New Englanders

What makes a New Englander?

Apple orchard in Hollis, N.H.

Apple orchard in Hollis, N.H.

From a 2002 commentary by the Voice of America

Every region of the United States has its bittersweet stereotype. People from the American West are reputed to be long of limb, folksy, at home with nature. Those from the Midwest are solid, corn-fed, plain-speaking "heartlanders." "Yankees", who hail from the older, more settled regions of New England in the northeastern United States, are said to be stubborn people of few words.

Ninety-two-year-old Ruth King-Sanborn sits on a horsehair couch overlooking the hardscrabble New Hampshire farm and mill her ancestors bought back in 1773, when this part of the world was still a remote British colony. But don't ask her to get too emotional about the place.

"New Englanders are loath to discuss their feelings. I think the first thought that occurs to me is that people kept their thoughts to themselves. People did not say that they feel bad about something. I'm using the past tense now. I think it was the isolation. We were isolated here. If I didn't go to school, it would've been weeks when I wouldn't have seen anybody outside of the family!" she said.

Colin Cabot and his wife recently bought the farm and mill from Ms. King-Sanborn's family, hoping to restore it. Before moving here, the couple had lived in a small farming community in the rural Midwest. That was a place where people tended to spend time only with their own religious and ethnic kind.

"… and there it is very clearly either Catholic or Lutheran, and the Catholics and the Lutherans don't talk to each other very much. And they can live across the street from each other, and they don't like it. So when I came to New Hampshire, I thought I'd have the same kind of farming community. But the difference is the New Englanders are individualists, they are completely independent. There may have been political differences or religious difference before the Revolution back in 1770. And now, those differences are forgotten, but the fact is they know they are different than their neighbor. And it doesn't take any specific form, but that's not the way I do it," Mr. Cabot said.

To underscore this idea, Mr. Cabot points to the dented New Hampshire license plate on his pick-up truck. It bears the state motto: "Live Free or Die."

"Yeah, right. Some people say the real Yankees are the way they are because they didn't leave when everyone else went away and therefore they are sort of the cantankerous ones, because they could have gone to the Midwest and made a killing. They were insane and stubborn then, and they are more stubborn now because the genes have been perpetuated," he said.

Not everyone feels that way.

"Sometimes people think of Yankees as being cantankerous [grouchy] [and] as being a little bit aloof. But in fact, that is not the case at all. It's just that people are very thoughtful, they do want to make up their own minds."

That's Jean Sheheen, the {then} governor of New Hampshire. She is proud of the legendary independent-mindedness of people in her state, which is on national display every four years during the early days of American presidential campaigns.

"People are used to having candidates for president come through their living rooms and having the opportunity [to talk with them], and I think many people feel like they have the right to ask those people why they are running for president and what they want to do and challenge their thoughts and their issues. And that's good for the democratic process in this country," Ms. Sheheen said.

Norman Macintyre, who runs a fish auction up in Portland, Maine, to the north of New Hampshire, agrees that his fellow New Englanders tend to keep their own counsel. But he adds that they are also very supportive of each other.

"My example for that is the ice storm we had in the winter of 1997 and 1998. There was very severe ice storm here. Many people were out of power for two weeks or more. Shelters opened up immediately. Teenagers went to work in the shelters just volunteered automatically. You would find ads in the newspaper that said 'I have a generator, I've got my power back. If someone wants to borrow my generator, just call such and such a number.' There was no looting. There was no theft. There were no crimes against the public during that period. Whereas, if it was in South Central Los Angeles, I think it would have been different," he said.

Some predict the demise of the traditional crusty New England personality, due to the influence of global media and the influx of immigrants to the region. But this outcome is far from certain. Even Robert Frost, the quintessential Yankee poet, expressed competing sentiments about this in the same poem. He wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." But he also wrote, "Something there is [in us] that doesn't love a wall."

