Down East 2013 ©
From the east cliffs of Blue Hill Mountain, I look down on the town, its trim inner harbor, the narrows, the outer harbor, and the low, dark line of Long Island beyond.
I took the Osgood Trail and climbed past stands of old red spruce and white pines and a venerable yellow birch. It is late summer. The birds are mostly still, but black-throated green warblers fluttered in the leaves of the birch feeding their well-fledged young.
In the 1920s, the United States abandoned the British definition of a mountain, which was anything over a thousand feet. Americans felt it was arbitrary, that, in fact, one can distinguish a mountain from a hill without someone else’s help. When I drive into the village, there comes a point at which the east side of the mountain looks like the gently rounded back of a black bear — a shuffling bear on all fours. There is something shaggy and warm-blooded about it. To me, then, it is a hill. But when I see it from the southwest, its ledge of open rock, its sharp thrust, it is a mountain that rises 935 feet above sea level.
The mountain stands alone above the water, a marker to the captains of the old sailing ships. It is a bedrock of foliated schist, indomitable ancient stone, layered like the pages of a rain-worn book. Volunteers who built the trails have used chunks of this stone, as well as the granite cobbles carried and dropped by the glacier’s foot, to make the steps. We walk on their handiwork, and on the much older work of fire and ice.
Down in the white clapboard town the buildings nestle between the water and the mountain like resting summer gulls. The spires of the Congregational and the Baptist churches point above the green hardwood trees. Through the clear, hard-edged brightness of this late summer afternoon, I gaze down on a town that is beautiful and precise, as if I were seeing it in the past, and I remember reading Mary Ellen Chase’s stories of growing up here in the 1890s. From this distance, those years seem less than a stone’s throw away.
I imagine The Gold Hunter, the two-masted trading schooner, waiting out beyond the narrows for the shift of tide as neighbors crowd together at the wharf. It is November, cold, and soon this bright blue bay will be frozen straight across to Long Island, but for now, the schooner has come with its precious cargo of winter staples and supplies. When the tide shifts, it approaches the town.
Up from the hold comes a surprise ordered by Mary’s father: A full stem of bananas, packed in grasses in a wooden crate. Her father hangs the heavy stem in their cellar for the fruits to ripen, and the family leaves the bulkhead doors ajar during the day so that the neighbors can see it for themselves. Here is the best part: The bananas ripen; Mary’s father steps on a box, takes out a knife, cuts off yellow bananas, and tells her to pass them around to everyone outside. Treat your friends, he says. And she does.
The vision of the schooner vanishes as I turn to face the communications tower reaching 140 feet into the sky, braced by guy wires — a modern jolt — jarring and ugly. Yet it, like the mountain itself, is intimately connected to the town. It serves WERU, the local radio station, and the hospital, the fire department, and the ambulance.
I hike to the summit, facing inland to Third Pond, and west across the landscape to Penobscot Bay and to Camden, where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived as a child. Up here, with views east to Mount Desert and Acadia, south to Isle au Haut, and west to Mount Battie, one could be forgiven for breaking into a recitation of Millay’s poem: “O, World, I cannot hold thee close enough/ Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!”
When it looked as if a piece of the mountain might become real estate with these million dollar views, the Blue Hill Heritage Trust bought the land. Through purchase and gifts, it now owns 127 acres on the south slope and 160 acres on the eastern and western shoulders. The town owns another 175 acres.
The work to keep the mountain for the people has bonded the people of the town more firmly to the mountain. In groups, or in solitary meditation, they climb up, sit, look out, climb back down. Sometimes it is the best place to go to get a long view on life below. Hiking down in late afternoon, I pass two paragliders carrying their backpacks up, and, as I follow the Hayes Field Trail, I pass one woman on her way alone.
Blue Hill’s first minister, the Reverend Jonathan Fisher, a Calvinist Congregationalist, was a strict, multi-talented, ceaselessly energetic man who whipped his congregation into shape. His sheer genius is still honored here, two hundred and four years after he assumed his post. Today we have a gentler presence from the same church who walks the mountain all times of the year and writes in the local paper about his discoveries. You can find the Reverend Rob McCall on a trail, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening, a staff in hand. He has a mountain walk — a bounce to his gait as if he were prepared to step high and lightly over even the largest stones. He calls the mountain by its Indian name, “Awanadjo,” and he teaches us to love small town life and the life that’s left in the wild around us. I imagine his influence will last for many years. Here’s what he writes: “We are a town named after a mountain. Love this mountain and be vigilant in defense of her. How we treat the mountain is how we treat the world.”
Susan Hand Shetterly is a nature writer and author of Settled in the Wild, a book of essays about life near her Surry home.