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The Culture of Maine Is Hard to Explain

It is autumn now, up here in Maine. As if on cue, the days have turned appreciably cooler, the mornings downright cold. The leaves of the silver maples along the river behind my house have reddened along the edges, a preamble to their cascading to earth in swirling droves.

In my neighborhood, I hear the sound of axes and chain saws. Their rhythms are hurried and incessant, as if in apology for being so late at the task of cutting and splitting the firewood that will be a bulwark against the winter that already nips at the heels of fall.

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Autumn plainly is the season that most befits Maine, showing it off to maximum effect. The sight of an apple orchard splaying itself out alongside a white clapboard farmhouse, the trees slowly balding yet still holding onto their stark red fruit, is beauty in the extreme. I watch as children scurry among the windfalls while their parents reach for the bright-red globes of the Cortland, Wealthy, and McIntosh. Soon the cider will begin to flow, and when the sweating jugs finally land on the kitchen table - nirvana.

Several years ago, I had a visit from a dear German friend. Proud, talkative, and aggressive in celebrating the virtues of his homeland, he spoke of German culture as something so intense that he could not bear to be away from it for long. I have lived in Germany, and it is true that Germans spell culture with a capital "K." The country is peppered with museums and monuments, books are venerated as works of art, and every village seems to have its own orchestra (or two).

As I showed him around Maine, we discussed these things, and a comparison was inevitably drawn between our two homes, which are so unlike.

Germany is crowded, metropolitan, and hurried. Maine is sparsely populated, rural, and sedate. We have museums, of course, but they are few and far between and are not part of the state's "image." When an orchestra performs, it is truly an event of note. And so I do understand how a cultured German might feel forlorn here.

I understand, but I was not prepared for, my friend's criticism. "Maine has no culture," he concluded as we sat on the rocks at Schoodic Point. He said this during a storm surge, his pronouncement embedded in the crashing of waves and roiling of the sea. I thought for a moment, and then I smiled.

Plainly, I had not done a very good job of acculturating him in the North Country. For a moment I considered identifying the museums, theaters, and great cities I could present him with; but such a head-on assault would have failed miserably. The culture of Maine is not one of bricks and mortar.

Rather, it is a product of its natural landscape as well as the habits, traditions, and attitudes of a relatively small population of hearty folks who live in a cold place that juts into the North Atlantic like a balled fist.

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What is Maine culture to me?

In summer it is a Down East beach that I can have all to myself, an opportunity for natural peace, an ever-diminishing commodity in an increasingly hectic world. In July it is the visit to a "pick your own" strawberry farm, where my son and I crawl among the rows, picking and eating, the knees of our jeans red and sopping with the juice of the berries we have trodden underneath.

In spring, the rivers swell with cashiered snow, the bounty rushing audibly to the sea.

Behind my house the Penobscot sluices along, choked with the ice that sings like a cacophony of broken glass that shimmers blue in the light of the sun. I stand on the bank, shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors, renewing acquaintances and struggling to make the most out of a moment that will soon be gone.

Winters are contradances in grange halls, bean suppers in churches, cross-country skiing under the snow-laden boughs of white pines, home fires kindled with apple branches, and children ice skating until the sun goes down. It is an opportunity to generally move more slowly, to assess the summer that's gone by and feel forward, with hope, for the spring to come.

And now it is autumn, and my heart quickens with the pulse of the land. There is a sense of urgency as school gets a foothold, sunlight becomes a rare commodity, and there are reports of dustings of snow in the mountains. Some folks behave as if a trace of summer still lingers: I see them in short sleeves, mowing lawns or sitting quietly on park benches, reading books and sipping orange juice. But this is nostalgia for that which is gone and will not return for a very long while.

Soon they will understand and accept this, too, and will join the mass of Mainers in slipping neatly - and inevitably - into winter, when pretense will no longer be possible.

I TELL these things to my German friend as we sit on the rocks at Schoodic Point. He smiles and nods, and I know he is only humoring me. Before long, the wind becomes stronger and colder. We zip up our collars and huddle off to the car, where the argument about culture continues all the way back to Bangor.

After he had returned to Germany, I received a letter from him. He told me that on his drive back to Logan Airport in Boston he passed a Maine farmhouse with the following sign out front: THIS IS OUR SPRING FOR YOUR USE. ENJOY.

He told me that it was the best water he had ever tasted, and that he couldn't believe the people in that farmhouse were willing to share it for free.

"I miss Maine," he wrote in closing.

Darn. I had forgotten to tell him about Charlie's spring. Such instances of largess belong to the culture of Maine, too.

I could have won that argument.

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