From Science Nerd to Community Activist in Downeast Maine

By Mark Brown

This is a story of how an introverted science nerd became a community activist with help from  environmental organizations and individuals around the State of Maine.

Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, I spent as much time as possible outside roaming the woods and fields teaching myself about nature.  I was especially fond of walking along stream banks and looking for the hidden insects in the water.  I enjoyed school and especially the science and math classes.  I was drawn to forestry as a future career.  Where to study forestry was an easy choice, so I came to Orono, Maine. My four years in Maine, and especially the three summers working in the northern forests, were my most formative.  I continued my studies in forestry, but with more and more emphasis on insects,  I earned a Master’s Degree in Forestry at the University of Idaho, followed by a second Master’s Degree in Ecology and a Ph.D. in Entomology at Pennsylvania State University.

My professional career as a research scientist started with a fellowship in forest ecology at Mississippi State University, and then came a permanent career with the U. S. Deptmartment of Agriculture researching natural methods of insect pest control.  Stationed in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia, I developed an ecosystem approach to managing apple and peach orchards.  This involved converting orchards into a more natural ecosystem by diversifying the plants in the system.  By mixing apples and peaches in the same orchard, adding flowering plants, applying compost mulch, and using ecologically sound insect control developed by other researchers, I was able to eliminate the need for toxic pesticides.  In the 1990s I led an international research effort in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania to develop this approach to orchard management and reduce the use of toxic chemicals.

After retiring, I taught freshman biology and graduate courses in ecosystem management at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and in 2014 I  moved to Marshfield, Maine, where I continued teaching as a volunteer at the Sunrise Senior College, where I taught various classes about insects and the climate crisis.

After a few years I began to feel that I needed to do more.  The removal of many environmental regulations by the Trump Administration and the increasing severity of the climate crisis in 2017 led me to action.  That spring I went to a rally in Augusta led by the Maine People’s Alliance, where I discovered 350 Maine, a grassroots movement dedicated to  climate justice. 350 is focused on action against the use of fossil fuels, and it seemed to be the best fit to my skills and interests, but their meetings were in Portland.  So, I decided that I needed to start my own “node” of 350 in the Machias area, 350 Downeast.  To learn more about community action I and Nancy Lewis, my wife and partner in 350 Downeast, attended a workshop in Bangor hosted by New England Grassroots Environment Fund.  It was at this meeting where we first heard about WindowDressers.  We discovered that in Washington County the biggest carbon footprint was from the use of heating oil and that increasing energy efficiency in houses through insulating window inserts would be a good model and project for us to adopt and meet our grassroots goals.

On Earth Day, 2018, 350 Downeast celebrated by inviting David Goodrich, a world-renowned climate scientist and author, as a speaker with a panel of local experts to discuss impacts of climate change on coastal Washington County.  That success energized our group, and we decided we were ready to undertake a 350 community window inserts project with WindowDressers.  It appeared to be a perfect match to work with WindowDressers, because both groups are dedicated to reducing fossil fuel use and developing a green local economy.  A key development leading to our successful workshop in the fall  was that the same week we contcted WD, the Machias Savings Bank also called them with interest in their program. The result of our collaboration with the bank and WindowDressers was credibility for 350 Downeast within the larger community, and the WindowDressers workshop provided us with key contacts with the Rotary Club, the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, and a town selectman

Machias was built on water power to run eight lumber mills and a grist mill along the river, allowing it to become the industrial hub of Downeast Maine, providing the power to drive the economy of the area in the 19th century. I can’t pass the river without imagining the large amount of unending power it has.. In June, 2019, while tabling at the Margaretta Days festival in Machias to recruit customers for our WD workshop, I spoke with Tim Murphy, a local electrician, and discovered we had both been thinking about the Machias River and its history.providing power   We decided that building a full-scale, historicaly accurate  reproduction water wheel in the Bad Little Falls Park, where Route 1 crosses the river, could provide electricity to light the town park and also be an historical landmark to the culture that built the town.

At the Islesboro Energy Conference in September, 2019, which I found out about from Toby Martin at a meeting of WindowDressers Local Coordinators, I met Dr. Sharon Klein, who is also on the WindowDressers Board of Directors.  As an ecologist I realized that I know nothing about the engineering involved in building a water wheel and the regulations involved.   I contacted Dr. Klein to ask if her Sustainable Economics and Policy class at the University of Maine, Orono, could use the water wheel idea as a service learning project in the spring of 2020.  Two groups of her students volunteered to help me research issues related to installuing a wa ter wheel in the Machias River. She agreed they could, and they they are looking into regulatory requirements and mitigation requirements that may be needed to protect migrating fish, particularly eels and potentially salmon.

With connections to other groups and individuals, it is amazing what can be accomplished.  We at 350 Downeast are looking forward to further advances with renewable energy through additional connections with the National Resources Council of Maine and the Downeast Wind Farm as well as mqny other fine folks throughout the state.