One of the standard lines from visitors to small towns that make local residents shake their heads goes like this: “It’s beautiful here, for sure, but whatever do you do?” The standard refrain is that if you have to ask the question, you’ll never understand the answer.
Underlying the question is why any one wants to live here. “Well,” you can say, “you can’t eat the scenery but there’s one hell of a lot to do,” but that’s not the why of it at all.
The answer to why we love the land and try to scratch out a living here is a complicated one. “Well, for one thing, you can pick out a spot on the horizon and just put your pack on and go, without a goodbye from anyone,” is part of my standard response. We live on a farm on a ridge with a 30-mile view into Vermont and Lower Canada. We can hunt, fish, snowmobile, pick berries and cross-country ski right out our back door. We leave our land open and enjoy the land of others. We leave our keys in our vehicles and our doors unlocked. But of course there is much more to it than that.
There is the land itself, with its mysterious distant past and rich recent history---a jumbled geography of mountains, valleys and ridges, more than 90 percent woods and water, peopled by relatively few people, mostly unposted and open to all. It’s a land of post- glacial peoples and later-age Abenaki, a place of hard-won settlements, the hey-day of farming and the sounds of axe, crosscut and chainsaw. It’s a place of great beauty and a magnet for tourism.
But the bottom line for many people, the stuff of their very souls, is that it remains wild, beautiful and free.
I had always been told, by those few who were interested in the background and concept of New England’s well-known tradition of open land, that it stemmed from the Mayflower Compact. The people who sailed here, the story went, held a meeting before they stepped ashore, and agreed that in their new world it would not be like the old country, where the common folk had to stick to the common path and doff their caps and tug their forelocks if the landed gentry galloped by, and could not stray onto someone else’s land. So, I liked to think, was born the jealously held tradition of open land in the Northeast, meaning that you were privileged to travel across or recreate on other people’s property---as in hunting, hiking, fishing, bird-watching, berrying, camping and on and on. You could enjoy someone else’s land unless specifically notified to the contrary---“posted,” as in “No Trespassing,” and “No Hunting,” and a lot of other signs that begin with “no.” When much later in life I actually looked the Mayflower Compact up, I could find no mention of all this. Still, it makes a nice story, and so, always with a caveat, I keep it.
The people who were living here before the Europeans arrived had already reached the conclusion that in their culture, with their lifestyle, it made no sense for one person or family or class to own specific tracts of land. A nation or tribe might be territorial about hunting and fishing rights, and villages were closely guarded in an “invitation only” way, but the vast lands in between were considered open for travel and subsistence foraging along the way. Thus were the great inter-tribe and inter-nation trading routes established, and internecine warfare kept to a minimum. The notion of private ownership to the exclusion of others was unfathomable.
While some of the early European settlements were tightly grouped villages so that potential sinners could be closely watched, the irresistible vision of land for the taking inevitably beckoned restless settlers, who quite quickly came to understand the Indian outlook and reached the conclusion that the same approach made sense for them. It was only logical that a settler could cross many other neighbors’ or speculators’ lands to get supplies, conduct trade, or simply hunt, fish or forage for berries and honey. Thus the privilege of uninvited (even welcome) trespass was born---and nowhere did it take a firmer and more jealously guarded hold than in our own Northeast.
But now that tradition is under grave threat, eroded by new landowners from different backgrounds and by a society that values new housing developments and shopping centers more than farms, forests, and the supreme privilege of stepping, with due thanks and respect, on someone else’s land. For people imbued with a deep and almost fierce love of the landscape, culture and traditions, change strikes to the very core.
What is it that explains such strong mental and visceral ties to this place? People have a hard time putting it into words. Now and then I give it a try. I had, as we say and people here have been saying since settlement times, “gone out,” meaning Down Below, as in down below the notches.
There have always been two worlds, Up Above and Down Below. I spent just enough time away---about ten years---to cement my trade and conclude that I didn’t want to be there any more before I was back in the North Country owning and running weekly newspapers, one of them founded in 1838 (the Coös County Democrat in Lancaster), and another in 1970 (the News and Sentinel in Colebrook).
In 1996 word reached the Democrat’s newsroom of a tremendous discovery in the Jefferson-Randolph area. Archeologist Paul Bock of Jefferson had been poking around in the roots of wind-felled trees when he discovered what proved to be relics from three prehistoric Paleo-Indian campsites, which ensuing digs determined to date from around 11,000 A.D., a thousand years or so after the melting of the last glacier. Exactly who these people were remains a mystery.
For eight or nine years I had lived in Jefferson and hunted the very south-facing slope where one of the major digs was taking place, and knew the ground well. I had a fairly clear mental picture of what the landscape looked like during the era the archeologists and volunteers were sifting through---its ground-cover and its wildlife. I just had to go. “I want to stand there as a hunter and camper and think about why the people camped there 11,000 years ago,” I somewhat lamely explained to Dick Boisvert, deputy state archeologist for the state Division of Historical Resources. Instantly he proffered the invitation.
Never will I forget that experience. While people dug, sifted, sorted and catalogued all around, I stood, envisioned, and thought. The glacier-scraped ground would have been covered with emerging plants like lichens, moss and low scrub. The Jefferson-Randolph gap would have been (and still is) a pinch-point for wandering, foraging and migratory animals, chief among them the protein-laden, fat-rich woodland caribou.
