Fearing the wilderness, with reason

For much of its first century and a half, English settlement of New England remained fairly compact, clinging largely to the coastline and the south. For example, the city where I dwell, now a little over an hour north of Boston, was settled in 1623 as New Hampshire’s first habitation (and the seventh oldest in the United States); yet Dover remained frontier, with fatal Indian raids into the 1720s. Across the river are the few Maine communities that survived attacks by the combined French and Indian forces, and these were fortified garrison towns, a reality that is commemorated in Dover’s nickname, Garrison City. There were valid reasons for fearing the wilderness, apart from natural forces: on its far side to the north, French Catholics encouraged Indian raids and hostage-taking. King Philip’s War (1675-76) was merely part of a nearly century-long French and Indian war against the English. In contrast, on much of the rest of the American frontier, Indians were not being as successfully used as pawns by foreign powers, at least for such duration. In addition, on the sea, which was so essential to New England existence, pirates and privateers roamed, often supported by those same foreign powers.

When the New England frontier was finally pacified, extended settlement finally occurred through much of the rest of the six-state region. Much of this happened after Tennessee and Kentucky had been occupied to the west, and as Upstate New York, Ohio, and Indiana were being built up. The widespread Greek Revival architecture across much of Maine, for example, speaks of this development occurring simultaneously with the westward expansion of America – except that for New England, the growth moved northward.

The interface with the sea speaks of other encounters and resolutions in the New England character. Our coast is pocketed with small harbors and seaports, much like the shores of the Puritans’ East Anglia. The namesake of New England’s principal city, Boston, was a small Lincolnshire town whose St. Botolph’s church – the largest parish church in England – was famed for its spire, the 272-foot-tall Boston Stump, which served mariners as a seamark. Its vicar, John Cotton, would be part of the elite Massachusetts Mather-Cotton dynasty. Standing near the waterfront in any New England harbor, it is difficult not to imagine square-rigged sailing vessels swaying before your eyes. Something resists automation.

The mindset of working the sea differs greatly from that of a farmer or an artisan. The sea is open space, and there is no sense of husbandry. One collects wealth, rather than nurturing it. A fisherman is largely independent, vulnerable – ready to help another in distress, but also highly competitive and protective of his turf. A merchant sailor ventures further afield, but both he and the fisherman are dependent on their vessels, on the weather, and on the quirks of fate. The wharves and lobster pots of New England’s coastal villages, then, reflect an endless upheaval, a churning as restless as the ocean itself. Mermaids may have been nothing more than idealized mates for these men, whose roots were on land even while they ventured years after cod and whales.

The strand of strict Calvinism the Puritans embraced left its consequences. We should note, too, that while the Puritans dominated life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in Connecticut, they differed on theological points with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, even when both would unite in what would become the Congregational denomination, and eventually spin off in the Unitarian denomination as well. In contrast, the Pilgrims were Separatists, and more democratic within their ranks than their fellow Calvinist Puritans; dissident Baptists and Quakers found slightly more tolerance in the Pilgrim lands than in those ruled by Puritans. On one hand, the Puritans’ was a rational religion, based on dialectical distinctions presented in lectures – a system that emphasized a literal, intellectual understanding of God’s plan stripped of its emotional, mystical, symbolic, and poetic dimensions. While their commonwealth was built upon an unusually wide literate tradition that would establish Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth universities, it also had a repressed side that could erupt violently against non-conformists and the threat of innovation and change. It was a complex mixture that could be unexpectedly liberal on matters such as divorce or premarital courtship, yet conservative in preserving its “English” (rather than “American”) culture, and fearfully vigilant against any possible pollution by sin. It was practical, yet often suspicious. As they said, time was money.

These were not a people who turned easily toward the forest or who would reach out to strangers. Their houses of worship, of a much different architectural style than the later Congregational steeplehouses that come to our minds today, were shorn of ornament, excepting a huge single eye at the front of the raised pulpit. The core of their worship was a two-hour lecture, with a second in the afternoon. Prophesy was suspect; they preferred to stick closely to scriptural text, avoiding the breezes of emotion. Music was confined to psalters, sung one person at a time. Their meetinghouses had clear glass, rather than stained. And yet their dwellings had dark interiors, the earliest standing as examples of medieval architecture and construction. The great wave of the Puritan migration came in the dozen years from 1629 to 1641. The die was cast.

