Reading Robert McCloskey’s Maine Trilogy as an Antidote to Climate Change Despair
“I once again reach for these stories, and remember that we exist in a chain of forces that must be—and can be—respected.”
In 1948, Viking Books published Blueberries for Sal, the first of three picture books that Robert McCloskey would write and illustrate over the next decade. Each of the three books—including One Morning in Maine (1952) and Time of Wonder (1957)—concerns McCloskey’s own family as they spend their summers on an island off the coast of Maine.
In Blueberries for Sal, Little Sal (a girl of about four) and her mother visit Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries, her mother planning to preserve their haul for the winter. It isn’t long, though, before Sal, too distracted eating berries to put any in her pail, is separated from her mother, and must search through the bushes for her. Unbeknownst to Little Sal, a cub named Little Bear has come to Blueberry Hill that day with his own mother, this pair planning to eat berries in preparation for hibernation, and has become separated as well. Ultimately, Little Bear encounters Little Sal’s mother while Little Sal simultaneously runs into Little Bear’s mother. Both mothers lock eyes with children of an alternate species, share a moment of understanding, and back away warily.
As we all know, a child coming between a mother bear and her cub would likely not receive as kind a fate as Little Sal, but the moment illustrates a consistent theme in McCloskey’s loose trilogy concerning everyday life in midcentury Maine: you are in a relationship with the natural world, an awesome force over which you have little, if any, control. But if you respect the power of that force, it will respect you, and even open up avenues for new ways of thinking and of being.Reading—and gazing upon—his work, you would have no idea of the tumultuous times he lived through.
With his Maine trilogy (a term which, in fairness, does exclude McCloskey’s fourth Maine book, Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man, in which his family plays no part) having been written during the Cold War, McCloskey labored under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. But reading—and gazing upon—his work, you would have no idea of the tumultuous times he lived through. As Gary D. Schmidt wrote in his book on McCloskey, “[his] strength was his ability to deny the primacy of a world that chose to war with itself.” With human culture so defined by “folly and violence and threatened destruction,” Schmidt wrote, McCloskey produced “[a vision of] absolute affirmation of the permanence and beauty and significance of the world.”
If McCloskey chose to address reality while eliding the specificities of his era, he passed that specificity on to the world of Sal and her sister, Jane, introduced in One Morning in Maine as a toddler. With Jane following behind, Sal discovers that she has her first loose tooth, initiating a story that might be called a celebration of mundanity—the book offers neither more nor less than its title. But it might be more appropriate to say that One Morning in Maine elevates the mundane to the extraordinary by filtering it through a child’s viewpoint. A simple walk from the house down to the beach—where McCloskey himself, identified only as “Sal’s father,” is digging clams—becomes an odyssey of encounters between the child and her environment. Seeing the world through a new lens—that of the “big girl” she’s become by virtue of her loose tooth—Sal finds herself curious about the biology of birds, and getting friendly with an inquisitive seal. McCloskey’s plainspoken yet lush pencil illustrations provide a view of the world that rarely privileges the human over their surroundings—the house is as much a part of the forest as the trees, while Sal communes with the fauna that surrounds her.
One Morning in Maine is hardly a timeless book; it climaxes with a trip across the bay to Buck’s Harbor, a community that’s rendered with painstaking era-specific detail, from clothing to gas station signs. It’s with scenes like the Buck’s Harbor outing that McCloskey earns the distinction suggested by children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus: “[He] was to the mid-twentieth-century American picture book what Norman Rockwell was to the illustrated magazine of that era: the artist most adept at divining the mythic dimension in the dramas of everyday life.” If Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, and Time of Wonder are locked into their time and place, they also possess a classical feeling (as Gary D. Schmidt has pointed out, the opening words “One morning in Maine” have the same incantatory quality as “Once upon a time”). The modern world has its role, McCloskey seems to say. But more important is the purity of our relationship with nature.
Perceiving this division between modernity and the natural world is no longer a privilege we can afford. From a vantage point more than half a century removed from McCloskey’s, the notion might seem quaint. After years of worsening climate disasters, how can we look to nature for our spiritual rejuvenation? Doesn’t each wildfire, landslide, and flood serve as a reminder that we’ve broken some sacred bond with the earth itself? They’re difficult and painful questions. But what if McCloskey’s books could offer a potential response?
McCloskey’s plainspoken yet lush pencil illustrations provide a view of the world that rarely privileges the human over their surroundings.
Time of Wonder is McCloskey’s masterwork. As depicted in impressionistic watercolors that took three years to complete, Sal and Jane (now evidently a young teenager and an adolescent, respectively) explore their island, and McCloskey tells no story except that of our relationship to nature and time. In the 2014 documentary Robert McCloskey: The Life for Me, Leonard S. Marcus described the book’s language as “rhapsodic,” and went on to place it in “the great tradition of American nature writing [alongside] Thoreau.”
