A Complex, Contradictory, Lovely Place

I once read in a guidebook: “Of all the natural regions of the United States, New England is the smallest, the most compact and convenient to get around in, the most homogeneous… ” For four decades now, I’ve lived and worked in […]

By Mel Allen

Jan 19 2009

I once read in a guidebook: “Of all the natural regions of the United States, New England is the smallest, the most compact and convenient to get around in, the most homogeneous… ” For four decades now, I’ve lived and worked in New England, the land from which America evolved. There are few nooks and crannies of this six-state region I haven’t seen, and I must disagree. New England and its people may be many things — lovely, cantankerous, industrious, fiercely independent, innovative, complex, contradictory, frugal, eccentric, emotionally reserved, unpretentious — but certainly not homogeneous.

Yes, it’s small. Six states. One, Rhode Island, is the nation’s smallest. You can zip in and out in the time it takes the world champion Boston Red Sox to play a game. The others — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine — can tuck inside Oklahoma and still leave room to stretch out. But homogeneous? New England is Harvard University — the first of 270 colleges and universities located throughout New England — an intellectual force of nature. New England is also where many public schools struggle to hang on for dear life, and where one state, New Hampshire, ranks dead last in the United States for public aid to education. New England is gleaming Boston; vibrant Providence, Rhode Island, a city reborn with artists and craftspeople; Portland, Maine, whose restaurants rival the best in the country. New England is also Maine’s unorganized territories, those wild lands in the north, inhabited by some 8,000 people, comprising nearly half the state’s area. New England is Boston’s bustling Logan Airport. It’s also Greenville, Maine, where the float planes of bush pilots take off from Moosehead Lake to take hunters and fishermen to remote cabins, where the only sounds are wind, coyotes, bobcats, and loons.

New England includes one of America’s wealthiest states, Connecticut, and one of its poorest, Maine. New England is Newport, Rhode Island, where magnificent yachts ply gleaming Narragansett Bay, but it’s also Newport, New Hampshire, home to maple sugar houses, apple orchards, and once-thriving mills hoping for new uses. New England is miles of warm sand along the shores of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket islands. It’s also home to Mount Washington, in the White Mountains, the most lethal mountain in North America for those who fail to respect what a 6,288-foot altitude means in a New Hampshire winter.

I can travel just 20 or so miles from my home in New Hampshire’s Monadnock region, where century-old summer mansions sit on green knolls overlooking deep blue lakes, and find the forgotten pockets of poverty where the “woodchucks” live, a cruel yet pervasive name for the rural poor whose protein, the story persists, as often as not comes from varmints and deer harvested out of season. Few frills ever adorn these lives. They’ll probably never set foot on Boston’s Beacon Hill, never shop on that city’s ritzy Newbury Street, never dine on lobster.

New England has three of the whitest states in the country: Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. Yet in Hartford, Connecticut, Spanish is spoken in countless neighborhoods; great clusters of Cambodians make their home in Lowell, Massachusetts; and thousands of Somalian refugees have started new lives in Lewiston, Maine. And that’s the point: We live so close together, we can’t escape one another’s lives. We are all New Englanders.

But there remains, as well, even now in the 21st century, the New England of our sweetest imaginings. It has to do with small towns, ingenuity, self-reliance, rugged individualism. Possibly these are myths in 2009, perpetuated in part by magazines like my own. Possibly we need to believe in them. No place in America possesses such a sense of tradition and continuity — a place with an identity so strong that no matter where I travel in the world, when I say I am a New Englander, people nod and have a sense of where I come from. This New England is at once real and wished for.

My office at Yankee Magazine looks out upon this town’s volunteer fire department. If I crane my head just a bit, I see the town hall. Next door is the white-steepled community church. A bulletin board outside the barn-red Yankee building announces community comings and goings, lost pets, weddings, births, deaths. At lunch I walk along dirt roads within sight of Mount Monadnock, the second-most-climbed mountain in the world. I see deer, foxes, hawks. Once I saw a black bear. In summer I swim in any of two dozen lakes and ponds within 10 miles of my house. In September I’ll pick apples, the first tart crop of McIntosh, and I’ll return for sweeter Red Delicious and Macoun in early October. In winter I’ll ice-skate at night on the lighted town pond a few miles west, with a fire glowing along the bank where wool-hatted children huddle close, their breath frosting.

