Rural Mainers deserve at least as much conservation attention as rural land

I think I was five when our family first moved to Maine. It was the early seventies, and we arrived in a Pinto — my dad having worked for Ford and the Pinto being a decent, economical family car still waiting to be declared a deathtrap.

My parents had bought a former youth summer camp with the intention of converting it into a year round home. The camp was on Clary Lake, in Coopers Mills on a nameless RFD that ended in Jefferson. Our closest neighbors were a mile or more away.

Quite a change for city folk.

It was so dark at night — breathtakingly dark. Our backyard was full of climbable Christmas trees as far as the eyes could see or my little legs could wander. My parents were confused when the realtor told them he didn’t know how to lock the house doors when they asked for the keys. He told them to check the drawer full of skeleton keys in the kitchen to see if any fit the front doors.

And he said, ‘round here no one locks them anyway.

The camp and outbuildings were an endless adventure in the history and culture of rural Maine.  The dry sink and that big, old, cast iron cook stove in the kitchen that were quickly supplemented with modern appliances. The dirt basement and root cellar dug for much shorter people than my father who had to duck not to bang his head on the trees used to hold the wide plank floors in place above.

The rusty metal basket with a circle cut out on the end of a long, wooden pole. One of our “neighbors” — like dairy farmer across from our road — who took a shining to our inadequate, city-trained family explained that it was an apple picker.

My dad showed it off with pride to every relative and family friend from away who dared to venture that far into the woods to visit us — not many, not often. Our visitors never understood how we could live here or why we could be so excited about antique apple pickers.

Those earliest lessons from rural Mainers and all the ones that followed are a part of who I am. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lessons about farming, ice fishing, snowmobiling, four wheeling, splitting and stacking wood, identifying which wildlife noises tell you when someone or something’s coming — snowshoeing in the deep woods during a flurry at the tail end of a northeaster that has the lowest bows and weakest saplings stuck to the ground.

I’ve learned that biting the head of the first smelt you catch isn’t actually an initiation ritual but the type of prank some Mainers play on inebriated people from away who don’t know better to see how far it will get — and, no, I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve learned the nuanced dynamics involved in driving a four wheel drive vehicle off road under Maine’s various seasonal conditions.

Rural Mainers have taught me how to fix things when you don’t have what you need to do it, and how to drive on sheer ice in the dead of winter in Aroostock County. It’s all good stuff to know.

Most of our relatives lived in the greater Boston area, and at least once every month or so and on holidays and school vacations while growing up, we’d head south on 95 to visit them or an even farther flung relative. My Maine friends thought it was cool that I got to travel so much, but truthfully I was jealous that they got to be here all the time.

There was no way my less-traveled schoolmates could understand the tense feeling I got every time we headed south over the Kittery Bridge or the wave of relief that came while crossing the bridge on the return trip — a feeling that grew stronger upon seeing the “Welcome to Maine” sign — the old one.

Welcome to Maine sign. Pixabay stock photo.

Welcome to Maine sign. Stock photo.

I think back then it only said “Vacationland” for a motto.

I’ve been thinking about the line of tension/relief that I’ve long associated with the Maine border when I read about rural communities disappearing or about possible attempts to make the referendum process more reflexive of central, rural, and northern sensibilities. 

The other morning, though, as I was racing down 295 during commuter hours, late for an appointment in Freeport, the thought morphed into a high speed epiphany:  sometime over the last couple decades, my line had moved. The tension I used to feel as a child at the sight of the north end of the Kittery bridge now kicks in somewhere around the Topsham exit on 295S for my adult self.

Ditto for the wave of relief on the way back.

I immediately understood exactly what some of my readers, contacts, and friends mean when they refer to southern Maine as “Northern Massachusetts.”  The pace, the traffic, the highway lined with residential and business development piled less than spitting distance between each — it’s all stuff I used to associate with leaving Maine to go to Boston when I was a child.

It’s all stuff that makes my shoulders tense and my mood unattractively intense, then and now. Presumably, if experiencing this lifestyle in transit affects me so much, living it everyday would probably impact how I think and what I value. Living that way every day wouldn’t make me a bad person — some people, like most of my relatives, like that lifestyle — but it might just change my day-to-day perceptions as compared to people who don’t live life in such numbers at such speeds.

It’s okay for things to change; it’s okay that congestion and hustle and bustle have crept over the Kittery bridge. The northern creep of hustle and bustle has its place in helping to diversify Maine’s economy. Even my old road’s been paved, populated, and named; although the Coopers Mills side spells the name differently than the Jefferson side.

But the sensibilities born of less hustle and bustle have their value, too.

Our state places a high value on protecting rural lands from the northern creep of hustle and bustle, but what about the people? What about the communities that foster rural wisdom and make rural places interesting places to visit?

Rural Mainers provide the Mainer flavor that enhances any tourist’s Maine experience and all of our collective experience. The people who espouse the sensibilities born of a more rural lifestyle are a vital natural resource and deserve at least as much conservation attention — politically and financially — as we give to rural land.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.