I have lived in the Somerset County town of Harmony for more than 20 years. My husband and I raised two infant sons to manhood in this place. I tended a garden, livestock, a home. I stacked firewood and canned tomatoes. I sat through Farm League games, made pies for community dinners, voted for president in the school library and ran the fair’s exhibition hall. I wrote books and poems about the town. I taught a generation of its young people how to sing Woody Guthrie and Michael Jackson songs. But in a few days I will move away from Harmony forever.
Although every human deals with loss, the pain of losing or leaving a geographical homeland is not a universal sadness. Many people thrive on change, on hopeful ventures into the unknown, and it’s been hard to explain to faraway acquaintances why I have clung to a place that can be so hard and lonely, that is so distant from the lives that they have built in cities and suburbs and university towns. Yet as my friend Angela points out, some of us thrive on hard and lonely. Some of us see hard and lonely as true life.
Angela has lived in Wellington for longer than I’ve lived in Harmony. Her house is off the grid; so for her, every drop of water, every ray of sun matters — not romantically but practically. But even for country dwellers with electricity and a septic system, a rural homeland often doesn’t connote beauty or relaxation so much as a physical and emotional engagement with difficulty and duty. As I once wrote in a poem, “we don’t think / ski but shovel, don’t think flowers but floods.” Trouble sustains us, even as it breaks us down.
In a little more than a week, I am moving to a city where people will linger in coffee shops and stroll to concerts; where no one will cut down the oaks for firewood or stalk deer in the parks; where the house lights will stay on past nine o’clock at night; where I won’t shovel my own snow or milk my own cows or dig my own potatoes.
Being a poet in the city will be a normal-enough habit, not an embarrassing revelation, and I will never spend days on end without seeing a single other human being. Yet what I feel is an enormous sense of loss: for my 40 acres of old-growth pine and maple. For my secret cache of chanterelles and fiddleheads. For my overflowing raspberry patch. For the cellar door marked with my children’s heights. For “all those stupid crappy things we figured out how to do together,” as I said to my husband last Sunday as we dragged shovels outside into the cold drizzle and starting digging up our water system.
How do we preserve, care for, honor a world that is passing away from us? Such questions certainly apply to the anxieties that many back-country residents feel about the towns of “rural and deep rural Maine,” so many of which, as Erin Rhoda has written in her beautiful and sensitive article “Down the Road,” no longer have “enough younger people to replenish the labor force, buy homes and fill the schools.”
But questions of preservation and honor also apply to the people who remain: not only those who linger on in these vanishing towns but also those who must leave them for jobs or schooling or better health services or because they can no longer bear the loneliness. How do they keep their homeland alive inside themselves?
I try to tell myself that I will preserve this place within my children, my writings, my friendships. I remind myself that my two decades in Harmony have changed me as a human being. No matter where I go from here, this piece of earth will be my homeland.
But this morning, as I stare out across the grim December slush that coats our clearing, I suddenly remember a moment from the past, when I was pinning up wet laundry in a cold April wind, as a pileated woodpecker cried hoarsely among the fir trees ringing the clearing, as the bright scent of thaw trembled from the muddy garden patch. I remember bending over my basket of clothes. I remember my wind-reddened hands. I remember pulling a deep breath of quiet into myself. I remember thinking, This is the heart of my life.
Hayden Carruth, that great poet of the lonely north country, was defiant in his love for these difficult hidden places. He understood that the heart stays, even when the heart travels on. But he also recognized the contradictions. “I … sing the poverty of my region,” one poem shouts, yet the next subsides into the joy of a common solitude: “Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.”
In the end, all I can hope is that the future stewards of my land — human and animal, weather and time — also exist within these contradictions and these duties. I wish them a cold April wind, a sky of cloud and sun, a five-day rain to fill the well. As my 19-year-old son Paul wrote to me, “I’ll never live here again. I know that. But it will always be home, every broken-down piece of it, and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else.”
Godspeed, my dear earth.
Dawn Potter directs the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, held each summer at Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, New Hampshire. She is the author or editor of seven books of prose and poetry.