The Universal Notebook: Stay right there

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We all tend to make virtues of the things we habitually do or don’t do. So, for example, I often say I do my part for nature by staying out of it. 

I don’t ski, so I make the virtuous argument that it is environmentally indefensible to clear cut a mountainside, divert streams to make fake snow, and then invite people to drive hundreds of miles from the cities just to slide downhill.

Edgar Allen BeemI don’t fly anymore, so I often point out to those in the family who do that air travel is far more environmentally damaging than anything else they do. The biggest contributor to the carbon footprint of most colleges and universities is the travel that students and staff do just getting to and from campus.

I am being somewhat facetious, of course, but there is an element of truth to my ethical claims. That’s why I urge everyone I know to stay where they are. The less you travel the better, both for the environment and for society.

The environmental benefits of reduced travel were made clear at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when all forms of traffic decreased and the air briefly cleared. Less travel also contributed to slowing the spread of the virus. Not only do airplanes pollute the air, they carry germs from one country to another. 

But the social benefits of simply staying put may be less obvious. They have more to do with transience than travel.

To begin with, places like Maine – rural, relatively clean, and sparsely populated – attract people fleeing large metropolitan areas. In the 1970s, back-to-the-landers came to Maine looking for land and a new way of life. After 9/11 and again with the onset of COVID-19, city folks moved to Maine to get away from the density and dangers of urban life. What appeals to a lot of people about Maine is its authenticity, which is largely a function of who lives here.

Small-town Maine life is genuine. Many of the people who live in rural and coastal Maine have deep roots. They belong to the places where they live in ways that people in large cities and sprawling suburbs, who have no real connection to the places they live other than their jobs, do not.

A lot of the appeal of the places people like to visit and relocate is that they are still inhabited by local people. That’s true whether it’s island Maine or the Outer Hebrides. The Aran Islands would not be as interesting if they were inhabited by fashion models, stockbrokers, and rock stars.   

Authenticity is a function of shared experience. The glue that holds communities together is made of family bonds, schools, churches, sports teams, and local government. 

Places where everyone knows one another are safer places. If you know you’re going to have to depend on your neighbors in a pinch, you make an effort not to alienate them, whether you actually like them or not. That’s the point of the island wave, the automatic gesture of acknowledgment that islanders make when they pass.

When people speculate about how Americans became so divided, they cite things like social media, news media, political extremism, racism, and economic injustice. But Americans are also badly divided in large part because so many people are so rootless.

The simple truth is that people in small towns are not strangers to one another. That’s a large part of what’s wrong in America today; by virtue of our mobility, we have become a nation of strangers.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.