Lessons on the community – and its fragility
By Philippe Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
Extract from our January 2022 issue
Maine, as many people have noticed, is a big little city, with some 500 cities, mostly small, scattered across our vast landscape. We may be a state with a small population, but we pride ourselves on our vast and varied terrain – we can rightfully boast that all of the rest of New England can fit into the Maine borders. About half of Maine’s 20 million acres are unorganized, with little to no local services. I lived in Washington County Township No. 7, proud to be the southernmost unorganized township in the state. As one of my neighbors joked: “There is no government like no government! “
Over the past four decades, as I worked on sustainability strategies with many of Maine’s smallest and most remote towns, I have often been struck by the tremendous effect a few people can have on the city. well-being and continuity of their communities, both for better and for worse. The smaller the population, the greater the influence each of us has on the development of our communities or even their survival.
The most dramatic example comes from the history of Criehaven, Maine’s most remote inhabited island, which, for want of one person, became the most recent island community to die out. During World War II, the island could not find a teacher for its one-class school. Without one, women and children had to disembark during the school year. Without the women and children, the island store didn’t have enough activity to stay open. Without packages for women and children and without a store, the postal boat could not afford to operate. Without the women, children, the store and the mail boat, the men ended up as well.
It takes an unfathomable amount of volunteer effort to maintain Maine’s small communities. I remember that North Haven Island once added up the number of unpaid jobs that had to be filled in order for the institutions on the island to continue to function. Between the board of trustees, the planning board, the appeal board, the school board, the library, the church, the historical society and all the other bodies that make a city run, North Haven needed 90 citizens. to volunteer for the crucial but often thankless work that makes community life. possible. Among a population of less than 400 people – half of whom were under 18 or too old to volunteer – many signed up for multiple roles.
During our defining winter months, when it is difficult – and often nerve-racking – to venture out, when our family budgets are tight and our reserves of goodwill most depleted, we begin to work on priorities. and resolutions for the new year. As darkness limits our days and the nights seem endless, it becomes especially important to be a good neighbor, to wish each other good luck, and to do our little to support the institutions that help us all keep going. Maine’s smallest communities help shine a light on what we know to be true: When we stand together, we can not only survive, but thrive.
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