What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at a cost of seventy-five cents in tolls? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three French hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spire of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do.”—E.B. White, Home-Coming, 1955
I am lucky enough to live in Maine all the time and don’t have to cross the Piscataqua to make a pilgrimage to Allen Cove in Brooklin, Maine, where the incomparable E.B. White lived and wrote for so many years.
But just as he did on his long rides from away, I feel a delicious anticipation when crossing the Narramissic River in the Hancock County town of Orland. From there it’s less than a half hour to the shore of Allen Cove, where I also lived once upon a time. My period of residence began eight years after the 1985 death of the famed essayist, author and authority on writerly style.
In the mid-90s I lived in a rented cottage on the south side of E.B. and Katharine White’s former hayfield, across the road from their old saltwater farm. Though I had turned in my journalist’s badge by then, I still thought of myself as a writer, self-identity being a fairly fixed thing by the time you’re thirty-something. I was a recent law school grad, and had yet to realize that the legal and literate sides of my brain could sing—or at least hum—in harmony. Though the writer part of me was in a fallow period, I thought a lot about the man who used to live across the road. I bought and read as much of his work as I could find. (I later discovered Katharine White’s work, which is a blog post for another day.)
The summer folks who had bought the Whites’ farm urged me to hike around on the farm throughout the winter, and even loaned me a pair of snowshoes for that purpose. Without the smell of humans on the land, the deer would decimate the orchard, they said, so tromp around to your heart’s content. That’s how the Whites’ former place became mine to ramble during the cold weather months 20 years ago.
I was especially drawn to the converted boathouse on the shore of Allen Cove where E.B. White wrote. I spent considerable time peering through the window of his former writing space, studying its spare beauty.
Here’s how he described it:
The house in which I sit this morning was built to accommodate a boat, not a man, but by long experience I have learned that in most respects it shelters me better than the larger dwelling where my bed is, and which, by design, is a manhouse, not a boathouse. Here in the boathouse I am a wilder and, it would appear, a healthier man, by a safe margin. I have a chair, a bench, a table, and I can walk into the water if I tire of the land . . . A mouse and a squirrel share the house with me. The building is, in fact, a multiple dwelling, a semidetached affair. It is because I am semidetached while here that I find it possible to transact this private business with the fewest obstacles.—E.B. White, A Slight Sound At Evening, 1954.
My visits to his former coveside writing space occurred at a time when I was unable to achieve the semidetachment necessary to make up my own stories. Yet I yearned for a physical and mental writing space of my own, on the shore of Allen Cove or any other shore for that matter. I was learning to be a lawyer in rural Maine, but my new profession still felt like playacting, and part of me wanted to be offstage, writing the lines.
Two decades later I have figured out that I’m capable of doing both. I am a lawyer and a crime writer. My writing space is nothing like the boathouse into which I peeked on those cold afternoons on the shore of Allen Cove. But like White, I write every day, and feel as though I’ve received a gift when I cross that little river on the journey back to Brooklin.
This year, two days after I delivered the manuscript for my third Joe Gale mystery, we pointed the car north and east and yelped with joy when we crossed the Narramissic. We only had a week, but boy, did we make the most of it in a modest rented cottage around Allen Cove from the Whites’ place.
We ate lots of blueberry pie. Took looooong swims in the cove when the tide was high. Hiked through hushed woodlands. Ate more pie. Sat in awe of sunsets that went on for an hour. Watched a gang of greater yellowlegs dance along the shore. Listened for the nightly hermit thrush serenade while doing the supper dishes. Slept with the windows wide open to welcome the cool night breeze off the water. Ate still more pie.
And every now and then I picked up the binoculars and reconnoitered the shoreline of the cove until E.B. White’s little boathouse came into focus, still standing for the proposition that every writer needs to find their own space to write.
Brenda Buchanan is as happy as a clam at high tide to be attending the Murder By The Book conference at Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor on September 18-19. Any excuse to cross the Narramissic . . .