What the World Needs Now
Image: Volunteer Cliff Babkirk from Sanford pops in a custom-made window insert at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm’s Visitor Center.
My family and I were some of the last visitors to wander through the Willowbrook Museum in Newfield before it permanently closed last fall. As we perused the houses, barns, and sheds filled with furniture and tools from the 19th century, I felt the vast landscape of time lying between then and now.
Starting at the blacksmith’s forge, and proceeding through exhibits that included mechanical corn shellers and hand-cranked rotary saws for ice ponds, I thought about how difficult life must have been back then, when every activity was a chore. Any labor- or energy-saving innovation must have been greeted with joy and gratitude. Though we’d driven to Willowbrook in a gas-powered car, listening to satellite radio, iPhones in our backpacks and prescription glasses on our faces, that afternoon I was more impressed with the technologies of those Mainers of yore.
Working at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, another site whose buildings and artifacts date back to pre-Civil War days, I encounter history on a daily basis. “Laudholm Farm” now studies our 21st century coastline and the changes occurring to it, many of them directly caused by the technological advances humankind has made in the past 200 years. The unintended consequences of cheap energy, ready credit, and instantaneous communication are knocking on our door; will we develop solutions to our problems as craftily as our forebears did?
I recently found one answer to that question with a group called WindowDressers. This all-volunteer nonprofit, based in Rockland, is applying old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity to a modern problem: to help Mainers reduce heating bills, fossil fuel consumption, and CO2 emissions, WindowDressers builds window inserts to minimize heat loss through windows. Their two panes of plastic wrapped and taped around custom-cut wooden frames fit snugly inside an interior window frame. The results are immediate and dramatic.
Many of us in Maine heat our homes and businesses with oil; buildings can lose 30% of their heat through their windows. My colleagues and I work in a National Historic Register farmhouse; in the winter when the wind blew, it was like sitting in a colander. We had the disturbing thought that oil, along with money, were constantly spilling out into the atmosphere through every crack.
The 44 window inserts we ordered from WindowDressers and assembled with volunteers should change that. As the first nonprofit in Maine to go 100% solar for our electricity needs, the Wells Reserve is very interested in discovering other sustainability solutions as well. Weatherization has always been held up as one of the easiest and first solutions to climate change; why not pick that low-hanging fruit?
WindowDressers is steadily and humbly making a difference in Maine, to the tune of thousands of windows a year. I was most impressed by their Yankee ingenuity. Over the last five years, WindowDressers’ home enthusiasts have contributed to the rapid evolution of the window inserts and the tools used to build them. The group’s resourceful volunteers use special jigs and techniques that are continually scrutinized and improved, so the inserts and building process become cheaper and more efficient every season. (More than 300 window inserts, many for low-income homeowners, were built, barn-raising style, during Inauguration Week at Allagash Brewery; a good number of the scores of build volunteers described the work as their own positive reaction to the new administration.)
Willowbrook will reopen this May and June for a limited number of field trips. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess where its collection of ingenuities will disperse to. But I’m heartened to know that cleverness seems to be a renewable resource here in Maine, one that this generation will have to tap.
Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His monthly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, pane and suffering. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.