Part Three of Chapter One; from Safety to Complexity; the Gulf of Maine as the Ganges

Published on 2018-08-20

I had been drifting geographically. I had previously presumed I was going to imminently leave Maine to return to New York City. New York was going to be my way station back to my home in San Diego. I had left in 1986, after living there for almost twenty years after my divorce. I had been born on the Upper West side of Manhattan. Before I left, my Father had a serious heart attack. His days were numbered. It was the end of a long and complex lifetime. Born Alexander Gabin to a wealthy Russian Jewish merchant family of import exporters, he had fled Odessa as a teenager with his Mother, younger sister and brother in the midst of the Russian revolution, leaving behind an older brother ultimately victimized by Stalin.  As my Mother’s family, older family members had already established themselves in what was then Palestine. They fled to the city of Haifa. In Haifa, my Father, nicknamed Senya, a diminutive of Sender for Alexander, changed the family name to Rahmani, a common middle eastern name, to protect his brother and parlayed his cello lessons into an orchestra job in the evening, after a daytime job as a concrete worker. My Grandmother and aunt ran a small kiosk for construction workers. They all survived. But my Grandfather did not. All the days of his life my Father woke from nightmares screaming that their home was on fire. I could only presume that was when my Grandfather died. Eventually my parents met, married two weeks after that meeting and eventually came to the United States, where my Father became a successful builder. This was my history. Whether I liked it or not, untangling the baggage of that history came to be as relevant to the complexities of how restoration might effect large systems as unraveling a tangled fishing net and at least as daunting. Growing up, I was fascinated by his business and tried to learn how he looked at land and urban development. In addition to paying attention on car rides with him, I tried to track his decisions when he bought property. Because I understood that was a long term commitment. But very early on in my childhood, my Father made it very clear that a girl could not participate in his work and that he couldn’t take my insights into his business seriously. Ironically, one of those insights was my advice to him in the fifties, when I was ten, to invest in land in California, where I eventually settled and made the investment in land that would allow me to buy the town dump on Vinalhaven. Instead, he invested heavily in projects in Venezuela. I became an artist, not a builder and he eventually lost his entire fortune before he died.

When I look back on that family history, I think both my parents learned to react instinctively to danger and difficulty regardless of the scale of the challenges ahead. Those were the acquired skills that kept them one step ahead of the calamities that swallowed others: to assess a complex situation very quickly, ignore pain, loss, fear and rage and then act. I grew up taking their lessons.

When I said, “yes,” to Maine it may have seemed impetuous and perhaps I unconsciously imagined that by committing to a life on the island I was saying, ‘no,” to my parents history. But I was also instinctively acting on what I must have learned from them: act as a gamble with life and then sort it all out later. 

When I was first married, in 1967, my favorite wedding present was a copy of a research paper about the Malaysian Senoi people, who were said to teach their children to retrieve knowledge from their dreams that would serve the cause of peace for the whole tribe. The metaphor that struck me most powerfully then, was an account of admonition to a frightened child who had dreamt of falling, “to fall all the way to the bottom and bring something back.” I had been lucid dreaming since early childhood. Sometimes, the edge between dreams and real life got vague for me in those early, often lonely years in Maine as I sought the wisdom of dreams and felt willing to follow the magic of metaphors. I had already been incorporating dreams into my practice for many years, asking for guidance from the night and often waking with a new sense of direction. Dreams and metaphors were kissing cousins to me. I had long ago decided that dreams were how our unconscious tries to protect us; metaphors were the waking clues to answer my questions.

When I had left California, it was to return to the home of my childhood and resolve loose ends of conflicts with my Father. I had always thought I would return to California when he died. It was three years after leaving, that he passed away. Shortly after his death I took my first trip to Maine. I had dreamt that going to Northern New England would make me happy. Trusting that dream, as I had learned to do, I left the day after to take a look. Within a couple hours of arriving on the island for that first trip, I decided to do, “Safety.”

Just a few months later, on that sunny winter day when I said, “yes,” to an improbable plan for an impossible art project, I knew the only way I was going to be able to buy the old sawmill was going to be by selling my home in California. That meant accepting I would never return to the blue hills there I had come to deeply love. When I first came to San Diego, it had been a journey under duress, following the man I had just married. In 1968, the arid landscape I found there appalled and depressed me. That changed with time. The price of buying the town dump would be to abandon the hills where I’d come to joyfully breathe in the tang of sagebrush and ridden horses for miles without seeing a single human being, hills that have long since been paved and swallowed by ticky tacky home construction vulnerable to fire. I knew all that in a flash of determination and grief and elation at the moment I said, “yes.”

