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 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.”