Environmental sweetener, or no more `Maine Ho!'

A FACTORY here in Maine that has been making fish meal for a long time has announced that it will close shortly and send its workers into the streets. A reason for this terminal decision is the objection raised in the community to the stench engendered by the process. In Maine, business and industrial perfumery has long been our measurement of prosperity, and this is the first time popular demand for olfactory gentility has put people out of work. We have paper mills that can be savored as much as 50 miles away, and have and frequently are, but because paper-mill towns tend to be one-industry, the general affluence that accompanies the general effluence deters a howl.

So a public yelp at the waftings of a fish factory merit notice in a state where fish was the very beginning, and the briny tincture of the bounding deep permeates all our history from long days before Columbus ever saw a fishhook.

We have bait houses here in lobst'rin' Friendship where lovely salted brim caresses the gentle breeze with rousing summertime enthusiasm, to the extent that seasoned lobstermen pass wisely to windward. And if you go to your market and fetch home a couple of pound-and-a-half down-Maine lobsters, the ransom you pay will explain to you why nobody in Friendship is about to object to the delightful suggestion of eau de Cologne that leaps from a bait barrel. As the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense, the nostrils of a payee are wondrously obliging. The trouble in Rockland, where this fish meal factory is to close, lies in the small work force, as against a great many people who don't work there but have daintier olfactory desires. If the entire population of Rockland worked in this one factory, nobody would smell nothin'.

A ``flake'' is a rack for drying fish; the word derives from the Icelandic for some kind of wickerware. The flake was introduced into the Maine and Canadian Maritime scene when the Vikings drifted along from Greenland some five or six hundred years before North America was officially discovered. The Norse were not here to set up commerce and industry, and used their fish flakes only for family purposes. It was the French who came along in the 1500s and went into the fish business. After them came the English, and for a time the French and the English competed in the European market with the ``hard cure'' and the ``soft cure.'' The two cures explain the difference between the French and the English methods of handling fish.

The English didn't have a flair for mixing with the native American Indians, so tended to cure their fish at sea or on the outlying islands. They used salt brine and packed the product in casks. But the French moved right in and set up great areas of ``flakes'' on the mainland, where they cut, salted, smoked, and dried more efficiently. The ``hard'' cure of the French was a better product. Also, while the brined British fish needed barrels, the French handled the salt cod ``loose'' and saved on space in the hold for the voyage to Europe. True, the English did some drying and the French did ship in brine, but this difference prevailed generally until the English, unable to compete, drove the French from Acadia, which they did in 1613 by an armed attack no historian has ever condoned.

What we've got in context here is the fish flake in colonial Maine. We had endless miles of them. Nobody had yet moved back from tidewater, and all endeavor was related to sea and shore. Every little community had its fish flakes and facilities for catching, curing, and processing - from the salted cod to the refinements of train oil and fish peas. When a vessel approached the coast of Maine, the masthead lookout could smell fish before he saw land. ``Maine Ho!'' he would sing out.

As Maine coastal property has its newer emphasis, the fish flake has declined. I do not know of one. Where once the noble cod lolled in indolence with his vest unbuttoned and exuded his impelling thurification in all directions, there are tennis courts and gazebos, and rose gardens and summer people who do not forgive us our trespasses. The fish business is not what it once was. And now the true believers in a sweet environment have petitioned and demonstrated and prevailed.

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