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Irreverence for Electricity

Summer 1991

It was seven o'clock on a Thursday, the regular crowd shuffling in...

These hearings on Applied Energy Services' proposed coal-fired electric power plant in Bucksport, Maine, were getting to be a recurring event on the calendar. The company officials, in their business suits and ties, seemed genuinely confused by the persistent huge turnout of people opposed to the project so dear to the corporate hearts and pocketbooks. What was the problem with all these people, they asked?

After all, AES was going to be doing a useful thing here. Electricity is important, they must have thought to themselves. And we're going to make it. So we're important. Couldn't all these back-woods, ill-educated rural people understand that we intend to bring them into the 20th century?

I can't remember which hearing it was, but I had been waiting for it, listening closely for one of the dour faces in the business suits to say a certain phrase. And sure enough, one of them finally did.

''...You all use electricity....'' he proclaimed in exasperation, to the unmoving and unmoved crowd.

I had to smile.

I had heard an electric company person say that once before, about 15 years ago, in the kitchen of Helen and Scott Nearing, on the tip of Cape Rosier in Harborside, about 25 miles south of Bucksport. The Nearings were the gurus of the Back-to-the-Land movement in Maine in the early 1970s, and had sold small tracts of their own land to about a half-dozen people who then proceeded to break ground and homestead in the simplest of styles on those few rugged acres.

I was one of the homesteaders and, how-to book in hand, had helped saw down trees, hew timbers square, and construct a post-and-beam house in the woods with my then-husband. We broke the stony ground for a garden with a pick-ax three inches at a time. We hauled water from the brook until we rigged up a gravity-fed system from the stream. Raised on central heating in suburban Ohio, we familiarized ourselves with the tricky workings of a wood-burning stove, and discovered the joys of cooking with wood. We tried to get used to the kerosene lamps. We hauled in seaweed and leaves to build up the garden. We dug a hole for the outhouse. We tested our mettle at providing for ourselves with as few links – umbilical cords we called them – to the outside world as we could muster.

About that time Central Maine Power Company bought an option on a large tract of land with deep-water frontage on Penobscot Bay – bordering the land of the Nearings and their industrious new neighbors.

Helen Nearing, being the most straight-forward person in the group, kindly asked a power company representative down to meet the neighbors, to explain his company's plans to build a nuclear power plant on the site.

Piece of cake, I'm sure the poor man thought. He ate his carrot cookies and drank his herbal tea, then was formally introduced by Helen as we all shuffled our chairs into position to give him a proper audience.

Almost the first words out of his mouth were ''...Of course you all use electricity.''

We looked at each other, looked at him, smiled back at the power company person, and collectively shook our heads in the negative. The electric line on Cape Rosier at that point in time ended at the Nearings (it had been extended to the farm just before Helen and Scott bought the property), and we all lived beyond the last pole.

The panic on the CMP rep's face was for all the world that of an explorer who had stumbled across a flesh-eating cult – and who suddenly realized we were all between him and the door. Not to worry, he was in a room full of vegetarians. But it was nice to see that healthy color in his office-whitened cheeks.

Chances are that same smile was on my face last month in the Bucksport high school gymnasium. The same confused look was certainly on theirs. But I was across the room, and couldn't explain to them what was so funny.

I, of course, was not the only one in that crowd with my kind of a background. I was not alone at having gone through electrical withdrawal, and in realizing I could live without it. Electricity was one of those umbilical cords.

Yes, I now use electricity. I am typing this on a computer. I have gone all the way from washing cloth diapers in hand-hauled, wood-burning-stove-heated water to installing a dishwasher in my kitchen. But I know, as hundreds of the angry people in that gymnasium know, that electricity is a convenience, not a necessity.

Twenty years ago, the influx of young people, young homesteaders, into Maine was enough to hit the state demographic charts. Add to those numbers, the ''natives'' who have un-electrified ''camps'' in the woods, and old homesteads with minimal metal-sheathed wiring, and you have a large contingency of the population who knows how to do without that magic energy – and who, with the severity of the Maine winters, have learned to put that knowledge to good use when the lines are down for three days at a stretch.

AES was making the same mistaken assumption that the CMP public relations person had 15 years ago. Given our collective irreverence for electricity, it needed first to convince us that ANY power plant was necessary before it could convince us that a dirty, smoky, noisy coal-fired plant was the way to go.

AES didn't succeed. The Bucksport Planning Board denied its application for a building permit.

And CMP? It let its option on the Cape Rosier tract expire after it got a heap of resistance from property owners (natives, not hippies) about easements for high-tension power lines across their property. The land changed hands and is now being sold in large chunks as sites for multi-million-dollar estates.

AES says it will be back, to try again in Bucksport.

So will I, to watch it try.

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