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October 24, 2013

Yankee virtues

I've lived and traveled all over the world, but mostly I have been a resident of one or another of the New England states. I have been lucky enough to have met some people with the old yankee outlook on things.

There is much about true yankees that others consider insular and anachronistic ... what tourist bureaus would call "colorful". But they are a dying breed and I am sorry about that. I am particularly sorry that they have been caricatured to the extent that some of the lessons that they could teach us have been mocked so much that we no longer see their virtues as anything other than quirks, fodder for jokes, or funny postcard content.

That is a shame, for at the base of the yankee character is the stuff that made this country great, and some of those attitudes, which to many seem quaint, could teach us how to stand tall again.

We laugh, for example, at the old story of the man who stops to ask a farmer for directions to a distant town. The farmer ponders several different routes then finally opines that "You can't get there from here." How dumb could this farmer be to not even know how to get to a nearby town? How foolishly self-centered not to realize that you can get anywhere from anywhere.

But, think about it. This farmer cannot give directions to the distant town because he doesn't need to know how to get there. His world, his life is the farm. For him, a town is a place to go only when you must, and only for a purpose. He'll go to the closest town to buy what he cannot make himself, and that is very little. His knowledge is centered on self-sufficiency. He does for himself and for his family and neighbors. He may not know the way to that town, but he knows how to tease a crop of corn out of rocky soil, how to sharpen an axe, how to build a house, how to dig a well.

To him, the fool is his questioner. The farmer would not start plowing, or framing a barn without a plan, but this traveler has set out on the road without one. Why do we consider the lost traveler the smart person, venturing out on the road unprepared? Why is the farmer foolish simply because the traveler has asked him a question the answer to which the farmer has no need to know?

But I seem to be drifting into a rant and there is one of these yankee characteristics that I want to talk about today. It has to do with my recent article on waste.

I rewrote an old story story a while ago about a miser who recycled his first wife's gravestone for use as a cooking stone. The story works because the degree of thrift seems to us to be outrageous. Perhaps it is. But then, with all due respect to Thomas Lynch and his brethren in the funeral industry, perhaps the profligate use of natural resources to memorialize a dead body is a bit outrageous as well.

Personally, I would prefer to be ground up, reduced to compost and used to fertilize a garden. As the Fugs once wrote in their delightful "Burial Waltz":
"Do not surround me with wreaths of flowers
nor place upon my body the signs of a fetish
nor crescent, cross, phallus nor sun.
But bury me in apple orchard
that I may touch your lips again."

As an historical researcher, I am grateful that my attitude is not common, gravestone and cemeteries are a major resource, but I understand the miser's point-of-view that the needs of the living trump the memorializing of the dead. When I see a cemetery, the neatly mowed lawns of a suburb, golf courses, parking lots, I think of waste, waste of resources, waste of opportunity. When I see 15-room McMansions built for a family of three and costing a small fortune to heat, or SUVs with gas tanks that cost a day's pay to fill, I think of the small rooms of old New England farmhouses that minimized the use of fuel.

And isn't it odd that our response to this waste is to computerize and add new devices to the mix, as if saving oil by building controls justifies adding the poisonous by-products of their manufacture into the eco-system. Why is it that we find the yankee virtue of thrift so hard to implement?

There's a magazine that I've seen, I think it's called "Real Simple" (I can't be bothered to check right now). I was leafing through it one day and found myself simultaneously amused and irritated that nearly every "simple" solution involved buying something. What an oddly perverse idea. Sadly, it's too common an idea. Our concept of fixing is to replace. Our idea of thrift is to add. We no longer make do.

I've been grumbling on for too long, so I'm going to bring this to a close with a few facts, a prediction and an anecdote.

In spite of the fact that new oil reserves have been discovered lately, the earth is a closed system and at some point we will have succeeded in moving it all up to the surface. This makes most people think of higher gas prices and alternative fuels. But think of this ...

Asphalt is a petroleum product. When the oil is gone, there won't be anything left to patch our roads for the alternative energy cars. Look around you. How much of what you see just in your room is made of plastic? Just the shopping bags you use to bring stuff home from the store take 12 million barrels of petroleum a year to make.

Think of this ...

Many medical devices, both high and low tech are made of plastic. disposable syringes, medical pumps, artificial hearts, eyeglasses, and on, and on ...

I predict that in the, not-too-distant, future there will be a new occupation. Perhaps it will happen, as a happy parallel to the gold rush of 1849, in 2049. The new 49ers will race to stake claims on landfills and dumps, where they will dig mines to extract the new gold ... all the plastic that we've so casually discarded for all these years. Most of us will pay small fortunes for medical devices made from the recycled plastic. The rich, of course, will have it molded into jewelry in order to show their status and ability to waste.

Now for the story.

Many years ago I lived in a small town here in New England. Town meetings were always a treat. At one of them there was a heated argument over the state of one particular road in a thickly settled area near a lake. The residents of that area were upset that the road had not been repaired in some years and that the pot holes were causing damage to their cars. Eventually the repairs were voted on and approved.

The next motion was an addendum to the first. A committee of parents many of whom were the same people that proposed the road repair, rose to request that the repairs should include speed bumps in order to prevent reckless drivers from endangering the children who walked along or played near the road.

The debate had barely begun when an older man got to his feet to be recognized. He was one of the oldest citizens of the community and had lived there all his life. The room quieted with respect.

"It seems to me," he said, "that we're talking about spending money on a problem that has solved itself."

When the vote was taken again. the road repair was revoked.