The book pays attention to the minute occurrences of the natural world, from an encroaching rainshower to a lifting mist, from fiddleheads unfurling in the morning to crabs scuttling beneath a nighttime row. McCloskey now narrates in a gentle second person, guiding his daughters through their world and accompanying them on their discoveries. “The forest is so quiet that you can hear an insect boring a tunnel deep inside a log,” he tells them. A few pages later, he places them in the infinite flow of time, pointing out that the rock they play on “was fiery hot when the world was new [and] icy cold when a glacier covered it with grinding weight.” Time of Wonder weaves its spell by virtue of its location somewhere between the microscopic and the cosmic.
But if Time of Wonder does have a story, it’s that of a hurricane that pummels the Maine coast, saving particular ferocity for Sal and Jane’s island. The McCloskeys batten down the hatches with board games and singalongs, but it’s no use—the storm makes its way inside, and only by the grace of some higher power can Sal and Jane still climb the stairs to bed once the violence has abated. Even as the family and their community make preparations for the weather, it’s obvious that there’s only so much they can do. Their best option is to fasten some things down, bring other things in, and then just hope you’re spared the worst of it, all the while knowing that others won’t be so lucky, and that your luck might one day run out, too.
It seems like we get more storms than we used to in my neighborhood on the south shore of Boston. My wife and I watch the trees as the wind starts to blow, wondering which gust might cost us the house. The air has been hazy this summer, too, a consequence of the Canadian wildfires. Climate change is coming to my door, and it seems like it’s only going to get worse. So what can I do when I feel powerless against the forces of modernity and its destructive grip on the world around us? I fall back upon what I always do: my favorite stories. And when I read Time of Wonder to my children, I savor the last few pages. The destruction has been wrought, and now Sal and Jane can emerge into the wreckage and try to make sense of this unfamiliar landscape. As it turns out, they discover new opportunities for awe. The tree has fallen, but now they can examine the roots. The sunflowers were flattened, but they’re showing signs of resilience already. And so the girls get to work—there’s a lot to be done.
The modern world has its role, McCloskey seems to say. But more important is the purity of our relationship with nature.
This time following the hurricane is, in McCloskey’s words, “a time of quiet wonder.” That last word seems to be used less in a dazzled sense than a curious one: “wondering, for instance,” McCloskey elaborates, “where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?” Their world has been ravaged, and now, Sal and Jane must wonder what to do next. As they help restore the sunflowers to health, I can’t help my own wondering: for what else might there still be time?
With Time of Wonder, McCloskey became the first author to win two Caldecott medals (his first having been won for 1941’s Make Way for Ducklings), and his acceptance speech was exceptionally raw: “one is hardly likely to find an angrier speech” in any Caldecott ceremony, as Gary D. Schmidt wrote. McCloskey’s grievance was with our inability to “really see and evaluate [our] surroundings.” Specifically, he believed we had turned our backs on elegant design, which “[has] its roots and inspiration in nature,” favoring instead the “repetition [and] rhythm” of a mechanized existence. In his book Making Americans: Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960, Schmidt wrote that with the gentle social satire found in some of McCloskey’s early books (notably his first picture book, 1940’s Lentil, and the junior novels Homer Price and Centerburg Tales, all set in his native Ohio), we find a demonstration of our real existential threat: “not the atomic bomb,” in Schmidt’s words, “but tendencies in the American character itself.”
Maybe McCloskey was prescient; nuclear annihilation has—as yet—been prevented, while the capitalist maw of the American character has hastened the decline of our environment. Anytime I see and evaluate my cultural surroundings too closely, I become disturbed in a way to which McCloskey’s output serves as an antidote—and, as implied by his Caldecott speech, likely a purposeful one.
At the close of McCloskey’s Maine trilogy, Sal and Jane leave the island. Another summer is ending; human life is destined to interfere with the children’s communion with nature. “Time to reset the clock,” McCloskey writes, “from the rise and fall of the tide, to the come and go of the school bus.” As the girls step off the boat and onto the shore—unseen by the reader, who stays behind watching the family recede—the human world they reenter would be bracing for the United States and Soviet Union’s dueling development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, initiating the leadup to the Cuban Missile Crisis. McCloskey’s trilogy was a rebuttal to this sort of news. But can these books still function this way today, when the threats we face seem so existential, and so tied to nature itself?
Time of Wonder ends on a note of pain. Naturally, Sal and Jane are disappointed to be leaving their island. But McCloskey follows it with a converse note of hope: the girls are also excited for what the future has in store. My kids are excited, too; they tell me often how they can’t wait to spend their lives exploring this boundless world and its infinite future. How am I to respond when these comments fill me with sorrow and dread? Do I tell them it’s too late?
These aren’t easy questions, and finding their solutions will be all the more difficult—very likely, I sometimes worry, even impossible. For want of anything better to do in the immediate sense, though, I once again reach for these stories, and remember that we exist in a chain of forces that must be—and can be—respected. This wasn’t a message Robert McCloskey preached, nor even stated outright. But it thrums beneath the surface of Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, and Time of Wonder. The bear could easily tear you limb from limb. But look that awesome force in the eye without malice or greed, and you stand a chance of winding up safe at home with one of the best things in life: a whole pail of blueberries and three more besides.