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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.

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By Jeff Woodburn

In 1948, my grandfather paid 55 cents for a dozen eggs to serve at the Whitefield eatery that still bears his name.  That was whopping price, when you consider that back then, the average family earned less than $10 a day or the equivalent 17 dozen eggs. It is easy to see why so many housewives became part-time poultry women, and how significant this money was to the local economy.

In the first half of the twentieth century, eggs and meat poultry were essentially local enterprises. New Hampshire had many thriving poultry and egg businesses, much of them conducted by small backyard operators. In 1910, the poultry business was New Hampshire’s most profitable agricultural product worth $35 million a year. For generations, a small flock of hens produced a steady flow of extra income that contributed to the family and local economy, and the excess was quietly tucked away for a rainy day or a special occasion.  While the “egg money” was built on adherence to harsh frugality, it also made possible the, ever so rare and minor, indulgences. As the “nest egg” grew larger, it became a source of assistance known only by the beneficiaries.  How many financial storms were calmed, kids sent to college and church collection plates filled by the egg money? Beyond the extra cash, keeping chickens provided children with meaningful chores that taught responsibility and the value of work.

Today, grocery store eggs sell for just over $1 a dozen (if factored for inflation they’d be nearly $7), and anyone who raises hens will tell you that it is impossible to produce eggs at that price. This phenomenon repeated itself across the grocery store shelves, and now we can enjoy a full stomach for a smaller percentage of our income than at any other time.

For thirty years, we’ve been fat and happy, living off a diet of cheap food produced by distant, faceless corporations encouraged by large taxpayer subsidies to replace age-old wisdom with trendy technology, brutal efficiency and, most importantly, an endless supply of cheap oil and corn.  The system worked so well that it drove food prices so low that most small-time growers and farmers figured out they could buy food cheaper than making it, and thus destroying an otherwise healthy, sustainable and satisfying culture.

The system looked good from afar, but, as we eventually learned, it was far from good.  The true costs of cheap food are now clear: an unhealthy, risky food system that is imploding our health care system and wasting vast quantities of oil, creating endless generic sprawl, jeopardizing rural economies as well as polluting our environment.  What is most disturbing is that our tax dollars are promoting this policy, so in essence we’re paying people to get unhealthy and then paying their health care bills. An alarming 80 percent of our total health care costs are consumed by of a fifth of the population.

Changing the way we eat will be as difficult as changing our agriculture and food policies, but there are signs of hope. President-elect Obama seems genuinely committed in both in his politics and own health habits to the initiate a change in our food policies and take on the giant agribusinesses that shape it. That along with a strong, grassroots commitment to local food could be the perfect ingredients in a recipe for change.

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By Jeff Woodburn

The North Country is a great place to live, but a terrible place to make a living or so the axiom goes.  Anyone who lives here for more than one winter knows this fact firsthand.  Great views, small town intimacy and rural culture, don’t pay the bills.  The demise of the once dominant paper industry is the closing chapter of a steady decline in population and manufacturing in this region since 1900.

As we enter a New Year full of uncertainty, any positive news is welcome.   One source of the good cheer is New Hampshire Public Radio.  To celebrate their two and a half decades of broadcasting, they have been chronicling 25 people who’ve influenced our state over the past 25 years.

Many of those on the list were people, I’ve come to know and admire over my years in politics and business.  The New Hampshire community is pretty small and its leaders are very accessible (and helpful to young upstarts.)  The point of the piece was not to revel in the celebrity obsession that so poisons popular culture, but to study how our state has changed since 1982.  The selected leaders are icons in their own fields that range from government, business, religion, media and arts.  The group collectively expressed New Hampshire’s unique culture.  But moreover, they are well established and, mostly old enough, to offer insights, rather than self promotions.

What I found most interesting and illuminating were their answers to a very simple question posed by interviewer Laura Knoy.  The query was:  what is your favorite place in New Hampshire?  I kept a running tally (with the help of NHPR’s web site) of the responses.    Some listed several places, others none at all.  Many picked their hometowns, but the vast majority chose places in Northern New Hampshire.

Conservative Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuade finds truth in the old cow pasture at the summit of Mount Washington from his early years working at the Cog Railroad, while liberal social justice activist Arnie Albert finds it at the World Fellowship Retreat in Conway.

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson is inspired by the 13 mile woods between Milan and Errol with his “eyes peeled for moose, loon, eagles and the like” while Catholic Bishop John McCormick sees the hand of God at the “the top of a ski trail on a clear day.”   The mountains are not only beautiful, McComick explains, “but great symbols of the resilience, strength and durability of the people of our state.”

Former Republican Gov. John Sununu likes the bend in the road just beyond the Mount Washington Hotel (the Bartlett side) during the change of seasons.  Former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen was more general, but succinctly represented most with her observation that “Mount Washington… embodies the excitement and beauty of the state.”

Former tourism guru Steve Barba and Healthcare Executive Norman Payson both praised the rich heritage and remoteness of the Balsams and Dixville Notch.

