Reflections from the stage of the Quoddy Voices concert

Singing in front of an audience is a relatively new experience for me, one arising in my retirement years, mostly through Boston Revels’ top-caliber community chorus and related events.

What I can say is that from the stage, each performance has been thrilling and transcendental, even when not necessarily perfect. Most remarkable is the oneness we sense as a company making melody and harmony.

Before the Covid restrictions and my relocating to Downeast Maine, I was commuting from New Hampshire to Boston as a baritone in the Revels Singers, first under George Emlen and then Megan Henderson. The ensemble ranged from 40 or so to maybe 80 members, depending on the season. Its classical and world folk repertoire was drawn largely from the shows the organization had produced in its more than a half century, with music in nearly 30 languages and spanning a good millennium of history. Many of the arrangements, editions, and original compositions were by our conductors or others affiliated with Revels.

~*~

These days I’m with a much smaller group, Quoddy Voices, which is also led by a fine conductor, pianist, and composer, John Newell, and I’ll proclaim that its standards and abilities are just as high.

We just concluded the second pair of programs with me as a member, and once again I must admit moments of listening to the others in amazement and then wondering how on earth I ever managed to be included. Yes, it’s humbling and challenging.

Technically, we’re a chamber choir – for the concert, 20 singers. Among other things, it means any slipups are more exposed.

(Photo by Jessica J. Williams)

Our program, a Harvest of Song, put us ahead of Thanksgiving and the crowded holiday schedule at the arts center. That meant a shortened rehearsal schedule, but online practice scores of our parts definitely made a difference.

Compared to Revels Singers, our repertoire engages more in works other choirs are also exploring, which led us to three pieces by Florence Price, the first Black American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. She’s finally being widely discovered, nearly 70 years after her death. From our point of view, her writing is deft, with touches of jazz and flashes of difficulty. The bass line in one score movingly upheld the axiom of less is more.

From living composers we had two widely performed works by Englishman John Rutter, who is admired for pieces that fit the voice like a latex body suit; Californian Frank Ticheli’s masterpiece, “Earth Song”; a lively Calypso in 5-4 time by the now 95-year-old Harry Belafonte; and a haunting 35-year-old Dan Forrest’s setting of a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem.

From old masters we had a deeply reverential motet from Romantic-era Anton Bruckner and sections of Baroque brilliance from Henry Purcell’s 1692 “Ode to Saint Cecilia’s Day,” which foreshadows Handel and his Messiah but with sides of pagan homage, as English poets of the time were wont to do.

We concluded with Randall Thompson’s classic 1940 “Alleluia,” drenched in sadness, as the composer admitted, but becoming quite polyphonic and agitated before introducing a single second word at the end, a seven-part, two-note amen.

While all of these works are widely known in choral circles, all but the Thompson were new to me. I had heard the Thompson only in a broadcast just a year ago and earlier from an old buddy who raved about singing it with his chorus.

Our audiences, as usual, were attentive and enthusiastic.

~*~

So now some of us are scheduled to do some informal caroling before Christmas.

And then, come February, we get to see what our director has in store for us next.

Bays within bays, all adding into one

For someone raised like me far from the ocean, trying to pin down places along the coastline can be confounding.

Eastport, for instance, lies within famed Fundy Bay yet also has Cobscook Bay lapping its west banks and Passamaquoddy Bay on its east.

What gives?

Well, let’s say the bays are like Matreshka Dolls, one fitting inside another one that fits within yet another one and so on.

Cobscook Bay, for instance, includes the smaller East, South, Sipp, Dennys, and Whiting bays.

Looking into Cobscook Bay to the west of Eastport.
Or to the east, toward the Bay of Fundy.

I guess it’s like a New Yorker saying she’s from Flatbush, meaning a part of Brooklyn within New York City, which does – contrary to the knowledge of many Manhattanites – sprawl far beyond their little island.

So Eastport can justly claim to be the City in the Bay. Or several.

 

Why Yankee mariners wintered in the woods

You might think the ideal time to work in a forest would be spring or fall, but that’s not how it’s turned out in logging in the great northern forests of New England and New York state. Instead, the time to be out harvesting trees is deep winter. Yup, below zero around here.

