Robert Root

Robert Root
Robert Root, 2017


Before I came to Acadia I read widely about the location and reviewed the work of earlier writers and artists. One of my goals was to track down the view from Cadillac Mountain in a painting by Sanford Gifford. In Acadia I opened myself up to whatever the landscape revealed to me, fascinated by the fog at Schoodic Point, the clatter of cobblestones on Isle au Haut, the surface of the summit of Pemetic Mountain, the shift of the tides in Bar Harbor. I tried to be mindful of every moment of being and let myself be drawn into the landscape. The landscape that resonates in artists will resonate in the art they create while they’re there and long after they leave.

– Robert Root


Terra Cognita

I drive up Cadillac Mountain on the spur of the moment, after a morning at sea level wandering around Great Head and Sand Beach to get a feel for the Maine coastline. I’ve only begun my three weeks as an artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park, and I want to orient myself to the terrain. My best chance for that may well be the peak on which the nineteenth-century artist Sanford Gifford painted the vista I’m most familiar with, the view from Cadillac Mountain.

I’m unable to see the mountain from afar today. Hiking the headlands above the shore, I gaze inland from time to time in hopes of a clear view, expecting to see it tower above the nearer, lower mountains. But each time I look, all summits are shrouded in fog. Throughout the day, it shifts altitude and thickness, sometimes wispy and translucent, sometimes heavy and dense, but always it envelops the peaks. I’m not certain whether I’ve seen Cadillac at all. Visibility is reasonably good on the shoreline, though circumscribed; I think that, however limited my vistas may be up there, at least I’ll see the summit itself.

When I start up the access road, near sea level, the fog is thin and transparent, but it soon thickens. Within a tenth of a mile it hangs above the road like a banner stretched between bordering trees. It’s over three miles to the summit, at 1530 feet the highest point not only in the park but also on the Atlantic coastline. Soon the trees beyond the shoulder become indistinct and, as I steadily climb, they disappear altogether. I move through an opaque haze, aware only of the pavement. What’s beyond the edges of the road, what the occasional turnouts are designed to overlook—these are mysteries. The vehicles ahead make slow progress up the curving two-way road. I can see only the taillights and rear bumper of the van in front of me, occasionally discern the headlights of the car behind. Huffing figures on bicycles suddenly appear and disappear along the edge of the pavement. Off the cliff-edge side of the road, beyond the trees and shrubs immediately marking the shoulder, there is no vista, no view, no horizon. A curtain of thick white vapor rises impenetrably alongside and overhead and yet still thickens.

The caravan I follow eventually slows to a crawl, and we creep into a hazy oval parking lot. I maneuver cautiously into an empty space, get out, and step up onto a paved walkway. I see nothing beyond the walk, no further into the lot than the trunk of my car. With no idea where to go, I have achieved not orientation but dis-orientation.

All at once, beyond my car, in a kind of Harry Potter-like moment, a trolley car emerges out of the fog. It draws to a stop, and a tour guide disembarks, followed by a couple dozen passengers. Nothing is visible in any direction. The guide waves his right arm straight ahead into the haze—“We passed the gift shop on the way in and it’s off in that direction, but”—his arm jerks a little further to the right—“you should just follow the sidewalk around the lot in this direction.” Then he waves his left arm off to the other side—“The path that leads to the trail around the summit is over there. You won’t be able to see anything, but some signs up there will tell you what you would be seeing if it was a clear day.” His passengers drift in either direction.

I mingle with those shuffling towards the summit path and soon find myself in a fenced circle where long, low signs illustrate and label outlines of distant islands and mountains as far off as Mt. Katahdin, 115 miles away. So that’s how far we might see on a clear day. For those looking up from the signs in hopes of a distant reality, it’s as if the panorama has been moved indoors and enclosed by encircling white walls. Without the signs or a pocket compass, it’s impossible to estimate any direction other than up or down—you can see your feet after all—and we discern only low trees and rocks a dozen or so strides away. All locations look alike, white and cottony, except for where you stand, and if you change location, you can’t find any markers to confirm you’re in a different place. For all we can tell, we might be at sea level. We are all enveloped in white wet fog, and the limits of our horizons can be measured in feet, hardly more than a few yards. The fog obliterates almost all information that can’t be gleaned close at hand, like the green of the low trees and bushes and the lichen-coated, grooved and rounded rock wherever we walk.

It’s a lesson in vision, in the way the sky shuts down the aspirations of the earth. We are in a mist awaiting the re-appearance of Brigadoon, completely uncertain of the appointed date and time. We are immersed in an encircling cloud on a foundation of granite bedrock, without recognizable indicators of time or place. We are nowhere.

And Cadillac Mountain? It is nowhere too. It and the island it rises above and the ocean it overlooks—all are gone. Vanished into a dense and all-encompassing fog.

* * *

The lure of terra incognita.

For me, Acadia National Park was unfamiliar terrain. Having spent my life near the Great Lakes or deep in the midwestern interior, I’d never seen the coast of Maine. Of Acadia I knew only that it took up most of Mount Desert Island, close by the coast. I envisioned its landscape only with postcard or calendar images—coastal forests, rugged cliffs, pounding surf. It made me think of my favorite Latin words: “terra incognita,” “insula,” “peninsula”—land unknown, island, nearly an island. I was drawn to the park by these words.

Or so I thought.

It turns out that I have a penchant for visiting the vanished, and here the names of places evoke and commemorate the lost. “Acadia,” for example, from the French “l’acadie,” a variation on an Abenaki term for “place” or “plentiful place.” L’Acadie once encompassed French maritime holdings in Canada, including, before Britain wrested it all away, a portion of Maine. The current name of the park, originally called the Sieur de Monts National Monument and later Lafayette National Park, commemorates a lost French colony.

When French explorer Samuel de Champlain saw the barren summits of the island, he dubbed it the “isle des monts deserts,” the island of barren mountains. Even Englished, the name retains its French roots. Strangers from “away” may pronounce the second word “DEZ-ert,” as if it were the Gobi or the Sahara, but the locals pronounce it “duh-ZERT,” sounding either French or like the English noun for an after-dinner confection or, perhaps more relevantly, the verb meaning “to abandon.” Champlain also named Isle au Haut (“Aisle a ho,” the high island), where a distant satellite section of the park is located. On Mount Desert a mountain has been named for him, as has another for the Sieur de Cadillac, who once owned all this under a grant from le Roi de France; the Sieur de Monts, Champlain’s employer, is memorialized by a spring.

