On Capturing Remarkable Stories in Downeast Maine

On the surface, there is nothing particularly unique about the interview process. One person asks questions; the other answers. It is an age-old way of collecting stories.

But when you bring a recorder into the process, the dynamic changes. It can be subtle, a shift in emphasis, an awareness of the technology, perhaps even awkward silences. A recorder can trigger self-consciousness because it signals to the interviewee that what they have to say is important.

What amazes me most when I conduct oral histories is that interviewees almost never see themselves as having something important to say. They see themselves as just regular people who live their lives as best they can, unremarkably.

Lately, I have had the great joy of interviewing lobstermen, former cod fishermen, fish processors, restaurant owners, boat builders, and their family members. Here in Downeast Maine, these are indeed regular folks going about their everyday lives and everyday work.

And each one has something important to say.

Their thoughts, their daily experiences, their memories, their values… these are stories that make up a place. Lately, the stories have included how a lobstering family protected their wharf for the next generation; how fishing for cod and pollock in the 1980’s was a family affair; how hooking bait on tub trawls in the 1940’s was a job for the kids; how today’s alewife harvesters protect the streams, to protect the alewives, to bring back the cod.

These are remarkable stories told by remarkable people. These are the stories of Downeast Maine.

My heart sank recently when I learned of the passing of a highliner in my town. He and his groundfishing buddies, many getting on in years, hold the stories of a passing era for our region. It is critical to capture these stories before they slip away. No one Downeast fishes for cod anymore. What just a few decades ago was a commonplace experience shared by everyday people is, today, unbelievably remarkable.

So, try not to freeze when I pull out the recorder. You have remarkable stories to tell. We all do. And we want to capture them.

Photo: Groundfish drying on flakes, Parker’s Wharf in Southwest Harbor, 1891. US Fish Commission Photo 6791 from the NOAA Photo Library, courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce.