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12088189_10207329637140552_1098530624650961937_nUnder the influence of heady salt flats, I languished in the discovery of untrammeled beach, where I spread out my blue sarapi on the sand, an old copy of Peter Benchley’s novelette, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982) with its turquoise paper book jacket as faded as my cut-offs. I’m re-reading the coming-of-age story, remembering when I first read it in the 6th grade while I was living in Wiscasset. Back then, I swam off of my family’s little White’s Island in Sheepscot Harbor, and pictured the “manta diablo” appearing out of the murky green darkness of the Sheepscot River. It never happened, of course, but my sense of wonder never retreated with the tides.

This summer, I’m in southern Maine. Wearing my cowboy hat, my hips level, I shimmied down to the shore–quite a ways out, since it was low tide, in my nefarious string bikini, a pastel cloud-print one from Victoria’s Secret. It was hardly appropriate for wearing in public–but then, I’m a mer~sexual. I’m drawn to all-things from the sea. I’m 38 years old and this summer is my return to Kettle Cove, a state park overlooking Casco Bay in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. But I came here every summer in my toddler years, from the time I was a baby to the summer I was five. I can’t remember those summers–but I feel as though I must remember, somewhere, deeply embedded in my nervous system. I feel the memories, like muscle memory, that connect me to a life source, an energy here in this cove. When other people have an identity crisis, they’ve forgotten who they are; I feel as though I’ve just remembered! I am the Girl of Kettle Cove. I am the Girl by the Sheepscot River. I am not just just “the one who swims in the lakes,” but an open-water swimmer. I am the Girl of the Gulf of Maine. It felt like an epiphany.

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Swimming at Kettle Cove

Swimming through the eel grass in Kettle Cove, a nursery for sea life, and the “paddling pool” of my infancy, where my mother brought me as a baby, I must remember this cove, I think to myself the labyrinth of rocks and tide pools, paths through the meadow of floating milkweed, and wet mounds of silky strands of rockweed. Crawling through the thick eel grass bed, something in my body remembered toddling along the shore in the late ’70s, chasing sandpipers, free of the fears that would later inhibit me.

Long fronds of eel grass coiled around my wrists and forearms with every heart-shaped stroke, like a bellydancer’s bracelets that display her self-worth, her going rate–as I swim, I am richly adorned, self-satisfied and yet…grateful. I ask for nothing more than this water, this wave, this tidal current. I push out from my heart chakra, flex and relax my abdominals, imagining a balloon slowly inflate, filling my lungs with sea air, my belly with self-love and, elated, I channel that Neptune energy. Terns swoop and dive all around me; I float on my back and watch the cotillion as they turn and perform their acrobatics, fishing in pairs. Every wave that submerges my ears, momentarily stops all other noise and lets me exhale, just a breath, not a word, but a mantra nonetheless. I tip my head back and dip my hair, then put my hat back on over my wet Medusa-like head of curls, as oversized drops of saltwater drip from the straw brim. I love it here. So I will swim again tomorrow.

Under the Trestle

As kids, we tread against the tide in the Sheepscot River,
A persuasive current, funneled and slowed, cold spots
To make us shiver, kick harder, beneath the trestle bridge
Of the ol’ Downeaster railroad, where young swimmers
Like me were not supposed to go but the urge to stop
Paddling and let the undertow, take us in tow,
Irresistible, like bait to boys with fishing poles
Braver, leaping off rope swings, off ledges
At the secret swimming holes.

I was the only girl–or child–to be towed
Beneath the trestle, as if beckoned, I allowed
That blue argument of warm and cold clash
Incoming and outgoing current, ebb and flow
It suctioned and snagged ankles and torso
Rockweed whipped by like tumbleweed
Cartoon-like, or an old movie reel I’d seen
Flipping at the end, spitting “oh hang it”
Engulfed and spat out the other side
The open harbor, floating in a briny
Stew, tickled by eel grass, I’d
Resist putting my foot down
Into that muddy bed, a vast
Sheath of known daggers:
Razor-clams, mussel shells,
Long-necked clams and
Sharp-necked beer bottles,
Worse than shark-bite fears,
Shards of broken glass—
Their deep cuts stung.

And then, you were sorry.

Little Rebel at White’s Island

At night the moonlight masked the hedges
On Tucker’s Hill, a private thrill to walk
From our Victorian home to White’s Island.
I’d cross the causeway, both footbridges,
Historic railroad tracks and inhale a secret air
That only I felt could fill my strange, weak lungs
Without a jerk of hyperventilation, my Ondine’s curse.

As if I’d held my breath the swift sprint to the island,
I caught the scents of saltgrass, the mudflats and lush
Odors of the Sheepscot River and damp trees, all seven
That grew in a circle, leaning like a coven of witches.
I stood by their cauldron, a natural cavity in the earth,
Brimming and brewing some magical potion that might
Transform my old soul pre-teen self into maturity.

