For almost five years, I edited the letters-to-the-editor section of the Bangor Daily News, and before that, I did the same as editor of The (Belfast) Republican Journal. At its best, the letters column is a lively place where readers can get straight to the point with a sharply worded opinion. The letters column also can devolve into something like direct-mail marketing for the one-issue people in a community.

At the BDN, we had a 60-day rule; if your letter got printed, you couldn’t have another one for 60 days. Some of my regulars would send me their next missive with the date of their last published piece and the number of days it had been since, just in case I couldn’t do the math (which, admittedly, was a possibility). And they would pick up exactly where the last letter left off, pounding the same hammer.

Letters to the editor also can provide a bullhorn for those who are just plain ornery, which is why I have no use for newspapers that print the “name withheld upon request” screeds.

Here at the Island Institute, we receive a fair sampling of newspapers from along the coast, and I always linger over the letters sections. There are the usual “I support John Law for sheriff” and “We need to fix the sidewalks in front of my house” letters. But there also are those that wave a bit of local color for the out-of-town reader, letters that reveal a bit of a community’s warts and scars.

The Quoddy Tides of Eastport is a spunky little paper that reflects that community’s gritty and salty soul. Eastport is a town that seems to float at the end of a fraying rope off the American coast, maybe on the verge of spinning off into those wild tides. It’s a phenomenally beautiful place, and people there are working hard to keep it economically vibrant. You can’t eat the scenery, as they say, but you can sell access to it. Washington County, like much of Maine, needs an influx of people to achieve a critical mass.

And this is why a letter in the May 9 Quoddy Tides broke my heart a little. “Lonesome And Leaving Downeast Maine,” it was titled, and the writers recounted packing their belongings into a rental truck and heading from Pembroke (just outside Eastport) to Florida.

Nineteen months earlier, the couple wrote, they had taken early retirement and moved to Maine. “We were like little children on a grand adventure. We couldn’t be happier,” they wrote.

But the happiness ended.

“We read article on top of article about how Maine is trying to lure newcomers,” the couple wrote, but “we didn’t find that to be true at all. Not once did our neighbors ever welcome us. We remained pretty lonely and isolated for many, many months.”
The couple makes a few exceptions, but they end with this: “If you don’t change your ways, just a little bit, your state is going to end up in financial ruin.”

Visitors from the South often remark on Mainers’ stand-offish demeanor. Having lived here 30-plus years, I guess I’ve internalized that to a degree. We like our privacy, and expect that others want the same. In fact, there probably are plenty of people who live in Washington County because they cherish the space it gives them.

But the couple makes an important point. We don’t need to bang on the door every Saturday morning, asking, “Whatcha up to, neighbor?!” But community leaders might work with local real estate agents and connect newcomers with the many social networks that exist in these towns.

Two weeks later, the Quoddy Tides featured a letter from a long-time Pembroke resident, responding: “Maybe we should all be quicker about dropping by and welcoming new people to the area. A few muffins or cookies can go a long way toward making a person feel at home,” she wrote.

But this letter writer also notes that “sitting and waiting for these good things to happen may not always work.” She recommends joining in with community activities.

“Again, I am sorry we let down [the couple],” she writes. “I still remember how excited they were while waiting for the first snow.” (Of course, given the winter we just endured, maybe that was part of the problem.)

Yet another letter writer in the same edition wrote about retiring (as a teacher) to the area four years ago, and encountering “PFAism, the bias against ‘people from away.'” Her offers to volunteer as a speaker have been ignored. “There is a saying,” she wrote, “‘love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.'”

And one more letter from the Quoddy Tides also deserves mention. The writer, an Eastport native living in Texas, was home visiting family.

“Standing in front of Newberry’s I was almost run over by a young girl on roller skates. ‘Tourist,’ she sneered. ‘I am not,’ I bellowed after her. I was wild! ‘Yeah, you are,’ she shot back. Then I remembered how I felt as a child when tourists came to town. They had nice clothes and good haircuts, nice new cars and tans. Living way up here in the corner of the world, I suspected that their lives were charmed, and, yes, I resented them.”

The letters give voice to forces and attitudes Downeast Maine must understand, and with which it must make its peace. Tourism is a source of economic activity, and the region should milk every dollar it can from visitors. Some of those visitors will become seasonal or year-round residents and spend even more money, and if they do, the education, skills and experiences they bring should be embraced and harnessed.

If the letters column is any indication, Eastport and the surrounding region are not suffering that indifference. They’re not exactly love letters, but the passion in those words give us hope for a bright future.

Oh, and please send us your letters to the editor, quirky, cranky and otherwise.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront and the Island Institute’s annual publication, Island Journal. He can be reached at: