John Ahlin
September 21, 1982
 

(Names and other words that could not be transcribed exactly are in italics. Unknown voices are referred to as ďmanĒ or ďwoman.Ē Comments, explanations, and additional names are in parentheses.)

John Ahlin: (indistinct words) factual, there. Itís nice to read novels, too. Thereís so much in real life that you can actually write about that I tend to - - (child talking, also) Thatís mine. It might get a little bit dry because I try to - when I write I try to get the facts down. Probably other people embellish them if they want to write - embellish them -

Woman: Making the story interesting.

John Ahlin: Yes.

Woman: How does this - does this in any way, your approach here tie in with what - about nature.

John Ahlin: Oh. No, but I - -

Woman: I wondered.

John Ahlin: I started talking about that because Iím interested in this aspect of history. I think we all are because of the very fact that weíre down here at Pokomoonshine. We like nature and we all have different ideas about it and we wonder about the way people probably thought about it before we lived here, and thatís what Iím interested in. How did people think about it before we - how did they think about it originally when they arrived here in, you known, this whole area after the Seven Year War, the French and Indian war, 1763. What were the attitudes towards the environment, or their surroundings. I guess they saw them as a great opportunity for our resources that they just couldnít see the end of. And at the same time, they thought of the wilderness as a great deep and evil thing, almost. I think you can see this use of wilderness in the scripture and so forth. The wilderness, the dangers that were to be encountered by people in the wilderness. And too, so that, I think, that from early times until now, we can see many human beings that had a tendency to say, well, wilderness means danger. Itís dark. Itís evil. It holds the unknown. Letís do away with it. Letís cut down the trees so we can see more light, because forest means darkness.

Man: You want to exhibit things.

John Ahlin: And, so that, I would say that - I have some - let me see, I might - I donít want to use a lot of notes, but it might be good to just take a couple of - and see what my (indistinct word) - and if you have any - what Iíd like to do is to, you know, ask me some questions. Maybe you might have some information that might lead into my, you know, to broaden me out - some points of view and information. Iíd be willing to help. But, let me see, this edit - negative attitude, Iím working on this. I hope sometime maybe Iíd put something together that would have a historical background of the - not just political and economic and social without nature. It should be man and nature. Thatís what Iím interested in and I think - we can see the darkness. I tend to write that they - must be - now, even when the Pilgrims came, the Separatists with the - in 1620 and they stepped off the Mayflower, Governor Bradford in his Plymouth Plantation, he reviewed what he saw as a hideous and desolate wilderness. Now this is typical of the tradition of repugnance which many of the settlers perpetuated and - so for the first colonists, the forests were filled with savage men, wild beasts, and still stranger creatures of the imagination. In addition, the civilized people, you know, they would face the dangers of coming to wildness, going wild, being barbarized. Now, the story, the history of barbarizations is really not written because people when they turn savage or when they revert to being wild, they donít write. And, of course, we - as historians we have to depend upon writing a lot, unless youíre looking for grave stones and things like that. (Indistinct words)

Woman: You can write in pictures.

John Ahlin: Yes, pictures and other kinds of artifacts.

Jane Dudley: Now, Jack was reading - you donít mind if we

John Ahlin: No, good, I like - -

Jane Dudley: Jack was reading about Christopher Columbus - what island was it Christopher Columbus went to where they had all the Indians there and he said theyíd give you everything.

Jack Dudley: Bahamas.

Jane Dudley: Which one?

Jack Dudley: Bahamas.

Jane Dudley: Bahamas, ok. And, he had written down that these people are so friendly and they will give you anything they have if you ask for it and they will take you into their little homes and are so nice with you, and he made them slaves because he thought they were good enough to be slaves.

John Ahlin: Well, I think we - in western civilization, we tend - -

Jane Dudley: Oh-h There was an attitude.

John Ahlin: To be more ambitious, enterprising, and competitive, and confronting. Some people - we donít understand when we find people that are not competing and theyíre more trusting and they donít have all the complications of our civilization. We find it difficult, I think, donít you? To interact with people like that. The noble savage that Rousseau and others talked about, you know, the literature of the nineteenth century. Letís go back to that. Letís find out some of the unadulterated ways of man amongst the people that are living in a more simpler culture. Thatís what early nineteenth century people kind of thought, you know, and we -we - I guess in the numbers, reflect that way, too, you know.

