Occupying a peninsula on the west side of Penobscot Bay, the town of Owl’s Head, Maine, is a town in little more than name, for there is almost no business to patronize and not much development to rue, and civil governance dances calmly to the once-a-year rules of the August town meeting. Our inhabitants fish or commute to Rockland or dabble in retirement or keep the summer people in lobster and workable plumbing. The place is both ordinary (small white houses, scruffy woodlots, half-mown fields, perpetual yard sales) and dramatic (mansions on the shore, stunning views of the bay and its islands and the open ocean past Vinalhaven and Spruce Head). For some, it’s a home; for others, like me, it’s been a second home, a refuge from the city and its trials.
One of the reasons I like Owl’s Head so much is that its biggest controversies seem to be orthographic. How do you spell the town’s name, for example? Half of the sign makers and journalists around here, being either careless or ornery, exclude the apostrophe. The other half include it, following the rules of metaphor and history (not to mention grammar), for the high promontory upon which the lighthouse sits is said to look like an owl in profile, and the town’s old Abenaki name, Mecadacut, means owl’s head. Omitting the apostrophe makes little sense, as if one head could have many owls. But it could be worse: Owlshead, anyone?
Similarly and perhaps more colorfully, the archipelago of islands just off its shores—Otter, High, Dix, Pleasant and the rest—is known prosaically as Mussel Ridge and poetically as Muscle Ridge. I know of no correlation between the homonyms, or indeed the two controversies.
According to the guidebooks, the town has two and a half attractions, of which my wife and I have visited one. Always heading the lists is the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, semi-famous among antique car nuts, and along with the half-attraction, Knox County Regional Airport, it forms a noisy alliance, bringing us air shows on summer weekends. The second attraction, Owl’s Head Light, is semi-famous among lighthouse nuts, and there we take visitors for its glorious view of the bay and Rockland Harbor and the Camden Hills rising in the north. Our visitors tour also includes Birch Point Beach State Park for Maine’s iconic tide pools and sand and pink granite ledges, and Owl’s Head Harbor to see the small fleet of lobster boats and the ratty, smelly town wharf. The tour lasts little more than an hour before giving way to drinks on the deck.
Metaphorically and naturally, Owl’s Head is a quiet town, so unambitious that the library is open but an hour on Wednesday evening (“weather permitting”) and two hours on Saturday afternoon. In manufactured reality, the town isn’t particularly quiet, with the whining of Maine’s official insect, the chain saw, and the buzzing of riding mowers on large lawns and the throaty rumble of lobster boats in the bay and the snarling of airplanes—pleasure props, mail flights serving Matinicus island, Boston commuters, air-show antiques, and the occasional rich man’s Gulfstream—coming in too low and too loud. But these interruptions are flare-ups, not the insistent and perpetual insults of a city, and for the most part Owl’s Head lives peacefully on the tax revenue from the summer people on its shores.
For most of my life, Maine has been a vision of simplicity and escape and idyllic joy, a kind of Arcadia. In the 16th century, Verrazano actually called it so, after the wilderness in Greece, referring not only to Maine but to the whole Atlantic seaboard from Virginia to Labrador. Arcadia’s heaven didn’t last long. Samuel de Champlain (first European explorer of Owl’s Head in 1605) dropped the “r” (was it too hard for a Frenchman to pronounce?) to make Acadia, and the wars—territorial, religious, symbolic—were on. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Abenaki exchanged bullets for 150 years over the land’s bounties. Industrial America completed the rout. The romance of Acadia had led to its destruction, and the wilderness, the purity, clings barely to life today, institutionalized in a national park, under attack in the Great North Woods, fictionalized in my mind.
I know that for many people, Owl’s Head is no Acadia. The fog here is legendary (our current record is eight straight July days shut of sun); only a few acres of land are conserved and protected from future malls or mansions; the airport is right in the middle of everything; too many people are poor; and the winter is long and cold and two-thirds dark. Yet my family and I came eagerly for nearly twenty years, just escaping the city perhaps, or caught in an illusion of Acadia. Until retirement, we came wearing our Massachusetts straitjackets of performance and calculations and tyrannical schedules of work and school. Those few weeks of vacation and the occasional holiday weekend were enough to loosen the straps but not cast them off. Our visits here were always too short, not enough for healing, not enough to escape into, or create, an ideal world. The mountaintop could be seen but not reached. The suburban life sets the mind on a narrow path, and the body dutifully climbs along, hoping for clear views before the fall of night turns it back.
