Salt Inc.: chroniclers, students of Maine culture

You want to bring this teacher an apple. Dozens of them. And you've no doubt that, innovator that she is, Pamela Wood could polish them, juggle, slice 'n dice them, or squeeze the juice out of them until she'd proved them to be the fine versatile fruits that they are. That's what this woman does with would-be writers and other chroniclers of culture who come to her at Salt - a multimedia workshop centered in the Cape Porpoise nook of Maine's rocky coast.

Here with the help of Ms. Wood and her handful of cohorts, students of cross-disciplines (anthropology, journalism, photography, and video) have an opportunity to deepen and broaden their communication crafts. They also have a chance to shake the doldrums of conventional education by learning through doing , for the workshops are centered on producing a slick little quarterly called Salt. Ms. Wood, a Radcliffe graduate who is also founder of the Journal for Experiential Education, contends that the best way to learn how to make a product is to go ahead and make it. ''The student must learn, and the product is his learning, his achievement. In the end, product and learning become one. It is a circular process, an exhilarating union.''

Salt publications tend to take the capital letter off ''News,'' reminding you that there is history in the making right in your own neighborhood. ''Only in our worst moments are we tricked by what seems commonplace,'' Ms. Wood writes, ''by what seems to be 'just the old fellow down the street.' '' She contends that the ''sturdy stubborn folk who've always known where their feet are'' chronicled in the magazine have things to tell us: time-tested secrets of survival, of contentment. ''We can find our way to the moon,'' she once said, ''but cannot find our way in our own country among our own people.'' Pamela Wood can. And she has been busy teaching others how to.

It began in 1971 when Ms. Wood, formerly a full-time journalist, was hunting a cure for her ailing English class at Kennebunk High School. ''As a new staff member in a track system, I was stuck with what the high school called the 'U-group' - bottom of the rung. So that fall I faced 21 hulky boys and one girl sitting in front of me and asking, 'Boy, what did you do to deserve us?' That was an eye-opener to me. Since they were 'nonachievers,' '' she raises an eyebrow here, ''we were given outdated texts. The initial story was about a flapper party. How relevant. I asked them what they thought of the story. Unflinchingly they told me, 'It stunk.' 'You're absolutely right,' I said, adding that we'd put the book away in a corner for the time being. 'It's hunting season,' I told them. 'Tomorrow I'd like someone to bring in hunting regulations and we'll read those instead.' That was the beginning of the process of finding there are many other ways to learn.''

Ms. Wood, a handsome woman with a rowdy crop of long gray hair whooping around her still-young face, continues: ''The next year I was assigned a folklore course. We had an old textbook that treated folklore as something one classifies like dead butterflies. Impossible. After a couple of weeks I asked the class what they thought of throwing away that book and producing our own. We did. It was pretty crude - published with a Xerox machine. But it grew out of looking firsthand at things and people around us; finding out why Catmouse Road is called that; talking with an old Micmac Indian who built chimneys and getting stories from him; gathering information about traditional Maine cooking. . . .''

''We'd been at it for a semester when we heard about Foxfire,'' she says. Foxfire is a quarterly magazine started 16-plus years ago in north Georgia by high school teacher Eliot Wigginton. He got his students interested in interviewing elderly mountain folk about their customs, recording it, and printing the results. The material has been excerpted in seven books so far. ''I called Eliot (Wigginton), told him what we were doing, and he flew right up here. At my request he hung out at the library and talked to kids. They loved it.'' Ms. Wood and Mr. Wigginton combined were apparently enough to set imaginations on fire, for at a subsequent all-school assembly, two-thirds of the student body enlisted in her coming year's class. ''One hundred twenty kids signed up on the spot for a nameless one-credit English course,'' she reminisces , her dimple plunging deep. ''Eliot himself never had more than 25 students, and he began calling me 'that crazy woman up in Maine.' ''

The crazy woman and her entourage became ''a search party looking for meaning in our own familiar world.'' They trooped out of the classroom and into Herb Baum's boatyard, Reid Chapman's cornfield, Monty Washburn's hunting camp. They documented Walter York making snowshoes, Arden Davis harvesting sea moss. After interviewing such salty culture-bearers, they wrote down their findings. For weeks they deliberated over a title for their publication. Finally, after discarding 98 potential names (including Ayuh, Meadow Muffins, and Witchhazel), they christened the periodical (and their group) Salt - ''because it is a natural symbol for the magazine: the salt of the sea, salt-washed soil, salt marshes, and salty people, the kind who won't use two words if they can get by with one.'' The magazine was fully launched.

Over the next four years the school board enthusiastically supported the program. Ms. Wood not only managed to keep Salt going, she also began flying hither and yon to help other cultural journalism projects get started. And somewhere in between she wrote ''You and Aunt Arie: A Guide to Cultural Journalism.'' By 1976, Salt had become Salt Inc. And in 1977 the group won a state grant ''for innovative projects.''

That same year its first book (a compilation of its best magazine stories from the previous years) came out. It received rave reviews (''the best book ever written about seacoast Maine,'' according to R. Buckminster Fuller, who hails from Maine's Bear Island), and brought in $10,000 in royalties. The little organization was swelling like rice in boiling water.

Then seats on the school board changed hands, and the new board wasn't so enamored of Salt. ''It was perceived as a frill by the new board, just as the French program was,'' says the unfrilly Ms. Wood, clad in tan corduroys and brown turtleneck sweater. ''And I suspect board members were suspicious because our first book was out and we'd formed a little nonprofit organization.''

School support waned and Salt Inc. worked to establish an independent base. In the last month of 1977 the organization pooled money from book royalties and a $14,000 loan to purchase Herb Baum's boatyard as a new headquarters. The boatyard, once a Salt magazine subject, became Salt's home. Then the inevitable happened: Kids got the itch to practice what their subjects preached - to actually make, not just write about, snowshoes, lobster traps, or boats.

