Provincialisms

River

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By Franklin Burroughs
About 20 years ago, I dreamed a dream. The world lay before me. I could go wherever I pleased, with one exception — I could never again set foot in the Kennebec/Androscoggin watershed. Or I could live there, but on the condition that I never go beyond it. I woke up knowing that, if forced to choose, I’d choose the watershed over the world. The conviction, like the dream, seemed to come from beyond myself.

The Androscoggin and Kennebec converge in Merrymeeting Bay, leave it through a narrow and turbulent passage called the Chops, go down past Bath, and continue on out to sea. Their combined flow represents roughly a third of the running water in Maine. Fifteen or so lesser rivers feed into them, along with more streams, brooks, and springs than you can shake a stick at. Within their drainage are at least 40 lakes and ponds of more than 1,000 acres and a multitude of smaller ones.

Watershed boundaries are determined by topography, not by surveyors. Everything connects to everything else. From the meltwater on the summit of Old Speck, Sugarloaf, and Saddleback to the tides that surge out past Pond Island Light off Popham Beach, the Kennebec watershed is like a tree: a single organic system, its trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves shaping and shaped by its environment. Long before our species appeared, migratory fish and waterfowl swarmed up and down it; when we arrived, drawn to its abundant life, we did the same. By paddle, pole, and portage, the first people made their way into adjacent watersheds — the Penobscot, the St. Lawrence, and the St. John — establishing corridors for trade, migration, and invasion. European colonists established themselves in Phippsburg, at the mouth of the river, in 1607 — before the Puritans got to Massachusetts and the Dutch colonized Manhattan.

Watershed boundaries are determined by topography, not by surveyors. everything connects to everything else.

My dream indicates that I am one kind of provincial, the country mouse. A famed 1975 New Yorker cover by illustrator Saul Steinberg gives the perspective of his city cousin. The foreground, a few busy blocks of Manhattan, constitutes its lower half. The upper half consists of America west of the Hudson: an arid wasteland with a few rocks and names — Chicago, Nebraska, Las Vegas — scattered across it. Once you cross the Hudson, America is an uninhabitable Sahara.

If country mice are geographically provincial, city mice are historically provincial. A relation to geological, biological, and human pasts is as optional and inessential to Steinberg’s caricatural Manhattanites as my relation to Netflix is to me.

Of course, in Maine, Manhattan, or anywhere else, the choice between the two provincialisms is not so stark as my dream made it. In Vacationland, we — me, you, Down East magazine — don’t have to become either antiquarian, contrarian rustics, on the one hand, or cosmopolitan tourists-in-residence — mere consumers of local scenery, local color, and local lobsters — on the other. Most of us are a bit of both.

The Founding Fathers understood that the view from every citizen’s window is necessarily local, geographically and/or historically provincial, economically self-serving, and instinctively self-centered. They did not pretend that the situation was otherwise — that we were inherently high-minded, idealistic, or patriotic. They devised a government that ensured ongoing political friction between local and national perspectives, so that competing provincialisms would be forced to acknowledge each other, and comprehend their mutual dependencies.

This November’s midterm elections pit us against each other in ways that seem to have precious little to do with realities grounded in our local and national geographies or their histories. The national map has been simplified at every level: so many Blue states, districts, precincts, and households vs. so many Red ones. There is a strange absence of what we actually see, the neighborhoods and nation we actually inhabit. Is this the view from Trump Tower? Everyman’s castle? Both?


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November 2018


Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.