Borders and Boundaries

There was plenty of room. In fact, the whole eastern side of the island would have made a good anchorage. But the lobster boat from Yarmouth wanted that spot, right there, less than thirty feet away to port. Why was anyone’s guess. It was a much larger boat than ours, and had it swung at anchor on this windy day would have struck our little cabin cruiser and damaged it. Our host, guide, and boat captain, a voluble and good-natured forty-something by the name of Andrew, tried gamely to downplay the breathtaking display of rudeness, but his astonished expression said everything.

We had arrived maybe ten minutes earlier. Andrew had been giving us the rundown about what we were going to see and do. Our small group was just about to board the dinghy that would take us ashore when the Canadian boat pulled up. Speaking not a word, faces set in stony grimaces, the lobstermen pointedly ignored us as they went about their work, and but for their semi-hostile sidelong glances you would have thought that they didn’t even know we were there.

It’s not as though there was a language barrier. And it wasn’t as though we were in their way, either. They could have anchored anywhere else.  As far as we could tell there was no good reason whatsoever for this little showdown. But the lobstermen from Yarmouth had to make a point, which you would assume was something other than “Welcome to Canada.”

Machias Seal Island is only about ten miles as the gull flies from the rugged coast of Maine, USA. The island is known for its colony of Atlantic Puffins, which in fact we are here to see. But perhaps its chief distinction is that it is the focus of an ongoing territorial dispute between the United States and Canada.

If you were to visit the place, you would almost certainly be tempted to ask “why.” Machias is less than twenty acres in size, there’s not one tree, and there is no fresh water. It’s damp, chilly, windswept, and desolate. There is no harbor and only one tiny inlet where a small boat can land. You could walk the length of it in probably four minutes, the width in a lot less. Other than a couple of seriously weathered buildings and a lighthouse, there’s no real estate. Nobody lives there permanently. A pair of lighthouse keepers, flown in by helicopter from Saint John, trade four-week shifts.

Inconsequential as it is, though, Machias Seal Island has somehow become a source of contention between the two neighboring countries and one of the very few strains in an otherwise remarkably cordial relationship. It is not, as territorial disputes go, a particularly acrid case. The US claim on Machias is not pressed all that strenuously, and no official American presence is maintained there. And if the US were to renounce its claim, as it probably will someday, few would notice and fewer still would care.

As with most disputes, there are tangible interests at stake, in this case access to the valuable lobster fisheries surrounding the island. But you get the sense that this justification is kind of a red herring because the entire Gulf of Maine is a pretty good fishery and the waters around Machias are nothing special. Even though no one can remember anymore how the dispute began, it has lately taken on a life of its own, and in such cases practical considerations take a back seat to emotional ones.

From the living room of the house we are renting in Eastport, Maine, you can see a lot more of Canada than of the United States. Which is not surprising considering that the imaginary line between them lies a very short distance away, running up the middle of West Passage, of which we have a commanding view. The panorama also includes Deer Island and Indian Island right across the Passage, Passamoquoddy Bay to the northwest, and Campobello Island to the northeast. About fifteen miles away, just a shade to the right of due north, lie Black’s Harbour and Back Bay, on the Canadian mainland. The view from the widows’ walk out back is even better; you can actually see over Campobello to the Bay of Fundy beyond. Through binoculars I spy the mammoth car ferries making the run from Black’s Harbour to Grand Manan Island and back, every other hour, on the hour. And if the day happens to be clear and the light just right, you can make out, just barely, the coastline of Nova Scotia some sixty miles distant.

From here, the other side looks a whole lot like this one. Same landscape, same vegetation, same everything. A flagpole bears a different-looking standard than the one flown on this side, but the people wandering about beneath look just like you and me. The parking lot of the little campground across the way teems with Chevys and Fords and Dodges and GMCs. If you were somehow dropped over there without warning, it might actually take you a little while to figure out that you weren’t in Kansas anymore. You’d probably know something was up when you heard your first “a-boat.” Or saw signs reading “Centre,” kilometre,” “Queen’s” this, or “Royal” that.