Poems, not spells, I cast into the water. Smooth stones, not sorcery,
Slid back and forth in my hands. I traded love letters with a boy,
Who stole down to the island to smoke cloves by the stone wall;
Cracks in the mortar of the old bathhouse facilitated delivery.
Flats crackled as the tides shifted; its ebb awakened the eel grass
And all its inhabitants in the water bed.

I played a daring barefoot game along a line of rocks, jagged
And round on the less-popular side, a pebbled beach strewn
With sea glass, not always “ready” (I returned the sharp pieces)
Broken bits of brick, cast-offs from the mason station, dead crabs.

Gramma called the big slate boulder, “Leah’s rock,”
I liked to sit there dripping in my wet bathing suit,
Let my long hair dry in the sun. Salt flaked on my skin
In glistening specks; the white of the salt clung to my ankles
Invisible socks (when I wouldn’t wear my jellies).
Water marks rimmed the rock’s edge in uneven, parallel
Stripes; they measured the tides like waistlines
On a full-figured woman. At high tide, I perched
Curved-postured, as if to dive, and dipped my fins
Into cold dark green saltwater up to my shins.

Those summer nights when I snuck down to the island
In my ripped-seated jeans and tennis sneakers,
Sitting on the rock, my little rebellion.

(a work in progress)                     ~Leah TP Subscribe

Playing Swamp Maiden by the Sheepscot. Margaret Stewart photo.

My love for the water spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in midcoast Maine. But like the eels and salmon, I swam upstream and came of age in not one, but two watersheds. One, an estuary in Wiscasset Harbor, nourished by the Sheepscot, swallowed incoming tides from the Gulf of Maine. My family owned a half-acre island, White’s Island, at the center of this estuary, where I waded and swam through eel grass, sharp as steak knives turned on their edges. I wore petticoats of rockweed and floated in hot black inner tubes. The current raced beneath the first footbridge to the island threatening to take a swimmer under the trestle bridge of the railroad, where young swimmers weren’t supposed to go. The undertow was strong and there was always a risk of drowning. My paternal grandmother taught me how to save someone from drowning in that fast-moving current. She pretended to drown herself, sinking heavily to the muddy bottom. I dove down deep to rescue her. When I had done this successfully a few times, we crawled to the riverbank and she cackled with delight. Treading against that current took all my energy in frigid saltwater, even in summer. It required a combination of kicking and letting go—as I floated backward in fast-forward motion—then paddled again.

At White’s Island, 1987

Further inland, I learned to swim out deep in Little Sebago Lake. As a young girl, I swam with the eels at night and seduced them with my flashlight. My brother and I perched at the end of the dock, shining our lights down into the water, luring the eels to our beams. Their sinuous profiles cast shadows on the rippled sandy bottom like slithering heads of Medusa. Our maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, let us swim at night. Sometimes we asked our grandfather to splash around and make the eels go away, but they came back. These American freshwater eels, which live in the ocean at the beginning and end—their silver stage of development—migrate to lakes, where they live for much of their lives. For my Strange Wetlands post about eels, see this post, in which I review James Prosek’s book, Eels–An Exploration from New Zealand to the Sargasso, the World’s Most Amazing & Mysterious Fish. 

Several towns surround this three-basin freshwater lake, including Windham, Gray and Raymond, Maine. The “Lakes Region” here refers to the Sebago Lake watershed, consisting of 360 square miles of lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands. Streams and tributaries, like the Crooked River, flow into Sebago Lake, an inflow of 450 million gallons per day. Sebago Lake is twelve miles long and over 300 feet deep, holding 995 billion gallons of water, providing the #1 source of clean drinking water for much of southern Maine, including the city of Portland.  Sebago is the deepest lake in New England—and glacially speaking, the bottom of the 14,000-year-old lake basin is 450 feet below the lake’s surface. The Portland Water District chronicled the origins of Sebago Lake in their summer 2012 newsletter. According to geological analysis of sediment samples, Sebago Lake has been a “clean and healthy lake for the past 400 years.” It’s one of the few water bodies in the U.S. that does not require filtration. It’s also home to salmon and trout fisheries.

I live in the land of “landlocked salmon,” or so says the welcome sign on Route 302, the main road through the Lakes Region. This land is a water world. Before you start picturing a post-apocalyptic movie with pirate ships, hold your breath: this is a freshwater-focused community. The economy, culture, traditions and values lay anchor in this watershed. Recently I started coordinating a new coalition of town conservation planners and those interested in the common goal of protecting the waters of the Lakes Region with special interest on the Sebago Lake watershed. I named it the Healthy Waters Coalition well aware of the dozens of other collaborative groups throughout the country engaged in water resources protection and outreach education by the same name. With so many land trusts, conservation groups and town conservation commissions and local nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations active in southern and western Maine, and throughout the Lakes Region, I wanted a name that was authentic to the common interest and shared goals, without alienating any one type of group. It’s a grassroots effort to inform and educate citizens in the region on issues pertinent to water resources protection and management in the Sebago Lake watershed. So far there are 30 members and a general consensus of our goals and mission going ahead. I’m happy to be involved in the spirit of collaboration ~ and will be sure to bring the role of wetlands into the conversation quite often.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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