Tell Me the Landscape
By Glenna Johnson Smith
For nearly seven decades the geography of Aroostook County has become a part of me. Now, after reading Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by poet Kathleen Norris, I see more clearly my changes. Norris prefaces her work with the quotation by José Ortega y Gasset, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”
I grew up on the coast of Maine in a cozy village with houses nestled together, protected by a low hill and ancient trees. Then, in 1941, as a new farm wife, I moved to The County, a land with massive, silent, empty spaces. Although I felt at home with the people I met, it took several years for me to be comfortable with the place.
First I learned to admire the big sky—the giant, inverted bowl that fits snugly over almost flat fields and gentle hills. Sometimes when I see a potato field that rolls right up to the sky, I believe that if I walked across that field I could see the whole world. On my early morning rides to the schoolhouse where I taught in those new years, I noticed the colors—cold pewter gray, bright Wedgwood blue, and sometimes a carnival glass riot of orange, gold, and red as the winter morning sun splashed the snow and the sky. As a child I stared at the bay; in Aroostook I stared at the sky and learned to love its moods.
It took me longer to accept the empty stretches. In fact, I didn’t realize how much they were a part of me until years later when I was thinking of retiring and moving back to the coast. Yet always when I came home from a visit downstate, the wide vistas of fields welcomed me as I drove north of Houlton. I even imagined that there was more good air here—that breathing was easier. I take the time to watch and breathe—and I have learned to live in harmony with the dramatic changes of the seasons—the quick leap from snowbanks to potato planting, the soft greens of early spring, the miles of flower gardens when the potatoes blossom, the crisp fall when giant mechanized insects crawl over the brown earth.
I still have a love-fear relationship with winter. When the weatherman tells me it’s twenty-below with a wind chill of minus-forty, I huddle close to the stove, my only problem being to stay warm. Or if I must start my creaking, cold car and keep an appointment or buy groceries, I see myself as a puny thing in a spluttering little metal box, trying to show off before God. I used to fear the days and nights when the swirling snows made an arctic wilderness of our farm, when the plows were conquered, when I couldn’t leave home, and nobody else could come in. Yet at some point through the years I began to feel reborn in this isolation. As a captive in a cold, white world I could take a long look at my place and the people in it.
One night when I was a young wife, a group of us walked on the crusted snow from Easton to Easton Center. We sang and laughed as the moon made shadows on shining snow-mountains. For a few hours, we ordinary farm people and our ordinary routines ceased to exist.
Sometimes at the farm I’d go outdoors on a cold night and look at the stars. I’d listen to the silence and to a humming I couldn’t define. I fancied it must be angels singing. I’d lie in the snow, spread my arms, and make an angel, just in case one might be looking down.
In some ways a blizzard is like the ocean of my childhood; both are fearsome and beautiful, and both jolt me to an awareness of my world. For many months winter dictates the rhythms of my life. Then in April I am delighted again to see the drifts shrink, to hang my washing outdoors on the line, to hunt for crocus blossoms and then fiddleheads, and to see young parents taking babies out in strollers—babies who are seeing their first springtime.
In Aroostook, it took me longest of all to love the winds. The stiff breezes back home on the coast rattled the chimney, blew the dry leaves down the street, and embarrassed us girls by flipping our skirts into the air. But they were generally tame winds, reined in by the tall trees and the hill. On the farm, though, the gale howled across barren fields and hit the buildings with such ferocity that it rattled the windows, tore at the shingles, and snapped at the foundations. Then it would turn tricky and be calm for a minute, only to gather such force that I would be sure the windows would break, the chimney would fall down, or the shed roof would fly away.
And that wasn’t the worst of my fear. If I were alone in the house I’d huddle shivering by the fireplace, sure that something or someone was banging on the door, creaking up the cellar stairs, or dragging across the shed chamber. Finally one night, angry at my cowardice, I went outdoors without a lantern and walked all the way around the buildings. Although my heart was pounding, nothing jumped out of the shadows. I was alone with the flying clouds, the stars, and the wind. That night was the beginning of my conquering my fears, yet I still played the radio at top volume, trying to drown the mournful sounds. I can’t remember exactly when the wind became my night music as I read and daydreamed, or when it became my earth mother, lulling me to sleep at bedtime, waking me softly in the morning.
It has been a slow process, me becoming Aroostook. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be in another place. Although I resist change, I believe I adapt fairly well to new situations when I have to. I could be content in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. Still, call me provincial, call me an old fogey—I hope I never find out who I’d be outside The County.
This essay by Glenna Johnson Smith serves as the prologue in our upcoming anthology Stories of Aroostook: the Best of Echoes Magazine, edited by Kathryn Olmstead. The book features a collection of articles on the culture, heritage, landscape, and people of Aroostook County from the pages of the County's beloved Echoes magazine.