An open letter to Peter Jennings

Dear Mr. Jennings: This informative communication is prompted by your ABC-TV "World News Tonight" broadcast of March 6, 2001, in which you used the word "nor'easter" to describe the winter storm then sweeping the North Atlantic region. There is no such word, even though you'll find it in the dictionary. Read on, and you'll be ready for the next time.

It was in the late 1800s, during the era of the downeasters, that seafaring words and phrases came ashore to enrich our Maine lingo, sometimes in colorful simile. A fussy baby is cranky, and a ship obstinate to handle is a crank. Today, "nor'east" lingers as a landlubber's supposition that he is being folksy and nautical. But the correct word for a northeast storm is "knowth-easter."

The downeaster was the highest development of the sailing vessel. The clipper had been the workhorse of the gold rush, but now more cargo space was needed for the grain of California. So the clipper lines were altered and more deadrise gave greater cargo space without losing the speed of the clipper.

Maine designers lofted the downeasters, they were built in Maine yards of Maine timber by Maine shipwrights for Maine owners, and they went to sea with Maine masters and Maine hands.

Almost all the paintings of "clippers" that you see hanging on display are downeasters. The craftsmanship of a downeaster was luxurious and most had accommodations aft for the master and his family. Women and children, until the downeaster, did little seafaring, but now a downeaster with a family was dubbed a "hen frigate," and Maine youngsters began being born in Yokohama, Rio, Melbourne, Liverpool.

In working a vessel under sail, orders were blatted from the afterdeck by the captain or navigator, and sometimes relayed by the masthead lookout. There was no telephone, no PA system, but sometimes a megaphone.

Each command had to be clear and understandable to sailors in the rigging. A mistake could mean tragedy. You mustn't veer when you should back in. (You can veer only to the right, clockwise, with the sun, but newspapers tell us every day that a truck "veered" into the left lane! Perhaps during a nor'easter?)

The cardinal points of the compass were pronounced to avoid confusion. North was "knowth," with the "th" of "this" and "that," rather than "theater" and "thistle." South became "sowth" with "sow-west" and "sow-theast."

Northeast and northwest could, in a gale, sound alike, so they became "knowth-east" and "nor-west." Prudently, "nor'east" was eliminated from nautical lingo, and the word used was pronounced "knowth-east."

All of this, Mr. Jennings, is in the lingo of the maritime provinces of your native Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, which share much of our Downeast history.

A northeaster does not need to be a snowstorm. They make up in summer as soaking rainstorms to save crops and make farmers happy. Either season, they generate to our southwest and move northeast to "break" along the Maine coast on the turn of a tide, high or low.

But a winter northeaster is not a blizzard unless the temperature is low and the wind high. The steamer Portland was lost in a northeaster that was also a blizzard. And a Downeast northeaster clears as it forms; southwest, working toward the northeast. Winter or summer, the day after a northeaster is bright with a high sky and the world is clean.

There is one thing more to be said, Mr. Jennings, if you will indulge me. I wish you'd stop talking as if our Downeast northeasters are tragic and disastrous, stories of woe and sorrow.

A northeaster is a beautiful thing, heroic and marvelous. It's nature's way of cleaning house and starting again. It gives us a chance to pause and reflect that we don't really need to run about as we do, giving attention to things that don't matter. All you can do during a northeaster is sit and look out the window, with some popcorn and a pan of apples, and meditate. That's good.

Do you realize how much better we'd be if we all sat to meditate and didn't trot around chasing elevators and buses? Take it easy and enjoy. It's beautiful if you know how!

I always liked to take the milk pail after a day of watching a northeaster and wade out to the barn to do chores. I've seen it snowing so hard I'd have to dump the snow from my pail three times on the way. The wind was howling and snow was clattering against the barn, but all this was closed out when I shut the tie-up door behind me.

Here the cattle stood waiting for me, and the barn cat was poised to rub my ankles and purr. What about a storm? There was no driving wind here! The cows kept things warm, and now made little gurgly noises while they awaited their chore-time grain. Peace and tranquillity, serenity and content! Think of the millions of people on this great globe who don't even know where I am!

After I pitched down the hay with its sweet summertime bouquet, I kicked the milking stool against the wall and sat down to survey my situation. It looked pretty good. The cat finished her nightly milk-pail froth and rubbed me again. Then I turned off the light and carried my milk to the house, and the northeaster was still hard at it but I knew the world was in good shape.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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