Saturday, May 30, 2015

Slow Spell or Disappearing Honeybee Colony?

I'm not a 'the sky is falling' type individual most of the time. Running down the lane and spreading alarm has come in most circumstances to mean little. Usually, the things we worry about don't happen. Sometimes, however, the sky may actually be falling, but we don't see it.

As for island transportation, my views come from being one of the few who have recently come to Matinicus to try and stay year round- recently meaning about a decade ago. I didn't really make it for a bunch of reasons. I hope to get back to year round living some day.

Matinicus has a vibrant if smallish community. There is housing stock. There are work opportunities. 

What do not exist are meaningful transportation options for people and goods. Even the biggest lobster boats get hauled out at the end of the season. The ferry goes to once or twice a month in the darker months.

I don't think we can compare Matinicus' lack of real transportation with rusty bridges or other infrastructure needing repairs and prioritize ourselves downward as a result. It is more akin to a small remote township where the state just decided not to build a bridge or a road at all, and then expect people to fly, canoe, mush or skidder themselves into town for groceries and then back home.

It's hard to know what might happen if families could actually get back and forth to the mainland a couple of times a week instead of monthly in the winter. Would Matinicus turn into Martha's Vineyard on Monhegan in the summer? I doubt it. Would families be able to relocate and find housing, make a life and educate their kids, at least through 8th grade? I bet they could. If the kids come, the rest of the community takes on a life that is missing otherwise. Or it could just be my self-centered perspective.

If there continue to be no real transportation options, there may be a point at which colony collapse occurs due to insufficient personnel, and insufficient utility or air service customers to spread costs over.

We aren't necessarily headed the way of Metinic or Ragged Islands, but it might be worth imagining what it would take to not go there.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Banks and Local Real Estate

After spending a good portion of the last two days dealing with various aspects of what the modern banking and title insurance world has done to land transactions, I need to get these thoughts down while they're fresh. The cast includes glib and corporate-speak fluent title insurance folks giving powerpoint presentations on new lending disclosure rules and big multi-state banks, employees of which probably weren't born when I started searching titles.

Yesterday's presentation on new rules on real estate settlement forms exposed Congress' assumption that 5 pages of gobbledegook out of any comprehensible order is easier to understand than 2 pages, and will make for better informed borrowers.

Then all day today I was trying to get ready for a sale while seeing all sorts of new numbers getting dropped in by the distant bank a day before closing. It was about onion layers of electronic security, electronic auditing meaning that this or that item can only go on such and such a line of a settlement statement, verifying addresses because you're several time zones away, recharacterizing this or that number. To them, land transactions are about software, drop-down menus, bureaucracy and micromanaging every business partner in a world where the system has become fragmented such that no one person has any real sense of what a land sale means. The gatekeepers in this particular deal have no insight into our community- it could be Fairbanks or Vicksburg and it would make no difference.

Having the tail end of one simple sale generate inbox entries that fill an entire screen, and so many steps that don't bear much relevance to the sale of a house and land, I cannot guess why the system isn't collapsing under its own bulk.

Real estate in essence is about ground, buildings, trees, stone walls, threads of streams, road frontage, granite monuments, houses, bits of barbed wire stuck in pine trees, 5/8" rebar set by surveyors. It is about what we do when we walk outside. It is about work and dirt, hills and hollows, lots in subdivisions with basketball hoops in the cul-de-sac. Land sales are about mortgages-  documents pledging land and buildings as collateral for loans to buy same. How this most basic part of our social fabric has turned into such a clumsy and inefficient, aggravating mess I do not know.

Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were supposed to help with the bad stuff, the really bad stuff that happened as a result of ninja loans (no income, no job, no assets), credit default swaps (a Ponzi scheme) and bond rating practices that rubber-stamped the whole works as top choice grade A real estate investments. The problems were caused by big financial institutions. The regulatory and legislative responses seem to cater to the same players, setting up the next meltdown.

Love your land. Work with a community bank or credit union. There's no place like home.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Where Next, Matinicus?

Where to start. Maybe tonight, as I was sitting in Megan's truck on the wharf looking out past the harbor and ledges to the horizon. Maybe how Ellen was courteous when I first looked at a property here. As to being on the island for more than a short summer vacation, she said something like 'it all depends on what you're willing to do without.' Other phrases come to mind. "It's so isolated." "There's no store." "There's no reliable transportation." "It's too expensive."

Those things are all largely true and even more largely complete bullshit at the same time. Yes, we are two dozen miles from Rockland. Shopping opportunities are limited. Transportation is a constant wild card.

As for isolation: our suburban culture has unfortunately infiltrated Maine during my lifetime, wherein we know the Kardashians better than our neighbors. Not so on the island- for better or worse. I've met more interesting people from more far flung places and made more connections with people from all over and been more connected to my neighbors while on this tiny speck in the ocean than I ever did living right outside the state capitol, or in Portland or Boston. It is expensive here, but not really any more so than inland, just different. Transportation is a bear, I'll give ya that.

