As I fade in and out of the fatigue of recovery and work to correct surgery complications, I have heard snippets of news about Turkish politics, the Syrian debacle, the “I have a dream” anniversary and more. My brain, however, has been more likely to settle on the vision of northern Maine, where I have spent most of the Augusts of my life.
When the pain hits, I visualize the clear lake – ripples from my canoe paddle, the sound of loons, the moon rising over the island as I sit by the outside fireplace or even the beloved labor of filling a bucket with a red cast iron hand pump. As we are saying goodbye to my Father’s beloved camp, I am working on emblazening these memories onto my soul. (By the way – if any of that sounds good to you – please check out the real estate listing by clicking here.)
The Maine camp is an exemplar of the movement towards “living off the grid.” This phrase, “living off the grid,” was commonplace in the lexicon of my childhood. After all, I spent every August with my sister and our parents in a very special rural part of northern Maine in a rudimentary dwelling on a remote lake.
So as I look backwards into my memory cabinet this summer, I am reminded of the first time that M. and the Karagoz puppets visited the camp. They did not look forward to a vacation including “living off the grid,” but were willing to give it a go. I found this odd, given their experiences in Bozcaada, with rustic amenities in a simple home that only recently acquired electricity and a telephone.
Despite this, none of them were prepared for Washington County, Maine. Well, that’s not 100% true – at least the puppets were used to life in the early Ottoman court without electricity, telephones, televisions, radios or modern plumbing. I suppose that access to an abundance of cheap labor for house servants made up for that.
In any case…when we arrived at Bog Lake the first time, M. and the Karagoz puppets just stood in the home and stared. Although clearly a quirky and beloved home, it was like no modern home any of them, human or puppet, had seen before. Despite M.’s shock at the hand-pumped water, solar powered electrical wires connected to bathroom pumps and the smell of wood smoke from the Franklin stoves, he was enthralled by being engulfed in nature. Given their tiny stature, the puppets began to document all they saw – thus the close-to-the-ground photos they instructed me to take (some of which are shown in this post), designing the composition of each shot with aplomb.
An avid naturalist, M. immediately began to explore all the species of flora and fauna in the vicinity – not to mention his appreciation of the unique quiet that can only be found in remote areas. At night, we enjoyed watching the glowing embers of the outside fire during the time of day the French refer to as ‘crepuscule‘ or twighlight. M.’s only critique was to me, in private, stating, “um, I think this place needs some ‘updates.'” And it does, just enough for a new owner to make the place feel like their own.
On their second day, I took M. and the Karagoz puppet troupe for a canoe ride around the island, relating the history of the property in between my J-strokes. Purchased by my Babane (paternal Grandfather) on a whim after noting a listing in the Wall Street Journal, he and my father formally surveyed the property, choosing two spots for cabins and then cleared the forest for the mile-long driveway that would link 2 Tobey Island Road to those camps. Today, there are two buildings on the 290 acre property (with a mile of untouched shoreline) on the inappropriately named Bog Lake (aint nothin’ boggy about it).
Grandpa’s vision was for a summer house with a dual purpose – protection from a nuclear war (it was the Cold War era, after all). He supervised the start of steel-reinforced cement bomb shelter covered by a modern-style sloped roof home – or as my naturalist mother referred to it “the cement monstrosity – you couldn’t blow the damned thing up if you wanted to.” It stood, unfinished, for years, creating a significant contrast with my parents’ hippie-inspired back-to-nature log cabin.
That cabin was handmade by my father (with some assistance from my mother) in the late 1960s and finished in 1970. My parents took us to camp each year of our childhood – even when we were babies – and regaled us of stories about boiling our cloth diapers over the fire, and the like. Enthralled by the Little House on the Prairie series, my New York City-born and raised mother lived her dream once we were old enough. She taught us all sorts of ‘off the grid’ skills during the day (e.g. berry gathering, hand sewing, which leaves could be used for a tea). At night she would read to us before our father told us mythical stories about two children, Ito and Tiko, who lived across the lake. We fell asleep to those stories as the pot-bellied iron stove crackled and popped from the pine logs that made up its dinner – it emitted just enough warmth on a slightly chilly August night. My father, on the other hand, taught us a bit about how to carve with a pocket knife, build a fire in the rain how to catch bait for fishing, how to wrangle a fish or an eel into the boat – before cleaning it on the shore – and of course navigate the virgin forest with a compass.
When we were young, we bathed in the lake (rain or shine) and shampooed on shore, rinsing out our shampoo with a bucket of lake water over a gravel bed a hundred yards from the lake – to avoid soap contamination. Laundry was washed in hot water heated over the open fire, and rinsed in cool water lugged uphill from the lake. Best of all – that laundry was hung out to dry in the breeze between two birch trees – with the now-driftwood-like clothespins pictured here.
I was also used to living without exposure to the outside world – instead relying on the hours of sunlight for reading – in between canoe paddles, searching for frogs by the shore, studying mushroom, leaf, bark, berry and flower identification manuals and walks in the woods. We learned to glean blueberries left on the low bushes after the rakers were gone – and helped our mother with the painstaking work of removing the pits from native ‘choke cherries.’ My father fashioned a stove out of an iron sheet – a long, skinny box with one open end – in which my mother baked handmade blueberry pies – to perfection…although it took much longer than the normal oven! While we waited for pie, Dad would take us fishing until dusk and on good days we would have several white perch, or maybe an eel to eat. Although the lake has a salmon hole, they only seem to surface in the spring, when my father usually brought friends for fishing weekends.
Although M. and the puppets were fascinated by these stories – I could see that they did not have the passion for “outdoorsy-ness” that my Father had – and I also realized that to an extent, I had lost some of this passion as well. While some of that passion is gone, I often use the lessons learned there – and reflect on the peace that Bog Lake brought me. So, these days, as I lie in bed waiting for my bed rest sentence to finish, I daydream about the new family that will take over the camp – and all the wonderful natural resources it offers. Perhaps, if I daydream enough, I might even conjure up the new owners. I hope so.