Jane Dudley: What heís read that is interesting is the way they came able to learn to use the birds, the wild birds and how many centuries did it take for them to know which plant - how long in their background did it take. They werenít just born and went out - it had to be a long process. I would think.

John Ahlin: Our first - of course, our first people were - that came here, you know, from Europe, they were great catalogers. Thatís what they did - right - they wrote this vine - the different kinds of flora, and so they were great - and then they tried to find uses for it and generally they thought that wherever there was an illness, you know, in that locality there was a cure for it to be found there - for an area, for each illness that was unique there, there was a cure there for it. And, I guess they did find - we probably still can find half of them, but of course we - weíve spread these things around world-wide, now, so it isnít as easy, but earlier when life was more local and we werenít so mobile and so forth ailments that were peculiar to a region might stay there a little bit more. But, this idea, though, of wildness hasnít be written about a lot. I was writing that the wilderness was a dark and sinister symbol of a moral vacuum, a cursed and chaotic wasteland. Cutting trees meant enlightening the darkness. Thatís what I said, ordering the chaos, changing evil into good. There was a real genuine struggle against barbarization. I know Lewis B. Wright, his culture on moving the frontier, he has one chapter in there on barbarization. He clenches - how dangerous it was for these people coming in these small numbers to this great wilderness, this great continent and they didnít know how large it was - that they would revert to the wild and many people did. Thatís an untold story - how many. Even here how many people did. You know. Well, right. And how many - whether that is in an unsettled area, but I think barbarization also occurs in the cities - that there is a danger in the cities of reverting, declining. Losing. Losing civilization. They were afraid they would lose civilization so they had to fight against it. And, so that we know that people deserted civilization. Some people even reverted to cannibalism.

Woman: Look what happened over in Lebanon the other day.

John Ahlin: I think itís - under certain circumstances, right - itís difficult to explain even cannibalism.

Woman: Terrible massacre.

Other Woman: Whatís this?

Woman: Over - -

John Ahlin: Massacre. Theyíre not new, but they continue.

Woman: They even killed the horses.

John Ahlin: Yes. That was quite a picture, wasnít it, or photograph showing that. I donít want to linger too much on the early times, but I think that we can see when Alexis de Tourqueville - he was a French observer came here in the 1830s. Remember, he was supposed to study American prisons because we were making some advances in all of them and more in that way. However he became a great observer on all of the so-called American character. He did notice that - let me see, he said - he was interested in nature and the frontiersmen thought him mad when he told them his desire to travel for pleasure into the primitive forest. And, he had difficulty in convincing these frontiersmen that he was not - wasnít a landscaper or interested in lumbering. Afterwards in his journal, he generalized and said, ďLiving in the wilds the pioneer only prizes the work of man,Ē while Europeans like himself, he was saying ďvalue the wilderness because of its novelty.Ē He also said, ďIn Europe, people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans never think about it. They are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature. They may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them until they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight. The march across the wilds, draining away and turning the course of rivers, deep in solitudes and subduing nature.Ē Weíve had sort of that attitude. I can say that thatís sort of the human attitude. Iíve been as I said in South America. I can see myself in an area on a ranch, so called, (indistinct word) visiting and the owner knew we were there. We were buying some horses and things. And, this cabasino one of the people - local small farmers working on his land came by with a hatchet, running along. And, he said - the owner said, ďWell, heís going to do something with that hatchet. Probably cut down a tree that he found. Iíd like to have the tree there.Ē And, he told me, he said, ďThey feel that if there is a tree in this area, it has to be done away with - chop it down.Ē So, I guess thatís what George Morris, the New Yorker. Remember he wrote ďWoodman, Spare that TreeĒ in 1830. ďWoodman, spare that tree. Harm not a single bough. In youth it sheltered me, and Iíll protect it now.Ē Thatís the poem he wrote. I guess that was at 98th Street and Western Avenue or something. Western Avenue.

Woman: Joyce Kilmer came along about then.

John Ahlin: Yes. Well people have - right - Woodman, spare that tree and others started to write about this. You know, letís not destroy everything. These things are beautiful. Letís revere them.