''Young people built boats on the ground floor while others made magazines about it on the second,'' Ms. Wood says. The new cacophony of pounding hammers and clacking typewriters was made possible by a $300,000 grant from the US Department of Labor ''to run an apprentice program for economically disadvantaged York County kids between the ages of 16 and 21.''

The next year the group cornered yet another substantial nest egg - this time half a million dollars from the federal Office of Youth Opportunity, as part of an experiment in which 18 programs across the country were funded ''to help determine how kids best learn.'' Three hundred sixteen students participated in the program. The students produced an ever-improving magazine but, sailing off as they were in a multiplicity of directions, holding onto their hats was not easy. Some leaks developed in the craft: among them, the fact that the grants Salt operated under came with constraints. ''With the OYO grant, the kids were restricted to 320 hours of participation each. For some, that was only long enough to raise their expectations and then drop them.'' In addition, Ms. Wood found herself spending more time doing grants management than acting as midwife for Salt's publications.

When the OYO grant ended two years ago, Salt didn't reapply for a government grant. ''Instead, we began to slowly and painfully redesign our program,'' Ms. Wood says. Over the next year, Salt's board of trustees (half of whom are former high school participants in the program) made key decisions:

* To focus on and refine what the group did best: cultural journalism in its various media.

* To sell the boatyard and secure better work space.

* To offer a semester extension program to college students who could participate in workshops on a tuition or scholarship basis, thereby enabling the workshops to pay for themselves.

* To open Salt's doors as a work and conference space to a cross section of professionals and academics interested in cultural documentation.

* To seek an alliance and foundation of support among academic communities rather than through federal funding.

Part of the process of redefinition included knocking on professorial doors throughout New England, seeking academics who would understand and support what Salt was trying to do.

''We were looking for large people who wouldn't laugh us away,'' Ms. Wood adds. Apparently, no one laughed: ''After months of asking and talking, we'd gained great strength and definition and pulled together a blue-chip academic board.'' Blue-chip indeed - anthropology, English, education, archaeology, journalism, and sociology professors from Dartmouth to Purdue to Cornell. Such cross-fertilization is the crux of present-day Salt, whose firing line has moved from Baum's boatyard to a beautiful cape house in Cape Porpoise, just 10 miles from Kennebunk.

It is not difficult to find your way around Cape Porpoise. This fishing village, where almost every other house has lobster traps stacked in the backyard, is a small, comprehendible place - the sort of town where the post office is in a corner of the local grocery near the pickles and relish. The white-shingled building that houses Salt overlooks Cape Porpoise Bay. During this century the two-story building has posed alternately as schoolhouse, Old Mechanics Hall, and antiques shop, among others - an appropriately mixed history for the nest of culture-chroniclers.

Nowadays, the downstairs is an expansive gallery and workroom, equipped with darkrooms, drafting tables, typewriters, and copier. Upstairs is a wide-open living room-kitchen, bordered with a stretch of windows that extend the length of the building and overlook a balcony and the sparkling bay beyond. Here in this homey room, replete with ornately carved oak furniture left over from the building's antiques shop era, story conferences and group editing sessions happen.

''There's a sense of education as a sharing process here,'' comments Dee Dunne, a keen young woman with roses in her cheeks. Ms. Dunne, receiving academic credits at Salt this semester through a scholarship extension from Hampshire College, appreciates the fact that at Salt she can ''be involved on all levels. On one hand I feel we're students, yet there is also a practical aspect of the work world: We have a magazine to get out; things have to get done.''

Through the process of putting out that periodical, in a semester a Salt student can learn all aspects of magazine production - from financing, interviewing, and writing to page layout and design; from paper and ink selection to shooting and developing film. And if one prefers radio and video to the print medium, that is also possible.

But there is more to Salt than this. Ms. Wood, elbows on the arms of her chair, chin resting on her hands, elaborates: ''I see young people responding strongly to value systems and experiences they themselves haven't had, and gathering larger respect for a variety of experiences. It does more than teach them how to document. It combats homogeneity and encourages the infinite variety of human existence by acknowledging it.''

Lest this sound too ideal, listen to some of the staffing and financial struggles of the organization:

At present Salt is a totally volunteer operation, depending on what Ms. Wood calls ''gifts of teaching and administration time.'' For the past two years, Salt's core staff of four has kept the organization going by teaching and working for it full-time, gratis, while moonlighting to cover personal living costs. Ms. Wood went so far as to rent her house and move into the barn behind it in order to generate some income. Other staff people are part-time, some on a regular basis, others just passing through. Ms. Wood points to the need to strengthen the core staff with writers and people involved in the social sciences.

Does she ever yearn to throw in the collective pen and tuck herself away in a sane little corner to do her own writing once again? ''Yes,'' she says, thoughtfully, ''particularly on a crisp October morning when you wake to the sun and know it might be nice to break away for some weeks and unchain your imagination. But,'' she adds, her hiking boots square on the floor in front of her chair, ''that feeling is not really as strong as the surge I feel when I think what all of us are trying to make here. And I suspect that if we continue to persevere - and we will - we will create a place where many can use their skills rather than just one. So it's not so difficult to put aside the idea of 'my own work.' Also, I've a sense of allegiance to my colleagues because we've all given up a lot of material things, such as easy security that comes from knowing you've a weekly pay and retirement set up. . . . There's a kind of camaraderie born of this, and I don't think we'd dream of letting each other down. Plus we've got all those hundreds of kids whose vitality is in the work. Couldn't turn my back on that.''

Salt Inc., Pier Road, Cape Porpoise, Maine 04014.m

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