The Universal Notebook: New Maine lives made by hand

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Because I possess few if any manual abilities, I greatly admire people who do. A skillful carpenter, cabinetmaker, mechanic, boat builder, logger, electrician or plumber is a person not only worth knowing, but worthy of respect.

I have often said, only half in jest, that when the Apocalypse comes I am going to flee to Newry to find Polly Mahoney, co-owner of Mahoosuc Guide Service. If anyone is going to survive, it is going to be Polly and her partner Kevin Slater.

Polly took me down the Allagash in a canoe and dogsledding on Richardson Lake for magazine assignments some years ago, and it was clear to me that Polly and Kevin knew everything there was to know about surviving in the wild. Drop them in the middle of nowhere and they would thrive. Drop me anywhere that doesn’t have running water and central heating and I would be dead in a matter of days.

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered that writer Katy Kelleher and photographer Greta Rybus had included Mahoosuc Guide Service as one of the 22 subjects profiled in “Handcrafted Maine” (Princeton Architectural Press. $39.95 hardcover), their elegant celebration of, as the subtitle explains, “Art, Life, Harvest & Home” in their adopted Maine.

Kelleher, who came from Massachusetts, and Rybus, from Idaho, are part of a new wave of Maine in-migrants who have helped create Maine’s 21st century creative economy, the economy of the local and the handmade that they beautifully evoke and portray in “Handcrafted Maine,” a first book for each. The new Maine is a hipper version of the old squared-away Maine of fishers, farmers and foresters, repopulated by artists, artisans, bakers, brewers, organic farmers and farm-to-table chefs.

“Handcrafted Maine” is the Maine of Miyake rather than Moody’s Diner. There are no hunters, trappers, loggers or papermakers; no clammers, worm-diggers or spruce tippers. There are, however, lobsterman John Williams of Stonington and chainsaw sculptor Ray Murphy of Hancock for Old Maine authenticity. But, in the main, Kelleher and Rybus show us the New Maine, the only Maine they have had a chance to know.

The 22 featured individuals and enterprises are a thoughtful representative sampling of the New Maine. In the area I know something about, Kelleher and Rybus have chosen well. There are several hundred other artists and artisans worthy of inclusion, but painter Dozier Bell and sculptor John Bisbee are choices no one would argue with, nor are potter Ayumi Horie, weaver Sara Hotchkiss and basketmaker Jeremy Frey. In each case, the individual is treated to a verbal appreciation by Kelleher and a lavish layout of lovely color photographs by Rybus.

Though Kelleher writes of the “grit” that is one of the shared attributes of enterprises such as Swans Island blankets, Lunaform concrete urns, Grain Surfboards, Oxbow Beer, Farrell & Co. leather goods and Tide Mill Creamery goat dairy, what comes across in the glossy pages is a sense of Maine lives lived simply and well. This is a Maine magazine vision of the New Maine lifestyle. Dirty hands are greatly to be desired, even fashionable. Chefs and farmers are stars.

The only major oversights in the book as far as I can see are the lack of a fine woodworker and a good photographer, both of which the New Maine has in abundance. There is also no aquaculture, though the book does feature Atlantic Holdfast seaweed harvesting. The jury is still out on the environmental impact of ripping rockweed from the shore, but I suppose it is handwork.

When I received “Handcrafted Maine” I could not help thinking of my daughter Hannah and her husband Chris, both fine woodworkers, who seem able to make anything they need on their small farm, a lively dirt road settlement populated by kids, dogs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, quail and pigs. I admire their ambition to provide for themselves as much as possible and the community of like-minded young people they have found within a half hour of Portland.

Whenever I despair of the political, economic and environmental crises visited upon us by short-sighted, self-serving individuals, I take solace knowing this community of young people trying to do things right is out there. “Handcrafted Maine” reinforces my belief that the future of Maine is going to look a lot like the past in Maine – family farms, hand-made and home-made goods, people living off the land in a local, natural, healthy, creative and sustainable way.

I wish them every success, whatever success comes to mean in the years ahead.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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  • EdBeem

    Katy Kelleher lives in Buxton, Greta Rybus in Portland.