Transcription of Love Maine Radio #319: Tony Owens, MD, and Thomas Belluscio

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Thompson. Show summaries are available at
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 319, airing for the first time on Sunday, October 29, 2017. Today’s guests are emergency room physician Dr. Tony Owen, board member of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and registered Maine guide and certified wilderness first responder, Thomas Belluscio. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Doctor Tony Owens is a physician in the emergency department at the Maine Medical Center and an advocate for the environment. In 2007, Dr. Owens joined the board of the Natural Resources Council of Maine after his fourth child graduated from college. Thank you for coming in today.
Tony Owens: Lisa, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: I must tell the people who are listening that you were one of my favorite teachers in the emergency room when I was a medical student and a resident, so I thank you for that, because I think doctoring is a lot about teaching, and it’s a lot about helping the next generations to come move through the ranks.
Tony Owens: Oh, thank you very much Lisa. Medical education is one of my passions, and I continue to do it because it brings so much joy and pleasure. But I have to turn around and tell you that your dad was one of my most important mentors early in my career and continues to be an inspiration, so I guess it’s all one big family.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s probably right. Actually, my dad was one of my teachers too, so I have a lot of gratitude for all that he’s done for I guess generations of us now.
Tony Owens: Don’t we all.
Lisa Belisle: Now, he’s still doing this, so this is a good thing. I’m really, I love the direction you have taken in your life with the environment, in part because I too am very passionate about what’s going on in the environment, and I know that there are many physicians who have this interest, but not everybody who’s taken it to the level that you have. So talk to me about this.
Tony Owens: Well I think that when my wife and I first moved to Maine in 1975 to complete my medical training, the environment that we discovered in Maine just really resonated with me, and I think I’ve been committed to the protection of Maine’s environment since those early days. But as you mentioned in the introduction, in 2007 when our last child graduated from college in Maine at Bowdoin, it freed up some time and perhaps some resources that had been spoken for up to that point, and it allowed me to go back to half-time at my medical work, and then give me this additional to commit to community service. And I think there’s no higher calling than community service and protecting the environment, for ourselves and our children. So I was able to engage myself at that point within NRCM’s board, and they’re a premier advocacy organization here in the state. And it’s been a wonderful and very fulfilling experience.
Lisa Belisle: As an emergency room doctor you’ve dealt with, for example, children with asthma, or older people with emphysema, and it must have occurred to you in the course of your medical work that there’s a direct impact on what’s going on outside as to what happens inside of our bodies.
Tony Owens: Absolutely, and this could launch into a long monologue, but very briefly what we know is that we have one of the highest pediatric asthma rates here in Maine in the country, and that we have been unfortunately characterized as the tailpipe of the country, meaning that the exhaust from Midwestern power plants, often coal-fired, sweep eastward with the prevailing winds, and tend to exit our continent through Maine. And when that dirty air gets exposed to sunlight and moisture it produces ozone, and there are many days, especially during the summer, where we have high ozone rates, and that increases, you see a spike if you will in emergency department visits and offices for pediatric asthma, as well as older people with chronic lung disease. So that’s a real issue here. You wouldn’t think that Maine has this problem, but we do. My wife and I considered a trip out to the west coast this summer, because we’ve never been to Oregon, and they’re having some horrible forest fires. We didn’t go, and they’re complaining bitterly about the quality of their air. I often think that maybe if more people had this experience that produced this dirty air then we could all make progress in improving it.
Lisa Belisle: Is it because ozone is something that unlike smog or smoke from forest fires, we don’t see it, that this continues to be a problem that maybe we haven’t been addressing as aggressively as we should?
Tony Owens: I had the very interesting experience a couple years ago to go down to Washington, DC with a small group of Mainers from diverse backgrounds, Democrats, Republicans, but we all had a shared commitment to improving Maine’s environment. We had a chance to speak with our congressional delegation, and I was actually asked to speak to a Senate committee on this very issue. And you’re right, ozone and carbon dioxide are not, people don’t realize that they’re as powerful irritants as they can be at certain times. So I think there needs to be an awareness. One of the pictures that I tried to paint was these tall smoke stacks in the Midwest, letting all this carbon dioxide high into the atmosphere away from that community only to be blown as I mentioned earlier eastward to our area, where it becomes an issue. So yeah, I think we need more awareness. It’s a difficult issue to discuss because it’s such a political wedge in our country right now that doesn’t allow people to sit down and talk and understand each other’s point of view.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I don’t want to get too much into politics because that can be a little difficult, but I have had the experience as one I think similar to you that there is this difficulty with communication between groups, and it’s not that people who maybe supported the current president are anti-environment, maybe it’s that they didn’t feel heard when they had concerns that they themselves wanted to have addressed. So how do we open up the conversation between the groups?
