North by East
A new explorer comes to the Gulf of Maine.
When NASA wants to get up close and personal with the hostile environment of Mars, it sends a robot rover or two to roll across the Red Planet's surface and send back information. Mary Jane Perry, a professor at the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, is doing the same thing in another hostile environment a lot closer to home — the Gulf of Maine.
Despite its importance to Maine's past and present, the Gulf of Maine remains largely unknown and unexplored. The information about fish stocks, the food chain, water temperature and climate change is largely inferred from superficial satellite data and surface observations that can capture only small snapshots of time.
"The food chain for the entire gulf is based on phytoplankton that grow about twenty meters [sixty-five feet] below the surface, where the light tapers off and the nutrient levels are high," Perry offers as an example. The health of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine is vital to everything from the shrimp harvest to recovery of endangered fish stocks. "Yet despite how important phytoplankton is, they spend their entire lives out of range of our observations," Perry notes.
That's where Nemo comes in. Perry is a pioneer in the new field of autonomous underwater vehicles, sensor platforms that can travel independently for weeks and even months at a time. Nemo looks like a six-foot-long torpedo with wings, and this spring and summer it will cruise the gulf for a month at a time on its own, gathering information on plankton concentrations, water temperature and clarity, and other data. An ingenious piston-like device is used to draw in and expel seawater and change its buoyancy, Nemo rises and falls through the water, gliding through the gulf at about one mile an hour on a predetermined course. Periodically it rises to the surface to transmit data to shore, receive new instructions, and locate itself using the Global Positioning System.
"These devices have really come into their own in the last few years," explains Perry, who has been working on a similar project with scientists at the University of Washington for the past seven years. Nemo passed its first sea test last summer with a two-week voyage. Some of the advanced glider designs can operate at sea for six months. Nemo-like models have a one-month limit because "they're more maneuverable and agile," Perry says. Nemo can dive as deep at two hundred meters.
Eventually Perry hopes to have two gliders operating in the gulf. By combining their underwater observations with those of satellites overhead, Perry says, scientists will have a far more complete picture of how the ecology and environment of the Gulf of Maine work. "This gives us a four-dimensional view of what's going on out there," she explains. "We're in a unique time for the gulf with all the changes that are being caused by shifts in the climate. We can't be out there observing all the time. These gliders let us see."
A SNIFTER OF SPRING
Winter wafts away on a powerful scent.
This is the time of year when Ann Harford starts to smell like a skunk. Not smell a skunk, mind you, but like a skunk. Harford is the animal control officer for the city of Bath, and she's the person people call when their peaceful sleep is interrupted by the unmistakable stench of a disturbed polecat that has just tangled with their pet dog — outside, if they're lucky.
It happens every year about this time — skunks, along with raccoons, opossums, and other wildlife, start prowling backyards and neighborhood streets all over Maine looking for food and love. Mainers notice skunks the most because of their aromatic calling cards, and Harford spends a fair amount of her time between spring and fall trapping and relocating the furry visitors. Hence her unavoidable choice of perfumes.
"Basically they're just looking for places to get into for food or nests," Harford explains. "Raccoons like attics and garages, and skunks prefer underneath buildings and in holes."
Homeowners can discourage unwanted guests by screening off crawl spaces under sheds and outbuildings, keeping their garbage cans tightly closed, and bringing pet food containers indoors if they usually feed Fido on the back porch. "I've seen skunks and raccoons use cat doors to go right inside people's homes," Harford adds. Bird feeders are another mammal magnet. "Anyone who feeds birds is also feeding a lot of other critters," she explains.
On the upside, a morning snootfull of Pepé Le Pew also means that winter is on its last legs. There may be more pleasant harbingers of spring, but few more forceful.
MAINE'S NEWEST SLUM
Must a town humiliate itself just to receive a federal grant?
The federal government is well known for the esoteric requirements communities have to meet to qualify for various grants and other aid. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of it is that so many towns in Maine actually jump through those hoops, even if they have to embarrass themselves along the way. Take the town of Gray, for example.
Gray, a fast-growing commuter town of some seven thousand people on the Maine Turnpike between Portland and Lewiston, recently declared its village's downtown a slum, an area so blighted that only hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money could lift it out of its sad condition. So did other Maine towns seeking Community Development Block Grants — Sanford, for example — but the move caused something of an uproar in Gray, where the federally required declaration of decay ran headlong into community pride and outrage.
The motion to apply for the grant passed by a bare three-two majority on the Gray town council, with councilor Julie DeRoche bitterly objecting that describing Gray village as blighted for the sake of a grant application was inaccurate and unethical. Townsfolk, too, spoke up then and at subsequent meetings to complain. Most councilors, though, shrugged off the slum designation as part of playing the game. And besides, it's true that downtown Gray has seen better days.
Five major highways come together in the center of Gray, near a popular turnpike exit. Town manager Deborah Cabana says that before a bypass around the village opened last year, "traffic was so congested that cars would be backed up for two miles on the turnpike waiting to get through town." With no sidewalks and tens of thousands of vehicles a day on the streets, "we had adorable little businesses start up in the village and not make it because of the traffic and lack of pedestrian accommodations."
Ironically, the bypass has worked too well, reducing traffic in the village by 50 percent. Cabana says the four convenience stores in town will likely move to the bypass, adding to the handful of empty storefronts already in the district. Town officials hope to use about five hundred thousand dollars in federal funds to spruce up the area with brick sidewalks, new lights, and other amenities. "The grant allows us to apply some lipstick to the downtown," Cabana offers.