Jane Dudley: Thatís what I feel about the children up here - because they are surrounded by beauty, perhaps they donít have a comparison of what it could be like.

Other Woman: Newark, New Jersey. (Indistinct words)

Jane Dudley: Looking out our windows here, you know. They have so much and if they can just learn to appreciate it and cherish it.

John Ahlin: Well, I think there was quite a difference, too, you know, when you look at the general lines of thought in the 17th and 18th century when, you know, this place was being settled - the eastern part of North America. This - we call it the Age of Reason or The Enlightenment. Man by his mind and pure reason could solve the problems of - well of the physical universe, they were finding, they thought. You know, gravity, and Newton and Galileo and all the rest, you know, with their findings. And, it would seem as though they were - maybe might find out all the answers there were to existence in the physical world. Why not using that same pattern of pure reason, apply it to social problems? Why not do that, too? And, control nature. I think that was really the - overall the kind of - -

John Ahlin: Thinking that we had in this nation was being - when this part was being settled and when the Revolution occurred. These men were the men - the Age of Reason - we declare these truths to be self evident. They were natural rights and natural laws. If you follow them, and then you will probably become perfect. Right. They thought that perfectability was a possibility and it was kind of a naive thing, I think, as we look back at it.

Jane Dudley: When you think about the Loyalists who left their farms and left advancement, and what, materialism, and went up to the Saint John river, and went back a couple generations living like their ancestors up there. And, they came down because of their - their problems.

John Ahlin: Yes.

Jane Dudley: I think that - thatís pretty terrific when you think of the numbers of them, and how far they went, and survival was - that was their main achievement.

John Ahlin: Thatís a good time for a commercial right about - next year, the United Empire Loyalists, theyíre having a convention over in New Brunswick next June, in Frederickton.

Jane Dudley: Maybe some of us will go. Maybe in June.

John Ahlin: I think youíd find it interesting.

Roberta Wheaton: Could I interject something here. I find what youíre saying is so interesting. I personally was under a different impression and this year I reaped a harvest at yard sales and I had four Maine books, and I think that Iím going to quote from Brace and Windham - First Windham Water. Iím not sure what book I got this from, but maybe it was more the Frenchmen that came to our shores that wrote in their journals how beautiful it was, the berries, the marshes, the great trees. A lot of those early journals - and my impression - I think oh, first thing they saw was something beautiful where youíre bringing out a new attitude which was probably just as prevalent. Then I came across a very interesting story. I never heard it before, and Iím sorry but I canít tell you the name of the place. A colony of people that came to the shores of Maine and it was in early, early settlement times, and they were so afraid of everything that they saw and felt and heard that they couldnít understand it and they thought this country was haunted and that they were in mortal danger, and this was a shock because of personal danger, and they wrote back and they explained, and eventually within one year they got their whole colony returned to Europe. They said why there are lights that flit around - the fireflies - there are these ungodly sounds - the loons - and (indistinct word) and everything that they brought out - and itís a long list of things that these early colonists listed which we take for granted because itís part of our nature and even love and the wolves howling - and to them it was sinister. The whole thing was sinister and they were afraid of it. Actually could not stand it and returned. And thatís what youíre seeing - -

Other Woman: Were these people who had lived and (indistinct words)

Woman: They were on the coast. It was somewhere on the coast - down in southern Maine, somewhere in southern Maine.

Other Woman: But I mean, had they come from cities or heavily built up sections where they - -

Woman: I would think so but I canít remember that. I canít remember. Iíve got to go back and read that over.

Other Woman: (Indistinct words due to both women talking at the same time.) Once during the war we picked up a boy, a soldier boy up in the high Sierras, the most gorgeous country in the United States. He was on a R and R leave up there some kind of camp just for a weekís fun, and he was so scared of it and hated it so much he was going AWOL from a recreation camp to get back to Los Angeles. I think your lots of people were like that. They hadnít had that kind of experience. The wilderness was frightening.

Jane Dudley: Had you ever read of this colony that they just reviewed. Part of it sounded like St. Croix Island.

