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.
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.
When they buy anything, they seek value for money and, more than most, they give value for money when they sell either goods or services. It wasn't by chance that the famous L. L. Bean mail-order company was established in Maine; it was a natural product of the state. Not for nothing is the Bath Iron Works the only shipyard in the nation that consistently turns out ships for the United States Navy ahead of schedule and below projected cost.
The experience two years ago of a Massachusetts businessman further illustrates the point. A towering pine in the front yard of his greater-Boston home was struck by lightening one summer day. It had to come down, but the professional tree people quoted more than $1,000 to do the job. They would have to bring in cranes and take the derelict down piece by piece, they said.
The businessman wasn't hurting financially, but as he told me over lunch, no one spends that amount of money lightly on a dead tree. About that time, a neighbor up the street had his nephew from Maine come down for a visit. He came from the woods, and like all lumbermen from Down East, about the first thing he did after lacing up his boots each morning was pick up his chain saw.
The young man quickly sized up the tree, all 40 feet of it. Sure he could do the job. ''How about 75 dollahs.''
''How many pieces will you bring it down in?'' the businessman wanted to know.
''Where will it land?''
Sure enough, the tree came crashing down ''within inches'' of the appointed spot, according to the businessman. By nightfall the giant tree had been cut up and carted away for just ''75 dollahs.''
Recently, some made-in-Maine solar panels were shown to a group of people in the Massachusetts town of Marshfield. After the presentation, those present were asked to list several reasons why they liked the panels. The relatively inexpensive price tag topped the list, but in second place was the fact that the panels were made in Maine. Why? Because if it's Maine-made it's likely to be reliable, came the overwhelming response. These folks might not all know about the Bath Iron Works record, but they sure know of L. L. Bean.
During the 1940s and early '50s, Maine-raised Duane Doolittle was a professor of business administration at Syracuse University in upstate New York. In the summer he ran a guest farm in Lincolnville, Maine, dreaming all the time of the day he would return to the state for good. Then one day, while gazing over Boothbay Harbor he said to himself: ''This is where I want to live. Now!''
To be able to live where he wanted, Doolittle founded Down East Magazine, putting the first edition together on the kitchen table of his home. It was to be a quality magazine about a ''quality state,'' according to Doolittle, and it has steadily expanded since the first 25 cents copy was sold over the counter in August 1954.
Today the newsstand price is $2, and circulation of the full-color magazine is 70,000. But surveys show that it is read by some 250,000 people each month. Like true Downeasters make a little go a long way. ''I get it (the magazine) from my sister,'' is a common response.
''Our demographics,'' says Fernald, ''are very similar to the New Yorker's.'' Average-reader age is 50, but is steadily coming down; most have some college education, own their homes, and keep two cars. A majority use commercial airlines sometime during the year, and one-third carry valid passports. They do a good deal of shopping by mail and eat out about three times a week.
Readers from outside the state generally visit Maine twice each year - and look forward one day to retiring in Maine.
Renewal rate is 80 percent, and Down East, apparently, is saved as much as National Geographic. Advertisers say it is not unusual for orders to come in two years after the ad is placed. Subscription cards torn from five-year-old magazines are not uncommon.
What the reader gets from Down East, according to Fernald, is a friend who provides good conversation about interesting people and places in Maine. When he's finished reading, he looks forward to the next visit. Meanwhile, he might pick up a back issue, not to search out a particular skill, but to relive a little history and a friendship.
''This magazine,'' according to Down East editor Davis Thomas, ''is as well edited as any in the business.'' The writing, too, is good, though not as consistently outstanding as in the New Yorker. ''We don't have the budget to always hire the best,'' says Thomas. But there are some brilliant exceptions. Caskie Stinnet, known nationwide for his essays, columns, and books on travel, is one. Humorist John Gould is another, along with John Cole, who founded Maine Times. Then there is Roy Barrette, whose garden in Brooklin is a Maine showcase and whose essays on country living are equally attractive.