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Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, Maine


Welcome to a small but significant corner of one of my favorite places in Maine, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.


A small corner, because the bits and pieces of the refuge's 14-plus square miles are spread along more than fifty miles of Maine Coast, taking in a wide variety of environments. 


At first glance, the refuge seems calm and unexciting, and you can enjoy it that way if you wish, quietly observing, with no carousels or candy stands to distract.


But wildlife refuges aren't just what you see; they are active environments whose real purpose is about themselves, rather than about us. At Rachel Carson's various sites, there are beaches, tidal salt marshes, dunes, uplands and more.


It's home to a wide variety of plants and animals; for the endangered piping plover, it's a key nesting place. The various areas of the refuge are not just samples to be observed, they are the living environment and protections for its future.

IMG_2552IMG_2547IMG_2567The bridge between the two functions, between the environment and the humans, is the excellent documentation and marked trails through the space, answering questions, indeed telling us sometimes what questions need to be asked: Why do the different areas differ in vegetation? How do the tides affect the upland areas? Why are some fungi round and flat while others grow tall pipes?


Even when shapes are similar, the colors vary widely.


IMG_2563It's also where we unlearn things we thought we knew; the Indian pipes, which I was always sure were fungi, turn out to be a flowering plant, called 'ghost flower' by some, that lacks chlorophyll, and therefore can't obtain energy from sunlight. It solves that problem by living as a parasite on nearby fungi. 

Large areas of ferns, ancient survivors, remind us that this is not a fixed condition, but one that has evolved over time, and is still changing. A refuge preserves not only what we see, but its potential for natural change.IMG_2578IMG_2543

For me, visiting a wildlife refuge is quite different from visiting a botanical garden; in a way, botanical gardens emphasize the beauty of the plants, and our relationship to them, but a refuge shows deeper relationships among species and kingdoms, and reminds us of how much can change when any part changes.


That emphasis on interrelationships especially makes this refuge's name appropriate; its was created in 1966, only four years after Carson's pioneering book Silent Spring alerted the world to the effect of widespread pesticide use on songbirds, and through them on insects, humans and more. She had already spent years studying the environment in southern Maine; her first major work, The Edge of the Sea, focused on life in the area's tide pools.


The refuge has continued to grow since I took these photos in 2008; new areas have been added at both the northern and southern ends, and the eleven divisions stretch from Kittery in the south to Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland. 


These pictures, and the most visitable areas are around the Refuge's headquarters near Wells, Maine. The entrance is on Route 9, near exit 19 on Route I-95. 



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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