The spot where the band of hunter-gathering people chose to pitch their campsite was in a sunny southern exposure on a gently sloping hillside near a brook, about halfway down the ridge between the hardscrabble rocks and ledges of the Pilot Range and the fertile Israel’s River bottomland. The prevailing northwest winds would have kept the tribe’s encampment scents from the caribous’ sensitive noses, no matter which direction they were coming from. No doubt fish and berries were there to be had. Lookouts could see far in any direction.
It was, I thought, the perfect place. And I would have felt at home there then, and felt at home there now.
Up until now, I think, the northern headwaters of the Connecticut River watershed have remained different largely because of climate and an accident of demographics and geography. Close to seven months of winter is daunting no matter how you look at it. And the Interstate, because of population, projections of growth and the lay of the land, took a sharp turn west after breaching Franconia Notch, sparing northern Carroll and Coös counties the usual interchange cookie-cutter development and inevitable sprawl of growth.
Still, it was only a matter of time, and while the Connecticut Lakes region got a reprieve, it could not last. The plain fact is there are more and more people but nobody is manufacturing more land. Affordable, available, easy-to-build-on land in southern areas is being gobbled up fast. A recession is but a brief blip on the screen. We are at the end of the road, the last place of refuge. For those who absolutely must go, get away, flee, this is the end of the line.
We are it---the Last Great Place.
Where are we headed? In the 1980s and ‘90s, three great conservation initiatives safeguarded three major landscapes--the Nash Stream Valley, the Vickie Bunnell Forest, and the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters Tract--against fragmentation and conversion of use. All of this land will remain open for traditional recreation, none of it will be developed, and much of it remains working forest. Meanwhile, all around these tracts, the surveyors are busy and the bulldozers can barely keep up.
But because so much land remains wild and beautiful and open, we will continue to be a magnet for tourism, even as logging jobs succumb to labor-saving technology and dairy farms struggle to morph into other endeavors. Meanwhile we are evolving, the wry joke goes, into a society of short-order cooks and bed-turners.
One of the tomes that make my office bookshelf groan is the 1888 History of CoösCounty. It is a fascinating read, and a heartbreaking one. Near the turn of that century, northern New Hampshire featured literally hundreds of enterprises large and small that made things--everything from potato starch to cheese to furniture and flooring. Myriad products from the earth and trees were fashioned by clever minds and facile hands into useful products for home and afar. From every resource extracted, every possible job was wrung.
We are a far cry from that scene today. Sit at a window table at Howard’s Restaurant, on Colebrook’s Main Street, and look the present in the eye. Truck after truck loaded with the best logs---the straight birch and maple, the clear ash, the biggest spruce and fir--- rolls north toward the Canadian line. Not for nothing are roughly forty Canadian sawmills positioned all across the northern New England border. We ship our trees, they get the jobs.
There are four basic crops northern New Hampshire is famous for growing---grass, potatoes, trees, and children.
Grass that was once grown to make labor-intensive milk, butter and cheese is now increasingly trucked south as fancy horse hay. Good thinkers and hard workers are scrambling to shift agricultural production to meet changing societal needs and markets, but it’s a slow, painful and precarious evolution. Inevitably, farmlands that are so key to our scenery, our tourism and our collective psyche are going to disappear.
Potatoes, I’ll admit, are an obscure subject. Few people know the history and even fewer, I think, ponder much of any future. The short story is that because of soil makeup, it’s almost impossible to grow a blemish-free, shelf-attractive “designer” potato here. The Pacific Northwest captured that market. But bulk potatoes for bulk products?
You bet. Maine shifted emphasis and saved its potato industry. Why can’t we? Why aren’t we growing French fries for McDonald’s?
Trees--the possibilities boggle the mind. There is a growing hunger for locally and regionally made products of every sort, especially from “green,” renewable, locally grown wood. Show growing numbers of consumers flooring or furniture or tool handles made locally from local wood as opposed to environmentally unsustainable products from afar and they’re more and more likely to “buy local.” Just ask the Mennonites and the Amish. If they do it, why can’t we?
We need an axiom, a byword, an ethic here, burned into every person’s
mind: “Wring every single job possible from every single tree that hits the ground.”
Because we don’t make anything, because we’ve become by and large a service industry, because we’ve lost our knack at making myriad products from the land, we watch our children leave, with little prospect of coming back, perhaps the saddest story of all.
A time of great change is a time of great risk. Some factors are simply beyond prediction or control. Sometimes the only hope is that there will remain a sense of place, a feeling of home. Sometimes the best thing to do is to throw on a pack, take a bead on some distant spot, and just go, a privilege beyond any other.
The old-time woodsmen delighted in speculating about getting sluiced, which meant suddenly swept away, perhaps while tending out on a log drive or guiding logs through a dam. “What happened to Old Bill?” one river hog would ask another. “Oh, he got sluiced, “came the reply.” There are a few places, in the very high country of Columbia and Stewartstown and Pittsburg, where an inventive hiker can seek out little rivulets in the narrowest of notches and, literally, hop back and forth from one watershed to another---from the Androscoggin drainage, where if you get sluiced you will wind up in the Gulf of Maine, to the Connecticut drainage, where you’ll wind up in Long Island Sound.
All of what I’ve written here, in the face of such change, makes me want to go and find a narrow little notch and do that again, while I can, if only for the sheer delight of it, but also so I can utter what I always utter when I make that final leap back into where I belong, which is “Damn, it’s a hard life, but it’s good to be home.”