I first learned of this when trying to order firewood after an uncommonly warm winter in New Hampshire. Because the ground hadn’t frozen hard enough long enough, the cutters hadn’t been able to access much of the woods with their heavy equipment. The result was a marketplace shortage.

For contrast, mud season can be notorious, so much so that come spring, logging roads are closed to prevent destruction. Much of Maine, in particular, is either standing water, once the ice melts, or boggy, including soft peat bogs. And in late spring and early summer, hoards of nasty black flies swarm about – the defenders of wilderness, as some contrarians contend.

~*~

Folklorists examining the songs of Maine have noticed that many of the songs from the old lumberjack camps originated at sea. You know, as shanties and the like. At first, these scholars were puzzled, but then they realized that winter was a treacherous time to be out on the water. Many sailors instead headed for the forests, to work in the camps for the season. Somehow, though, any songs originating in the woods failed to travel the other direction.

Historically, the logs were stacked along streams, awaiting the spring melting and surging high waters that the timber could ride to ride millponds. That, in turn, could be exciting, demanding, and deadly work where mariners would continue.

From there, the sailors went back out on the ocean.

Mechanization has changed much of that, on land and sea, but not the reality of mucky soil.

We’ll see what global warming does to the industry.

When our small city turns into a four-day party

Though Eastport was settled relatively late – that is, toward the end of the Revolutionary War – it was instilled with a Colonial flavor by prominent early residents who were resolute veterans.

A continuing spirit of Tea Party and Minutemen makes Independence Day in New England feel different than those elsewhere. It’s not just the place of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. It’s the region where thickheaded Yankees have always doodled.

Quite simply, history is palpably alive everywhere across New England.

Boston, of course, is the epicenter, but across the six most northeasterly states, local observations uphold distinctive traditions. Think of musketeers firing a round ever so often along the town parade route, along with fifes and drums.

As an independently enterprising oceanside village, Eastport soon had a reputation as a hive of privateering – that is, legalized piracy – and not-so-legal smuggling. That independent streak gets its own attention in the city’s annual Pirate Festival a week after Labor Day.

How joyous!

Unlike much of America, the city had frontline experience of the War of 1812. Fort Sullivan atop the bluffs surrendered to the British Navy in 1814, and Eastport then remained under the royal thumb until 1818.

Two years after its reunification with the United States, Maine became liberated from Massachusetts for the first time since 1653 and began to breathe into its own unique character.

For its part, Eastport rocketed as a center of shipping, shipbuilding, fishing, and sardine canning before the big decline of the 1900s set in.

Today, the tiny city’s locals remember a vibrant past and close-knit community, one that spanned the shorelines on both the American and Canadian sides of the watery border.

Is a renaissance on the horizon? There are signs for hope.

All of these strands infuse the holiday here.

Here’s a taste of last year’s pyrotechnics fired off from the fish pier downtown.
Yes, fireworks can be visually composed, leading your eyes around the sky.

The national holiday also marks the opening of New England’s short summer season. After a cold, dark, long winter, Eastport’s small year-’round populace can actually come out into the open air for long times together. The ocean and lakes are finally warming, to the extent that they do, and that attracts vacationers to join in.

After months when only a stray New Hampshire or Massachusetts auto plate is seen around here, I’ve now seen those of every state but Alabama, Hawaii, and North Dakota (not all at the same time), some seeming rather exotic.

And the Fourth includes the city’s Old Home Week, with high school reunions and the return of many summer residents.

A lot happens over a four-day span. There’s a doll carriage and wagon parade. A torchlight parade. Car shows, bike races, water games, pet show, rubber ducky race, festive all-you-can-eat blueberry pancake breakfast, free outdoor movie, contests, live music, and a street dance, all with a small-town flavor.

A traditional visit by a large U.S. Navy vessel failed to materialize, a consequence of being on Ukraine-related alert. Three different ships had expressed interest in landing at the Breakwater before the turn in world events.

While fireworks were displayed off over the harbor on the Fourth, America’s Independence Day (the beautifully designed and executed big show fired from the town’s Fish Pier was followed by a joyously rowdy encore from a diner’s smaller private pier), the companion July 1 presentation for Canada Day, in honor of our neighbors in New Brunswick, was still a victim of Covid cutbacks. Some residents, though, could view shows happening on Deer Island across the water.