Traumatized by speech and psycho-ceramics

  By ROBERT WHITCOMB

‘Father Hoffman mixed personal opinion and church teaching in a way that offended everyone present, causing great harm,” said Prout School Principal David Carradini a couple of weeks ago. He was profusely apologizing for having the Rev. Rocky Hoffman, a host of Relevant Radio, a Catholic radio network, speak to the students of the Catholic high school, in South Kingstown, R.I. Father Hoffman, a member of the conservative Catholic society Opus Dei, spoke against homosexuality and divorce.

His views would have been considered standard Catholic fare only a few years ago, and are still held by many Catholics, and others.

Now, I’m not Catholic. Still, I salute the Church for much of its work, especially for the poor, and, yes, for the quality of Catholic schools. Anyway, we’re in a bad way in America if high-school students are to be prevented from hearing someone else’s views on morality. Where, exactly, is the “harm”? If these kids are seen as imperiled by listening to some priest, then how will they survive in the big, bad world? And how does Mr. Carradini know that the talk “offended everyone present”? (And so what if it actually did?)

Are our kids (and some of their complaining parents) really such lambkins that they can’t take the expression of strong opinions without collapsing in a heap? What’s there to apologize for, Mr. Carradini? Why doesn’t he just bring in some Catholic luminary with more “up-to-date” views as an offset? As they say, the cure for unsettling free speech is more free speech disputing it. And give all the kids debate lessons that nurture the capacity to understand and tolerate other views, including Father Hoffman’s traditionalist views.

Meanwhile, I’d suggest that if you don’t like Catholic beliefs, then don’t be a Catholic. Free will is an important part of the Church’s theology, at least for people from confirmation age on.

In other academic silliness, the student senate at the University of California at Santa Barbara (that cool, rich place) has passed a resolution requiring faculty to issue “trigger warnings.”

As Maria LaMagna reported in Bloomberg View: “Professors would write notes on their syllabi to alert students on which occasions a course’s material will be, say, sexually graphic. Students could then excuse themselves from class without being punished academically.”

Well, I think today’s college students are pretty familiar with sex, graphic or otherwise. They can handle such images. More to the point is that many courses that provide such material are devoid of academic rigor and a waste of time and money, sort of like Brown University’s long joked-about and nonexistent Prof. Josiah Carberry and his  discipline of “psycho-ceramics”.

***

Northern Maine is poor, with lots of smokers and obesity, and yet their health-treatment outcomes metrics rank higher than much of the country (especially when compared with the South).

The reasons, summarized by Noam Levy in the Los Angeles Times, include:

•A strong safety net, which provides, among other benefits, more recommended screenings and medical treatments.

•An emphasis on preventive care, aided by Maine’s high number of primary-care physicians.

•Highly coordinated and data-driven care.

•Highly advanced data systems.

•Close collaboration between two competing hospital groups.

•A strong sense of civic obligation, including strong leadership by the public and private sectors.

The glue that keeps this all together is a vibrant sense of community, a sense missing in much of sprawling suburban America, with its subdivisions, gated communities and ever wider divisions of wealth. Mr. Levy quotes Dr. Jack Wennberg, founder of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, as saying, “We used to joke that everyone gets along in northern New England because every hospital is separated by a mountain and the winters are long, so we’re happy to see someone.”

Or maybe Robert Frost’s related phrase will do: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” New Englanders may not be the friendliest people in the nation, but, especially like Upper Midwesterners (who are friendlier), they have a strong sense of obligation, both in what their governments should do and what they should do individually.

***

The first words of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” are too often dragged out now. “April is the cruellest month ... ” (breeding tax bills out of ... ) Instead, how about the cheery first few lines, in Middle English, of the prologue of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”? We had to memorize the prologue’s first 18 lines in school and I’m glad we did, especially after this long winter.