Roberta Wheaton: No, it was way down on the coast. You know those people saw that this place was good in its richness and yet they werenít able to - the actual truth was that man had to fight nature and overcome it in order to survive. It was survival of the fittest. If they didnít conquer nature then they got it which was those French people werenít able to cope with on that. But, their journals, a lot of them, going up into the Saint John and the Saint Croix, and the Cobscook, and Penobscot Bay - fishing Penobscot Bay, they said how beautiful it was and then I came across this exactly opposite story which really fascinated me, which is interesting.

John Ahlin: Iím going to have to proceed - if I do write this kind of thing, Iím going to have to make sure that I put the balance in - some of it - Iíve been emphasizing all the hideous - the attitudes, you know fear of going wild, and fear of, you know, all the things they might encounter and of course survival was the most - -

Woman: Think of all the people who - who in the historical novels and other readings, people who didnít want to live there, who would have felt they werenít free because they had a neighbor, and went even further into the wilderness.

John Ahlin: Smoke on the ridge hurt their eyes, right so they moved. And, people did move a lot. In fact, weíve always been a moving people. Just think of a life such Abraham Lincolnís or something - born in Kentucky, moved to Indiana and then to Illinois just in a short time. Itís just that - you know, before they got it cleared and had everything ready they were moving again.

Jane Dudley: But, not in this area.

Woman: Oh yes, in - -

(Several people talking at once in the following so that parts canít be transcribed.)

Man: Moved away.

Jane Dudley: Then why do we have so many of the families still here?

Man: Theyíre all descendants.

Jane Dudley: They had large families, I admit.

Woman: But, they came from Massachusetts and (indistinct word) and from those lower regions. They came up to Machias. They moved from there on up to Pembroke, came up to St. Stephen, went across into Canada and back into Calais, up into Woodland, into Princeton. Now, these early settlers, thatís how they came.

Other Woman: Well, the Frost boys - -

(Several people talking at the same time.)

Woman: Their progeny went to the west coast.

Several People: Right, right.

Woman: And they often went west.

Several People: Yes. Right, right.
 

Woman: I grew up in a colony of people from Maine in Minnesota. They talked just as down-east as they do around here.

Other Woman: And, Wisconsin, and (indistinct words)

Jane Dudley: And, all the way through to Oregon.

Third Woman: And, we still have a - then we grew here - -

Woman: Right, there came a time when people stayed.

Jane Dudley: Well, these were early settlers.

Other Woman: The first settlers.

Woman: But, they had big families and they all didnít go.

Jane Dudley: Yes. Yes.

Other Woman: But, the first settlers, Jane, came from these other places, because our centennials are late compared with - like Portland celebrating 300 years. Weíre celebrating 150 and think weíre old.

Jane Dudley: Just think when Colonel Allen during the Revolution went through Allen Stream there wasnít anyone worth knowing, really (indistinct words).

Other Woman: (Indistinct words) to understand was because - the unclear - who where this stupid - this story belonged. (Indistinct words) The title to it was very cloudy, and - -

Woman: It was about a hundred years of it, wasnít it? It was about a hundred years that they - -

Other Woman: Until the Revolution, I (indistinct words)

Jane Dudley: So thatís in (indistinct words)

John Ahlin: Yes, there was a problem because it was long contested until 1773. Then - even then there were townships granted - townships granted, but many of them were without really legal basis. So that even Machias was out - was conditional. It never had the Crownís affirmation - signature on it so that these people were literally squatters until after the Revolution. So that it made a lot of insecurity in just land development and use.

Woman: (Indistinct words due to background noise) how much - how many things they used for venison. And, that was passed down to my memory.

John Ahlin: Right, I think weíd better - itís a good thing to be preserving some of that information, you know, just as a historical side - whether you preserve - coming down in old recipes or old books.

Elderly Woman (sounds like): (Three indistinct names) for a tonic. And (indistinct words) stuff that you ever - -

Jane Dudley: Evidently you took an awful lot.

Elderly Woman: I got used to it.

Woman: She was a survivor.

