Writing Out Loud

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Something About Lighthouses


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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And the sea does not change…


I realized not long ago that the words in the title, which were sung by Stevie Nicks many years ago now, still apply and always have really. The sea DOESN’T change, at least not in our human understanding and perception of change. Yes, it changes daily, hourly, and every second in places we can’t see from the shore. Some forms of life die while others are just starting out. The ocean floor shifts due to pressure from the earth’s core, and everything that sea water contains evolves constantly. And the oceans themselves continue to be redesigned by meteorological and seismic forces since they were formed. From one great body of water to what we know now, it has never stopped changing.

To us, however, it is always the same. Aside from the tides going in and out, a process that affects everything the water touches in its calmness or its ferocity, we look out, despite the season, over the same vast expanse of water that we did yesterday, the day before that, and that we will tomorrow. It is that eternal quality of the sea that is its appeal…that it’s there always…never going away…never completely evaporating into the atmosphere and leaving us high and dry in many more ways than merely visually.

For there is, and has always been among humans, a deep connection with the ocean. It is, after all, where all life has emanated from, and it still flows through us in a very tangible way. Because of its perseverance, it has also become a symbol of strength and grandeur which often moves us in deeply emotional ways. “Going to the beach” just scratches the surface, for reams and reams of poetry and other literature have been penned in honor to those shifting blue-green waves and the energy they produce and store.

I can visit a beach, any beach, at any time of year, and its basic components are not much different from what they were six months ago. Here, in the northeastern United States, where we are privileged to experience the four distinct seasons, the sea is the only medium that remains fluid and mobile all the year round. And I can be standing on a shore that is backed up with several feet of snow, yet I’d never know it gazing out over the water. For it, as always, remains the same…rising, falling, advancing, receding, ebbing, flowing, lapping or crashing…whether it be winter, spring, summer, or fall.

The sea does not change…which gives us here in coastal New England a visual respite from the doldrums of winter. For we can head down to the beach any time of day and, hopefully, watch the sun playing with the waves, a scene that never fails to erase anything else that might be going on inside our tired minds.






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In the Spaces Between Time



The concept of time is unique to humans, as it’s a way of organizing our lives so as to enable us to keep track of our activities, particularly when they involve other people. Time also figures in our personal spaces, as it is how we keep tabs on some of the things we enjoy doing, like watching a television program that comes on at a specific time or meeting a good friend for lunch. In some cases, the timing of these activities can be altered to suit ourselves for the sake of our personal convenience. A good example of that is the ability to record certain forms of entertainment to make them available to us when we’re ready to enjoy them. In those cases, time is merely relative, and we get to dictate it, whereas in other areas of our lives, it still dictates to a great extent where we go and what we do at any given moment. We still have to be “on time” to work every day or to a doctor’s appointment or that lunch with a friend. Lacking the ability to set a specific set of minutes or hours aside for many activities would throw life as we know it into complete disarray. So I think it’s safe to say that our particular concept of time provides a great deal of structure in our lives that we would literally be “lost” without.


In the world of nature, however, time isn’t such a rigid arbitrator of how all forms of life carry on, and much of their existence is organized around the seasons in some parts of the world. Just about everywhere, climate also plays a huge role in determining what happens and when. None of it, though, is rigidly encapsulated into increments of time but allowed to unravel at its own natural pace.


I never feel this truth more starkly than when I am in the woods or some other wild place. There, time doesn’t exist. In keeping with some unwritten law, it’s as if there is an invisible sentinel at the entrance to any trail or along any shoreline who admonishes me to leave my watches and clocks behind, and along with them, my adherence to some sort of schedule. The very essence of time clashes with all things natural, for it is only the slowly shifting difference between night and day that hints at the passing of what we know as time.


If plants and wild creatures operate according to some unwritten law of nature, it obeys that law instinctively and with no great ceremony. A rose knows when to bloom, and it has nothing to do with a device ticking on a wall or a changing number on a bedside table. For the sort of time that all living things operate by has nothing to do with how we humans gauge it and everything to do with every single form of life knowing just when something should happen. When a fox sees the light fading at the end of a day, it sets out foraging, returning to its den once the sun casts its first streaks across the eastern sky. When some species of birds sense the temperatures changing at the end of summer, they migrate to a warmer place to spend the winter.


In all of nature, there is what is called the circadian rhythm, a sort of internal clock, if you will, that operates as a response to darkness and light. What is known as a biological clock is actually large groups of molecules inside our cells that interact to control and coordinate all our individual bodily functions. Several “clocks” control all those functions, with one master clock in the brain, composed of nerve cells, controlling them all. There are no minute or hour hands in these clocks, nor do they produce red or green digital readouts on black screens. They operate, rather, as the result of the stimuli produced throughout our bodies based on our individual genetic makeups and how every single part of our bodies was designed to operate, be we plant or animal.


Yet, none of this is immediately apparent when one steps from the populated world into a woodsy and more remote one. Right away, I sense a shifting of my perceptions and a calming that originates deep within me, as though I am responding to an ancient voice calling me home. If we stripped the world of all the things that humans have produced over the course of time, we would be back to a lush green environment where nothing has yet been dirtied, sullied, or defiled. It’s naive to think that today’s wilder places have remained untouched by that, for our reach has extended to such a degree that the very water pulled up out of the earth by our vast forests is no longer pristine and pure. But from all that I’ve read, the trees, enormous swaths of them which blessedly still exist in some parts of the world, are still hard at work pulling that water up, filtering it through their millions of tissues, and then releasing it back–purified–into the atmosphere, where, sadly, it is once again tainted by the poisons that are the byproducts of our efforts to improve upon a planet that needed no improving to begin with.


So I step from the pavement or the edge of a dirt road onto a narrow woodland path and leave “all of the above” behind. Time ceases to exist for however many minutes I’m there, and even the light takes on an almost celestial quality. I like to think of being in the woods as being in a space between those minutes where nothing and no one acknowledges them. The life of those woods continues around me on all sides in the form of flora and fauna, and not a one of them ever looks at the time, nor do I…


From the Urban Wilderness: Life in the Southern Maine Woods




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Contrast and Complement

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On a beach walk not long ago, I came upon a rock formation that someone had constructed near the shoreline. Called a cairn, it’s an assortment of stones organized in such a way as to complement, while also contrasting with, its surroundings. Some cairns stand out insistently against their backgrounds, while others, like the one in the photo, mirrors the sea behind and around it.

Notice the smooth texture of the stones themselves, how they mimic the ocean’s fluidity both in shape and color. Look at the similarities between how effortlessly the stone’s materials seem to flow and the sea. If their edges were dulled, they’d blend perfectly with the ocean water.

As for color, notice how the second, fourth and sixth largest stones from the top pick up the blue of the sea, while the third and seventh stones continue the color from the larger rocks in the outcropping and some of the seaweed growing among them. The second and fourth largest rocks from the top also pick up some of the coloring of the sea-foam, and the very top largest stone picks up some of the pale and subtle mauve hues from other outcropping rocks.

I like to think of the bright red stone at the top as the cherry on this cake of stone layers. It provides the sharpest contrast of all, but still does manage to reflect the color found in some species of seaweed.

I have to wonder if the person who built this cairn had all this in mind, or if it was just the random product of his or her imagination. Whatever the case may be, it’s amazing how well it fits into this ocean scenery.