Whan that Aprille

with his shoures soote,

The droghte of March

hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne

in swich licóur

Of which vertú engendred

is the flour;

Or, more realistically, for New Englanders, Hemingway’s line from “A Moveable Feast”: “When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”

 Respond via rwhitcomb51@gmail.com

Our weather narcissism

  By ROBERT WHITCOMB

Inevitably, some politicians and entertainers (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) are having great fun with the cold and snowy winter in the East and Midwest, saying that this shows that “global warming” is a fraud.

But they are extrapolating from immediate experience and anecdote, not science. I suspect that most of these people know better, but, hey, they’re in show biz.

Actually, January, for instance, which the news media lamented for its cold, snow and ice, has been rather severe in the eastern U.S. because of a huge dip in the jet stream that has brought cold (though not unprecedented cold) to the Upper Midwest and the Northeast while out West, including Alaska, it’s generally been very warm and dry for this time of year. Northeasterners and Midwesterners have endured temperatures 10, 15 or more degrees below normal; Alaska and California have been 10-15 degrees above. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that January was, on a global basis, the fourth-warmest on record.

That the Northeast is so densely populated and that much of the national news media are based in New York and Washington mean that the idea that this winter is particularly bad has particularly strong currency. It recalls E.B. White’s funny 1954 essay “In the Eye of Edna,” in which he noted that the nation lost interest in Hurricane Edna after it moved beyond Boston’s radio and TV stations to wallop White’s comparatively remote Mid-Coast region of Maine.

Then there are such relatively new weather-news outlets as the Weather Channel and Accuweather. These commercial outlets will die if they fail to constantly dramatize such old weather phenomena as “The Polar Vortex” — a low-pressure area in upper latitudes that now is presented almost as a new and lethal threat to civilization. Weather events that would have seemed par for the course of a season a half century ago are now characterized as world-historical events.

Changes in the route of the jet stream from time to time bring cold air deep into the eastern part of the United States while the other side of the country becomes much warmer than usual as the jet stream brings in mild, Pacific air from the southwest. The jet stream’s position, of course, can vary widely but it can sometimes get stuck, meaning warm, “open” winters for us some years and cold ones in others. The general trend, though, is for milder winters. The trouble is that we confuse events in our areas that are part of weather’s natural variability with global climate change.

The confusion of one’s particular circumstances with the wider reality reminds me of the heartening rise in recent years of “evidence-based medicine” as opposed to the more traditional “expert-based medicine.” I am simplifying, but evidence-based medicine relies much less on individual physicians’ experience, values and judgment and much more on cold, hard data derived from rigorous collection and analysis of information from broad populations. As with medicine, so with climate, follow the data.

Anyway, New Englanders have suffered through another week of below-normal weather and are heartily sick of it. That the population is aging and that old people, in particular, find winters wearisome may reinforce the winter fatigue of younger people, too.

In some winters, snow drops and crocuses would be popping out of south-facing slopes about now. It looks as if we’ll have to wait a while for them this year. Still, a gradual change in the mix of morning bird song and that there’s bare ground around the base of trees where there was snow a week or two ago reminds us that the sun is getting stronger by the day: Some birds are coming north again and there’s more solar energy for the trees to absorb. And on one of our recent, and for this winter, rare mild days, I found the worms wiggling enthusiastically in our compost bin, whose contents seem to have been frozen solid a couple of days before. Worms: A reminder of the cycles of death and life.

***

The Feb. 23 New York Times business section story “Loss Leader on the Half Shell: A national binge on oysters is transforming an industry (and restaurants’ economics)” was heartening for a coastal New Englander. It implied that our estuary-rich region could benefit a lot from much expanded shellfish aquaculture. Unlike, say, casinos, which are a net subtraction from a region’s economy, or local businesses that recycle money that’s already here, aquaculture, because it has exportable physical products and brings people here from far away to buy them in our eateries as local specialties, increases our region’s wealth.

And the business, with its demands for clean water, prods us to keep our coastal environment cleaner.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com), a former  Providence Journal editorial-page editor,   is a Providence-based writer and editor and the overseer of www.newenglanddiary.com.  He  is also a director of Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com).