John Ahlin: Jumping away from the early days, they were typified by this Age of Reason, to harness and control nature. You get into the 19th century and you get, you know, sort of a romantic setting for, you know, the literature. You can see James Fenimore Cooper and so forth, ďThe Last of the Mohicans,Ē ďThanatopsis,Ē written by Bryant, and others. The painting, even you can see. The paintings of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, were portraits. Man is the thing to be featured. Portrait painting. But, in the Romantic Period you have - well you have the Hudson River School and so forth. And, these people were painting up in this area, too. Men like Thomas Cole - may - some of you may have seen his ďEscape from EdenĒ and things like that, but he painted mountains, ďHouse on Mount Desert Island.Ē Charles Codman, also, ďMoose Hunting.Ē It showed not just - not man but moods and nature. So nature was, you know, manís pure reason wasnít the answer but nature, sort of uncontrolled and unharnessed was something to be appreciated, and we can see that in literature. That sets a stage for more appreciation, more thinking about conservation, and attitudes toward nature which get more apparent after the Civil War. Now, John Springer - youíve probably read his Forest - Life and Forest Trees - it was published before the Civil War. He was born in Robbinston, and he wrote this - I have a reprint of it, I think. Do you have it in your library?

Jane Dudley: Yes, we have it.

John Ahlin: You have it. So, itís a very nice book and certainly says that - a lot of his - when he writes about pine trees, all the pines - pea - is that (indistinct words spoken by John Ahlin and then women.)

John Ahlin: Springer always - and he - and he talked about the ancient - he says ďI was reared among the noble pines of Maine.Ē If there is a God hero in this book, itís the pine tree. The ancient great - the ancient great forests of this area, Washington County, when he wrote this, were being cut. In 1851 he wrote it. Itís published by Harper. And, rapidly disappearing. For a long time, lumber in the 1830s was - many a pine would scale 5,000 feet. Even today, Washington County still has some pine - large pine, but there will never be the quantity of pumpkin pine that he talked about with trunks that were straight and handsomely grown, measuring six feet in diameter. I guess weíve heard stories of larger, too. Four feet from the ground, six feet, 144 foot long, many of them - about 65 feet free of limb - making five logs. He said that would load a six ox team three times. So that, I think we can see that this romantic period of uncontrolled nature rather than the controlled nature attitude of the Enlightenment leads into more conservation and more appreciation of the esthetic matter - nature of the environment. I think we can see the conservation impulse that comes after the Civil War. Up to the World War I is, you know itís really the progressive period in American history to which - itís a reformed kind of - Theodore Roosevelt and conservation and so forth at the end of the 19th and early 20th century coming forth and stressing and emphasizing conservation. Another book that came out - this is kind of national, but I think that it certainly ties in here, too. Springers book had national implications. It was written about - a large amount was written about here. George Perkins Marsh, he was a geographer. He wrote ďMan and NatureĒ in 1864 - just a year - you know, right in the Civil War. And, it was a story about how - rather a study of how man was controlling geography and the environment. It wasnít just nature but manís impact upon geography, and he was pretty much concerned about the - particularly the stripping of forests. Because he felt that - well in the study of history he said that it showed that the decline of great empires had been - not just coincidental with the stripping away of their forests. So that - he was warning people as early as that about - about it. It caused a lot of national concern. People did get - you know, there was a lot of people that were thinking about this - became concerned. And, many people - now, when youíre looking into the past here, you find people were concerned about nature and writing about Woodman, spare that tree or thinking about geography and the environment probably being ruined by man. Thatís the kind of information Iím looking for, so if you run into that after the Civil War anytime. Good. People such as George Talbot, he was - he was a Machias fellow that has been living up at Portland after that - lived a long time up into the 20th century. He was a man that was very much concerned with conservation, you know, and things along the George Perkins Marsh idea. And, we had Austin Carey, that came from East Machias also - was one of our earliest - early scientific foresters, and that kind of fits in with this whole kind of picture about early conservation and so forth. So, hereís some - I can pick out some things that I - I have a lot of things that might - but locally the Machias Republican was noting in 1886 - I just pulled this out. Buffalo are becoming extinct. I guess all - maybe people were thinking maybe deer were becoming extinct too, and some other things, you know, that people were realizing there is an end to this. It isnít just endless. The resources arenít endless. James Lyon when he was writing to George Washington for help, to send some supplies down to Machias during the Revolution. He wrote, I have a quote. I donít have it with me.

(End of Tape)