A Coastal Companion|
A Year in the Gulf of Maine, From Cape Cod to Canada
Illustrated by Kimberleigh Martul-March and Margaret Campbell
Tilbury House, 250 pp, $20.00
After earning an MS in ecology and environmental science from the University of Maine in 2003, Catherine Schmitt quickly established herself as a contributing writer for an assortment of environmental publications, most narrowly targeted to practitioners in a specific subject concentration. The unique design and content of A Coastal Companion reflects Schmitt's belief that combining science and art is an effective way to bring science to a wider audience.
Arranged like a calendar, the Companion presents 12 months of mini-essays, musings, really, on the animal, minerals, vegetables and natural phenomena that are part of the everyday experience of anyone living beside the Gulf of Maine.
Accompanying each essay are artist, Martul-March's warm and fuzzy pencil sketches of the subject under discussion...not the challenging type like text or field guide illustrations, just appealing representations that gently inform as well as relieve the page of text. Each month is visually introduced by (what appear to be pen and ink) scenes of the environmental events of that month by artist, Margaret Campbell. Twelve seasonally appropriate poems by Maine poets provide additional voices which complement Schmitt's month-long entries. (Jan Bailey's "September" and Burt Hatlen's "Deer Isle" stand out for their precision and power to connect.)
Some of the essays convey quite technical information about the subject, brittle stars, for instance or wild rice or flounder, but the information is contained and spare. I particularly like her more typical description of the pleasantness of "sea air." "The scent of the sea is carried on the sea breeze, which blows off the ocean toward the land. On summer days, the land radiates heat more than the ocean. Warm air above the land rises and cooler sea air rushes to fill the void." Aaahhhh!
Other essays key on the date to present a scientist or a poet or a pioneer whose birthday it is: Winslow Homer (February 24), Rachel Carson May 27), and Henry Bigelow, founder of modern oceanography and first director of Woods Hole (October 3). May Sarton's birthday is May 3. She says, "Dark, cold gray...with a high wind...will spring ever come? How I long for one of those still warm days where you can feel the leaves opening in the sun and the roots stirring below!"
For a science writer, Schmitt's prose seems considerably influenced by poetry. She also salts her prose with metaphors, "September arrives under the cover of lengthening night...The Big Dipper sinks lower in the sky, now upright and capable of holding a cupful of the black night"--all the more reason not to be wary of either poetry or science.
These little essays, nudged by the sketches and poems, tease the intellect; they spark a train of thought. They encourage you, the reader to notice, think and learn more about your immediate world--your environment. I found myself writing notes in the book's ample margin to read further on subjects I hadn't thought of since eighth grade biology...and history...and English...a lovely book.