Tony Owens: Yeah, I wish I had the right answer, or a prescription for that. I think that we all have to have a change of heart and be willing to listen to one another, understanding that everybody has a valid point of view, and then I think as those conversations get started and mature we can hopefully gain better understanding. I’m sure everyone has legitimate points to make. I learned that with my trip down to DC. But nonetheless I think there are certain fundamental facts that I need to try to find ways to bring to people in a fashion that they can understand, and bring them over. So I try not to further those divisions. I’d rather find ways to bridge them, and conversation is one of the things we need to have. I think most people, probably 95 percent of us, really agree on many, many things. But we focus on that five percent where we disagree and it makes it hard to move further along.
Lisa Belisle: I think for me it has been more than 20 years now of working with patients of all different sorts, who come from all different backgrounds, and the chance to have conversation and build rapport, that has really given me the most insight into exactly what you’re talking about, that a lot of this isn’t, we aren’t divided strictly. You can never really assume by talking to someone that you know what their viewpoints are.
Tony Owens: Yeah, I find that in my work as an emergency physician, much of what I do is teaching, with medical students and residents, and I try to model behaviors hopefully that are positive and constructive and helpful. But one of those things is really focus on listening to patients, pulling up a chair, rather than lurching over people at the bedside as this sort of typical physician, to better understand that I’m there to listen and sit down, eye to eye contact. I think those are important things that I think younger physicians need to learn. But I think that’s all part of good communication and putting me as the physician on an equal level with the patient so that we’re all moving in the same direction and there’s not an issue of hierarchy there but one of communication.
Lisa Belisle: And at the same time as you said, there are some things that we know about. I can understand why a patient has been smoking for their entire life, but at the same time it doesn’t make it a good thing for their health. So to try to continue to find ways to share that information that’s potentially harmful is important, not unlike the stuff that you’re talking about with the environment.
Tony Owens: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think that’s one of the biggest public health issues that we have, is that so much of what we do as physicians and things that our patients suffer with are kind of self-inflicted and things where they need to make better choices, and we need to find better ways to make a better choice. It sounds paradoxical but I think that a sense of humor is an important piece of this dialogue. My dad used to work for Readers Digest, and they had a section there, I don’t know if it’s still in print or if they do, called “Humor is the Best Medicine” or something like that. And I’ll try sometimes with patients when I want to cajole and urge them in a new direction that they found challenging is to try to find some fun in the conversation that they can realize that I have a sense of humor and that they do too, and that humor and happiness are a part of healing.
Lisa Belisle: So how do you translate that into the work that you’ve done with the environment?
Tony Owens: Well I think as you mentioned earlier, having conversations with people is what advocacy is all about, whether it’s going up to Augusta to testify before a house senate subcommittee on a law or a bill that you think is important, or some other group where you think that you’d like to change their position or encourage them to push along with you. So listening to those points of view, finding out where there’s common themes, how can we work together, what questions do they have, what information do people need to make better choices, I think that’s all part of that listening and conversation. I enjoy taking young people up to Augusta, when I find that there’s a bill that they have an interest in. Most recently I took a young high school student up where there was a bill about plastic waste in school lunch programs stuff. So she can speak to this from personal experience, and bringing young people into that conversation, I think, is a really important part of my advocacy. Because I’m at the point where I’m not going to be around a whole lot longer, and I would like to have a legacy of young activists that will continue to advocate for Maine’s environment.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the issues that you have been working on since you joined the board?
Tony Owens: NRCM has several areas of activity. One is currently climate and energy are very big. We’ve worked for the solar bill and energy efficiency and clean air. We work for the northern forest, been very involved with this Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, as well as helping the state agencies craft good regulations for the unorganized townships and make sure that those bills protect the Maine forests. Done a lot with rivers and clean water, involved very much with some of the dam removal in the Kennebec. We’re a key player in the Penobscot restoration project, which is huge, and very involved in the mining bill which was finally passed in the legislature this year to try and protect the high-quality waterways we have in Maine. We also have a little newer initiative on sustainability, which is really, it resonated especially with younger people for healthy sustainable communities, whether it’s food waste, gleaning… we had a big event in Portland last year with Feed the 5000 where we made lunch for everybody with leftover food. And we’ve been very involved on the federal level with Senator Collins being such a key vote in the Senate.
Maine has been put into a very pivotal position, because who has better access to Senator Collins than Mainers? So we’ve become a conduit, if you will, to help give Senator Collins advice when she needs it. So those are the main topic areas. But it’s an advocacy organization, and we do a lot of our work in Augusta with the legislature and the state agencies.
