MAINE IS A Lorelei state - luring the unwary to her lovely shores, then vanishing in the mists if they try to move too close. The moonlight there can wring poetry out of a stone - but somehow writers under Maine's spell have often gone soft in the head.
Behind its pastoral facade lie a harsh climate, unforgiving soil,murderous blackflies, mosquitoes as big as bats, spiders that raise welts that can last for months. There is a dark side to Maine's rustic charms, and the dramas behind those farmhouse doors make Ethan Frome sound like comic relief. For all the first-name directness and thoughtful acts, there is a wall between Maine and the world - a rigid stratification among its people that lasts for life. To be totally accepted one must be born there, preferably to parents who were born there as well. Anyone else is forever "from away," and even a native who leaves Maine for a job is "from away" when he tries to come home. People who move to Maine and sink roots are "transplants" from "away." And at the outermost fringe, in a sort of Siberia from which there is no known reprieve, are the summer people - the "straphangers," as they're sometimes called. A straphanger who moves to Maine for keeps is not even really promoted to transplant, but remains a "year-round summer person" for the rest of his days.
Four varied books - by natives and transplants - have each grappled with this alluring and enigmatic place, with varying degrees of success.
In Enjoying Maine Bill Caldwell views the place with a lover's eye. He moved there in 1964, after a summer vacation on the coast, when his children laid it on the line: "We don't want to go back to New York City, ever," they announced. The only way to make a move like that, he writes, "is just to do it." So at 46 he pulled up stakes and rented a house in Damariscotta. His wife went back to work and he started job-hunting for himself. Eventually, he wound up writing columns - for the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram - which have been colleted in this book.
He is an old hand at the typewriter, and could weave a good yarn out of the Portland telephone book if he had to; so when he applies his skills to enjoying Maine, he makes a persuasive case.
He wanders around the state, gets into conversations with people and tells you what he found out. By the times he's through, you've learned why lobster bouys are shaped the way they are, how lobsters live, love and died and how they shed their shells. He tells you the difference between flotsam and jetsam and how baby harbor seals are taught to swim and that the chewing apparatus of a sand dollar is called Aristotle's lantern. He describes the best way to cut ice from a pond; delves into the lore of the sled dogs of the north; visits the game wardens in the wilds of the ALlagash; judges a beauty contest in Aroostook county; describes the fine points of the axes the lumberjacks use. You learn that a 300-pound mother bear produces only a 12-ounce cub and that a brief mating season in June in the "only social occasion in a bear's life." He writes about Maine's worm diggers, windjammer captains and writers - including a rambling chat with E. B. White. He discovers that a Maine man invented the toothpick and declares that Maine has "more talent per capita than any state in whatever field you name."
He says his years in Maine have been "The best years of our lives." His wife says: "The only way I'll ever leave here is in a pine box, feet first." His children say: "Maine is our home. Maine is where our roots are." In fact, he enjoys it all so much that even when you think he's getting soft in the head, you can't help enjoying his enjoyment.
Night Train at Wiscasset Station takes its name from one of the haunting photographs by Kosti Ruohomaa that have been gathered in this book. Ruohomaa - pronounced like "row-home-a-boat," he used to tell people- was a Maine native of Finnish descent who died in 1961 at 47, after a life tormented by alcoholism. The long tex that weaves the collection together is by Lew Dietz, a Maine transplant of more than 40 years' standing, who often worked with Ruohomaa on assignments around the state. He digs deeper into Maine's history, thought patterns, trades and semantics and fills in the cracks that Caldwell only touches on with swift strokes. Ruohamaa's photographs, as Andrew Wyeth's foreword notes, have "a mysterious sense of withdrawn reality." The lonely barns in the snow, the gnarled farmers, the fields and fairgrounds and the sad-eyed men and women sitting upright in their wan parlors convey a brooding melancholy, as though we glimpse them all for the last time before they vanish from the earth.
Chansonetta Stanley Emmons was the sister of F.E. and F.O. Stanley, who created the Stanley Steamer automobile and the Stanley photographic dry plate, and was well known for her photography while she lived, but is hardly mentioned today. A lot of her work lay hidden in an attic after she died, until Marius Peladeau, director of the Farnsworth Library and Art Museum in Rockland, rediscovered it last year and reproduced 94 of her pictures, along with a brief biography, in Chansonetta: The Life and Photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858-1937.
She was a product of her time, and apparently preferred a life of genteel poverty to a commitment to photography as a trade. She never had a real darkroom, but used an empty closet when she visited friends, or the kitchen, hung with heavy drapes when she was at home. She used odd pans and dishes for her developing chemicals, which she mixed herself. She never owned an enlarger, and to the end of her days used the sama unwieldy 5x7 Century camera, with an f:8 lens. She never used a light meter or artificial light, and gauged her exposure times by counting the seconds out loud.
Her pictures have a stylized and dreamlike quality that stems in part from her stubbornly primitive techniques. But the quality is suited to Maine, which often seems caught in a curious twilight glow, as though it were another planet, illuminated by something other than the lifht of the sun.
The Salt Book is a descendent of the Foxfire Book, the student-written study of the folkways of southern Appalachia, the first volume of which made a big hit in 1972. The Salt Book authors are students of Kennebunk High School, who fanned out over the state, with cameras and tape recorders, to talk to lighthouse keepers, lobstermen, craftsmen and housewives to learn about their lives. With drawings and diagrams they describe how to raise a barn, or how to make snow shoes or lobster traps - and how to eat lobster if it's caught.
They obviously had the time of their lives; their book is a worthy effort, and I'm grateful they weren't hanging around the corner garage smoking pot. But next time around they could learn a lot from the succinct and airy columns in Bill Galdwell's book about the giant step between the fun of collecting the material and getting it on paper in a way that's fun to read.