In my gut, I feel it's not the expense, the distance or the logistical headaches that have drained off the population. Instead, it is a narrowing of what people expect or want in their lifestyle. There is a coercive pressure to be in the suburban big-box (or Little Boxes) social environment. There is a fear that kids will be stunted if they don't do team sports, and have 30 peers in the same grade from the same town and take  the right lessons so they achieve some particular merit badge. If instead they work on the water or garden or learn to hang with kids of all ages and adults or learn to fix machinery or engage with nature, they are bound to be island-queer and incapable of coping with society. I do not believe this is true. At all. All of the things that may seem like deprivations or hardships end up creating more adaptable, socially aware and better rounded young people.

I am afraid for the community. The community is what makes it possible for us to be here and live. There are people who ensure the phones work, that the power works, that there is emergency medical response, that town business gets done. Often, these tasks are all done by one person, or two or three. At one point, I helped; in the school, the town office, on a couple of occasions as a gopher during work on power lines (it was wicked fun to run the bucket truck). Now, I mostly just play a few songs on the dock in the summer, but that may be a dubious contribution depending on where you live and what time you want to start sleeping. Last winter, I was not here to help when things were very tough. I wasn't here to help share the infrastructure costs for our public utilities. There is a valid concern that since the school closed and the population thinned out there won't be a critical mass to support essential services such as the air service and power company.

I'm scared, but also bewildered. There is a big disconnect. I am here on Matinicus. It is not northern Greenland. I have reliable internet, indoor plumbing and a machine that washes dishes for me. I am sitting on a very comfy two seater couch next to the wood stove. I am not feeling deprived or isolated. On the other hand, I also have an utterly magical environment where I can bike to one work site down a gravel road with a grass median, walk to the harbor when it's time to get on the boat to work, and can feel the aliveness that only comes with a lot of physical activity outdoors, while at the same time producing legal work online and over the phone.

From my viewpoint at the harbor, here by the stove on my internet, and on my bike on the grass medianed road to the land tending job, I wonder why the place isn't swarming with people.

There are really only two possible explanations. Our society has become soft, unimaginative, totally chickenshit and missing out on the beauty, struggle and spontaneity of life, or I'm a nutjob. Don't answer except among yourselves. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Scooter

--> The scooter purchase was not one of my better spending decisions. It was intended to fulfill the manifest destiny of all Matinicus kids to have a means of transport with a carbon footprint early in life. One of the many empowerments  of this place is that children can learn to handle machinery in a fashion and at an age that is not customary or legal in other places. 2nd graders just do not typically show up to school at the wheel of a golf cart or 4 wheeler.  My girl Lydia began to drive at the age of 12 and a half in the old silver Mazda.

This particular scooter, however  was  sold at Christmas time by a particularly shady online vendor and arrived in a mangled carton, the contents of which did not closely resemble the promised merchandise.  Since we were talked out of using a credit card,  there was very little recourse. We made the best of it.

Lydia’s first ride took her joyfully down to the crossroads, where the fuel tank detached  and began merrily skipping along at her heels. She was oblivious and I could not run fast enough or yell loud enough, and waited for the small mushroom cloud that would follow.

There were a few other rides. I used it a few times. Mostly it sat. Briefly inspired a couple of years later,  Lydia and I fueled it up only to watch gas leaking out of the tank almost as fast as we poured it in. I think I painted the hole or did some other band-aid repair.

That was years ago. Today, Fiona wheeled old Smokey out of the barn. I first barked at her to put it back in its dusty corner. I then agreed to try to start it, confident that it would go no further.  I pulled the starter cord to no avail, but then was gradually overtaken by the challenge and found myself unscrewing the spark plug, checking fuel and fuel lines, looking for a choke, pouring some gas into the spark plug hole and finding the fuel bulb underneath.  I am no one’s idea of mechanically inclined, but that damn thing fired up. Cough.

At that point, the Matinicus magic kicked in. I’m sure these things happen in other places, but they only happen to me here. What ensued was a daylong series of triumphs followed by some other part falling off or breaking. It was a challenge and adventure and a great way to blow a day with your 13 year old learning and sharing the joys of internal combustion.

The next thing to be fixed were two totally flat tires. The front one was inflated in about 20 seconds. The rear tire, through some truly inventive engineering was set up such that the air stem was located deep in the wheel rim and separated from the rest of the world by the brake disc. Noway nohow was a pump going in there. After undoing the chain, tensioners on both sides, rusty wheel nuts and trying to keep mental track of everything that came off, we got the wheel separated from the frame and the disc off of the wheel.  The tire inflated in 20 seconds- just like that!

Having the wheel fiddled and worried back into place, we fired her up and Fiona took a series of rides starting on the lawn, where an engine cover fell off, and then down the main road with joy rolling off her in waves.

She was ready for a road trip, so I followed her all the way to the south end to check on Morgan’s chickens. When we finished there, I pulled the starter cord which only flopped out loose. The curse appeared not to have forgotten us or our scooter.

