One of my weekly rituals is to visit the Web page of the New York Times
and type the word Maine into its search engine. When I became the editor of DOWN EAST, I swore an oath atop a stack of Uncle Henry's
to monitor the newspaper of record for mentions of my home state, to assess how opinion makers are characterizing it (or mischaracterizing, as the case may be), and to fire off corrective e-mails if ever the editors needed cold water spilled over their ears. I normally keep a watchful eye on the Times, but every now and then a story slips past my hawk-eyed gaze.
Such was the case in January, when the paper ran an article about the sale in November of Burt's Bees, maker of beeswax cosmetics and toiletries, to the bleach giant Clorox for $913 million. Founded back in the eighties by Dexter beekeeper Burt Shavitz and his partner, Roxanne Quimby, Burt's is well known to Mainers for two reasons. First, because it loudly decamped for North Carolina in 1993 to flee Maine's high corporate taxes and, second, because Quimby has subsequently used her millions to purchase great tracts of Maine's North Woods - a hundred thousand acres and counting - to protect them from development. The story in the Times
focused on the falling-out between the partners, after which Shavitz returned Maine to live in a $130,000 house that Quimby gave him in exchange for his interest in the company. Today, Burt's stake in his namesake business would be
worth about $59 million.
There's a lot more juiciness to the Burt's saga, and it didn't surprise me that the article (which was excellent and required no correctives from me) rose to the top of the Times
' list of most e-mailed pieces. One detail of the story was news to me, however. When Shavitz and Quimby first met in 1984, he was living in a small turkey coop. Well, it seems the "bee-man" has recently given up his not-so fancy home to return to his beloved coop. He's enlarged the building to about twelve feet by twenty feet, but it still lacks running water or electricity.
As we were putting together this issue focused on grand Maine houses, my mind couldn't help but return to Burt Shavitz, who gave up millions for the asceticism of a backwoods shack. To have such a powerful yearning for one's true home, to trade the world for a woodstove and four walls - how does one respond to this shockingly private choice? Is the proper response bewilderment, or is it perhaps envy?