I’ve been reading a lot on the history of northern Maine lately. I have a connection to the place – it’s where I spent my adolescence – and my thoughts often run back to its wilds. Maine shaped my view of the world as a wild place ripe for exploration, a view which I carried with me as I moved around much of the eastern United States.
It’s easy to look at the wilds of Maine and imagine pristine forest being threatened by current logging. Environmental literature and orthodoxy seems to support this view. But study of the accounts of real 19th century Mainers tells another story or a more complex and accurate one. The trees were felled early, beginning with the taking of the longest, straightest pines for masts in the 18th century and earlier. The pines were mostly gone by 1840 and Maine has primarily been a place to grow pulpwood since then – shorter spruce, fir and tamarack or jack pine. The forests were felled early and re-growth and re-cutting has been the story of the Maine forest for a couple of centuries.
But that’s all context, not really what I’ve been thinking about today. I’ve been thinking, as I read, about the lives of the 19th century Mainers and how they compare to our own, indeed, how much it’s even possible to empathize with these people in our internet age. Can we imagine what it was like to leave perhaps Boston on the hearsay of some relative or land speculator or sportsman’s publication, pack up the family onboard a train and then some kind of rickety cart or “buckboard” to go cut something new from the forest?
We envy these people because they were free and unencumbered by the minutiae that crowds our modern minds. But their very lives were at risk daily – from villainous people (though rarely), from wild creatures that still threatened life and limb, from disease, from starvation, from freezing and from simply getting lost, etc., etc. We too want to wander off into the forest and leave all the “stuff” behind. But the workload faced by the pioneers of the Maine forest was unimaginable to us. The level of risk would have been intolerable.
When they finished the arduous day’s labor, some aspect of timbering – almost invariably, they could sit back on a rickety porch with a clear conscience, uncrowded thoughts and well-conditioned muscles to think their own thoughts, make their own plans and savor the work of their own hands. We can go to a fridge for cold things, turn on a water faucet, check Facebook and talk to someone in Denver on a device in the palms of our hands. We are more safe, more comfortable and wealthier. They had peace of mind.
We want that too. But could we handle the trade-offs?