Lena Martin here, continuing my look at the Maine Huts and Trails (MH&T) food system. Last week, I made day visits to Stratton Brook Hut and Flagstaff Hut to interview hut staff Hannah Marshall, Danielle Walezak, Dawn Berthelette, and Conor Burke. Among that group are cooks, educators, farmers, and a nutritionist: my food-related questions were received with very informed answers, and I learned a lot.
Last week, I also read the essay “Place and Civic Culture: Re-thinking the Context for Local Agriculture” by Laura B. DeLind and Jim Bingen, which discusses the “civic agriculture” movement to resist the “disaffection and inequity” of the globalized food system and to encourage people to eat locally by championing farmers’ markets, CSAs, community kitchens, and U-pick operations. By my interpretation, the essay asserts that those championed enterprises are not necessarily more than platforms for market transactions which serve consumer convenience and, ultimately, farmers’ income. Those enterprises do not necessarily create communities that promote social equity, protect forests and soils, and respect economic, cultural, and political interests all at once. They do not necessarily create the “civic” atmosphere which we hope for. According to DeLind and Bingen (2008), the “civic agriculture” movement will not be truly “civic” until we realize the importance of “the concept of place – what it means, how it feels, [and] how it is expressed” and “understand and…practice ‘being’ in place.” (p. 130).
The essay made me thoughtful about place as I drove back and forth from Colby to Carrabassett Valley and as I skied back and forth from trailheads to huts. The landscapes I traveled could be perceived to be stark, spread-out and almost achromatic, while hidden in them are productive copses of trees, spaces shortened by snowmobile rides or brisk walks in the cold, and people with colorful vernacular.
One of the questions I asked the hut staff was whether they believe that there is pressure from the MH&T customer base (guests) to serve local food, or that that drive comes solely from the one or multiple people inside the organization who created the MH&T mission to stimulate environmentally sensitive economic growth in western Maine and promote an environmental stewardship and conservation ethic. None of the hut staff that I interviewed reported having felt pressure from guests to serve local food. In general, the staff weren’t sure how much guests care about the sources of MH&T food, but one of Hannah’s comments on this topic caught my attention: “I think that [guests] appreciate local [food], but the [guests] who appreciate it most are [those] who are from this area.” I think that this comment captures an idea about locality versus place. If the locality of a food source – the geographic proximity of a source to, say, the MH&T office – was the concept of value to guests, those from away would be as excited about food from Riverweb Farm or Rasmussen Farm as those from nearby. If guests from nearby are more excited to hear the source of the beef, the carrots, or the garlic that Hannah sets on the table, perhaps it is because those guests can place that source in their maps of space and time: perhaps they know the troubles of the tiny town in which the farm is located, or the family who runs the farm shop.
MH&T can stimulate local economic growth and promote environmental stewardship on one level by continuing to support trustworthy businesses in the greater Kingfield area. To stimulate local economic growth and promote environmental stewardship on another level, though, could MH&T inspire all their guests to care about the sources of the food which they are served? How could this be done? Of course the answer is not to restrict outsiders – guests who cannot place MH&T food providers on the map, or who do not know the landscape well enough to see beyond the stark, spread-out, and achromatic – the support of people from away is incredibly important to western Maine. Besides, as DeLind and Bingen (2008) argue, “while…sense of place is personal, it is hardly insular.” (p. 137). Knowledge, cultures, and homes are meant to be shared.
The three Maine Huts that I have visited are cozy and beautiful, and I think of them as full of warmth, light, and good smells. DeLind and Bingen might say that becoming aware of each hut as a place which has meaning and instills feeling is important both on its own and in sparking the civic natures of MH&T guests. As the huts age, and more art is hung on the walls, and more music is blasted from the kitchen or shared by the fire, and as, over family-style dinner, more ideas are exchanged among farmers, business owners, regular Mainers, and those from away, the huts and everything connected to them could become more familiar and special. People who return to be in a hut – to be “in place” – could be community members, and “civic” community members, who take interest in the social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political implications of the MH&T food system.
DeLind, L. & Bingen, J. (2008). Place and Civic Culture: Re-thinking the Context for Local Agriculture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 21, 127-151.