The Great State of Maine
My wife and I recently spent a week on the coast of Maine. That is hardly newsworthy. The coast is not far from where we live. It was past the rush of tourist season, so finding accommodations was not difficult. The weather was lovely …
Where is this going? My job is to provide insight into the overwhelming issues facing the environment, not to provide an elementary essay on what I did on my recent vacation. What was noteworthy about this trip was that it was memorably unexotic. No ancient ruins, no raging rivers, no purple mountains’ majesty, nothing crossed off the bucket list … it was just a short drive to the coast to watch some hardworking people go about their business.
On our return my wife and I tried to analyze why this had been such a fulfilling vacation. The more we reflected, the more it became apparent how closely our trip to the rockbound coast embodied so many of the ideas and practices that define green living in the real world.
Sustainable harvesting of a natural resource. There are two key industries in coastal Maine. Lobstering and tourism. They are mutually-supporting, in that it is colorful to watch men and women in small craft ply their trade, and the primary market for the harvested object is … you, and people like you.
What sets sets lobstering apart from other resource-harvesting ventures is that it is one of the few such industries that is largely self-regulating. So many other extractive industries are case studies in the unfettered greed of the human species. Depletion and deforestation followed by abandonment, sadly, have been the calling cards of homo sapiens in the name of development. The American West is rife with examples of this environmental ravaging.
By contrast the people who hunt lobsters in the wild have, to their credit, concluded that they, not government, know best how to manage a resource so that it will be there for their sons and daughters. Even more impressively, the self-regulation of lobstering transcends an international border with Canada. Unlike the more generalized fishing industry which has over-fished itself into near collapse, lobstering remains small, decentralized, self-governing, independent, and healthy.
Sustainable rule of law. In addition to regulating the catch, the lobstermen and women enforce their unwritten rules on issues that extend beyond the harvest. There are territories in the ocean that may be unmarked and undefined, but they exist. Let a newcomer or stranger stray across these traditional boundaries, and they might have a difficult time locating their buoys the next time out. There’s also an unwritten law that if a boat fails to return to dockside, then everyone returns to the water until they have been safely located. “The Coast Guard can’t cover this large a territory,” one lobsterman told me, “and if you had to rely on the state police …” He just let the sentence dangle.
Sustainable communities. Tourists come to gape at the boats and eat the lobsters. I can’t think of another place where you go on vacation specifically to watch people work. You don’t go to farms to watch farmers. You don’t go to coal mines to watch miners. You don’t go to cities to watch office workers, but on the coast of Maine, you do go down to the docks. And, surprising to me, if you want to snap a picture or ask a dumb question, you are likely to get a civil and helpful response. You are, after all, their best customer. This is a perfect marriage of hospitality and common sense, and it isn’t mandated by the local Chamber of Commerce.
Sustainable development. Geographically, the coast of Maine consists of long, jagged fingers that jut out into the North Atlantic. They are sparsely-populated and not well-suited to industrial farming. Thus, they are of little interest to the fast-food joints and retail businesses that need a certain volume of traffic to survive. Commercial enterprises are concentrated along the asphalt strip of US Route 1 which follows the coast from north to south. While this road can be over-crowded, especially during the high season of summer, at least it keeps the peninsulas of Maine unspoiled. (If you are not in a hurry, however, Route 1, with its small towns, clam shacks, churches, and Civil War monuments) provides its own interesting chronology of Americana.)
Sustainable partnerships. These are your tax dollars at work! The state parks are well-situated and well-maintained, although minimally so. Facilities are barely adequate, which is just the right level. Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island is located on land that was largely donated by the Rockefellers, a family that benefited disproportionately from the opportunities that America affords. The park’s terrain is crisscrossed by delightful carriage roads and elegantly simple stone bridges that harken to a different era when no extravagance seemed beyond the resources of the wealthy, but that belong to all of us now. It’s a meaningful way to give back.
Our trip featured no amusement parks, golf courses, or four-star Michelin restaurants, although in my book you can’t improve upon steamed lobsters and clams, dripping in butter, eaten on the dock, overlooking the local fleet of lobster boats. Did I mention the blueberry pie? Sustainable living, after all, when practiced in perfect scale, is one of life’s great pleasures, and tastes great.