A vigil with Peter Baldwin's heart signs was held on Saturday, Oct. 28 at the First Church in Belfast. Baldwin would like to see the signs continue to spread around the state and beyond. "It boils down to where's the love," he said recently. "It's my one personal effort to see if something can take off and go viral." Credit: Courtesy of Peter Baldwin

Early November is the season for brightly-colored political signs to blanket the landscape with their strident calls to vote for one politician over another, or to vote yes on this and no on that.

But sharp-eyed Mainers may have noticed signs of a different sort popping up here and there around the state. It is simple: just a big red heart against a white background. The message it is promoting is simple, too.

“The thing about the heart is that it could mean whatever you want it to mean, but it’s all good,” said Peter Baldwin of Brooks, the man behind the heart signs. “There was such divisiveness over last year’s election, on both sides. It boils down to: where is the love?”

So Baldwin has made it a one-man mission to spread a little love, heart by heart and sign by sign, around Maine. He’s quick to explain it wasn’t his idea, initially, but he has enjoyed running with it.

“Last fall after the election, someone took a campaign sign and painted a heart on it near the Head of the Tide Road [in Belfast],” he said. “I started seeing it, and I realized after awhile that I liked seeing it. It made me happy.”

So he made 20 of them using paint and plywood and gave them away. Not satisfied, he ordered 200 from a professional sign company and sold those for what it cost him. And when he ran out of those, he ordered 200 more, which he is selling for $10 each to recoup his costs and raise some funds for the Nibezun Wabanaki Cultural Preservation Coalition in Passadumkeag. Why that group in particular? Again, for Baldwin, it’s pretty simple.

“I have warm feelings towards that project,” he said.

Baldwin, 68, has been making such simple, deliberate choices for a long time. He moved to Maine in 1971, part of the original back-to-the-land movement. He and a group of friends bought some land in Monroe. A few years later, Baldwin decided to move off the shared property and headed to Brooks. He liked it there, with certain aspects of rural Maine life reminding him of the way he had grown up on an apple farm in upstate New York.

“I grew up in a small town. Everyone knew everyone, and then development started to happen,” he said. “In a way, I moved here so I could continue to grow up in a small town.”

In Brooks, he started making a living by doing woodworking, and found a niche making wooden windmill blades for generators. When the market changed, with much less demand for wooden windmill blades, Baldwin switched his focus to making wooden orchard, or apple, ladders. He was familiar with the ladders, with their functional, traditional design, from the family apple orchard. He makes them in a converted chicken barn on his property out of bigtooth aspen for the side rails and ash for the rungs. These days, he’s making and selling about 1,000 of them a year to owners of apple, pear and cherry orchards as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as North Carolina.

Just like his ladder designs, the home Baldwin built showcases simplicity and functionality, though it’s untraditional. About nine years ago, he built an off-grid tiny house on a hill. He lives on the second and third floors of his small house, with the first floor given over to storage and a small passive-solar greenhouse where he grows greens in the colder months. Large windows in his living space allow expansive views of his garden, small orchard and the bucolic hillside, giving the room something of the feel and vantage of a treehouse. All the light makes the small space seem bigger, and thoughtful touches such as handbuilt wooden bookshelves and cheerful art on the wall make it cozy.

He cooks on a small woodstove in the middle of his living space using scraps from the apple ladder business for fuel, and pumps water by hand at the kitchen sink. In the colder months, an insulated box built inside the wall with vents to let in the chilly winter air is his refrigerator. In the summer, solar-charged batteries run a refrigerator to keep his food fresh. Power generated by his two small solar panels also lets him watch movies with a DVD player and television, use a printer and answering machine, enjoy music on his stereo and work on his laptop computer.

“To me, it’s palatial,” Baldwin said. “All the things I would like for a comfortable, modern life, I have.”

Outside, there are other innovations. In one outbuilding, he is turning waste from his humanure bucket system toilet into fertile compost. In another, he has a wood-fired sauna and hot tub. There’s an antique wood fired food dehydrator that is still in use and a curious-looking contraption that he calls a “sun box,” or a cold-frame for humans. The wooden box with a clear cover rotates to find the right angle for the sun, which is absorbed by foil-lined walls and makes an effective way for a person to get some vitamin D in the wintertime.

“You can lie in it and read a book in January,” he said. “It’s like a solar collector.”

One of the reasons Baldwin built his home this way was because he was inspired by the sustainability movement.

“Really, we’re moving past sustainability to resiliency,” he said. “When you have localization and decentralization for your essentials, like food, water and energy, it’s a lesson.”

Just a day after the storm that devastated Maine’s electrical infrastructure, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents in the dark, Baldwin’s home was humming along as usual. Maybe there’s a lesson in that, too, he said.

“The secret to going off grid is to simplify your life, so that your demands are few,” he said. “The amount of energy you need is less, and a small space means you have less stuff. Your systems are efficient and not wasteful.”

Maybe all that simplifying has left him more time for quixotic projects such as the heart signs, which started in Waldo County and have spiraled outwards. They can now be spotted in locales in Maine including Washington County, Mount Desert Island and Portland, as well as further afield in places including Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. Last weekend, he took part in a vigil held at the First Church in Belfast, where people stood outside with 20 or so heart signs.

“It was great,” he said. “People drove by and waved and gave a thumbs up. It was a positive response.”

The heart signs have an element of a public art installation, and they also just continue to make Baldwin and others feel good.

“People like them,” he said. “If anyone wants to construe it politically, they can say, well, people love the country. It comes in all stripes. People on one side, there’s no reason to think they love their country any less than the other side. It’s just expressed differently.”

For information on the heart signs, contact Peter Baldwin by sending an email to baldwinpetert@gmail.com.

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