In fact nobody seems all that exercised about the bright, invisible line running nearby. The wildlife ignores it. Boats cross it right and left at will. In downtown Eastport there is a Coast Guard facility standing ready to defend with a couple of fast watercraft, but the boats rarely leave port. The young men who staff the place seem pretty relaxed, and go about their duties with minimal urgency, apparently unconcerned. A sign at water’s edge says “Persons entering from Canada must report to Customs.” But there are no directions to the Customs Office, a couple blocks away, which is sparely staffed and closes early and on weekends.

The concept of “border,” in the sense of a division between contrasting domains, doesn’t really describe what you find here. Whatever gradation exists across the invisible boundary is so slight as to be effectively nonexistent. There is no contrast to speak of, hence no tension. There are innumerable connections of shared blood and history spanning the line as well, blurring it even further. Around here, the border has approximately same meaning as the fence that separates your yard from a neighbor’s. It is not in any real way a barrier, simply a marker: This side is mine, that side is yours. And everyone seems fine with it.

Invisible or not, when you cross the line you notice a pretty sharp contrast in the way you are greeted, depending on which way you happen to be heading. Likely as not, the person who officially welcomes you to Canada will be female, middle-aged and matronly. She will be dressed in a uniform that looks like it could have been borrowed from a park ranger. She will be unarmed. She will remain a respectful distance away, seated in her glass booth. She will be alone, with no backup lingering imposingly nearby. She will ask you a brief series of routine questions, smiling as she does so. She will take your passport but hand it back in just a few seconds, never letting it leave your sight. She will chat affably with you if you choose to engage her. And then she will send you on your way with a friendly wave.

Coming back, you get a very different reception. You will be greeted by a young male in what looks like military garb. He will be well-armed with handgun, baton, and taser. Some kind of armored vehicle will be parked close by. The young man will wear mirrored sunglasses and a stern, no-nonsense expression. He will emerge from his booth to stand inches away from you, and look you over in a manner clearly intended to intimidate. In a tone of voice that could never be confused with friendly he will instruct you to place the transmission in “Park” and turn off the engine. He will snatch your passport with a brusqueness that makes you wonder if you are going to get it back. Returning to his booth, the young uniformed man will peer intently at a computer screen, his face the very picture of vigilant concentration. After an unnervingly long delay, he will return to ask you a series of pointed questions about your activities. He will want details: where and when you went, what you did, why you did. When, to defuse the tension, you make a joke, and a pretty good one at that, he will not smile or laugh. After a lingering, wordless stare, he will return your passport and say, with unwitting irony, “Welcome home.”

You get the impression that in many ways the United States and its neighbor to the north are like siblings who went separate ways early in life. One sibling, traditional, patient, respectful of authority, decided not to rock a pretty solid boat. This sibling chose a gentle and civilized path, letting the slow drift of history carry it naturally away from the parent, much-honored and fondly remembered. The other sibling, impatient, rebellious, fast-living, more passionate than sensible, chose to roughly cast off its velvet yoke so that it could be “free,” whatever that meant. Free to make its way, alone and unaided, confined to the margins of a hostile and little-known continent, with few resources and fewer prospects.

Having far more luck than sense, by improbably good fortune the rebellious sibling came to outshine the complacent one for a good long while. It became prosperous, then rich. It accomplished much and symbolized much more. For a time, it was quite something. The rebellious sibling has not aged well, though, and its fortunes have faded as its many vices begin to exact their toll. And the complacent one, bland, steady, and unremarkable by comparison, now fares better by most measures, being markedly freer, prosperous but sustainably so, and socially healthier.

If you come to Eastport from any American city, you notice as soon as you step from your vehicle that something is missing, though it takes you a few seconds to put your finger on it. Ears accustomed to constant background noise find the omnipresent silence at first confusing, then fascinating, and finally luxuriant. If you are like most people, the place where you come from there are so many sounds, all the time, that they just kind of merge into a continuous, meaningless babble. But this place is different. You find yourself scanning hard for familiar sounds, and sure enough you catch them, faintly. A dog barks many blocks away, a car door closes somewhere over yonder, a snatch of conversation drifts by from down the lane.

