Salt Of The Earth

Imagine a place where people come together to tell true stories about the most important things in life. Imagine a place where a photo, a word, or a single sound can stir the core of your soul.

For the past 42 years the Salt Institute For Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine has been telling stories through writing, radio, photography, and most recently, film. Students spend hours upon hours interviewing and recording everyday people and places to document their hopes, struggles, successes, and failures.

Lobstermen. Schoolteachers. Minor league hockey fans. Churches. Potato fields. Shopping malls. Salt was built on the belief that a good story is dictated by its authenticity, not its fame.

I attended Salt in the spring of 2010 and spent a semester in the writing program, constantly asking myself: what does it mean to be human?

I lived in an apartment across the street from my grandmother in the section of Portland known as Libbytown. Since my mom grew up there, I felt connected to the neighborhood and began researching its past. It was a story about a place struggling to reestablish its identity, having been physically torn apart by the Urban Renewal movement of the 1960s. It became my final long-form assignment for Salt, and a version was published as the cover story for the Bollard. It was the first money I ever made from publication.

I brought a copy over to my grandmother and we spent an afternoon talking about her neighborhood—what had changed over the years, what hadn’t. She was proud to see my name in print. Then, just two days later, she passed away unexpectedly. I was the last person to spend time visiting with her.

Salt means a lot of things to many different people. For me, it’s an internal compass steering me home.

We live in a culture of the 24-hour news cycle. It is fleeting, loud, and overbearing. It is driven by money. It does not care about the way light falls in a small-town diner on a Sunday afternoon or the wrinkles on the skin of a woman in a nursing home.

I was in denial when I first heard of the school’s closing. My brain refused to accept the information. When it finally hit me, it hit me hard. I wept. Salt is not a just a building and it’s not just an institution. It’s a symbol of truth. It represents the common man. It teaches empathy and generates understanding.

Salt is a small, special place that has a beating heart unto itself, as constant as Casco Bay’s waves, as relentless as New England pride.

Spring 2010 Writing Track

Drinking the Water of DMB: A Reflection on Being a Fan

Geeks come in many forms. Sometimes they play video games, sometimes they’re mathletes, and sometimes they stay up late at night reading message boards and commenting on threads as setlists are updated from their heartthrob band.

I was an Ant. For the uninformed, an Ant is a loyal follower of DMB. Ants gather on to discuss everything from tailgating to guitar selections to Dave’s wine label. But to understand why I was an Ant you must first understand my high school graduation present.

I had grown up listening to the band and in high school I declared that if I “died tomorrow” my biggest regret in life would be having never attended a Dave show. I had no idea what was in store…


My graduation party was held in my family’s small brown barn in southern Maine. My two older sisters surprised me with a very large box. Upon opening it, I found a smaller box, and inside that box was a smaller box, and so on, until finally I held in my hands an envelope. The envelope contained tickets to a DMB show in Mansfield, Massachusetts that summer. I was shocked and ecstatic as any 18 year-old would be.

Before the Massachusetts concert, however, my sisters pulled a second surprise on me—a remarkable, over-the-top surprise (I have pretty amazing sisters). We were on vacation in Chicago. We got on a train. I was told we were going shopping. Then I noticed there were people on the train who had Dave shirts on. I thought, hey, these people are cool. Little by little, clues started to emerge right in front of my eyes but I was oblivious. I had no idea we were headed to a DMB show until my sister finally placed the tickets in my hands as we got off the train and approached the stadium.

I could probably write a book about my memories from different DMB shows—if I remembered them all—the idiosyncrasies that happen for each venue, each night, each group of people present. I’ve pushed our car out of the mud at the site of Woodstock; I’ve hugged Boyd Tinsley; I’ve seen Willie Nelson as an opener at Fenway Park. But what I value the most, above any specific anecdote, is the pure happiness that I have felt when anticipating a concert or dancing barefoot on the grass or hearing a favorite or rare song.

What is this fascination with falling in love with bands? What is it about the obsessive nature that takes hold—be it for a Beatle, the Dead, or Dave? It’s optimism. It’s hope. It’s youthful ambition and idealization. It’s believing that each show will bring not only new experiences, new friends, new songs…but that each show will somehow shape our identities. The live experience presses upon us in a way that no studio-produced album can.


Throughout all of college I attended shows every summer. I took road trips and camped out and even went as far as writing a math paper about the probability and statistics of guessing DMB setlists (I got an A). But after college I found myself swept away into other experiences—I traveled and picked up jobs and attended graduate school and found I couldn’t commit to summer shows. I also faded away from my identity as an Ant online, ceasing to check in on a regular basis.

As I explored more of the country and progressed further into my 20s I started to learn firsthand more about the kinds of things the band sings about—love, loss, freedom, pain. I met people outside of my bubble. I challenged myself and the world challenged me back.

So now here I am—a person who holds a full-time salaried “grown up” job. In three weeks I will see DMB for the first time since 2010. It will be my 12th concert. I’ve been digging out my paraphernalia and I’ve found myself “coming back” to the band. I’m being sucked into this wonderful world of youthful hope, except this time it’s paired with the insight that can only come with time spent and miles traveled.

Is it a little silly? Sure. Is it meaningful? Of course. We all go through a natural ebb and flow of interests and obsessions. If we didn’t, well, we’d be lacking a very essential ingredient to what makes life so damn rewarding and worth living: passion.

My dormant profile still lives on. It’s been a little lonely but like any old friend, it’s good to catch up and reminisce. For those who understand where I’m coming from, my handle is emmalovesdmb. It’s true; I do.


I’ll dig with it…honoring Seamus Heaney

Beloved Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away today, and I’m reminded of my senior year of high school when I first read one of his poems. The lines and words of “Digging” have stayed with me all these years. I identified with Heaney’s admiration for men like his hardworking, potato farming father. For me, guilt has always lingered with that respect…a feeling of inadequacy for not earning one’s living by the spade, but the pen. Heaney’s reverence for the rural, for regional history, and for the common man remind us all that the poetry of life is found right in our backyards, in the hands of our fathers.

Gratitude to Heaney for his insight, his cadence, and his beauty.

My father, the farrier
My father, the farrier


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

-Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney

Continuing down the river…

Yesterday we continued on the Presumpscot, putting in just below the Great Falls Dam at North Gorham Pond, portaging at Dundee Dam, and pulling out at Shaw Park in Gorham. This section of the river was clear and the fish were jumping especially from below Dundee Dam to the Covered Bridge in Windham. It was a sunny and hot day, which drew swimmers at various rope swings, swimming holes, and small beaches along the way. We saw a variety of wildlife including kingfishers, sandpipers, turtles, geese, and ducks.

Did you know that at different points in history, the Presumpscot has been dubbed the most controlled river in the country? I am delving into historical research about the river’s many mills and dams. The Dundee Dam, pictured below, is the largest on the river.

Dundee Dam in Windham
Looking up river at Dundee Dam in Windham

The paddle begins…

Yesterday, Kyle and I paddled from the Sebago Lake Basin through the North Gorham Pond, portaging at the Eel Weir Dam and Great Falls Dam. It was a warm but hazy day, and we stopped to take pictures, have lunch, and explore the area. We took the Eel Weir Canal from the Basin, because where the river begins is too shallow and rocky to canoe. Our trip lasted about four hours and it was a little tricky figuring out where to put in after the portages, as we have never done this section of the river before. It was a challenging but rewarding start!

You can explore the river on Google Maps (shown) or Google Earth.
You can explore the river on Google Maps (shown) or Google Earth.

Introducing the Presumpscot River Project

I am excited to share that for my final graduate multimedia project (thesis) I am exploring the Presumpscot River in southern Maine. I grew up within the Presumpscot’s watershed–the river is about a five minute drive from my parents’ home in Gorham and the Little River, a tributary, runs through our backyard. I will be posting updates as I canoe the river, learn about its history, and make connections to the greater ecosystems of which it is part!

Presumpscot River Project
The Presumpscot originates in the Sebago Lake Basin (lower right). I have already been exploring the river and mapping out a canoe route, along with partner Kyle Joyce.

Listening to where you live

A lot of people claim to know “what” Portland is, as if the city’s identity can be boiled down to certain characteristics: eclectic, weird, colorful, contradictory, creative, independent. In some way or another we’ve all been believers; we’ve worn skinny jeans and grown mustaches. We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid (Stumptown and Ninkasi).

