12 October 1991
sleep is the keynote to success
try to do what you want
get a lot of exercise
listen to as much music as possible
spend some time outside each day
walk a bit
do not talk on the phone much
try to have good conversations
travel by bike
grow your own food if possible
sit up straight
go new places
don’t believe everything you hear
6 January 2022
Is an artist’s role really that different from anyone else’s? Isn’t their work to live well and fully? To be kind, open, and awake? The list above was mailed in 1992 by Box 3 Productions as part of “SM,” the first Spring Mailing. Now thirty years later, it still seems to apply to what lies ahead.
1991 was the year computers were introduced at work; screens back then were mostly television sets. Phone calls happened at home, at work, or on the street using coins.
Today is the first anniversary of the closest this country has come to a coup. No one has been hung or even tried for treason, so why not offer “25 Tips” again—as the wildcard in our stew?
This past year I’ve been using insights gleaned from ancestral Wabanaki place names to explore this place we now call Maine. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm’s 1941 book on Indian place-names has been my primary guide in creating this photographic survey of places so perfectly described by those who came before us—for example, Presumpscot, “rough places river.”
I’m not interested in creating a simple visual dictionary of such places. Historical and cultural conflicts between Dawnland’s First Nations and colonial settlers also lurk beneath the surface reality of the photographed scenes. Our contemporary landscape is filled with structures such as dams, mills, forts, and roads that were imposed upon important Wabanaki locations.
Connecting that realization to the theme of this issue, I would have to say most of the photographs I’ve made are dystopian; they visually point to the many ways the European settlement of Maine tried to culturally erase the indigenous Wabanaki people through warfare and the relentless imposition of colonial power over their land, waters, seasonal subsistence and traditional ways of living.
Take, for example, the image of the Brunswick hydroelectric dam on the Androscoggin River. It shows the “long rocky rapids part” of the river described by the Wabanaki word “Pejepscot.” But the dam also represents the historic change imposed on a free-flowing river that barred passage of fish Wabanaki people depended upon for subsistence. Absent from this image is any evidence of the Indigenous village once located at those falls whose name had been “a place where they dried fish.” That village was gradually erased by successive colonial placements of a trading post, garrison, fort, and industrial mills on the site.
Likewise, the image of power lines coming from the Orono hydroelectric dam at the confluence of the Stillwater and Penobscot rivers. This dam eviscerated fish runs, dispossessing the Penobscot people from their traditional source of food while transforming the river’s energy into power needed by an industrialized economy.
From a Wabanaki perspective: both images are dystopian. From a modern “green energy” perspective, perhaps not.
The other two images challenge the “dystopia vs. utopia” dichotomy and point to a path forward in these perilous times.
Maquoit Bay, seen in an early morning fog with the tide receding, lives up to its Wabanaki name of “a wet place.” Then, as now, it was an important shellfish harvesting place. A seasonal Wabanaki village once stood there until an English garrison was imposed upon it in a blatant assertion of colonial power. But look closely and you’ll see several canoes used by 21st-century clam diggers—a triumph of Wabanaki design and function that remains useful in modern times.
Likewise, my image of blueberry barrens in Brunswick after a controlled spring burning overseen by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. It looks apocalyptic—similar to devastation from out-of-control wildfires created by global warming. But within two months those fields were green and vibrant with blueberries and other plants, a “rebirth” created by following a traditional Wabanaki practice.
Dystopia, or utopia? It’s a matter of choosing how we relate to the world as it is. It is possible to find different paths than the destructive ones that placed us here and now in these calamitous times.
Despite centuries of genocide and colonial dispossession of their native homeland, the Wabanaki are still here. And their place names, I think, still have wisdom waiting for us to learn from. In a broken dystopian world, practicing the ancient Wabanaki wisdom of living “for the seven generations” and honoring “all my relations” seems to me the best way forward.
Fanny Hardy Eckstorm. Indian Place-Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast. Orono: University of Maine at Orono, 1941.
Image at top: James Boorstein, Payphone, Central Park, December 2015.