For a few seconds you hear another sound, barely audible yet familiar, which seems to come from everywhere, and you look up to see a jet aircraft, a speck in the blue vastness, cruising high above on a northeast-bearing track that will carry it across the water. In five minutes it will be over Nova Scotia, across the Bay of Fundy. In fifteen it will be over the open Atlantic. Seven or eight hours from now it will touch down a quarter of the planet’s circumference away, and it’s passengers will emerge, blinking, into an early afternoon that feels to them like dawn. Gazing from one horizon to its opposite, you can see that this plane is but one in a steady stratospheric procession passing, inaudible and nearly invisible, high overhead, contrails overlapping briefly before dissipating.

Something else you hear, so rare where you come from that you had all but forgotten it, is the sound of children in unscripted outdoor play, making it up as they go along. Later, when you actually see it, you notice that no adult hovers watchfully nearby. Though it takes only a few seconds to come to your senses, the initial, conditioned, reaction to this very wholesome thing is momentary concern.

It takes no time at all to get used to the new sonic reality. You notice yourself listening more, talking less. And when you do speak it is with your “inside” voice, wherever you happen to be. Not once do you hear a car horn, a blaring stereo, voices shouting. When one afternoon a car alarm goes off suddenly it is like a rifle shot. Every head turns in the direction of the sound. The owner rushes to silence the blaring contraption, flustered and embarrassed. You are momentarily annoyed, but relent when you realize that the offending party is probably mortified, and will almost certainly not make that mistake again. You notice that this quiet place has affected you much more deeply than you would ever have imagined. You arrived here tense, harried, and irritable, the walking, talking definition of “stress.” But by the time you leave, Webster’s will have to put a picture of someone else next to that entry.

Since we were last here a new cell tower has been installed on Moose Island, so the phone service is actually not bad now. I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I really hated to be out of contact, but on the other hand it was a novel, welcome kind of liberation to be free of that distracting damnable device for a while, even if involuntarily. I notice, though, that few take advantage of the improved coverage. Cell phones  are used only sparingly, they sound off hardly at all, and they remain mostly tucked out of sight. And everywhere we are treated to the spectacle of people actually socializing and enjoying it, not staring intently at little electronic screens, as is the norm where we come from.

There are basically two schools of thought about vacations. One holds that the purpose of a holiday is to pack as much activity as possible into your limited time. Which leads to such absurdities as the one-week excursion to Europe or Southeast Asia that has you dashing from country to country, lingering nowhere for more than a few hours. And from which you return exhausted and disoriented, head swimming with fragmentary, disconnected recollections. Only young people and Americans do this sort of thing. People of a certain age mostly hew to the other school of thought, which maintains that the purpose of holidays is to relax, and that it is perfectly OK to do little or nothing in service of this goal. Eastport happens to be a most excellent place to do very little, and for this reason I hold it in especially high regard.

Not that it is a boring place. There is much to hold your interest here if you are willing to embrace an alternate frame of reference. It is blueberry season, and even a short walk in the woods will provide you with all you can carry of the tiny, syrupy-sweet fruit. The spectacularly large, world-class tides, truly a force of nature, are endlessly fascinating. It is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with a dizzying array of species both terrestrial and aquatic wherever you look. The place is made for hikers and bikers, with quiet streets winding through quaintly pretty neighborhoods, scenic back-country lanes, and many wooded trails. The nearby waters have plentiful populations of porpoises and seals and pilot whales and, frequently, humpbacks, and if you are patient and observant, you can almost always spot some swimming about. There is a steady flow of visitors to the small but appealing downtown district down on the waterfront, which makes for good people-watching, if you don’t happen to mind boring old white folks, that is.