When we returned the next morning, the ocean sparkled in bright sunshine confirming my heart’s leap at saying, “yes.” Looking south across the sea towards Matinicus Island, standing back from the water at the deep-water wharf, I imagined I could see forever looking southwest beyond Matinicus to Spain and Portugal. We meticulously walked north on the site to a secluded pool called Oatmeal Quarry for the kind of granitic texture it had yielded a century ago. My agent explained that the site was made-land for schooners to deliver quarried granite to the East coast in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. At some point, the status of the quarrying site and its wharf had declined. That was when it had become the town dump. I noted rusting refrigerators and old glass bottles in the barren earth at the shore. But I also saw how light bounced off patches of snow and was dazzled by the ice-bound bay before me.  I saw the dips and heights in the land and the configurations of islands into the distance. I had already begun to formulate something in my mind about degraded former biological hotspots, places where all the habitat edges should welcome maximum biodiversity but where humans come to despoil all that abundance. As gazed south that morning, half thinking consciously, half saturated by the beauty of the light and color, the morning light crept into dark spaces between the tree trunks in the stands of boreal forest on outer islands just east of where we stood. I knew I could look out on that view and work in that old saw mill building and be visually inspired for the rest of my life. I was eye-drunk.

I wasn’t so drunk not to clearly see that restoring the site as an unraveling of a metaphorical drift net meant laboriously mending broken bridges between ecosystems. I had begun to intuit the importance of ecotones as bridges, the fractal habitat edges that make or break a system. The site was a former dump site. It looked like a moonscape. I wanted to see what the site would look like if I could “fix” the site, manifest a resurrection of those microcosmic ecotone bridges and the macroscosmic bridge between the relatively pristine land of a Class A transatlantic migratory seabird Fly zone that bounded the site to my east and my North. I hoped the tasks ahead would transform the ghostnets metaphor from an abstract symbol of death and despair to a means to model hope. At first, had no idea how that might happen. How could I mend anything broken and get to hope? The premise that unraveling the ghostnets metaphor was going to be my roadmap was a calculated risk. Ghostnets are a metaphor equally for destruction and comprehension. I could buy and restore the former town dump on this remote island where I hardly knew anyone seemed preposterous and yet, intriguing. I knew the relative impossibility of the challenge might crush me.  All I had to start with was the metaphor, the site and my own solid but irrational belief in my own creative intuition. The next problem was the purchase. My agent was correct, I couldn’t afford it.

Luckily, the real estate agent knew a fisherman who wanted the deep-water wharf. We struck a deal. The partnership with the fisherman allowed me to afford the purchase. Our friendship also began helping me better understand the life of island fisherpeople. 

I still had my house in then rural San Marcos, San Diego County, California. In 1979, I had taken out a $20,000. swing loan to buy the property, worked like a maniac to pay that off with a combination of teaching, design and portraiture work and with my financial Mother’s help, completed the actual construction. Now it was rented and mortgage free. That house was my bargaining chip to effect my ridiculous but actually calculated vision.  I wasn’t a complete neophyte about biological restoration. I had experimented enough with habitat at that home in California, that I could envision how I might restore the site in Maine to fertile abundance. The risk wasn’t in the tasks I foresaw but whether I could frame the process as the artwork I envisioned and support myself in the process. 

As it happened, selling my house in California was timed right to get a very good price. I purchased the Ghost Nets site and it would become my new home for the next thirty years. Soon, “Safety,” was behind me and I was part owner of the former town dump on a remote fishing island in the Gulf of Maine and well into the Ghost Nets.

I calculated how long the project of restoration would take and within weeks of making my decisions, I had crafted and sent out a press release to all my contacts. Soon, there was an article in the Daily News by Jerry Tallmer about the project. My public announcement, bolstered by more subsequent articles in the media, asserted that my plan was to take ten years to unravel the ghostnets metaphor as I worked on restoring the site. I still thought I was somehow going to keep one foot in New York City and so I simultaneously worked out a partnership in Chelsea to share a rent controlled studio there.