McKibben prefaced it with the acknowledgement that he was a professional "bummer outer" on the topic of climate change and delivered some very sobering stats about how small the window of opportunity really is for humanity to save itself from itself.

It was engaging, in part (and somewhat ironically), because McKibben is not a natural public speaker. He freely admits he sees himself as a writer and feels more comfortable in that role. He's also a realist. There's no pie-in-the-sky environmentalism here. Though it would have been nice to focus a little more on actionable insights - achievable solutions - it is just not that simple. Individuals will influence climate change very little through individual actions. That's not what many people want to hear (what I do matters!) but it's really only through organized group social and political action can we enact the necessary changes.

One analogy and one positive idea of potential change stick with me. The analogy is this: If I take my garbage to the city dump and have to pay $2 or $3 per bag to dispose of it, that is an expense I would rather not pay. I could just toss my garbage out on the sidewalk for free. But what happens? After a while I have a big stinking pile of garbage affecting my family, neighbors, and the neighborhood. Oil and gas companies could also pay to deal with their garbage (i.e. toxic pollutants in the air and water). But they effectively dump it into the atmosphere like so much garbage on the sidewalk - for free and with relative impunity. If the political will was there, as it is in some places (looking at you with a wink and a nod, British Columbia), governments could enact a system where polluters are held accountable - reversing long-term trend of Big Energy running roughshod over the already deteriorating life-path that future generations hope to tread. Political contributions from oil and gas companies strongly predict politician decision making. The system of big money in politics is a broken one and does not represent the interests of the people.

The idea for potential change caught my ear as analogous to a phenomenon that occurred in mass communications around the recent turn of the century. When cellular phone and internet technology started to infiltrate poorer nations, many regions went from 19th to 21st Century communication virtually overnight. Having skipped over land-line phones and cable television, many places went straight to satellite link-ups and cellular connections. This could happen in developing regions in terms of energy, too. What if regions that still depend on rudimentary energy sources - charcoal, coal, wood from unsustainable sources - were to virtually skip over the pitfalls of fossil fuels and jump right into renewables - solar, wind, sustainable bioenergy?  Not only does it seem possible, it seems very plausible and with high potential. And it provides some hope - something we could all use a little more of.

11 September 2014

Getting Back on the Moose Track.

You may be stopping by The Topophilian because of a recent profile posted by my awesome alma mater - the University of Wisconsin's Department of Life Sciences Communication. That's nice. Thank you. You may also notice that this blog really has not been updated since July. Surprise! I've been busy! With all the dissertation defending and the packing and the moving and the new position at Unity College, well, there's just not been much time for blogging. This may or may not strike you as a reasonable excuse. I don't care. I'm sticking with it.

Yet, this is a kick in the pants to get back on the horse and keep writing. Though, perhaps, maybe getting back on the moose is more appropriate (and less cliche). Why? Because I saw a moose yesterday. Yes, really. It's in this picture, just barely. It was a juvenile bull moose just trotting down Charles Street here in Belfast. And, yes, I was shocked. Better than a cup of imported EVP coffee at 6:25am on an otherwise average Wednesday. But, I digress. I want to back to writing about this thing called place - place attachment, place meanings, sense of place, space and place. All that stuff. Good stuff.

There is such a strong local food culture here in Waldo County, Maine. So many people connected to the land. Terroir and all that. Many people doing many great things. There's so much to say. I just need to stop being so busy and add this to my list of things to do. I will. I promise. After I re-read that section of Omnivore's Dilemma and set out a lesson plan on Spotify and prep for this People's Climate March trip to NYC. And health insurance. Need to get health insurance. Then. Yes, then. Then I will blog. I will. It offers little in the way of external validation and about as close to nothing as one can get in the way of academic advancement, but I will get back to it. Why? Because other than sitting around and singing and stomping my feet with a hollow-body Gretsch turned up to 11 through a Mississippi-made tube amp with a 16" speaker, it's one of the things I enjoy most. That's what I'll be doing. What will you be doing?

24 July 2014

For Whiskey, Environment Means Everything.

The set of encyclopedias I've been lugging around from place to place for nearly 20 years is good for many things. Sure, net neutrality and common core educational issues are not within those pages, but history comes alive in other ways. Take whiskey, for example.

Years ago I wanted to learn more about whiskey. This is mostly because I knew that my grandpa and his brothers used to have a still hidden somewhere out on the plains of southwest Minnesota. Like Little House on the Prairie, with booze. 

I discovered that a key ingredient is the water. This seems common-sense now but, at the time, it just hadn't occurred to me that the quality of water would impact the quality of the whiskey. The ground water in a place like Bourbon County, Kentucky, is filtered through a limestone shelf and gives a clarity and composition unique to the area. It is an essential ingredient yet, surprisingly, not a regulated one.

The Bourbon Family Tree - courtesy of GQ magazine.

NPR recently ran a segment called "It's Not Tennessee Whiskey If It's Aged In Kentucky, State Says" by Camila Domonoske. In it, we learn that the environmental conditions of an area have a big impact on the final product. Temperature, humidity, and other factors all impact how the charred oak barrels and their precious liquid contents interact.
Regardless of what that booze was doing in Kentucky, does it really matter where exactly a barrel of liquor ages? According to Joe Barnes, founder of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, yes. 
"If you ask anyone in Tennessee, if they take their barrel down the street — much less across the state — they're going to get a different product, just by fluctuations in temperature and humidity," Barnes says. "Aging a product in Giles County is different from aging a product in Sevier County."

It is the whole environment, not only the water, but the wood, the air, the generations of expertise - the place itself - that ends up in those bottles of amber gold.

Also, for those of you wondering what the difference is between bourbon and whiskey, Natalie Wolchover at Live Science adds some insight: 

While bourbon whiskey has its roots in Kentucky, and continues to be primarily produced there, it is now manufactured in distilleries all over the United States. Manufacturers must meet the following requirements in order to advertise their whiskey product as "bourbon": 
It must be produced in the U.S. from a grain mixture (called "mash") made up of at least 51 percent corn. It must be distilled to a maximum strength of 160 proof, bottled at a strength of at least 80 proof, and barreled for aging at no more than 125 proof. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. To qualify as "straight bourbon," the spirits must meet the above requirements as well as being aged for at least two years and containing no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits. 
Many bourbon whiskey distilleries in Kentucky advertise their use of unique water filtered by the limestone shelf in Bourbon County; while this feature may add to the allure of Kentucky bourbon whiskey , the federal trade regulations do not stipulate about what water must be used.