There are still living among the islands of Penobscot Bay, on the coast of Maine, the descendants of the early English and French voyageurs who came to that land of pine trees more than two hundred years ago. They are simple, quiet folk who earn a rather hard living by raising a few sheep, catching fish, and digging clams. Their houses are built of the flat stones found on the shore, laid in mortar made from burned clam shells and beach sand and roofed over with poles and matted masses of long seaweed. President Eliot of Harvard College, who has studied these people on their native heath, estimates that one of these Penobscot Bay hermits can support his island home, even when the family is quite large, on a cash outlay of fifty dollars a year.
In the past, acquiring that fifty dollars has not always been an easy nut for the islander to crack. But, as they say, out West, when the railroad comes through a town, “a boom” has struck the islands of the Penobscot. Within the past three years, evidence of prosperity has been seen on every hand. The islanders have been building larger houses, wearing better clothes and more of them, and have generally been putting on more of an air of civilization than they have ever known before. It has not been the return to the gold standard, the change in the tariff, or any other changes known to politics that have brought this wave of prosperity to the Penobscot. No. All this sudden access to prosperity is attributed to the gathering and sale of what is known on the islands as “rainbow driftwood,” a kind of fuel that not only gives out heat but also pleases the eye with colored flames, sometimes showing all the colors of the rainbow. Indeed, this wonderful driftwood has not only the rainbow to recommend it. In addition to the color-tinted flames that beautify the fireplace, the wood appears to be alive and emits many spluttering and explosive sounds that seem to tell of storms at sea.
The wood has been drifting about Penobscot Bay and coming ashore on the islands off and on for a dozen years or more, while the inhabitants of the little stone houses with seaweed roofs have been using it for fuel because it was easier to pick up wood on the shore than it was to go into the forest and cut it. They were entirely ignorant of the aesthetic qualities that make this wood the delight of a fashionable drawing room on a winter evening. These hermit fishermen are not very romantic; their hard struggle for the necessities of life makes them severely practical, and they would have gone on frying flounders, boiling tom-cods, and steaming clams with wood worth twenty dollars a cord through all time to come, no doubt, if some yachts from New York had not happened to call at the islands three years ago, and discovered how much beauty and romantic novelty was going to waste in those little Penobscot fireplaces. As soon as the fashionable yachtsmen and their lady passengers saw the spiral rainbows coiling around the black kettles and heard the musical echoes of spent storms among the heaps of glowing coals, they wanted to capture some of them for their New York mansions, and they engaged all the wood they could get, paying large prices for it.
The war with Spain came on and disturbed the trade a good deal during 1898, but it has started up with vigor since. The fishermen make a business of collecting and drying the wood, and the returns have been so large that now they cook their flounders and clams on splendid modern stoves and ranges, much like those of the people to whom they sell the wood. Most of this precious fuel is slabs, blocks, and edgings dumped into the Penobscot River from sawmills many years ago. This drift floated about with the tides and currents until it became water-soaked and went to the bottom, forming great bars that impeded navigation. The government has been dredging out the channel for the last twenty years. That brings this muddy wood up to the surface again, and when it is dumped out into the saltwater, its enlarged and extended wood cells become depositories for salts of soda and various combinations of iodine and chlorine, which give the rainbow tints to its flames and the explosive utterances as if in protest while burning. The great storms that sometimes sweep across the bay cast this “rainbow” driftwood at the feet of the fishermen.
One cannot read of this rainbow wood without remembering two other rainbows of far wider blessing to the world. The first we hear of the rainbow is away back on Mount Ararat when, after their long voyage, Noah and his family came out of the ark, built their altar, and worshiped God. And the Lord entered into a covenant with them and promised that so long as the earth remained, he would never again destroy its inhabitants with a flood, but that seedtime and harvest should follow each other until the end of time. And when the Lord sought for some appropriate sign that should always remind them of this comforting promise, he selected the rainbow as the most appropriate and beautiful pledge. And so he said to Noah and his children that whenever the storm should come and the rain beat down until their hearts would likely be trembling with fear after the flood they had known when the rain had passed, and they saw the rainbow spanning the sky, they should remember that this was God’s pledge never a send a deluge of wai of waters on the earth.
The New Testament also has its rainbow and a very beautiful and precious rainbow it is. We are told about it in the Book of Revelation. When John saw the throne of God in his extraordinary vision, “there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.” What a beautiful pledge of God’s mercy and love! We need not fear to draw near to him in repentance and confession of our sins since there is a rainbow round about the throne, for that rainbow means merely.
On another occasion, John saw a mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud, a face like the sun, his feet as pillars of fire, and “a rainbow was upon his head.” It is thus that our Saviour comes to us from heaven. “His face is like the sun,” for he is “the Light of the World.” his feet “are” Tike pillars of fire, and they show us where to walk. Through all the clouds of our sins and troubles that he carries for us, the rainbow upon his head gives us hope and courage, showing us that God loves us and seeks to save us.
But how many people there are who treat this heavenly rainbow as carelessly and indifferently as the islanders of the Maine coast did their precious rainbow fuel? The rainbow about the head of Jesus and the rainbow around the throne of God, which promise forgiveness and hope to them, are treated as though they did not exist, and they go on living without comfort or cheer from the heavenly rainbow. We must use the rainbows God gives us if we are to get their blessing.
Banks, Louis Albert. Unused Rainbows: Prayer Meeting Talks. Fleming H Revell, 1901.
2023 Louis Banks and Nathan Zipfel, revised and updated.