A Matter of Perspective

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Hello TC guests new and old, My name is Charlie and I married into a fourth generation business.

If you are a long-term guest you likely have already met Katherine. As a child, Katherine played with young guests. She cleaned cottages as a teen, and carved many of the signs you see around property. She knew that one day she wanted to take on the mantle of the family business.

I grew up a few peninsulas over. I spent a lot of time in a forest not too dissimilar from New Harbor's woods. My interests ran from wilderness trips and ultimate frisbee, to Aikido and Japanese, to holistic health and paleo, and more recently Latin dance. Going into hospitality or property management did not occur to me until I met Katherine in 2016. I have a lot to learn.

Thompson House and Cottages is a business rich with history and tradition. Our longest tenured employee worked not only for Katherine's parents, but also 10 years for her grandparents. 30 years is a long time when reckoned by midnight emergencies or loads of laundry. However, everything is a matter of perspective.

The oldest family business in the world is a hot spring hotel in Japan. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan was founded in 705 AD. For perspective, this was about 270 years before Europeans were introduced to Arabic numerals. (CCLXX years for them I guess?) 1316 years is a long life for a business (52 generations and counting!). But not necessarily for a tree, and certainly not for a continent.

Most people come to the cottages for a chance to look out our picture windows East over the open ocean, but I'd like to take a few minutes to interpret the story told by the woods out our other windows. This is a story of youth advancing ever so slowly into maturity.

Let's start at the ground. Exposed ledge is a common sight here in coastal Maine. Where there is soil, it usually doesn't take much digging to reach bedrock. Our soil is shallow because soil grows slowly and ours is just getting started.

The oldest known individual trees on the planet are bristlecone pines in Nevada and California, just shy of 5,000 years old. When they were emerging from their seeds, the Sumerians were just beginning to record their language in cuneiform, and the current coast of what we now call Maine was just emerging from the ocean, on a slow-motion rebound after being held underwater by the weight of an ice sheet a mile thick (Hudson, D., 2015).

Indigenous peoples would have interacted with the fresh shoreline as it slowly emerged generation by generation. Perhaps the earliest humans here would have feasted on the easy coastal pickings and overextended themselves. Few early arrivals pass up an easy meal. But over the millennia they would have developed a rich, dynamic rhythm and balance with the Dawnland. The oyster shell middens in Damariscotta were mined heavily in the 19th century, but the remnants are still striking evidence of the bounty that the region provided to the natives for thousands of years.

Of course, the natives were not the only people to shape the local landscape.

Evidence suggests that Basque fishermen plied the Maine coast for cod in the 1500's (some argue significantly earlier), but they barely set foot on land. The area was already well populated by the first nations and it seems the Basque did not test the bounds of their hospitality.

The French landed in Maine in 1604 at the mouth of the St. Croix river, and the first English colony in New England was the Popham colony in 1607 at the mouth of the Kennebec. After a single brutal winter, the Popham colonists built a ship and returned to England.

In 1620, when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, they found themselves in a landscape emptied, literally decimated, by diseases which had spread much faster than their European vectors. Whole villages were abandoned. Over the centuries, the remaining indigenous peoples were pushed off of nearly all of their former territory.

This was now a colonial story, but there are a couple more chapters before the trees outside our windows enter.

In the early colonial days, Maine was known for King Pines: trees that had grown tall and straight in a sprint for a shrinking gap in the canopy. They were branded with the King's mark and destined for use in the masts of Britain's world-dominating fleet. This is the tree featured on the original Maine flag that people are beginning to fly again. These are not the pines that I grew up with.

The pines in the woods where I played, like the pines you might see out our windows, had thick limbs spreading in every direction. These trees were not sprinters. These wolf pines sprouted in abandoned fields and luxuriated in sunlight from all directions.

Many people don't realize that Maine, the most forested state in the nation with nearly 90 forest cover, was, for a brief period, the wool capitol of the world. Pictures of 19th century New Harbor show many recognizable structures, but, in place of our current hedges and trees, there is only muddy pasture.

Of course, you are unlikely to see sheep out our windows. Maybe it was New Zealand coming online, maybe it was the invention of the cotton gin or nylon, but demand for Maine wool is not what it once was.

Idaho became the king of potatoes, California the king of vegetables, and here in Maine we have summer houses, working harbors, and young forests growing up around abandoned stone walls and cellar holes.

So here we are, a young family picking up the mantle of a business that is old by some standards and young by others. The goal now, I think, is less growth than maturity.

A tree, once established, does not typically move. Nor does an inn. If they are to reach the prodigious maturity of Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan or Methuselah the Bristlecone Pine they must mature with the ecosystem around them.

In nature and business, maturity and diversity go hand in hand. If we are lucky enough to see the forests and the businesses around us mature and diversify then we will have a good shot at maturing along with them.

We will still be cutting trees. (Our roads and our power lines have to remain clear!) But we will also be leaving some standing dead wood to entice the bugs who entice the woodpeckers who make homes for dozens of other species of birds who follow after them. We'll keep some field guides handy!

Diversity begets resilience. The greater variety of birds, insects, and even fungi that are supported by our forests, the greater the chance the forest as a whole will withstand new challenges. Every disaster is a bonanza for some critter or other. Some trees may fall to new pests, but others will take their place and nature knows what to do with the dead wood. As it decomposes our soil will become just a little deeper.

Meanwhile we will try to mature with the other local businesses in the area the only way anyone can: one day, one midnight call, one season, and one generation at a time.