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Down East: rocky splendor downwind from Boston

By Peter TongeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1983



Camden, Maine

It happens every month. The mail arrives in oil-rich Abu Dhabi and a little that is uniquely Maine spills out over the surrounding sands - an image of a lobsterman at work, perhaps; a gull wheeling over rocky shores, a lumberjack amid the pines, or a canoe on a golden pond. It is the same in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Canberra, Australia, to name just two more national capitals. Indeed, wherever US diplomatic pouches go, this breath of Maine is likely to come through.

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It comes in the form of Down East Magazine, the publication that has consistently presented Maine - the state of mind as well as the state of geography - to the rest of the world since its founding back in 1954.

If Down East is all about Maine, it isn't exclusively for Maine. In fact, two-thirds of its circulation goes beyond the state's borders to all corners of the land, and far beyond as well. It goes to people with direct ties to Maine, but also to many with only remote ties or none at all. The one thread, common to them all, is an emotional bond with a state that is both uniquely American and, in many ways, unique within America.

Perhaps the reader from North Carolina said it for most subscribers in a recent (November 1982) letter to the editor: ''I am 77 years old and have only been to Maine one time, but I love the state,'' wrote Jeanne E. Marion of Glade Valley. ''Living on a mountain, as I do, is fine and lovely, but it doesn't take the place of waves, sand, and rocks.''

If Maine has such strong vicarious appeal to a resident of the attractive Glade Valley area, consider what it might mean to those living in distant deserts or to residents of metropolitan areas known more for the drabness than the beauty of their surroundings. Pools of Down East subscribers occur in several areas of the country, but one particularly strong concentration is in New Jersey, around the fringes of New York, where Northeastern similarities to Maine disappeared with the arriving crowds a century ago.

A number of non-Maine subscribers have never visited the state, but all say they would like to; the bulk of them own no property in the state, but fully 80 percent say they hope to do so one day. Meanwhile a refreshing taste of Maine comes to their present surroundings every month as Down East Magazine. In every sense, it is their wish book. But why Maine? Why not some other spacious and scenically beautiful state?

For one thing, no other state has a magazine quite like Down East, though as H. Allen Fernald, the magazine's publisher, points out: ''Without the state's unique character, we'd have no good reason to exist. We simply reflect what is.''

As Mr. Fernald sees it, the special quality of the people - whether Maine-born, or Mainers by choice - has made the state what it is. In turn the physical characteristics of the state have moulded and formed a very special, trustworthy, self-reliant type of people.

This is a state rich in timber, water, scenic beauty, and marine life. But it still is pounded regularly by the very northeasters that helped make the coastline so ruggedly beautiful in the first place. A winter that hangs on longer here than in most other states is followed by mud season and black flies. Summer, say the jesters, sometimes lasts clear through the Fourth of July, ''and might even linger on for a few minutes after sundown, too!'' All of Maine's farmers, they add, are qualified stone masons. The very nature of their land sees to that.

A little exaggeration makes the point: Living in Maine, while often delightful, is seldom idyllic. Challenging is the appropriate adjective, and the state's character has been formed by people rising to meet that challenge.

Duane Doolittle, founder of Down East Magazine 29 years ago this coming August, defined the term ''Downeast'' in the very first edition. He set the record straight, so to speak, with a brief and beautiful piece of writing that has set the tone for the magazine ever since:

''Cleared away and sailing a northeasterly course out of Boston, the first landfall is the jagged coast of Maine. That's where Downeast begins.

''In the great heyday of sail, windjammers took advantage of the prevailing westerlies on the run to Maine and the Maritimes. They sailed downwind with canvas bellied taut and shrouds singing. Downwind to Maine became a manner of speaking, slipping with time into the salty brevity of the term, downeast. The word had lilt and it sure had meaning.

''Language is a repository of history. Windjammers have vanished into the past; but downeast is still downwind from Boston.''

Down East folk, the record shows, seldom ride the high road to prosperity as rapidly as folks from many other states. But then neither do they hit the trough in poor economic times quite so badly, either. The ability to make do rather than buy new, even in good times, sees to that.