I took off the pull starter and found what I had hoped not to: that one of the tabs that turned over the engine had broken off. Then I idly jabbed my pointer finger at the metal part the tab would contact to turn over the engine and out popped the broken plastic. We reassembled that part and it seemed like the starter  turned properly with only one tab.

Putting the whole works back together I pulled and again the cord stuck and then flopped loose. Off it came again and this time I saw that the whole plastic wheel was split and non functional.

I felt it would be tragic if a little plastic wheel crippled Smokey Bessey as she is now known.  I also knew that there was no identification of any brand on the scooter,  so I ruled out the possibility of finding a replacement for the plastic wheel.  Adhesive would have to do.

As I was thinking about the plastic part,  approximately 4 and one-half feet of steel ribbon erupted from the starter casing. This springing spring was the message from above to give it up. I made a couple of attempts to reseat it. Then I again fell prey to the challenge and the Matinicus magic, and using Kreskin-like spoon bending powers of mind, stubborn fingers and streams of profanity, managed to get the spring re-packed.

That victory gave me the courage to try to glue the wheel.  After a recess, the wheel seemed sturdy enough. As I was putting this collection back together, the jackass in the box sprung back out and it took another 20 minutes to wind it in there. If you have not attempted this before, here is my advice: Don’t. If you do, wear  eye protection and yell at your boisterous children to give you some peace for a little minute. You then must wind the thing very tightly and not let it move in any direction whatsoever,   because it desperately wants to go every which way.  After that, you must slow time and molecular motion down to near absolute zero so you can get the end hooked in where it goes before the coil expands just enough to be too big for the housing. Then you must do this several more times.

After bolting the works back together for the fourth time, the starter pulled normally, but before the motor caught, the plastic wheel had again given up. I apologized to Fiona and visualized dumping the scooter under the No Dumping! sign behind the recycle shed.

One stupid plastic part. Too bad there’s no information about this machine anywhere. Before we went in the house, I looked at the starter housing cover, which actually had a small sticker bearing the “Zhijiang SunScooter Limited” name.

A quick internet search revealed that Zhijiang Sunscooter Limited was a “modernized enterprise,” but little of use, especially no parts places. A less quick search for more information on the model and the company and replacement parts vendors gave up nothing. Amazon, however, after the first search said “no products matching your search” (when does that ever happen?) showed an ad for the identical item for $8.00 and change plus shipping.

 Now we wait. happily and fondly hoping.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Little Taste of Reality- that most of us are out of touch with

Piecing things together was difficult. There was one carcass outside the front fence. Fiona found one a ways into the woods. We counted 3 piles of feathers in the yard and two across the road in the woods. Four chickens were cowering in the shrubs. One was wedged way under the shelf in the potting shed. One came back several hours later and really did not want to go back into the coop. If each feather pile accounted for one chicken, that still left one missing.

Morgan got the chickens to take out to Matinicus- the supposedly rough and dangerous offshore pirate island. In the interim the chickens were free ranging in the Meadow Drive Subdivision in Camden- a more self contented and complacent environment would be hard to find. And yet it was here in insulated Volvo retirement professional comfort land that the massacree transpired.

They were a delight to have around with their conversational lawn pecking and the way they'd all come running to greet whoever might come out the door. All was tranquil for 10 days or so.

We had been warned about turkey vultures, but in my smug insular suburban ignorance I could not imagine a bird capable of flying off with a full grown laying hen, much less 5 of them. Morgan the owner of the chickens seemed much less upset than the rest of us, and surmised that birds of prey had made off winged-monkey style with our (her) chickens.

Morgan was not sad. I was sad. And even though in my well fed 21st century complacence I had no need of these birds, I felt a sharp pain of losing a food source and income stream that must have gripped farmers through centuries when predators or disease came calling. Even though it bore no relevance in my life, I felt scared and panicked by losing these productive animals. In earlier days, the loss might have meant starvation, accelerated poverty or increased vulnerability to disease.

These latent instincts erupted at 8 or so in the evening when I saw through the dusk and  puckerbrush a fox prancing off with one of the chickens that must have been hiding from the vultures. I exploded out the door yelling obscenities at the fox and tramped through the prickles, charging to where the fox had been. The chicken had been dropped there, except for the head which was nowhere to be seen and which pretty well meant Goose, the favored black hen was not coming back to the yard.

Today, the kids and I went to the middle school to play baseball. It was the best of the first world: green grass, warm weather, sport, family, and an absence of starvation and fear, with none of the bad parts such as over-stimulation from fingertip activated electronic devices, digital era angst over all that is wrong with the world, high fructose corn syrup and similar perils.

When we returned to the scene of the crime, a silent but creepy spectacle greeted us. At least a dozen very large black birds were alternating between wheeling slowly around over the yard and perching in the bare hardwoods. This was our yard, but it felt like something between medieval dragon invasions and a Tolkien movie.

As E.B. White might put it, I was reminded of one of the harsh realities of farm life- or real life depending on how one looked at it. What it really amounted to was that regardless of our self satisfied suburban domination of the environment, nature still totally kicks ass.