E.B. WHITE HOUSE

words + photography TODD R. NELSON

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It was just the perfect Maine spring day, though buds were barely showing and leaves still weeks away. It augured spring. The light was ideal for a trip down to E.B. White’s farm in Brooklin. It was a busy place. Lots of caretaker and tradesmen’s trucks were parked by the house and outbuildings and the No Trespassing signs posted at the driveway entrance. Nonetheless, Mr. White would have been pleased by the sounds of a rooster, the beehives in the garden, the pruning ladder and saw leaned against an orchard tree. The pussy willows were in velvet. One imagines it like this—just as he left it, aside from the huge array of solar panels. But then they too might elicit a comment for Talk of the Town about the new owners of the White place, electricity from the sun, the same power source as bees and the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Or something like that.
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Brooklin has one of my favorite municipal signs: “Welcome to Brooklin, boat building capital of the world.” The town also still has Roger Angell (E.B.’s stepson, age 100, his centennial celebrated last summer by the whole town and a visit from the governor), and his grandson, Steve, who runs Brooklin Boatyard. And plenty of potholes, kempt and unkempt classic Maine coastal farms and cottages, and that Mainer sense of having endured another winter. This one was a piece of cake. But we shouldn’t get cocky about being over it. E.B. wouldn’t.


iused to drive 30 rural miles a day to my job as an editor. The route took me past farms, forests and blueberry barrens; past saltwater coves and salt pond inlets.

The trip was never the same two days in a row, as some feature of the landscape had always been altered overnight or some new feature had emerged for scrutiny: A pothole had been filled, a tree felled, or an osprey would come winging over the road with an alewife at the exact moment I rounded the corner.

But there was one landmark I eagerly anticipated for the fact that it looked the same every day, and has for many years: the 40-acre saltwater farm on Allen Cove on Blue Hill Bay. This is where E.B. White, having “evacuated the city house” in New York, led his family “like a daft piper.”

It’s for sale again, awaiting only the second owner since the celebrated writer and editor departed the residence. And it looks pretty much just as he left it.

Here the Whites lived with Fred, the dachshund with a “dainty grimace,” and Joel, their boat-struck son. An aspiring farmer, White kept chickens, geese, pigs and a cow. He parented baby robins and, presumably, became acquainted with the large gray spider that came to be known as Charlotte in his beloved novel Charlotte’s Web. White had an aunt named Charlotte who once told him: “Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.” I’d like to think that I have shared the rural view behind those words.

As I rumbled by the White place, the cedar hedge, like a crenellation fortifying the front yard, allowed a few glimpses of the orchard, the flower and vegetable gardens and the central structures: the white 11-room Federal-style farmhouse and the surrounding sheds and barns. They remain in perfect trim, looking exactly as they did in the photos that show E.B. White conversing with his geese or crossing to the chicken coop in mid-winter, as he went about the day’s chores.

To use one of White’s own phrases to describe revisiting an old haunt, it seems to me as if “there had been no years.”

Allen Cove is where White moored his beloved sloop, Martha. Built in the boatyard Joel would establish nearby in Brooklin, Martha was a boat without amenities, not even a depth finder. “I plan to find my depth by listening to the sound the centerboard makes as it glides over the ledges,” he wrote.

Some years he hemmed and hawed about whether to put Martha in the water at all, but he seemed to feel that, regardless of his growing tentativeness about sailing single-handedly, the boat needed to be launched as a sign of hope or aspiration, if not concrete intention.

It takes but seconds to drive past the White farm, but it allowed enough of an observation to serve as my daily editorial fillip. I arrive at my writing desk a few miles south of the farm, ready to check my email and go to work with my PowerBook. (Just imagine the fun White would have had with the term “PowerBook.”)

I feel catechized by his first commandment of usage in his iconic writing guide The Elements of Style: “Form the possessive singular by adding ’s.” I have come to hear a spare, Downeast beauty in that phrase, like a whiff of salt air.

There among the farm buildings is the shed in which White sat and thought and pecked out squibs and essays for The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. Photographer Jill Krementz captured him in this shed. In her black-and-white portrait, he sits at a bare wooden table, backed by rough boards, framed by a view to the cove beyond—one man and his typewriter, facing down the blank page, composing sentences that, no doubt, “omit needless words.”

The image reminds me of the only essential tools of the trade: the urge to say something true, solitude, lack of distraction and the means to record words, no doubt working “from a suitable design.” He said: “The whole problem is to establish communications with one’s self,” which hints at the contemplative coves he sailed, above and beyond fussing with comma splices tangling the halyard of the sentence.

In his writing shed, White felt he was a “wilder” and “healthier” man. The shed is about the size of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, the New England naturalist being White’s greatest writerly muse and intellectual mentor.

“What seemed so wrong to Thoreau,” White wrote, “was man’s puny spirit and man’s strained relationship with nature.” He urged the Thoreauvian tactic of taking time to “observe and feel.” On the Maine farm, White found himself “suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens ... a time of enchantment.”

And so I checked in on the White homestead, much as White checked in on Thoreau, and I am reminded of the comments White wrote to introduce a new edition of Walden, with photographs by the naturalist Edwin Way Teale. In the book, he said, readers can “hear one naturalist speaking to another across a hundred years.”

It’s a pretty good dose of inspiration from a modest bend in the road. The remembrance was indeed sufficient to make me see, feel and listen with new-old senses. And I’d pay the asking price for that writing shed alone. Throw in the barn where Charlotte lived and you’ve got a deal.

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