The very words visit and revisit suggest a trek ruled by the clock in blocks of time. But I’m not visiting anymore, and I’m not really revisiting either. In retirement, my focus is different. I’m in Owl’s Head more often. Time is changing from a construct to a dimension, from a jolting digital read-out to a long morning dawn. It is on my side, at least for a while. After a visit here I no longer leave with eyes wide shut, desperately reviewing the calendar for the next fix, pulled back by a whim or an obsession. I’m embarking on a different kind of revisitation, a twitch upon the thread of the ordinary, hoping to see, really for the first time, Ballyhac Cove and Ingraham Hill and the ghostly, long-gone ash trees of Ash Point. And I will be walking, not driving. Observing, not glancing. Giving, not accumulating. Believing, not escaping.
My language is changing, too. During those forty years of dreaming of a different life—dreaming of escaping corporations and society by writing fiction on the side, as if writing fiction would ease stress and distress—a different language slowly emerged, and what I once worried was just a dream is becoming less so.
Writing is an activity out of time, wrested away from time. You lose track of it. You don’t have to follow its rules until you get tired. I could also say, equally, that writing for me, fiction or essays, seems to require a place where time and space are compatible, or even congruent, where the landscape and our presence in it reflect any number of eras. Maine is that kind of place. I sit on the town wharf, looking out at boats and islands and horizon, and it could be the 16th century, or the 21st, so little beyond the shore has changed. It is a place where the restless are quieted by the ordinary. But it’s also a place where I’ve discovered I don’t need fiction, to write or to read, as desperately as I used to. I can experience the contradictions and pleasures of life more directly.
And Owl’s Head is a place of both, a place where I understand the centuries-old memento mori “Et in Arcadia ego” in both its interpretations. In the frazzled city, I am the speaker: “Even though I’m dead, I still had Arcadia,” and I think about some new plot or life or character twist to bring me back there. But here in Owl’s Head, death is the speaker: “Even in Arcadia I exist,” and I think about the real systems of nature all around: the trillions of births in the tidal zone, the unnatural deaths of trees. Kids grown, job retired, I’m learning this lesson of contradictions, studying the sentence of death, coming to grips with something previously sublimated by work or fiction. Commutation of the sentence won’t be possible, they tell me, but at least I’m not going to make up my life anymore; I’m going to parse it by a gull standing firm in a gale, a fog creeping over the islands, a lane leading nowhere, a stew of molecules recombining in the sea.
Some people, let alone writers of fiction, try to mend life by unifying the sacred and the profane. But for the irreligious, that marriage is only possible if we are given the time to be out of time. We have to shake off the world, and yet inhabit it completely. There is no escaping it, especially since I believe there is no other world but this one, and therefore sacred must take on a different meaning. I have to reject the Gnostic imprisonment. My memories and work here have little to do with the obsessive kind of belief in love or God pursued by the restless, the inconstant. Fictional worlds are wonderful for rests after lunch, for plane rides, for pews, for the quiet half-hours just before, and after, sleep. In a place like Owl’s Head, love is a chance to fit in with the world, not fight against it. And religion is a goldfinch singing at the very top of a balsam fir, tiny and defiant; it is the bay shining in a rainbow of colors far beyond blue if you stare yourself open to them; it is the melting and draining of ego.
Now I’ve been given time. Writing becomes a guide to inner creation, not outer complicity. The world reduces to simplicity: mornings spent clearing the body in the words of the mind, afternoons spent clearing the mind in the sweat of the body. Owl’s Head opens up in a symphony of the ordinary, walking a lane, listening to surf, splitting wood for the stove, weeding (which is both mundane and holy), doing nothing for an hour but watching birds flying over the bay and between the firs. How many of us are so lucky as to get four or five stabs of pure joy in the course of one day?
This is the place where, oddly enough and increasingly so, the pursuit of that old material life, based on flights of money and ambition and purchase of the latest this and that, is what seems abstract. This is the place where a lobsterman pulls up to the wharf, weighs his catch, and knows exactly how much he’s earned for the day’s labors. This is where a flight of fancy becomes a walk on the shore, where words have more weight.
I’m emboldened now to take up the contradictions of life, questions of good and evil, the co-existence of death and breath, the finality of the heartbeat, the darkness of winter light. But am I still a visitor, with restless city ways? Is there time and energy enough? How to be still after years of jiggling, how to disentangle from the Web of distraction, how to love fog and cold and loneliness, how to persevere—well, these are fairly ridiculous questions, themselves driven by the skepticism of a lifetime. Let me put them aside for a moment and at the very least, and with no little glee, drop the apostrophe of good sense, embrace illogic, poetry, bulging muscles and multiple heads, and trust that Owls Head is a place where I can inhabit them all.