Bill Clark described himself as “a country boy with country leanings.” He authored 8 books and wrote a weekly newspaper column for the Gannett newspapers for 30 years on patriotism, farms, forests, rural towns, local characters, and the hills of Maine.
Bill was conservative. He disdained environmentalists, believing their drive to preserve land worked against logging, hunting, fishing, and other traditional activities. He detested bureaucrats, but used humor, rather than harshness, in his criticisms. And he inspired many of us to write letters to the editor, and more.
I received a thank you card from Bill once, for a letter to the editor I’d written. “Most persons who enjoy (my column) write to me. Those who condemn write to editors. I appreciate your being the exception,” he said.
His note ended this way: “I feel that you are taking quite a chance if that letter is printed. I think most of your neighbors around Mt. Vernon are left-wing intellectuals who may burn your house down. If that happens, come to Caratunk and I will build you another one.”
Bill ended that note, “blessings, Bill.” Bill was the real blessing.
In his final book, The Hills of Maine, which he was compiling when he died in 1988, Bill captured his Maine, a Maine that in some respects disappeared about the time his newspaper column ended. William M. Clark was born in Caratunk in 1913, graduated from Colby College, served proudly in the military and put together a typical Maine work history: teacher, restaurateur, logger, sawmill operator, electrician, bulldozer driver, and, finally, writer of newspaper columns and books.
Four of Bill’s books are about a fictional town called Cedar River, populated with characters so vivid that some believed them to be real. “It may be the mingling of men and the wild things along with the vague lines which separate the natural from the semi-controlled that has kept Cedar River people from conforming to the patterned lives of the down river world,” he wrote.
Ever since I read those words, I’ve wanted to live in Cedar River. Mount Vernon is as close as I could come – and it’s pretty darned close!
On the cover of the third Cedar River novel is the best promotional paragraph ever written: “This book is a product of probing. Its pages reflect the upriver people of Maine, not an imaginary bunch of characterized clowns but a living group of men who have chosen independence of thought over the promise of riches… We give you Cedar River, Maine, the only town ever able to salvage two thousand pounds of meat from an eight-hundred pound moose. The formula for this is not for sale!”
Bill also published a book of his newspaper columns written between 1957 and 1967. Reading those columns today is a real treat. Bill could get to the point quickly. A Memorial Day column began, “They died for you. I saw them die.” Nothing more needed to be said.
His career was actually launched by a 1956 letter to the newspaper criticizing, “the stupidities of thoughtless woodcutting.” Recognizing his unique voice, the paper quickly signed him up for a regular column that became “Some Logrolling.”
I’ve read Bill’s columns and books so many times and quoted him so often that some of his passages are stuck in my memory. A favorite is his description of one of his teachers, Mrs. Kelly. “She could pound facts into heads through any openings she chose. If the normal openings were particularly tough, she opened a gash or two and worked on that.”
But it was Bill’s reverence for the land that continues to grab me today. Here’s a passage from a column titled, “True Heritage.”
“He said, ‘When I was a boy, even then, people were talking about worn out land. But they didn’t know anything much to do for it except move away. Farmers know better now, and that’s good. A man ought to do something for the land when the land has done so much for him.”
“I remember him saying that and he said it with all the sincerity that a man could say anything. And I agree with him. If I ever had time enough and money to use, I’d take another piece of land and do what I tried to do with the hill farm, except I’d finish the job. I’d put it right back where it originally was. Because the land is the only true heritage there is.”
In “The Presence of the Past,” Bill wrote that, instead of the deep woods, he “would rather walk the acres where men lived and used the land for pasture or for field crops long ago… It is the finding of the old foundations and the tracing of the once plain barnyard borders that I enjoy. Wherever men worked, they left something.”
“When a man walks through a region like that, he can feel the presence of his predecessors,” wrote Bill. “On all the old lands, there are lessons. They are the marks men made, the intimacies of an era. They should not be lost.”
Neither should this priceless collection of wisdom, nor the memory of the man who provided it.