The folly of taking things for granite:
Losing the Old Man, and our views too
This is a hard piece to compose, not because of the writing or the music, but because of human sentiment and the irreversible factors that are changing the land. It is about pastures, fields and other openings we've seen growing up before our eyes, and the inability to do anything about it.
Back when I was a tad, not so many years ago, the place-names tripped off the tongue: Scott Opening, Hurlbert Opening, Ferguson Place, Shatney Opening, Thayer Holden Opening, and countless others. They were hard-won from the woods by settlers who had been pushed upward from the fertile bottomlands already occupied by others.
For much of my life I've moved along this fringe, where frontier farming washed up against the big woods, where I like to tell truck-tour visitors about the hops and the hemp, about land that never felt the bite of a plow or the moo of a cow. That is my line, my saying, and so I claim it even as I love it but hate saying it. It is, in our country, the North Country, the last frontier, more of a state of mind than reality.
In my days of fishing around the upper end of Deadwater Swamp, I often saw Raymond Ricker's cows down there, drinking and running amok, which in old language, I think, suggests loosely. Going from cows to spring heifers is a shoal-waters analogy. You have to envision spring heifers let out of the barn. They cavort. They frolic with abandon, a redundant phrase, as many of us pagans, or free-thinkers, or libertarians, envision or have done.
But there they were, free-ranging cows, representing the last great gasp of farming. There would be no more clearings after their time or mine, at least not for farming.
The old openings are growing up. There is no economic incentive for maintaining them. The calendar photos and gift cards of tomorrow are based on a disappearing landscape. Who will maintain these openings for tomorrow? Nobody. The agricultural base that fostered the openings is gone.
Even lovers of the landscape like David Hodge, a fierce local with deep roots who makes and sells quality hay for horses far to the south, know this. The remaining dairy farms are reaching to their limits for the best fields that afford payback. David, into it not for livestock but for the hay, has had to give up far-flung fields whose owners wanted him to keep haying them, for nothing but to preserve the openings. Nobody can afford the diesel fuel, not to mention the hauling of manure or the costly application of fossil-fuel-based fertilizer, to maintain far-flung fields.
Take a good look at your surroundings, the 30-mile view embedded in your psyche, because tomorrow your prospective and your sense and place and time will, on Mother Nature's long clock, be gone, replaced perhaps by the soul's immersion under a canopy of green, the close-up look, the yonder look gone under.
We are losing our openings. From these fields and pastures come our views. From these views come our tourists. The tourists are about all we have left. We make next to nothing in terms of durable goods, and create no jobs.
To look at the things we once made here from sustainable trees is to cry. Go to the library and sit down with The W.A. Fergusson & Co.'s History of Coös County, published in 1888, and read the town-by-town sections. The enterprise is staggering, as is its loss.
Without viable tourism and trees and agriculture, we have nothing. We do not make stuff, and neither do we grow stuff reaching the economics of scale. Where are the potatoes, hops, or hemp of yesteryear? Where are the things from the soil? Why did Maine hang onto its potato industry and thrive on it, while we let ours go to wrack and ruin?
We are admirably situated to grow hops and industrial hemp, and indeed in the past grew plenty. Is there a contract in the offing with the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Merrimack? Have any of our leaders and decision-makers even thought of this? And as for hemp, where is the political leader who'll rise to speak for that one, never mind that it would take a boxcar-load of hemp to get high?
Taken another step, where is the leader who will advocate that a slice of the rooms and meals tax--the tax that Meldrim Thomson colorfully called the bed and belly tax--be allocated to a fund to pay landowners for the time and diesel fuel and tractor upkeep to preserve the openings that enable our views, the postcard and calendar views that draw our tourists?
When I first set foot on Henry Ricker's north pasture 50 years or so ago, Rudy Shatney pointed out long-gone hops beds. Their bones are still there. We need to keep hard-won openings open, and we need to get back to home-grown industry and agriculture, if not for us, then for those few of our children who will relish the place as we do, scratch a living out here, and call it home.
(John Harrigan may be reached at PO Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576, or firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Issue of May 15, 2013)