Elizabeth Haskell reading her poem during the May 19 celebration of the Commons. (Contributed image)

A stubborn, returning cold kept me from the May 19th’s Town Commons 300th anniversary celebration I’d long anticipated. Happily, my wife went and brought back report and some photos from the presentations. Central to those talks was a poetry reading, which featured Brunswick High School’s Elizabeth Haskell’s tribute to the Commons. I’d heard her read “A Wanderer in the Commons” on April 23rd at the high school, and so I could imagine some of this reading. But what struck me more fully as I scrolled through the celebration photos was Haskell’s representation of the next generations to receive our Commons. That she had walked and written, that she was there along with land-savers from older generations to give voice to her appreciation for this common gift, struck me as truly hopeful. It struck me also as true to the 300-year gift of our Commons. 

A little later I won release from my cough and went to the Pejepscot Historical Society to visit Jym St. Pierre’s historical tracery of our Commons. It is both a fine exhibit and a fine story. My favorite piece there is an annotated tree “cookie,” a thick slice of white pine, with its identifiable tree rings and selected notes from a number of those year-rings. 

The “cookie” comes from an 80-plus-year-old white pine that was felled by one of our recent windstorms. White pines make good ring “reading” because they grow quickly, adding girth in circumferences easy to count. Even a quick look tells you which years fostered strong growth — wide rings — and where drought or cold may have made for tough growing — narrow rings. St. Pierre has drawn significant dates from the past 80+ years of his 300-year timeline for the Commons and affixed more recent ones to the “cookie.” 

In 1930, just as the pine was getting going, we learn that the town voted to locate Brunswick Municipal Airport on the Town Commons, and that the first aircraft landed there in 1934. Later, this became the site for the Naval Air Station. In the late 

1960s, one can sense deeper conservation efforts taking hold: ’67’s ring marks a consultant’s recommendation that the Commons get “restoration as a permanent wilderness area”; in ’68 Brunswick adopts a resolution declaring the Town Commons an historic landmark. Then, 1979, the town “rejects siting a sewage composting plant on the Town Commons,” and in 2001, “Brunswick acquires 113 acres abutting the Town Commons with local and Land for Maine Future funding.” That becomes part of the Greater Commons; public land is growing again. 

The “cookie” also asks implicitly, as does the whole exhibit, what will this coming year have to offer? How will its record appear in a pine ring? And on. 

Once More to the Commons — Another Cold Story 

Also near the Ides of May, we had another throwback day. I use that adjective both because the day’s cold and rain cast back to March, and because almost everyone I crossed paths with wanted to throw the day back. “Really?” I heard one person say as I shopped for dinner. “How much more 40-degree rain are we gonna get?” The north wind drove that rain in sheets across the parking lot as I hurried toward my car, where I cranked up the heater. “Some spring,” I muttered. 

The next day stayed cool, but the rain had run by. “Walk,” said the sun; “take advantage while I’m here.” I set out for a walk in the Commons. The tree buds were still tight, but slashes of light warmed the ground. In passing, at head height, I spotted the webbing of a caterpillar nest — oncoming browntail nightmare, I thought — and I veered over to look. A few weeks earlier to try to blunt the itchy browntail effect, we’d had some nests clipped from a tree-border by our house, and local arborist Jeff Gillis had told us the caterpillars would be out within a week. A little later, I’d looked at a nest and Jeff had been right: they were out. 

I bent close to this nest. There, in hundreds of half-inch selves, they were. Seconds passed; nothing moved. Slowly, I realized that all these caterpillars were dead. I found a few more nests. Same scene. Could it be? I wondered. I began to think as I walked on. An earlier reading flashed to mind: “Sometimes,” it had said, “cold rain can kill the browntail caterpillars if they’ve just crawled free of the nest’s protection.” 

By walk’s end I’d checked a dozen nests and found the same inert scene. “Sometimes…” I said, without finishing my sentence. “Sometimes.” May that cold spring rain’s gift be ours this summer. 

Emergent 

That’s enough wishing of mayhem upon this year’s browntails. My mind and this column swing back for a final look at our Commons. At the 300th celebration, Councilor Steve Walker spoke of these acres as a hub with spokes leading out into all the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a good image for this central land. 

Elizabeth Haskell ends her poem with recognition of what a universal Wanderer — you, me, we — can find and feel there: 

The new spring air was moving through the forest, 

Through the heath, 

Through the marsh, 

Through the field 

Picking up the messages of previous Wanderers along the way 

And every rejoicing spirit that ever retraced its trails 

And it all found the ears of the Wanderer and said: 

“You stand on a haven. This is our Common Ground. Go and tell.” 

Please do. 

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident and chair of the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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