While it’s true that such traits can be found within many people here, the fault lies within the belief that these things are definitive. When I moved to Portland from New England I brought assumptions along with me. In my idyllic version of west coast living, I’d do yoga at sunrise every morning; I’d wear overalls and garden after class; I’d learn to brew my own beer and dance along the banks of the Willamette with a tambourine.

Then I got here and realized: man, I actually have to work. And wait for the bus in pouring rain. And deal with all the normal things that every human being has to. Like rent money, washing dishes, and the reality of living in a basement.

The problem is that we all have a crush on Portland. Like any doe-eyed teenager, we want to see only the letterman jacket (in this case, suspenders). We twirl our hair and giggle and gaze longingly with dreamy eyes, all the while missing the really important moments and the most valuable aspects of people.

iPhone pic: the city
iPhone pic: the city

Today while riding the bus downtown, I didn’t see there was a man named Enrique aboard whom I had met one night. We had only talked for about 15 minutes while waiting for the bus. But he recognized me on this second meeting and simply said, “Bye, Emma” as he got off the bus.

I looked up, surprised at hearing my name. I remembered the man, his small smile, and a vignette I had written after that night:

4th of July in the City

Tomorrow I’ll meet a man named Enrique while waiting for the bus. Enrique will tell me about his family back in Guatemala. He will tell me about his various jobs at restaurants, and how he works seven days a week. He’ll tell me about his dad who died of cancer and of sending money home to pay his medical bills as he died. Enrique will tell me that he lives just beyond the McDonald’s on Barbur Boulevard. I’ll watch his jagged gold tooth (front, right) move up and down as he smiles and asks if I speak any Spanish.

But today, a holiday, the stranger I meet on the street is not Enrique and this stranger asks,  “Do you have spare change so I can get drunk and blow myself up tonight?”

The gems of any city can’t be found in a brochure or travel guide. I’ve come to realize that the world at large has got Portland’s identity all wrong. Portland isn’t so great because of the bikes or the brews or the trees or the art. It’s great because it’s a city filled with daily interactions so small and so powerful they’re easy to miss, yet impossible to forget.

More resilient ecosystems, economies

Ecotrust’s mission is to foster a natural model of development that creates more resilient communities, economies, and ecosystems in the northwest and around the world. A nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, Ecotrust’s many innovations include co-founding the world’s first environmental bank, starting the world’s first ecosystem investment fund, creating a range of programs in fisheries, forestry, food, farms and indigenous affairs, and developing new scientific and information tools to improve social, economic, and environmental decision making.

As a communications assistant for Ecotrust, I have blogged on a variety of issues, ranging from community fisheries to nuclear legacy. You can follow along at:

Ecotrust is a nonprofit committed to creating more resilient ecosystems & economies.

The Other Portland

I realized that it has been far too long since I have blogged for my own website! Over the course of this past year I have lived in a variety of places. I worked as a Multimedia Director for a residential, children’s summer camp in Maine, where I got to bunk in a cabin and play many games, while serving as the videographer and assistant photographer. I then moved to Portland, Oregon, where I am enrolled full time in a graduate program for Multimedia Journalism at the University of Oregon. Last September I also began an internship with Ecotrust, a nonprofit that is dedicated to creating a more resilient economy through initiatives that seek a triple bottom line approach of environmental, economic, and social wellbeing.

I have been enjoying many of Portlandia’s famed sites and am trying to make the most of this urban experience! I recently got my inner-hipster on by attending a People’s Choir event at a bar called the Waypost. Every month a group of fun-loving singers gets together to belt out tunes…and the best part is that these events do not require strong vocal chords. The night I attended was sponsored by TEDxConcordiaUPortland ADVENTURES! and you can read more at this blog post.

Photo Credit: George Mihaly
Photo Credit: George Mihaly

Poem Takes 3rd in Contest

My poem “Antelope Island on July 4th” has won 3rd place in Portland Public Library’s Adult Poetry Competition in honor of National Poetry Month (April).

Click here to read: Antelope Island on July 4th










Photo credit: Portland Public Library