Other names allude to earlier inhabitants, the Abenaki or, in park literature, the Wabanaki. Both terms derive from an Algonquin word for “people of the dawn” or “easterners” (not the name the people of the dawn gave themselves). The Abenaki called the island “Pemetic,” the sloping land; their word “Penobscot” means “rocky place” or “place of ledges.” Both names now identify two of the highest “monts deserts.”

And then there’s Norumbega, the Cibola of the east, a rumored city of fabulous wealth fifteen leagues inland. For a while it lured the adventurous and the opportunistic in vain. One scholar argued it was the site of a Norse or Viking settlement established by Leif Erickson, a claim supported in an old version of the Columbia Encyclopedia which asserts that “[p]robably the word is a Native American version of the old form of Norway.” Less imaginative linguistic scholars think it an Abenaki word meaning “quiet stretch of water” or “quiet place between the rapids.” No tangible evidence places Vikings among the vanished of Acadia; no site has been uncovered for Norumbega.

More names come from the language of geographers and paleontologists and geologists, a tongue just as exotic and rarefied as a near-lost Native American language. The rocky coastline here, so different from the geology of inland Maine, has been identified as the remnant of Avalonia. The name recalls the misty island of legend where the body of King Arthur reposes. On we learn this:

Avalonia was an Early Paleozoic microcontinent . . . originally part of Gondwanaland after the breakup of Pannotia in the Neoproterozoic. The Ordovician breakup of the Gondwanan margin generated an archipelago of microcontinents, of which Avalonia was the first to rift away.

This language could come straight out of Tolkien or Edgar Rice Burroughs, a geography of Middle Earth perhaps, or of Pellucidar or Barsoom. An archipelago of microcontinents indeed. Other plate tectonic theorists think the coastline was part of Eurasia, once joined to North America with the closing of the ancient ocean Iapetus, then separated from it with the opening of the Atlantic. The sites of paleogeography often have the ring of myth and legend.

Avalonia, Pemetic, l’Acadie—simply different kinds of terra incognita, less unknown than perhaps no longer knowable, terra vanescera, to coin a phrase, land disappeared. Vanished continents. Vanished oceans. Vanished cultures.

There’s more.

Though plate tectonics and ancient oceans affected the bedrock geology of Acadia, glaciers determined much of its surface. Ice sheets of unbelievable thickness and weight scraped what we now call Maine clean down to bedrock, pushed its surface offshore, pressed it down into the crust of the earth. Then the glaciers receded. Relieved of the weight of the ice, the land rose, and ridgetops emerged above the waters; valleys and lowlands remained submerged by rising sea levels. The evidence of glaciers can be found on those bare mountaintops, in the lakes formed by moraine-dammed valleys, in the enormous glacial erratics left high and dry in unfamiliar locales, in the fjord that nearly cuts the island in half. The glaciers themselves, however, are among the vanished.

The glacial retreat opened the anonymous coast to those who would bestow the names: millennia of transient aboriginal groups, centuries of European explorers and settlers, decades of tourists, vacationers, the so-called “rusticators.” An extremely wealthy elite arrived, bought large tracts of land on which to construct manorial “cottages” and, to prevent Mount Desert from being overrun by development, provided the resources and the incentive to purchase and preserve vast stretches of forested island. They campaigned to create out of their holdings the first national park in the east—still the only one in New England—and accomplished it in 1919. In time, the rusticators themselves disappeared, and then, in 1947, fire destroyed two-thirds of their park and most of their cottages. Not only was the society that created the park gone but what they had left behind and what they had hoped to preserve had vanished too—except for the names.

The names preserve the history of the landscape, tell us what tribes and colonizers and recreationists thought they saw in the terrain, what they hoped to remember of what no longer existed. I wonder whether what remains bears any resemblance to what might have been seen in the distant past. And so I search for a threshold I can cross to travel back in time, a doorway that gives me access to the Acadia of the past.

* * *

I return to the summit of Cadillac Mountain on a clear, sunny day. I ascend briskly, still watchful for traffic—the road is never empty—but now aware how the vista expands with the altitude. Rising above an ever-spreading forest I’m soon high enough to gaze out across the island-dotted waters of Frenchman Bay. At each overlook I pass people have parked to record the view with cameras, video recorders, and cellphones. In the turnouts and on the road we all look down on other mountains.

The mountaintops, as Cadillac noted, are more or less bare and open to the sky. The trees grow lower to the ground the higher up I go, spruce and white pine giving way to pitch pine and juniper; at the top the large patches of exposed granite, rounded and grooved, challenge the efforts of plant life to anchor itself. Cadillac Mountain has the only summit in the park accessible by road. From neighboring peaks, like Dorr Mountain to the east and Pemetic to the west, it’s possible to see vehicles laboring up Cadillac’s access road and hear their engines straining. Voices of tourists at the peak resound across the distances. On any of those other mountains, their summits attainable only on foot, the person who hears the sounds of Cadillac may, after a solitary climb, be standing on that lower peak entirely alone.

My ascent of Cadillac ends in the parking lot loop just past the busy gift shop. I circle halfway around before I find an empty space.

Paved paths crisscross Cadillac’s summit and lead to a point with 360 degrees of panorama, that circle with the low wooden fence and those long rectangles of information pointing out distant locations. Stone steps take visitors to a lower walkway circling the summit, with better viewpoints for gazing off the sides of the mountain. I sling my daypack over my shoulder and amble up to the orientation circle to spend a few minutes comparing shapes on the skyline with shapes on the signs. Then I set off for a particular location, the site of Sanford Gifford’s painting, “The Artist Sketching on Mount Desert, Maine.”

I carry in my daypack a copy of Pamela J. Belanger’s profusely illustrated book Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert, a companion volume to an exhibition she curated at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Her premise is that landscape artists who painted on Mount Desert raised awareness of the island in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, giving rise first to the tourist industry, then to the “cottage” community, and ultimately to the national park. To demonstrate a symbiosis in the relationship between painters and tourists, she notes that color photographs on postcards from Mount Desert Island in the twentieth century often reproduced what Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford had painted in the nineteenth. The popular sites for visitors to the island usually were those they were already familiar with through paintings and guidebook illustrations. In that way art established what in nature was worthy of being beheld and, in turn, the popularity of those sites both confirmed the judgment of the artists and also established the need for those sites to be accessible.

