Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Eulogy for the Northeast

In an early morning fog on May 10, I set off down the street with my little Honda packed to the gills. The familiar houses disappeared in my rearview mirror, and the familiar road turned into a familiar highway. All this familiarity was made new by the feeling in my chest that I was not going to stop driving until 2,300 miles had passed under my tires. I would stop for sleep and gas and food of course, but I would be in the dreamstate of traveling for thousands of miles, and when I awoke, I would be somewhere entirely different. The soft green light and rolling hills and warm fog of New England would be replaced by red sandstone desert and rabbitbrush and towering mountains, and I would have another pin to place on the map of my life, another place to call home. I'm ready to stay somewhere for a while this time, I tell myself, and the western slope of Colorado sounds as ideal as anywhere. But as I drove through New York state, struck by its quiet, early morning beauty, I found myself again holding up the mirror of the place I'm choosing to go against the place where I'm from and trying, again, to reconcile my love for two disparate places. The West and the East.

Among the super-fit outdoorsy types who tend to settle in the mountain West, it's common to disparage the relatively tame, settled East. The rivers are bigger in the West, the wildlife is grander and the landscapes are more dramatic, but more importantly there's the issue of accessibility. More than anything else, it's what sets the east and west apart. As much as 80 percent of western states are publicly owned by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, leading to large stretches of unbroken land open to outdoor pursuits like climbing, camping and paddling. In New England, the majority of land is privately held. As little as 20 percent belongs to the public.

It's difficult in the Northeast to pull over by the side of the road and simply walk into the woods. As Robert Frost asked, Whose woods are these? The culture of the outdoors is also more genteel (think New Hampshire's stately AMC lodges compared to California dirtbag climbing camps), and we have more people crammed into a smaller space. If you haven't been here – or if you've only been to Boston and New York – you might easily be mistaken in thinking that everything north of D.C. and east of Chicago is one big over-populated sprawl.

But though I don't know if I see myself settling in New England, I'm quick – too quick – to defend my homeland. I bristle when anyone says anything negative about the East. True, New England lacks the large-scale wilderness and outdoor opportunities of the West, but I think it's unfairly maligned. For example: while more than 80 percent of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest has been razed by loggers – and that which remains is checkerboarded and left to a few protected reserves – New England is recovering from past abuses and is now 80 percent forested. Looking at a map of forest cover in the U.S., the region I call home is more lushly covered in green than anywhere else in the country. Some of this can be attributed to climate and an influx of people to urban centers, but it's also due to a sense of environmentalism and the actions of private landowners who care about their land. In the Northwest, the Forest Service needs to make money and does so by handing large parcels of public land over to private logging companies who are driven by profit. (Elsewhere in the West, it's private mining or oil companies.) While the straggly second- and third-growth forests of New England don't begin to compare with the majestic old-growth of the Pacific Northwest, it is more consistent, abutting people's homes and yards, stretching along roadsides, spreading through valleys and over mountains. It isn't relegated to a few protected strongholds. It's part of the places where people actually live.

And therein lies another of New England's strengths: the population is more evenly distributed. Many cities in the West were planned around water sources and habitable land, and populations are centered in big cities that radiate outward in ever-widening concentric rings. In the East, where the land is more forgiving, towns and roads sprung up in random disorder, a meandering, bleeding network that doesn't revolve around one large city but rather dissipates itself across the land. On one hand, this means fewer unbroken tracts of wilderness, but on the other, it means that people live more closely with the land. What we lack in raw wildness we make up for in intimacy, in having mountains and hollows and backroads that are ours to care for and explore. Just because land is privately owned doesn't mean it's off-limits – but you often have to be a local to know about it. New England isn't a place that's particularly welcoming for those who are just passing through; it wasn't built on mobility or transience, but on staying and spreading roots.

Soon, I'll be writing for a publication founded on the unique identity of the American West. I'm excited to explore new places and build a community and learn more about magazine journalism. But I'm also worried that working on stories emphasizing the singularity of the West will cause my instinctive defensiveness of my homeland to kick in more strongly and the line between East and West to become more defined, and I will have to live with part of my heart in one place and part in another. 

 The big flat

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