Seems ever so fitting to shoot the works twice, considering Eastport’s dual connections.

it really does feel like a party’s come to town.

How do you celebrate the Fourth?

An Indigenous presence at hand  

My immersion in yoga and meditation in the early ’70s left me with a deep appreciation for what poet Gary Snyder dubbed the Old Ways, “the wisdom and skill of those who studied the universe first hand, by direct knowledge and experience, for millennia, both inside and outside themselves.”

It’s something quite different from simply old-fashioned, though it’s found in many different traditions. Call it spiritual, even mystical, if you will, but it often has a practical intensity as well.

I’ll even call it countercultural, across history.

One of its streams has survived among the Indigenous peoples of America, though often by a mere thread.

Passamaquoddy dancers in Maine.

I remember visiting Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in Indiana after I left the ashram and, awakening in the morning, sitting cross-legged in meditation on one of their magnificent Navajo carpets. (The Navajo call them blankets, rather than rugs, by the way, but I’d find them too heavy to wear or sleep under. At the time the Ostroms started collecting, these antique artworks were cheaper than wall-to-wall carpeting. Now they’re priceless.) As I opened my eyes, the lines and colors radiated out from me in a design that I could only describe as a living mandala. Its creator had been more than a weaver, then.

A few years later, I was living near the fringe of the Yakama Reservation in Washington state and delving into the mythology and artistry of the Pacific Northwest Native peoples. My longpoem, “American Olympus,” reflects that, as do many of my shorter poems and parts of my novels “Nearly Canaan” and “The Secret Side of Jaya.”

That experience, though, was cut short 42 years ago and revived only last year, when I landed in Eastport with its neighboring Passamaquoddy people – 258 households, 700 members.

The Passamaquoddy’s Pleasant Point Reservation sits along Cobscook Bay on one side and Passamaquoddy Bay on the other.

I can’t exactly explain it, but I do sense that practitioners of Old Ways change the vibe of the surrounding landscape in a positive way. Not just American Indians, either. I’d say the same of the Amish.

One of the traits that seems to be common among these practitioners is reserve, close observation, and an economy of words. The character Marilyn Whirlwind, played by Elaine Miles in the television series “Northern Exposure,” embodied that to perfection.

There is also a sense of place as sacred, and a desire to live in balance with the land.

The word Passamaquoddy itself translates as People of the Dawn. Even Gatekeepers of the Dawn. And it definitely fits this part of the continent, on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, which they have always spanned.

The first I had even heard of the tribe was when Fredda Paul, one of its traditional healers, and his apprentice Leslie Wood stayed with us a few nights in Dover. For me, it was a close insight into another way of thought and feeling.

So far, I’ve refrained from photographing the Passamaquoddy, at least apart from their annual powwow. Maybe I’ve learned that from the Amish, except for the powwow part.

A drumming circle is something shared across tribes. It’s a complex interaction, loud vocally and instrumentally.

For an introduction, I’d suggest touring the exhibits at the Wabanaki Cultural Center in downtown Calais. It’s free and includes hands-on displays.

Sculptures by Ivan Schwartz and Studio EIS at the St. Croix Island International Historic Site in Calais honor the Passamaquoddy role in saving the remnant of the French venture in 1605.
I do wonder about the sculptor’s choice of models. As for the clothing?
And the future?
Just about everyone at the annual Passamaquoddy Days celebration is invited to join in the snake dance. Saying no is not an option.

I’ve not yet been able to visit the Waponahki Museum and Resource Center on the Pleasant Point Reservation, with its work by award-winning basket makers, canoe builders, carvers, and contemporary artists, as well full-body castings of tribal members made in the 1960s.

 

Ah, yes, it’s orgy season again!

Not to disappoint you, but I’m referring to Harvard University’s radio station WHRB-FM, which does stream online, should you be interested.

Its orgy season is a tradition that occurs during finals exams’ week (plus), originating when one student who was so elated at surviving the tests that when he went into the studio, he celebrated its end by playing all of Beethoven’s symphonies, on 78s, in order.

How modest that seems now. A year and a half ago, the station played everything Ludwig ever wrote in honor of an anniversary.

