- by Carol Standish
Native Mainer and national journalist, Colin Woodard’s second book, The Lobster Coast (Viking, 372pp, $24.95), is a rocketing speed-boat ride through Maine’s coastal history--with an underlying engine hum of ecological awareness and concern. The first chapter is an unlikely one to begin a history. It describes the events of a recent “Trap Day” on Monhegan Island—where all island lobstermen set their seasonal lobster traps simultaneously. That scene of cooperation and acknowledgement of shared resources sets the stage for the book’s underlying argument that coastal Mainers are unique in the 21st century in their recognition of the value of diversity both as a survival strategy and a way of life.
Most of the book is a brief, chronology driven cultural history of the coastal region, beginning with an overview of the native people. “Wabanaki culture and the Gulf of Maine region had evolved together, and for thousands of years Maine’s natives enjoyed the benefits of a perpetually renewable resource...Territory was held in common and [they] used their commons sustainably, striking a balance with nature by shifting their settlements and diets on a seasonal basis.” Their creator and immortal hero, “Gluskap” taught that personal power could only be used for socially constructive purposes and who confronted “selfish creatures who trampled on the well-being of others.” According to myth, Gluskap abandoned the Wabanaki just prior to the arrival of the first European explorers. The rest is “history.”
After years of fairly peaceful trade with English fishermen who fished, dried their catch on outlying islands, like Monhegan and sailed it back to Europe, greed and a narrow religious world view got the better of the English. Since natives were “uncivilized” meaning non-Christian, mis-treatment—cheating in trade, stealing and kidnapping became intolerable. The natives rose up against the fishing stage outposts which had grown into small permanent settlements. Nearly a century of war ensued.
By the time the Wabanakis had been vanquished by war and plague, the Europeans had established a major stronghold in New England, the largest being the Puritan settlement of coastal Massachusetts consisting primarily of the merchant middle-class. Maine was populated by fishermen, sailors, “tenant farmers pushed off their [English] land into destitution.” The motives of settlers to the to regions also differed. Zealous Puritans, “God’s chosen people” came to establish new Zion, “a beacon of salvation in a sinful world.” (Whole congregations emigrated with their deacons.) Mainers came through individual initiative for practical reasons—to better their lot in life by gaining access to the plentiful natural resources of land and fisheries.
Inevitably, the Puritan merchants saw the need to set the sinners straight (and make a few bucks in the bargain), imposing Massachusetts laws, crony-filled-court-systems and taxes on Maine settlers. After all, in 1696, the nine hundred, mostly impoverished residents of Kittery supported at least ten pubs.
For the next hundred and fifty years, Mainers were the target of real estate speculators, robber barons, famine and disease, not to mention the “vigorous” climate. Maine became an independent state in 1820 after a 70 year long guerrilla resistance which included tactics such as ambushing surveyors and destroying plans and equipment and the ransacking of robber baron’s mansions.
And still the struggle continued. Hardscrabble farming in a short growing season on thin soil was augmented with seasonal sustenance from the sea—the lot of Mainers for 400 years. In spite of on-going land-grabs and shell games, local capital accumulation was practically non-existent until after the civil war when it came to a few shipbuilders, sea captains and entrepreneurs trading in fish, granite, lumber and ice. Even the tourist “industry” which also began in the late nineteenth century brought at best, low-paying seasonal jobs to most locals. The way of life and livelihood for the native Mainer remained artisanal, the independent lobsterman its archetypal symbol—well into the second half of the twentieth century.
The book concludes with a paean of praise for the lobstermen of the Maine coast for cooperatively husbanding their resource which they have long viewed as held in common with their neighbors and children (not that territorial battles haven’t been fought). This achievement is especially laudable in light of the disastrous collapse of the corporatized fin fishery. He also praises state legislators for allowing lobstermen to self-regulate—writing many of their practices and traditional territory divisions into law, thus legitimizing both the business model and the lifestyle—at least for the 7000 or so lobstering families in the state.
“Massification” is what worries Woodard most about today’s Maine. “ Generations of people have moved here precisely to escape suburbia. The native character is completely wrapped up in the coast’s rural character: hunting and fishing, [common] access to the shore, lakes, streams and forests is regarded as a near birthright. The coast’s rural past has allowed local people to ‘run our own affairs’ and ‘settle things ourselves’ on a hamlet by hamlet basis, with common sense trumping detailed regulations. Describe a cliché Mainer—rugged, individualistic, outdoorsy, no-nonsense, practical in dress, egalitarian in outlook—and you have the polar opposite of suburbia’s manicured, conforming, status minded, exclusive, [inevitably] gated and guarded [outlook].”
As wooden boat builder, Richard Stanley (see August book review) of Southwest Harbor observes, “newcomers who now control municipal politics...want to make this a residential town. If you make it a residential community you’ve got a dead town. You’ve got no future and the young people have to move away.”
It’s not that recent wave of newcomers reject the long-developed artisanal way of life, argues Woodard. “They aren’t even aware of its existence. As a group they tend to be entirely unschooled in Maine’s cultural background.” Woodard’s book is a quick course—and he provides extensive source notes and additional titles for further reading.