Friday, December 15, 2006

What Will History Call This?

The 1930s had The Dust Bowl, when the agricultural economy of much of the midwest collapsed, sending waves of emigrants in search of a livelihood.

What will history call the migration that will follow the collapse of the winter-related industries in the Northeast?

Without enough cold weather to make snow, the downhill resorts will fare little better than the cross-country centers. But winter-dependent industries don't stop with recreation. Loggers need to work in the winter, because so much marketable timber grows in wetlands which can only be worked when frozen. Working them in warmer conditions damages them enough to put the whole future of the resource at risk. So you might get one more harvest off them, but then what?

Timber harvesting requires a long cycle for the crop to reproduce itself. In a normal cycle of seasons, harvesters can work different areas to rotate the impact. With more and more upland lost to development, the logging industry joins most of the wildlife, being driven into the areas deemed unbuildable by our current respect for wetlands. Creatures that don't normally prefer their feet wet have learned to put up with it because the swamp is all that's left to them.

Respect for the recharge areas that feed those wetlands does not keep pace with the forces arrayed against them. Rain falls over a lot of land to fill up that bog. Houses on a network of paved roads built right to the minimum setback threaten the health and survival of the preserved area even when they are not technically in it. It seems like common sense, but who has time to pay attention to common sense?

When precipitation falls as liquid, it does not recharge the ground water the same way it does as a slow-melting snowpack. Rain does not carry exactly the same kind of nutrients into the soil. Hard rain runs off, eroding the landscape. This affects agriculture, even though winter is not the growing season.

We don't really have soil most places in New England. We have various-size mineral residues and some leaf mold. If we get to the point where we have to approve the use of human manure to help build up the organic component of the soil we may find ourselves encouraging the tourists to shit on us while they're here, instead of resenting them for it.

All that will be too little to halt a wave of outward migration. But where will they all go? Even in the Great Depression, the other areas to which the refugee farmers trekked couldn't really absorb them. Now there are more people everywhere.

"They call it Tourist Season. Why aren't we allowed to shoot 'em?" says one bumper sticker. Ah, just wait. People are our greatest resource...for food. The Donner Party turned to cannibalism because they had too much snow. The new wave of New England cannibalism will start because we got too little. We still don't have a growing season or much of a place to farm. What else would you have us do? Move into your neighborhood and compete for jobs with you? Clutter your streets with destitute yankees in ragged flannel and wool?

No thanks. We'll just stay here and run our bed and breakfasts. Every once in a while we'll dish up a guest, that's all. Come on up. It probably won't be you. The scenery's great, with all those rushing streams.

With the winter recreation and timber iundustries will go all the others that feed off them: retailers, grocery stores, schools, auto dealers, contractors, in short, the whole society. Once the population shrinks, things will stabilize at their new level. Whoever's still here will have figured out how to get along.

The collapse of winter businesses won't bring everything down right away. Communities with waterfront will still have booming summer business from which to build up reserves to carry them through the gray -- formerly white -- months. Adjacent communities will subsist by giving the lowlife who work for the waterfront owners a place to live. In a way it will be the way New England used to be, before skiing took off in the 1920s and grew through the rest of the Twentieth Century. The only difference will be the loss of the winter work that sustained a lot of the locals on forest and farm.

Can formerly rural New England thrive as the diluted version of suburbia it is becoming? Suburbia feeds on real industry nearby, and on the needs of employed people, for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, medical and dental services, schools and infrastructure. The money for that comes from some real production somewhere. And the cost is that the landscape gets homogenized until you wouldn't know where you were if you were suddenly dropped into the middle of it.

The palace on the high hill will look out over an unbroken vista of the small roofs of cottages and shacks where the hungry people dwell.

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