Lisa Belisle: So this for you is an interesting departure in a way. There aren’t a lot of doctors that have decided that they want to get into advocacy, that they want to be testifying, that they want to be as involved in the governmental process as you are.
Tony Owens: Well actually we just had a new physician join our board, I’m pleased to say. So he’ll be a physician joining me. I actually think there’s a number of physicians who have a passion, as you know better than most, it’s a busy career, especially if you have a family as well and you’re younger with all the commitments that go with that. As I mentioned in the introduction I’ve had the benefit of having a little bit more freedom now that my children are grown and educated and living elsewhere to have the time to commit to this. It is my priority, so… and I have the time to do that. And I encourage physicians to do that. We have a group in the emergency department that participates every winter on the eve of… December 31, New Year’s Eve. NRCM has an event called the Dash and Dip, where there’s a 5K-run around that day; then at noontime there’s a dip in the east end beach. I’m distinguished in having done it I think for seven years in a row now. So we have a team… it’s a fundraiser as well as an awareness raiser, so that we have a lot of fun with that.
And there’s a lot of people who I work with day-to-day, shoulder-to-shoulder in the emergency department, who when you’re not talking about patients in emergency medicine, you find, wow, they really have a passion for the environment. That’s why they live in Maine. So that I think sometimes those people just need to be given a little space and an opportunity to develop their advocacy. We started a program at NRCM a few years ago called NRCM Rising, which focuses on this under-40 demographic, and I’ll tell you that I do not own a cell phone, I’m not a computer guy, so communicating with that younger demographic has always been a challenge for me, but the NRCM Rising has its own methodology to recruit them. So their Dash and Dip team is now our biggest competitor with our emergency department team, so we have a fun back and forth on that, but… So there’s a lot of fun in this advocacy thing. I think there’s a lot of opportunities for physicians, nurses, ED techs, physicians’ assistants, our whole ED staff pulls together and is engaged in this. It’s a lot of fun.
Lisa Belisle: Was there anything about your earlier years when you were growing up that caused you to feel drawn towards environmental issues?
Tony Owens: I’m old enough, Lisa, that I actually had polio as a child. I contracted polio before they had the vaccines, so my childhood through the pre-elementary and early elementary years, I did well, but I was watched very closely, so my parents kind of shepherded where I went and what I did, and I developed a close relationship with a young friend in elementary school who lived on a farm. This was in Delaware, and I would go out to his farm on the weekends. That was supposed to be a healthy experience for me. And he and I really just enjoyed being out in the woods wandering around, and I think the seeds were planted… We would catch frogs and do all kinds of outdoorsy things. And then when my family moved to Connecticut, and I actually saw forests and hills, I said, wow, I love that. And then the opportunity to come to New Hampshire for college and Maine ultimately. It seems like it’s been this journey, and I feel like I finally found my home.
I believe if you remember back in the 1980s when the Maine Times was being published, they had a series of articles on this concept of bio-regionalism, which I strongly believe in. And I think that Maine is kind of my bio-region and I’m sort of connected through my DNA, and very happy to be here. It’s been a journey, but I feel that my advocacy has matured now, and I found the right things to be doing and the right way to do it.
Lisa Belisle: How do your children approach the environment? I’m interested in this because I have children who are college, I have one who is in medical school, I have one who’s finishing high school in a couple of years. And it feels different to me, the way that they look at the world, which makes sense. But I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience.
Tony Owens: Well I can tell you that all of my children have been supportive of the work that I’ve done in the environment. They make space for that. They’ll roll their eyes from time to time. They’ll go up into log cabins and spend Christmas holidays with my wife and I with a wood stove and sort of some different things. So they’ve been part of this journey with me. One of my children is actually on the board of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, so I feel that he’s been bitten by the same bug. So I think that they know this is important to me. I think that they’re in the busy phase of life, raising children, furthering their careers, so it’s a little more difficult for them to express it fully, but I’m hoping that as time allows, as they get further along and have a little more space, they’ll also be good advocates. I think they live responsibly now, so I think that they’re participants in this advocacy.
Lisa Belisle: I feel the same way that you do, and one of the things that I’ve noticed with my own children is that before there was a lot more of trying to convince people that maybe composting is a good idea, or maybe we should be careful about our plastics consumption. But the nice thing about this day and age is we’re still convincing people, but more and more people who are younger have been raised with these ideas and they’re saying of course, of course we want to engage in buying local foods, of course we want to try and keep our waters clean. And so at least as we continue to try to advocate for things that are important with the environment, at least we’ve made some small steps.
