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A Complex, Contradictory, Lovely Place

A Complex, Contradictory, Lovely Place
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The defining institution of New England has always been our obsession with being America’s old country. With retracing our steps. With that comes the need to hold onto tradition and ritual and memory. More than anything, those are the ways the region is knit, more than by weather, or soil, or shared borders, or politics, or sports. I once spent time on the Tuttle Farm in Dover, New Hampshire, the oldest family farm in America, dating from 1632. Twelve generations of Tuttles have worked the same land, and the patriarch of the family when I saw them was Hugh Tuttle, who died in 2002. “I keep having this feeling when I’m walking across a freshly cultivated field,” Hugh Tuttle told me. “I’ll suddenly think, ‘My God, my ancestors have put a foot right there, where I’ve put mine. Would they approve of the way I’m treating the land?’ ”

New England is where people are keepers. We keep family recipes, quilts, tools from grandparents, land. One writer described all this keeping as “our neurotic preoccupation with antiques and graveyards and the doings of the long deceased.” New Englanders were savers and re-users long before “recycling” became a word we all used. The remnants they save are partly rooted in a long-nurtured frugality-those bits of cloth, those scraps of metal, do come in handy, maybe, someday. New Englanders are expected to “wear it out, use it up, make do, or do without.” How frugal are we? Donald Hall, America’s poet laureate, who lives on his ancestral land in New Hampshire, once wrote, “When we tore down the sap house my great-grandfather built, we found that he had propped one four-by-four on a flat piece of stone — which was his own father’s broken headstone. Replacing the frostbitten marker from the old Andover graveyard, he had taken the busted granite home and put it to good use.”

There’s also a doggedness here, a resiliency. An ethic not to whine, but to get through, to endure. The feeling that earlier New Englanders went through much more. We shouldn’t complain. I met a farmer not long ago, a man in his eighties who made his living delivering fresh eggs to more than 100 families using only his horse and buggy. He’d been doing that for 60 years. His house was old and worn, and a great black woodstove and a second wood furnace heated the drafty place. I asked him if he had backup heat, oil perhaps. He looked at me, surprised. “Backup is me putting in more wood,” he said.

One winter day I found myself in Caribou, Maine, known throughout the state as perhaps the coldest spot in a state that does not fear cold. A woman told me a story, one that has been passed down through her family, like an heirloom. It happened on a day that ever since has been known as “Cold Friday.” The date was February 13, 1861. It was, she said, 36 degrees below zero, with a vicious wind. A mailman named Bubar set out with the mail. He went on snowshoes 12 miles to the town of Presque Isle, got his load of mail, and started home. But the wind got him, and he cut down a cedar tree and kept a fire going all night to stay alive. “The next day,” she said proudly, “he brought the mail.”

I’ve known many Bubars. These aren’t the sort of people who succumb to the lore of the easy life, the lure of celebrity. Continuity and work, work and continuity. The legacy of the Puritans has never let go. We who live here always hope that the sense of important things, the tenacity, these great gifts of New England, will fix itself to our children’s spirits. It is the greatest gift I can leave my own two sons, this complex, contradictory little place. New England. They were born here. They are native sons. That can never be taken away.

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