None of which mollifies townspeople who worry that once declared a slum, always a slum when people think about Gray in the future. Or, as DeRoche was quoted as saying in one news report: "I just think it's a slimy way to get a few thousand bucks out of the government."
THE NAKED TRUTH
A Belfast photographer is warm to the human form.
As you wander down Belfast's Main Street, Indigo Gallery seems like just another of the many art galleries that dot coastal Maine downtowns. But when you look more closely at the photographs on display in the window, you realize that, hey, that redhead standing among the ferns doesn't have any clothes on. Neither does the woman lying prone on the jetty. Nor, for that matter, do any of the people in any of the photos.
What you've stumbled upon is the work of Charles Laurier Dufour, a Madawaska native with a doctorate in psychology and a second career as an artist. "What I'm doing in most of the work that involves nudes is superimposing or juxtaposing the natural beauty of the human form with the natural beauty of the rest of the earth," he says.
When Dufour moved back to Maine several years ago, every gallery from Rockland to Belfast turned him away, he says, because of his subject matter (which, we must note, is entirely tasteful). So he found a little nook in Belfast and opened his own shop, making sure to hang some of his most discreet work in the window so as to ward off anyone who might be offended by the sight of the human body in the altogether. "Our society has been so commercialized and sexualized that as soon as anyone sees a nude, their thoughts go right to sex," he posits. "I say let's drop that and go back to a more European appreciation of what art can be."
Neil Parent, whose more traditional gallery is right next door, hears an occasional comment about Dufour's storefront. "People ask me if it's part of my gallery and I say no — I do old sea captains," he says wryly. "Not many people would have the courage — or the success — to do what he's done."
Indeed, Dufour has added a welcome bit of spice to an already eclectic, interesting downtown. We say bully for him . . . but if he's looking for models, he might want to skip our offices.
RECLAIMING A NAME
The old is new again for Unum(Provident)
UnumProvident, the insurance company formed from the 1999 merger of Provident Companies, of Tennessee, and Portland-based Unum Corporation, has decided to go back to the past to show that it is moving into the future. The company recently announced it was changing its name back to Unum, reviving memories of a respected Maine business.
Many Mainers were disappointed when the company moved Unum's headquarters to Provident's home base in Chattanooga after the merger, although the company still has some 3,500 workers in the Portland area. So some folks saw just a bit of karma in the problems the company experienced after the move — poor earnings, a revolving door on the executive suite, declining stock price, and a series of lawsuits and an expensive settlement over charges that the company routinely denied disability claims to improve its bottom line.
Unum-Provident is casting the name change as a signal that the company has reinvented itself. Going back to an old name for a "new company" may seem ironic, but it allows the company to "leverage our stance in the marketplace with a recognized brand," explains company spokeswoman Mary Clarke Guenther. "Unum is a well known and respected name."
Guenther, incidentally, says only the old Maine name will be resurrected. There are no plans to move the head-quarters back to Portland or revive the old lighthouse logo. Too bad. If the company really wanted to reclaim past glory, it could just start over as Union Mutual, Unum's original name. The company seemed to do pretty well when it had that name and was based in Maine.
Maine waterfronts experience a bloom of their own at this time of year.
For Maine gardeners, spring officially arrives the moment the first crocuses blossom. But those who dig in the dirt aren't the only ones who revel in early season blooms. For Maine yachtsmen there's a comparable moment that announces the appearance of spring. This unmistakable instant occurs when the sturdy wooden logs that have marked their moorings all winter are suddenly replaced by bright white mooring buoys. It's like a virtual "all-clear" for mariners to launch their boats, and in some harbors the change can occur almost overnight, depending on the number of moorings.
"It all depends on who needs the moorings first," explains Robert Iserbyt, who maintains about 150 moorings in Camden and several more in nearby Rockport and Rockland. "Usually my commercial clients need theirs in first, so I'll get them done and then move on to whoever's requested it."
CLOSE TO HOME
Portland business owners spread the gospel of buying locally.
Several months ago, word spread that the Hooters chain — notorious for its scantily clad, all-female wait staff and its unrepentant slogan ("Delightfully Tacky, Yet Unrefined") — was considering opening a restaurant on Congress Street in Portland. The city council sprang into action, passing a controversial ordinance that limits the number of so-called "formula" businesses on the downtown peninsula, largely in an effort to circumvent the restaurant chain.
Taking a different tack, a group of small-business owners had already kicked off an effort called Portland Buy Local. Modeled after similar campaigns in other cities, Portland's program hopes to use window signs in participating businesses and ads in local papersto raise public awareness about the importance of buying locally. "As merchants, we were to blame; we were not letting people know we were locally owned," says Mary Allen Lindemann, owner of Coffee by Design and a organizer of the effort. "I just assume people know we're a Maine company, but when I looked around our stores, where do we say it?"
Thus far, 150 businesses have signed on to the campaign, and Lindemann says shoppers have responded enthusiastically, snapping up T-shirts emblazoned "Buy Local: Keep Portland Independent" and featuring the program's logo, a black-and-white illustration of Portland's skyline, from the Munjoy Hill Observatory to the Time and Temperature building.
And although Lindemann cites statistics that show that three times as much money stays in the local economy when you buy locally, as opposed to spending your cash at a national chain or franchise, she says the issue is about more than dollars and cents. In the end, she says, "Why would anyone want to come to our downtown if it looks like every other downtown?"