North by East
A retirement home for circus elephants, Phippsburg’s mysterious roadside tombstone, and more.
Hope for Rosie
A midcoast town may become a retirement home for circus elephants.
The small upcountry town of Hope is known for blueberry fields, apple orchards, and dairy farms. Soon, it also may be known as the home of Maine’s only resident elephant.
“Rosie is an elephant that I worked with in the circus when I was eighteen,” says Jim Laurita, a Hope resident and veterinarian at Camden Hospital for Animals for the past twenty years. “I’ve known her a long time.”
Now forty-two, Rosie is retired from the circus and living at the Endangered Ark Foundation in Oklahoma.
“She’s ostracized by the rest of the herd,” says Laurita, explaining why he and his brother, Tommy Laurita, an owner of Swans Island Blankets in Northport, want to bring Rosie to Hope. “Some of the other elephants have beat up on her. She also has suprascapular nerve paralysis, which is a significant injury to one of her front limbs.”
The Lauritas have dreamed about building a rehabilitation facility for injured or retired circus elephants for years. Besides being Jim’s juggling partner, Tommy was the ringmaster of the small traveling circus that employed the brothers as teenagers. Jim helped care for the elephants in the circus. He also worked with the massive animals at the Bronx Zoo and Wildlife Safari animal park in Oregon before graduating from Cornell Veterinary Medicine in 1989.
Incorporated as Hope Elephants (hopeelephants.org), the Lauritas’ nonprofit organization still needs local, state, and federal permits, but they hope to raise funds, erect a barn, and move Rosie in by the end of the summer.
The barn, designed by John Davee, of Maine Coast Construction in Camden, will have radiant heat under a sand floor, an improvement over Rosie’s current cement slab digs. “Sand is very easy on the feet and it will be a major upgrade in her style of life,” says Laurita, who has the medical training to meet Rosie’s needs and to create a program of physical therapy to ameliorate her injuries. Maine’s climate is not a concern, he notes. “Elephants are very adaptable and do well in any climate as long as they can get out of the heat. Overheating is the greatest concern with big animals.”
Hope Elephants also has an educational mission. Exhibits in the barn will explain the anatomy, physiology, and life history of elephants and teach about wildlife conservation issues. Laurita hopes Rosie can be part of a broader effort to raise public awareness about elephants’ intelligence and sensitivity. “They can problem-solve in teams, and they have an ability to communicate with one another using sounds that are barely audible to humans,” Laurita marvels. “There’s all kinds of high-tech research going on with elephants that is analogous to what was done with marine mammals thirty or forty years ago when people became aware of whales and dolphins as sentient animals.”
Rosie’s troubles with her herd in Oklahoma are one example of elephants’ complex social behavior that is not well understood, Laurita says. She has no such problems with people. “She enjoys human interaction and that makes her really special. She’s a very clever and kind creature.”
Two sisters have solved the mystery of a roadside grave in Phippsburg.
If you’ve ever driven to Popham Beach in Phippsburg, you have probably seen it: a solitary headstone sprouting from the shoulder of Route 209. Were it not for the American flags and artificial flowers placed around it every Memorial Day, the dark slate slab might well disappear into the shadows of the surrounding trees. Then again, maybe not. It is, after all, very close to the road’s edge, an odd place for a fellow to be buried indeed.
“His name is Nathaniel Morrison,” says Jessie Sutfin, who with her sister, Julie Varian, pulled Nathaniel from the brink of oblivion a few years ago. “The rest of his family is buried in Sebasco Estates.”
For decades, it was pretty much accepted as fact around Phippsburg that the tombstone belonged to “the unknown soldier.” Sinking crookedly in the gravel, the stone appeared to be blank. Then one day Varian and Sutfin were compelled to stop and reset the monument. They pulled and pushed — the thing was remarkably heavy — until out of the cold sand emerged a few more feet of slate and an inscription: “In memory of Nathaniel Morason who died Oct. 15, 1814, in the 28th Year of His Age.”
The sisters delved into town records and consulted with local historians to see what they could find out about Nathaniel and how he came to be resting for all eternity at the edge of Route 209. They learned, for starters, that poor Nathaniel’s last name had been misspelled. He was the son of Elizabeth Lowell and Revolutionary War soldier Moses Morrison, who lie alongside other Morrisons in Harris Cemetery at the south end of Basin Road. They also learned that Nathaniel had been a soldier himself, and that he had died during an epidemic that swept across his unit’s encampment at Cox Head, which is located across Atkins Bay from Fort Popham (the fort was not built until 1861). “The story — and I don’t know if it’s true or not — is that when you died down here back then, you had to be driven to Bath to be declared dead,” Sutfin says. “So a detail took him to Bath, but he got pretty ripe when they were bringing him home to Sebasco, so they planted him right there.” At the time, the grave would have been well off the road, which was little more than a dirt track, Sutfin says. Over the years, the road has been widened to the point that its edge is now within a foot or so of the headstone.
