By Jeff Woodburn
|Why does the news of David Souter’s move from his rustic, old homestead on a dirt road in Weare to an upscale new house in a pricey subdivision in Hopkinton trouble me so? At 69, the recently retired U.S. Supreme Court justice deserved a comfortable place sturdy enough to hold his collection of books with the practical ease of living on one level.
More than his judicial record, I admire Souter’s old-fashioned fixity of character, which includes a rare fidelity to home, modest contentment and tempered restraint and frugality. He always seemed remarkably unchanged by fame and the modern complexities of life, and the best evidence was his ramshackle home in Weare. One’s home is a window into their personality. While the New York Times saw Souter’s abode as being “slightly more seductive than a mud hut,” I saw in Souter’s home a place that nurtured a simple idea that one’s accomplishments were paid for by the dawn-to-dusk sacrifice of one’s own ancestors. In Souter’s case, the home was reportedly built by his grandfather’s own hands. It was plenty good enough for his parents and him too for many years. He seemed perfectly content to live what most of us would consider a Spartan lifestyle similar to that of his parents and grandparents – with fewer modern conveniences than his most destitute neighbors.
Souter was a comforting and famous reminder of a time when people had a devotion to place. When they gained an inner strength, as well as a sense of stewardship, from deep personal roots and things that were handed down for generations. There aren’t many small towns that can claim an important figure both as a native son and resident. After all, it has been ingrained in us since the Civil War that to amount to anything you need to leave home and escape small-town parochialism. But I’ve most admired those people, like Souter, who have found success but never pulled up their roots.
It is a truly American conflict: to wander nomadically or put down roots. As rural New Hampshire was emptying out at the turn of the last century, Gov. Frank Rollins tried to reverse the trend by, among other things, starting Old Home Days.
“We are better off materially, vastly more than our ancestors, but are (we) better off spiritually?” Rollins asked in 1900. “We miss the rugged, down-right, straight-going belief free from guess-work and uncertainty. It steered people clear of many troubles and trials. We have substituted an easy-going indifference, an all accepting optimism ready to throw down all customs, rules . . . to preserve our own comfort.”
Rollins concluded that quiet, simple country living allowed people to put “their ear to the ground to hear Nature whisper her secrets.”
We are living today with the consequences of this migration from a rural country that so enamored Thomas Jefferson to a metropolitan one.
My tiny hometown today has fewer people, less industry and less community pride than it had 1900. Little wonder. For generations, young people have pulled up roots, mostly for economic reasons, and those left felt abandoned or, worse, stuck in a place that they couldn’t escape. This hardly makes for a vibrant community.
Those who have left to embrace brighter economic horizons have become in a spiritual sense homeless. This separation of home from work contributes to generic commercial and residential sprawl.
This impulse to exchange supposed outdated, yet familiar landscapes for the comforts of progress and economic opportunity may leave us with more material comforts – but surely our souls are less settled.
Previously published in the Concord Monitor and the NH Business Review.