The hazards of estivation

Sam Smith, 2011 – A reader – and Democratic candidate for a New England state legislature – writes: “I have been a subscriber to both Progressive Review as well as Undernews for some time now. Recently the issues have become sporadic and now nothing. As a convert to SHAFARism I feel my ‘faith’ has abandoned me. Woe is I.” [1]

There are two explanations, neither particularly satisfactory. The first is that the Review has been in its normal estivation mode. [2]

We usually announce this but what with 40% of Americans not even able to take a vacation this summer – some because they are running for state legislature – and with that ubiquitous excuse, a war or terror, your editor thought it better to pretend that he was still hard at work in the steamy capital rather than enjoying the pleasures of the Review’s New England regional headquarters, overlooking beautiful northwest Casco Bay.

At odds once again with mainstream culture, your editor prefers the values expressed by Paul LaFarguein 1907 in The Right to be Lazy & Other Studies: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshipers the supreme example of ideal laziness: after six days of work, he rests for all eternity.”

The other explanation forces me to reveal one of the deepest secrets of journalism, which is that news is largely the artificial creation of reporters, editors and other media hacktoids. I discovered this years ago when I found I could date the seasonal end of news by an abrupt drop off in press releases arriving in our office after June 15. Now, with the Internet, I sense the same phenomena marked by the sudden paltry flow of RSS headlines and a large number of journalist-readers announcing by e-mail that they are out of the office until a date certain. Something similar happens every Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are probably the safest times to be alive, since no terrorist would waste a bomb knowing that so much of the media was off visiting relatives and not caring about what happened.

I will, however, say in my defense that – as is usual in rural and waterfront communities – it has been impossible to be inert for long. For example, this summer we have had two power outages of more than 8 hours. Standard practice is to call Central Maine Power and punch in your account number. This allows CMP to aggregate the reports and narrow down the possible wire malefactors under its control. It also wins you a phone call when the lights come back on. One night the call came at 2 am. I tried a switch but it didn’t work, so said to hell with it and went back to bed.

But as I lay there, visions of melting ice cream in the fridge ballooned in my brain until sleep became impossible. I arose and messed with the Gen Tran switches from my portable generator to no avail. I then got in my car to find the wires I knew had fallen in the nearby woods and as I turned out of the drive the woods became alive with an orange glow.

With the power restored further up the line, our fallen wire had apparently done its mischief and started a fire accompanied by a strange electric moaning sound. It’s not the sort of thing the brain – especially one previously only filled with visions of melted ice cream – can deal with easily alone at two am.

But I pulled myself together, called the local volunteer fire department, assured them that the blaze was only about three fireplaces large, and waited. Within minutes a small truck was there, the fire had almost burned itself out, and CMP was on the way.

At 4:30 am I got another call. Still half asleep I said in full greeting, “Thank you very much.” The woman at the other end laughed and replied, “I guess you were expecting me.”

I have also been deep into a locally hot and totally unanticipated issue during which I have spent two and half hours at the state attorney general’s office, written one op ed for the Portland Press Herald, two letters to the editor and come up with a pull-out quote used by another newspaper. I have also testified before the Freeport planning commission citing James Madison among other things.

Unlike easy federal issues like Iraq, gay marriage and abortion, local matters are far too complex to sum up in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that it involved some residents of a development being unhappy with a semester program in coastal studies for high school girls being planned for a small corner of what was formerly my parents’ organic beef farm, which they started in the 1950s. The farm is now a non-profit (that I once headed), struggling to stay alive and burdened by too many decrepit but historic rural structures. The coastal studies program would result in one of these burdens being lifted from the farm as well as some additional income. But some of the increasingly suburban neighbors thought it would be a travesty of rural life.

The issue has made me realize how far rural reality has drifted from urban consciousness. There is a romantic notion that farms simply exist when, in fact, some 90% of farm family income these days comes from non-farm sources.

My investigations also reminded me of how important rural education has always been to rural America – from one room school houses to land grant colleges.

As I noted in a letter to the Falmouth Forecaster: “According to Freeport’s zoning ordinance, uses within the RRII Zone are ‘limited to those which are compatible with its historic and rural qualities.’

“Well, schools were a prolific part of the rural landscape including several in the area such as the Litchfield School, one near Flying Point, and one within easy walking distance of the proposed coastal studies program. . .

“One town in Maine had 14 schools in the 19th century. Typically such schools were placed about three miles apart, hardly an oddity in the rural landscape.

“You could not have had American agriculture without rural schools. They were inseparable. One study reports, ‘During the 1930s about one-half of all children went to school in rural areas, where the proportion of children to adults was higher than in the cities.’ . . . In short, if you really want to be true to the landscape’s ‘historic and rural qualities’ we would need more and not fewer schools.”

I concluded my talk to the planning commission by saying that “Finally, if you wish to preserve historic buildings, farmland, and open space, you must constantly be educating a new constituency. You can not have the things you value yet fail to teach our children their value. If we had been blessed with many more coastal studies programs over the years we might well not be in the ecological danger we now face.”

And, I might have added, we might have fewer power outages as well.

So there are several weak excuses for the seasonal entropy of the Review. Shortly after Labor Day, I hope to ease myself back into hyperactivity – unproductive as it seems to be these days. Meanwhile, gentle reader, I appreciate your constant patience and forbearance.

[1] SHAFARS are comprised of – according to a Review article some time back – skeptics, humanists, agnostics, free thinkers, atheists and rationalists.

[2] Estivation is the same as hibernation except it occurs during summer.

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