Nathaniel’s story so moved Sutfin and Varian that they started the Phippsburg Old Cemetery Project. Every spring, they rake away leaves and debris that have piled up around gravesites in old family plots and other places throughout the peninsula. There are 103 in all, including that of a not-so-forgotten War of 1812 soldier named Nathaniel Morrison.
A Bed of Clams
Can steamer shells bring salmon back to the Machias River watershed?
A Maine Department of Environmental Protection biologist is the last person we’d expect to find dumping waste into a wilderness stream, yet that is exactly what Mark Whiting is doing this June. But don’t be alarmed: This particular waste product — roughly eight tons of clean softshell clamshells — is aimed at reversing the effects of acid rain and making the stream hospitable to salmon once again.
The pilot project is taking place in Township 37 on a section of Dead Stream whose pH level is so low — about 4 — that it can’t support fish. “Part of that is natural,” Whiting says of Dead Stream’s acidity. “This has always been a very marshy, boggy area. But with one hundred years of rain, this very acidic environment has lost its buffering capacity. Acid rain has washed out the alkaline materials — the calcium and the carbonates.” Dead Stream was selected for the project because it is a tributary of Old Stream, one of the best salmon rearing areas in the Machias River watershed.
The idea of lining the Dead Stream’s banks and streambed with calcium-rich clamshells was inspired by a Norwegian experiment that used shell sand to neutralize salmon spawning areas. “I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s cool!’ ” Whiting says. Whole shells, he believes, are a better choice because they turtle over in the stream, creating the hidey-holes that fish and other aquatic creatures love. As they break down, they release their calcium into the water.
Preliminary work shows promise. Last summer Whiting placed 1 1/2 tons of shells in a section of Dead Stream that had a pH level of about 6, which is slightly acidic. “We changed the pH, but it was by only half a unit, he reports. “We wanted the pH to go up an entire unit to 7, which is about neutral. So we need more shells and more places to put shells.”
Finding shells is not a problem. Disposing of them happens to be an expensive headache for Maine’s shellfish processors. It’s not surprising, then, that Albert Carver, a Great Wass Island seafood processor, is more than happy to sell his shells to the DEP for this experimental project. He’s being issued a special permit allowing him to cure his shells outdoors for about eight weeks, allowing seagulls, other critters, and the elements to strip them of tissue bits and other organic matter before they are dumped streamside in Township 37. (Ordinarily, DEP requires that processors truck their shells to a composting facility or landfill.)
Carver hopes the curing method will lead to other commercial uses for shells. “Our wise old people used to feed them to their chickens because they got calcium from it,” he says, “and we know they’re wonderful for driveways and roads. They make a great soil amendment. I can see curing them and selling them in bags like you do cedar bark mulch.
“Purple violas on a background of white clamshells. Now doesn’t that sound nice?”
Oldest Boats Afloat
A low-key race features two Maine windjammers with impressive pasts.
Summer brings out the competitive sailors nearly everywhere there is water, but Maine’s racing scene has an excitement, tension, and atmosphere all its own. Look out your porthole or seaside living room window on any summer day and you’re just as likely to see a fleet of windjammers or tall ships battling for line honors as you are a carbon-fiber speed machine.
A regatta to be staged in West Penobscot Bay on June 17 is a case in point. Watch the water between Camden and Rockland on that day and you’ll see the schooners Stephen Taber and Lewis R. French trading tacks as they battle for the most prized trophy among schooner crews: bragging rights. And while all the passenger-carrying boats that comprise the Maine windjammer fleet are known for enjoying a bit of friendly competition (both in business and on the water), this race is a bit different. Both built in 1871, these two ships are on the National Register and represent the oldest documented vessels in the United States — only a handful of warships like the U.S.S. Constitution are older, and those vessels no longer see the kind of action that the Taber and the French do.
“When you put something in a museum it’s no longer viable. But there’s something alive in a sailboat, and the fact is that these vessels continue to operate and support themselves — they’re not nonprofits,” says Captain Noah Barnes, master and owner of the Stephen Taber. Barnes points out that in addition to relying on the wind (neither boat has an inboard engine), he and Captain Garth Wells, of the Lewis R. French, have to rely on their passengers’ ability to haul on sheets and halyards. “This is not gentle sailing — we really race the hell out of these boats, just as we do anytime we’re in visual sight of one another. Everyone aboard is going to get a job — they’ll actually be participating in the race.”
It is, in other words, a match-up that is uniquely Maine.