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

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

Digging

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

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:

http://blog.ecotrust.org/author/edeans/

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