Tuesday, June 3, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part I): New England

Since I started thinking and writing about law and rural livelihoods a few years ago, I’ve particularly enjoyed the opportunity to be in rural America. I especially like visiting new rural places, in regions outside my native mid-South, and thinking about the variations – and similarities—among them. This summer, I have the opportunity to visit to two rural areas that are new (or nearly new) to me. The first is rural New England. I’ll be back there in July for the Rural Sociological Society Conference (well, I’ll be in Manchester, N.H., that is, not the more rural bits). In between, I’ll be driving through some remote parts of Northern California and Oregon.

I began writing this from coastal Maine, the southern part. So far, what I’ve seen is basically resort-type “rural.” Passing into Maine from N.H. and off I-95, one sees many small towns, spaced not too far apart. It’s rural in the sense that it is certainly not “urban,” but people don’t live great distance from each other, as in the West, the plains states, an in some other regions. Route 1 is regularly dotted not only with towns, but also with the availability of goods and service they bring. After all, the population density of the state is much higher than in states covering much larger land areas. In New England, nothing is too far from anything else – it’s a compact region compared to the sprawling West and Southwest. In fact, Maine’s population is about 1.27 million, with a population density of about 41/square mile. That density is about the same as Colorado’s, which has about three times the land area. As a basis for comparison, I note that California’s population density is about 234 persons/square mile, while Wyoming’s is just 5.1. (It’s also interesting to compare media income: California $49,894; Colorado $51,022; the median incomes for Wyoming and Maine are not listed on Wikipedia).

This part of Maine is as tidy as can be, which is quite a contrast to the rural South and many parts of the rural West, where people’s front yards (and side yards) seem to get a bit junked up (though, of course, you also see homes there that are kept as neat as the proverbial pin). Unlike many parts of the rural South, for example, this looks affluent. I haven’t seen a single home yet that looked like it housed a poor person – you probably see more of that in the northern and more inland parts of the state, which are less densely populated and less economically developed. Down here, folks can likely get a slice of the economic benefits associated with the tourist trade, if they want it.

A few days later, we were on to Hanover, New Hampshire and then north through Vermont to the Canadian border. Except for our time in relatively affluent (but certainly not ostentatious) Hanover, we were on the U.S. interstate road system. From that vantage point, New Hampshire and Vermont appear very rural –indeed, you’d almost think they were entirely unpopulated. Exits are few and far between and not many signs of life (except trees, deer and birds) are visible from the road. Only very occasionally does one catch a glimpse of a church spire or another sign of civilization through the trees, down in the valley. It is refreshingly different from, say, I-40 through Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The natural terrain there may be as aesthetically appealing, but one is aware there of rural and micropolitan clusters that have become part of a highly commercial and unattractive interstate transport economy. In other words, I’m not sure where the truck stops were in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, but ignorance was bliss.   

1 comment:

Kevin B. said...

enjoyed , reading your blog. From Bedford Nh, next to Manchester, Southern NH is definitely a lot different than say Northern NH. Keep blogging your a good writer.Also made me look up a word tonight. ostentatious-

take care.