There is much cheap talk about how special and rare and unlike other places this state of Maine is, and most of it is shallow or wrong or misses the point or misrepresents it. You can find these sentiments on picture post cards and glossy magazine covers and in tourism brochures, of course, and most of that is harmless enough and is repeated to some degree in every other state and province. Worse is the popular blather rendered in public meetings, on patriotic holidays, and in heartfelt but syntactically sad small town newspaper editorials proclaiming how very special this or that place is, frequently replete with lists of its “more unique” features.
In the Pine Tree State we speak of our natural beauty. We rank New Jersey the worst state; some of us think Connecticut next to last, others Massachusetts; still others detest New York. There is some admiration of Alaska, a state held in good regard both by hunters who would enjoy killing its larger wildlife and by persons afraid Big Oil will slaughter them incidental to profit faster than the hunters will for fun. We are of two minds about Florida: half of us winter there; half of us swear we have no interest in ever seeing the place.
We have a considerable history of allowing or encouraging corporations to extract such wealth as they wish from our woods and rivers on terms they and their friends in our legislature have deemed reasonable. As the fish have run out and the forests been reduced from great timber to a big scrubby woodlot of two by four spruces and chipping-fodder hardwoods, we have embraced ski resorts and second home developments.
Along the coastal plain where most of us live Wal-Mart is king, as it is everywhere in America and increasingly elsewhere. Our small cities (all our cities are small ones, mercifully) are indistinguishable from those anywhere in the nation; we eat the same “nuggets” as they do in Oklahoma City or South Bend, denying the chicken even the dignity of retaining its natural form.
Whatever we don't like or appreciate or approve of, whatever we fear, we believe comes to us “from away.” In this regard pretty much everyone agrees that the worst offenses to “The Way Life Should Be” are generated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Opinions vary on what is odious or threatening. The twisted little twits who dreamed up the Christian Civic League are awfully exercised about homosexuals. (Homosexuality may have originated in Greece or California, but it is taught in liberal colleges in Massachusetts. And probably Vermont.)
The rampant development some of us object to is imported by Maine businessmen, but they usually need Bay State partners, bankers, or idea men to work our governor (either party and the occasional independent equally obliging) and legislators for tax advantages, “enterprise zones” and groundbreaking photo-ops (does anybody ever use one of those short-handled chrome shovels after the show is over?)
We blame our summer bad air days on Ohio power plants. This is true, as far as it goes, but the Hummers cruising the Maine Mall parking lot on a crowded shopping Sunday and the motor homes dragging mini-SUVs down Route One all the hot, humid, congested tourist season may give some contribution.
I suppose I'm as glad to be here as anyone. Except for these little and little-read essays, I keep to myself, avoid eye contact, properly use the popular adjectives Christly and friggin' and the mild expletive son-of-a-whore.
But I've seen more beautiful places than Sabbatus Street in Lewiston; I'd rather swim in the Gulf of Mexico than the Gulf of Maine; and I've said and written and apparently do so here today again that God will someday split the earth and sunder Lincoln County's shire town for proclaiming itself from letterhead to masthead to Route One billboard, “Maine's Prettiest Village.”
If we are unusual, if we are different, if we dare proclaim ourselves better, our differentiation and transcendence do not lie in our landscape or architecture or popular culture or cuisine. Look at a map. Maine could as sensibly be a province of Canada. We should be in the Atlantic rather than Eastern time zone, and would be, were our legislators not timid (like legislators in all other states of the union). In our isolation, our distance, in the time it took to travel here from there, we held close to traditions and institutions that were abandoned, co-opted, over-ridden or superseded in more accessible, better connected, wealthier regions.
I live in the town of Alna. We have only this year been subjected to our first request for subdivision review, a milestone that I hope is not the undamming of a flood. At least ours is not a typical affair of ten or a hundred lots promoted by some builder or corporation. For whatever cold comfort it may grant us, we are petitioned for a mere three or five lots by a couple of locals whipped into a desire for profit by their attention to the high prices asked in the real estate advertisements, much as some of us get all twitchy whenever the Megabucks or Powerball pot rises to some preposterous scores of millions which would ruin us were we to win.
But I was twelve years First Selectman here some years ago, and I taxed and spent and counted dogs and tractors and regulated alewives and drafted warrants for town meetings. I pounded cold patch into potholes and salted frozen culverts past midnight below zero with my road commissioner Austin E. Trask. I watched a conservative chicken farmer develop into a capable, empathic welfare administrator in the person of Theodore B. Ross. Both of them now are gone and much of their town may go, too, and maybe they're better for not living to see it. After voters could no longer endure me as chief administrator and tax assessor they began electing me town meeting moderator. I know something about what makes Maine different.
We will survive some subdivision. We are changed, but much endures though those new among us bring suburban expectations to our hard granite, thin soil, cold swamp community. Some of them harden and stiffen and toughen and cast off enough of what they came from to become firemen and selectmen (or at least planning board members) whose first thought is to protect and secure the vestiges and traces of our austerity and clarity and proportion and sense.
