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The intangible cultural heritage that is Maine

Reading Maine, the magazine the other day we were struck by an interview with Portland chef Masa Miyake who described a style of his cooking as washoku, a Japanese tradition recognized as what UNESCO defines as “intangible cultural heritage.”

Though the U.S. does not subscribe to the UNESCO convention, such a concept immediately made us think of the things that make Maine the place it is, the place millions of visitors come to experience. We’d describe Maine’s “intangible cultural heritage” as the authentic elements, the “lobsters and lighthouses” that are our cultural icons.

The funny lists of “what makes Maine odd” – our Down East humor, the enormous size of Aroostook County (bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined) – are nothing compared, for example, to 12,000 years of Wabanaki culture in “the dawnland” (including our own woodland path at Spruce Point Inn where people have connected forest and ocean for millennia). Or the life of the lobsterman or the commercial fishing fleet engaged in eternal struggle with the icy Atlantic. Intangible cultural heritage means wrestling gardens from granite and the taste of the first spring greens after a snowbound winter (a heritage that is sustained by the farmers on whom Chef Fain depends for our field to table inspiration).

Maine artists, from Monhegan Art Colony painters like Kevin Beers, to photographer David Marx, to the Wyeths, harness the light of the dawnland and the plainspoke, elemental truth of rural living that is Maine. The voices, an urgent crowd of Down East, urbane Yankee, Mi’kmaq and French Canadian speak above the sound of waves and wind in the spruces.

Farthest east of the states, Maine looks farther east with the sunrise, yearns west with each sunset and finally turns inward to home and hearth and to the murmur of centuries lining the shelves with poets, birdsingers and diplomats. What is it that brings the sailor, the farmer, the fisherman, the guide and the lumberjack within the invisible tent that stretches from New Hampshire to the sea? The intangible, the culture and the heritage – “the way life should be,” or not — that could only be the place we share called “Maine.”