But… New England is also where people tend to conserve their words and feelings as if they could be taxed. This saddens many who come here from “away.” Many leave within a few winters, yearn to throw off what feels to them like a claustrophobic soul tightness. Somehow even this reluctance to befriend newcomers goes back to history and memory, to some intuitive sense that living here implies a desire for privacy. My favorite New England story is about two Maine fishermen who have been drifting for days, surviving on the blood of sea birds. Near death they sight a distant ship. One fisherman waves his shirt wildly, screaming, pleading for rescue. His companion says quietly, “Jed, don’t do anything to make you beholden to them.”

With all of its gifts, despite all of its faults, New England holds America’s imagination like no other region. That’s because everyone grows up learning that here you find America’s hometown, where on April 19, 1775, in Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts, were fired the first shots of the American Revolution. Visitors come here from across America, looking for that elusive sense of place, of a way to belong to something well-rooted and well-tended. Thomas McIntyre, former senator from New Hampshire, once wrote about “the craving-to recapture personal identity… the feeling that somehow we have lost our way, that to find it again we must retrace our steps.”

The defining institution of New England has always been our obsession with being America’s old country. With retracing our steps. With that comes the need to hold onto tradition and ritual and memory. More than anything, those are the ways the region is knit, more than by weather, or soil, or shared borders, or politics, or sports. I once spent time on the Tuttle Farm in Dover, New Hampshire, the oldest family farm in America, dating from 1632. Twelve generations of Tuttles have worked the same land, and the patriarch of the family when I saw them was Hugh Tuttle, who died in 2002. “I keep having this feeling when I’m walking across a freshly cultivated field,” Hugh Tuttle told me. “I’ll suddenly think, ‘My God, my ancestors have put a foot right there, where I’ve put mine. Would they approve of the way I’m treating the land?’ “

New England is where people are keepers. We keep family recipes, quilts, tools from grandparents, land. One writer described all this keeping as “our neurotic preoccupation with antiques and graveyards and the doings of the long deceased.” New Englanders were savers and re-users long before “recycling” became a word we all used. The remnants they save are partly rooted in a long-nurtured frugality-those bits of cloth, those scraps of metal, do come in handy, maybe, someday. New Englanders are expected to “wear it out, use it up, make do, or do without.” How frugal are we? Donald Hall, America’s poet laureate, who lives on his ancestral land in New Hampshire, once wrote, “When we tore down the sap house my great-grandfather built, we found that he had propped one four-by-four on a flat piece of stone — which was his own father’s broken headstone. Replacing the frostbitten marker from the old Andover graveyard, he had taken the busted granite home and put it to good use.”

There’s also a doggedness here, a resiliency. An ethic not to whine, but to get through, to endure. The feeling that earlier New Englanders went through much more. We shouldn’t complain. I met a farmer not long ago, a man in his eighties who made his living delivering fresh eggs to more than 100 families using only his horse and buggy. He’d been doing that for 60 years. His house was old and worn, and a great black woodstove and a second wood furnace heated the drafty place. I asked him if he had backup heat, oil perhaps. He looked at me, surprised. “Backup is me putting in more wood,” he said.

One winter day I found myself in Caribou, Maine, known throughout the state as perhaps the coldest spot in a state that does not fear cold. A woman told me a story, one that has been passed down through her family, like an heirloom. It happened on a day that ever since has been known as “Cold Friday.” The date was February 13, 1861. It was, she said, 36 degrees below zero, with a vicious wind. A mailman named Bubar set out with the mail. He went on snowshoes 12 miles to the town of Presque Isle, got his load of mail, and started home. But the wind got him, and he cut down a cedar tree and kept a fire going all night to stay alive. “The next day,” she said proudly, “he brought the mail.”

I’ve known many Bubars. These aren’t the sort of people who succumb to the lore of the easy life, the lure of celebrity. Continuity and work, work and continuity. The legacy of the Puritans has never let go. We who live here always hope that the sense of important things, the tenacity, these great gifts of New England, will fix itself to our children’s spirits. It is the greatest gift I can leave my own two sons, this complex, contradictory little place. New England. They were born here. They are native sons. That can never be taken away.