Demographically speaking, this part of the world is pretty dull, a more or less homogeneous monoculture of Caucasians of middling means, skewed a bit older than the norm. It is the opposite of diverse and I am perfectly OK with that. I am at a point in life–naturally I hesitate to say “old”–where I crave the familiar, the predictable, the compatible. And this place and these people are all of that. Though it would curl the hair of many a good liberal to hear it, I have come lately to the conclusion that diversity, in the demographic sense, is very much overrated. Frankly, I find the current national fixation with it to be tediously pretentious and appallingly naive. Diversity is like cilantro, excellent in small doses but ruinous when overdone. Too much diversity and you have Babel. Probably the worst thing you could say about this place and its un-diverse people is that it and they are bland. But to these aging eyes bland is beautiful.

After a day or two here, you notice another demographic wrinkle. Although Eastport is crawling with apparently single women, most of them on the shady side of fifty, other than a few tourists there appear to be hardly any men. I see these women in abundance on my daily walks, strolling alone or in pairs, with nary a male in tow. They are hard to miss because they practically throw themselves at you in their friendliness. Restaurants, shops, and businesses are likewise uniformly bereft of the masculine gender, even the hardware store, that stalwart bastion of the endangered male.

I evaluate a range of possible explanations for this odd phenomenon. I consider the possibility that some kind of black widow cult might have set up shop here, and the men have all been lured to grisly deaths. This theory initially looks quite promising because stylistically, at least, it makes perfect sense. You could hardly find a better locale for such an enterprise, what with the dramatic seaside setting and Gothic feel of the place–eerie fogs, storms, crashy waves, all of that. But disposing of bodies is hard, grubby work of the sort women sensibly avoid, so for that reason I must reject this scenario as unlikely. I consider further that perhaps an androcidal plague has recently ravaged Moose Island. This would also explain things. But I must ultimately discard this theory as well on the grounds that such a unique calamity would probably have generated headlines. Which leaves me to reach, reluctantly, the disappointingly mundane conclusion that women simply like this place, while men, by and large, do not. And with a little reflection you can see the logic of it: Eastport is a very quiet, very safe, very pretty place with a strong sense of community, which are all qualities that appeal strongly to women. Plus, real estate is extremely cheap and the cost of living is low. If you can get past the harsh winters, and somehow make a living, it’s not a bad deal at all. Although most men would be bored to tears here, it’s easy to see Eastport as as a nearly perfect place for a recently divorced or widowed woman on a budget to get a fresh start.

This year, for some reason, jellyfish are especially abundant in the coastal waters. Predictably, some blame global warming, but the water is a chilly as it ever is this time of year, so you are tempted to chalk it up instead to natural fluctuation. These jellyfish, oddly beautiful, move with captivating grace, their bell-shaped, nearly transparent bodies beating like slow-motion wings as waves of contraction and release ripple rhythmically through them. When the light strikes just right, their inner parts shine with brilliantly iridescent rainbow hues, as though illuminated from within. The coastal waters also teem with Siphonophores, strange and primordial-looking, like strands of protoplasmic twine. They drift everywhere with the current, twisting this way and that as they float by. Resembling no living thing you have ever seen before, these primitive creatures strike you as bizarrely anachronistic, Precambrian oddities completely out of place in this biologic era of complex body plans and large brains. And it occurs to you to wonder if perhaps nature, in some little-understood way, keeps such simple organisms around for a reason.

When you tell people you are going to Maine, there is always at least one wise guy who asks, comically, if you are “going to Bang-uh or Baah Haabbah to eat Lahb-stuh?” And playing along, you answer with something like “A-yup; gonna pahk mah caah right they-uh on Baah Haabbah squay-uh.” And everybody has a good yuk. So it is a little disappointing to find that most Mainers don’t really talk like that. You are tempted to blame the homogenizing influence of television. There are exceptions, of course, and after a while you detect a pattern. The hardworking fiftyish redheaded waitress at the local diner, the plumber who comes to swap out your pressure tank, and the weather-beaten fellow behind the counter at the bait shack all sound like they could have been sent over by Central Casting. But the banker, the shopkeeper who doubles as the mayor, and lady who runs that new, sort-of upscale restaurant downtown–native Mainers all–speak as though they might have hailed from Anytown, USA.

