John Demos sits with the windows open at his home in South Berwick, Maine, while the day warms up. Outside, the buzzing of cicadas is reaching a fever pitch, but inside, the conservationist gazes lovingly at 2 million-year-old rocks.
Demos, who studied geology in college, is a scientist at heart. “Fossil hunting is my hobby,” he says. He found or purchased the treasures he displays under glass, rattling off locations like a conductor as he touches them.
Like the sea urchin impressions on view in his living room, Demos followed an unusual route. He dropped out of college in his senior year and worked as a carpenter, painter, and cook. Then, in 1989, he took a job as a canvasser for the League of Conservation Voters. “I just sort of fell into it,” he says. From there, he went to work for Maine’s Sierra Club, the American Lands Alliance, and, eventually, the Alaska Wilderness League.
“I work with congressional delegations to spread the word about legislation in Congress and Alaska.”
During President Barack Obama’s last visit to Portsmouth, Demos met the president and vice-president. He laughs when he recalls his less formal meeting with the vice-president. “Biden comes up to me and he says, ‘If I had your hair, I could’ve been something,’” he says.
Demos’ job is not all politics. He also attends powwows and connects Native American groups with his advocacy work. “What happened to the North American natives is what’s happening to the Alaskan natives — here we destroyed the cultures for land and now we’re destroying the cultures up there for oil.”
Demos has attended board meetings in Juneau, camped in Tongass National Forest, and watched whales in Glacier Bay. These trips allow him to see firsthand changes in the state’s environment. “Alaska’s warming twice as fast as the rest of the country, permafrost is melting, villages are falling into the ocean, polar bears can’t get out on the ice,” Demos says. “Alaska is the broken refrigerator of the planet.”
When he’s taking a break from trying to fix global concerns, Demos goes to the workshop on the third floor of his house. Here, he’s a tinkerer. A lofted plywood shelf winds around the room and tiny train tracks crisscross the surface. His nephew, Matthew, started the model railroad in a corner of the room 10 years ago; now, it engulfs the attic.
It’s less a model and more an ecosystem, and Demos continually adds to the environment. The old trains by the junkyard are covered in graffiti; there are jails, soldiers, tanks, a Batmobile, and even Ronald McDonald. Demos’ world trends toward the bizarre, with UFOs hovering and ghosts haunting the graveyard. Aliens sneak up on hunters butchering a deer.
Demos hand-crafted a covered bridge and dilapidated barn. He glued pebbles together to replicate a tower he saw in Ireland, and even clear-cut a stand of miniature trees. Tiny facsimiles of Barack and Michelle Obama stand on the porch looking at the tower.
When it comes to fuel options for the miniature landscape, Demos won’t compromise. “I don’t have Shell. I’ve got Greenwood Energy Company,” he says, pointing to a tiny silo (Greenwood is his nephew’s last name).
“Alaska is the broken refrigerator of the planet.” — John Demos
Behind Demos’ workbench lives a bizarre, six-by-four-foot contraption.
“It does nothing. It’s (called) the Crazy Useless Machine,” he says. Demos flips a switch and a ping-pong helicopter blade twirls. A plumb bob hangs, causing magnets on a gimbal to turn and make a compass go wild. It shakes, smokes, and blows bubbles. Anemometers spin. There are gauges, oilcans, telescope lenses, door knobs — even a rotary phone dial.
“My father was a nuclear physicist. But he was a packrat; he kept everything and I couldn’t throw it away,” he says. So Demos built a working machine from the hoarded gadgets.
Out on Demos’ porch, insects drone in the stifling afternoon heat. Demos looks out at his property. “There’s the river — we’ve had about three of those 400-year floods since we’ve been here,” he says. Unlike the controlled world in his attic, this land can’t be patched with model glue and old batteries. But Demos keeps trying, prepared to protect his collection of dinosaur footprints, compass parts, and other shadows of the past from the rising tide.