Because a considerable portion of Mount Desert Island had been set aside and encroachment on it by lumber and resort industries had been forestalled by the creation of the national park, I wonder if some of the original scenes might still be available for viewing; that is, if, somewhere on the island, the landscape of the painter might still be the landscape of the tourist. The cover of Inventing Acadia displays a detailed section of Gifford’s “Artist Sketching,” painted around 1864-1865; the entire painting is reproduced later in the book. My goal today is to compare the picture with the actual site where it was painted.

In Gifford’s painting, the viewer is looking roughly due south from the summit of Cadillac Mountain. The top third of the painting displays a broad band of brownish haze across the sky and a narrower band of hazy blue, the Atlantic Ocean, below it. The bottom two thirds depict forested land stretching out below Cadillac Mountain to the coast. Otter Cove, a light blue finger poking down into the hazy green of the forest, interrupts the uppermost line of the land, and a couple of houses in the settlement of Otter Creek and a short section of road are visible in tiny openings in the otherwise unbroken woodland. The south ridge of nearer, lower Dorr Mountain, a darker green than the lowlands, its conifers more distinctly rendered, takes up the left foreground corner. A rocky slope on Cadillac Mountain, a rugged extension of the summit, fills the nearer foreground in the bottom right. The viewer sees here a figure seated at the edge of a rock, bracing a sketchbook or small canvas on his knees. Behind him an open sketch box displays a completed painting of the view from that rock inside its raised lid. Beyond the sketch box are a closed sunshade and possibly a campstool. The long inclined boulder the artist sits on is anchored at the bottom by another, upright boulder with a very distinctive formation, a weathered pyramidal point, jutting out of its upper right side. The slope on which he sits lifts him just right of center in the picture, so that the viewer simultaneously sees the view he’s sketching and also watches him observe the landscape. White sailboats on the sea and in the cove and white houses in the forest are the only hint of civilization beyond the presence of the artist himself.

As the highest point, Cadillac Mountain was established early as the most significant viewing area on the island. Pamela Belanger quotes an 1886 guidebook to the island: “the two grandest objects in nature, high mountains and a boundless ocean, here occupy the same horizon, and no earthly view can be more absorbing.” Gifford’s painting of that vista justifies that judgment.

I move slowly around the southern face of Cadillac Mountain’s summit, Belanger’s cover picture in my hand, keeping Otter Cove as my point of orientation and trying to line myself up at the angle that the viewer of the painting is presumed to have. I manage to align the coastline but can’t seem to locate the foreground of Gifford’s painting. I remember that, though Belanger makes a point about postcards replicating Gifford’s painting, the example she provides is no more successful at exactly replicating his point of view than my efforts are.

I open Belanger’s book to the full picture of “The Artist Sketching” and notice one of his earlier sketches from Mount Desert on the facing page. Though the landscape portrayed in that picture isn’t specified, it looks to me very like the view north from the summit of Pemetic Mountain. I’m struck by the similar composition of both paintings, each a view from on high with a forested center and the lower right hand corner taken up by a rocky slope. In both pictures the rocky slope is nearly the same, each anchored by the same upright boulder with a pyramidal point on its right side. Though the center and background of both paintings are more or less identifiable, it’s questionable whether that rocky slope in the foreground of each picture exists in either location or, for that matter, whether it exists anywhere at all. Certain it is that Gifford has transposed it from one painting to another. As true to the view from Cadillac Mountain as “The Artist Sketching” may be when it comes to Otter Cove and that portion of the southern shoreline of Mount Desert, the foreground is at best an embellishment. Gifford records Mount Desert in the background and “invents Acadia,” in Belanger’s term, in the foreground.

I make a rectangle of my raised hands, thumbs touching, fingers up, and shift them before my eyes, searching for an approximation of Gifford’s frame. The light green forest fills the middle ground, topped by the bright blue of the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean and, above that, the paler blue of a nearly cloudless sky. Otter Cove and the modern causeway across it as well as portions of a road and a few scattered buildings are visible through the trees in approximately the same location where Gifford placed them in his painting. I notice two offshore islands, not exactly where Gifford’s are but close enough to seem identifiably the same. The sun is higher overhead for me, the scene everywhere brighter, the shadows not so dark as in Gifford’s painting. My foreground, just above my thumbs, is made up of slabs of rock of differing shades of gray, none of them distinctly upright with a pyramidal point. Shifting my perspective vertically I take in a little more of the foreground and remind myself how bald the summit is. Monts deserts—mountains barren of trees and shrubbery except for low bushes in the places between the boulders and gray granite slabs.

It’s a beautiful vista, that’s for certain, though not quite as precipitous as Gifford suggests—he seems to have elevated the angle at which the painter sketches and the viewer sees the whole—and it provides a magnificent view of the coastline—“high mountains and a boundless ocean.” Except for adjustments and additions I’ve already mentioned, the view replicates Gifford’s closely—the same sense of scope and scale, the distant ocean boundless beyond the horizon, the mountain high enough to give a sense of altitude and distance. Here, fully, is the opportunity for the “magisterial gaze,” as the art historian Albert Boime termed it, the proprietary sense of being master of all you survey.

With so much of what humans have done on and to Mount Desert Island invisible or vanished, reduced by time or scale from this perspective, it’s possible to strip all of the layers of cultural superimposition away and think that what you behold is the landscape itself. Immersed in civilization as we are, we have difficulty seeing nature without the intervening scrim that civilization provides; immersed in nature we still find the scrim hanging before our eyes. Even if I lacked a knowledge of the history here, even if Gifford’s painting were unknown to me, would I not think that what I behold is a view, a panorama, a subject for photographs and en-plein-air painting, particularly on a day when the sky is tinted blue and white and the sea is a brilliant ultramarine and the forest a range of vibrant greens and the rocks pink-tinged gray speckled with green and black lichens and the few people anywhere in the view are miniscule in the scale of the landscape? How “magisterial” would my gaze be if I were the first person to stand on this summit and survey this terrain when it was truly unknown to other men?

Luckily, I can usually raise that scrim or look around it. Rather than feel a sense of mastery over the landscape, as the term “magisterial” implies, I am most often inclined to let the view dominate me. To stand on a mountaintop, gazing out on a limitless ocean, off across a vast continent, doesn’t make me feel in control of anything. Instead I’m likely to accept my lot as an infinitesimal part of an unimaginable immensity and simply hope, in some way, to feel connected to it.

