Scott Grabowski piles up wood in his front yard Thursday afternoon, Dec. 15, 2022, in Rumford, Maine. "I want to get it all together so it's easier to get at when the snow comes. I can only do so much as I have sciatica pretty bad, but I have some cold beers waiting for me on the porch when I'm done so it's all good." he commented as he tossed another log onto the pile. Credit: Russ Dillingham / AP

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RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.


We all have plenty of it, and many times we sit in awe staring at our piles, wondering where it all came from. Usually around this time of year we finally say we are going to do something about it. And then when our backs are turned or the lights are suddenly turned off we end up having more stuff.

When I drive Down East back roads, it is apparent that not only serene spots of beauty and unadulterated natural areas will be revealed, but piles of stuff will also be on full display. I ask myself: Is there a difference in the stuff or the amount of it from different areas of the country? More importantly, is the purpose of the stuff one accumulates different when living in a city instead of a rural area or Down East? After being here awhile, I can say, without a doubt, that there is a distinct difference in both stuff and purpose. When it comes to this place, now our home, there is a stark difference between things acquired here versus any other areas I have traveled.

There is plenty of space between people, especially here in Washington County. As noted by one county commissioner, ”We are 35,000 people inhabiting a 3,400 square-mile area of space trying to live and make ends meet.” And these ends, or services for that matter, are spread out far and wide. They require planning and logistics that many people in cities simply could not imagine.

It can feel like we are a country unto ourselves on a cold morning when the power is out and it is time to drive two hours to a doctor’s appointment scheduled a month ago. No power means no water, no lights and no heat unless you are prepared. And from the looks of things here Down East, many people who call this place home are well prepared and just itching for a good nor’easter to come barreling through so they can make use of the stuff that will see them through the day, a week or even a month.

The stuff accumulated is not multiples of nonessential items or junk but rather items essential to life that make it a little easier to battle the elements or the distance. When driving these roads I am not surprised to see many cords of wood, snowplows, gardens, chicken coops, generators and piles of miscellaneous tools and equipment waiting for that moment when the owner will spring into action, make use of it and then deposit it right where it finished its last chore.

The occasional windmill or solar panel will show up in an attempt to combat the electrical rates or the power outages. But more so, I believe these things are yet another mark of self-sufficiency characteristic of the generations of families that first sought this place out and eventually settled here. In this place members of a family not only will live close to each other, but will share, support and teach one another from generation to generation. Whether technology keeps up or not, the teaching goes on and the stuff to live and survive grows and is shared along the way.

Just as in spring when signs of life awaken, the fiddleheads spiral from the earth or the lupines begin their climb of color, so in winter, when the sea smolders and a layer of frost, ice and snow covers everything — this is when it can best be seen in all its glory. “It” is the stuff of life that creeps out of the woods and grows into wood piles or fills pantries and freezers to the brim. It is a lost tool, now found, or it is a neighbor calling a neighbor about a trip to town for the essential stuff or simply to say hello.

It is the stuff that allows the cycle of life Down East to never sleep, especially in winter.

This is a special place, made more special by the care and the simplicity that people put into living here. It is simple, precise, and really beautiful to watch. It is a symphony of self-sustainability on full display, if one takes the time to stop, look and listen.

It is a beautiful thing.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

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.