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Something About Lighthouses

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Many years ago, I went to a local sidewalk art festival where there was the usual assortment of seashore art: paintings, drawings, shells with designs painted on them, and so on. Given that the state of Maine is known for its long coastline and all things associated with maritime living, booths displaying primarily lighthouse art are numerous at such events. After walking by several and spending the obligatory amount of time admiring the artists’ efforts, some more than others, I commented out loud, “There’s just something about lighthouses.” A woman standing nearby replied, “You’re right! There is, isn’t there? But you can’t put your finger on just what that might be.”

And she was right, of course. There is something decidedly attractive and appealing about a scene that portrays a lighthouse in some form or other. And here in Maine, we have plenty of them TO admire, from the southernmost town of Kittery to the easternmost town of Eastport. Here in the York County area alone, there are dozens of them that had served as the inspiration to many artists and photographers through the  years, yours truly included. And I’ve often wondered just why so many people are so in love with lighthouses.

I am not particularly so, but I have to admit that there is something fascinating about, not only how a lighthouse almost always stands out from its surroundings in a very dramatic way, but also the aura of steadfastness it exudes. Aside from the very urban Munjoy Hill Observatory, which is smack dab in the middle of a very busy Portland neighborhood, most lighthouses were constructed centuries as lonely outposts that cast light across the sea to get sailors and other seafarers safely to shore. Many of them have fascinating histories, and all, at one time or other, were home to keepers who kept the lights burning all night every night and during the worst weather. In time, as the properties that many of these lighthouses stood on was sold off, and modern technology crept in, ancient ways of illuminating the night gave way to electrified methods, and eventually to lights that no longer needed constant monitoring, which made the role of lighthouse keeper pretty much obsolete.

By its very design, a lighthouse can withstand tremendous oceanic energy, a fact attested to by the many that still stand in areas that have seen some pretty violent storms over the years. The sea can batter the tower endlessly, with no ill effect, embracing it with wave after crashing wave, that simply rush back to the sea for the next encore. The walls of houses are usually thickest at the bottom, measuring roughly 3 to 4 feet at their bases. This wall width decreases toward the top, where walls are generally a foot thick. The most impermeable lighthouses were built on solid bedrock, which made them even sturdier.

When I look at a lighthouse, different things come to mind. What was it like to live there during the days before electricity and automation came along and so isolated in most cases from the rest of the world? What must it be like to stand on the top deck and look out over the ocean, especially on a stormy day? Aside from all that, though, is this: when I look at a lighthouse, any lighthouse, I am drawn back to another time, another era. And the basic fact is that I just would love to be up there, and I suspect that this is what many, if not most, people feel when THEY look upon a lighthouse, either in a painting, on the side of a seashell, or in real life. Here in Maine, we’re very fortunate. For no matter where we live along the coast, there is a lighthouse within a reasonable distance to view.

A woman I know who lives in Colorado has never seen one. She has, in fact, from what I’m told, never been to either coast of the United States. I can’t imagine a landlocked life devoid of the experience of seeing and hearing the surf pounding on the rocks, smelling the salty air, feeling the sand between your toes, hearing gulls screaming high overhead, or seeing a lighthouse standing on its lonely outpost, its beam flashing in the distance. For me, they’ve been a way of life since the day I could run across the sand. So I hope she gets to experience them all someday.

Living just a few miles from the sea is one of the gifts in life that I have come to be most grateful for. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

(Photo is of Portland Headlight at Two Lights State Park)

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