RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.
One of the first books I discovered while vacationing in Maine many years ago was “One Man’s Meat” by E.B. White. I was certainly aware of his children’s books, like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” but I never knew about his vast output of essays for The New Yorker. Nor was I aware of his finely crafted musings about life on a saltwater farm in Brooklin until reading this book.
The bookstore where I bought the book is in Damariscotta. The store is on the same side of the street where the Skidompha Library sits. The library’s name intrigued me, and the name always made my son and daughter giggle. One day, while perusing the many titles of books about Maine, I bought my first copy of “One Man’s Meat.” Years later, shortly after purchasing our home in Starboard, I acquired another copy. Now I was able to keep one in Maine and another in Pennsylvania.
E.B. White was a keen observer of life. He wrote about what he saw in the world and how he felt about subjects such as New York City, war, politics, wildlife, childhood, friends, and as a husband and father. He also wrote about the subtleties of both the hardships endured and the beauty many of us might overlook when in Maine. In these writings, particularly, it is almost as if Maine time sat still for him as he painted all that he saw and felt in words, placing them lovingly on a canvas of paper; a painting of prose, if you will, as revealed on parchment. White was a poet of all things Maine.
When making the drive from New York City to Maine, White treats readers to the excitement he felt when crossing the state line into Maine by conjuring images of Christmas presents and the love of family. The prose is so memorable that I find myself thinking about it as I pass over the very same bridge. I smile and I, too, think of a balsam-scented package waiting for me at the end of the drive.
“What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at a cost of seventy-five cents in tolls? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three French hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spire of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do,” White wrote.
White was a passionate sailor and loved sailing his sailboat, coincidentally named Fern. In his writing about sailing, White captures the essence of what wind and boat could do, working together, or not, and at times the words would feel like a love letter to the sea. Sometimes the writing reflected his feelings about growing older and the trials of not having the stamina to sail. Yet, White would find the ability to answer the sea’s calling by reaching within to muster just one more sail.
“And then there will be the old uneasiness, the old uncertainty, as the mild southeast breeze ruffles the cove, a gentle, steady, morning breeze, bringing the taint of the distant wet world, the smell that takes a man back to the very beginning of time, linking him to all that has gone before. There will lie the sloop, there will blow the wind, once more I will get under way. And as I reach across to the red nun off the Torry Islands, dodging the trap buoys and toggles, the shags gathered on the ledge will note my passage. ‘There goes the old boy again,’ they will say,” he wrote.
White was also a son and a father. Writing about memories of his trip as a boy with his father to a camp near a lake, and returning many years later with his own son, resulted in White’s ever-popular story, “Once More to the Lake.” Here, White describes the trip back in words that are heavy with the scent of long ago days. In bringing his son to the very same camp, White reveals a full-circle of family connectedness, in sight, sound and smell.
“It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves and lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”
Although White is no longer with us, his essays and writings remain timely, important and continue to provide beautiful insight into many things about life. I, too, write about what I see, feel and experience while exploring Maine, and, knowing White’s work and reading his words, I am better for it.
I still have both copies of “One Man’s Meat” and cherish them equally. Why? Because all by themselves, and as companions, there is a story on how they came into my life. Living where I do in Maine, I believe that is a capstone in my life, a culmination of all those E.B. White stories I read coming together. Now the consummate story-teller, mentor and ever-present writing companion is with me, as his stories are now a part of me and resonate deeply every time I pick up my pen.
Oh, and the origin of the name, Skidompha? It is an acronym from letters of the names of the founding members of a book club formed in 1888.