But at the moment I feel neither magisterial nor minute, only solitary and cut off, as if I had been vainly trying to commune with the ghost of Sanford Gifford. The view from Cadillac Mountain seems no clearer to me than when I approached it through the fog. I still don’t feel as if I know where I am.

* * *

I climb Cadillac Mountain again, the old-fashioned way this time, up the south ridge of the mountain. My starting elevation is around 175 feet above sea level and in three and a half miles I’ll gain over 1300 feet. The trail begins in thick forest, shaded and dark, mostly tall white pine and spruce, and rises gradually. The short starting stretch is easy going but, here where soil cover is shallow on glacier-scoured bedrock, the footing quickly becomes uneven. I tread warily over tree roots and cobblestones, watching my feet most of the time but trying to glance across the open forest floor as I advance.

In a few minutes I overtake a family group further up the trail. Their pace is determined by a white-haired woman moving stiffly. She seems frail and hesitant. To one side a girl of 11 or 12, lithe and eager, watches a middle-aged man, no doubt the woman’s son and the girl’s father, put a hand under the woman’s elbow. He glances at the girl before checking the woman’s footing. The girl is expressionless. I briefly wonder about the family dynamics, appreciating how the man has to negotiate his mother’s lack of dexterity and his daughter’s abundance of energy, a man in the middle. I pass them with an exchange of polite murmurs. I think, as I hurry on, how challenging the rough footing I keep tripping over must be for the old woman, and I wonder how far the three of them will get. About a mile from the trailhead I take a side loop toward Eagle’s Crag and find myself scrambling over a few massive boulders; one of my guidebooks recommends this turnoff as an easy family destination, but I think the stone wall I clamber up with effort will likely pose problems for the family behind me, if this is where they’re heading.

Eagle’s Crag is only a mile from the trailhead and looks down on Otter Creek and out on the Atlantic. By the time I reach it and get my bearings from the view, I notice the forest giving way to open space. Short stretches of exposed granite with stunted spruce and pine growing in the clefts soon turn into longer stretches of bedrock; once I rejoin the main trail I am well out of the forest, exposed to azure skies, sea breezes, sunshine, and plenty of chances to gaze off across the forest and the lesser mountains and the ocean. The trees are low to the ground, pitch pine shaped by wind and water like, as one guidebook suggests, a Japanese bonsai garden. Despite the angle of ascent I enjoy having solid rock beneath my feet and breathing the mingled forest and ocean smells in the air. Further up I encounter jack pines. Then, at the end of a long hump of granite, I discover the Featherbed, an unusually high boggy area, lush and green, protected against wind deep in a wide flat crevice. I climb down into the declivity, inhale marshy odors as I cross the space, then climb up the granite wall on the opposite side. From the rise out of the Featherbed the trail crosses long stretches of bare rock fringed with low shrubs and occasional outbursts of spruce and fir. I move ever upward over smooth stone, enjoying openness to sun and sky and breeze and long views of my destination. Only when I find a nearly barren tree aflame with a small flock of cedar waxwings in the morning sun do I slow my steady pace.

At the summit I drift around the walkways. I try again to approximate Gifford’s perspective as closely as I can, then try to identify islands in Frenchman Bay and locate the mountains of the mainland. Though I have my daybook, sketchpad, and camera in my daypack, I’m content to mosey and gaze. I buy a granola bar in the gift shop and find a rock with a view of Otter Cove where I can eat, sip water from the bottle warming in my pack, and sit idly. I try not to think about what I’m looking at, but rather hope to somehow absorb the view, as if sitting in the sun will trigger some philosophical photosynthesis in me. It doesn’t. Eventually, I rise and set off for the trail back down the south ridge.

By now it’s late morning. The waxwings have moved on. I pass more people ascending the trail than I saw when I hiked up. Occasionally we nod to one another or exchange a few words—a lot of commiseration and encouragement passes among strangers on mountain trails—but otherwise I fall into a familiar trail rhythm, maintaining a constant pace that I automatically renew after each momentary halt to let the upwardly mobile pass. Trail rhythm is akin to a walking meditation, if you can keep your life off the trail off your mind.

Any en plein air essayist will recognize the spirit of Thoreau in that notion. It was Thoreau, in “Walking,” who berated himself while in the woods for being preoccupied with his worldly concerns rather than with his physical location; he accused himself of letting his mind be “not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” It’s a trickier thing to accomplish than it should be. I’ve taken woodland walks with little awareness of where I’ve been, my mind so centered on other things that the terrain I pass through is invisible. From time to time, if I’m lucky, I remember to ask myself Thoreau’s own question, “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” On the good walks I don’t have to remember the question, because somehow my trail rhythm has let my mind be where my body is. So here, descending the south ridge of Cadillac Mountain, I feel the granite through my shoes, hear the chickadees and sparrows in the junipers, see the line where sky and ocean meet, smell the pines, taste the afternoon air. I return to my senses.

Just as I climb out of the Featherbed I’m startled to encounter the family trio again, farther up the mountain than I thought they’d get and making good time. They recognize me as well and we stop to chat. The man and the girl stand aside to let the woman do all the talking. We exchange obligatory pleasantries about the day, and then she confides that she turned 80 not long ago and that this family hike is her first trail outing since having artificial joints—“Titanium,” she tells me— installed in her left leg. I wonder, but don’t ask, if a seven-mile hike over rough terrain with changes in elevation of 1300 feet going up and coming down is the kind of exercise her doctor recommended for limbering up. As if she reads my concern and feels obliged to allay it, she lets me know she’s accustomed to more rigorous hiking. “I usually hike in Vermont or in the White Mountains,” she says; “I’ve climbed Mount Washington.” I’m impressed, and say so—at 6288 feet Washington is the highest peak in the eastern United States, four times the elevation of Cadillac, and celebrated for having the worst weather in the world and the highest surface wind ever recorded. Immediately doubtful of my own resilience and stamina in comparison, I silently chide myself for past patronizing thoughts. We wish each other good hiking the rest of the day, I wave to the man and the girl, and we separate.

Thoughts of that nameless woman keep me from returning to my senses. I meet a light but steady stream of hikers coming up, many of them overweight and out of shape and, even without newly installed titanium joints, not well conditioned for the hike, but I encourage them when I can. Recalling the trolley and the crowded parking lot, I think: You can reach the summit in easier ways than by walking steadily upwards for 3½ miles, if all you’re interested in is the view from Cadillac Mountain.