The big excitement of the week is the long-awaited unveiling of the new mermaid statue down on the waterfront. She is is most definitely not your storybook mermaid, all stylized features and strategically placed hair. And she is anything but demure, sporting a modern hairdo, a saucy, come-hither expression, and lifelike breasts. Very lifelike breasts. Water must be cold. There is a definite split in the receptiveness of the population to this, um, naturalistic, rendering, mostly along gender lines. Men flock to her, and strike funny, cheeky poses. Women mostly look mildly uncomfortable, swallow hard, and mutter to themselves. Oh dear.

This time of year, Moose Island is a riot of floral color. Every house and shop, it seems, has a well-tended garden. Even as a non-gardener, you envy the sheer profusion of brilliantly colored blossoms, which outclass what you see back home in every possible way. It is like a chromatic exclamation point emphasizing the transient, perishable beauty of the summer season. A timely reminder, because even though it is only the first week of August, you can already detect the first faint harbingers of seasonal change, inevitable and implacable. A month hence, these many bright blossoms will be a fading memory. Three months from now the vibrant hues of summer will all have drained away and a chill north wind will whistle through bare branches. Six months from now the land will sleep, silent and still, beneath a deep blanket of white.

The fields, meadows, and roadsides are also flush with wildflowers of every natural hue. One variety catches my eye because it is like a scaled-up version of the familiar bluebonnets of home, to which it is clearly related. These wild lupines are at their peak now, forming picturesque, waist-high stands that sometimes cover many acres. Each individual plant is graced with dozens of delicately variegated bluish-reddish blossoms, arranged in ascending, symmetric, serried ranks around the central stem. The blossoms ripen from the bottom up so that the flower tapers upward and resembles, sometimes strikingly so, a vividly colored Christmas tree. The very top, if still green, bends a little like a finger crooked. The low spots along roadways are the favored habitat of irises and lilies offering orange and yellow counterpoints. Asters and daisies and phlox are scattered abundantly throughout, following no identifiable plan.

Wild roses grow all over the place, forming, wherever unattended, thick hedges that double as fences. There are two varieties of these, a red one–the more common–and a white. The blossoms of these wild roses are like half-scale miniatures of the domesticated variety you might give your sweetheart for her birthday or on Valentine’s Day. But what the blossoms lack in size they make up in sheer numbers; a good-sized bush may have hundreds. There is a substantial rosebush in the front yard of our rental house. Its blossoms, white this summer, were red two years ago, and I wonder what has happened to trigger the change–too little rainfall, too much, a minute change in the chemistry of the soil, an especially mild or cold winter. I clamp my hand around a blossom to draw it closer for a good sniff, only to recoil instantly in pain. Thinking at first that I might have been stung by a bee, such was the pain, I peer very carefully closer, only to see that every square centimeter of every branch is covered with a dense forest of formidably sharp spines.

By Americans standards, Eastport is an old town. There was a small but permanent settlement here by around 1770. Things picked up over the years, and by the late 19th century, Eastport was a happening place. The year 1887 must have been the high-water mark, you realize, because so many of the buildings downtown display it, emphatically incised into stone in numbers two feet high. But it has been pretty much all downhill since then. First the fishing boats sailed away one by one, then the canneries closed, finally the once-busy port ceased operating altogether. All that remains of the boom years is the faint lingering scent of faded glory. Today, the population has dwindled to a little over a thousand, a tenth what it once was.

In many ways this place seems frozen in time. Almost every building here dates to the 19th century. Most are kept up with pride, but you see a lot of slippage, too. Many could use a good coat of paint, some a bit more than that. More than a few are in pretty sad shape, their aging or infirm or apathetic occupants having long ago given up. Across the street and down a little from our rented house is a once-stately three-story Victorian, now abandoned. It stands forlorn and forgotten, gaping holes in the roof, every window broken, visibly sagging in the middle, an eyesore or a poignant symbol of loss depending on your mood. A faded “For Sale” sign stands out front, nearly invisible in the tall grass. Dozens of people must have called this place home over the years, and it occurs to me to wonder if even a single one of them is left to care.