Perhaps this emotional dryness has its parallel in our New England foliage. One of the surprises in exploring New England is in discovering how swampy the landscape really is. Geologists define ours as a sunken coastline, and for many of the early settlers, staying dry was a problem. There are tidal salt marshes and interior bogs, storms and flooding. It is said that a Yankee likes what will outlast the rot – and so, coins are high on that list. Even so, little here is constructed of brick or stone, except for textile millyards, often now in decay.

Other strands linger. “At Plymouth in southeastern New England,” David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989) writes, “another variety of English culture was introduced by the Mayflower Pilgrims who were very different from the Massachusetts Puritans; even today this small sub-region still calls itself the ‘Old Colony,’ and speaks a strain of English which is subtly distinctive from other Yankee accents. On New England’s north shore from Marblehead to Maine yet another culture was planted by fishermen from Jersey, Guernsey and English channel ports; their folkways still survive in small towns and offshore islands from Kittery to the Cranberry Islands.”

Another surprise comes in discovering the “swamp Yankees,” the impoverished third who lived in shacks away from the village common. The tourist, remarkably, fails to perceive these northern hillbillies who are detailed so well in Ernest Hebert’s novels. Many of them, unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans, were a “mixed people” from the Borderlands of northern England, the Scottish Lowlands, and Ulster in northern Ireland – these so-called “Scotch-Irish” who had fled to the American backcountry, 1717-1775. This rough-and-tumble warrior people were, in their homelands, already called rednecks, crackers, and hoosiers. In New England many of these Boarders settled in the Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire, coastal Maine, the Upper Connecticut River Valley, and central Massachusetts; their militant individualism, rowdiness, and often anti-clerical Presbyterian strand of Calvinism put them at great odds with their Puritan overlords – a factor that may well explain the great political animosity that continues between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Though Puritans clustered in towns, the Boarders moved out in isolated farms along waterways – building humble farmsteads where springs would provide a dependable source of water year-around. The names of their settlements reflect their origins: Derry, Londonderry, Dublin, Antrim, Newcastle, Berwick, Bradford, Carlisle, Cumberland, Dunbar, Hillsborough, Manchester, York, Durham, Belfast, Stow, Wakefield, and so on. They preferred their dinner boiled – as stews, cornmeal mush, and soups. This legacy, however unnoticed, is there, like the darkness behind the foliage. They, too, are a major part of New England.

“The climate of New England was wet and stormy – with forty inches of precipitation a year,” Fischer explains. “ The weather in the seventeenth century was even more variable than in the twentieth. … When these air masses meet above New England, the meterological effects were apt to be spectacular. The countryside was lashed by violent blizzards, raked by tornadoes, and attacked by dangerous three-day nor’easters which churned the coastal waters of New England into a seaman’s hell.”

And so, the foliage comes each year, with varying success. I wonder how it struck the Puritans. “There were no random acts in Puritan thinking,” Fischer observes. “Everything was thought to happen for a purpose.

“At the same time that the Puritans searched constantly for signs of God’s Providence, they also were deeply concerned about other forms of magic that threatened to usurp God’s powers. Black magic was sternly repressed in Massachusetts. Even white magic was regarded as a form of blasphemy. … Most of all, the practice of black magic was regarded with obsessive fear and hatred by the Puritans.”

For a few weeks, though, the trees must have mirrored the Puritans’ own wardrobes. “The taste in New England ran not to black or gray, but to ‘sadd colors’ as they were called in the seventeenth century … ‘liver color, de Boys, tawney, russet, purple, French green, ginger lyne, deer colour, orange,’” Fischer notes. Others were “flax blossom,” puce, barry, and philly mort from the French feuille morte (“dead leaf”).

Perhaps, then, the foliage is not just a change of colors or an interlude in climate. Perhaps it does have something to do with Pilgrims and Puritans and Indians parading across the landscape. Despite its regularity in the year, it is far from predictable. Despite the explanations of science, there are too many variables to allow logic to reign. There is a randomness in the placement of leaves, and in their falling – a randomness seafarers, at the mercy of mercurial elements, could accept. The falling leaves become waves and fishes in air current.

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