Every year, my wife and I work with the Ossipee Valley Music Festival to help them source as much as of the food as possible for their event and partner string camp from local farms. When we started six years ago, the effort was moderately small. We got a little bit of produce from a few local farms. But as the appetite for supporting local appetites and whole foods has increased, it’s a more sizable production. It’s our “vacation,” which we typically say with heavy emphasis on the quotation marks.
The festival, now in its 18th year, attracts thousands of folks out to South Hiram for four days and is headlined by world class folk and bluegrass musicians. Its string camp, which kicked off four years back and is staffed by similarly impressive musicians, attracts nearly 100 students from throughout the country, and my work with the food program puts me in proximity to them. This is why I take what amounts to a working “vacation,” in which I end up putting in more hours per day than in a typical day at my actual day job. Being around talented musicians out in the woods of southwestern Maine, on the Saco River, is a lot of fun. Being in proximity to their energy, their music and their enthusiasm day in and out for a week is a gift that few have the luxury of having.
And I do it because it’s nice to work with organizations focused on divesting as much money as possible, over time, from food conglomerates and to find sustainable ways to invest that in the farmers in our backyards.
But beyond that, like most — and this has gained increased importance over the years regardless of political disposition or outlook — I find turning on the news to be exhausting and demoralizing. Who tweeted for what? What backward policy is being trudged through now? What group or individual are those in charge presently focusing their hostilities on? If you’ve read my column before, you know where I stand.
But while working out here, up at 5:30 a.m. and working into the evening, I’ve been too busy to look at my phone every handful of minutes to find out what’s happening now, and that has provided me a mental respite that actual vacations — or time away, generally — have not provided for me for a long time. Because, it seems, we’re never really away from any of it. It’s always right there, and it can begin to feel maddening.
Back to the music, though. A handful of years ago my buddy Silas Hagerty bought an old movie theater in Kezar Falls and he’s done a hell of a job restoring it in the years since. Last night, the staff from the festival, which included fiddler Brittany Haas of, among many, many other accomplishments, the Prairie Home Companion, and acclaimed cellist Mike Block and nearly a dozen other mind-blowing artists played in that beautiful old room at a show that was free to the folks in town. I, along with my neighbors, people I grew up with, people who used to attend the theater before it was restored, sat in attendance of this greatness and was blown away one song after another. It’s been such a long time since I just stood, uninterrupted, and listened to music, which is this thing that — if we allow it to — can awe us for just long enough to feel unburdened by the state of the world as told by our news alerts and push notifications.
It can strike as cliche and can feel especially puny in the face of everything that’s happening right now to say that music is powerful. It can be the centerpiece of community, can bring people out to an old, beautiful restored theater in rural Maine to spend an evening together, can help to put more money in the pockets of farmers as opposed to their corporate rivals, can evoke joy, love, awe. All of those things can be easily forgotten the second we look down to our phones to see what’s new. But for this week, for me, I am reminded that it is.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Westbrook.