In Maine there are two classes of people—natives and those from away. As is the case with many rural states, in Maine there is a tension between these two groups. The natives sometimes resent those from away, who are often more affluent and bring new and outlandish ideas to the state. The latter was especially true in the 1970s, when hordes of young people came here to go “back to the land.” It has also happened more recently with the foodie movement, where so many chefs and cooks have flocked to Maine that many places—especially Portland—have developed quite the foodie reputation.
Those from away often feel as though they will never truly belong, no matter how long they live here, no matter how hard they might work for their communities. A friend of mine once asked in frustration, “How long do I have to live here before I’m accepted as a native?” I wisely refrained from answering. To qualify as a Maine native, you have to go back at least two generations. As Mainers like to say, just because the cat had kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits.
My husband and I are natives, and we both go back at least five generations. Maine is in our blood and in our bones. We have a history with the state, and this is reflected in the way we speak, think, and even dress. (Oh, yeah! We dress like a couple of Mainers, that’s for sure.)
As natives, Clif and I believe that those from away bring a much-needed vitality to Maine. Any state, any country that is closed becomes inbred, both literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, we understand why there is resentment. To someone who has sold a house in, say, Massachusetts or New York or even New Hampshire, houses in Maine are quite the bargain. For Mainers, not so much, and in some coastal communities, people can barely afford to pay taxes on property that has been in their family for several generations.
Several years ago, I was at a gathering where those from away commented gleefully about how unsophisticated the Maine food scene was when they first moved here. One woman observed, “Mainers didn’t even know there was such a thing as square plates.”
This might be true, but I winced a little when I heard her say that. Did she really have to speak so condescendingly and unkindly? Of course not.
Fortunately, at least with the people I know, this attitude is rare. Most people from away come here because they love Maine and its unpretentious ways. They rejoice in not having to keep up with the Joneses or anybody else. Often those from away become very involved with their communities, donating time, energy, and money to various organizations.
Recently, I read a book called The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam. It’s set in Yorkshire, England, and the interconnected short stories revolve around natives and those from away. Over a span of twenty years, a Yorkshire family forms a tight bond with a family from London. The London family rents a house called Light Trees from the Yorkshire family, and while there are tensions at first, they are soon smoothed over by the children, Bell and Harry. Bell grows up to have a child of his own, and at the end of the book there is a conversation between, Anne, Bell’s daughter, and Harry, who is considerably younger than Bell. They are discussing the possible sale of Light Trees and whether people should stay put.
Harry states, “We always knew we didn’t own it [Light Trees]…. Maybe people should stay where they were first put.”
Anne replies, “You great daft thing…What sort of a world would this be if people had stayed where they was born? What sort of a country this? There’d have been no Vikings bringing bees and honey…and no Celts with bronze and jewels and no Romans fixing up roads and laws and no Saxons with books and paintings…”
What sort of country, indeed? And what sort of state would Maine be if people had stayed put? As a native Mainer whose long-ago ancestors didn’t stay put, I can emphatically agree with Anne’s sentiment. Maine would be a much poorer state without the influx of those from away.