Why Maine matters

Sam Smith

We hear a lot these days about Maine’s economic problems: not enough job growth, not enough young people, the decline in farming, fishery problems and so forth.

There is merit in all of this but it is only part of the story. After all, if the sought after economic improvement is to take place there has to be positive reasons for it to occur.

To be sure we are bombarded with suggestions. Nestle wants to privatize  our water. We need an oil pipeline. A bunch of ugly high rises in Bayside will revive Portland. We should turn Washington County into a tax fee zone. And so forth.

I’ve seen this before. Among the stories I covered,  back in 1957, was about one of the first major urban renewal projects in America, in Southwest Washington where over 20,000 residents and businesses were forcibly removed. . Some 80% of the businesses never went back into operation.

The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years. Not everyone was so sanguine, however. In a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O’Grady said, “It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another.”

It is a story that has been repeated repeatedly. A place is in economic trouble and the solution is to bring in new business and people and, to varying degrees, let those already there fend for themselves or force them out.To make this work, it is important to stress constantly the locale’s faults and deficiencies and seldom mention why it might be worth saving for those who are already there.

On the other hand, I have also covered, and been involved in, numerous struggles by communities to preserve and improve themselves, often with little help from more powerful government, media or business organizations. And one of the things you find over and over is that a community that knows and values its own assets and virtues, and which defends them against predator planning and other intrusions, survives much better than one that accepts the dismal prognostications of those on top of the system. In other words, these communities plan for their own future before someone else does.

One example that illustrates this approach is the historic preservation movement. Buildings and neighborhoods that would have been easy marks for planners and their developer allies have often been preserved by supporters standing metaphorically in front of these assets and declaring to all: “Leave it alone.”

Maine faces this problem and this choice. Do his we let the future of the state be determined by those who primarily market it as a problem to be exploited or do we improve our condition while retaining, expanding and adapting our cultural achievements, virtues and assets – making progress occur for all rather than the few who specialize in feeding off less than ideal conditions?

So, for a change, let’s look at Maine as a field yet to be fully planted rather than as a collapsing barn, and see how differently things start to appear.

 Here are a few suggestions:

– Maine is a covert example of the sort of place California and Colorado once were, places where people went to exercise their freedom, imagination, artistic skill and alternative ways of living. Mainers tend to  be more modest than these earlier examples, but you don’t have to go far in this state to find someone who is doing something different and interesting. This is not only a cultural asset but an economic one as well.

– Maine is full of internal immigrants, people who have moved from another state to start a different life here. Little noted about immigrants is that they are unusual members of their own culture simply because they have made the courageous choice to leave it. Combine such folk with the independent native Mainer and you have an underappreciated community of hardy individualists.

– Maine has the right scale. We forget that humans are animals, and that there is a natural sized community for us just as there is for deer. One can argue about what size that is but a city of two or three million is probably well beyond what nature intended. One reason this is important is because much planning ignores the cultural changes that higher density brings with it. Do we want to double the size of Portland or create another Portland size town somewhere else?

– Mainers naturally understand environment and ecological issues. If, for example, you’ve been a farmer or a clammer it’s not an abstract or rhetorical matter; it’s real, it’s life. The extent of ecological comprehension in the state is a huge asset at a time when nature has become such a huge factor in human existence.

– We have an especially good water supply, As one report put it, “Total annual ground water use in Maine is a small fraction of annual recharge.” And the Press Herald notes, “Drill into the ground in Maine and eventually you’ll find water.. But it also reports that “The Department of Environmental Protection has found that many high-yield aquifers are at risk from pollution. In fact, the DEP has found that of the 29,000 acres of high-yield sand and gravel aquifers in Maine, only about 1,200 acres are not at risk.” In other words, we have a huge asset that could be easily damaged. How do we deal with Nestle and other privatizers? How many people can Maine handle with its water and where? How much damage will a pipeline do?

This is not ancillary problem. For example a report on a town in Canada said that “Nestlé currently holds a permit through to 2017 to take about 1.1 million liters of water per day from Hillsburgh… This occurs while other nearby towns have by-laws to restrict their personal water access during dry summer conditions.