All told our beautiful (but deprived), secluded (but inaccessible), peaceful (but boring) home was the overwhelming favorite of this informed and important group.  Why is that sometimes we have such trouble seeing our own good fortune?  Maybe it because most of us live in the shadows of the great mountains, where the air is cold and heavy?   We’re down to earth, simple, terribly practical and suspicious of comfort. There is an Irish saying that goes:  “If you marry a mountain girl, you marry the whole mountain.”   It is a struggle to live here, but those of us who choose to call this place home, it’s a bargain at any price.

The North Country’s only contribution to this lofty list was veteran Newspaper man and raconteur John Harrigan.   He represented us all well (as he always does.)    By the way, what is his favorite place in New Hampshire?   “My house; It’s warm, remote…,” he says without missing a beat, “and the food is good. “

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By Jeff Woodburn

Simple desires are the key to happiness.  I’ve had a hankering for an old, beat up truck for a long time.  My reliable Jeep just wouldn’t die, so I kept on waiting and hoping.  A cracked windshield gave me the excuse I was looking for:  it was just not worth investing any more money.

My pursuits brought me to a tank-like 1972 Ford with a rare extended cab that would consume more fuel than an old house in cold snap.  I hoped my stoic mechanic would just say, “Just buy the damn thing.”  Instead, he looked at me and back at the truck and just chuckled.  Eventually, he worried aloud about this or that problem.  Finally, he revealed that getting it inspected (by state standards) would cost more than the price of the truck.  This situation repeated itself with few auto dealers or sellers allowing me to inspect their vehicle prior to purchasing it.  I assume they worried that they’d have to disclose any identified problems to other purchasers.

The state vehicle inspection process seemed to be ruining the old truck market or at least keeping me off the road.  I remember when an inspection took five minutes and was completed while sitting in the car.  I recall operating the blinkers, head and brake lights but little else.  Over the years, the list has grown and now consists of some 250 prohibited conditions that range from a crack on the outside, left rear view mirror (Saf-C 3217.04)  to  a horn that cannot be heard by a person from 200 feet away (Saf-C 3214.01) to low beam headlights shining at less than 7,500 candlepower (Saf-C 3215.04) .   On I looked, feeling safe, but without my cherished old truck.

Finally, I turned to trucks that were already inspected.  I wrongly assumed that I would avoid the process until my next birthday.  One of my most ingenious students caught wind of my pursuit and introduced me to his 1986 Red Nissan.  I paid his price; knowing that I had some leverage if things went wrong.  They haven’t, it’s a great truck (even the mechanic, who inspected it, liked it.)  But nobody likes it more than my two young boys, who get either an elevated, front seat view (no dangerous airbags) or hidden away jump seat side view.  Even my teenage daughter is amused by the jacked up wheels, enormous sound system and collage of trendy stickers.

But, let’s not forget, this truck is about me.  Maybe, it’s a rural mid life crisis.  Going to the dump is no longer a dreaded chore; I can sand my own driveways saving $25 a shot and can haul home just about anything I find along the side of the road.  I feel so much more self sufficient and independent.  The truck does have its tricks, like the “low fuel” light remains on except when the tank is actually low, but fortunately this not yet against the law.

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By Jeff Woodburn

Friday, May 23, 2008 NH Business Review

Dean Gray has found a novel way to make a buck: turning manure into money. He’s beating out the pricey, synthetic fertilizers with old-fashioned cow manure. Gray ran a classified ad last month marketing a large pile of last winter’s waste and has gotten a swift response.

We arrived Sunday afternoon at Gray’s small farm in East Lancaster and were enthusiastically greeted by his sociable dog. As we soon learned, Dean Gray loves at least two things — animals and telling stories, and if you get him talking about animals you’re bound to be there for a while.

Finally, we get around to the manure, and I place my order: “the $10 load.” He tells me, I’ll have to come back. I wonder if he’s run out, and how long it will it take for his cows to produce more. He fills the pause with, “can’t fit it all in that truck.”

Wow, what a deal, I think. “The $5 load will do.” His tractor drops one, and then two loads into the bed of my truck. It’s heaping full, and I wonder if my 22-year-old truck will make it home.

Gray may be on the verge of something big: changing the way we eat. The poor economy, skyrocketing food and petroleum prices seem to getting people down – into the dirt, that is. Vegetable gardens are making a comeback. Local garden supply retailers report that seed sales are booming. Getting back to basics may be a silver lining in this perfect storm of bad economic news. While the motivation may be financial, the benefits could be societal, and just what we need.

For more than 100 years, conventional public policy has encouraged and supported the centralization and industrialization of agriculture through price supports, construction of a national highway system, and a one-size-fits-all health inspection process that is committed to technology rather than hygiene.

Factory farms’ affection for efficiency has resulted in cheap food that is, at its best, unhealthy and, at its worst, deadly. Don’t count on the quality to go up with the price. The only thing we can count on is our own response to the situation.

