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The Northern Pass Project | 'My Roots Are Deeper than Your Pockets'

Faith has been described as “the evidence of things not seen.” But for people with strong ties to the land, their faith is the evidence of the things they can see–and that they wish big companies could see as well. John explains it this way: “I’ve got some meat in my refrigerator that came from a deer that a guy shot up on my first meadow, my first hayfield. I’ve watched that deer grow up. My mother’s and father’s ashes are in that hayfield …” He chokes up. “… As are my younger brother’s. I’m eating ashes and microbes that grew into grass that the deer ate. It’s just the way it is. I’m from the land, I’m on the land, I love the land, and eventually I’ll go back to the land.”

In one of his first columns about Northern Pass, in December 2010, he wrote, “We here in the North Country are at rope’s end. Having lost about all of our industry and not having [help from the state], we have only the landscape left, which is our definition, our heritage, our livelihood, and our meager future.”

Land is all we have. I was haunted by the echo I heard in what John Harrigan said. It’s been said by others who have found themselves in the way of Hydro-Quebec. About 600 miles north of Rod McAllaster and Lynne Placey, the Innu–the native people of northeastern Quebec and parts of Labrador–have been protesting Hydro-Quebec’s installation of power lines through their ancestral lands without their permission. Once, they blocked the road to a hydroelectric complex for five days. “Our land is the last thing we have left,” one person observed. “It’s our identity.”

In the early 1970s, few in the United States had heard of Hydro-Quebec–now North America’s largest power producer–until another native people, the Cree, began to protest that they were about to be flooded out of their homeland near Hudson Bay. And since Hydro-Quebec wanted to sell some of that power to Americans, they were about to lose their ancient way of life so that we in the States could plug in our televisions.

The Cree have seen thousands of square miles of old hunting grounds, sacred burial grounds, and villages drowned; rivers dammed; forests clear-cut and sliced through with roads. They have negotiated long, complex agreements with Quebec. It has won them some compensation: jobs, investment, autonomy in local governments and schools. And it has lost them much of their old way of life and brought high mercury levels in fish and in people, alcoholism, drugs, and suicide. It’s a complicated ledger sheet of loss and gain. They have bravely attempted to meet modern times on their own terms.

“It’s very hard to explain to white people what we mean by ‘Land is part of our life,'” Chief Robbie Dick of the Great Whale community said in 1990 when Hydro-Quebec was looking to dam still more wild rivers and flood another several hundred square miles (“actions conservationists say would cut out the ecological heart of a rocky region the size of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire,” reported the New York Times).

“It’s always the case that we are asked to give up a way of life,” Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said later. “We are asked to compromise.”

You could substitute what the native peoples have said over the last 40 years for what the opponents of Northern Pass say today. The Cree, the Innu, and now a North Country piano teacher and a farmer are united by the losses they face.

The face-off in the North Country brings us full circle. Our history on this continent began with taking land. We’re re-enacting the first encounters in North America between Europeans and natives: the taking of land. The first things the Pilgrims did when they landed on Cape Cod was to shoot at the Indians, steal a store of corn, dig up graves to take the beads, and steal the most beautiful decorations from empty wigwams. The brilliant Abenaki scholar and storyteller Marge Bruchac asks, “What kind of people would do that?” Us. We would.

In fact, we’re still at it. Only now we play both parts in this drama: We are the raiders and the raided. We are a people who began with a huge land hunger, and there was a lot to grab. But the era of wide-open spaces is gone, and now we’re “cannibalizing each other’s land,” in the view of one conservative scholar.

We’re witnessing a new land rush. In the 19th century the settlers would race to the frontier, occupying land in advance of completed surveys or laws–in a word, squatting. They would claim more land than they could farm, fell the forests, deplete the soil, and move on. Land hunger was there at the country’s founding. It’s one of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence; the British were hemming the colonies in, preventing them from expanding beyond the Appalachians. “Land Rush,” historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, is “only another name for much of American history.”

Against this new land rush we have only a piano teacher and a dairy farmer–and, fortunately, thousands of others who can see across boundaries and generations. One afternoon I went to see one of those people, Sara Timmons, in Greenfield, New Hampshire, in the southwestern part of the state. Sara and her late husband, Jeff, had donated an easement to the Monadnock Conservancy: 416 acres of pastures and woods, with a bewitching view of Mount Monadnock. Their easement led to their neighbors’ conserving another 534 acres. They had all discussed donating easements.

“We had met enough times. The paper was there. Somebody had to sign it,” Sara says. She told her husband, “We’re going to have to go first. A lot of people will say they’re interested. Taking the first step is very difficult.” In 2002 the Timmonses did, and it made all the difference. They weren’t facing a big power project; they saw land around them being sold off in lots.

“When I was growing up, conservation didn’t exist much,” Sara explains. She was raised outside Philadelphia–“pretty, pretty country”–that had boomed. Farms were being sold for housing tracts and shopping centers. She was sad to see her grandfather’s farm sold.

Jeff had grown up in the country riding his horse anywhere he wanted. He loved to hunt and to garden. “He loved to be outside,” Sara says. “It was in both of us … I’m very land-oriented. I paint landscapes. I walk, I hike, I garden, I play golf. I’m an earth person, if there is such a thing. I’m the kind of person who shouldn’t be driving because I’m always looking at the scenery. I even like window seats in an airplane.” She knows the practical case that can be made, but that’s not why she acted. “It was to save the land. Period,” she explains. “My whole gut: It’s something that means a great deal to me. And it means a lot to other people.

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