On a very cold day in January, thanks to the efforts of Dale and Ross Ketcham, volunteer coordinators for the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, thirteen docents and board members, gathered for a tour of that mysterious, large modern gray building on the Portland waterfront that houses the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

We arrived just as one group of sixth-graders came pouring out of the building to board their bus after a morning spent in the Samuel L. Cohen Center for Interactive Learning. Donald W. Perkins Jr., president of the institute, greeted us cordially and informed us that another group of 50 students would soon be arriving from Biddeford and that part of our tour would be an opportunity to observe these students as they participated in solving the “Mystery of the X Fish.”

We gathered in the lobby of the institute and admired the three-story glass atrium that divides the building into two sections. The south end houses the Cohen Center, while to the north are the offices and laboratories of staff scientists, visiting researchers and technicians. Lab and office space are also provided for the University of Southern Maine and the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System.

According to Perkins, the institute has three main purposes: research, education and community outreach. The research staff numbers more than 20 scientists and technicians and aims to develop a comprehensive view of what is happening in the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Sable, Nova Scotia to Cape Cod, Mass., and offshore more than 200 miles to the edge of the continental shelf, including the rich waters of Georges Bank.

Some of their studies involve investigating the links between herring, lobsters and groundfish such as cod and haddock; assessing the impact of scallop harvesting; understanding how cod use their habitat, and predicting how climate change may influence the Gulf of Maine. We were fortunate to have Dr. Graham Sherwood, research scientist, do a masterful job explaining the intricacies of many of these programs to our nonscientific group.

By now, the Biddeford students were deep into their work in the Cohen Center. We watched them from the control room located above the center, observing the small groups clustered around large mounted computer screens, solving the “Mystery of the X Fish.” Using the methods of the scientists and fishermen, each of the teams must locate the fish, understand its role in the marine food chain and ultimately identify the species. They input their data and record their findings via a video camera mounted next to a computer screen. At the end of the session, each team has produced a PowerPoint file that can be viewed back at school.

We were delighted to learn that more than 8,000 students participated in this program in 2006, more than 11,000 in 2007 and more than 13,000 in 2008. That means that more than 90 percent of Maine’s fifth- and sixth-graders, many of whom had never before seen the ocean, have now had a chance to understand what it is like to be a scientist and will, perhaps, be encouraged to pursue such a rewarding career.

For the perfect ending to this fascinating morning, our group walked next door to Becky’s Diner and had a great time discussing what we had learned while indulging in a delicious lunch.

Two sides

of Homer

It is always an enormous treat to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We particularly wanted to see the new room devoted to Winslow Homer, as well as the exhibit brought from the British Museum titled “Art and Empire, Treasures from Assyria.”

The Winslow Homer room displayed many of our old favorites but also boasted two panel paintings I had not seen before, finished in 1884, and intended to decorate the cabin of a sailboat owned by Winslow’s younger brother, Arthur. The first oil was of a fishing fleet leaving Gloucester in the pearly light of dawn, white sails reflected on calm waters; the second depicted two schooners, one towing a dinghy, outlined against a brilliant sunset.

We also admired the painting “Driftwood,” Homer’s last work, completed on Prouts Neck in 1909 just before his death. In sharp contrast to the peaceful scenes on the wooden panels, this oil portrays a lone figure dressed in oilskins, endeavoring to salvage a massive tree trunk thrust up on the rocks by an angry sea. Homer was so committed to finishing this work that he declined Arthur’s invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, writing “I have little time for anything – many letters unanswered and work unfinished. I am painting.”

Bowls, bells

and statues

The Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C. stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, encompassing all of present-day Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and large parts of Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. In the 19th century, British explorers and archaeologists conducted extensive expeditions to the area and it is their bounty, brought back to the British Museum, that was recently displayed in Boston.

We saw colossal stone bas-reliefs that had lined the mud-brick walls of the palaces of all the kings from Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) to Ashurbanipal (668-609 B.C.), extolling the kings’ prowess at war and in the hunt. We saw bronze bowls and bells, clay pottery jars and vases, carved ivory statues and ornaments, and cylinder seals. We saw cuneiform tablets written in the Akkadian language. One was a letter composed in 667 B.C. by an astronomer to his king, reporting a total eclipse of the moon that forecast evil to countries to the west of Assyria.

Other tablets related the Myth of Creation and the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the image that remains with me most clearly is the huge bas-relief called “The Dying Lion” from the North Palace at Nineveh. Wounded by an arrow, with blood gushing from its mouth and eyes glazing over, the lion is straining every muscle and sinew in a futile attempt to remain upright. It is an incredible example of the gorgeous works of art accomplished by peoples of the Middle East thousands of years ago.

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