CHRONICLE editor Lee included words about the village school in his collection of Maine writings. The educator Mary Ellen Chase writes of the old-time two-room school she attended as a child. She points out the flaws of the “system”; reuse of old books, obsolete maps, “harassed and overworked,” teachers. And she tells of its strengths: “pride in learning well,” “solidarity of outlook” and the instillation of morally strengthening ideas. In this little world of learning, perhaps considered narrow and barren by some today, a love of learning flourished in Mary Ellen Chase as she glimpsed learning at levels higher than her own. Learning was something mysterious and wise, as she saw in “the beauty and order of common fractions” that an older student had transcribed on the board. In this I find the idea that knowing is not as enlivening as the process of learning. Once the thrill of revelation wears off, one wants to proceed through the process of learning afresh.
Maine humor, dry, often self-deprecating, was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Editor/ compiler W. Storrs Lee, Mark Twain was influenced by Maine’s Artemus Ward (born Charles Farrar Browne just over the hills in Waterford). Ward practiced Maine humor. Lincoln wanted him in the room with him during the Civil War–at least he wanted Ward’s words there, opening a meeting of the cabinet.
I found exquisite humor and style in George S. Wasson’s “Standing Room Only” where night life at Cap’n Simeon’s Store is described. Here old salts gather round the stove, and youths atop barrels and meals sacks listen while simple wisdom and lore unjaded come forth from the humor of experience.
My favorite selection in a particular book was written by Robert P. Tristram Coffin. So good were his words that I did not want to come to the end of them. His subject was “Cathedrals of the North,” a celebration of the Maine barn and the “worship” that is performed therein. He speaks of the fullness of summer being brought into the barn and stored against the leanness of winter. It is fed there to the patient beasts under the farmer’s care.
Here’s included just enough of the hermit’s story to tantalize you. He lived, solitary, within sound of the occasional lawnmower and motorboats plying waters on the pond below his camp. The author of The Stranger in the Woods, Mr. Finkel, called Christopher Knight’s meeting with people “collisions”— as Anne Morrow Lindbergh used this word, I noticed while reading her journals. Collision.
We went biking uphill and downhill through woods, over sand deposits on trails — sands left by the glaciers. It’s the trail I think of as my free will trail. Sometimes on the trail I think about free will.
Next week I hope to blog about a book on the Maine hermit. And I’ve blogged about Patricia’s novel, Necessary Places, elsewhere:
Anna will meet the necessary place in all its refreshed physicality, its familiar and friendly relations. But she is caring for her father—seven years stricken with Parkinson’s disease—as they travel. Yet there’s much more than a caregiving journey in this book. Here are relations with disconcerting surprises, and surprising resolutions to apparent betrayals. I find in this novel the ways we are all taken off guard, amazed, and caught red-handed—the clichés coming alive as we live them. . . and vicariously experience them here anew as our own. Necessary Places is the book for it. And it is an extended often funny showing of what suffering, pain, and other unpleasant trials are for.
Continuing from last week’s post, here’s more on my nontraditional undergrad experience with the author of Waiting to Begin, who now holds the BFA chair at UMF. Unbeknownst to either of us at that time, she was helping me begin the MAINE METAPHOR series.
I was not meeting with other creative writers. I was designing my own major around Maine studies, topics of which abounded among course offerings, but formalizing such a degree was not an option at that time. So I asked my mentor to work with me, saying I wanted to study and write mythic literature in an independent study. Neither O’Donnell nor the chair of the English department would sign onto the project. If I had waited perhaps a semester they might have been more receptive because by that time Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking studies in the power of myth were popularized. Public television had begun doing this series with Bill Moyers and Campbell. (Recently Pat told me she would not have felt qualified to work on this type of writing.)
Patricia O’Donnell, author of Waiting to Begin, is five years younger than I am. We met at the University of Maine at Farmington where I was a nontraditional student. When it was learned that I was a prose writer I was granted the opportunity to have her as my mentor. I did not want to enter the creative writing program, however. At that time it offered no degree, and I had been writing professionally for a decade since my first fiction story was published in a national magazine, Horse Illustrated.*
So I wanted to learn about other things, particularly about Maine. I thought it wise to study with knowledgeable professors in order to have something to write about. I had been living in Maine for a few years, living an interesting life, but writing from life did not interest my pen. I needed knowledge, details, history, understanding. Supporting and integrating insight into the work—this is what makes a journal interesting to work with. Research comes after the living is written down.
We’d be rich if we were all to receive a pickle whenever anyone said, The first time I saw Stephen King he was reading a book.
In the memoir of her childhood Monica Wood tells us the heroic, founding industrialist story of Mr. Hugh Chisholm and his surreptitious study—or scoping out as rurals say here—of the great falls and surrounding land. The lens is her schoolroom instruction by Sister Ernestine. Chisholm’s borrowed horse and sleigh took him down-river through icy fog where the thundering of the waterfall in rime-frosted landscape excited this man as he approached. He then climbed out to pat his St. Jude, and reward the horse with a cube of sugar.