Born to Be Wild
When the Maine summer is in full thrall, as it is now, and I have spent just a little too much time standing in line at my usual stops (at Portland Coffee Roasters, behind a gaggle of bridesmaids: “What are you going to get?” “I don’t know, what are you going to get?” “What are you going to get?” “I don’t know, what are you going to get?”; at Standard Baking, behind every New Yorker in town: “Give me one of those sticky buns. No, not that one. That one. That one.”; at Micucci’s, behind every island-hopper headed for Casco Bay Lines: “Shave me just one nice slice of prosciutto [pronounced pro-jute]. And gimme halfa ball of mozzarella [pronounced motsa-rell]. Do you make sandwiches? Why don’t you make sandwiches?”), and the neighbors are driving me crazy (the chainsaws, the weed whackers, the 8 p.m. lawn mowers, the Turkish music from that direction, the salsa party from over there, the yapping spaniel across the street, the screaming kids from seemingly every direction and the woman who feels the need to train her dog under my window at 3 a.m.: “Sit, Muffy. I said sit. Si-i-i-i-t.”), I know it’s time to head for the woods.
I, like Emerson (as in Ralph Waldo, not Lake & Palmer), sought solace in nature when humanity began getting on my nerves — which is to say, pretty much since birth. As kids, we were free to run wild in the woods and fields around our houses, ride our bikes out over the back roads of Bath and row our dinghies in the coves of the New Meadows River. When we returned, grass-stained, sunburned and scraped-up, our mothers would take a drag from their cigarettes and assess, then toss us in the tub or give us a spritz of Bactine or Solarcaine and send us off to watch The Monkees or Walt Disney. And that’s basically how childhood went.
This continued through high school and the first half of college. The stakes were bigger — backpacking in the Rockies with the Sierra Club, deciding to climb Katahdin one morning on a whim, sneaking aboard an acquaintance’s sailboat to crash after the bars closed in Camden one rainy night (not to be an ingrate, but the cabin leaked) — but I still turned to the outdoors to cure pretty much whatever ailed me.
That is, until I made a pivotal discovery at the start of my writing life in the second half of college: the great solace of books and barstools. Why bother to go outside and get all sweaty and dirty when you could have a wonderful adventure in the cool comfort of a pub or lounge, where there are no bears? Why go scrambling up and down cliff faces when someone on the page can do it for you?
Warming to this new approach, I began seeking out and residing in cities (London, San Francisco, Boston and, on my return to Maine, the Portland peninsula). Art receptions, CD-release parties, readings, gossip, new bar openings and old haunts — these were balm to me. The outdoors meant nothing more than weather that stained my Doc Martens. The woods were threatening. There were hicks out there.
Then, when I started my freelance career and found people willing to pay me to go outside, I took a different view. At first it was a novelty act. “Look at me, everyone! The city chick is going to eat at a lumberjack’s buffet in the North Woods. Should I order a Cab or a Pinot?” My urban carapace glistened.
But as I keyed out ferns with Audubon and tracked down warblers in Acadia and cruised the waters of Penobscot Bay and once again scaled Katahdin (this time after weeks of planning), something started shifting. A remembered response, familiar and comforting.
One of the pleasures of bar life for me was its unpredictability, not knowing who was going to walk through the door: Mr. Right or Mr. Wrong, an old friend or foe, an interesting drifter or an annoying pest. That’s how I feel now about being in nature. Every moment is charged with promise. After a grueling 10-mile hike on railroad tracks (don’t ask), the gift of a scarlet tanager sitting on a birch log. A big bull moose loitering in his wallow outside the township of Letter E. A loon with two babies drifting by as we swam from island to island in South Pond at Locke Mills.
These are the kinds of surprises that thrill me now and keep me sane when I return to civilization and see a line snaking out the door at Standard or the depleted croissant case at PCR. “Adopt the pace of nature,” said Emerson, “her secret is patience.” So even though I’d like to thunk someone over the head with a baguette, I won’t. Instead, I’ll just think: four months until the snow flies. Hallelujah.
Elizabeth Peavey is a perfect visitor when she’s afield. Just ask her.