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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Sprawling Sprawl And The Sprawling Sprawlers That Sprawl It

(Author’s note: From 2006)
[Editor’s Note: There is no author]

What are we looking at here? The short answer is: what I drive by about a mile from my house, if I head away from the water.

There are a lot of defunct farms in New England. Subsistence farming was the occupation of the vast majority of citizens until quite recently. I remember seeing a statistic that at the outbreak of WW II, the majority of US citizens didn’t have indoor plumbing. That seemed odd, until you considered how many people still lived on farms.

It’s very difficult to grow food in New England. And over time, as transportation improved, the production of food became remoter to its consumers. We routinely eat food that is flown to its destination now. Amazing.

So the farms got bigger, and more efficient, and moved to where the ground didn’t “throw up a fresh crop of rocks every year,” as they used to say in New England. What are we going to do with the land?

For the most part, it’s become forest again, or houses. The houses we notice. The forest part gets overlooked. There’s a lot more forest in New England than 100 years ago. And when you walk through it, you occasionally come across the rubble foundations of the houses where flinty people whacked at the flinty soil generations ago. Their descendants are playing Playstation in a 3500 square foot ranch in a subdivision, and don’t even know where the food comes from. The supermarket, right?

It’s restful to drive past the hayfield. They tried to raise sheep there a few years back, but either the shepherd or the sheep got tired of it, apparently. That’s feed hay in the rolls there; I often see bales elsewhere for construction silt fencing too. There aren’t that many animals to feed, but there is plenty of construction and wetlands around.

The land has become valuable. The farmer who cleared it 250 years ago would have to visit his outhouse when he found out what the city slickers would pay to whack his farm up into houselots. He’d laugh in there, and then straighten his face and come out and get his millions.

I can guarantee you that there will be very heated discussions at town committee meetings and petitions circulated and laws passed and invective hurled when this property is offered for sale for houses to be built on it. The word “development” will be spat out like a curse, and the words “sprawl,” and “pristine,” and “save” and others will be bandied about. Because nobody knows what they are looking at.

That lot is as developed as any houselot. Trees were cleared, the granite boulders, worn smooth and round by glaciation, were stacked along the perimeter, and the farmer had a go. The land is already developed; just not to its full money potential, what they call in real estate “best use.”

What you’re really looking at there, and what I like, is a form of “mixed use.” And every single person screaming at the meetings about developing the land into houses wouldn’t allow mixed use anything, anywhere, in their town, ever — and so are kinda crazy. They just see a house as other people, and don’t care to see any other people, I guess. But more than any more houses, they refuse to see anything that isn’t houses anywhere near their house.

The loveliest places around here are mixed use places. You can walk down the streets, there’s a mixture of commercial, residential,retail, restaurant, government services, parks, and so forth. I take pictures of them all the time and folks write me and say: That’s lovely; “I wish I lived there instead of this nasty subdivision I’m in.” And planners are always trying to invent places like that, but they always turn out like Potemkin Villages. Not real. Because the thing they are trying to achieve isn’t allowed, and you can’t plan that which must arise spontaneously.

My neighbor builds dock platforms in a barn and in his yard. I hear him banging away over there occasionally, or the sizzle of a welder. At night, I hear the coyotes ranging through the woods; but I also hear the pumps in the not-too-distant cranberry bogs. My neighbor grows herbs for sale to restaurants and a small local clientele. We’re too spread out to comprise any sort of village, but the mixed use part is there, if imperfectly.

Someday, somemone will complain about all that stuff, and zoning laws will be enforced, and the NIMBYs will triumph; and this place, where people say 24/7 they don’t want sprawl, will have nothing but.

Because they won’t allow anything else to happen.

3 Responses

  1. People sometimes know what they want, but seldom how to get it.

    I mean, they don’t know what rules will lead to what outcome – so they try to outlaw what they regard as the worst outcomes – even when these rules lead to sub-optimal outcomes…

    Sorry, I thought I was commenting at Marginal Revolution for a moment there.

    What I meant to say was: history of New England (Thoreau’s Country by David R Foster), a book I once read (Trespassing by John Hanson Mitchell), evocative photo… oh you know the sort of thing.

    Anyway, keep em coming. Here in Old England it is cloudy, rainy, and – what with being currently trapped in the city – these crisp pictures of hayfields are just the job.

  2. I actually think that people don’t know what they want, or how to get it.

    Sometimes, there are happy accidents. Mostly not, though.

  3. I see this in my CT town all the time. We spend millions to buy some additional ordinary New England forest as if it were yellowstone. Now I’ve tramped daily with my dogs through most of the forests in town for over 20 years and see almost no one else. (Except when the Land Trust organizes a walk when all the activists feel obliged to turn out).

    It just confirms my belief that this is to keep other people out and give some people a bigger back yard that they will not go out into.

    I guess it’s all to prove that our s**t doesnt stink.

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