Tony Owens: Yeah, my wife and I about that same time when I went half-time, I also agreed to build this building at the Cape Elizabeth elementary school. It was an outdoor classroom for the elementary school. And I wanted to make the structure entirely from Maine wood and products, and my goal was to design a building that was so interesting that the kids couldn’t stop looking at it when they were there. I didn’t want to just make a shed. So I could design this, but I had some help from some friends, and we came up with this octagonal post-and-beam structure which we build over the course of the year, and then we built some raised beds. So my wife has been involved with the gardening project with the elementary school for the last 10 years. And it’s really fun to see these younger children learn about seeds and germination and the plants growing. But what surprises me is how much they already know through their parents and their friend and their preschool, I guess. So I think that this consciousness is there, it just needs to be nurtured and supported. This next generation, I think, is going to do very well if we can continue to give an environment to work with.
Lisa Belisle: And I agree with you that the tangibility and the living within the space is also very important, so when you’re describing being out on the farm when you’re younger and progressively heading towards the trees, I think that if you’re a child and your environment involves watching things grow, or seeing the water go by, I think that that makes a difference as to how you feel about your place in the world.
Tony Owens: Yeah, absolutely. As I said earlier, I’m not much of a computer person, but I’m always, my wife and I are constantly, oh my gosh, here you are out to dinner and everybody’s looking at their cell phone rather than talking with one another or seeing things around them, and it’s a world I can’t imagine, but I know it’s happening. I just want to make the real world as interesting for people as I can by pointing out things, whether it’s a wildflower walk, or an owl thing, or talking about beekeeping, or other things to make this world that we live in a tangible, living thing that I find fascinating and engaging far more than anything a computer could do for me. To try and make that experience, because I think that this whole issue of artificial intelligence and the direction the world’s going is a little scary to me, and I think that if we did get completely into that world we would maybe lose advocacy, and the environment would no longer become as important. I think that would be the wrong direction for the world to go in. So I’m pushing back against that.
Lisa Belisle: I agree with you, and I also know that sometimes I will look at my child and I’ll think, why is she on her cell phone? But then two seconds later she’ll tell me that she just pulled up some research that has to do with something that’s related to some topic. She’s not looking at the Kardashians. She actually wants to learn about the first Earth Day, or some of the initial legislation that was put out surrounding environmental issues. So I think that it would be great if we could continue to keep people in touch with what’s going on outside of them, and then use these relatively new tools to deepen their understanding of the history and the types of things that came before them that you wouldn’t be able to research if you didn’t have access to this sort of thing.
Tony Owens: I completely agree, and it’s not that I don’t use computers. I use them as you well know at work continuously, and they are a wonderful tool. But they’re not a substitute for experience, and I think that’s where I draw the line. If I feel like I need something experiential and grounding, I need to be outside getting my hands dirty and my feet wet. Sitting in front of a computer is not an entertainment for me; it’s something I would do to learn something.
Lisa Belisle: I’m on the same page. And it’s funny, I’ve seen in medicine, I remember when they started using, for example, monitoring for woman in labor, and they would monitor the heart rate and the contractions for the woman in labor, and it was such a great tool that there was a time where, then we all pulled back and we would watch the woman in labor from the nurses’ station, rather than go in and actually be with the laboring woman. And I think we’ve come back around again. The nurses, of course, weren’t really the ones who were doing that, it was really more in my experience the doctors. And I think we need to keep remembering that these tools that we have, they’re just tools and not to use them as something in between us and what’s alive, but also to use them as something that enhances our experience. And to still keep touching, and being aware, and using the information from our own senses.
Tony Owens: Yeah, I totally agree. It would be interesting… No, it wouldn’t, it would probably be frightening to go back to practicing a day in medicine like I did 25 years ago before electronic medical records, and my gosh, it’s almost too scary to imagine. The efficiencies that we have now. But I don’t know if the medicine I practice is any better, if my patients are any better. Maybe I can do more of it, but I … it’s a tool. I’ll leave it at that.
Lisa Belisle: I’m hoping that the people who are in medical school now will continue to work on all of the positive things that have been put in place, that you and I have experienced over the last few decades. So, if you had any goals or any I guess aspirations for Maine and the environment, say over the next 10, 20, 50 years, what would they be?
