Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2021

Through the Fog There is Always Light

By RJ Heller


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Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Photo by: Peter Elbert

Since the first time I spent any prolonged period of time in Maine, I have always said to other visitors to be sure to see both faces of Maine: the more popular face of blue skies and even bluer waters along the rock bound coast; the other, a misty, cold and mysterious fog-laced face. They both are extreme opposites, beautiful in their own unique way.

For me, the fog-shrouded face that pops its head above the waters Downeast occasionally (meaning less than a week in duration) is the time I tend to cherish most of all. Fog evokes thoughts and memories not found on those crystal clear days of sun and blue skies. Fog is magical and unpredictable as it moves over islands, into coves and sequesters one to land for the time it is here. It is, I think, maternal in the way it moves quietly, soothes the spirit and provides lessons on how and when to listen. Now living here full time, I know it is always out there, somewhere, waiting.

When here, fog gives me time for other things. We are in an age where time needs to be taken, more so now than ever. This fast-paced glimpse of a life will not slow down on its own; we need to be at the helm and slow it down every now and then. A foggy day on the coast of Maine is the perfect backdrop to make and use time in whatever capacity suits the moment, be it with family, friends or all by one’s self.

And, if it were not for fog, there would be no lighthouses. I realize this statement is a stretch, but the lighthouse is one of the most enduring symbols of this state and certainly earns its keep on a foggy day. There are some 65 historic lighthouses standing, and together they span over 5,000 miles of coastline, inlets and islands. The oldest, Portland Head Light, began in 1787 under orders from John Hancock, then governor of Massachusetts. Construction of the light was completed in 1791, and with that came the designation of it being the first light under the federal government. President George Washington appointed its first keeper, Revolutionary War veteran, Joseph Greenleaf.

This lighthouse also happens to be the first lighthouse my wife and I saw on our first trip to Maine. Made famous in paint by Edward Hopper, in words by Longfellow and considered a photographic icon, it stands 80 feet above land and more than 100 feet above the water, its beam of light visible for 24 nautical miles. I have a 35-year-old photograph of this lighthouse taken the morning we first arrived to Maine in what would become the start of yearly vacations and visits for our family.

On that morning, it was close to 5 a.m. when we arrived to the lighthouse. This was after an all-night drive from Pennsylvania. We were headed to a campground just outside of Ellsworth, on the shore of Toddy Pond in Orland. The sun was just coming up as we pulled off the road. Welcomed by the morning light and the sound of crashing waves, fragments of fog floated by as we watched this beauty of stone and light do its job. Walking towards us was an old man dressed as if he walked straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog. He wore a heavy wool sweater, a plaid scarf, corduroy pants, well-worn duck boots and an Irish flat cap on his head; his face was old and experienced, and he smiled as a pipe clenched in his teeth panted puffs of fragrant smoke, which were lost quickly in the passing fog.

We exchanged greetings and talked about the weather, of course. The lighthouse in the background as it cast its beam through the early morning fog accompanied our conversation and then became the subject of our conversation. “They are a pair,” the gentleman said. “Nothing like a morning of fog, accompanied by the light from a magnificent building. Kind of husband and wife, if you will.” I nodded in agreement. But now, as I think back to that exchange, I believe they are more like mother and father, especially to those that make a living on the water.

Fog and lighthouses were made for each other. She, the fog, can arrive at anytime and subdue the situation, causing one to stop and think, contemplate the situation and, most importantly, soothe the soul before one reacts.

He, the lighthouse, stands tall even from a great distance, and with a steady, penetrating light, gives one a glimpse of possibility and imbues it with firm guidance, making one feel safe.

Why do I think this? Because I believe there is a light in all of us that is always seeking to become something, even through the foggiest of days. And I believe when we stand in sight of a lighthouse on a fog-shrouded day listening to the waves answer the fog horn, we are reminded of from where we came and, more importantly, the people who helped get us to this point in our lives. We stand on a shore of possibility, continuously threatened by outside forces, yet steadfast in our journey to be who we are, who we must be.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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