And now the wave heaves up the next new idea. All the towns are doing it. Jefferson did. Wiscasset likely will. It's as inevitable as the adoption of the state fiscal year because school superintendents crave uniformity, as certain as the fact that towns abandon March meetings and give up their rural schools. But this last alteration in the way we were will pull the final solid locking pin from our foundations; we'll have crossed a threshold, forever changed, reduced, homogenized, made unremarkable.
Some persons, proponents say, are intimidated by raising their hands to vote at town meeting. The urge is to decide all issues in secret paper ballot, by referendum. Well, let me tell you about the Maine town meeting, you poor persons who've never enjoyed one. The moderator reads the article cobbled up by the selectmen. He warns if a vote one way or the other will effect something other than a casual reader might anticipate. He proclaims such rules of debate as he wishes to enforce and directs would-be speakers to seek his recognition before engaging.
Most articles pass uncontested. New residents ask annoying, predictable, sometimes stupid questions. “What's an alewife?” Good ideas are often given short shrift, poor ones passed. But at least here in Alna in the thirty years I've been part of the machinery, we've only allowed one or two borderline awful proposals to ripen into law and we've ridiculed dozens into oblivion.
It is true that some persons are sometimes uncivil. A couple residents have pushed their rampant egos too far forward in recent meetings, but meeting and moderator have found ways to ignore them or diminish their harm. Annoyance we must suffer as a corollary to free speech and open government. We expect Iraqi citizens to brave bullets and bombs so they might vote for crazy clerics and lapdog candidates nurtured by occupying forces. Can't we trouble ourselves to suffer bad behavior from our coarser or dumber neighbors when all we're expected to do is to drive to the meetinghouse a few times a year? No one has ever died or been beaten because he or she said the wrong thing or voted in an unpopular way at an Alna town meeting.
I don't doubt some persons sometimes are intimidated. Some of us are obnoxious louts. Others just talk too much, too loudly, too long, too often, too forcefully. But everywhere you go, every newspaper you read or television show you can't escape, every bumper magnet that intrudes, we see and hear that Americans love freedom and democracy. Good. Great. One of the burdens of freedom is putting up with your neighbor. Another is standing up to him, face to face, idea to idea, in a public meeting. It might make you nervous; it might make you cry. You'll get over it. You'll be better for it. So will he. And if you can't confront a blustery buffoon from West Alna or some arrogant retired industrialist who's recently secured a waterfront compound in Sheepscot and intends to instruct the natives in their proper roles in his life, how can you hope to fight the forces arrayed against every one of us by Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and Exxon/Mobil?
Austin Trask always sat in the back row at our meetings. God, how I'll miss him every meeting for the rest of my life. Our town is poorer than many of us may imagine without him. He built and plowed our roads. He was our fire chief. He was our Santa Claus at Christmas and our barbecue chef in our short summers. He had an opinion on everything that came before the town. He more than once stood to decry the intent of an article I had drafted, an idea I promoted. Some may have found him intimidating; I found him astonishing. An idea that would wither before his objection deserved to die. Any that survived his attack was better for the trial.
He could change his mind, although not all of a sudden. He was conservative in the sense the word used to have. (Hell, he changed his mind about me, the young guy from away, from New York who landed on the Rabbit Path in 1975 and found his future among these alders.) He wasn't the only valuable, interesting iconoclast in our little town, not the brightest among us, nor the best educated, and he was far from the smoothest. But he, or his type, was and is the most necessary. He thought before he spoke, and when he did speak you never doubted he believed what he said. There was never any shading or spin. He had no political philosophy, belonged to no school or party.
When Trask didn't like an article he said so, directly. When he recommended an article pass, he urged it “for the good of the town.” This was not an empty phrase, floated by a politician; it was a challenge. Kill open debate at Alna town meetings and he'll be back from the dead to tell you you're a fool and a failure and if I'm your moderator I'll suspend the rules so he can do it.
Well, I'm over my limit again but my editor will grant me the space because somebody needs to warn Wiscasset off its dangerous course, and our readers beyond the Piscataquis, where town meetings are a long-gone memory, will want to read this dispatch from the puckerbrush and agree that the slant of northern light and smell of balsam fir and salt air and the echo of aggressive opinion around the balcony of the old meeting house makes us, still and sadly, unique.
Chris Cooper has lived in Alna, Maine since 1975 and attended every town meeting there for the last thirty years. He was First Selectman from 1977 through 1989, has held a few other municipal positions of no great authority, and for several years has moderated town meetings, welcoming therein humor, vulgarity, dissent and brave use of the English language in pursuit of insight and entertainment. Dullness and tedium he has tried to gavel into submission and retreat. Mr. Cooper receives complaints at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A slightly shorter version of this essay was published by The Wiscasset Newspaper on 27 October, 2005