Happy fall, and the view from a mountaintop

I’m sitting with a glass of cider in a rocking chair by the first fire of the season while Alexis types the day’s notes, and the contrast between our peaceful domestic circumstances and the recent global turmoil have put me in a contemplative mood. On Saturday Alexis and I went to Franconia Notch for an overnight backpack with an old college friend. It was a beautiful day, with bright sunshine and just the first hints of fall color gracing the Lafayette ridge. We hiked up to Kinsman Pond, then made the short climb to the top of North Kinsman, where we made a nice dinner and slept out in the open on the ledges overlooking the pond and the Pemigewassett valley. It had been far too long since we’d been hiking, and it seemed a bracing tonic and a fitting welcome to fall to drift asleep gazing into the infinite depths of the Milky Way, observing plainly that the universe couldn’t give a flying rat’s ass about the price of oil or the value of outstanding credit default swaps. Having spent a lot of time deep in the Rockies as a kid before I began hiking in NH, it always seems surreal to me to camp in the White Mountains, observing the customary wilderness rituals of tent and cookpot while watching cars crawl antlike around the valley just below, stopping by the Kwik Mart for a sandwich and a case of Bud.

The drive back through the north country occasioned further reflection. On one hand, the landscape is beautiful and the forests vibrant, the last warmth of summer gracing the countryside. But the back roads always leave me with the desolate feeling of a land long past its heyday. There was a time when the virgin lands of New England were the hottest thing going. A minor waterfall on a medium sized river was reason enough to found a town like Lebanon, which for a time boasted several booming mills. But the soils were spotty and mediocre, and the hilly country did not admit large-scale farming. When agriculture pushed west into the fertile plains and fossil fuels replaced water power, the region began a slow death spiral. More recently, it seems that globalization has dealt a final blow to the region by supplanting the timber industry, its last mainstay. Back in Maine my dad and one of his crew spent a week recently clearing ratty pasture pines to improve an outa-stater’s view, and for a lark he called around trying to find somebody to buy the substantial pile of pulp that resulted. He finally found one guy who would take it away, but what with the cost of fuel and the crummy market he could only pay 180 bucks for two pulp-truck loads.

Driving up the Baker river valley, I had the sense that the land had once given something that was worth having by the standards of the day, but that time was long past. What fields remained clear were mostly given over to horses or a once-a-year bush-hogging, and many were grown up with sumac and alder, stately old apple trees suckered to madness and soon to be reclaimed by the woods. What were once proud farmhouses sprouted white paint leprosy and sagging roofs, and everywhere rotting trailers with bombed out cars, sun-blasted plastic toys, and gas-powered recreational contraptions of every vintage strewn about the yards. Most anything new and not a trailer was of the flakeboard-and-vinyl, plastic-column vernacular of the recent housing metastasis. The only exceptions correlate strongly with anything (ski area, lake, hospital) that can provide a magnetic attraction for money “from away”.

Is it only a hopelessly nostalgic vanity that wishes for a day when the land itself could provide a modest but sustaining living for those who love and work it, and the resulting community could engender enough civic pride to inspire or shame its members into keeping up their properties? Is it a necessary side effect of modern “prosperity” that natural resources are cheapened to the point that they can no longer provide a decent living to the descendants of our land’s pioneers, and to their modern-day successors who to this day still arrive, full of hope on the nation’s shores? Is there truly so little value in a tidy hill farm well kept, or a mixed woodland well managed? How truly “efficient” is it to produce our beef in factory feedlots and buy our timber from the forests of far-off tropical lands, if the cost is the impoverishment of entire regions? The endless quest for economic efficiency seems to have driven the cost of the basic stuff of life so low that a decent living cannot be made in its provenance, excepting at massive industrial scale or at global poverty wage. This is the enduring legacy of my trade, the engineers, and I confess to feeling deeply ambivalent about it.

Meanwhile, the wheels seem to be coming off the celebrated global economic system, but despite its shudderings it has a long way further to crash before it makes actual economic sense to raise sheep on hilly New England pasture, or craft traditional hard cider by hand. Meanwhile we hobbyists and hopeless dreamers will pantomime the old ways while the great powers of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue hash out the future of post-industrial civilization. Perhaps one day in the future we will succeed in our efforts at solar technology, and industrial agriculture will collapse under the weight of its insatiable appetites, democratizing the resource base to the point where the North Country can rise once again. But that is a dreamer’s dream, and a night on a cold mountaintop is quick to remind that no benevolent force watches over us, nudging toward the happy ending.

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