For my own purposes I’ve made a point of achieving that view but, despite having fixed it in my mind by studying paintings, postcards, and photographs and surveying it on site, when I try to reproduce the image in my brain, I notice the edges already blurring, details already fallen away. The further I get from the moment I was there, the less specific the image will become. At the same time I realize that, as ephemeral as that moment was, I have no regrets about being there, or, for that matter, about stumbling over the rocks and tree roots of the forest I’m in.

Nor, I’m certain, does that nameless woman approaching the summit with her son and granddaughter. Long past the time her body has told her, ‘It’s okay if we don’t do this anymore,’ she still climbs mountains. To her granddaughter, roughly an eighth as old as she is, the grandmother’s eight decades must seem interminable; to the grandmother they must seem to have gone by in the blink of an eye, a single tick of a cosmic watch. Surely in that eighty-year span, if her insistence on taking the long way up Cadillac Mountain is any clue, she must have seen any number of magnificent views. If fleeting accomplishments in an ephemeral life truly counted, she would not have to be on the trail today. She has summitted Mount Washington, after all.

I have expended much time and effort not merely to witness for myself the panoramic view from the summit of Cadillac Mountain but also to survey the long view of the coast of Acadia across time. But I haven’t put quite enough effort into witnessing the present moment in the forest where I am. As I keep straining to gaze out across the past I have to remember that epochs of time are like blankets of fog. They seem to enclose and define the terrain but are really insubstantial and transitory; they burn off, evaporate, in the sun of succeeding days. Note to self re cosmos: It doesn’t matter how long it lasts, it will burn off; it will vanish as if it had never been. What can this mean for us whose lives are more fleeting than an ice age, than a tribal history, than a colony, than a park? Perhaps it has something to do with being in the moment, with taking every opportunity to return to your senses.

Terra incognita. Terra vanescera. A place does not become terra cognita, known land, when it’s named. We know it only when we’re on it, move through it, return to our senses in it. Even on a clear day we can’t see where we are if our eyes are closed, our senses turned off. We—I—keep needing to relearn how to locate ourselves. The point of reaching the summit is not to recapture the past or to employ the magisterial gaze—it’s to be where we are in the present moment, even if it’s nowhere we can name.


Time and Tide

“The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life.”

– Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

i. Fog

4:30 on a cool afternoon, early September. In my second week of residency on the Schoodic Peninsula, the easternmost section of Acadia National Park, I’m paying more attention to the fog than last week. Schoodic Point, the tip of the peninsula, is a low, fractured, rocky slope, mostly pink granite interrupted by a few thick stripes of black diabase dike, jutting into the ocean. Most days the point appears like the clear, bright, colorful image I imagined as I flew here from the west: light stone blocks contrasting with vivid green firs on its inland edge, scruffy, light green grasses rising tenaciously from crevices, cobalt blue sea, cerulean blue sky. Down close to the shoreline the intertidal zone begins. Wet dark olive-green rockweed coats the lowest portions of the slope, the pinkish-gray rocks above the limits of high tide stay bare and dry. I stand in sun and sea breeze, studying the cracks and joints and fissures, the angles and shapes of slabs and blocks and shelf faces. I note changes in tide level, the shift from zone to zone—dense, dark green water-logged weeds, light green weeds draining sea water, damp off-white coatings of barnacles, the glistening, deceptively slick black zone. Sea and sky, those vast blue reaches immeasurable, draw my attention only to their immensity rather than to any fixed point. Each time I return to the Point in sunshine I become pleasantly detached. I’m content with the scale and scope of what I behold, and find it easy to simply engage in idle observation.

But the fog—that’s something else. It alters my sense of the world, makes me feel both isolated and involved.

Clouds that have hung above the peninsula since morning drift out to sea and the ground level fog thins in the afternoon sun. I wander out across the rocks, closer to the ocean, hoping for a better perspective on the shoreline, and stop at an abrupt drop-off, a broad break in the granite ledges. Rockweeds glisten in the refracted sunlight, thickly coating slabs and blocks ten feet below me; waves surge in from time to time to cover them, then ebb away. The fog merges with the ocean a little way out. The horizon is only a broad smear of bright blue-gray, except for a short stretch of gleaming silver just below the place where the sun, unseen, must hover. The thickness of the fog shrinks and swells like the surf, like the sea breathing in and breathing out. When it dissipates slightly, the distant silhouette of Mount Desert Island, across the broad reach of Frenchman Bay to the east, momentarily materializes out of the haze, then blurs and blends back into it again.

On the other side of this little inlet where I stand, seven gulls stand placidly near the shoreline; it’s as if they’re marking time, waiting for the tide to turn and reveal the vulnerable lifeforms of the tide pool. Further inland, upslope toward the landward end of the inlet, a raised lip at the far edge of a granite slab forms a partial dam above an area of lower rocks. The tide must rise and surge across the slab before it can fill up that inner pool and drown those rockweed-coated blocks again. I hear a thump and splash as saltwater spills over the lip. The gulls are silent, immobile. The only sounds are lapping waves, the slap of water on stone, the gurgle of water sucking itself back away from land.

The encircling fog, gradually increasing its distance from the shore, still closes in the horizon. I begin to comprehend the limits of my vision, strain to remember what is usually clear to me in sunlight. I suddenly realize that, if I wanted a place to lose myself, to momentarily step out of identity and obligation, it would be here and now. In this instant,—perhaps only for an instant,— I come wholly to my senses. Cognition ebbs away; feeling surges in. All at once my senses connect me to the most primal of elements—the soft enshrouding fog, the persistent rhythm of the waves, the implacable rock under my feet. In the distance a raft of eiders silently floats by, black shapes interrupting the gleam of sunlit waves, soundless, drifting, carried along by the tide and the waves. I feel myself drifting with them. I am no longer on the Schoodic Point I know, but some other where.

I don’t know how long the moment lasts or why I feel I need to leave—to “get about my business,” whatever that might be—but the moment haunts me, draws me back a few hours later. The sun is descending, the fog thickening, that inner pool slowly filling, other sightseers mostly gone. I am, for the moment, alone on Schoodic Point. I shiver occasionally in a brisk cold breeze. Directly above me I discern blue sky but on the ground I find my horizon still tightly circumscribed. Ahead of me, sea soon dissolves into fog; behind me, inland beyond the point, trees are merely a frontline of shadows, growing dimmer, the forest beyond it vanished. Clouds high overhead only hint at the sun’s descent. No gleam shows through the fog.

