CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Dusty Dowse and the Zen of baking

Posted March 17, 2011, at 2 p.m.
Last modified March 17, 2011, at 10:34 p.m.

His whimsical name summons up images of a baseball legend or a storybook character. In fact, professional athlete is one of the few occupations that Dusty Dowse has not engaged in. Fictional character, however, just might fit.

My first sight of Dusty was online. He is a tenured professor at the University of Maine, so I looked up his faculty photo — rather unconventional. He stands in full Davy Crockett-like regalia — voluminous beard, fur hat, buffalo gun.

Sipping tea at his kitchen table in Cambridge, his look was slightly less mythic in overalls and do-rag. The beard has grown. In any garb, I suspect Dusty makes an impression, not only in appearance, but also because of his uniquely charismatic presence. He is not fictional, but he is a memorable character.

After a childhood in Albany, N.Y., Dusty attended Amherst College, married Patti, his high school sweetheart, then completed a doctorate in biology at NYU. Finding his degree useless in the 1971 economy, he and Patti headed for New York’s Catskill Mountains, where he became a cabinetmaker. When the Catskills got “too built up,” the Dowses moved to a farm in Maine, where they raised two daughters and a lot of farm animals.

Along the way, Dusty was a beekeeper, bulldozing woodsman, writer, poet and town politician. He was two days away from taking a job as a meat cutter, a skill he had learned from his stepfather, when he walked unannounced into Murray Hall at UMaine to ask about a job. He left with a position teaching comparative anatomy.

“So instead of cutting meat, I was cutting up sharks and things.”

Dusty speaks with impressive erudition about his research into heart function; he loves his teaching.  Nevertheless, there are two other fields of endeavor in Dusty’s life that seem to encompass the core of his being: karate and bread-baking.

“I’m not a religious man, but I’m a very spiritual person,” Dusty told me.

Dusty has a second-degree black belt in karate and a brick oven bakery in his backyard. His dedication to both comes from knowing that he will never reach perfection. He compared the performing of “katas” in karate to the baking of a loaf of bread:

“The lifetime process of reaching for perfection is the same in both — it’s a meditation. Will it ever be perfect? No. There is no such thing as a perfect kata, or a perfect loaf of bread. It’s a Zen thing.”

The huge, stone, beehive oven next to Dusty’s house used to be open to the air. When he baked at night, “Patti would hold a flashlight, the wind would be blowing stuff all around.” Eventually, to protect the oven from water damage, Dusty built a house around the oven.

That is where I spent an afternoon, watching Dusty’s deft, gentle hands turn a bucket of dough into bread that was pretty close to perfect in my book. He chatted away comfortably as he worked, speaking about bread-baking with the same attention to detail that he uses when talking about ion channels in the heart of Drosophila melanogaster, a fruit fly.

He dusted his work surfaces with rice flour and formed the dough into lengths, soon to be French baguettes. “This is a trick from Julia Child,” he said as he pushed a pan of water into the hot oven.

Bread-baking is a multisensory operation: a finger tapped on a fresh-baked loaf makes a lovely, hollow thump; the loaves are a beautiful golden color as they emerge from the oven, and nothing can match that smell — except, perhaps, the taste.

Dusty doesn’t sell his bread, but it has never gone to waste. “You don’t do something like this for the money,” he said, “and you sure don’t do it because you want a loaf of bread.” It’s an art, he explained; “It’s just about the most spiritual thing I do.”

That is the philosophy behind Dusty’s colorful lifetime of doings: “You are working, working, working all the time toward an ideal. There is always more to learn.”

Related links:

The Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair

Fruit Fly Love – Dowse’s research

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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