Poverty Among the Richness

My wife and I own a cabin in Maine. I bought it for $500 some 40 years back, because its neighborhood is spectacular. The place sits, however, in the poorest county in the northeastern U.S. Since the economic meltdown of six years past, that poverty shows more plainly than ever: abandoned farms, houses, and even tarpaper shacks for sale, items of little value by the roadside, marked with scanty prices. On our way to the cabin in the dead of a polar vortex winter, I winced as always to pass a canted school bus next to Route 6; I vaguely know the man who lives in it year-round.

During our stay, such desperation weighed on our minds, subtly chewing at our peace and coziness. I tried to solace myself by thinking I’d done some small good as president of a local land trust, whose mission is not simply to set aside forests and waters for conservation’s sake, but also to provide some sustainable forestry jobs in a zone where employment of any kind is hard to come by. Still, a hellish lot of people are hungry in that county, a fair number of them breaking game laws by way of survival. While we were at our cabin, a whole family was arrested for killing a cow moose out of season. They had their reasons.

Maine is one of the three hungriest states in the nation, but Vermont is in the top 10 too. Awareness of such statistics kept eating at us, perhaps especially because of the season’s bitter cold, and it got me to thinking about people who pass through upper New England, perhaps to ski or for some picturesque wedding, and who imagine they behold a rural Eden. Unfortunately, that view is not uncommon among many who live in the North Country too. How frequently does one enter a restaurant or a B&B hereabouts and find some claim that the place recalls “a time when life was simple”?

When was that time? After all, the sort of poverty I’m reflecting on proved more or less commonplace in our region back in those allegedly simple times. One can find reference to it throughout the work of our first state poet, as I’ll indicate directly. A time when life was simple? It wasn’t back then, and for too many it’s not that now. The various food banks that many of us support are more than worthy institutions, but mustn’t we now and then wonder why they remain so vitally needful?

Those who construe the North Country as a place of simple peace and comfort need to travel over the ridges and look on their other sides. I am no saint, no Mother Teresa, but I have witnessed some grim struggles over there. I began as a tutor for Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, whose board I now chair, and I’ve seen the bitter complication of certain lives in such a capacity. Moreover, and perhaps strangely, even offensively, to some, my lifelong hunting enthusiasms, while not matters of survival, of course, have led me into the company of many for whom they were and are. Their perspective on the North Country is a lot less quaint than the complacent one I refer to — and for understandable reasons.

A little detour: The Robert Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., where the great author lived from 1915 to 1920, sponsors a resident poet every summer. In 1977, it was Robert Hass, who two decades later would be U.S. Poet Laureate. I went to visit Bob during his stay, and he repeated a story told to him by an elderly lady down the road from Frost’s house. The woman had long left Franconia, but she’d been born in the village, and had spent summers helping her grandparents, who farmed the land abutting Frost’s. Early in Frost’s tenure, she and her grandfather were riding his wagon to town when they saw the poet sitting on his porch.

“Grandpa,” the little girl asked, “who’s that man who bought Joe Hebert’s farm?”

The old farmer replied, “That is the laziest, most good-for-nothing person who ever moved to Franconia. All he does is sit in that chair and write letters. Come winter, he’ll be down in the village and we’ll all be paying for him.”

The story is amusing, but it speaks to a time — and maybe it was simpler in this one regard — when towns in our part of New England were obliged to provide for citizens who could not do so for themselves. In my own memory, Vermont had Overseers of the Poor, who were charged with seeing to this. There were also poor farms, the last dying in the 1960s, where the indigent could labor for sustenance. There is a famous, early-1800s court case involving a Vermont judge who owned an African-American slave. She’d toiled for him all her working life, but when she became old and disabled, the judge felt the town should look after her. He had to recuse himself from the final Supreme Court decision, which went his way, as I recall, because he was in fact Chief Justice (simpler times, you see).

Now I despise cartoon politics, left or right, the sort of rhetoric that offers pat, blanket solutions to major social problems like the one I describe. I’m not going to point any fingers in this column, and Lord knows that no poetry worth its salt would ever engage in simplism either, political or otherwise. But a poem like Frost’s own An Old Man’s Winter Night offers a dark comment on cavalier notions of Emersonian self-reliance among the indigent. I haven’t room to quote it here, but if you look it up, you will find the world’s loneliest poem.

What poetry can do, at least, is to remind us how our morals are taxed every day, if our eyes are open. Or it can open them. No, I have no right to play saint or sage, drawn like anyone as I am to comfort and to clan, and helpless as the next person to construe just societal solutions. But poetry, or at any rate poetry as keenly attentive as our first state poet’s, can remind us of an ongoing history, which still includes too much misery and want, and of our own inclination to dismiss or rationalize it for our own benefit. We should at a minimum be asking questions of ourselves, as did Frost:

Love and a Question

A Stranger came to the door at eve,

And he spoke the bridegroom fair.

He bore a green-white stick in his hand,

And, for all burden, care.

He asked with the eyes more than the lips

 For a shelter for the night,

And he turned and looked at the road afar

Without a window light.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch

With, ‘Let us look at the sky,

And question what of the night to be,

Stranger, you and I.’

The woodbine leaves littered the yard,

The woodbine berries were blue,

Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;

‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone

Bent over the open fire,

Her face rose-red with the glowing coal

And the thought of the heart’s desire.

The bridegroom looked at the weary road,

Yet saw but her within,

And wished her heart in a case of gold

And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give

A dole of bread, a purse,

A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,

Or for the rich a curse;

But whether or not a man was asked

To mar the love of two

By harboring woe in the bridal house,

The bridegroom wished he knew.