Tony Owens: Wow, that’s great. I love the North Woods, even though I live here in southern Maine on the shore. When I go to the North Woods, and I do often to hunt and to fish, it’s just that sort of bio regionalism exploding, and I really feel grounded. I also love the coast and Penobscot Bay and sailing, I love Casco Bay. So I guess one of my goals would be to preserve the quality of place that we have in Maine. That’s also one of the missions of NRCM, not surprising we share that. But I think that we’re so uniquely positioned that Maine remains an iconic place in people’s mine. You go to Acadia and meet this whole multicultural group of folks that come visit there from around the world, you realize that Maine is special.
And I would like to see us use that leverage and that bully pulpit of being a special place to be a leader in the environment, and how we protect our waters, how we value clean air, how we work with technology and efficiency to have a healthy environment. And with some of the wonderful leaders we have in Maine and we’ve had in the past, that we can be leaders in this conversation we talked about early in our conversation, about how we can pull the country back together. I think we’re in a wonderful position to do that. I don’t think people look at Maine as being partisan one way or the other. I think we’re well positioned to be leaders in that healing process in the country and protect our environment at the same time.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Tony Owens, who is a physician in the emergency department at Maine Medical Center and an advocate for the environment. Also on the board at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Also a teacher of mine, and also one of our 50 Mainers for 2017. I know that you’re a very busy individual. I really appreciate the time that you have taken to come and speak with me today, but I also appreciate all the work that you’ve been doing.
Tony Owens: Thank you Lisa, pleasure’s been all mine.
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Lisa Belisle: Thomas Belluscio is a registered Maine guide and certified wilderness first responder. He is also the founder of Northeast Wilderness Company, an outdoors company that offers workshops, studies, and guided trips. Thanks for coming in today.
Thomas Belluscio: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: So does it feel weird coming in out of the outdoors where it’s beautiful out there and fall-like?
Thomas Belluscio: Absolutely, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: And instead hanging out with all us desk-jockey types?
Thomas Belluscio: I do feel like a country mouse visiting the city, for sure.
Lisa Belisle: The country mouse. But aren’t you from New Jersey?
Thomas Belluscio: Originally, yeah, though I grew up in the pine barrens of New Jersey, so…
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that. I don’t know what pine barrens of New Jersey are.
Thomas Belluscio: The pine barrens of New Jersey are its own little wilderness. It seems absurd to think of anything like that existing in New Jersey. Most people think of The Sopranos, or the infamous Jersey Shore. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful state. There’s a lot of great wild places there.
Lisa Belisle: Now did that influence your decision to become a Maine guide and do the type of work that you do?
Thomas Belluscio: For sure, yeah. So my childhood was spent, I grew up on dirt roads, and literally could just walk out of my house and run through the woods. Fishing and camping and whatnot, so probably for as long as I can remember, I’d want to say at the age of five I started camping on my own, out in the backyard kind of a thing. And then I just, I don’t know, it just grew and grew. Sort of became a passion.
Lisa Belisle: Did your parents camp?
Thomas Belluscio: Yeah, my father took us camping. My father took me camping for the first time when I was two, which I don’t remember much of that other than wetting my sleeping bag I think. But yeah, that was, the vacation was always camping. And actually when I was really young we started taking trips up to Acadia. And that was when I really fell in love with New England and the state of Maine in particular. Always just kind of had a hold there.
Lisa Belisle: But you’re describing growing up in a really beautiful place. So moving from someplace that was already pretty beautiful to Maine, that must have been an interesting decision.
Thomas Belluscio: It’s true. I think… I don’t want to say I had enough of it, but I spent a good the first half of my life anyway exploring that particular ecology, and it’s not to say that pine barrens are exclusive to New Jersey. There are pine barrens in Maine and New Hampshire. But yeah, I guess I was just ready to explore other places. I’d taken a couple of cross country road trips, and saw a lot of beautiful states, and I don’t know, always sort of gravitated back to New England. I love the spruce forests, the coastline here is incredible, and probably worth mentioning is, it’s the most forested state in the union. It’s about 90 percent forested, the state of Maine. So for someone that likes to explore wild spaces, this offers a wide playground for me.
Lisa Belisle: And you seem to like trees.
Thomas Belluscio: I love trees. Trees are awesome. I could nerd out about trees all day really. Knowing the trees enhances my experience being in the woods, and as somebody that practices the popular buzzword, bushcraft, or woodcraft, knowing different types of trees and what you can use them for is extremely beneficial as an outdoorsman, knowing what you can use to reliably and consistently get a fire going despite the weather conditions, or the types of woods that make good canoe paddles. Even which soft woods offer ideal resin for making adhesives for repairing canoes. So it benefits you, benefits me personally to have that awareness of the ecology that I’m in or moving through.
Lisa Belisle: I can relate to this because I’ve thought a lot about homogenization. So you go to the grocery store and you have an orange, a watermelon, a kale, and so growing up we had this idea that everything is one thing. But the deeper you look into something you realize there’s actually multiples of whatever that something was, right? So it’s not like there’s a tree, it’s there is one particular type of tree of many, many different types of trees that are out there in the world. Which is very different than the way we sometimes think about things.
Thomas Belluscio: Sure, yeah, I think a lot of people even that enjoy recreating outdoors, hiking in particular, I’ve taken out groups that spent a lot of time, most of the people that I work with spend a considerable amount of time outdoors, and you take them out and you start showing them the diversity of what’s around them, and… I don’t know, it unlocks something. You’re no longer just hiking that trail, you’re engaging with the environment that you’re in. And so it becomes like, I don’t know; on one level, it’s just fun. It becomes kind of this Where’s Waldo game, where things that you would have walked right past all of a sudden have new meaning and significance. And that’s a really enjoyable aspect.
Lisa Belisle: That’s so true, because I know that I enjoy plants and the healing properties of plants.
Thomas Belluscio: Right on.
Lisa Belisle: So the more I’ve studied it, the more I find myself out even just taking a run on a trail, and I’ll say oh, look, there’s some chicory, there’s, you know… And I think it really does, it’s almost like you walk in the world in a different way, because everything starts to become more alive. It’s like when you buy a red car you see all the other red cars that are out there.
Thomas Belluscio: Exactly that, yeah, for sure. Yeah, and I don’t know, it’s hard to articulate without sounding a bit nerdy, honestly.
Lisa Belisle: Well I think we should put this to rest here, because honestly you’re just talking to me, and I love this stuff, so don’t feel nerdy, and anybody who’s listening, if you think this is nerdy, you don’t have to listen, it’s totally fine, but we’re having a conversation, so you can be as nerdy as you want.
Thomas Belluscio: You know, moving away from just the sport if you will of being able to identify the different plants around you, moving towards self-reliance, you mentioned medicines, like the resin of balsam is medicinal. It’s actually incredible for burns. I’ve used it and I’ve seen people use it. Someone that was on a trip with me a few years ago scalded their hand while cooking over a fire, and just immediately covered it in fir sap. Well I couldn’t break down the science behind it here now, it just kind of created a second skin, and there’s antiseptic properties in the pitch that … I won’t say it healed overnight, but there was no blistering, it got rid of the pain. So having these things at your disposal at any given time, having that knowledge and awareness of what you can use, even probably one of the more notable medicinal fungi, the chaga mushroom, knowing where to find that, and that it is a prolific mushroom and you don’t have to be shy about harvesting it really, and what it’s good for. It’s praised the world over.
Yeah, the more… the tag line, the saying often goes with woodcraft or bushcraft is, the more you know the less that you have to carry. And I think just in general, it takes people from a place of moving through a foreign landscape that they’re not terribly comfortable in, and it unlocks that. It gives us this confidence. Not to say that anything bad would happen, barring the sort of overly dramatized survival scenario that’s thrown around, it’s just having a greater understanding of where you are gives you a greater level of confidence to move through the landscape. And I think that’s the most important thing, the most tangible if you will take away from it all.
Lisa Belisle: Talk to me about being a registered Maine guide. That’s actually a pretty significant process, and it’s multi leveled from what I understand.
Thomas Belluscio: Yeah, in a way. So with regards to becoming a guide, first of all it’s sort of renowned, the Maine guide exam is the most difficult to pass in the US. So people come from all over to become registered Maine guides. I have a great friend who is a guide. We tested at the same time; he’s from Texas. I think the people, the guys that were interviewing him were scratching their heads a little bit, why is a guy from Texas coming up here to be a Maine guide? But it is, it’s an achievement, so it’s a point of pride there with the history and tradition. And they don’t… their job is to fail you, really. Because they want to make sure that if you’re going to be taking people out into a potentially dangerous situation that you’ve got it covered. They don’t want the liability. So the process is… there’s a written exam that covers a lot of laws, and then you have to stand in front of a board, usually just two seasoned guides that have been guiding for 30 or 40 years. There’s absolutely no pulling a fast one on these dudes.
And they drill you with questions, and they just deadpan stare at you, give you no feedback. Different things with regards to identifying wildlife and plants. And from there you have to demonstrate proficiency with a map and compass. Which seems to get a lot of people. And then the last phase is arguably the most difficult. There’s a lost person scenario, a catastrophic event, where they present you with the hypothetical situation of being in a back country setting and something goes wrong, and you basically have to ask all the right questions and walk them through everything you would do in order to pass.
So it’s intense, for sure. I don’t think it’s the hardest thing in the world, but it’s one of those, you either know the material or you don’t, and they don’t really cut you any slack for not knowing. I got a little, I got scolded. I rushed part of my map and compass, and… they give you like 20 minutes. I think it took me five to get all my bearings, and I just sort of blurted them out, and I knew in my head that the numbers didn’t add up. So I stopped, I just said, wait, can I double check my math? And they were like yeah, you still have 15 minutes. So… I don’t know where I was going with that.
And so it’s like an achievement, yeah, it’s a point of pride. It’s something I’m certainly proud of. The actual guiding of people can be a bit trying at times too. I think one of the things people don’t often factor in is that you kind of also have to a guidance counselor, because you’re dealing with people that are in love with the romance of wilderness travel but maybe don’t fully grasp the weight of the situations that they end up in. Just with regards to being out of their element. So you have to be able to just be an ear for people, talk people down from breakdowns, which I’ve done a number of times. So there’s that soft skills aspect too, the interpersonal stuff that you deal with routinely. Which I honestly find rewarding. It’s draining, but it’s a rewarding aspect of the gig, for sure.
Lisa Belisle: And do they test you on that? Do they actually say, well, how would you deal with someone who’s in the middle of the wilderness and is having a breakdown?
Thomas Belluscio: For sure, yeah, within the catastrophic event or lost person scenario usually there’s an element of that. For mine the hypothetical was that I had a group of four on a river trip, and we were two days in and another canoe paddled into our camp in the morning screaming something about his wife, his wife, and then they basically just gave me the floor and said go. Handle this. And so you do, you kind of have to just feel it out and ask the right questions, and they want to see… I almost feel like it’s not as much what your answer is but how you answer that they’re looking at, also. They want to hear that you’re direct, they want to hear that you’re sort of in charge of the situation and not panicking. Which admittedly is easier to do in the woods than with a microphone in your face.
Lisa Belisle: So you actually are more comfortable in the dark and the quiet and all by yourself than, yes.
Thomas Belluscio: Yeah, I do appreciate the fact that there’s a tree in the corner. That helps.
Lisa Belisle: I like having this tree right behind me. It’s very centering. So I’m sure it’s good for you as well.
Thomas Belluscio: It is, it is.
Lisa Belisle: It’s an interesting thing that you are doing these days, especially because you are helping people to understand this environment that we’re being told we must save. We need to save our planet, as if the planet didn’t exist before us. But this has become really important to the type of work that you do.
Thomas Belluscio: It’s imperative to the type of work that I do. Yeah, I think … even just from an economic standpoint, the state of Maine relies on these wild spaces, and so to have no regard for them is just counterintuitive. It doesn’t add up to me at all. And it’s not about, I don’t think, maybe it sounds cliché, but it’s not about saving the planned, like you said. It’ll be here after we’re gone, it was here before we were here. But for us to have it and enjoy it, once it’s gone it’s gone. We won’t get these places back in our lifetime. So preserving that for future generations, it just makes sense. To me anyway. I don’t know…
Lisa Belisle: I just finished reading a book called Braiding Sweet Grass by a woman named Robin Kimmerer, and she is a botanist and she does a lot with plants, so she brings up the idea that sweet grass, which is used for basket making by Native Americans, that the sweet grass actually does better when people are harvesting it for use by humans. And I think there are actually some cases where if we can interact with the environment in a way that’s beneficial really, that it doesn’t always have to be about us overharvesting things or us overusing things and having it be a negative, but there is sometimes a relationship that’s more symbiotic.
Thomas Belluscio: Sure, yeah. I think even with regards to logging, which can be a point of contention for some, if it’s done responsibly, if it’s done sustainably, it’s great for the environment. It’s great for the wildlife in particular. Moose populations tend to bounce back in areas that have been cut, because you’re basically opening up this dense, densely forested landscape and all of this young new growth sprouts up, really succulent rich plants that animals like moose all the way down to snowshoe hare and even grouse benefit from. So yeah, interacting with the landscape in a responsible and sustainable way is beneficial for not only us but also the land, for sure, I totally agree.
Lisa Belisle: You have an interest in mushrooms.
Thomas Belluscio: I do.
Lisa Belisle: You talked about chaga, which I find interesting myself. I use chaga every morning. We have the north spore mushroom company here in Portland.
Thomas Belluscio: Yeah, right on.
Lisa Belisle: They’re actually kind of growing mushrooms, but we have really wonderful fungus in the woods. And to know about that and to be utilizing it, I find very interesting.
Thomas Belluscio: Yeah, god there’s… mycology is one of those, it’s sort of a rabbit hole. When you start getting into it it’s so intriguing. It kind of ratchets things up from the tree identification that we were talking about, because every little clue that you gather about a particular mushroom points you in the direction of being able to identify it, right down to the smell oftentimes will be a distinguishing characteristic. I actually worked for a mushroom farm, the New Hampshire mushroom company for a time. I still pal around with that crew. There are just some species though that can’t be cultivated. And so a lot of these places, I’m sure north spore does as well, will buy wilds from people, which sort of is another fun aspect of woods wandering, if you will. You can stumble upon a handsome reward growing on the side of a tree. Species like morels, they’ve tried to cultivate those and I think one person came close to doing it, but the end result, the actual fruiting body just didn’t have any of the flavor. They’re so temperamental.
Yeah, really fascinating. From the medicinal properties, just the ones that are delicious, knowing and understanding the deadly ones is certainly beneficial and also fascinating. I was out with a class a couple of weeks ago and we found a particular species of amanita. A common name for it is the destroying angel, which is such an appropriate name, because it’s absolutely beautiful, it’s this pristine, white, just perfectly shaped mushroom. It catches the light, and it kind of glows and calls you in, and if you eat one of those, over the course of about a week, five days, basically your body shuts down, and you feel it the whole time. It’s a fascinating field. It’s endless. I really enjoy it, but I’m confident in what I know, and I’ve been doing it for years, but I’m just scratching the surface, and even the field of mycology in general is really just starting to scratch the surface.
Lisa Belisle: But when it comes to knowing the outdoors, isn’t that always the case? Whether you’re somebody who’s just say a gardener with your tomato plant in your pot on your back porch, or if you’re out in the woods wandering around looking at various species of mushrooms, there’s just not going to ever be a way to know everything.
Thomas Belluscio: No, it’s endless. It is. I think that’s sort of the… another aspect of having my guide license and wearing the guide patch is, it’s a reminder to me, it’s humbling. Some people see it and assume that you’re an expert in all things regarding the outdoors, and there’s no way to ever say that. There’s no way to ever be that. You’re always just a student of it. And that’s the fun of it, really. How boring would it be if you could have it all figured out? There’d be no wonder left to it. So yeah, that’s part of the magic, for sure, that there’s always another rock to turn over, there’s always another thing to look at and ponder about, and sort of pick apart and grow to understand. So it’s endlessly exciting.
Lisa Belisle: It’s not that dissimilar to medicine, really.
Thomas Belluscio: No.
Lisa Belisle: We get qualified as doctors, we get an MD behind our name, we do our residency program, and then patients will come see us and they expect us to know everything, and we’re like, well, see I know some things about a lot of things, but I don’t know everything, and so we’re going to have to work through this a little bit. Because it’s still, you’re talking about not only biology as you mentioned, but also the soft stuff. You’re talking about people’s personalities, you’re talking about how they react in different environments. So I find it just as humbling as what you’re describing you find yourself feeling.
Thomas Belluscio: It is. And it will always be. I think there certainly within the guide field, there’s a propensity for this bravado, this… I’ve been around people that tend to posture and try to present themselves as, I’ve done this and this and the other thing, and until you’ve done… and I just don’t have any time for that. It makes me shake my head when anybody has information or an understanding of something and withholds it. And that’s not to say I think that you should give it away for free, because we all have to eat and we have bills to pay, but yeah, that sort of hubris that some people fall into can be a real turnoff, I think, for a lot of people that want to break in, and participate. Especially with regards to wilderness skills. It seems to be a dynamic of people that want to put themselves up on a pedestal. It doesn’t seem enjoyable to me.
If somebody’s passionate about learning something that you know about, then that’s the most exciting interaction you can have with regards to whatever it is you’re studying. Because until you teach something, you can understand it in your head, but until you’ve explained it to someone else, you don’t fully understand it yourself, I feel like.
Lisa Belisle: Well this conversation has been a lot of fun for me, and I know we could keep talking. We could definitely nerd out when it comes to things like healing plants and tree sap and mushrooms and such. I guess people who would like to get more of your wisdom will need to look you up and maybe have you guide them through the wilderness.
Thomas Belluscio: That’d be awesome.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Thomas, Tom, Belluscio, who is a registered Maine guide and certified wilderness first responder. He’s also the founder of Northeast Wilderness Company, an outdoor company that offers workshops, studies and guided trips. Thank you for coming into the studio and being the country mouse in the city.
Thomas Belluscio: Thank you so much.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 319. Our guests have included Dr. Tony Owens and Thomas Belluscio. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as @drlisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at