We can make water plans now and avoid the sort of crisis now facing California, or we can let others pursue their predatory goals at our eventual expense.

– Maine still practices democracy pretty well. Not in the governor’s office, to be sure, but power is decentralized enough that hundreds of towns still make a lot of choices. As the problems with regional school systems shows, attempts to move to more centralized government can be at odds with Maine’s inherent principles. Democracy is disappearing in many parts of America, starting with Washington DC, so the Maine’s democratic and independent tradition is  a draw. Mainers also believe in reciprocal liberty – i.e. I can’t have my liberty if you don’t have yours – which is why it leads other states on some issues like gay rights. And, thanks in no small part to its agricultural and seafaring background, Mainers intrinsically understand that competition and cooperation are not opponents but allies. 

– Maine has long been a highly favored place for artists, musicians and writers. We tend to take it for granted, but it is, in fact, a major attribute of the state.

– Maine is an excellent place to redefine the relationship between the urban and the rural as well as the urban and the natural. The emphasis on natural foods, outdoor activity and ecological protection make this a good place for, say, college majors in eco-urbanism or for town and city plans that deal specifically with this issue.

– Maine has a massive amount of land that is not being used, as it once was, for farming. With drought and other crises affecting America’s food supply, we should be consuming far more than ten percent of our own agricultural output. And finding ways to help younger Mainers go into farming to fill the gap being created by retiring seniors would help greatly. But to do this, we have to stop thinking of planning primarily in urban terms. We need tax incentives for processing and distribution centers, and subsidies for new farm programs and new farmers.

Maine is cool atmospherically as well as culturally. In fact, it’s the third coolest state in the union, after Alaska and North Dakota. Given the growing climate crisis this is a big asset, but how does Maine remain Maine if it becomes too appealing to other Americans? This is the sort of issue that needs to be thought and talked out.

– Finally there is the Maine skill in survival. The fix it up, make it do, use it up, do without tradition is something that much of the country is going to have to learn as times gets tougher. I recently attended a talk by Colin Woodard – journalist and author of The Lobster Coast, an excellent history of coastal Maine. He described how Maine had thrived in the early 19th century thanks to factors like sailing ships carrying  things like granite, ice, lumber and salt fish far away.

But with the Civil War, the economic progress collapsed for a variety of reasons, including the extraordinary death rate of Maine soldiers in the Civil War and the decline in the influence of Maine politics.  In a 2011 articlehe described other effects:

Those at home watched the state’s coastal trade and most of its once-thriving textile industry collapse, cut off from southern markets and sources of cotton. The fishing fleet contracted as the cost of everything from insurance to canvas exploded. Farmers, cut off from seaborne markets, were forced to abandon their farms, and many would flee to the south and west where, on the advice of soldiers’ letters, they could expect to find better soils and transportation links. Lumbermen decamped for the forests of the Great Lakes and, not long thereafter, the Pacific Northwest, where entire lumbering towns were settled almost exclusively by people from the Machias area.

The age of sail was over and “to make matters worse, after the war the commerce of the nation began moving east to west on the expanding railroads.”

As I listened to Woodard’s description of this change, I found myself suddenly thinking, that’s not just Maine he’s talking about. It’s America today.  Our economy has been outsourced, only not to the American west but to places like Bangladesh. Our political power is slipping noticeably, and technology and history seem to be constantly working against us. Who knows more about how to deal with this than Mainers?

Bear in mind that the rest of the country is getting hotter, drier, and more crowded. As the recent traffic disaster during Atlanta’s snow storm illustrated, when a society becomes more urbanized, its citizens lose skills of survival their parents and grandparents had. They become dependent on a system that is in ore than a few ways, dysfunctional.

Maine has extraordinarily resisted life’s temptation to become over-dependent on one’s society rather than being an active and skilled participant.  I suspect more and more will start to notice this and it will have a big effect on our state. Now is not a minute too soon to start, in the best Maine tradition, to figure out what to do about it all before it’s too late.  


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