I concentrate on what encircles me; I close my eyes and listen to the surf, the slap and gurgle and s-s-s-s of waves against and across and retreating from the rocks. The air is palpable on my face, a chilly damp caress. I conjure up the image of Corregio’s painting of Io and Zeus, smile blindly into the fog, then banish the image to return to my senses. Minutes pass in the grasp of sensation, while cold seeps into me. It’s the pervading cold that makes me finally open my eyes. Blinking, I slowly take one last look around me, then surrender the point to the fog, the surf, and the gathering dark.

ii. Crossing the Bar

The Boreal coast of the North Atlantic is known for the amplitude of its tides, the difference between high and low tide. The intertidal or littoral region is the area of shoreline between what the highest tides submerge and what the lowest tides expose; it can be divided into five distinct zones, each demarcated by degrees of submersion and exposures, each host to a variety of specially adapted organisms. Any casual idler along the coast of Acadia is likely to notice the changes that the levels of the tide makes in the appearance of the shoreline.

For example, on the Schoodic Peninsula, depending on the time of day, East Pond Cove seems to be different each time I pass it. At one time, it is a broad, serene pond, a beachless basin almost surrounded by higher ground. Its grassy shoreline is close to the road; only a narrow strip of gray rock shows between the water and the pavement. This is the cove at high tide. At another time, at low tide, it is startlingly transformed. Now is revealed a broad stretch of exposed shoreline, little pools of water in between cobblestones and small boulders. A burble of flowing water can be traced to a temporary tidal stream draining the higher sections of the pool. The water’s edge is now perhaps twenty yards distant from the shoulder of the road. On the open shoreline, among small exposed rocks all high and mostly dry, are strewn the blue shells of mussels, the empty shells of snails, and billions upon billions of barnacles, the seams of their intricate interlocking plates tightly sealed. Bladder wrack, a rockweed with heart-shaped brown bladders, lies flat everywhere, as if discarded. Abundant, opportunistic gulls peck among the wrack. Across what remains of the water, on the exposed shore of Little Moose Island, a clammer cruises the coastline, probing at the sand and occasionally plucking something out to deposit in the bucket carried on a strap over his shoulder. It seems a zone of debris and detritus, everything dead—certainly the litter of mussel shells, snail shells, and an occasional dismembered crab suggest abundant death—but most of this will revive with the turn of the tide. The rockweed will rise and stand waving in the water, the barnacles and mussels will open to feed, the periwinkles and whelks will set into predatory motion. At high tide the following day, the cove is a placid pool once more, reflecting the sky and suggesting nothing of the abundant life at its bottom. The passerby who observes these changes feels he shares a secret with the landscape, and remains conscious of the tides wherever he goes in Acadia.

Bar Harbor is the name of both a harbor and a picturesque town on the eastern coast of Mt. Desert Island, where the main section of Acadia National Park is located. The harbor extends out into Frenchman Bay between two small islands and a somewhat larger island due north a quarter-mile offshore of the town. At high tide, Bar Island, the largest of the three, seems simply to be the nearest island, across a relatively calm and sheltered body of water. It’s only at low tide that it becomes apparent how harbor, town, and island all got their names.

Twice a day at high tide, for several hours at a time, Bridge Street leads down the slope from the town directly into the water of the harbor. It seems to offer only water access. It’s low tide now. As I stroll down the street a pick-up truck passes me near the bottom of the slope and continues out into the harbor, onto a firm, flat tidal bar the width of a two-lane highway. When the ebbing tide drains away the water in that part of the harbor, the flats turn into a packed gravel strand solid enough to support a van or SUV, and tourists and townies alike set out to wander across the bar.

I see ahead of me other people already walking idly on the bar. Two long vans park close to the water on the west side of the bar, one of them towing a partly-empty trailer for kayaks. Off in the low pool beyond the vans floats a cluster of kayakers, facing each other and holding position with their paddles, apparently returning from an outing on the bay. Not far away a small sailboat heels over in the shallow water, more aground than afloat. Two small station wagons drive briskly across the bar; they pass an older couple ambling back toward town. Groups of people pick their way along the water’s edge, surveying the tide line. A little girl, walking several yards ahead of her mother, calls back to her that she sees a starfish; “It’s feeding,” she shouts. On either side of the bar, the tidal flats are cluttered with seaweed, blue mussels by the millions, barnacles in both their closed and their extended states, innumerable periwinkles, and various other tidal creatures.

Midway across the bar I stop and slowly survey everything around me. To the south the flats slope off gradually, and some water-filled areas separate ridges of shells; in the distance, where the harbor is still deep enough, small boats float gently at anchor or move slowly between docks and open water. To the north, where Mt. Desert Island arches toward the mainland, the slope is less pronounced, and the waters have receded less. At either end of the bar, toward the town or toward the island, small figures amble unhurriedly and small vehicles either recede in the distance or grow larger with increasing nearness. The top of the bar is as flat and worn as an old dirt road, but beyond its edges vast fields of innumerable gray-brown mussel shells fall off to the limits where water still covers them. It looks as if the retreating tide has revealed an unimaginable accumulation of lifeless debris, the discarded residue of centuries, yet I’m aware that much of what I’m seeing—and what I can’t see beneath the surface in the shallows—is alive, tightly sealed against desiccation from heat and air and exposure, waiting for full submersion before opening up to life again.

Life in the littoral, literally unlimited. Here on the bar I glimpse something of the scale of life in the intertidal zone.

I decide to step along briskly, to complete my tour of the island before the tide turns. The trail leads off the bar and winds through the woods of the island. It closes off the view of the harbor, but ends a quarter-mile later at a summit with an open view toward the south. Some prominent mountains of eastern Acadia National Park—Cadillac, Dorr, Champlain—fill the space between cloudy white sky and forested coast. Lower still I see Bar Harbor and its marina, with a couple dozen boats anchored off shore. The harbor looks calm and deep but when I lean out a little I can see off to my right the limits of exposed harbor floor and the places where people are walking and driving across the harbor.

Returning to the sandbar, I realize the tide was still ebbing when I first crossed it. The sea is even lower now, revealing the tidal life to be even more endlessly abundant. As far as I can see from sea level, the surface of the harbor bottom is now exposed. Only occasional low pools are still partly water-filled, where blue mussels poke only their tips into the air. The van with the trailer, now loaded with kayaks, stands where it did, a few of the kayakers milling around it. The second van has already left with its passengers. The shoreline has retreated further; the place where the kayakers floated together is nearly completely land. The sailboat is utterly aground, canted to one side and resting on its keel on mud and mussels, no open water anywhere around it.

The image of an exposed harbor floor dense with mussels and barnacles is a revelation to me. For the moment it looks drought-ravaged or like land drying out from a sudden torrential rain; it looks as if it has been devastated and will take years to recover. But I know the recovery begins within the hour, and within six hours it will all be submerged, the way I have most often seen it, as if it never could be drained—how do you drain the ocean? Here is life on a scale that staggers comprehension, here is resiliency of a resourcefulness that bewilders invention, here are life forms utterly unlike what we know on land, what we know of our own evolution, whose origins outdate ours by immeasurable millennia.

“Time and tide wait for no man,” it is said, but I think that expression a rather benign and banal reading of what we behold here. Instead, time and tide give us some inkling of what eternity must be like, even as, twice a day, they display for us what, ultimately, existence is like. To understand life we need a more panoramic perspective, a slower shutter speed, a more encompassing comprehension. I recross the bar slowly, still looking all about me. I know that all this will soon disappear beneath high water, a fecund existence spending half its time submerged and invisible. To recapture this sight I will need to time my return with another turning of the tide.

iii. Cobblestones

It’s nearly noon. I’m hiking on Isle au Haut, the remotest section of Acadia National Park. I’ve rounded Western Head, one of the peninsulas on the southern tip of the island; I’ve dawdled awhile over an energy bar and bottled water on a rounded bulge of volcanic rock, where I appreciated the good sense of the gulls to have their picnic lunches of crab on top of it—whitening shells beyond counting suggest how often they use it; I’ve sat contentedly in sea breeze and warm sun, gazing out at the vast openness of the Atlantic. To complete my circuit of Western Head, I’ve followed the Cliff Trail high above the shoreline on the east side of the peninsula. Now I’m nearing the end of the trail, at its junction with the road that will take me back north to the ranger cabin where I’m staying.

The trail descends to an open rocky beach. I try to distinguish among the stones the marker cairns that will keep me on the trail. Two prominent stone piles steer me away from the shore, back into the trees, but a glance toward the water makes me hesitate before starting inland. A dozen or more cairns have been carefully constructed upon the side of a knob of rock close to the shore. Some are stacked like a toddler’s stacking toy, decreasing in size from bottom to top; others are more haphazardly arranged and more precariously balanced. I see at once that they are not trail markers, since they would lead me back the way I came, along the bottom of the cliffs. I recall walking on Monhegan Island, further down the coast of Maine, along a trail through old growth pine forest, where hikers can discover a string of “fairy” dwellings, miniscule “houses” of twigs, bark, stones, and moss erected at the base of trees; I think that here Isle au Haut seems to counter that idle playfulness with a simpler and rather repetitious sea nymph or mermaid sculpture gallery. The cairns add only whimsical clutter to an already driftwood- and debris-strewn coast, but they prompt me to look back along the sheer cliffs toward the tip of Western Head. I realize more fully what I’ve been walking above.

Cobblestones make up the walking surface from higher up on the beach, where the forest begins, down to the shoreline, and they fill in the spaces between the higher, raised knobs of the rocky headlands. They make for noisy, off-balance walking; finally on a beach for the first time since I arrived on Isle au Haut, I clatter and lurch across a long stretch of them to get closer to the water. I can tell that the tide is coming in. Once I stop moving and stand gazing at the cliffs, I hear other noises than the clacking of the stones under my feet. I stumble toward the shore, pause, and listen more intently. In a moment or two I realize that, after an incoming wave, when the waters recede, I’m hearing the clatter of cobblestones. I step even closer to the water and stare at the foamy waves covering the lowest stones. This time I see some of them move as the waters withdraw. I continue watching and soon notice that the chattering sound of stones knocking together is louder when the waves are stronger and heavier. Taking a few steps forward onto wet stones I squat down, getting nearer eye level with the stones and the waves. I concentrate on the cobblestones even when they’re invisible under the breaking waves, camouflaged by white foam. The water recedes off the glistening stones as a wave twenty yards off shore curls above a low barrier of rock. Then the space in between fills with white turbulence. One wave rushes up almost to my feet and reminds me that this is a rising tide. I wobble backwards across the cobblestones to a stretch of sloping solid rock and perch on the edge, still focusing my hearing on the clacking sound of the stones.

The tide comes in farther onto the shore and, as it deepens, hits the stones more heavily. Now when it pulls back it draws more powerfully on the stones and the volume of the clatter increases. The racket the ebbing water and the rolling stones make together sounds like a heavy flow of rainwater gushing down a storm drain mixed with the rattle of thick chains striking against each other. The stronger waves pick up small stones and hurl them further back on the beach, and sometimes they toss up hollow stem kelp as well. The whomp and whoosh of the waves and the cracking and chittering of the cobbles grow more forceful. I’m alone on the beach, not a bird or other creature visible, and yet the rocks themselves are active.

The moment reminds me of an essay by Barbara Hurd, “Fine Distinctions,” in which she walks a shingle beach in southwest Suffolk, on the Atlantic shore of England. She tells how, on that site, the U. S. military constructed a massive listening device, “the world’s largest, most sophisticated, most powerful radar of its kind,” at a cost of a hundred million dollars, but soon found it wouldn’t work. As she explains, “Its ability to receive signals was, from the start, hampered by the presence of a mysterious noise. ‘Clutter-related noise,’ they called it. ‘Severe background noise,’ ‘excessive noise of undetermined origin.’ Months of testing failed to find the source of the problem.” Apparently none of the project’s military and technical personnel had ever sat on a cobblestone beach during an incoming tide. It’s not surprising that all that sensitive equipment couldn’t overcome the interfering rumble and clatter of wave-tossed cobblestones; but it’s discouraging to know that no one involved predicted the result.

“Shingle pebbles aren’t silent,” Barbara Hurd says; “they ping and clatter and clunk.” Just so. Days after I leave Isle au Haut, a woman will tell me that she can identify which beach she’s passing in the dark by the sounds the cobblestones make, differentiated in tone and pitch by the angle of the waves, the slope of the shore, the size of the stones. In At the Sea’s Edge William T. Fox has a handy chart distinguishing the rocks on the shore. Boulders are the largest rocks, cobbles are grapefruit sized, pebbles are the size of ping pong or golf balls, granules are pea sized. Smaller than that are the coarse, medium, and fine grains of sand, and below that silt and clay. These are handy distinctions.