Bob Dylan received a similar accolade a few years ago.

This year Franz Schubert’s in the focus, more than 120 hours, by the way, which creates a smaller orgy of its own for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was acclaimed for his many, many recordings of the many lieder, or songs.

In fact, when his daughter was asked what her daddy did, she quipped, He makes records. So many, in fact, he’s among the most recorded artists ever.

My late German mother-in-law would have been out of this world over this orgy.

Well, as I post this, the station’s just getting going.

 

She was truly one of a kind

In reflecting recently on the Quaker tradition of creating memorial minutes for “weighty Friends,” I was surprised that one example I had never posted was of another clerk of our Dover Meeting. She was struck down by a particularly virulent, fast-moving cancer, and it’s hard to me to see that nearly five years have gone by since her passing.

There’s much more that I could tell, but the approved minute will give you a good sense of her vibrant character.

Jean V. Blickensderfer

November 11, 1946 – June 16, 2017

Among Dover Friends, Jean was the flash of gold in the morning, a welcoming soul others naturally confided in, a faithful worker who eventually filled nearly every organizational position – from children’s teacher and treasurer, to co-clerk and finally presiding clerk.

Raised Unitarian-Universalist in Methuen, Massachusetts, she came to Friends in the early ‘80s after she and her first husband, Dean L. Davis, had settled in Eliot, Maine, and were seeking the right church for a family that included daughters Thaedra May and Sarah Joy. They were quickly entrenched among us.

Jean was twice widowed.

She married Dean the day after his graduation from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1967, and then managed their home during his long assignments at sea. During his interludes ashore, they built their own post-and-beam house on the banks of the Piscataqua River and could often be found boating, sometimes to visit other Quakers upstream, or on his motorcycle, which they rode to Meeting in good weather. He died in a freak automobile collision in 1992, an accident his wife and daughters survived unscathed.

In 1998 she married Del Blickensderfer and worked as his partner at Del’s Service Station until his passing of lupus in 2006.

Deeply grateful for the mentoring she received from seasoned Friends, Jean was a stickler for Quaker process and, over time, became the memory of the Meeting’s business itself. She sought to walk a line between holding her tongue and being direct, when needed. A witness to the movement of Christ in our midst, Jean’s infrequent vocal ministry could be powerful. Her skills as a professional typist assured the Meeting’s minutes were of archival quality and, combined with her business-school training, led to the Blue Books for committees and their clerks detailing their responsibilities. She was particularly fond of drawing on the Advices and Queries from London Yearly Meeting’s 1994 edition of Quaker Faith and Practice as guideposts for our own action. An avid knitter, she took comfort in seeing others do needlework during our business deliberations, their patience reflecting the work before us. In time, a midweek knitting circle became what she called a “wicked good” time of refreshment, nurture, and fellowship.

More pressing obligations had precluded her attending yearly meeting sessions, a “bucket list” item she resolved to achieve. All along, she warmly welcomed the wider world of Friends to Dover.

Other delights in her life were yoga, visiting with neighbors, shopping and dining with dear friends, walking the beach, doting on her Pomeranian Sumi, and especially being with her grandson Jonah. His living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did not prevent her from accompanying much of his childhood and youth, from celebrating birthdays and holidays to attending his piano recitals to cheering him on in mountain bicycle races, whenever she could.

In all, her presence, generosity, and deep and lively spirit were a gift.

With loved ones at her bedside through the final days of her cancer, she passed at age 70, peace and grace abundant.

APPROVED by Dover Monthly Meeting July 16, 2017, Charles Cox, clerk

 ENDORSED by Dover Quarterly Meeting July 31, 2017, at North Sandwich, Erik Cleven, clerk

 

When you wish upon a fish

Back before Covid, folks in Eastport would kiss the giant sardine sculpture that descends on New Year’s Eve from the Tides Institute’s headquarters as a gesture for good luck. This year, however, the act turned into placing a sticker on a surrogate fish, fun all the same.

To learn about the giant sardine and its companion maple leaf, you’ll just have to stay tuned till next year here. By then, I’ll be anxious to hear how many of your wishes came true.

Here’s wishing you and yours all the best in 2022.