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Harvesting Ice and Discovering the Forgotten

Deep in the New Hampshire woods, though not too deep because it's a quick turn off Highway 16, there's a small cottage with a handful of comfortable and functional rooms, one of which includes a wooden bookcase filled with books visitors leave behind.

On this bookshelf a couple of summers back, I discovered a 1950 first edition of "Maine Doings" by Robert P. Tristram Coffin. The name meant nothing to me, but I have a soft spot for old books and appreciated that Coffin also sketched the "decorations" for this one. These short stories about life in Maine during the early 20th century struck me immediately. The wry and dry humor reminded me of my grandfather. The glimpse into an old way of life (some of which is still recognized) fascinated me, like post cards sent from earlier generations.

From the inside jacket cover: "Maine Doings! The words have the tang of salt, of frost-flavored apples, of men with starch in their backbones and hearty appetites. They have the ring of Robert P. Tristram Coffin's earthy prose."

And what fine prose Coffin created. He also enjoyed tremendous success as a poet, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the 1930s, and his writing blends poetic style with his down-home storytelling. Coffin was a contemporary of "Rob" Frost's, apparently one of the few writers (maybe the only) the notoriously jealous Frost considered a friend. I heard that interesting tidbit in this enlightening podcast from Kevin Belmonte and the Maine Humanities Council.

The two Robs translated the New England countryside and spirit into poems and essays, some with more fanfare than others. And while Frost can be found on nearly every school's and college's reading list today, Coffin's work has faded into obscurity.

I searched AbeBooks, a favorite online marketplace for used and antique books, and picked up various copies of Coffin's work - the first edition of Maine Doings; Coast Calendar; and Christmas in Maine, which is a magazine article/essay turned into a small hardcover book.

I'm fascinated by what makes certain authors popular in their day and what makes their work relevant through generations, or why they're forgotten. Coffin's storytelling and word-paintings always satisfy.

One of my favorite Coffin essays is "The Harvest of Diamonds," a colloquial account of Maine's ice harvesting season. Talk about a bygone era and a textured element of life largely lost.

I thought of Coffin and the ice harvest a week or so ago when I read a contemporary account of ice harvesting in an Associated Press story. The piece focuses on a camp in New Hampshire where iceboxes are used in the summer instead of refrigerators. And I'm talking legitimate iceboxes, not just a synonym that I grew up hearing from my Southern and Midwestern elders - hence, the need for harvesting ice here in February and storing it for the summer.

The video is fantastic, too. Check out the craftsmanship in that original icebox!

I love taking these trips of nostalgia. Between Coffin's writing and the story about a day of ice harvesting on the lake, I feel like I should run up a pot of pig's feet and some mince pies.

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