For the most part the waves have been juggling peas and ping pong balls, but just now higher waves are tossing lemon and peach sized cobblestones up onto the rocky ledge a few yards from where I sit. Only a few minutes ago, when it was my route to this location from the beach, that extension of this rock was dry. I move a little higher up and watch the lower portion of the rock receive the brunt of the next wave. I’m in no danger here—my reading alerted me to folks being swept off rocks by errant waves and I’m a cautious fellow—but I’ll have to choose a different route when I leave the rocks. I watch the tide advance for a few minutes more.

When I feel spray reach this higher position where I’m sitting, I decide now might be a good time to go. I can’t go back the way I came—the waves are too vigorous across the cobblestones. Instead I scramble gingerly over the uneven surface atop the outcropping, then step carefully through that thicket of cairns—rather than topple any myself, I want to let storm tide decide their fate. Near the edge of the knob I pause to listen to the chatter of cobblestones a moment longer. I hope memory will record the sound, allow me to hear it again as I fall asleep tonight. Then I step onto the dry stones. The clatter of my crossing drowns out the sound of the cobblestones in the tide.

The trail rises again from the beach, veers easterly, and leads me around to high ground further down the coast. When I reach an open bluff I pause to look back and locate the spot where I listened to the cobblestones. Through binoculars I spot the cairn-adorned knob. It is now an island of rock; the cobblestone beach around it is completely submerged, and foaming waves are breaking on the cliff face beyond it. The sound of the cobblestones must be muted now, beneath the surf, but I know they will clatter again with the changing tide. What was simply a moment of attention for me is the timeless nature of their existence. Though few creatures hear it, the cobblestones have been making the same sounds, wearing themselves away slowly—slowly—by infinitesimal degrees, chattering, pinging and clunking all the while, eons upon eons, open to change on every ebb and surge of the tide. My clattering across the cobblestones was only an instant of static in the ever-varying, timeless transmission of sound.

iv. Fog

An hour after sunrise, for which there is little evidence beyond the ability to see the fog better, I stand again on Schoodic Point. Last night, returning from a clear, sunny day on Mount Desert Island, I was surprised to find heavy fog cloaking the peninsula. The further I drove, the more it thickened, until I could barely locate the beaches a few yards beyond the shoulder of the road. Near the point, Arey Cove was invisible behind an impenetrable white wall. Certain that the fog would still be here in the morning, I rose early, eager to get out into it.

I step slowly onto bare rock near the center of the point and at once detect motion down near the water’s edge. Dozens of eiders waddle off the weed-smothered shore and plop into the ocean. I’ve only ever seen them floating offshore, never spotted them out of the water before. I raise the field glasses hanging around my neck and discover an immense flotilla stretching around the point, hundreds of little dark shapes imperturbably rising and settling with the waves. The further out they bob, the more difficult they are to discern in the dense haze. From somewhere deep in the fog I hear a muted chugging, a lobster boat making its rounds; I shift my binoculars but only get a closer view of fog. On shore, in the rockweed just beyond the reach of the waves a herring gull picks at a crab he’s uncovered and dragged out of hiding. Early morning work for fishermen and gull.

I make my way toward the shore over the pink ledges and across two black dikes, searching for a gull-guano-free-zone somewhere close to the water. I find a narrow spot still unspotted and sit down on a low, narrow, nearly level block of stone. My feet rest on the slick algae of the black zone between rock untouchable by high tides and the sloping edge where barnacles and green algae cling. The fog is thick and wet, the rock hard and cold; a familiar chill soon settles on me. The eiders, which were drifting east, begin drifting back west in a thin, widely spaced line; some them pop up out of the sea onto the tip of a nearby promontory and begin to probe the rockweed with their bills. The turning tide slams more vigorously against the shore. I sit with my pen poised above my daybook but the chill makes my hand shake. The rest of me quivers at times as well.

Still, it’s hard to leave. Having become one accustomed to the fog, I try to settle in. I’ve come here to be in the fog. I breathe in wet air, inhale deeply, and as I slowly exhale, I feel my senses open up to my surroundings. I gaze, I listen, I feel, I taste the fog. The waves slapping the rocks and splashing, gushing, rushing on every side, the gurgle and glug of water drawing out of the crevices around me, the silent thickening parade of eiders floating past, the ghostly shapes of a thin line of spruces against the inland fog behind me, rockweed on a low, nearly submerged ledge before me bearing the force of breakers and filtering the white foam—this turbulence and serenity together are everchanging and yet timeless. For how many millennia has it been like this? How long has this been going on? Being here, shivering in this precise moment, is like having been here at any moment in all those millennia. It’s as if I could remember what the shore was like at the dawn of time because it’s like that every minute, is like that now.

Only when I hear the occasional thrum of the lobster boat starting up again do I know for certain when the present moment is happening. Then it silences. Once more I become attuned to the rhythm of the waves, the white noise of the surf, the pulse of the tide. I can tell nothing about the world except for what I sense, what I see, hear, feel, breathe, exactly where I am, exactly now. I am simply alone—with the rocks, with the fog, with the tide—somewhere in time.

Man in T-shirt and cargo hiking pants poses with a backdrop of distant islands
Robert Root hiking in Acadia on Sept 15, 2006

About the Author

Robert Root was an Artist-in-Residence at Acadia National Park in 2006. His essay “Terra Cognita” was published in Colorado Review (Summer 2008) and “Time and Tide” was published in Ascent (2010) and recognized as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010. He included both essays in his collection Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place (2013). Bob had previously been an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, experiences recorded in Recovering Ruth: A Biographer’s Tale (2003), named a 2004 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan, and Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now (2009). With Jill Burkland, he edited The Island Within Us: Isle Royale Artists in Residence 1991-1998 (2000), which won the 2002 National Parks Service Cooperating Association Interpretive Media Award. His essay “Thinking Like an Island” was published in Isle Royale from the AIR: Poems, Stories, and Songs from 25 Years of Artists-in-Residence, edited by Phillip Sterling (2017). His earliest essay of place, “Anasazi,” set at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon National Parks, and his two Acadia essays were published in Postscripts: Retrospections in Time and Place (2012). A video of his Wisconsin Historical Museum book talk about Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth (2017) is viewable online.

An Emeritus Professor of English at Central Michigan University, Bob also has taught writing in the Ashland University MFA Program in Ohio, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and the Loft in Minneapolis. He and his wife live in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His website is


Last updated: March 23, 2020

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