In The Field: Library in Maine

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I stood in the back while people filtered into the library where I was about to give a talk on maritime archaeology. In high school, I had waited for the school bus behind this same building.

My old hometown meant fishing to me, something I hadn’t done until I moved there. That’s what happens when you live by the sea. Soon I was lobstering with friends in small skiffs. We took boats across the harbor to go to the store, spending afternoons and weekends on the water. I came back years later, after teaching overseas. I took a job on a lobster boat with a friend I had known since those days. Many of my friends in town were fishermen. My brother had been, too. For five years, I was back in that life of oilskins and boat engines. I left to go to graduate school, to become an underwater archaeologist. I’ve stayed maritime.

While the library filled, a man walked in wearing a baseball cap. He smiled like he knew me, and we shook hands. His were calloused and rough, like mine used to be.

“I knew your brother,” he said, “I always liked him.” We lost my brother years ago, his ashes scattered by the lighthouse. The memorial service was on a boat, and broadcast over a VHF radio, the kind fishermen use to talk to each other.

“I guess I can trust you with this.” He showed me why he’d come, producing a stone projectile point three inches long. He handed it to me in a plastic sandwich bag. He had dragged the point up while quahog fishing four miles from land. Around here, sea levels used to be two hundred feet below where they are now after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, but this was found even deeper than that. The only way it could have gotten out there was from someone out on the water.

I spent part of the next day photographing and measuring it, to compare it to other stone tools. I found out that the point was three- to four-thousand years old. Likely the farthest offshore in Maine that an artifact has been found, evidence of the outer range of prehistoric seafaring in the state.

During the talk about shipwrecks off the island, I described an old vessel I was investigating for the national park. Probably a schooner, all that was left of her was the bones: the keel, ribs, some outer hull planks, all worn down by the tides and the ice. She links our seaside town to the past, to that slice of time when many of the fastest and most advanced wooden sailing vessels in the world were made in Maine, before steam and steel, diesel and fiberglass rendered them obsolete.

At most places someone might ask me if I saw a shark underwater or if I found any gold, but here they asked me about deadrise and hull planks, fasteners and clenching, ship parts and shipwrecks. The spirit of the town is still bound in a working relationship with the sea. In the south where I work now, most people see the ocean as leisure — they slather themselves in sunscreen and play on the water; they wear visors and pull in one fish at a time with a rod and reel, a beer always in reach. My town smelled of lobster bait, barnacles on polypro, and a cold sea, a place where you go to the salt water to work, not to escape it

I asked the lobsterman, as he headed out the door, about the stone point. My voice had a hint of amazement in it, as I ran my fingertips along the sharp stone edges. I slid it across a nautical chart we’d been looking at, to where he found it, in a deep hollow.

“What do you think they were doing out there?” I asked.

“They were fishing,” he said, with a tone that left no doubt about what else in the world anyone would be doing on the ocean, if not making a living.

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