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The Maine Course

During the week, the weather fluctuates from cold and rainy to sunny and hot. One night I sleep in my sweats, another in a T-shirt.

Meals quickly become both a highlight of the day and a running joke. Last year, the camp did not do well financially. Faced with a decreased food budget, chef Janii Laberge, a wiry man with neon-blue eyes who would be well cast as Popeye, is nervous that there won't be enough food to go around, so he begins each meal by announcing in no uncertain terms that we are to take only one slice of bread, one half of a tostada, one half of a fish cake. At my first lunch, I watch a man in his eighties scolded by an intern for taking both tuna and turkey. We all want to eat more because the food, including linguini with fresh clam sauce, curried squash soup and still-warm chocolate chip cookies, is delicious. We giggle like schoolchildren as one troublemaker pipes up, "Please, sir, I want some more." Yet I soon realize that one serving easily sates my hunger. Gluttony seems out of place here.

Campers on a Maine Audubon program get close to nature by staying on Hog Island. (Photos Courtesy of Maine Audubon)

This spartan style of living comes through in other small ways. Everyone makes sure lights are turned out when the bathroom is not in use. Water is not left running while teeth are brushed. One set of towels and sheets is good for the duration. Cloth napkins sporting clips with our names are fastened to several clotheslines strung in the dining hall. "You can put them in the bucket for washing if they get real gunky," another camper tells me. "But they would rather you don't."

The simplicity and natural beauty combine to form a rare atmosphere that almost forces self-examination. Marilyn Smith, a computer security expert for the IRS from Falling Waters, W. Va., says she has come to the camp for 19 summers, mostly because it allows her to focus on her life's direction. "I made the decision to get divorced here," she said. "I decided here to get my master's degree. You can't plug in a computer. There are no telephones or cell phones ringing. It forces you to leave that behind and focus on whatever is on your mind."

Poetry and Politics

I am immediately struck by the caliber of both the instructors and the participants. Colleen Webster, a college professor of English from Havre de Grace, Md., shares juicy details about the connection between this island and Emily Dickinson. Marty Gibbins of Bellevue, Wash., gives impromptu astronomy lessons during the clear nights; many of us see the moons of Jupiter for the first time through his scope. Chris Clark, an emergency room doctor from Old Orchard, Maine, discusses what it's like to treat lobstermen for hypothermia. And these are just the participants.

Attendees come from across the country. There are environmental educators, elementary school teachers, college professors, engineers, homemakers and government employees. Singles, lesbian couples and a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary are here. Ages range from early twenties to early nineties. Many more women than men attend the camp. And if there is a Republican on the island, he or she is keeping very quiet.

Instructors have both credentials and charisma. Mark Garland, a senior naturalist at the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory with an easy smile, can tell a fritillary butterfly from a crescent butterfly in the five seconds it takes one to flit by. Bonnie Bochan, who has spent much of the past 15 years as a researcher at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station in Ecuador, and Tom Leckey, a staff naturalist, work as a team, finishing each another's sentences and gently disagreeing like an old married couple. Between the two of them, every insect, plant, mammal and bird on the island can be identified and explained. Steve Berkowitz, a senior instructor of marine science at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, actually understands what causes tides and is full of facts on sperm whales (they use sound to stun their prey) and killer whales (which are actually the world's largest dolphins).

Guest speakers keep us awake past our bedtimes. Steve Kress, director of Project Puffin, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring nesting puffins and other seabirds to the Gulf of Maine, has us mesmerized by the story of how puffins and other rare seabirds were reintroduced to nearby Eastern Egg Island by scientists and volunteers who used decoys, mirrors and loudspeakers and still stay for weeks at a time on the small rock, refusing to give up even after initial years of failure. "Without a caring public, all of this will fail," he admonishes us. It is the first, but not the last, time during the week that an instructor's words would make me uncomfortable in my complacency, forcing me to examine my actions and how they affect the natural world.

Bochan and Leckey, who refer to themselves as the "last Luddites," are the most outspoken environmental advocates. During one session, we learn about the small things that individuals can do. Drink shade-grown coffee; monolithic coffee plantations attract 97 percent fewer birds. Keep cats indoors; feral and domestic cats kill 700 million birds each year. Mark window glass; tens of millions of birds are killed in window strikes each year. Give up your cell phone; mining of the mineral coltan, used in cell phone manufacturing, is decimating gorilla populations in eastern Congo. The mood grows even more somber as Bochan tells us about the night 10,000 Lapland longspurs, small songbirds, were killed when they flew into a radio tower in western Kansas during a stormy January night in 1998.

"I don't think my life has any more value than a Blackburnian warbler's," Bochan says. "I certainly could see myself happy as a clam living in a cabin without any electricity. If we didn't have all this stuff, people would be happier. How much stuff do we need?"

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