Unfolding the Map
We stop at a maple syrup farm in rural New Hampshire, just outside Melvin Village. There William Least Heat-Moon LHM learns how a sixth generation farmer can not only keep a tradition going, but do so with the winds of modernization and progress blowing against him. If you want to get a little sweetness on your tongue, go to the map, but don't dribble that syrupy goodness on it.
"'I could sell of pieces for house lots, and I wouldn't have to work anymore. But I'd lose more than just our land. The old families of the township are pretty well gone and dispersed, and the old homesteads keep disappearin'. Younger people almost have to go away to find proper work. 'Tis a beautiful place, but not a good one for an intelligent young person. I took the college preparatory course at Tilton School and went to the University of New Hampshire for two years. But I came back. Didn't seem like anything special returnin' home then. Now it looks like somethin' you may not see happen again.'"
Tom Hunter - Maple syrup maker
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 12
Hunter's Maple Farm, New Hampshire
At one time, the land on which I grew up was part of a large homestead or farm. Our house was supposedly the house where the landowner lived. It was built sometime in the early 20th century, and was the newer house of the owner as I remember. Out at the western edge of our four acres - the "back forty" as my dad always called it - I could look across the neighbor's field and see the original homestead and beyond that, a former dance hall turned into a large barn.
When I grew up, there weren't very many people that lived around us, as the land that was owned were relatively large tracts with one house on them. But over the years, things changed. People either subdivided their land to get extra money as real estate prices went up, and new owners built houses on those subdivided plots, or sometimes people built another house on their own property for rental or for another family member. The net result was more people, and though the neighborhood where I grew up is still quiet, it is less quiet than when I was young.
Even we subdivided our land. To pay off some debts, my mom sold an acre to our next door neighbors. They promptly built a large garage on it to house some heavy equipment and a private home mechanic shop. Every time I look out my mom's front window, I remember that acre and the football games I used to play with my friends in that field, and the flowers that grew out of the two burnt-out stumps and I get a little wisp of nostalgia.
As our country has moved from a rural, agriculture economy to a blue-collar manufacturing economy and now to a white-collar service economy, a few things have happened. Young people, once shown the excitement of cities and the promise of more money and greater quality of life in cities, began to eschew the family farms for better jobs. Now, as manufacturing declines, young people continue to concentrate in cities, focusing on hi-tech, business, engineering and other modern pursuits.
In Blue Highways, the quote above comes from a chapter where LHM visits a maple syrup farm in rural New Hampshire. Given the way the world is moving, it might seem amazing that such a thing can still exist. In fact, reading through the rest of LHM's profile of the proprietor, Tom Hunter, it becomes clear that the farm cannot exist on maple syrup alone. The profits pay his taxes, but he and his family have other diversified businesses that bring in income, including a trailer park, an excavating business and a barge transport company. And yet, he says that there isn't much to keep the young people on the farm or in the family business. He says this with only a tinge of regret, and a resignation that the world works in a different way now.
In my hometown, the second wave of the movement from manufacturing and blue-collar work to a service economy was felt keenly. When my father grew up, the place that most enterprising young men went to work was the town lumber mill, one of the biggest on the west coast. Other people followed their fathers into the fishing industry. Now, the lumber mill has been closed almost 15 years, the fishing industry has been decimated by regulations designed to protect against overfishing, and my town has made a lurching and sometimes painful transition to a tourist-oriented and service economy. Young people who want to try to improve their livelihoods and lifestyles usually go away to college and then disperse across California.
I'm not a Luddite, nor am I necessarily a Romantic. I don't think that humans should necessarily give up progress and keep society in stasis, locked in an arrested state of development so that we remain a snapshot of what has been and will always be. And yet, I am always filled with some nostalgia when I think of what we leave behind as we rush headlong toward greater progress. My grandmother, for instance, grew up in an area and time when automobiles were a rarity and a telephone was a luxury. I know she looked back with some yearning on her childhood. I know I look back with nostalgia on simpler times that I experienced - times that probably seemed very complex to my grandmother. I wonder if in 40 years, as I contemplate the end of my time on earth, I will look back with nostalgia on when I only had to worry about my smart phone, my IPad, and the busy life I built with those things.
There are times as I write this when I wish I could go back to Fort Bragg, live in my house or in a cabin on the Noyo River, have a garden and live simply, but not leisurely because it would be hard work. Maybe I will someday. As I looked up Hunter's Farm online, I discovered that this maple syrup operation, in business since 1815, is still being farmed by the seventh generation of Hunters. We CAN stay rooted, we don't all have to leave and, if I interpret what I read correctly, we can go back from whence we came or something like it if we want.
John Mellencamp wrote a song in the 80s, at a time when the family farm was under attack, caught between the efficiencies of corporate farming and government policies. Here, in Rain on the Scarecrow, he sings about the disappearing family farms.
And here's a simple little song, Sugar Time, by someone named William Weaver with photos of a maple syrup operation.
If you want to know more about Hunter's Maple Farm
Well, there's not really much. But take a look at this thread describing a visit to Hunter's, and this listing of maple syrup producers in New Hampshire if you want to visit Hunter's or someplace like it.
Next up: Springvale, Sanford and Kennebunk, Maine