Guest Post 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 fashion 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 as 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 far fewer modern conveniences than his most destitute neighbors.
Souter was a comforting and famous reminder of a time when people had not only devotion to place, but 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. 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. I’ve most admired those people, like Souter, who have found success, but never pulled up their roots.
It is this truly American conflict to struggle between the forces– to wander nomadically or put down roots. As rural New Hampshire was emptying out, Governor Frank Rollins tried to reverse the trend by among other things starting Old Home Days. “We are better off materially,” he said in 1900,”vastly more than our ancestors, but are (we) better off spiritually?” He continued, “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.” He 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 home town 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 that have left to embrace brighter economic horizons have become in a spiritual sense homeless. This trade off may make it harder for them to as Ken Burns says, “arrest our acquisitive and extractive energies.” This separation of home from work contributes to the trend toward generic commercial and residential sprawl. This impulse to exchange supposed outdated, yet familiar landscapes for the comforts of progress and economic opportunity are not natural. While it may leave us with more material comforts, surely our souls are less settled.
Jeff Woodburn, of Dalton, is a writer and teacher.