Sometimes a kick in the pants leads to a step in the right direction. By taking responsibility for some of our food supply, we will take an important step toward lasting self-sufficiency and independence; creating sound minds through hard physical work, better health, sustainable communities and a cleaner planet.

Like the manure, the opportunities are ripe, but we must get to work, so we can enjoy the sweet smell of success come harvest time.

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Gordon and Nancy Gray(left), Don and Madeline Croteau and Ray Burton.

By Jeff Woodburn

Each week, I venture up to the GrayMist Farm for raw (unpasteurized) milk. It’s always quiet, and with their robotic milking system, it’s like the cows run the place.  They come and go as they wish from the automated milking parlor. Sometime, I have the occasion to see Nancy and Gordon Gray.  I feel guilty engaging them in my favorite topics because I know that they always have a lot to do.

Well, on Sunday, the cows must have been beside themselves with all the cars stuffed with people meandering past their barns and through the fields to a distant, recently hayed pasture. For the day, it had been converted into what the organizers called a fiddle fest.  That name is too stylish for me.  I like old-names that conjure up fond, distant memories, even if they’re technically incorrect.    On this day, I was gladly going back in time to the Stark Annual Fiddlers’ Contest or at least a very good rendition of it.

From 1973 until seven years ago, the tiny town of Stark (population 500) hosted one of the most popular events of the year attracting thousands of people. It was always on the last Sunday in June, at Whitcomb’s field on the banks of the Ammonoosuc River with a view to Percy Peaks and benefiting the Stark Improvement Fund (as if the town needed to be improved).

The event was casual, easy-going and organic. I use the latter word because things just happened – kind of evolved into a tradition.  If you felt like bringing along some beer, your dog or a picnic lunch, it was fine. You could also go for a swim or gather with some other musicians in a far-away spot and make your own music.  Absent were the obsessive rules that often accompany specialists, so-called experts or overzealous planning committees. These folks always seem to rely on big solutions to little or non-existent problems.  Over three decades, literally tens of thousands of people gathered at Whitcomb field and the event organizers don’t recall a single problem. People behaved themselves.

There was something authentic, genuine and terrible local about it. I think it had a lot to do with the small, cozy isolation of the town.  I once represented the area in the state legislature and in that capacity, I went to many community events in the region, but Stark always stood out as a friendly place where people were happy to see you and just plain grateful to have your attention.  Stark’s long-time anchor citizen was Madeline Croteau, who ran the town’s only store and of course the fiddlers’ contests.

Upon arriving at GrayMist, I searched out Madeline and her husband Don Croteau.  I find the happy couple enjoying the background fiddle music, hospitality, and the beautiful farm setting.  I tell them of an old photo that I found of the three of us from a 1980s fiddlers’ contest.  Madeline adds, “I bet we’ve changed.” We have indeed, but for a time last Sunday things were just like they use to be and ought to be.  In my book that’s the best compliment any event can have.  Hopefully it doesn’t improve.

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By Jeff Woodburn

Previously published in Union Leader and NH Business Review.

There is an old saying that goes, “If you marry a mountain girl, you marry the whole mountain.” For many of us, who live in the shadows of Mount Washington, we can’t separate the mountains from ourselves, or for that matter our culture, identity or economy. Our landscape draws, holds and defines us.  We learn to respect nature’s awesome power. On those rare occasions, when mankind outwits Mother Nature, we hold those stories dear as they offer us some hope.  Such is the case with Mount Washington’s long-standing record of having the strongest documented winds.

So, we are naturally upset to see our beloved mountain and her famous record beaten by 254 mph cyclone that blew over Barrow Island, Australia in 1996. The Mount Washington record was reminder of man’s near constant quarrel with nature. Unlike many, who live in less wild, more domesticated places, we have had neither the power nor the inclination to remake our landscape to meet our commercial desires. We live with what we got.

What is most troubling about the decision of the Meteorological Organization, who spent 14 years studying the validly of Australia’s feat, is not that we were beaten, but how the winning wind was recorded. The record-breaking wind was measured by an automated weather sensor in a totally un-staffed station. Not a single human being participated or was even discomforted by this triumph.

By contrast, the 231-mph wind at Mount Washington in 1934 was recorded by scientists, whose passion led them to literally battle a wind that was nearly three times stronger than an average hurricane or as a Concord Monitor writer observed “strong enough to up root trees.” Author Eric Pinder, who worked for years at the Mount Washington Observatory, told me, “They had to keep the anemometer free of ice, so that it could accurately measure the record wind.” This is a harrowing, physical drama to recount. While their station building was being thrashed by the fierce winds, the observatory crew climbed onto the roof then crawled across its peak and with a sledge-hammer broke the ice that was preventing the device from working.

Mount Washington’s historical claim – had little to do with the speed of the wind, but rather, it was about the courage of the men, who risked it all, to record it.  Stronger winds have blown cross this earth for sure, but its power was never documented by man. In Australia, it was not man, but man’s tools, that triumphed. It is this technical inhumanity that so easily confuses observation with participation and improvement with destruction.

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