What an inspiration it must be for a writer whose daily commute takes him by the cottage where E.B. White used to live. White, the legendary contributor to the New Yorker and author of “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Elements of Style,” was born in New York state but summered in the Belgrade lakes region as a child and in the 1930s moved to Brooklin, on the Blue Hill peninsula.

Like E.B. White, Todd R. Nelson was living in a big city and summering in Maine before finally taking the plunge and moving to the Blue Hill peninsula, seeking a life more connected to the land, a small town and the sea. He writes about his experiences — including that daily commute — in “Cold Spell: The View from the End of the Peninsula.”

Nelson begins the collection of 49 essays quoting E.B. White who felt “truly alive” when he first moved to Maine. Nelson had the same experience, writing that “E.B. White speaks for me.”

The book’s title is somewhat of a misnomer because the collection has four parts — one for each season. The title is taken from the very first essay, which is among Nelson’s favorites and expresses his feeling that Mainers live in relation to winter no matter the season. He describes the bitter, “burning cold” days in the title essay as “a metaphor inversion.” And he shares anecdotes from his neighbors, who remember when motorists could drive seven miles over frozen saltwater to get from Castine to Belfast; he’s astounded that “so much climate change could have occurred within living memory!”

Nelson goes beyond merely describing seasonal patterns. He uses the changing seasons as an opportunity for linguistic side trips on sense of place, mood and memory, as well as humor and optimism.

“My Next Bear,” for instance, describes the proclivity of Mainers to post on social media pictures and videos of the bears they see in their yards. “Do bears know they are on Facebook? Snapchat?” Nelson asks. Later, he describes bears as “shy but not terribly subtle.”


Nelson deftly uses analogies to enhance his essays. In the section on winter he is ever mindful of how the pile of logs for his wood stove depletes over the course of winter, and how he feels like a squirrel “keeping an eye on the acorn stash” as the season progresses. He imaginatively writes of the “clothesline equinox” that establishes the “boundary between indoor and outdoor laundry drying” seasons.

Nelson has a remarkable aptitude for using simple yet arresting examples to reconsider the passage of time. He posits that “time is a local phenomenon, not a universal constant” comparing his leisurely mealtime experiences on a trip to Italy with rushed meals in the United States, where dining is not only often hurried but also may be multitasked with other activities. He describes one method of timekeeping in Maine with the phrase: “I’ll be home after five more casts.”

Nelson’s ability to draw connections between his Maine experiences and experiences described in literature is one of the most rewarding facets of this collection. He regularly sees an owl at around the same time and place and, writing about it, explains that he likes to think of the owl in mythological terms. Nothing grand and Greek, though. For him, though, the mythology is Owl from Winnie the Pooh.

When Nelson engages in spring burning to rid himself of deadwood from winter and some old papers, he finds a connection with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Thoreau wrote that the annual burn ritual of some First People was an act of cleansing and purification. Of his own burn, Nelson quips: “Thoreau would have loved it.” Nelson also references Robert Burns, Keats, e.e. cummings and others in his tour of the seasons.

Several of Nelson’s essays describe his connection with the land. In one he writes about ownership of the land in a legal sense and of him being a caretaker of the land whose prior ownership could be traced back to the early European settlers. Although Nelson implies other peoples lived on the Blue Hill peninsula before Europeans arrived, this would have been a terrific place for him to outright acknowledge that the Blue Hill peninsula was the traditional home of First Peoples.

Toward the end of the collection, Nelson recounts finding an 1875 school photo from Castine, and he imagines the lives of the people in the photo. What were the issues of their day? Had any of the adults heard Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg? Did they vote for Ulysses Grant or Rutherford B. Hayes? He then time-shifts and wonders what a contemporary class picture would reveal to future residents of the Blue Hill peninsula.

Dave Canarie is an attorney and faculty member at USM and lives in South Portland.

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