Lobsters have the state of Maine in a pinch

The ice took eons to scrape away topsoil, leaving a rocky habitat for cod and lobster offshore. But over just two centuries, beginning in 1605, huddled masses from France, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Ireland were drawn from their homelands to what Maine native Colin Woodard calls "the lobster coast."

It was a fraught 200 years. International intrigues, internecine rivalries and massacres, suffering beneath a fierce climate, and terrible social and political abuses remind us of the cruel dispensations that Europeans fled - and imported. There were rebels and rogues aplenty. Eventually, a critical mass of hard workers clung to the Maine coast. It was and is, Woodard says, a place worth fighting for.

The Lobster Coast, one of two new books about this area, is the story of incomers: successive waves of marauders, refugees, monarchs, and latter-day tycoons, from pilgrims to credit-card giant MBNA. This is the story of any number of history's hot spots where a settled culture is confronted with people "from away," as today's natives put it. It's usually disastrous for the locals, which is part of the modern conflict Woodard would have us contemplate. " 'Of old, muskets drove the Abnakis off the coast of Maine,' journalist Holman Day wrote in 1909. 'Today, money is driving away another race.' "

By 1820, when Maine became the 23rd state in the Union, enough of the problems of basic survival had been solved so that commercial exploitation of its rich fishery and timber could begin. "All the ingredients ... were there," Woodard writes, "snug harbors for deep-draft vessels, vast habitat for fish and shellfish ... and accessible stands of wood to construct barrels, boats, and ships."

By 1856, Frederick Tudor, "the Ice King," was shipping 130,000 tons of Maine ice to the American South, the Caribbean, even India. Soon, Bangor was the lumber capital of the world, and by the end of the century, "Maine led the nation in granite production." The US House of Representatives is built with Blue Hill stone.

But bust followed boom. "As the century progressed," writes Woodard, "refrigeration destroyed the ice industry, concrete and steel frames savaged the granite quarries, and English-built iron steamships pushed Maine's wooden sailing ships out of the shipping lanes." The cod fishery collapsed in the '30s and '50s. Timber and papermaking are now under siege.

The 20-million-metric-ton-per-year lobster fishery could be an ace in the hole.

Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters provides an affectionate account of the relationship between Homarus americanus, its rocky habitat, and the men and women who brave long days on temperamental seas to earn a livelihood. This is a love story, tracing both the courtship and marriage of third-generation lobstermen Bruce and Barb Fernald, and the mysterious mating rituals of lobsters themselves.

For two years, Corson was a sternman on the Fernalds' boat, Double Trouble, and a companion of preeminent researchers in the lab, aboard research vessels, and on dives by scuba or remote-control robots in search of elusive Downeast lobster nurseries.

The economic future of the Fernalds and the region depends on accurate interpretation of the data gathered by a partnership among stakeholders: lobstermen, scientists, and politicians. According to Corson, the news is good for the lobster commons: Sustainability is nigh, due to an odd symbiosis of fishery management, the inefficiency of lobster traps themselves, and air freight. The next Fernald generation can afford to choose lobstering.

Meanwhile, back onshore, Woodard's book describes a less certain outcome. The current struggle over land rights echoes the beginning of the 20th century, when rusticators "nostalgic for the quieter, cleaner, agrarian life of their parents" presented a Faustian bargain to the natives: We'll share our wealth - you tolerate the "social condescension" of the likes of John D. Rockefeller.

Today, lobstermen cannot afford homes on the waterfront. Few of the "summer people" renovating fisherman's shacks in my town - asking price: $435,000 - even realize that the quaint shoreline is an abandoned industrial zone. The bricks on the beach are vestiges of kilns that supplied Boston brownstones. The once-thriving shipbuilder and cannery have turned into two-season restaurants, where the sweet smell of a lobster dinner supersedes the stench of fish guts dumped in the harbor.

The contemporary incomers, whether summer residents or commercial interests like MBNA, ease the local tax burden in exchange for metropolitan consumerism seeping ever-northward and small coastal towns losing year-round residents. Woodard doesn't disguise his pique with the forces at work. Maine is worth fighting for - as is any village with distinctly etched local character and community - lest we arrive at a tragic tipping point and awaken to find suddenly "there's no there here." The conflict is between place and sense of place.

Woodard frames the tension when he quotes David Rockefeller Jr., whose family money is now working to conserve the coastal heritage: "I don't think you want to make Maine into sort of a lobster form of Disneyland." The opera ain't over till the fat, animatronic lobster sings.

Todd R. Nelson is an associate editor of Hope magazine. He lives in Castine, Maine.

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