This column space belongs to outdoor news, wilderness people and naturalist talks. It’s no place for urban issues and city-side stories.
So let me do my best to make this story fit.
Two weeks ago a man was walking across a major thoroughfare in Portland not far from his home. According to reports, he had just received word that he was accepted into an assisted living home. And at 74, in these hard and uncertain times, that must have been a bright spot in his day.
Then a motorist struck and fatally injured Elliot Burton, sending him to Maine Medical Center in critical condition on March 8. Three days later he died.
Portland police reported that neither speed nor alcohol was a factor. But the speed of the Toyota Camry was enough to kill Mr. Burton. And it made me wonder when I read his story how his brothers, nephews and nieces received the news of his death. How would I if it had happened to my precious pop or beloved Maine uncle?
But Mr. Burton didn’t have any children or family in Maine. So who will speak for him?
I guess I decided I would, and in this story about a man I didn’t know find an outdoor issue worth discussing.
It wasn’t hard.
Because when you strip away the news reports, Burton’s death signals how fast-paced our culture is, how hurried and frenetic the high-speed beat of Maine’s biggest city sounds. His death brought to light to this misplaced city dweller how this crazy pace is just one more example of the inherent disconnect with nature everywhere today.
So this is my tribute to Elliot Burton, a man I didn’t know and perhaps never walked beside, but a man who I discovered lived a life rooted in nature, from his cabin in the woods of Millinocket to his walks through Evergreen Cemetery in Portland.
As it turns out, the featured obituary by Melanie Creamer that ran in this paper last week – appropriately on the first day of spring – told of a man who found great joy and strength in nature. He was literally as well as figuratively someone who stopped to smell the roses.
Mr. Burton not only made a life as a teacher living in the northern Maine woods, he favored Mary Oliver’s poetry about nature, finding meaning in her poem “When Death Comes,” which was read at his memorial service and tells us: “I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular.”
So what would it take to make us all slow down to that flower-smelling pace Mr. Burton lived by?
The laws in Portland give the nod to pedestrians under the auspices of keeping them safe. But in the process this curb-hopping free-for-all way of life just encourages a culture of walkers who race across the road and never simply … pause.
The argument in this city among proponents of the pedestrian laws is that Portland is a “small town” and these walker-friendly laws create a small-town vibe. Well, hogwash.
Portland is Maine’s biggest city and boasts motorist-packed streets any time of year. And if you think it welcomes vacationers to Vacationland during the height of the summer tourist season, think again. It just confuses them.
On any given day on State Street, motorists can be found slamming to a halt to avoid hitting speed-walking pedestrians who can’t be bothered to walk 10 more feet to a crosswalk. Many walk with their heads down, earphones on, having a conversation with their cellphone, seemingly oblivious to vehicles rushing past them.
And the question to ask is what would be so wrong with requiring those same hurried pedestrians to walk a little farther, wait a little longer, look up and admire the trees and maybe, as Mary Oliver says, to then vanish “at least a dozen times into something better”?
Maybe if we were all forced to slow down outside we’d notice the songbirds during their migration through the city, the mergansers crossing from Back Cove to the ocean, the snowy owls that found their way here this winter, or the barred owls that occasionally visit.
Maybe a bald eagle sighting wouldn’t be such an event as it is for so many.
Maybe we’d admire the birch trees in Tommy’s Park, the vast overhanging canopy in Deering Oaks that has served strollers for generations. And we would choose to walk beneath these trees rather than alongside the traffic on the perimeter.
I bet Elliot Burton did.
Maybe we would take a detour as we walked up Munjoy Hill and choose instead the path along the ocean to East End Beach, where we would notice harbor seals and cormorants. And the sight would give us a lift, as nature always does, and as studies prove help us.
Then we would no longer need laws that forced motorists to slam to a halt because the culture would protect the pedestrians.
Portland would collectively slow down and become a little like a small town.
And we all might become a little more like Elliot Burton. And just before the turn of spring, he would not have died in vain.
Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: